Olympics in the Twitter Age

February 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Analysis) (, )

I’m watching the Olympics.

I’m aware that this does not make me unique. Half the world is currently watching the Olympics to one extent or another. But this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever watched a single Olympic event all the way through, much less glued myself to the TV to watch as many events as I possibly can. It’s really unusual for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how this happened.

Sports have never been my thing. I can objectively admire athletes’ talent and dedication, and while I’ve never been a real athlete myself, I can understand the appeal of playing sports – the rush of adrenaline, the fun of competition. I played floor hockey in middle school and had a great time, terrible as I was at it.

But watching sports, I’ve never really understood. Part of it is my need for a verbal narrative in my entertainment. I get as little enjoyment from dance, foreign language opera, and cooking shows as I do sports. I need a script, words I can understand and follow, driving the narrative, and sports commentators aren’t enough when the action is so visual/physical and essentially wordless.

My other problem is that I’m a delicate flower with a bleeding heart and I can’t stand watching people lose. It’s hard for me to take pride and joy in someone’s victory when I know it means loss and failure for someone else. Add that to all the injuries and falls that inevitably happen in most sports, and I spend most of my sports-watching time cringing.

But I’m watching the Olympics.

Part of the reason, I’m sure, is the point in my life I’m at. I’m living with my parents, working a job I don’t have to think about when it’s over each day, preparing for grad school in the fall. I have access to cable TV and no after-work obligations, and since my parents enjoy the Olympics they’re likely to be filling the living room anyway. That’s how I wound up watching the Opening Ceremonies – I came home, and they were on, and I settled in on the couch to enjoy my parents’ company and watch Wolverine play the fiddle in a canoe on the moon.

But the word “company” is key there. Because, however much I’m enjoying watching the Olympics, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much if my parents weren’t watching. Or if my friends weren’t watching. Or if dozens of the people I follow on twitter who live all across the world (from Canada to Australia) weren’t watching. Olympic fever has swept up everyone I know, and in the face of that enthusiasm and chatter, it was pretty much inevitable that I’d wind up watching too.

And I like it. I like that this is an event, a common thread between almost everyone I know, from close friends to distant acquaintances. As I’m writing this post, my father has just interrupted me to tell me how he spent half of a meeting at work today talking about yesterday’s curling competitions with his coworkers. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. None of these people actually cared about curling (the most mockable Olympic sport), but the momentousness of the Olympics compelled them to watch, and this gave them all new common ground the next day.

They say the Olympics are meant to bring the world together, and I’m not sure if that actually happens. Certainly there’s plenty of political controversy involved that may, ultimately, outweigh the good the games bring. But I do know that the Olympics have succeeded in bringing common ground to some very uncommon people, helping me to get to know acquaintances better and making me feel like part of a huge, ongoing, international dialogue. It’s a really nice feeling.

I’m still not sure I actually care about any Olympic events. Not even figure skating holds my interest intrinsically. But I do care about the community feeling the games have spawned, in the age of Twitter, and I don’t for a moment regret the time I’m spending on my couch right now, watching women’s snowboarding.


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Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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Baby’s First Audiobook Experience

January 22, 2010 at 10:00 am (Review) ()

Last weekend, I visited my very good friend Caroline, a car trip that took 5 1/2 hours each way to complete. In preparation (and because my iPod car adapter had died and I don’t have many unscratched CDs) I decided to try out my very first audiobooks.

In general, I’m not a terribly good aural learner. Part of this is just a lack of exposure to aural information; my parents never listened to talk radio, so I grew up believing that audio devices were for music only. I’m probably the only nerd in America who had never heard of NPR before college. But part of it is just my natural inclinations; I took enough education classes to know that different people learn in different ways, and I’ve always gotten more out of the written word than the spoken one. I have a short attention span, and my mind tends to drift — something that isn’t a problem in a choose-your-own-speed medium like reading, but can be a big problem during a lecture or radio show where I can easily miss important words and sentences.

Within the last few years, though, I’ve begun to listen to a few podcasts, primarily in the comic book field — iFanboy, Word Balloon, War Rocket Ajax — and listening to those podcasts has helped me to refine my listening skills while allowing me to compensate for the times my mind still drifts (the rewind function on an iPod is a wonderful thing). So, knowing how much I’ve come to enjoy podcasts, and how much I enjoy books, I decided it was about time I picked up an audiobook.

My choices were limited to my library’s tiny collection, so I was unable to pick up some of the audiobooks friends had recommended, like David Sedaris’ and Sarah Vowell’s self-read collections. Ultimately, I settled on a fully-dramatized audio of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, a play Caroline has been enjoying of late, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, the newest short story collection from one of my favorite authors. You probably couldn’t find two more disparate books, but I thought that was appropriate, because they allowed me to experience different ends of the audiobook spectrum.

Henry IV was my first listen, and it had both its pros and cons. On the one hand, much like stage and screen productions of Shakespeare, the audiobook helped me to follow the story without stumbling over the language. My experience with the text of Shakespeare’s plays is often a slow and plodding one, as I feel compelled to understand every line, using all available footnotes and glossaries. With the audiobook, the actors’ expressive voices clarified unfamiliar turns of phrase, and if I didn’t understand a section of dialogue I was able to move on without tarrying over it, knowing I’d be able to gather all the necessary information from context clues. I only rewound a few sections of the play, and these were all due to driving distractions, since not veering off the road generally took precedence over listening to Falstaff’s boasts.

Unfortunately, without visually-differentiable actors or helpfully-labeled lines of dialogue, it was sometimes difficult to figure out who was talking at any given time. Most of the voices were distinct, and context helped with others, but there were quite a few scenes — an early exchange between Hal and Poins, for instance, or even the climactic fight-to-the-death between Hal and Hostpur — during which I honestly couldn’t tell whose lines were whose. I’m glad I was able to listen to the play, and follow the basic plot, but I know I’ll have to read it or see a stage production before I truly feel that I’ve grasped its intricacies. I’ll likely listen to more Shakespeare on audio in the future, but I may choose to stick to those plays I’ve already read or seen, to avoid the pitfalls I found here.

Unaccustomed Earth was a different matter entirely. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clean, descriptive prose worked wonderfully in audio, engaging me enough that my mind rarely wandered — though in this case, I usually preferred to rewind after a distraction than plod on through, since her language is so great that it would be a shame to miss a single word. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the audio over the written word was the presence of the readers. Jhumpa Lahiri is Indian-American, and her stories chronicle the experiences of Indian and Indian-American characters with depth and authenticity — which means that Indian names, words, and phrases are all present in her work. Though I can usually muddle through reading these words with my own invented pronunciations, I very much enjoyed hearing them spoken properly by the readers, Ajay Naidu and Sarita Choudhury, a man and a woman of Indian descent who read for male and female points of view, respectively. These readers also used accents when reading the dialogue spoken by first-generation immigrants, allowing me to hear their voices authentically, without American accents that would ring false or fake, stereotypical Indian ones provided by white actors. All of this combined to create an experience much truer to the prose than my own reading could ever have produced, and while I only managed to listen to half of the stories in the collection during my trip, I plan to listen to the rest as well before I buy the paper book.

The one small disadvantage of the audiobook — if you can call it a disadvantage — was the way in which it carried me along with the story in the proper order without allowing me to take a peek at the end. I don’t always spoil myself for novels and stories, but there are times, during tense moments, when I like to check to make sure things work out satisfactorily before I continue. There’s one such moment in the fourth story in the collection, “Only Goodness,” and I found myself itching to read a few pages ahead, just to make sure something awful wasn’t going to happen (it didn’t, thankfully). In that sense, the audiobook is much more like a movie than a paper book is, forcing me along its dictated path and pacing unless I choose to go through the hassle of blind and imprecise fastforwarding and rewinding.

Overall, I can’t imagine myself turning to audiobooks in great numbers — they’re great for driving, but without something to do with my hands and eyes I’m sure I’d be much more easily distracted. I can’t imagine sitting in my room with an audiobook playing when there are perfectly good written words filling my bookshelves. Still, I’m glad I gave audiobooks a chance, and I look forward to using them to pass the time during future journeys.

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The Subtlety of Up in the Air

January 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm (Analysis) ()

In an attempt to blog more frequently about things that are not comic books, I’m going to try to make a good faith effort to update this blog more often. Not every day — I don’t have the resolve that my friend Caroline does — but certainly more often than the sporadic updates I’ve made thus far. Consequently, if there’s anything you, gentle readers, would like me to blog about, feel free to suggest something!

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick things off with a brief mention of Up in the Air, which has deservedly been the buzz of the internet of late. It’s a fantastic film, as countless people have said before me, and I don’t have much to contribute that’s unique. The acting is wonderful, the screenplay excellent, and the direction superb. But what really struck me about Jason Reitman’s filmmaking was the way he wields symbolism with a subtlety I envy.

Up in the Air is the story of a man obsessed with severing ties, to human beings and physical objects alike. He spends almost all of his life traveling alone from place to place on business and brings hardly anything with him, and in his spare time he gives “inspirational” talks about emptying one’s metaphorical “backpack” of material possessions and personal connections. With such a setup, it’s a given that 1.) he’ll eventually realize that this is unhealthy, and 2.) some use of symbolism will probably lead to this revelation.

But the fact is, despite this predictability, the film shies away from anything cheesy and explicit, even when the temptation is obvious. In one scene, a character sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” during karaoke. The song plays, with the lyrics on a TV screen behind her, but there are no meaningful cuts to the protagonist or pointed camera zooms when the line “suitcase of memories” flashes onscreen. It’s there, it’s fitting, but it isn’t the focus of the scene. The viewers have to come to the connection by themselves.

Likewise, in a pivotal scene, a character is seen reading The Velveteen Rabbit. When the protagonist walks in, the other character asks if he’s ever read the book. The protagonist nods. “Powerful stuff.” But the topic changes, then, and the story moves on. Anyone who’s read The Velveteen Rabbit — which is a large enough cultural touchstone that most of the audience is probably included in that group — knows how fitting the book is, how its themes of the importance of, and connection to, physical objects are exactly the things the protagonist needs to learn. And in the hands of a lesser director or screenwriter, the scene would have turned into a lengthy verbal exchange about that very connection. But Reitman just lets the book exist, trusting his viewers to understand the symbolic resonance, and continues to tell the story.

Not all films need to be so subtle. I saw Sherlock Holmes today, and the close-up shot of Irene Adler literally “busting nuts” isn’t subtle at all — nor is pretty much anything else in the film. It’s still a ton of fun to watch, and I wouldn’t tell Guy Ritchie to do things differently. But there’s an art to pulling back, to letting symbolism exist effectively without dressing it up in ribbons and neon lights, and I know from my own writing experience that it’s an incredibly hard art to master. But Reitman has mastered that art — or is, at the least, very nearly there — and it’s that artful subtlety that’s the real triumph of Up in the Air.

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Searching for Truth in Teen TV

January 11, 2010 at 9:30 am (Analysis) (, , , )

I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages. It first popped into my head when I watched the phenomenal Freaks and Geeks over the summer, a new entry on my list of shows I’ve come to love ages after they were cut short by the whims of TV execs. The idea found a resurgence in my brain early this fall when I tried to watch Glee, a show that turned out to be very much not my thing, all expectations to the contrary. But it’s taken me until now to finally put it into words:

I yearn for a TV show that will reflect my own high school experiences.

Now, by “reflect,” I don’t mean that I want to watch my own biography play out on the television screen. That would be creepy and unsettling. But much as I love shows about teenagers, and much as I tend to overidentify with all characters who remotely resemble me in fiction, I’ve never found a show that speaks to my own history, to teenagerhood as I knew it. And I don’t think my group of high school friends was particularly anomalous. Despite not being TV pretty (and, really, who is?), we were, in many ways, the outcast underdogs everyone loves to root for, the weird kids and the musical kids and the smart kids who band together in the face of their own unpopularity – just like the characters on Freaks and Geeks, or Glee, or a dozen other shows past and present. But we didn’t fit the picture of normalcy that TV is so concerned with portraying, for two major reasons.

1.) My group of friends was too culturally diverse.

I adore Freaks and Geeks, but it’s hard not to notice, when watching it, that the cast is… extraordinarily white. I realize this is partially due to the setting (the Midwest in the early 1980s, rather than the cultural hodgepodge that was my own early 2000s central New Jersey). But the fact remains that the cast was entirely white, and that this entirely white cast – with, at best, a couple of token non-white secondary characters – is the norm for TV. With the exception of Canada’s Degrassi, I can’t think of a single Western show about teens that breaks this pattern.

I, personally, am white. I’m used to seeing people who look like me on teen shows. But when I can’t see my friends surrounding those images of me, leading lives just as complex and important as my own, it’s hard for me to truly identify with those images. My high school friends were Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian, in addition to Russian-Jewish and Italian and Polish and Irish and Greek and a dozen other European mixes. And we didn’t cherry-pick one person of each ethnicity to be a member of our group. My friends were affected by their racial backgrounds on a daily basis, but they didn’t exist as stereotypes or satires (I’m looking at you, Glee), or model examples to teach the white kids about diversity. If I found a show that gave people who look like my friends the leading roles, and someone who looks like me a supporting role, I’d be much more able to identify with that show than I would with one that made me the protagonist and whitewashed the supporting cast.

2.) My group of friends was too gay.

Between 8th grade and my freshman year of college, all but two of my (numerous) male friends came out of the closet as gay or bisexual. So did two of my female friends. I acknowledge that this makes my group a statistical anomaly; the population percentages shouldn’t produce this effect, even in a group of outcasts, especially since most of these people were friends before any of them had come out, so they weren’t actively seeking out a group of other gay people. I’m not asking for a teenage Queer as Folk — in fact, that would be a terrible idea, because it would make the characters’ sexualities the entire focus of the show. But is it too much to ask for a show with two or more gay characters who are friends and aren’t romantically involved with each other?

Gay characters in teen shows tend to be saddled with a few stock storylines – coming out, parental disapproval, gay bashing – and are otherwise relegated to the background. These stories are important, certainly, and common to gay teenagers’ lives. But why can’t these characters also participate in narratives that have nothing to do with their sexualities? Why can’t they simply interact with other characters, straight and gay alike, in stories that are about them without being about the fact that they’re gay? I may be the protagonist of my own life, but my friends are the protagonists of theirs, and they deserve just as much variety in their stories as I do.

And what of those romantic storylines? Teenage shows – hell, almost all popular narratives – tend to deal with romance a large percentage of the time. As a straight girl, I see pictures of my own romantic ideals all the time, but I can’t help being indignant on my friends’ behalf that they so rarely get to see romances that resemble their own in mainstream media – especially mainstream media about teens. When teen shows have a gay character, that character tends to be little more than a token who never interacts with another gay person or has anything more than an unrequited crush (even in Glee, which is a show about a glee club, for God’s sake), and when I see that, I lose all ability to connect with that show. That’s not the world I know.

I desperately want a show to exist that would not regard these two facts about my group of friends as impossibilities for mainstream television. I also realize, whatever my personal desires, that these are not my triumphs to hope for. Should a show appear, and succeed, with an authentically diverse cast in both race and sexuality, my friends are the ones who will really reap the benefits. It will be their victory, not my own, because they are the people who are really being hurt by this lack of representation. I remain a straight white girl.

But I know that the networks avoid these kinds of shows primarily because they think they’ll alienate the straight, white, middle class young people like me who they (wrongly, but consistently) regard as their primary marketing target. And if my personal experience is anything to judge by, they’re doing exactly the opposite: alienating even the viewers they privilege by refusing to portray the world in which those viewers live.

Make better, truer shows, Mr. and Ms. Network Executive, and viewers across the cultural spectrum will follow.

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Whip It Good

October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am (Review) (, )

Whip It

I saw Whip It yesterday. I didn’t know if I was going to get to see it in theaters; my personal life has been a bit of a mess lately, with family emergencies piling on top of each other, and a lot of my friends had already seen it by the time I was available to be social again. But a few of us managed to go last night, and I am so, so glad I did.

Was it a perfect movie? No. The plot was on the side of predictable, and subplots involving the protagonist’s opponents in a beauty pageant and enemies at school were never developed quite enough. But the cast was universally excellent, and the way the film handled family, love, and especially female friendship was absolutely fantastic. And in at least one way, the movie was, despite its predictability, wonderfully subversive.

Spoilers for Whip It follow.

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Building a House with Bruce Springsteen

May 28, 2009 at 8:30 am (Review) (, )

On the evening of May 23rd, halfway through a performance of “Working on a Dream,” the title track off of his latest album with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen addressed the audience at New Jersey‘s IZOD Center. In the hazy afterglow of the concert, I can‘t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist well enough to paraphrase. “We’re here to build a house,” he said. “To build a house of joy out of sadness. To build a house of love out of hate.” His house-building litany continued for quite some time, rising in fervor like a sermon. This wasn’t a house he could build himself, he explained. It was the combined energy of the thousands of people in that room who were building that house, that house of love and joy and hope and peace and inspiration and creation. And as the speech crescendoed, and Springsteen launched into the song’s optimistic chorus, those thousands of people cheered, and sang along, and believed it.

I’ve never been a music person. It isn’t that I don’t like music — I do, quite a bit. But I don’t understand it, and I’m not capable of producing it. I can’t sing, I can’t read notes on a page, and I’m so tone deaf that I honestly couldn’t tell if someone was singing horrendously off-key. I can’t identify different musicians in recordings — most of the time, I can’t even identify different instruments. And even my lyrical analysis skills are somewhat weak — poetry was never my forte in my literary studies.

But what I can do, with music, is feel it. Experience it. Let it lift me up and envelop me and change my mood and inspire me in a million mysterious ways that I am powerless to understand. And that is what my first Bruce Springsteen concert was: an awe-inspiring experience whose power I don’t possess the ability to explain.

I’ve only been a Springsteen fan for less than two years, when some friends introduced me to his music. But once they did, it immediately clicked with me. This was, in part, due to the New Jersey connection. Bruce Springsteen sings about a world that I know, a central New Jersey universe of highways and boardwalks and working class dreams. But I also found, in his music, reflections of even my non-Jersey-specific experiences. Friendship and adolescence. Struggle and confusion. Dreams of escape. The desire to create. During my senior year of college, the song “Badlands” helped me through the struggle of my senior thesis — “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Bruce reminded me — and when my grandfather died near the end of that school year, it was “Mary’s Place,” a song about hope and happiness and survival even in the face of a loved one’s death, that helped me get through it. Springsteen came to mean a lot to me in a very short period of time, and when I finally got the chance to go to a concert last Saturday, it felt like something I’d been building toward all along.

The concert opened with “Badlands.” Nothing could have pleased me more. I was on my feet, dancing and singing my heart out, screaming that line that had helped me through my thesis at the top of my lungs. Next up was “Spirit in the Night,” a personal favorite. After that, the concert got more mellow — “Outlaw Pete“ and “Something in the Night.” I took the opportunity to sit down, and rest, and take everything in. But I and everyone else around me was up and dancing again during “Out in the Street,” and then there was that magical rendition of “Working on a Dream.”

The concert mellowed out again after that. “Seeds” was next, and it was the only song I didn’t know — I had to ask my friend, who’d come with me to the concert, to identify it for me. This was followed by a rollicking version of “Johnny 99,” and the spooky “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” And then there were the signs, when Springsteen collected requests from the audience members who had brought along posters with their pleas.

Before launching into the sign requests, the band played a cover of “Good Lovin’,” which made me smile. The last time I’d been to a concert in this particular arena was in 1998, the summer before 7th grade, and it was to see Hanson. I can say with authority that Hanson and Bruce Springsteen have absolutely nothing in common besides being adored by me. But during that concert 11 years ago, Hanson played a cover of “Good Lovin’.” As the E Street Band played the opening chords, I looked over at the section of the arena I remembered sitting in over a decade before, and it was a nice moment of circular nostalgia.

The first two sign requests were “E Street Shuffle” and “Cover Me,” both good songs but not ones that particularly excited me. But the third, and the one that created the biggest cheer of the night, was “Thunder Road.”

Earlier that day, I’d watched the VH1 “Storytellers” episode that Springsteen had been on, and in that episode he talked about how “Thunder Road” is an invitation — an invitation to the listeners to take a ride, to take a leap of faith, to do what they’ve always wanted to do. At that moment, all I wanted to do was create — to run home and write a novel and apply for my dream jobs and maybe even save the world. That is the power of his music.

After that, the rest of the concert was almost a blur. “Waiting on a Sunny Day” was only notable for the part where Bruce let an 8-year-old girl in the pit sing the chorus into his microphone. “The Promised Land” was excellent. “Incident on 57th Street“ was a rare treat. “Kingdom of Days” was lovely. Then there was the one-two punch of “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising,” and all the hope and inspiration the crowd had felt during “Working on a Dream” came back in spades. “The Rising” is an inspirational song to begin with; in a crowd of thousands of people singing along, it’s transcendent.

And the final songs continued to ride that wave. “Born to Run,” my “driving New Jersey highways” favorite (I live right off of “Highway 9,” after all). A cover of an old folk song called “Hard Times.” The instrumental craziness of “Kitty’s Back.” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the song I listened to on repeat on election day, crying from hope and worry. The dancing optimism of “American Land.” “Glory Days,” the old standard. And then, finally, a jubilant cover of “Mony Mony.”

I’ve been focusing largely on Bruce himself in this write-up, but it’s worth noting that the E Street Band was as excellent as I’d always been told. They had so much energy it was almost unbelievable — during a pause in “Johnny 99,” Bruce, Max, and Little Steven had a gag where they just stared at the audience, turning their heads from side to side and looking confused, and I can honestly say that that was the only moment during the concert where I thought, “Oh my God, they’re tired old men.” In the next moment, they were back, bouncing and grinning and transformed 20 years younger. The various instrumental solos during “Kitty’s Back” were absolutely amazing, especially for so late in the 3-hour show, and I was really happy to see Max on drums, since I know he wasn‘t there for parts of the toru. It disappointed me slightly that Patti Scialfa wasn’t present, but I’m glad she was able to be with her daughter in her own travels, the explanation Bruce gave before “Kingdom of Days.”

And the band was fun, too. I know I’ve spoken a lot about how inspirational and magical the concert was, but there were silly moments, too — dancing and mugging for the camera and the moment during “Thunder Road” when Bruce let the audience sing “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right” to him.

Finally, there was the crowd, which I can’t possibly forget to mention. Because Bruce was right — he couldn’t have built that house by himself. It took the combined energy of every single person in that arena to build the experience that that concert was. At various points during the night, I just looked around me — looked at the thousands of people of literally all ages, from 8-year-olds singing along to every word with their parents to young adults around my age to people Springsteen’s age and beyond — and I saw them all singing and dancing and waving their arms and having the time of their lives. There was no pushing, no anger, no mockery — everyone I encountered was happy and polite. We were all there, having the same experience, feeling that same glorious energy, and at that moment everything was ok in the world.

There’s a moment — my favorite moment of any concert — when an artist inserts an unexpected pause in a song, and the audience, so used to the studio recording, continues to sing the words before the artist gets a chance to. This happened for the first time during “Spirit in the Night,” and there is nothing quite as awesome as thousands of people simultaneously singing the words “gypsy angel row.” Everyone knew the words, and everyone, for that single moment, was thinking the exact same thing, and inspired to say the exact same thing, even without the band‘s prompting. The power of that collective consciousness was almost overwhelming.

I’d be lying if I said the Springsteen show changed my life. The wave of inspiration and fervent urge to create and go after my dreams dissipated somewhere on the south side of New Jersey Turnpike as I struggled to stay awake for the ride home. But the feeling still surfaces, periodically, whenever a song comes up on my iPod or I remember a particularly excellent moment from that night, and I have a feeling that the house that Bruce and I built will shelter me for quite some time.

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The Name Game

May 19, 2009 at 9:30 am (real life) (, )

I have a problem. A uniquely nerdy problem.

I can’t seem to stop naming pets and inanimate objects after my favorite characters.

When I was a kid, my naming conventions for pets were normal enough. I had two parakeets named Banana and Icicle — Banana was yellow and green, and Icicle blue and white. When they died, we got another parakeet, which I named Zelda, after my invisible friend (invisible twin sister, to be precise) from childhood. To this day I don’t know where that name came from, and I’m not sure the bird appreciated it — soon enough, as the flesh over “her” beak turned from purple to a clear blue, we realized that Zelda was not as feminine as we’d been led to believe. But the fact remained that the names were nice, normal pet names.

The last normally-named pet I had was a betta fish I got in 9th grade; its name was Aquarius. When he died, sometime during my sophomore year of high school, it was like a switch got thrown: suddenly, all of my future pets would have names related to my geeky obsession of the moment. Jumping right into the deep end of nerdiness, I named my next betta fish Mark Roger Caplan-Pascal, after my two favorite characters from the musical RENT and my two favorite actors (Matt Caplan and Adam Pascal) who’d played those roles. And believe me, I never abbreviated the name. Every day I’d come home, sprinkle some food into the bowl, and cheerfully greet him with, “Hello, Mark Roger Caplan-Pascal!”

My next betta fish was Captain Jack Kelly, a combination of the names of my two favorite “Jack” characters: Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Captain Jack Sparrow, and Jack Kelly from Newsies. After that, I had Javid, an amalgamation of Newsies‘ Jack and David. By the time he died, I was in college and making my way into comic book fandom, so my next fish were, predictably, a blue male and a red female that I named Scott and Jean — and later a runty yellow male named Logan. (Nowadays, I’m up to my seventh geeky betta fish: the hardy red-white-and-blue Captain Amerifish.)

It was around the time of the Scott and Jean fish that I began to notice my pets unconsciously taking on the characteristics of their namesakes. Be it cosmic coincidence or willful interpretation, I couldn’t help attributing their behavior to their fictional counterparts. Captain Jack Kelly, for instance, hadn’t so much died as simply up and vanished from his tank, just like his escape-artist namesakes. (I still suspect my parents actually found him dead and flushed him, but they refuse to admit that to this day.) Then there was Jean, who, appropriately enough, died before Scott in spectacular fashion (I’m still waiting for her return from the cocoon I assume she must be forming), and Logan, who outlived them both. On particularly boring college afternoons, I liked to gaze at my Scott and Logan fish and imagine the inevitable fight to the death that would result if they were to mix in the same tank (male bettas attack each other automatically, but I liked to think their namesakes’ rivalry would have made the battle even worse).

This habit of geeky naming and personality attribution was only heightened when I began to follow nerd conventions and name my personal tech. After a non-geeky first computer named Magellan had burned out its hard drive within two months of purchase (a word to the wise: don’t name computers after explorers who were victims of mutiny), I christened my new computer Captain America, and he continued to function beautifully for several years despite the advancement of his chronological age. My red external hard drive I decided to name Iron Man (and he occasionally refused to work properly with Cap, though they usually got along splendidly), and I named my maroon phone Dark Phoenix and my second iPod Marvel Girl (neither has attacked me yet, but I sometimes worry about letting Dark Phoenix reach its signal into space). None of this compared to the fate of my first iPod, though. Since it was silver, I’d decided to call it Bucky, reasoning that if it ever died, I’d know it wasn’t really gone — it was just brainwashed and turned into an assassin for a foreign government! Unbelievably, Bucky wound up experiencing an unfortunate washing machine incident, but though I believed he’d been drowned, he actually recovered a few days later — after I’d already bought his replacement. The only way the story could be more perfect is if he’d reprogrammed himself in Russian.

All this brings me to the past week, when I bought three new important things: a computer, and two gerbils. The computer I named Pixie, after a minor X-Men character with butterfly wings and a crush on Cyclops (my personal Mary Sue if ever there was one). The computer is pink and black, like the character’s hair, and as long as it doesn’t get transported into Limbo and get part of its soul removed, it should be ok.

More worrying are my gerbils, who I named Jean and Wanda. Jean is a lovely tan color; Wanda is a nice black and white. And while I named them that largely because of the friendship Jeff Parker (and Colleen Coover!) gave them in X-Men: First Class, I haven’t gotten a solid feel for their personalities yet. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if they decide to take their cues from the Dark Phoenix Saga, or the House of M.

So if my gerbils decide to eat the sun or tamper with genetics on a worldwide scale… well, I apologize in advance.

(So, what are your geeky pet or tech names? I know I’m not alone. Feel free to share in the comments!)

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“It starts with the eyes”: The Homoeroticism of Fast and Furious

April 22, 2009 at 8:30 am (Analysis) (, )

Here’s a confession: I love the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Actually, no, that’s not entirely true. I’ve never seen 2 Fast 2 Furious (text message spelling in titles is a pretty big turnoff for my inner grammarian), and, as it lacks even my most shallow reason for loving the movies (Paul Walker’s pretty, pretty face), I don’t think I’ll ever bother to see Tokyo Drift. But I love the first movie, and, after two viewings, I’ve decided I love the most recent movie, too. Don’t get me wrong — they’re not art. The acting is bad and the scripts are worse. But I love the stupid car chases, I love the insanely attractive cast, I love the big dumb fun of it all, and I love the themes of betrayal and loyalty, two of my favorite fictional tropes, that run throughout.

And most of all, I love that the movies are really, really gay.

At the core of every good joke is a grain of truth, and there’s a reason Saturday Night Live‘s The Fast and the Bi-Curious sketch has received so much internet popularity. There’s just something inherently homoerotic about guys getting sweaty together in garages and racing each other through the streets in giant fuel-injected phallic metaphors.

But that’s the easy interpretation — the SNL interpretation, the joke interpretation. And while I enjoy that aspect of the film as much as the next person, what I really love about the films is the undeniable emotional core. The Fast and the Furious — and, to an even greater extent, the new Fast and Furious — is a love story between Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel).

(Extensive spoilers for the recent film below.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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Books and Reading Meme

April 20, 2009 at 8:35 am (Meme) ()

I’ve seen this meme floating around (most recently at my good friend Caroline’s new blog), and, in the interest of sharing more about myself with my readers, as well as creating more content for this blog, I figured I’d fill it out myself.

1. What author do you own the most books by?

To get this out of the way, first and foremost: I read a lot of children’s and YA fiction. My favorites from childhood are still some of my favorites to this day. I went to Princeton, I majored in English, I’ve read and enjoyed the grown-up classics. But this list is liable to include literature meant for readers under the age of 15.

So the answer to this first question is K.A. Applegate, author of the Animorphs series. I own every book, and between the regular series and all the specials, that’s over 60.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?

I… don’t buy multiple copies of books? I honestly can’t think of a single book I own multiple copies of, and if I do, it’s not on purpose.

Oh, wait, I own two copies of The Devil in Vienna, because my copy was falling apart and my library was selling its copy. So, that.

3. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Secretly? I pretty openly confess to all of my fictional crushes. I mean, I don’t think there’s a straight woman alive who isn’t in love with Mr. Darcy, right?

4. What book have you read more than any other?

Oh, this is tough. I’m not a big re-reader. Probably The Devil in Vienna, a fictionalized Holocaust memoir for young adults, told in the letters and diary entries of two friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi official) torn apart by the war.

5. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

I really can’t remember. Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger, perhaps? If we go to an even younger age, my favorite book was Mrs. Peloki’s Class Play, a picture book about a 3rd grade class putting on a production of Cinderella.

6. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Worst? I don’t think I’ve read any books that were bad. I’ve read books I didn’t enjoyThe Faerie Queene, for instance — but I’m not calling Edmund Spenser’s hugely influential romantic poem bad.

I did find myself seriously underwhelmed by David Lubar’s Dunk, my students’ summer reading assignment that I read over the summer. It was a YA book about a New Jersey kid’s summer on the boardwalk and desire to be the clown in the dunk tank, which should have been right up my alley, but it was full of cheap characterization shortcuts and the ending was far too neat for the conflicts set up. Plus, I seriously disagreed with its overall belief that making fun of people is in any way empowering or appropriate.

7. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

That is HARD. I’ll cheat and say that the combination of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies inspired me to start writing a book of interconnected short stories, because those (very different) books showed me just how well such a thing can be done.

That said, I’m in the middle of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay right now, so my answer could change in a few weeks.

8. If you could tell everyone reading this to read one book, what would it be?

I’m not sure I could universally recommend any one book to everyone — there are some people who are bound to hate whatever I choose, based on probability alone.

However, I will say that The Sun Also Rises is worth a shot for pretty much anyone. If you already like Hemingway, you’ll love this, and if you hate Hemingway (as I did before reading this novel), you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty much my favorite book — in the top 5, at least — and I never would have anticipated that.

9. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

I’m not sure I’m a good judge of that. I’m pretty confident I could read any book put before me, and if I struggled it would be due more to disinterest than difficulty. I suppose I had some difficulty with the language in The Faerie Queene, and it was pretty difficult to follow the bizarre structure of Pale Fire, but that’s the closest I can think of.

10. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

I… honestly don’t think I’ve ever read anything by either. I read Brits and Americans almost exclusively, because I find that translated work almost never works for me. No matter how competent the translator is, I feel like something’s missing.

11. Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer?

Shakespeare! I appreciate Milton’s skill, but I can’t honestly say I was engaged by Paradise Lost, and Chaucer is fun in classes but not something I’m going to pick up for pleasure reading. However, I would read the complete works of any of those three before I would ever read another word of Spenser.

12. Austen or Eliot?

I’ve never read Eliot, and I love Austen to death, and this is therefore the easiest question on this whole meme.

13. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I have… some pretty huge gaps for someone with an Ivy League degree in this stuff. Like, poetry, in general, which I’ve never been particularly into. And the aforementioned French and Russians.

14. What is your favorite novel?

I’ve already mentioned both my nostalgic favorite, The Devil in Vienna, and my other favorite, The Sun Also Rises, so I’ll take this opportunity to give love to Great Expectations. I ❤ Dickens.

15. Play?

Oh, that’s tough. Othello is my favorite Shakespeare, probably, though Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing come close. And as far as non-Shakespeare plays go, I recently read and fell in love with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I absolutely adore The Crucible, so… too tough to call, really.

16. Poem?

I really don’t think I have one, since I’m not very interested in poetry. My favorite poetry tends to be of the witty and rhyming sort — limericks and such, Dorothy Parker, etc.

17. Essay?

I must have one. I know I must. But I’ll be damned if I can think of it right now.

18. Short Story?

Ack! Don’t make me choose. Short stories may be my favorite fictional medium. I could literally choose any of the stories in Bad Haircut or Interpreter of Maladies; I could choose all of Poe and O. Henry’s and Francesca Lia Block’s short form work; I could choose any number of fairy tale adaptations. Honestly, nothing stands out as an absolute best, and it would be a slight against all of my other favorites to choose one.

19. Non Fiction

I really don’t tend to read a lot of non-memoir nonfiction for pleasure, and much of what I read for school I had to skim because of time constraints. That said, the bits of Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America During the King Years that I read in a 1950s class were beautifully written and extremely informative about the Civil Rights Movement, and I eventually plan to read the whole thing. I’ve also really liked the bits of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On that I’ve read.

20. Graphic Novel?

I’m going to take this as “favorite book best known as a graphic novel,” because I read way too many superhero comics to choose between them. So I’ll go with Maus, which was technically my first graphic novel, and is utterly brilliant.

21. Science Fiction?

Can the Animorphs series as a whole count? If it can’t, I’ll say The Andalite Chronicles, by far the best special novel in the series.

22. Who is your favorite writer?

You know, I thought about this for awhile, and though there are authors I love — Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tom Perrotta — the only author whose books I’ve read in a huge quantity that were not part of a series and that never once displeased me… is Roald Dahl. The man could do no wrong when it came to children’s fiction. (Runner up goes to Francesca Lia Block, whose prose shouldn’t work and yet always, always does.)

23. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

If I don’t like (or don’t think I’ll like) an author, I don’t read them, so I’m not really capable of judging what authors might be overrated.

24. What are you reading right now?

As mentioned before, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I’m amazed I haven’t read it before, as it contains pretty much all of my favorite literary topics: comic books, the Holocaust, and homosexuality. I’m about 100 pages in and adoring it so far, so we’ll see how it goes.

25. Best Memoir?

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, and I’m not sure I could choose between them. So I’ll go in a different direction and say Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, a wonderful story about childhood and baseball in the 1950s.

26. Best History?

Let’s just say Parting the Waters again, though if historical fiction counts I could probably come back with a pretty long list, as I spent most of my childhood reading that.

27. Best Mystery or Noir?

Very much not my genre. I… am not sure I could even name, off the top of my head, a mystery or noir story I’ve read, besides Farewell, My Lovely (which I disliked). Sorry!

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