Friday, February 29, 2008

Thank you, James Wolcott

I do not read Wolcott enough. That will change.

Lunch room, locker room: the trash talk is still being batted around about women as if everything's the fault of a few feminist bitches with frigid temperatures and Tilda Swinton hauteur who insist on being where they're not wanted, going where they don't belong. And underneath the trash talk is the even more unattractive noise of white men whining because things aren't like they used to be. No, they are not. This news should have reached you by now and soaked in. Things haven't been like they used to be for about thirty years now, hell, maybe forty. So set your inner Pat Buchanan free in that patchy stretch of woods along the interstate and accept the reality of women's equality without being such a bullying baby about it.

Bigfoot at Berkeley

Plaster footprint casts from Grover Krantz's collection are now on view at the Hearst Museum. Turns out Krantz and I have something else in common besides an obsession (differing mightily in degree) with Bigfoot: we were both grad students at Berkeley.

h/t Amy

Monday, February 25, 2008

Acting workshop

I've been meaning to write about the excellent time we had in class last week with Rachel Anderson, a grad student in the Stanford Drama Department. She has directed several productions at Stanford including Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Osofisan's Farewell to a Cannibal Rage. She's also an actor.

For the first part of class we talked about what it takes to put on a play; what was interesting is that we understood all the parts except the one between "getting money to finance" and "opening night." What goes in rehearsals? How do actors find their characters? How do they work together? I wondered why the "tech rehearsal" occurs so late in the game--that's perhaps the first time actors get to put on the full costumes and make sure dresses don't get hooked on furniture, etc. But if an actor needs to wear the costume to understand why, for instance, she can't bend over or wave her arms a certain way, why not wear the costume sooner? Answer: because the costume, more likely than not, hasn't been made yet. So it seems harder to work outside-in under these circumstances. For practical reasons, it seems, psychology often has to come first.

During the last half hour or so, we did a few acting exercises. One was to make a brief statement about something banal that had happened to us that day (mine was about buying a latte). Then we repeated the line while doing different things with our bodies, such as glancing around the room, or, in my case, lying back in the chair like a client on the therapists' couch. (I must have been radiating something for Rachel to suggest that.) Anyway what was amazing is that changing position and action really did change the line delivery. Not only was it harder to make my voice do certain things when I was lying back, that difficulty--or maybe the position itself--changed my emotions slightly. So by lying back I started speaking more slowly and dully. No other effort was required to make this rather striking change in how the line came out. I, for one, really am malleable from the outside in. Shiatsu massage, here I come.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another grammar experience

About a week ago Trev and I were walking along the seaside trail that stretches between Monterey and Pacific Grove. Just ahead of us were a boy, about 8 years old, and his father, riding bicycles. We caught up to them for just enough time to hear the boy say, "If my name were to be Dave, my name backwards would be Evad." We were both struck by the complex use of the subjunctive in a person so small. Not only was he commenting on the fact that his name was not Dave; he was holding out the possibility, however slight, that it could still happen.

Later we caught up to them again and the boy had somehow gotten his bike wedged against a pillar. Not surprising, given his loftier preoccupations.

(edited to remove crummy analogy)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Monosyllabic review of the film Venus starring Peter O'Toole


Monster Spotter's Guide to North America

A former student, Natalie Jabbar, who writes an excellent column for the Stanford Daily, gave me a copy of The Monster Spotter's Guide to North America. The publisher sent her the book in the hopes that she'd review it. She has declined, so I will now do the honors.

This is by far the best field guide to North American monsters that I've read this year. First off, the cover is waterproof, an important consideration since many American monsters live in lakes and swamps. The text, by Scott Francis, takes an appropriate tone on the whole endeavor. From the introduction ("The Perils of Monster Hunting"):

Monsters are illusory--another one of their character flaws. Chasing after evidence of them can cost you more than your life. You could lose your livelihood, your spouse, your friends, your credibility, your sobriety and your sanity. So where does that leave you?

Like me, maybe you really like monsters. You watch Buffy and her friends go out and dust themselves a vampire, or cage a werewolf, and you think about going to your job the next day and it really, really, sucks. You wonder why you can't live your dream and chase after monsters. You don't even care that much if you get superpowers or not--you could just work out a lot and train to be proficient with weapons. Then you remember that monster hunting doesn't pay and that just yesterday you dropped fifty bones at the comic book store.
The monsters themselves are organized by geographic region, with, I'm pleased to note, particular emphasis on the Midwest, where both the author and illustrator are from. Notable here are the Guyascutus, whose only agreed-upon characteristic is its "legs of adaptable length"; and the Lake Leelanau monster, which can disguise itself as a branch and is conveniently located in a lovely vacation spot with good restaurants nearby. Each entry begins with a well-thought-out quick-reference box and is categorized using a truly brilliant series of logos (a pair of leathery wings for flying monsters; a webbed hand for reptilian humanoids, a furry face for Bigfoot-type monsters, etc.). Many though not all of the entries are illustrated by Ben Patrick, and he manages to make the monsters look both humbled and pleased to have been included.

A few of the entries, however, seem perfunctory, perhaps due to lack of any information, reliable or not--but why be perfunctory about a monster? For god's sake, man, make something up. Add something to the lore. It certainly doesn't take much to do so--one drunk guy staggering home can see a raccoon and spawn a dozen articles in the local paper.

Anyway it's a good book and you should probably buy it. Thanks, Natalie!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

My self and the motion detector

Today in class we talked about what we think of (or feel) when we think of our selves. We sense the presence of a self, but where is it located, and what is it made of? The discussion was in conjunction with psychologist Dan McAdams's article, "Personality, Modernity, and the Storied Self" (Psychological Inquiry 7:4, 1996). In one section McAdams paraphrases several theorists on the postmodern self:

Psychologically, what the I has traditionally considered to be "my" self--that which is mine, that which I have self-reflexively authored, made, constructed, explored, controlled--may no longer be mine...Persons are creatures whose very identities are constituted by their social locations or their momentary locations in discourse.

McAdams then asks:

It is difficult to know just how literally to interpret some characterizations of the postmodern self. One wonders: If the multiphrenia of postmodern life is [so] extreme... why is it that most men and women are still able to function more or less adaptively in daily life, rarely forgetting their names, histories, and goals?
I asked the class what constitutes their personal senses of self, despite what we know to be all its contingencies. We came up with notions like morals and values, memories of the past, a sense of consistent qualities or behaviors, the way others think of us--and the fact that they do. We didn't talk much about the physical aspects of selfhood--how important a role the body plays--though we described how we feel other things and people are parts of our selves (of the "me" that the "I" works to create, in McAdams's terms).

After class today, as I stood washing my hands in the restroom, the motion-sensing lights went off. I waved my arms and took a step forward, then back, but the lights stayed off. I dried my hands and left the room, and just as I opened the door the lights came back on. So I began wondering. Not whether I cease to exist when motion-sensors can't see me (I haven't gotten that Philip K. Dickian), but what aspects of self cease to be. It is quite humiliating to be ignored by a sensor--to not "show up," to have one's departure mistaken for an entry. I've found in airport restrooms that faucets won't turn on for me (and for me alone). At times like this my sense of solidity starts to frazzle around the edges. I'm not as "there" as some other people--bigger? Less transparent? Who move in a way that's more convincingly human?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Just when I needed it...

The winner of Glimmer Train's latest "Family Matters" contest, Erica Johnson Debeljak, talks about two pressing concerns of mine: becoming a writer later in life, and struggling with the pressure to write formulaic fiction. The two issues are not unrelated--if you aren't groomed from a young age in the American MFA system, you're more likely to look askance at the "hook-backstory-resolution" shape of the contemporary American short story. There's nothing wrong with the formula itself, only with leaving no room for anything different. Debeljak also talks about creating stories by juxtaposing two images or scenes, which Stephen King recommends as well.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Haunted grammar

At least two grammatical facts I know--or think I know--are so closely associated with the teachers I learned them from that I actually see these women's faces whenever I use those constructs. Using the possessive with a participle (as in "We should discuss Sally's wanting to quit her job," as opposed to "...Sally wanting to quit...") is Mrs. Gretar from high school. Saying "the lady who..." as opposed to "The lady that..." is Miss Seckel, fourth grade. ("Lady" for "woman" was just fine, but "that" implies an inanimate object. I remember sensing at the time that this was a personal issue for Miss Seckel.) Frankly I'm not sure either of these usages is correct; I find myself wondering about them, and that's when one or the other of these faces appears before me. And I get scared of trying anything else.