Works In Progress

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I’m coming toward the end of one cross-stitch pattern, and I’m having trouble picking the next one. I’m trying to work through some of my stash, with a particular focus on a few that I was either particularly eager to obtain and a few that I’ve already started (not much).

Thing is, I’m feeling equally uninspired by all of them. Here are four kits I’d like to select from for the next one. Any opinions?IMG_2836 IMG_2837 IMG_2838

Best Picture Project: Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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The thing about the Oscars is that they aren’t based on what audiences liked. They aren’t even based on what critics liked. They’re based on what the film industry as represented by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked.

And there’s not much that the Academy likes more than a navel-gazing look at their own industry, especially if it’s cynically critical. I predicted BOYHOOD would win Best Picture this year because of the unusual technical achievement, but in retrospect, BIRDMAN was not a surprise.

That said, I’m not entirely a fan. I don’t particularly like surrealism (I make an exception for Cirque du Soleil’s QUIDAM), and because we’re mostly seeing the film through Riggan’s fragmenting mind, this film lays on the surrealism pretty thickly.

There are aspects of the premise that I like, and I think the use of the Birdman character as a manifestation of the persistent nasty little voices in our heads is an interesting one. He is insidious. He will not be ignored or denied for very long, and he grows louder and more poisonous over the course of the film. Michael Keaton’s aging, increasingly irrelevant actor Riggan does not seem to be cognizant of the fact that he’s hallucinating.

I’m not sure how I feel about Keaton, either. I really enjoyed his “Fresh Air” interview about this film – he came off as soft-spoken, thoughtful, and generally rather pleasant. But I haven’t seen him as any character I actually liked. Riggan is selfish, and he’s unspooling at an alarming rate over the course of the film. Keaton’s Dogberry in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a cartoon, grotesquely overblown, even for a Shakespearean clown.

One thing I’d like to bring up is the score which makes a choice that is especially notable in one scene backstage when Riggan is arguing with Birdman and ends up trashing his own dressing room in the process. It’s an interesting choice to have the music here be nothing more than a series of drumrolls and cymbal crashes, as though Riggan’s life is constantly on the point of just-before-the-curtain-opens.

It’s not a bad movie. I can see why it won. It’s just not my cup of tea.

Also, the Birdman costume is weird. I like the giant robo-bird in the hallucination, though.

Next Up: TBA

Was One of the Seven Dwarves Called “Weepy?”

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I am a weeper. I cry when I’m sad, of course, but also when I’m angry or stressed or overwhelmed. I cry at weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, toasts to friends and family, and most of the time when I find myself at odds with someone. I’m not bad at conflict just because I fear it directly (though I kind of do); I’m bad at conflict because I cry and I get mad at myself for crying.

I’m the person who wells up at those corny, heartwarming Olympic athletes ads, especially the thanks-to-parents ones from companies like Johnson & Johnson. I get emotional over pretty much every death of a sympathetic character on screen or on the page, and I definitely get weepy over most series finale episodes.

In the past month or two, I’ve been working through the archives of the NPR podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” which is great fun. One I listened to earlier this week, however, got me thinking about my own reactions.

The panelists took a look at pop culture things that make them cry, from simply thinking about the first ten minutes of Pixar’s animated film UP to singing along with Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from the “Messiah” oratorio.

It’s easy to think of sad things in pop culture that make us cry. One of my first memories of witnessing someone getting emotional over a story comes from a family tradition of reading aloud after dinner. I must have been about eight or nine years old, and the current read-aloud book was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I remember that we got to the point in the book when Beth is really starting to fail, and my mom just couldn’t get through it. I remember that she put her head down on the book and cried.

Being who I am, it’s very likely I got emotional over characters and stories as a little kid, but the first time I remember it is the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. I had a flashlight, I was reading under the covers, and sobbing over the death of Matthew. Even thinking about that scene now makes me feel sad.

It’s harder to think about things that aren’t necessarily sad that make me cry. Though music often makes me feel intense emotions, I am very, very rarely moved to tears. Musicals are more likely to do it than operas, I find – the finale to Ragtime when the little boy runs out to Sarah and Coalhouse, with the swelling music, always gets me, and the entire second half of Rent is brutal.

Two that come to mind that are not sad, though, are pretty reliable.

There’s an episode of The Muppet Show that features Bernadette Peters, for instance. One of the subplots of the episode is that Kermit’s little nephew, the tiny frog Robin, feels under-appreciated and wants to run away. There’s a scene where he goes into the dressing rooms and talks to Bernadette Peters, and she starts singing “Just One Person.” The song apparently originally comes from “Snoopy! The Musical,” and has the wonderful message that if just one person believes in you, others will start to as well, and eventually you’ll believe in yourself, too. It’s kind of in the vein of “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I, but more syrupy and heartwarming. In the Bernadette Peters episode, they stage it in a way that always gets me – it starts off with just Bernadette singing, and one by one several other Muppets join in. I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing about it. This song has appeared on several Muppet productions, and even was a part of Jim Henson’s memorial service.

The other example of a non-sad Thing That Makes Me Cry is from the film Finding Neverland. Yes, the death of Kate Winslet’s character is sad and beautifully staged. But I’m crying long before that in this film.

The part that always sets me off is the series of scenes around the opening night of the “Peter Pan” play. The producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, is skeptical about the play’s appeal to the usual middle-class adult audiences. He gets more confused when the playwright, J.M. Barrie, reserves a couple dozen seats scattered in ones and twos around the audience. In a move that has become legendary among those of us who love Peter Pan, Barrie saves those seats for children from a nearby orphanage. Their delight and full-hearted belief in the story unfolding onstage captures the audience, helping the adults return to a mindset in which they can believe in the pure fantasy and nostalgia for childhood innocence lost that is Peter Pan.

It’s the moment when, just before the curtain is supposed to go up and the play’s producer is threatening to release the reserved seats for sale, the children appear from around the corner, walking towards the theater. That’s when I start to blubber. There’s just something about it, and I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in words, but it gets me. Every time.

Dear #OkCupid Guys: Come to the Dork Side

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So this happened on Twitter the other day…

Me: Dear guys, structuring your creepy message as if Yoda said it does not cancel out the creepy.

Friend 1: adds to the creepy, imho.

Friend 2: depends on if it’s intentional….ha

Friend 2: Hot, you are. Message me, you should.

Friend 1: I’M IN

Me: dorks. :)

Friend 2: these are not the dorks you are looking for…*waves Jedi hand*

Friend 1: Powerful we have become. The dork side I sense in us.

Friend 2: Never underestimate the power of the DORK SIDE!

Friend 1: FEEL THE DORKS!

Me: I have so much love for you guys right now.

Friend 1: Last one, I promise: When you look at the dork side, careful you must be. For the dork side looks back!

Friend 2: Once you start down the dork path, forever it will dominate your destiny….

Friend 3: Come to the dork side.. we have cookies ;)

Pop Culture Knowledge Gaps

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My laptop died in December. For the past three months, I have been enjoying the benefits of having a laptop that isn’t ancient. For instance, I can now consistently open PDFs.

Even better, I can once again access the iTunes store, with its glorious array of free and bank-draining possibilities.

I can finally act on the repeated recommendation from a friend to check out a podcast from NPR called “Pop Culture Happy Hour.” And oh boy, do I love it.

Now, due to a quirk resulting from some kind of change to the technical aspects of NPR’s podcast distribution in the past few months, most of my NPR podcasts suddenly decided to download all or most of the past few years’ archives.  That was a bit annoying when it came to Fresh Air (I enjoy it well enough, but not THAT much), but when it came to PCHH, it’s great fun.

One of the things I like about it is that they theme the episodes, which are usually divided into three acts. The final act is always the same – “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” – but the first two are sometimes both discussions, and sometimes one is a discussion and the second is a funny quiz.

Anyway, some of the archived episodes I’ve been listening to have me thinking about the subject of popular culture knowledge gaps.

There are things we take for granted, assuming that everyone knows them as well as we do. Often it’s heavily dependent on what popular culture we’re exposed to as children, and at some level, we are still those kids who think that this is what everyone sees, reads, and listens to, and then we’re startled when we encounter someone who doesn’t know those songs, stories, and characters.

In my way of thinking, these gaps fall into a few overlapping categories.

1. Lack of knowledge

If you simply aren’t aware of something, you will naturally have that as a gap. That happened (and still happens) to me a lot. I didn’t grow up in a tv-watching household, so when my friends talked about Nickelodeon, the Siimpsons, South Park, Friends, or Buffy (to name a few), I usually either stared blankly or went off into my happy place until they finished. There was a guy who sat near me in eighth grade history, though, who used to love to recount the entire plot of each week’s Simpsons episode to me in spite of my demonstrated lack of interest. Which leads me to…

2. Lack of interest

This manifests at a lot of levels. Sometimes it’s as simple as an individual production by an artist, or sometimes it’s the artist’s entire body of work. Sometimes it’s a genre or an entire category. For instance, keeping up with popular music has never been of particular interest to me. So I don’t. If I encounter a song that I like, I listen to it, but I don’t put any effort into finding new music. There’s so much entertainment and popular cultural works out there that it’s impossible to consume more than the tiniest fraction in our lifetimes – why spend your time and energy on something that just doesn’t capture your interest?

3. Lack of access

Sometimes there are things you would follow if you could, but maybe you don’t have the right channels on your TV, or the funds to expend on pursuing the cultural thread in question, or the rules of your family don’t allow it, like Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls being forbidden to listen to rock music. Then again, maybe that’s not a good example, because she finds a way to listen anyway.

4. Lack of time

Like I said earlier, there’s so much out there in the popular culture realm, created before, during, and likely to be produced after our lifetimes. Even if you spent all your time reading, you’d never read all the books in the world. Same goes for movies, or tv, or comics, or sporting events, or music, or live performances. We all have to pick and choose and accept the fact that we’re barely going to graze the surface of what’s out there.

The kinds of gaps I’m describing here are interlocking. For instance, my lack of interest in pursuing popular music means I have a distinct lack of knowledge in the area.

Here are some of my gaps, other than popular music, of which I am aware. At the moment, I’d say mostly my choices are determined by category 2 – most of my gaps are simply due to lack of interest. For the same reason, I am rarely able to categorize my interests by genre. I follow what interests me.

1. Superman franchise

2. Batman franchise

3. Basically anything from the DC Comics universe. I’ve got some on Marvel, thanks to the past decade’s films, but I never really got into comics.

4. Manga

5. Anime

6. Most sports. I get a kick out of watching the Olympics (winter and summer) and sometimes watching bits of the World Series, but the rest of it just doesn’t hold my attention.

7. Most in the paranormal/supernatural area of stories

Some gaps I’ve discovered in others that brought me up short, and that help me to understand my own quirks:

1. Dickens novels

2. 1930s/1940s Hollywood classics/memorable actors and their roles

3. James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks (nobody EVER gets my references, and it makes me sad)

4. Tudor history

5. Classic English children’s literature from around 100 years ago (think Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, etc.)

6. Original literature versions of things Disney has mangled into syrupy, sanitized animations

7. Lord of the Rings

Family Photos

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Today my dad came home from a trip to his hometown. He brought something back – a few dozen photographs, some loose and some in an album. Going by the clothing of the subjects and the style of the prints, I feel comfortable saying that none of the photographs are less than a century old.

At first I felt nothing but excitement as I examined each image, admiring the details of clothing and landscape. In a lot of ways I think these older photographs in their shades of black and white and sepia were more consistently flattering to their subjects than our color, high-resolution images. I laughed over the image of two teenage girls sitting on a lawn, noticing how one had her hand splayed over her face so the photographer wouldn’t see it – some things don’t change! I chuckled and smiled at the one of a solid little fellow not more than three or four, wearing a big hat, tiny feet poking out from under baggy denim overalls, and carrying a book under his arm. IMG_2725

Then I started to lay the loose images out on the table one by one. I started to hunt for physical resemblances to the family members I know on my dad’s side. I found myself looking each image in the eyes and studying their faces one by one.

I will be the first to admit that I have an active imagination. I know I romanticize.

As I sat and looked at the photographs laid out on the table, I suddenly felt like some of them were looking at me. Not in a creepy the-eyes-of-the-portrait-follow-me kind of way. I felt a combined sense of anticipation and resigned patience coming from those faces of unknown, long-gone relatives.

You see, most of the photographs are unlabeled.

A few have first names and what might be a partial date, but that’s it, and figuring that out depends on deciphering generations-old handwriting in German.

There is a spirited-looking young woman with dark hair named Luisa. There is a slightly sullen-looking young man named Willy in an army uniform with close-cropped hair. There is a teenage boy named Franz with severely parted and combed-down hair giving the distinct impression of a youth in between boy and man, wearing a proper grown-up suit for the first time. There is a middle-aged man in a mid-19th-century military uniform that is definitely European, and on the back is written in clear, beautiful script, “Karl Spangenberg.”

But most are unlaIMG_2724beled. There are older couples, young families, children, infants, teenagers, and a picture of a young couple in which the wife looks so young that I want to ease the ring off her finger, put her hair back in plaits, and send her back to high school.

When I look at them there is a feeling like someone holding their breath. I desperately want to give them back their names and place them on the right branches of the family tree, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know of anyone old enough and present enough to be able to identify them, and I was never good at tracing subtle family resemblances.

So they are there, waiting and watching, half-resigned to an eternity of silent anonymity. And I look back at them, wishing I could at least call them by name.

On Interest

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In the process of pursuing the online dating thing, I keep finding myself confronted by the questions of why I’m interested in history and why I’m interested in English history in particular.

It’s hard to answer that. It’s even harder to answer it without going off onto massive, rambling tangents.

I suspect that most of us don’t have clear explanations of why we’re interested in what we’re interested in. Some lucky people may have good stories of a moment in which they discovered the interest, but is that the same thing as an explanation of WHY it interests you? Probably not.

When asked, I start by saying I’m not really sure why I’m interested in English history more than, say, Argentinian or Nigerian or Vietnamese history. It’s just what draws me.

Then I tell about my first trip to England, when I was ten. That was the first time I remember encountering museum audio guides, which proved invaluable in navigating (and maintaining a ten-year-old’s interest in) London’s National Portrait Gallery. I loved learning the tidbits of information and context surrounding each piece of artwork.

This trip isn’t when I discovered an interest in history. I really couldn’t say when that started. But I think it may be the moment when I started turning to English history more often than any other nation’s history.

It’s been nearly twenty years, but I still remember that first trip to Hampton Court Palace. I initially wanted to go there because they have a hedge maze. The maze proved anticlimactic, but I found the strange hodgepodge of three architectural and landscaping styles fascinating.

I can’t explain WHY English history draws me, just as I can’t explain why I’m interested in the time periods that draw me. Luckily I can distract people from their original question with my Hampton Court Palace anecdote. It’s a more appropriate response in a social situation than a twenty-minute philosophical ramble through the nature of intellectual interest, anyway.

As for a general interest in history… I find something reassuring about the past. I can joke that I find it comforting because I know how it turns out, which is partly true (quiet, you philosopher types). I think it’s also that having a familiarity with the past makes me feel like I’m more firmly rooted.

And now, on an unrelated but sad note, French actor Louis Jourdan has died at age 93. His role in GIGI as the wealthy, bored Gaston is still one of my favorites. He’s obviously not going to win any singing competitions, but I like his voice. It sounds like a normal person putting their thoughts into music. And boy, is he nice to look at. Classic mid-century Hollywood male beauty.

#alamw15: ARCs Galore!

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I have nothing particularly insightful to say today, so I’m here to provide you with a thrilling list instead.

One of the fun things about ALA conferences are the ARCs – Advance Reader Copies. You get a lot of normal conference swag like tote bags, stress balls, and ballpoint pens, but the publishing houses are different, especially the big ones. They hand out piles of free books, most of which are due for release within the next few months.

Attendees who are in the YA or children’s lit fields often bring extra suitcases, and the conference always includes a post office booth, where laden librarians can send home boxes of free or greatly-discounted books.

I tend to limit myself to books I want to read for myself, which means fiction geared towards adults. Sidebar: Have you noticed that saying “adult fiction” always sounds like you’re talking about bodice-rippers? I haven’t figured out a way to describe it without getting snickers from at least one of the people listening to me.

Anyway, in my case, limiting myself to books I’d want to read for fun means that I have yet to have to ship books home ahead of time or bring an extra suitcase, but it was a close call this time. This winter was the widest pickings yet.

Here is a list of the ARCs I brought home with me this time:

1. The Green Road: A Novel, Anne Enright, May 2015

2. The Love She Left Behind: A Novel, Amanda Coe, July 2015

3. The Nightingale: A Novel, Kristin Hannah, unabridged audiobook edition narrated by Polly Stone, 2015

4. The Language of Paradise: A Novel, Barbara Klein Moss, April 2015

5. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe: A Novel, Romain Puertolas, trans. Sam Taylor, January 2015

6. Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin, March 2015

7. The Gracekeepers: A Novel, Kirsty Logan, May 2015

8. Girl in the Dark: A Memoir, Anna Lyndsey, March 2015

9. Paris Red: A Novel, Maureen Gibbon, April 2015

10. Words Without Music: A Memoir, Philip Glass, April 2015

11. Bennington Girls Are Easy: A Novel, Charlotte Silver, July 2015

12. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy: A Novel, Rachel Joyce, February 2015

13. Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum, March 2015

14. I Saw A Man: A Novel, Owen Sheers, June 2015

15. A Touch of Stardust: A Novel, Kate Alcott, February 2015

16. The Daughters: A Novel, Adrienne Celt, August 2015

17. The World Before Us: A Novel, Aislinn Hunter, March 2015

18. Viper Wine: A Novel, Hermione Eyre, April 2015

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