Friday, April 30, 2010


Haikulike thought while watching the impressive Maurizio Pollini's Chopin concert yesterday evening:

There's something perfect
about Chopin. I'd better
practice piano now.


This could be a post about piano, or one about Chopin. I suppose I will make it a bit about both, and say that, damn, it's hard to motivate to practice piano! Seeing as I started playing about a year and a half ago, there is no parental unit hovering nervously over my shoulder urging me onward, no threat of impending final exam to goad me forth. Once, there was me myself and my habit of practicing every day, even to the point that when I visited ye olde alma mater I would insinuate myself into a practice room for 20 minutes stolen from dear friends. But you miss one day and that sort of self-discipline falls apart, until you're missing another and another and...sorry, dear keyboard, I will be away this weekend; sorry, dear teacher, can I reschedule my lesson from Monday to Thursday because I am not prepared...and by the way, I haven't even looked at one of those songs, I've only practiced where the spirit's moved me.

This is the problem with purely self-motivated learning, I suppose. I want to learn, and I enjoy playing, but too often the rest of life intercedes. Plus, I'm hopelessly behind. Of course I don't expect to become a piano virtuoso for so many reasons. But I would like to be more competent. Why didn't I start learning when I was five like every other friend, acquaintance, grandmother, and boss to whom I've mentioned my newfound hobby? All those minutes of tiny fingers splayed on keys, anxious recitals, hovering parents, that I can only imagine.

I wish I could learn to play beautiful pieces. I'm terrible at picking them out, though. Kid in a candy store, bull in a china shop. When my piano teacher asks me to choose a piece, there's so much pressure I shut down for a moment. You're going to live and breathe this thing: you'd better like it. What if you grow sick of it? Or what if it's so perfect you'll break it? Plunk down fingers slowly, sloooowly, through a Chopin prelude, wincing because you know how it should sound and it sure don't do that. The day you more or less successfully bull through, one of your proudest.

Because there is something perfect about Chopin particularly. Nocturnes that don't so much shape your nighttime walk thoughts as cradle them. Waltzes that bear the joy and tragedy of a play's final scene. The sheer heartpounding noise and virtuosity of the ostinato in that polonaise, the one that induces a gag reflex because of the uncountable times you heard that highest note while stocking books, taking breaks, melting in the 90-degree basement heat that one summer...but even so, you watch those venerable hands pounding the keyboard and you wish it could be you. Your keyboard, alas, not nearly so poetic.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The rest is noise

Just a note to say I am standing here in the Apple Store listening to a talk by Alex Ross, while next to me a fellow is editing what appears to be a press release for a concert I'm seeing at the NY Phil soon. Meanwhile, A.— and I have apparently destructed an ipad such that it only shows extreeeemely magnified versions of websites. Good times.

Fast food

Do you ever read a book just because you can? You know it's not going to be particularly enjoyable, or have literary merit, or even be an engrossing story in a rubbernecker kind of way...but something about it says, "Read me!" Maybe it's the cover--that sharp simple yet inviting single graphic on a wide-open white or pink expanse. Maybe it's the type, so affably wide-set, with spaces between the chapters. Maybe it's a sort of love-hate thing: you see the book written by the literary pseudo-ingenue who could maybe be you, if only you were a few years older, a bit drunker, and more attuned to celebrity gossip.

I am currently whizzing through one of these. Since I'm not exactly being complimentary here, I won't name it (taking a page from the Believer's policy of positive reviews, I suppose), but it is exactly that sort of "confessional" book. I picked it up for free (and hey, "free" is also a key component in this kind of guilty-pleasure-esque read) on Sunday, in a situation in fact related to the estimable publication just mentioned. And something about me couldn't wait to read it, can't wait to go back to reading it now. I have work and I have a guest over and all manner of things going on, but still have found time to clip through 90 pages since yesterday evening. It's not a terrible book, by any stretch, though it certainly doesn't say anything profound. There's just something so easy-to-digest about it. It's a bit like the night I got home a couple of weeks ago all hopped up on caffeine and I just neededneededneeded something to eat. All I had in the fridge was the remains of a tub of Turkish Nutella-style spread that I had been working through slowly. And I decimated the remains in my espresso haze. I'd dip into a spoonful, think, this isn't that great, and then, one lickety-clean spoon later, find myself reaching in again. The chapters of this book are like that. I'd better get back to it.

But first, if you want a read that is delicious and nutritious, check out Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic. The very talented Haslett (graduate of my esteemed institution!) wrote this novel that foreshadows many of the country's financial woes--I say "foreshadows" because he embarked upon the book long before the current problems came to pass. It's set in the Middle East, in New York, and in ye olde country clubbe Massachussetts, and charts the interactions of a military man turned finance bigwig, an aging woman struggling to preserve her family's land from development, her brother the head of the New York Federal Reserve, and a high school senior whose presence has an ultimately pretty disastrous impact on them all. It's a serious book with flashes of humor; you ache for the characters even if you don't sympathize with some of them. As usual, my paragraphical-summary won't do it justice, so go out and get yourself a copy. It's a quick read (though not as quick as my guilt o' the day) and you will thank yourself for it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

We'll run like we're awesome, totally genius

No time for a full post here (well, it's turned out a bit lengthy-but-scattered), but I would like to call your attention to this profile and streaming audio for my favorite band. I have yet to listen to many tracks on the album, but I look forward to the day I can purchase it and immerse myself again in the amber bubble that is The National. The article's certainly rekindled my enthusiasm (not that it had ever burned down much). It's thoughtful and fairly lengthy and I liked learning more about the band dynamics. I have come to love some distinctive qualities of The National's music (mainly the guitar work and the lead singer's voice) so it's interesting to hear how the band views those as both strengths and limitations. Plus, Steve Reich likes them, and calls them "the latest incarnation of a classic rock ’n’ roll band," an assessment I totally share. How can you go wrong?

And of course it is strange to read about the band members talking and arguing and sniping away at each other: reminds you they're people. I tend to like to keep my pop culture figures at a remove--so often it turns out they have horrible personal lives, or a really annoying voice, or dreadful political views, or something. I'd like to be more open-minded about integrating my experience of art with personality. But I get so deeply into the world of what I read or hear; the sight of the real, live creator often seems like a letdown, or an intrusion on this carefully personal world. I suppose this is on my mind because yesterday I attended a broadcast of Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, an often-hilarious and always thought-provoking look at the lives and art of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. After that (of course fictional) portrayal, I did feel more invested in those two artists. Maybe through the once-removed nature of a theatrical or textual representation, I can learn about the creators without letting reality intrude toooo much on my Ecstatic Artistic Experience.

What is your feeling on these matters? Do you like meeting people you've known only as text or sound or object? I should say that despite my general view, every so often I'm pleased to encounter an exception: I was charmed by talking briefly to Christoph Niemann at his book-signing this past weekend, for instance. And I have experienced nothing else like seeing The National live for the first time. A year of integrating those chords and words into the very fabric of my day, of my being, only to suddenly find the sound of my life made three-dimensional, flesh and blood. I can't do the sensation justice with these words.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In America, The Line waits for you

(Wow, my dashboard informs me I have made 50 posts. I had no idea I would write that many; coming in, I'd only envisioned ideas for 5 or 6. On that note, please let me know if you have anything you'd like me to write about; I'm always looking for new material. Thank you for tuning in thus far, and hope I will find us all happy and well by the time another 50 are up! )

On a whim, I requested Olga Grushin's The Line from the library. Last week, I found it waiting for me, and since the NYPL has a two-week checkout policy for new books, I was in a bit of a hurry to read it. (I started it only a few days ago, having read my other, less-notable, two-week loaner first.) The Line, its title reminiscent of The Trial, The Nose, and other such cheery European fare, lives up to much of what that comparison implies. It's the story of a family in an indeterminate Soviet Russia (in her afterword, Grushin explains she borrowed from three different time periods to create the time of her story) who take turns waiting in a line for a year. What's the line for, you ask? It's some time before the characters learn the answer, but it turns out it's for tickets to a concert conducted by Stravinsky--well, his sound-alike Igor Selinsky. (You may as well know, or maybe guessed already, this is why I was inspired to check out the book.)

But The Line is not a tale of Stravinsky, really: it's about the slow and difficult passage of time--of course, since it features people waiting in an interminable line (though they do go home each night and return the following day, according to a sort of numbering system someone's set up). There are some glorious tales of a heroic Selinsky rescuing refugees, touring minarets, and geenrally swashbuckling it up (but did he really?); and there are some lovely and sad moments where characters try to listen to his music, or struggle to imagine what it might be like. But really The Line is a story about waiting, and about a family in all its complexity...

And all its unlikeability. I was surprised by how much I disliked each of the main characters, even as I sympathized with their struggle to get the ticket. Not that this struggle itself is fully noble (or unnoble, either; it's complicated, a sort of mass Gift of the Magi situation). Anna, the first line-waiter, has promised the ticket to her aging mother, a ballerina who danced in Selinsky's ballets and may or may not've had a relationship with the genius himself; but, depressed by her failing attempts to rehabilitate her marriage, she fixes on giving it to her husband Sergei instead. Sergei wants to present the ticket to Sofia, a fellow line-waiter he romanticizes. (She, in turn, waits for someone else.) Anna and Sergei's son, Alexander, wants to sell the ticket on the black market, so he can get far far away from all this. I found Alexander the least sympathetic of this lot (though to be sure, everyone's actions have far-reaching and often negative consequences): he disappoints his parents, loses all their money, gets involved with a nefarious crowd, cuts school...but his yearning to take a train out of the city is beautiful, and beautifully described, even if doomed; and by the end of the story he, and the others, seem poised on the brink of changing their relationships for the better.

A little more than halfway into my voyage through the story, I checked out some critics' reviews (including a NYT one by Elif Batuman, whose The Possessed I recently read and loved. Check out her blog--it's far wittier and insightful than this here hack's). It was interesting to me that the book seemed to have a polarizing effect on reviewers: one's first sentence described it as "disappointing"; another declares it "recommended ecstatically."

As for me? Well, I agree with the first reviewer (from Publishers Weekly) who opines that in the novel "it is observed that standing on a line is 'a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time.' But however efficient, it’s never entirely enjoyable." Partly my lack of enjoyment stems from the fact that I was reading on a deadline. But even more, The Line's evocation of the crushingness of time, the futility of life, is convincing and compelling. So much so that I discovered that I'd got through more than half of it yesterday, in a bit of a gloomy realize that I hadn't really talked to anyone all day. Though today's pages provided some more hope, they couldn't fully dispel the grim mood of the previous ones.

Looking back at that last paragraph, I would say my choice of "got through" is telling; like PW's reviewer, I couldn't call my reading enjoyable. I am reminded of a writing workshop I attended once, where a classmate read aloud her work and the teacher said how unremittingly depressing and heavy it was. "That's the feeling I wanted to evoke," my classmate replied; and my teacher cautioned her that that might not be the way to win readers. Grushin did win my not-too-divided attention for a couple of days, but she didn't win my happiness. I am certainly not one to suggest that life be sunshine and rainbows all the time, but I'm disappointed that I consumed much of yesterday with grumpiness, when life is really quite good at the present. Ah well, I hope I shall emerge from the experience with a new appreciation of my own time, spent waiting or not.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I think this is a post about gentrification, though that's not what I intended. I thought I'd stage a return to Jonathan Lethem, or walking, or food, or... While I've touched on all these things, the result is not a review of anything except what's apparently my new favorite topic.

I first tried to read JL's gentrification epic* The Fortress of Solitude the summer after my freshman year, but only got about a hundred pages in before I quit. I tried again, and tried better, this past week. For a variety of reasons, it felt urgent and relevant to me in a way it hadn't the last time around—my Brooklyniness, for one; my job, for another, since a decent portion of the book's final section takes a look at the NY prison system; also, a series of weird resonances, including:

In the past month or so I've encountered some songs by Gabriel Kahane, a musician from my neighborhood. Underberg** is my favorite track—I've found myself listening to it a few times in a row lately. Turns out that Underberg is also the title of the first and longest section of Fortress; both seem to refer to this building (aw geez, don't get me started on Atlantic Yards) and to evoke a sense of nostalgia, though if you listen close, not everything was so great back in the good old days.

I'd been meaning to pay tribute to Fortress by walking down Dean Street, the site of much of its action. Today I wound up there by a circuitous route—touched down in Carroll Gardens to pick up a chocolate croissant from Mazzola (go go go! if you are in CG; I got addicted while catsitting), decided to thread through Cobble Hill to charming little Iris in Brooklyn Heights. Last time I went to Iris it was basically a snow day: quiet Saturday, latte and book, ham-and-cheese biscuit with egg, picturesque flakeshow out the window. But not this time. This time the place was mobbed with people: angling for tables, snatching chairs from the unwary, hovering over the counter. I got a sandwich to go but it was nothing like the idyll of my winter visit just a few months ago. I am pleased for the Iris folks, since it's a lovely cafĂ©. And I recognize I am part of the very problem I complain about here. But it's no fun to go somewhere everyone wants to go. Even if I could've gotten a seat, the loomers would have spoiled the mood. Success is a mixed bag, I suppose.

These musings in mind, I walked along Dean. It has to be said, the block JL describes in its infinite variety throughout the 500-plus pages of Fortress is these days one of the most immaculate in Brooklyn. Charming restored brownstones, cherry and magnolia trees, stoop gardens, clean streets. Throughout much of the (to some degree autobiographical) novel, it's a morass of decaying buildings, lunch-money robbers, and uneasy neighbors, a mixture of Puerto Ricans, blacks, and white hippies. By the story's end, it's well on its way to becoming the cleaned-up place it is today. As Lethem's hippie-raised protagonist, Dylan, muses, "I considered now that what I'd loved in [Brian Eno's Another Green World album], and certain others...was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demi-monde, a hippie dream... It was the same space the communists and gays and painters of celluloid imagined they'd found in Gowanus, only to be unwitting wedges for realtors, a racial wrecking ball. A gentrification was the scar left by a dream, Utopia the show which always closed on opening night." I sensed the echoes of his words on my walk, caught up as I was in frustration at the overrun Iris. The block is beautiful now, but it's no longer the dream it might have been.

I turned onto Dean's next-door neighbor, Bergen, for the walk back toward Smith. On the way, I passed a dead ringer for my mind's eye's Dylan—all grubby t-shirt and shorts, little-boy-long hair—and stopped at one of the stoop sales that proliferate these days. I can never resist looking at a box of books, and what was in this one but Fortress. Of course.

And so, the tides, they turn. I wonder if the woman selling the book had read it or if she, like nineteen-year-old me, got stymied. I wonder how much she was selling it for. I wonder if she found a buyer for it—it's worth buying, worth reading. Maybe she did. Maybe it could have been you.

*The novel defies my attempt at five-second summary, but let's say it's the story of a white boy and a black boy growing up on the same block in Brooklyn in the '70s, and a snapshot of race relations more generally from the '70s up 'til just about the present. It includes such highlights as a stint in California, a ring that confers superpowers, and a whole lot of drugs.

**For what it's worth, the link said I had to be logged in to listen the first time I clicked; the second time it let me, though.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Also in Williamsburg! Go, team. Or not.

Bicycle! Bicycle!

As someone who's forgotten how to ride a bike (you say it ain't true, proverbially ain't true, but it is), I am ambivalent about them. Y'all will know how I hate cars, and on the (tarred, be-traffic-lighted) surface of things, bicycles seem a good solution candidate. I know several people who extoll their virtues, including a couple of my bosses, one of whom has used public transportation, in his own estimation, only once in the past ten years or so. I am sure the health, enjoyment, and logistical benefits (he lives in Red Hook, where subways fear to tread) are impressive for him and other people like him.

However! Put bikes on the streets and much mayhem ensues. I am all for bicycle lanes in theory, but in practice not so much. Bikers put this poor walker in less-deadly but more-frequent danger spots than cars do. Many bikers do not seem to believe in obeying traffic rules. Depending on what suits them, they act like cars or like pedestrians, swapping tactics at light speed. They tear through streets heading the wrong way, and do not necessarily stop for traffic lights. I have nearly been run down several times (and unfortunately, still-feeling-guilty-at-the-memory-of-it, ten years or so ago opened a car door into the path of one unfortunate cyclist). Given these conditions, biking is not particularly safe for pedestrians or for the bikers themselves. One of my friends was in an accident a few months ago where a car just didn't stop for him at a busy intersection; a cyclist was even recently killed in my neighborhood (not on my corner of doom, but not so far away). I hope you will not think that my flippancy in griping about bicycles in any way means that I don't view that as a tragedy. I do, and it makes the whole issue of bike safety more urgent than my usual cantankerous griping would suggest.

I wonder what can be done to make the streets safer. The city's policy of closing off some streets to traffic on a few summer weekends is admirable in theory, but in practice left the crossing to Union Square hazardous to at least your humble narrator. A constant, unbroken stream of cyclists is not more conducive to safety, enjoyment, or anything good than intermittently-stoplighted car traffic. And even places where bicycles proliferate all the time are no safer--tourists stand in or weave through the bike lane of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I have witnessed narrowly-avoided collisions more than once. That can't end well for anyone.

An interesting unresolved question about bicycles (and the source of inspiration for this post) comes from the Bedford Avenue bike lane in Williamsburg. Several months ago, I wrote about my pilgrimage up Bedford, and in fact have recently found myself bizarrely drawn to that Williamsburg/Bed-Stuy stretch of streets every couple weeks or so. It's an unparalled experience in a sort of ethnographical perspective, sipping my hipstercoffee and watching as skinny jeans are slowly leached from the landscape in favor of Hasidic hats. The bike lane dispute provides a slice of what is doubtless a much larger animosity between the Hasids and the hipsters. (I am largely uninformed about such things, but neither side looks great to me.) I'd recommend reading New York Magazine's (pretty extensive) article on the matter, if you have ten minutes to kill. In the meantime, I'll be dodging bicycles, laned or no.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Everything waits to be noticed

I'll take a moment this time to muse on the wonderful incongruous things you can find in this here city.

-C.— and I went to see a whirlwind Hamlet Friday. New York Classical Theatre specializes in putting on plays in unusual locations (this time the World Financial Center) then making the audience move around from scene to scene. There's something surreal yet effective about Shakespearean characters emerging from behind corporate edifices, playing speeches to grand stairwells, having it out with foils in front of an office building. There are so many theatrical spaces in this city if you only know where to look, as NYCT so clearly does. Bonus: We quite liked the unexpected comic relief when businesspeople would find themselves walking awkwardly through the "get thee to a nunnery" scene or other such tense moments. Plus the kid sitting in front of us who stage-whispered, "She's dead!" upon Gertrude's sipping from the cup. I loved how child-friendly the production was: maybe more people would be into theater if it were this fun. Go see it!

And, in less salespersonal, more impressionistic bursts:

-On the side of Prospect Park Saturday, a gaggle of seven cowboys crosses Empire Boulevard to make their way into the park. Spurs, hats, fringed jackets, roan and pinto and dun. Why? They're not telling.

-Brooklyn Botanic Garden, secreted between the larger Prospect Park and a bunch of gas stations and drive-thrus. The Japanese Garden a secret pool with giant carp and a family of turtles sunning itself on a rock. The plants all mysterious names and vivid colors. Walking outside the garden, you can just about glimpse the tips of the cherry trees, but only if you look close.

-Chanticleer, in concert at the Metropolitan Museum. They file out through the audience, all bleachy hair, Dali moustache, beatific smiles, good-natured stagy faces, to stand in front of the Temple of Dendur. As they sing, the sun sets on Central Park and gradually the windows fill with mirror-image audience in a warm containing glow. Makes you wonder why there aren't more concerts here. The comfort of the reflections, the solemn silliness of the performers. The sound curls, refracts, solidifies. Somehow it's not only sound. There are moments you can touch it, see it, taste it. To borrow a line from Maggie Nelson, it is the light of early spring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In tsarist Russia...

Pity me, ladies 'n' gents, since I have sustained a pathetic yet strangely-debilitating injury: a papercut neatly between my thumb and index finger, perfectly calibrated to open painfully if I extend my left hand beyond the pathetic claw shape it currently forms. I will now make a pathetic attempt to peck out this entry.

Oh, did I mention "pathetic" a couple of times in that paragraph just now? Know what else is pathetic? The plight of the characters in Uncle Vanya, isolated out on their country estate with only a grumpy environmentalist alcoholic doctor to visit them. Know what else is pathetic (though, as you will see, not so much as I'd feared)? Going to see a three-hour version of Uncle Vanya in Russian when you do not know any Russian. And seeing it from behind a pillar no less (it was either that or with obstructed English supertitles) (apparently Russian-language plays are quite the in thing for the Brooklyn crowd: tickets were nearly sold out a month in advance).

But let me back up. In the bleak, dark, peasanty days of 2006 (or was it 2005?), intrepid director A.— got it in his head to stage some Chekhov at our venerable institution. I signed on as assistant director, relegating my and M.—'s own darling Arcadia to the (arguably more-suitable) spring. Months and months of living in Vanya's world ensued. As A.— explained, the play isn't about plot, it's about characters inhabiting a space. We as director-y folk, as well as the audience (and of course the actors, for whom I am told this is a transformative experience) are invited to see this world unfold in real time.

And Vanya is a real-life experience indeed. There's humor, relationship drama, ennui...but no easy answers. Even a would-be murderer is not subjected to any form of vengeance; even a pretentious old windbag can earn our empathy.*

I had not devoted much thought to Vanya of late, but about a month ago A.— emailed with a proposition: Would I like to see the Russian version at BAM? Yes, I decided, I would. It'd be intriguing to revisit the piece after such familiarity followed by such a remove. Perhaps we could drift away into a nostalgic fugue state of vodka and guitar songs.

Like the situation Chekhov wrote into being all those years ago, my actual experience of the evening proved both more and less complicated than I'd anticipated. On the one hand, the play (all three-plus hours of it) was, simply, a really enjoyable experience. Through, I suspect, a combination of my familiarity to the piece and the skill with which the production was executed, I immediately got swept into the scene. It's easy to relate to the characters, and this production really played up empathy, in a way I'm not sure we did in ours. There were comic moments everywhere: botched seductions, offers of vodka, and much pontification abounded (man, Dr. Astrov has a lot to say about trees). That tree note, actually, is another way the play invites you to empathize: the doctor, unusually for his time, is quite an environmentalist. He's a bit windbaggy in his descriptions of the dwindling flora and fauna in the land around the estate, but his concerns are spot-on for today. When he talks about the destruction of the natural world, you don't picture some turn-of-the-century woodland; you imagine all the environmental challenges we currently face.

The more complicated and personal aspect of the experience involved remembering our production. It is, above all, a rare privilege to work with a text for so long and then get a chance to see it through someone else's interpretation. As mentioned, I feel that this production played up the empathy card in ways we didn't consider. Conversely, they also dredged up some knotty difficulties we didn't explore—in particular, the character of Sonya, young and stranded on the estate, hopelessly in love with the good doctor, always seemed the most sympathetic to me. In this production, her bossiness and nagging and just general cluelessness are played up in a way that makes her less saintly. She doesn't remain without nuance, though. A.— felt that in our play, Sonya's end-of-show assertion that "we'll rest" was more openly hopeful. Here, she exhibits such despair that it ripped at least this audience member apart.

But something about the show transcends even that despair. I think it may have to do with the characters' interaction with, and love for, their landscape, despite all the trouble it brings them. The scene where Sonya and Elena stand lost in their own worries, on the brink of a connection, Sonya silhouetted by the blue rain of an open window, Elena yellow-lit by the warmth of the room—it conveys all the love, sorrow, and beauty that the characters can't bring themselves to express. And the set design consists, largely, of a trio of haystacks suspended on wooden beams above the action on the stage. The stacks, on their wooden feet, reminded me of these, albeit much more graceful. In mock-English-paper-symbolism mode, I told A.— they represented the crushing weight of the estate looming above the characters. Jokiness aside, this was basically the case. And at the play's end, after Sonya's appeal for rest, the whole haystack structure softly lowered onto the characters, enclosing their desk and chairs with beams and stacks. Claustrophobic in a way, to be sure, but also lovely and somehow comforting, much like the show itself.

*Sorry not to give you more plot points and character descriptions, but if I did, we'd be here all day.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The internet is full of lies (and your poster is full of insomnia)

Scrabble rule changes are not exactly an April Fools joke or a reality, just a not-very-good variation...

(PS: Tried to read Fatsis's book once but it was rather intimidating. I do not anagram 15-letter blocks in my head for fun, so am perhaps not a true word freak.)

On the other hand, the world of words is still going to hell in a handbasket...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nouns nouns nouns

Normally would not post twice in one day but since I have been a bit absent of late, I shall now overcompensate because: A travesty is being perpetrated upon Scrabble! Behold (with excellent commentary by grumpy ol' 'ninja).

Back in my day we did not go in for any of this proper-noun nonsense. We made our weird little two letter words for Iranian currency or abbreviated pizza or whatever and we liked it. Man, Scrabble. A longer post on that dear game is forthcoming, to be sure.

Nerds nerds nerds

Inspired by some blog or other I read (they all sort of blur), I picked up a copy of Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd from the library. The book, unsurprisingly, offers a sort of history and cultural study of nerds. Though as my reading progressed, I lost some steam (I am not as interested in the minutiae of science fiction and video game nerds as some of you may be), on the whole the book offered much food for thought. (Not as much food for the stomach, but there are Cadbury eggs for that.)

I’d like to point out two parts of the book that were interesting to me. The first, near the book’s beginning, is Nugent’s broad historical look at the rise of the concept of the nerd. This has a couple of interesting components. First off, more or less turn-of-the-century WASPy America, fearing the influx of, among others, Jewish and Asian immigrants, wanted to make sure its homeboys could be strong against these groups’ perceived sissy-intellectual qualities. Rather than just study, good prep school boys had to learn to be men: to play sports, to protect their country from threats within and without. “I’m not sure I like boys who think too much,” said the founder of the Groton School, an early proponent of this type of thinking (if I may term it “thinking”). It’s interesting to me that schools could, in some ways, try to diminish the intellectual impact they have on students. (A surprising-to-me side note here is that physical education was not always a component of school—in fact, the first program was established in 1892.) I guess schools these days do say they focus on forming the whole person, not just academic study; coming from where I do, though, it is difficult to imagine an environment where study is not the primary objective. Still, ye olde alma mater is probably one of a couple of nerd capitals of the world, so you get what you pay for, I s'pose.

The history section was also interesting because it discussed the idea of a split between thinking and feeling. (In philosophy and what-all, I have heard too much about this, so will spare you the detail, except to say that many people believe there is one.) Whereas in Enlightenment days of yore, humanity was defined by reason (cogito ergo sum), by the time of our computerized age, it's increasingly defined as irrational, in opposition to machines. And so nerds, who are in some ways machinelike (obsessions, fondness of rules, difficulty in reading social cues), may be viewed somehow as less than human. Boo.

I should also mention that Nugent says there are two kinds of nerds, those who actually have those machiney characteristics, and those who get grouped in with the first set because they also don’t fit in for some reason or another, but may be quite different in other ways. I never feel quite like a nerd of the first variety (who are predominantly male, anyway); I suspect I’m one of the second. I would say I really don’t have that many nerd-like obsessions, though of course you may disagree with me. I'm certainly not into the gaming/sci-fi/debate ones that Nugent steps through later on in the book (though don’t ask me about the subway map or crosswords if you don’t want to hear some answers).

The other chapter that really got to me (and you as a regular reader of this blog will not be surprised) was the one about hipsters. Who Nugent basically describes as fake nerds—to hipsters, nerds are a sort of noble savage (“I’m so uncool I don’t care about trends”). Picking up the superficial characteristics of these strange beasts is attractive to hipsters, who tend to work in fields—internet, editing, design—where it’s important to be aware of current trends and to make people think you know what you’re talking about. (Particularly because a lot of this work is freelance and involves trading in on connections. Whew, don’t I know about that.) Dressing like a nerd is a way of acting like you are, weirdly, too cool to care about the trends you draw on to survive in this context. Though, of course, “nerd” becomes its own sort of trendy: as one TV programmer described it, “Nerds are really in right now.” This interest in nerdiness may come from what I’d call an admirable impulse; describing Napoleon Dynamite (a movie of which I’m not particularly fond, by the way), Nugent explains, “When the nerd [Napoleon] goes over the top into super-nerdy he makes everyone want to be more authentic and less judgmental. That shoot-the-moon play for social acceptance is what informs the quirky-nerd look when performed by self-conscious young hipsters. You’re a menace to social uniformity, in some unspecified fashion, through your natural and heedless iconoclasm.” If only. Too bad this sense of freedom and nonconformity pretty much falls to pieces as soon as you meet the darned creatures.

Nugent says he isn’t writing to condemn or to praise nerds—he wants to be unbiased, as someone who professes to be, basically, a former nerd. It’s interesting to read the book’s tiny last section, about Nugent’s own metamorphosis from nerd to not-nerd. It’s good to remember that, while nerds often suffer unfair ridicule, being a nerd does not necessarily make one a nicer, smarter, or better person. Alas.

(I don’t know what the rules are about citations these days—do blogs have rules? I know that they do when people offer you stuff to blog about them. no one offers me anything. grumble—but obviously all my quotations are from American Nerd, which is worth checking out! It's certainly more nuanced than my patchwork summary here.)