Sunday, November 30, 2008
nanowrimo: a reflection
"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."

- George Orwell
As of today, at roughly 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I completed the roughest draft of my very first novel.  From start to finish, it took me 26 days to write all 50,849 words (because even God Himself rested on the 7th day). 

Is it good?  No.  Not by a long shot.  It is a melodramatic, meandering mess, and I freely admit that I have lost track of basic character traits and timelines at several points throughout my narrative.  My novel is not particularly enjoyable, original or eloquent.  But it is long, it is whole, and it is mine.  I have done something that I honestly never thought I would do, and although it was, at times, a painful endeavor, I saw it through when I didn't have to.  For that, I am proud.  (Pats herself on back.)

Some things I have learned:
  • It is not only possible to write a novel, it is possible to do so in only one month, and while sober.
  • Endings and beginnings are the hardest parts.
  • Plots are not requisite to beginning.  When in doubt, create a character, do something horrible to him or her, and then let 'er rip.
  • When you've created a person from out of thin air, you tend to feel a bit god-like.  This means that you will, inevitably, feel bad for all the horrible things you've put him or her through, however you will continue to do it just the same.
  • When you find yourself in the middle of a scene where no end is in sight, there is no shame in striking one of your characters with the sudden urge to urinate.
  • When you are close to giving up, it helps to buy yourself something wonderful.  Then hide it, and only let yourself "find" it once you are done.  (Hello, new boots.  My, but aren't you lovely!)
  • Writing a crappy book isn't so hard.  It's writing a good book that's tricky.

What now?
  • Revision, and lots of it.
  • The gym, for lo, but I am a larger mammal than I was when this month did begin.
  • A brief computer respite so that I may rest my fingers, rewet my eyes, and remember what it feels like to watch television without a laptop on my knees.
  • Microfiction.
  • Novel #2.  (Though this time, I'll begin with an actual plot in mind, and tackle it in the summer when I have a bit more free time on my hands.)

Okay, so that's that.  I'll see you in a few days, for I have no intention of writing anything in the immediate future.  


random posts of pretty
I love this. Photographer Myoung Ho Lee uses canvases to frame trees in their natural environment, highlighting how beautiful they truly are on their own.  It's such a simple idea, but how gorgeous the results!


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Saturday, November 29, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #15 of 30: sigur rós's "gobbledigook"
Sorry for the back-to-back music posts, but as I type this I am still 5,000 words shy of completing my very first novel, and I'm feeling rather anxious about getting it all squared away.  I expect to write a proper reflection on the whole NaNoWriMo experience tomorrow (bate that breath, baby), but for today - and in the spirit of thanksgiving - I wanted to give thanks for one of the things that helped me through my recent novel writing odyssey: Sigur Rós.

See, I'm one of those weird birds who can't stand to write for any length of time when there's no music playing, but can't focus on writing while listening to lyrics.  It's really quite the little conundrum.  To meet this problem, I am limited to either instrumental music (nods to Explosions in the Sky), or to bands who sing in a language so far removed from my own that their voices become instruments for sound rather than conveyors of ideas.  Cue Sigur Rós.  

Sigur Rós sing in either Icelandic or in Hopelandic, and since Icelandic is a language I have yet to learn, and Hopelandic isn't even a language at all but rather gibberish sounds intended to make melodies, you can see how this band has been invaluable to me during the month of November.  

Although I have been making occasional dips into their back catalog, I've written the vast majority of my novel while listening to their most recent album, titled Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which, in English, means "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly."  It's a bit more light and playful than their previous works, while still maintaining the fragility of sound that the band is known for.  In short, it's lovely, and I like it quite a little bit.  As the title suggests, I have been playing it endlessly, and if my silly little book is ever published, then I shall have to dedicate it to them.

(Note: this is not the actual video for this song, but rather a collection of still shots taken from the video.  Reason being, the video is chock-full of some of the most non-sexual nudity I think I've ever seen.  I personally have no problem with this whatsoever, but I do try to keep things PG-13 in these parts.  If you want the one with all the twigs and berries, then feel free to click over here instead.  Dirty bird.)

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Friday, November 28, 2008
random posts of pretty
These pictures of 1970's rock stars at home with their parents come, once again, from the LIFE Magazine archives, and I happen to think they are adorable. Since we've all been spending some time at home with our parents recently, I also thought they were rather appropriate. From top to bottom, we have: Elton John, David Crosby, Eric Clapton, and Frank Zappa.  

(And is it just me, or is Elton John's mom showing an awful lot of leg?)


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favorite songs of 2008, #14 of 30: death cab for cutie's "long division"
Right, so here's an ultra quick post, since I woke up late and am in a bit of a Black Friday rush. So...

Death Cab for Cutie = Good.

Their newest album, Narrow Stairs = Pretty Good.

This song, "Long Division" = Quite Good Indeed.

And now I'm off to put my crazy hat on and do some long division of my own! 

(See? See what I did there?  Connections, folks!  It's the very key to corny humor.)

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Thursday, November 27, 2008
i am thankful...
for my family, who I love and who I don't see often enough.

for my friends, who make me smile.

for my husband, who loves me more than anyone else ever could.

for a dog who never seems to mind when I'm being horrible.

that I have everything that I need, even if not everything that I want.

for my health, and for yours too.

that I live in a country where I can speak my mind, even if what I'm saying is utterly ridiculous more often than it is not.

for my house, which, though small, is all that I need.

for my job, which, though imperfect, makes me happy and gives my life a funny sort of meaning.

for the places I've gone, and the things that I've seen.

for the places I still have yet to go.

for the first warm day of spring.

for a life filled with relative peace.

that I am happy more days than I am not.

for sunshine.

for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!  (You turkey. ;)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
random posts of pretty: thanksgiving edition
Ju Duoqi is a young Chinese artist who recreates Western masterpieces with vegetables. I know - I was skeptical too, but it's actually pretty incredible and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, art made out of food is also pretty appropriate.

From top to bottom, Duoqi is recreating: a Vincent Van Gogh self portrait, Klimt's The Kiss, and Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa.  Kinda cool, huh?

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favorite songs of 2008, #13 of 30: tilly and the wall's "pot kettle black"
Tilly and the Wall hails from Omaha, Nebraska, and is most recognizble for having a tap dancer instead of a drummer.  Although that sounds as if it might be kitchy and lame, I assure you that is it not. I never did end up getting my hands on their third album, O, (Christmas gift, anyone?) but I very much dig what I've heard of it -namely, today's song, "Pot Kettle Black."  

And although I don't normally do this, I'm dedicating today's song to Ms. Carrie.  Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder that sometimes it helps when we take a minute to just toss it all and dance.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008
weekly book review: blindness, by josé saramago
"Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are."
On an average street in an anonymous city, a man is suddenly struck blind while idling in his car, waiting for a red light to turn green.  It is no ordinary blindness, but rather a "white blindness," causing the victim's world to fall "into a milky sea." Another man - a thief, first thought to be a good Samaritan - helps drive the newly blind man home.  The thief takes advantage of the blind man's condition and makes off with his car.  While driving away, he is himself struck blind.  The blindness soon spreads like wildfire, striking the first man's wife, an opthamologist, and then his patients.  The government soon panics; the first victims are rounded up and sent to live in an abandoned asylum, quarantined until a cure can be found.  But to no avail.  The asylum is soon stuffed to overflowing with the ever increasing blind, and still the strange disease continues to spread unchecked in the outside world. 

Inside the asylum, conditions quickly deteriorate. Food becomes an uncertainty, the lack of running water reduces all to filth, and the guards become frightened and quick to shoot. Eventually, a small group of prisoners force themselves upon the others - holding hostage their food in exchange for valuables, and later, women. In all of this, there remains only one set of seeing eyes - those of the opthamologist's wife, who mysteriously retains her sight while the world loses its, and who is burdened with being the lone witness as society crumbles into vile depravity.  

With Blindness, Saramago makes a powerful statement about the delicate state of humanity, while creating a disturbingly apt parable for our times. Playing with the old adage of the eyes being the window to the soul, Saramago strips society of its eyes, thus plunging it into evil.  And as a parable, Blindness is intentionally vague. Surroundings are described in detail while characters remain unnamed, and the cause of the illness is left unexplained. Thus, the story becomes a limitless allegory - it could be the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, The Sudan, or any other time when catastrophe has struck, pushing civilization to its breaking point. It isn’t pleasant to think about, but it’s a story that is too often true, and one that we can never learn from if we choose to ignore.

For a variety of reasons I’ve spent this month reading much lighter fare, and although I’ve enjoyed myself, I was itching for something a bit more substantial.  Thus, I was drawn to Saramago.  Although a masterful writer, I’d been reading very underwhelming reviews of his newest novel, so figured it best to start with his masterpiece.  As expected, Blindness absolutely did not disappoint. It’s a darkly brilliant, important book, and although I can’t say reading it was a pleasant experience, it was one I’m glad I had just the same.

José Saramago
1998, 326 pages

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Monday, November 24, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #12 of 30: q-tip's "won't trade"
Chinese Democracy has basically monopolized the music media since it came out, but the long-awaited release of Q-Tip's second solo album, The Renaissance, is all I care to talk about today.  Nine years was a long time to wait for a sophomore release, but it seems it's been worth it.  The Renaissance is near-flawlessly executed, and is as easy on the ears as Q-Tip is on the eyes.  "Neo-soul" is what the people in the know are calling it, and although I'm not entirely sure what that means, I am totally sure that I dig it.  In fact, I've been listening to The Renaissance on a loop for the past two days.  Every song is solid, but "Won't Trade" is one of my current favorites.  So, and without further ado, please. Do.*

*Though, maybe do so at home, since some lyrics are NSFW. You slacker.

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random posts of pretty
Today's VSL features the work of Tom Krisch, an urban explorer who travels to long-abandoned ruins and photographs them. His pictures are eerie, wistful and gorgeous, and although I love them all, here's few that made the short list of my favorites:


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Sunday, November 23, 2008
a troublesome disconnect
My wireless contract with Verizon expires on the first of the year, and for the past several months I’ve been debating whether or not I want to finally break down and get myself a fancy schmancy smart phone – specifically, an iPhone - or just a regular old phone without all the bells and whistles. (I know. I know. My problems are just insurmountable. However do I manage?)

The issue isn’t really the cost of the phone per se, as I’m pretty sure the iPhone would be a gift, rather I’m not sure how much I want technology to get its hooks further into me. As it is, I’m becoming increasingly troubled by the extent to which this has already happened. The part of me that can’t help but get excited about tricked-out new gadgets is doing battle with the other half who worries that, as a society, we’ve let technology consume our lives to the point of saturation, often allowing it to replace more genuine forms of communication. And, that even when we are physically together, we’re too distracted to ever really give each other our full attentions.

As someone who lived quite comfortably for two years in the mid 00’s without the Internet and who consistently selects whatever free phone her cell phone company is offering at the time, it’s a bit surprising how entrenched I’ve become in technology. I blog so much that I even microblog, sometimes feel that I’m listening to my iPod more times than I’m not, have half-heartedly embraced Internet social networking despite swearing I never would, check my email with the frequency of an OCD sufferer, and I finally broke down two years ago and allowed myself to start sending and receiving text messages after stubbornly resisting it longer than most folks I know.

It’s not that I was a luddite exactly, but when I first had the Internet I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and so when I had to unplug myself it really just wasn’t all that hard to do. Then, when I finally plugged back in, it was with a surprising sort of abandon. Not that this has been a bad thing, necessarily. Technology has helped me forge, rekindle and maintain friendships, gain confidence in my writing, and has been a tremendous source of entertainment. But, I’m also starting to wonder how much of all this superficial connectiveness is really bringing us together, versus how much it’s changing us into a generation of people who are so incapable of being unplugged that we are never fully present when we are actually spending time with one another in the flesh.

Take my students, for example. Theirs is a generation that seems incapable of functioning without technology. If I’d let them, they would text message their friends all throughout my class while listening to their iPods, then swear that they’re still paying attention. But they’re not. They can’t be. At least, not fully. They’re half-hearing everything, are frustrated when denied all forms of entertainment, and have attention spans so small that they can’t be bothered to read an article off the Internet if it’s more than a couple paragraphs long. This is our future – people who don’t think it rude to have entire conversations with a person while wearing headphones and text messaging someone else. This scares me, and yet at times I am not so different from them.

I’m not sure it’s good that we’ve made ourselves so readily available to one another. I don’t want to be the person who is constantly in my phone, even when we’re talking. I want to really listen to what you’re saying, and I want you to do the same for me. I don’t need to read your text messages while I’m driving 75 miles per hour on a four-laned freeway, and I certainly don’t need to respond to them at that time. And please, don’t you do it either. I don’t want visits with my friends and family to be consumed with television watching instead of talking. I don’t want to spend our time together sitting around on our laptops, checking to see who may have emailed us when there’s a room full of people we can actually be talking to.

Nonetheless, I sometimes am this person. At times, I can be every bit as impatient and distracted as the younger generation.

Maybe I’m thinking about all this way too much. It is, after all, only a phone, and just like anything else, the applications and Internets and whatnot can all be easily managed with discipline. But still, I have a nagging feeling that by making communication easier, we’ve just watered it down. I can’t help but wonder if we truly realize what it is that we’ve given up.

Saturday, November 22, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #11 of 30: okkervil river's "lost coastlines"
To cap off nerd week, today I bring you "Lost Coastlines," which is my favorite song off of Okkervil River's The Stand Ins, the second half of last year's The Stage Names. And while it's true that this band appears to be full of some pretty cool guys, causing some to maybe take umbrage with me deeming them a nerd band, I would like to point out that they take their name from a Russian short story and Will Sheff, songwriter and front man, was an English major. And all English majors are nerds. It's a prerequisite to declaring your major. You can ask anyone.

But more to the point - one of the reasons I love Okkervil River is their literateness. Sheff is an incredibly skilled lyricist who knows better than most how to turn a phrase, creating songs that are cerebral while still capable of rocking out. Anyone who can do that has my attention. "Lost Coastlines" is an excellent example of them at their best, and a very fine pop song when all's said and done. But don't take my word for it. Please, judge for yourself...

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Friday, November 21, 2008
random posts of pretty
So, do you know what happens when you search "robots" over at Etsy?

Awesome things happen. That's what happens:

Man, I want a robot. You know, to do my evil bidding and such...

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what's your type?
I was alerted to this via Andrew Sullivan's blog, a website that claims the ability to identify a blog's "type." Naturally curious, I typed in my own URL, and here's what came up:

The Mechanics

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment and are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generelly prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts.

The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like to seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

Pretty spot-on for the most part, although I can't help but think that it's giving me entirely too much credit. A master of solving problems? Highly skilled? A risk taker who enjoys driving race cars or fighting fires? Pshaw...

Anyway, if you're reading this and have your own blog, then chances are more than good that I've already tested your URL out on the website, and from where I stand it seems fairly accurate. But please, do try it for yourself and then tell me all about it anyway. I promise I'll act surprised. ;)

Thursday, November 20, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #10 of 30: tv on the radio's "dancing choose"
Speaking of nerds, TV on the Radio has been getting mad buzz almost since their inception, and for good reason.  Masters of experimental rock music who mix genres effortlessly within intricately constructed songs, I'd be hard-pressed to name a single band on the current scene who's as innovative, smart and forward-thinking. Truth be told, I think I love the idea of TV on the Radio more than I love their actual aesthetic, but that doesn't change the fact that I still like them quite a bit.  Plus, they have trumpets and saxophones.  You know how I feel about trumpets and saxophones.

Dear Science, the follow-up to 2006's highly acclaimed yet horribly named Return to Cookie Mountain, is every bit as brilliant as its predecessor, and is receiving just as much critic love, if not more. If you haven't picked it up yet, then know that it's as dense and shape-shifting as "Cookie Mountain," although perhaps a bit catchier.

"Dancing Choose" is a prime example of this, and in an album full of songs about death, dying, loss and fear for the future, it's a nice little reminder that sometimes we just need to chuck it all and dance.  Here they are performing it on a fire escape, because, well, why not? 

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random posts of pretty
I must have spent a good hour yesterday browsing through the new LIFE photo archive hosted by Google. There's some pretty amazing stuff over there (I thought so, at least), which is why I decided to share a few choice images with you today. Of course, this is also very much in line with the theme of the week, since getting geeked out over old historical photographs is a pretty nerdy thing to do.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
totally random list: my top five nerd crushes
#5: Mos Def

Nerd Cred:
  • Studied experimental theater at New York University.
  • Hosted HBO's Def Poetry
  • Played Ford Prefect in the film adaptation of one of the nerdiest books of all time, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Has been known to rock the occasional sweater vest.
Why I Love Him:
Mos Def is a Renaissance man, and I luuurve me a Renaissance man. He acts, raps, digs on poetry, and is socially and politically active. Also, he's hot. So very, very, very hot.

#4: Jon Stewart

Nerd Cred:
  • Played the french horn in his high school's band
  • Suffered harassment in school for being Jewish
  • Has somehow become a legitimate news source for a significant portion of America, despite the fact that he is on a fake news show
  • Is wicked, wicked smart on said fake news show
Why I Love Him:
I have a soft soft for funny, self-deprecating men, and Stewart has both of those qualities in spades. If he weren't on way past my bedtime, then I would listen to his funny, dreamy face deliver fake news every single night. (It also doesn't hurt his case that he named his daughter "Maggie," which just so happens to be the bestest name in the entire history of names.)

#3: Jonathan Safran Foer

Nerd Cred:
  • Studied philosophy and literature at Princeton University
  • Was awarded the Senior Creative Writing Thesis Prize at Princeton
  • Wrote a brilliant post-modern debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, that is incredibly unique, polarizing, and extraordinarily pretentious
Why I Love Him:
Honestly, I didn't much care for Everything Is Illuminated, but in his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer stole my heart with the story of small little Oskar and his heavy boots. Creative people are my favorite sort of people, and when they're as handsome as Mr. Foer is, well, they find themselves on my blog, I guess.

#2: Colin Meloy

Nerd Cred:
  • Majored in Creative Writing in college
  • Writes whimsical, epic prog-rock songs about vengeful mariners and mythological Japanese cranes
  • Sings stories
  • Possesses a massive vocabulary
  • Knows how to play the bouzouki
  • Wears horn-rimmed glasses
Why I Love Him:
Besides being absolutely adorable, Mr. Meloy is not at all the pretentious, humorless fellow I had always assumed him to be. You may remember me mentioning that I had the opportunity to see The Decemberists last week, and one of the most pleasant things about the entire experience was how genuinely funny their front man was, not to mention genuine, silly and totally cool. And did I mention he's adorable? So very, very adorable?

#1: Anderson Cooper

Nerd Cred:
  • Attended Yale University, where he studied Political Science and International Relations
  • Interned with the CIA
  • Worked first as a fact-checker, then later a reporter for Channel One, a youth-oriented news program
  • Currently works as a 60 Minutes correspondent
  • Awesomely, prematurely grey
Why I Love Him:
If you need me to justify why I love Anderson Cooper, then you are a blind person. An amazingly talented blind person who can somehow read my blog despite an utter lack of vision, but a blind person nonetheless.

What? Anderson Cooper's gay, you say? I'm sorry, huh? I totally wasn't even trying to hear you just now...

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #9 of 30: vampire weekend's "cape cod kwassa kwassa"
In honor of this week's book review, I've decided to attempt blogging for the remainder of the week with the theme of nerdiness in mind. We'll see how long I can manage until I run out of steam, but this stupid novel I'm writing (77 pages and counting!) is currently monopolizing all of my creative energies. I’m hoping thematic blogging will help.

So, and with the aforementioned theme in mind, today I bring you my favorite song off Vampire Weekend’s much buzzed self-titled debut: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” For those of you not in the know, Vampire Weekend is a band comprised of former Columbia University students who, despite being *very* Caucasian, draw heavy inspiration from traditional African music. Occasionally, they also sing about grammar. I’m not sure Vampire Weekend should win the top spot of nerdiest bands on the current scene, but let’s just say they’d at least be in the conversation.

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Monday, November 17, 2008
monday book review: american nerd, by benjamin nugent
In American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent, critically acclaimed writer, journalist, and self-proclaimed nerd, sets out to do something I’m not entirely sure has ever before been attempted – trace the history and unique characteristics of a particular subculture of people: the nerd.

Dividing his book into what is essentially two parts, Nugent first attempts to define nerdiness. He begins by challenging the standard definition of a nerd as “somebody who pursues intellectual interests at the expense of skills that are useful in social settings such as communication, fashion or physical fitness,” claiming that “nerdiness isn’t really a matter of intellectualism and social awkwardness,” but rather determined by two things: the first, being the extent to which the suspected nerd reminds one of a machine, and the second being a nerd “by sheer force of social exclusion.” He then provides a brief history of the nerd, delving into such early manifestations as Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice fame), and the rise of the greasy grind, or greaser. Nugent then traces Hollywood’s impact through Jerry Lewis’s character of The Nutty Professor and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s “Todd and Lisa” sketches from the early days of Saturday Night Live, to a more realistic depiction of the nerd in Paul Feig’s sadly short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks.

In the second half, titled “Among the Nerds”, Nugent attempts several case studies of the modern nerd, examining sub sects such as Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, debate teamers, the relatively cool ‘hipster’ nerd, sci-fi and fantasy fans, convention devotees, computer programmers, engineers, and Renaissance faire goers. He even delves into the impact of racism on our cultural definition, as well as exploring the connection between Asperger's Syndrome and nerdiness. This second half is also where Nugent tends to view the subject through the lens of his own personal history, sharing stories of his own nerdy childhood, as well as his recollections of several early nerd friends.

What first struck me about  American Nerd was that it wasn’t exactly what I had expected, in that I expected it to be funny. Despite what the blurbs claim, American Nerd is not a funny book. Sure, there’s the occasional humorous line, but Nugent remains fairly serious about his subject matter, and some of his personal stories are downright poignant. And although I was expecting humor, I would have happily rolled with it had I not started to notice a more pressing problem: the lack of a clear thesis (or, at least, evidence to adequately support said thesis). Aside from earlier chapters, his 'research' consists mostly of anecdotes from his real life, which would be fine, I guess, if he weren't attempting to tackle the entirety of nerd history and culture. Furthermore, and not to be hyper-critical, but it wasn’t particularly well-edited, which is sort of inexcusable for a book on nerdiness if you really think about it.

Ultimately, American Nerd felt annoyingly disjointed to me. It was as if Nugent couldn't decide what he wanted his book to be, exactly.  What began as a history of nerds later turned into a memoir of sorts, and at times almost a confessional where he attempts some sort of penance for the ills he inflicted on his former nerd friends by trading them in for some semblance of hipster nerd cred. Where I really wanted to like this book, I found myself merely tolerating it. Like a nerd lacking a socially agreed-upon set of social niceties, American Nerd left me a bit cold.

Benjamin Nugent
2008, 224 pages

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Sunday, November 16, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #8 of 30: kate nash's "pumpkin soup"
I've heard Kate Nash referred to as a poor man's Lily Allen, and although the similarities between the two Brit pop stars are obvious, I'm not sure how fair it is to disparage Nash simply because Allen's album came first. I happen to like both ladies quite a bit, and although clear comparisons can be made, I actually think that Nash's Made of Bricks displays a greater range of emotion, storytelling and musical genres than Allen's Alright, Still, for whatever that's worth.

Of course, if you like neither ladies, then I guess I can understand that too. Poppy club music dripping with thick cockney accents simply isn't for everyone. I suppose a second strike against today's song is its video, which is more than a little silly and will prompt many of you to roll your eyes at poor Ms. Nash.

But, though saccharine and slightly juvenile, both the song and its video are also pretty fun. And I happen to like fun.

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random posts of pretty
VSL: Science directing me to some pretty incredible photographs of the sun, and since I tend to geek out over astronomical things more than most, I thought the images were pretty rad and thus worth sharing. I just wish the sun would make an appearance around here sometime soon, for lo, I do grow weary of these grey clouds....

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Saturday, November 15, 2008
a regret
While writing my review of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, I found myself going off on a personal tangent that, while interesting, was not particularly appropriate for the purposes of a book review.  Even while I was writing it I knew I was eventually going to remove it, but I allowed myself to write through it anyway since it seemed to be serving some sort of personal catharsis.  On any normal month, that passage would have been highlighted, deleted and eventually forgotten, but this is no typical month.  This is November.  And so, in the spirit of my November 1st warning, here's a post that would have never otherwise seen the light of day were I not in the throws of trying to meet such an absurdly high word count goal by the end of the month.  It's quite confessional, and for that I apologize.  I'll make attempts at something a bit more lighthearted for tomorrow...

I met Jason eight years ago, when he was fifteen and I was twenty-two.  It was my very first day of teaching, and he was a sophomore student in my 6th hour American Literature and Composition class.  Most of the other names and faces from that particular class have long since faded from my memory, but Jason remains quite clear in my mind's eye for two reasons, the first being that he was the first true test of my authority. 

As a first year teacher, I was young, excited and more than a little nervous about the narrow age gap between myself and my teenage charges.  Both my student teaching and a brief stint in the trial-by-fire that is teaching summer school had prepared me for the eventual test of my authority, but I was confident that one of my greatest strengths was building mutually respectful relationships with teenagers.  And so although I knew that my age, appearance and small stature might be, at first, a handicap, I was confident in my skills of diffusing and disarming those moments of temporary insanity that even the most level-headed teenager eventually falls victim to.  What I was not prepared for, however, was for such a test to find me on my very first day.

From a classroom management perspective, the first day of school is, at least theoretically, the easiest.  We teachers go over our syllabi, while the students sit like lumps and listen.  Then, if there's time, we start getting to know one another by way of verbal introduction.  That year, I had decided to forgo the kitchy icebreaker activity in favor of a more organic "just stand up and introduce yourself" approach.  Understandably, no one ever enjoys doing this, but most everyone accepts both its inevitability and necessity.  The first four hours had gone by without a hitch, and my final period seemed as if it would wrap up without event.  There were only a few minutes left before the final bell was due to ring, and, after exhausting my list of willing volunteers, I had moved on to randomly selecting students to stand up and introduce themselves.  Eventually, I called on Jason, who then did something I was wholly unprepared for. He said no.

I now know better than to handle insubordination this way, but at that time I was relatively untested, and terrified of what this little jerk's firm and public refusal would do to my tenuous authority.  So, rather than just letting it go, I put on my best bitchy tone and ordered him to get up and do what I had asked.  Again, he refused.  I ordered him a third time.  A third time, he refused.  Somehow, I had found myself in the middle of a public stand-off over something so seemingly small as asking a kid to stand up and say his name, and I was at a loss for what to do about it.  

Burning with anger and embarrassment, I ordered Jason out into the hall.   I followed him out, and then unleashed all over him.   For his part, Jason just stood there and took it.  If I remember correctly, he never spoke a word.

After the bell had rung and the kids had left, I called Jason's mother with the goal of nipping this situation in the bud.  My actions seem extreme to me now, but at the time I feared any little crack that might weaken my position of authority.  Jason was a crack.  I explained the situation to his mom, who listened patiently, then apologized for her son's behavior, explaining that Jason has a crippling fear of public speaking, a history of emotional issues, and even attempted suicide that previous year.  She began to softly cry upon reaching this third point.  Naturally, I felt like a total asshole.  Of course there was a very reasonable explanation for Jason's insubordination, but so consumed was I with my own insecurities that I never even attempted any inquiries.

From then on, I never called upon Jason, and I never had another issue with him.  Whenever the lesson called for public speaking, I had already mentally excused him from the task, and for his part, he never acknowledged my "forgetfulness."  He passed through that year in my class like a ghost - doing what he needed to do to pass but little more, and speaking very rarely to the other students in the room.  So afraid was I of doing further damage that I did nothing at all.

Three years later I learned that Jason had managed a second suicide attempt shortly after graduation, and this time he was successful.  This is the second reason he stands out so clearly in my memory.   Unlike other students I've had who've died, I barely knew Jason at all.   I knew he was troubled, but so self-conscious was I of our initial misunderstanding that I made no further attempts to reach out to him.   I can excuse it by claiming that he never reached out to me, but it's clear to me now that this kid never reached out to anyone.  

And so though I can't pretend to understand what he may have been thinking, I do know this: just because he didn't reach out for help doesn't mean he might not have been waiting for someone to notice how desperately he needed it.

Friday, November 14, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #7 of 30: the black keys' "i got mine"
As far as NaBloPoMo goes, is posting a song every other day during the entire month of November cheating? Well, technically, no. Is it making my life considerably more manageable knowing that I already have something to write about for 50% of my posts? Oh hell yeah. Do I feel the tiniest bit guilty for posting a video rather than something more original for half of my NaBlaBlaBla experience? Well, sorta. But deep, deep down, do I really care all too terribly much? Hm...I don't know.

But what I do know is I could listen to The Black Keys perform "I Got Mine" all day long, because that song is tight. I mean, come on - listen to them perform it on David Letterman then try and tell me I'm wrong. Go on. I dare you. Try.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008
random posts of pretty

Night Poem,
by Margaret Atwood

There is nothing to be afraid of,
it is only the wind
changing to the east, it is only
your father the thunder
your mother the rain

In this country of water
with its beige moon damp as a mushroom,
its drowned stumps and long birds
that swim, where the moss grows
on all sides of the trees
and your shadow is not your shadow
but your reflection,

your true parents disappear
when the curtain covers your door.
We are the others,
the ones from under the lake
who stand silently beside your bed
with our heads of darkness.
We have come to cover you
with red wool,
with our tears and distant whipers.

You rock in the rain's arms
the chilly ark of your sleep,
while we wait, your night
father and mother
with our cold hands and dead flashlight,
knowing we are only
the wavering shadows thrown
by one candle, in this echo
you will hear twenty years later.

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so, look - there’s a few things i’ve had on my mind recently that i desperately need to share with you.
Is that okay?

Because I hope it's okay.



The word “refrigerator” does not have a “d”, yet the word “fridge” does. This irritates me more than you will ever realize, and certainly more than it probably should.

I will never name any of my future children “Michael,” not because I dislike the name, but because I am incapable of typing it without making a mistake that I then have to backspace over and correct. It’s always “Michale” first. Always. It’s a stupid, stupid name.

On my way to my classroom the past two mornings I've had to walk through a massive crowd of freshmen, gathered in a circle around what I first presumed to be a fight. This initial hypothesis gained credibility when I noticed that several of them had their cell phones up, recording whatever it was that was transpiring. After busting through the mass, I discovered that it wasn’t a fight at all, but rather a dance off between one boy who looked like a young Seth Rogan and another resembling a young, very skinny Bill Murray. At its highest point, I witnessed a move called “The Rooster,” which was then capped off with a spin and a giant poof of baby powder. It was awesome.

Teaching high school seniors isn’t all too terribly different than teaching kindergarten, in that they like to draw me pictures of animals, tend to get cranky if I don’t let them have their mid-morning snack, and they think I should get them a class pet. I very nearly caught a baby mouse I found scurrying around the building today, but they don't want a baby mouse. They want a kitten. Sigh…

One of my students sent me this message today via GoodReads:

from: James

to: Mrs. W

subject: u da girl

message: Hey miss w. idk yim sending u a message but i am. its fun in class lately but the 4 pages that un miss t made us write was deff not cool. Im jk mrs. W. have a good day

Does anyone else know what this poor boy was trying to tell me? I have absolutely no idea. I just hope he’s okay. Because if it were an emergency, then he would have just dialed 911, right?

Finally, yellow just isn’t your color, love. I’m sorry. I suppose I should have told you that a long time ago.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Of Montreal + "Day Man" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia = One of the Best Things That Happened to Me Today

(And today was a pretty good day.)

favorite songs of 2008, #6 of 30: the decemberists' "record year"
The Decemberists place quite highly on my list of favorite bands I've yet to see live - an unfortunate slight I'll soon be rectifying, as I'm heading up to East Lansing in just a few hours to see them perform for my very first time. As you might imagine, I'm practically giddy with excitement, and although I have a long list of old standards I hope to hear, "Record Year", a new song off their Always the Bridesmaid: A Singles Series, is a moment I'm anxiously awaiting. The single can be found on Volume III of Always the Bridesmaid (due for release in early December) and is, at least from where I sit, the best song of the series. It's a gracefully grey, wistful little thing, and a perfect match for today's dark clouds. Man, I'm excited to hear this sucker up close and personal...

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008
weekly book review: thirteen reasons why, by jay asher
Clay Jensen comes home from school to discover a mysterious package, addressed to him and anonymously left on his front porch. His excitement turns into curiosity when he opens the box to discover it full of cassette tapes, each side numbered from one to thirteen in dark blue nail polish. But after popping the first tape into an old cassette player, Clay's excited curiosity quickly turns to sick dread as the voice he hears on the tape is that of Hannah Baker - a girl who was his classmate, his crush, and who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah's unexplained death rocked her community, hitting sweet and sensitive Clay particularly hard. It was widely assumed she left no explanation behind for why she chose to end her life, however the voice Clay hears speaking through the tape indicates that this is not so. Hannah has thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life, each explained in full in the tapes that have fallen into Clay's possession. Apparently, Clay is one of those reasons, and in order to discover why he must listen to Hannah's tapes, regardless of how difficult a job it may prove to be.

What first struck me about Jay Asher's novel is how much young adult fiction has changed since I was a kid. My clearest memories of the genre include books like Judy Blume's Blubber - novels that taught strong lessons about bullying and the importance of empathy. In another era, pushing the envelope meant writing about teenage sex (Forever), drug use (Go Ask Alice), or eating disorders (The Girl in the Mirror). But while these topics were once considered shocking and sometimes taboo, this is clearly no longer the case. Sex and drinking are now accepted elements of the genre, so it takes much weightier issues such as suicide, child prostitution and murder to shock us. At times, I find this depressing. And yet, I can’t help but see it as a natural sort of evolution. I don't think Asher set out to shock readers with Thirteen Reasons Why, rather he saw a story that begged to be told; one that, unfortunately, hits many young people in a very real way.

What struck me next was a feeling of intense inferiority. Here I am, struggling to pen my own young adult novel, when I pause to read Asher’s debut - his clever, strong-voiced, well-crafted, suspenseful debut. Part of me wanted to hate this book, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it filled me with such strong feelings of jealousy. Thirteen Reasons Why is a wonderful novel, and Jay Asher is a talented storyteller. It speaks to adults as well as it speaks to kids, and I know this because once I cracked it, I couldn’t put the little bugger down. Listening to Hannah tell the posthumous story of her downward spiral and ultimate decision to give up is as thought-provoking as it is absorbing, and her voice rings clear and feels tragically real.

Overall, Thirteen Reasons Why is about the importance of listening, both to what is said as well as to the clues that go unspoken. Like much of today’s serious young adult fiction, it’s a sobering read, but it’s also a terrific book. I just wish I had come up with the idea first.

Jay Asher
2007, 288 pages

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Monday, November 10, 2008
favorite songs of 2008, #5 of 30: liam finn's "better to be"
Liam Finn and Basia Bulat are squarely tied for the title of my favorite new singer-songwriter of the year.  But more on Bulat later; today feels like a Finn sort of day. The son of Crowded House's Neil Finn, Liam Finn is a one-man band whose songs are reminiscent of Elliott Smith but without the despondent, suicidal cries for help. Which is not to say that there isn't an element of sadness in I'll Be Lightning - an album Finn says he was inspired to write after a heartbreaking breakup. Loss is a reoccurring motif in Finn's lyrics, and is a feeling that occasionally bleeds into his melodies as well. But despite its painful point of inspiration, the songs on this album are melodic, layered and pretty without being particularly mopey, and some - like "Lead Balloon," for example - are downright rockin'.

I realize this post sounds more like an album review than a discussion of just one song, but there's a reason for that.  It's because I love I'll Be Lightning. I just love it *so* much. It's a lock for one of my favorite albums of the year, and so very Mrs. White. Thus, choosing one song to post on was a bit of a feat, but since I lurve the video for "Better to Be," it's the song that won out. Cheers, punks.

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random posts of pretty
Among other things, Martin Klimas takes beautiful pictures of things in the process of being destroyed.

And I like them. I like them a lot:

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Sunday, November 09, 2008
pointless sunday list: the five most overrated films of all time (according to me)
#5:  Titanic (1997)
The only reason that Titanic comes in at #5 is because I'm fairly confident that there are very few who would try to argue that this film is not overrated.   A cliched story of two star-crossed lovers undone by circumstances beyond their control, Titanic offers positively nothing new in terms of plot or theme.  Sure, the acting is fine, the plot pedestrian but not terrible, and the set meticulously researched and executed. But really... it's the top money making film of all time?  It ran in the theaters for an incredible 9 months?  The Academy - a group of people who are supposed to know more than the rest of us about what makes for great cinema - felt this sappy, over-priced soap opera was deserving of an award for Best Picture?  Really???  My current theory is that Celine Dion embedded subliminal messages into "My Heart Will Go On," forcing the mass of humanity to go temporarily insane for the whole of 1997 until the latter part of 1998, when we finally awoke - confused, hung-over, and wondering what the hell we were all thinking.

#4:  Forrest Gump (1994)
I'm not going to lie - I loved Forrest Gump when I first saw it in the theater.  Of course, I was also sixteen-years-old and still pretty wet behind the ears.   But even now that I'm older, snootier, and significantly more jaded, I'll admit that Forrest Gump is an enjoyable film with a fantastic soundtrack.  It's just that it's all a little too cutesy, convenient, and artificial to truly be deserving of all the serious critical praise heaped upon it.  Seriously, it won six Oscars, including one for Best Picture.  And, sorry,  Was the Academy comprised entirely of sixteen-year-old girls that year? Stupid is as stupid does, indeed.

#3: Scarface (1983)
Ugh...Scarface.  Just saying its name makes the bile rise in my throat.  Unlike the rest of the films taking up spots on this list, Scarface is the only one that I will argue is a truly terrible movie with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.   It is a poorly acted, poorly written, comically violent, flaming piece of crap.  Every single character is unlikeable, Pacino's Cuban accent is laughable, and it's sprinkled with just enough jump cuts and f-bombs to make every fifteen-year-old boy in America laud it as a work of sheer brilliance.  And for those who would try to defend its language and violence on the basis that it is a gangster movie, then please - watch Goodfellas, The Godfather or Casino to see how it's supposed to be done.  If I could, I would tell this movie off, right before punching it out in front of all its jerk-face friends.   Scarface.  Blech.

#2: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1986)
Okay, hear me out on this one.  I know that 2001: A Space Odyssey is considered a pioneering film in terms of visual effects, and I will not even attempt to argue that it is undeserving of that praise.  However, in terms of plot it's a three hour long, confusing, meandering mess.  This movie crawled as far as pacing, and not in way that I could defend for its artistry.  As a cinematographic exercise, "2001" is great; however, as a watchable film, I'm sorry but it's a giant FAIL.  Now go on, sci-fi nerds  - throw your Spock ears at me.  I'm a big girl.  I can take it.

#1: Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane is widely considered the finest, most important film ever made.  It's the #1 film listed on the AFI's Top 100 Films of All Time, and is hailed a masterpiece by critics great and small.  But what I honestly want to know is, why?  Sure, technically speaking, Kane is pretty great.  As a character sketch, it does the job quite nicely.  And in 1941, its techniques were highly innovative and worthy of both admiration and awe.  But if one were to compile a list of its charms, then surely pacing and plot would not be listed  among them.  Speaking frankly, Citizen Kane takes tremendous effort to watch, and does not warrant multiple viewings.  Is it a bad movie? No.  Is it an important movie?  Yes.  Is it the single best film ever made?  Um, no.  I think not.

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