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Archive for February, 2012

I’ve a trip to New York City in my near future.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m taking the Bolt Bus to New York. While I will be doing fun New-Yorky things like going out for brunch and visiting the opera, the ostensible purpose of this visit is to participate in the admitted student activities for Columbia and NYU law schools. I’ve been blessed to gain admittance to both institutions, and both are having “admitted students days” this week. I believe they mean to show off their respective qualities in such a manner as will permit me to make an informed decision. I also hope that they will try to recruit me to their sides by means of free meals. I will no doubt return to Boston with a broadened view of what is possible for an ambitious idealist (like myself) in the world of the law. I’ll let you know how it goes. I already have a few guesses.

Of the two, Columbia has definitely been the more vigorous in its recruitment efforts. I have been mailed a whole shelf of booklets, magazines, and bound materials aimed at persuading me to go to Columbia–all of them with huge pretty pictures of the campus on high quality paper: lots of granite columns, bronze statues, and climbing vines. Columbia’s materials come on heavy cardstock, and are always sealed with their crown emblem. It’s all very impressive and ivy league, if you (like me) are easily impressed by that sort of thing.

Columbia also emails me on at least a weekly basis, and has done things like have a current student call me to discuss how great Columbia is and answer any questions I might have.* Their admitted students day looks like it will be very thoroughly organized. They have already assigned me homework for the mock-class (fortunately, I’ve read Brown v. Board before). They were also intelligent enough to put together this system in which current students volunteer to host admitted students who come to visit, which means I will actually be able to afford the long week I’m about to spend in New York (and maybe I’ll make new friends!**).

NYU, on the other hand, earned my affection early by being the first school to accept me–with a personal phone call, no less. The bulk of their admitted students materials came in a cardboard box designed to resemble a pizza box. In fact, the whole Admitted Students Day brochure is designed to look like the menu of a pizza place, with a red and white checkered pattern and the title “A Taste of NYU Law.” The torch insignia shows up frequently, but the post-its they sent (how thoughtful!), and the majority of their other materials, have a rather goofy “CLASS OF 2015” logo in purple. There is also a promise that actual pizza will be served at some point, which as far as I’m concerned is likely to be the highlight of the weekend.

Because the two admitted students days inconveniently overlap, I’ll be spending two days at Columbia but only one at NYU. This is because I’m currently a little more inclined to go to Columbia (I like those bronze statues, and I also like the slightly higher rate of students going into legal academia and supreme court clerkships). This inclination could very easily change, however. So come on law schools, woo me.

*I should add that this student wasn’t just some haphazardly selected first year. She was actually a really delightful girl with an MFA in poetry, and was apparently selected because of our common background as graduate students of English. I couldn’t really think of any questions for her, but I certainly appreciated the gesture.

**I picked my new Columbia buddy based on the fact that he comes from California and is interested in wine. Further internet stalking has revealed that he has a stylish beard (pro), has spent some time traveling in southeast Asia (pro) and owns a cat (con). He’s agreed to house me for two days with no information from me other than an imploring email, which means he’s probably a better human being than I am.

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Adjunct Pay

Just came across this Google Doc from The Adjunct Project, where adjuncts from all over are recording information on salary, contracts, and benefits. Very interesting.

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Every year I do this thing where I watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture. Not necessarily before the awards show, but I make an effort. This has become more challenging since they raised the number of nominees a few years ago. Thus far, I have been putting off War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, because I am not really interested in “War Movies” or “Horse Movies” as genres, and because EL&IC looks like such a weepy schmaltz-fest that I couldn’t bring myself to go check it out. Also, I have a sense of guilt about not reading J. S. Foer’s book. Here are my thoughts about all the others, though:

Moneyball: Probably my least favorite of the movies on this list, if I were to rank them. Which I will (we’re doing these movies in order of worst to best). That said, I liked this. I was never super invested in the human beings in this movie; the real star was this idea of “changing the way the game is played…forever.” I’m not sure that was an actual quote. The best parts are when Jonah Hill is looking at a bunch of numbers and then the numbers  expand out and turn into clips of these quirky overlooked baseball players about to get their chance at the major leagues.

No wait, actually the best parts are when Brad Pitt is wheeling and dealing in very fast and not-entirely-comprehensible back-room trades to outsmart his coaches, the other team’s managers, and his cashless employers. That’s really where we get the nose-breakingly smart dialogue that Aaron Sorkin does best. Brad Pitt (champion eater) had a great year in 2011, and although this isn’t the movie he should win his academy award for, it was a really fun and actually a very modest performance. I liked it.

The Help: I just saw this one yesterday, so it’s fresher in my memory. Tate Taylor paints the south in cheerful oversaturated hues of bright green and yellow, and the whole thing feels just a little bit larger and kinder than life. There are no men worth mentioning in this movie, which is a notable fact in itself. The script has its cringe-inducing moments (“You broke her heart!”, Emma Stone accuses her mother through tearful eyes), and it’s a little too sweet for its own good, but there are no cringe-inducing performances.  Viola Davis, especially, is fantastic; her Aibileen is a kind woman eaten up from the inside by a private pain, and although she builds friendships throughout the movie, it’s really more about her struggle to be by herself. In a movie about community, and about what is shared among friends and what is endured in private, she finishes walking down a gorgeous tree-lined street, confident and alone.

Also, Jessica Chastain was really really great.

Midnight in Paris: I’ve never been a huge fan of Woody Allen. I don’t hate him, but I feel like his movies are usually more clever than they are good. This wasn’t precisely an exception, but I liked it more than most, in part because I really like France (and there are more gorgeous shots of Paris than I’ve seen in any movie sinceRatatouille) and I really like the 1920s. The movie belongs to the supporting cast. Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, especially, is enormously fun.

The Descendents: Like The Kids are Alright last year, this movie is so intimately focused on the quasi-mundane emotional challenges of its characters that it can be easy to forget how good it all is. This isn’t a flashy movie. It’s a sad and a funny movie with lots of small striking moments that you don’t realize how unusual and special they were until after you’ve left the theater and you can’t get them out of your head. George Clooney is getting some deserved publicity for this one, but the real impressive performance is by Shailene Woodley, who expresses heartbreak through sulks and wisecracks and petty acts of rebellion.

The Artist: Apparently this is expected to win everything. I can’t begrudge it that. I had a great time at this movie. There have been few movies in the last few years that made me laugh as often as this one (can we give any award to that little dog? I’m set to see it compete against the horse in War Horse for best animal actor, or best supporting beast, or something like that. No matter who wins, the acceptance speech will be the best part of the evening). It’s not a complicated movie, but it’s well made, and clever, and occasionally a little touching. It probably isn’t a fatal flaw that I was more inclined to laugh at both of the main characters than to really empathize with them. This also inspired me to netflix Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117, which was very funny in a very French way. I’ll be curious to see what Jean DeJardin does next.

Hugo: Everything in this movie looks new and incredible, lit in deep blues and gleaming golds (the 3-D has subtle advantages as well–a certain scene atop a clock tower, with the snow falling through the Paris sky, was both dazzling and vertigo-inducing), and the story is as good as it looks. I think Martin Scorsese is just spectacular all the time, and this is more than up to standard. In this movie, he creates a sort of a fantastic playground inside of a train station–complete with secret passages, hidden windows, vertiginous drops, and an runaway-hunting security guard like a more sympathetic version of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang–and then gives us license to play in it. With its focus on a noble orphan who finds the family he doesn’t know he’s looking for, it’s a little like a Charles Dickens novel if Dickens had been a major cinephile. I don’t always like movies about children (lets face it, kids are usually a pain), but the ones in this movie are good, wholesome, innocent people that look clean even when they’re dirty and spend their time reading books and fixing clocks (and occasionally stealing the necessary baguette) instead of acting like the annoying hooligans you more often see in real life. They deserve their happily ever after ending, and so does Ben Kingsley’s George Melies: the injured Willy Wonka who needs to be coaxed back into his chocolate factory.

The Tree of Life: A big movie, overflowing with ambition and self-importance. When you watch the blue-ray, there is a message that comes up before the movie starts telling you to turn up the volume. This one deserves to be seen on a big high definition screen with major surround sound. I have never before seen any movie like it. It’s an impressionist film, without quite a clear plot but with a series of points (all of them incredible and detailed and original) that add up into something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not so much a movie about growing up as it is about remembering childhood, and it proceeds through free-association and imagination like a dream or a novel by Faulkner. The kids are obnoxious hooligans, but they’re also real people. Brad Pitt (boldly unlikeable) tries to raise his sons tough and instead makes them resentful. Jessica Chastain, a boy’s idealized mother, levitates around the yard and talks about “the way of grace”. Also, there are dinosaurs. The soundtrack seamlessly mixes the sounds of people with the sounds of nature with shatteringly beautiful classical music, and somehow the whole creation of the universe and the fall and redemption of man gets pulled into the mix. None of the other movies on this list are as severely flawed as this one (Sean Penn frames the movie, yes, but what is he doing in the desert? He sure doesn’t know.), and none has less of a sense of humor. On the other hand, none of those movies aspires nearly so high. Without question, the best of the year.

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Those of you who’ve read Infinite Jest may recall a certain lengthy chapter in which the gifted young members of Enfield Tennis Academy play a game called Eschaton, which game involves mapping out the planet on a set of six tennis courts, complete with countries, cities, military bases, and other sites of strategic significance, and then blowing the hell out of that map with old tennis balls that represent five-megaton nuclear warheads. It’s sortof the play-within-a-play of the novel, and Wallace makes it sound both intentionally/perversely complex (gameplay requires a referree with a computer on a cart to calculate structural damage, civilian casualties, military impact, etc. of each tennis ball launched while accounting for localized geography and prevailing winds and the many other variables which come into play in any event of nuclear war) and weirdly also like a possibly fun game.

The Decemberists have an enjoyable but disappointingly bloodless* portrayal of the game in one of their music videos:

Last weekend at the pub I had a discussion with friends F____ and C____, who reminded me that many schools  already have Quidditch teams–that Quidditch is in fact fast becoming a major intercollegiate sport, with some schools I am told having official uniforms and large audiences and paid coaches and if you only click one link on this blog it should probably be this one–and so it stands to reason that the mathematicians and science nerds and tennis champions of America’s universities should also have a made-up game that suits their unique skills. The challenge, though, will be to simplify Eschaton sufficiently for it to actually be playable, without removing too many of the absurd statistical complications which are its raison d’etre. One example of a playable version (provided you have a few tennis courts and a lot of time at your disposal) is here (and thanks to F____ for the link). Next, I need to get a beanie cap with a propeller on it, just in case of Utter Global Crisis.

*In Wallace’s version (spoiler alert!), the game goes to hell a little more dramatically after Evan Ingersoll lobs his warhead at the head of Ann Kittenplan, which action results in a melee of unexpected and overt violence and ends with Otis P. Lord (who is the referee and thus God for the purposes of the game) with his head jammed through the glass screen of his computer monitor.

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This post is brought to you by Claritin Decongestant, vintage 2011. I have a minor cold, and the only decongestants I possess, as it turns out, expired in January over a year ago. The internet refuses to tell me whether there is any danger in taking expired drugs (apparently some other less courageous bloggers are concerned about things like liability), but I’ll let you know if any unexpected side effects take place. From what I’ve been able to glean online, the dangers of pseudoephedrine include weird rashes, shortness of breath, and an inability to pee. So far, so good.

I finished Infinite Jest. I’ll be trying to wrap my mind around all of that for a while yet, and maybe I’ll do some thinking in writing later on, but I won’t say much about it now except to note that I’ll never look at the game of tennis, the neighborhood of Allston, or people in wheelchairs the same way again.

For my next book, I went on an internet and used book store binge, and stocked up on a few new things*. Normally, I get my books from the library or borrow them from friends (unless people are good enough to give them to me as gifts, as was the case with Infinite Jest), because I shun material possessions (we must not underestimate inanimate objects),but sometimes I see certain pressing deficiencies in myself and then develop vague ambitions to cure those deficiencies by means of buying a book** (because merely borrowing a book just doesn’t speak of real seriousness of purpose). So, here is a list:

Breakthrough Rapid Reading, by Peter Kump.◊ I am a pretty slow reader. I always have been. Until I went to grad school, this wasn’t really a big deal, but it’s since become more or less fatal. Spending a month and a half on Infinite Jest was bad, but it wasn’t atypical. If I want to have time for both scholarship and adventure, I need to accelerate. I am a little skeptical of speed reading–I have a suspicion that I might already be reading as fast as my brain can process the words, and so the real hindrance is less my reading skill than my inherent stupidity–but I figure I don’t have much to lose and I’d really like to be able to read like this guy. I picked Kump because he had the most positive reviews on amazon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Must We Mean What We Say, by Stanley Cavell. Cavell always has amazing things to say about literally everything, and is one of my two favorite literary critics named Stanley. As an undergraduate I was at least nominally a philosophy minor, which means that I took classes on the Greeks, the 18th century rationalists, and the existentialists. It turns out, though, that the real action these days has more to do with guys like Heidegger and Wittgenstein and J.L. Austen–people who talk less about ideas, and more about the systems of language that make those ideas possible. I’m still working to get in on that action. Stanley will help. He will also, probably, take about two months to read.

Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Walter Kaufmann translation). They actually spelled “and” as “&” in the title, and there is a stylized picture of a yin/yang type apple divided in twain, which I guess makes it look a little more hip and philosophy-of-the-futuristic. This is my speed reading practice book; I’m pretty sure the Übermensch can read really fast.

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil. My friend C____ in New York just became a licensed sommelier. Long boozy talks to follow. This book is about 900 pages long, but I still feel like I should have paid more and bought the deluxe package–you know, the one that comes with samples.◊◊

*This blog is sometimes I think going to be an account of what I’m reading, which I acknowledge might not be the most fascinating subject. About a year ago, I created an account at goodreads.com, having always espoused the theory that what you read says a lot about who you are. I never used that account, never bothered to look at what any of my friends were reading, and was just generally bored by the entire thing. Maybe it was the lack of commentary that was bringing me down. In middle school, they gave us a gift certificate for a milkshake at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza if you read like twenty books. Without that incentive, I feel like formal reading lists can get tedious.

**This  practice has served me well in the past. For instance, I wanted to learn to speak French, so I got one of those non-Rosetta Stone courses-in-a-book. Now I’ve moved on to Harry Potter Et Le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and I’m making grand progress. I wanted to kick some ass on the LSAT, and so I ordered the Princeton Review prep book and a dozen practice tests, and now I’m on the fast track to success in the legal profession and, more immediately, potentially big bucks in the LSAT tutoring industry. Or, to get closer to the root of the method, consider the time when, twelve years old,  I asked my mom with complete innocence of intent “what is this sex thing I’ve heard so much about from my peers?” To which she responded “I’ll buy you a book.” The manual she procured had pastel pictures, and a title something like God’s Plan for Your Body, and although it was relatively short on technical details its fundamental lessons have withstood the test of time.

◊I feel like this last name must have some valuable use as a verb. Like maybe something vaguely onomatopoeic, ie. failing to properly execute an attempted leap and falling down. “I was trying to save time at the crossing, but I kumped into the creek instead.”

◊◊Note to self: create wine book that comes with samples. Why doesn’t this already exist?

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Dickens World

Among many things I learned yesterday, the best is probably that there is a Charles Dickens theme park in the UK. Apparently, the attraction has been heavily promoted as containing Europe’s longest indoors dark ride, the Great Expectations log flume*.

Other favorite attractions, I assume, include the pastie stand (at which an eccentric spinster who may be more than she appears sells meat pies of questionable origin, along with the latest gossip) and the Debtor’s Prison (where you spend all day chained to the floor eating gruel with a wooden spoon, but are then released thanks to the intervention of a mysterious figure from your past).

They should wise up and combine this very British attraction with Universal’s Harry Potter land, for the ultimate whimsical English literary amusement park (it could have the same Debtor’s Prison attraction, but instead of jail you’re stuck in Uncle Vernon’s closet and referred to only as “that boy”. Also, there are really fierce potions exams).

If these two parks are as successful as they clearly deserve to be, we could see a wave of novelist-inspired amusement parks in the near future. Here are some other literary attractions I’d like to see:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald land: Charlston! Jet boat rides, cocktails, lots of smoking. It costs a thousand dollars to get in (but even then, no amount of money will buy you acceptance among the park’s high society).

2. Thomas Mann Land:(“The Magic Mountain”–no, wait, that’s already taken) Come for a day, stay all month. Naptime is Mandatory.

3. Oscar Wilde Land: Not unlike Dickens World, except with a thriving red light district.

4. James Joyce Land: It’s like every theme park ever made (you know, with like roller coasters, fantasy characters, mini-golf, rickety carnival rides, etc. and especially really impressively detailed bathrooms), all combined into one park that looks a lot like the city of Dublin. A perpetual fixture on “banned theme park” lists.

5. Jonathan Swift Land: First, things are much too small. Then, they’re much too big. Then, you have to play around in the muck while a noble race of horses shames you with its obvious moral superiority. Also, are you sure that’s chicken in the food court?

6. Thomas Pynchon Land: A consumerist wonderland, but the more spectacular souvenirs you buy, the emptier you feel inside**.

7. David Foster Wallace Land (A Supposedly Fun Theme Park I’ll Never Go To Again): Same as #6, but with really brutal games of tennis.

8. Hemingway Land: Attractions include the tavern, the bull arena, and a safari area where you can get as close to the animals as you want… if you’re brave enough. Also, there’s another tavern.

9. Joseph Conrad Land: Much like Disney’s jungle cruise, but with more surprises and hidden perils (the greatest of which lurks within your own soul!). Probably an equal number of animatronic hippopotami.

10. J. R. R. Tolkien Land: (One Amusement Park To Rule Them All) Pretty much the entire country of New Zealand.

*I need to do some rereading. I had entirely forgotten about Pip’s thrilling flume ride.

**No, this is not the same as every other theme park ever. Those lollypops with the mouse ears bring real spiritual satisfaction!

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Franzen on e-books

The Angel of History moves onward.

About a week ago, Jonathan Franzen commented that he is not really a big fan of e-books. E-people everywhere were quick to respond (but not me, because I’ve been busy rehearsing for a living-room production of the musical Wicked*). Some of those responses were very well considered, like this one from Discover Magazine, which acknowledges that yes it’s very nice to have a permanent object of value on your bookshelf (perhaps in your private library, hrm hrm, since reading books is a leading habit among the 1%), but it’s even better to have like a billion people reading books on their computers. The vast majority of respondents, however, took the stance of Jonathan Segura at NPR, who says basically that computers and technology are always an inevitable force for good and anybody who disagrees must be completely bonkers.

What I think surprisingly few critics have done is treat Franzen as a serious person making a potentially serious point–instead, the mass determines that one who elects not to make use of modern technology (ie. the dominant mode of communication) must not have anything interesting to communicate. As one of the US’s probably most important authors, and thus something like a national treasure and to my mind therefore very important person, Franzen deserves better.

This post is  less an attempt to defend Franzen’s position (which I don’t wholeheartedly agree with) than to recontextualize it a little bit. It seems to me that the qualities he values in print books–a sense of permanence and personal ownership–are in fact majorly threatened by the internet. The real question is whether those qualities will be transferred or transformed or replaced by something better in the process of digitalization. We’ve had some similar debates about a more popular art form in the recent past, as assorted trendsetters including VIP Steve Jobs announced that the future of music is on The Cloud, ie. that actually personally owning your music is now already outmoded and inefficient and generally just uncool–causing small crises of faith among MP3 owners everywhere**.

Anyway, the discussion seems reminiscent to me of the issues Walter Benjamin raised in his (best) essay (ever), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which he observes that as soon as we can take a work of art and make it easily and endlessly reproducible, we stop valuing the unique-ish things in it (what he calls its aura) and no longer see it as an authority or even as a necessarily important object,  and start to instead value things like the work’s relevance (or even dare I say usefulness) to contemporary audiences as it relates them and to their specific moment in history. Take a blog, for instance. I mean, you needn’t to worry too much if you steal my blog posts and put them up on your website, or if you misread them entirely, or if you just ignore them. The blog is made for the moment, and if it’s relevant to the moment, that’s cool, and if it stays relevant then great but if not, who cares?–it was easily created and is easily forgotten and in some ways that’s a positive thing and is why the internet feels so alive, no?

Uncle Walt phrased things in more overtly political terms and, interestingly, Franzen does too. Benjamin says that art which is no longer ritualistic, ie, art that is no longer special or deserving of reverence, becomes instead immediately political. Theories of endlessly reproducible art, he says (and this is a nice, good, polemical quote) “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery–concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present, almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense.”

Later, he clarifies that fascists (and does that term even have any real meaning to the modern reader?) make politics into art (ie. propaganda videos) whereas the communist “responds by politicizing art.” For all of Franzen’s love of the object, there is something of the communist in his argument, when he says that a book “will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model”.

Finally, if there is anything that the internet has shown us, it’s that the medium is the message. Franzen is a writer of novels, and whatever a novel is when it’s on a computer, it isn’t the same thing as a novel you can find in the bookstore–no more than Homer’s Iliad, a poem communicated through oral tradition and treated with religious authority by its original audience, is the same as a translated and transcribed copy of the Iliad you read in a classroom. It’s no wonder, then, that the novelist would feel threatened by the new medium. It is threatening.

*I play Dr. Dillamond, the goat-professor (of history) who falls victim to the Wizard’s magico-fascist regime.

**Not to mention those audiophiles who still own grand collections of LPs and who, I imagine, washed their hands of the whole “progress” thing years ago.

◊Entertainingly, Franzen also dislikes many other things. Here is a partial list of things he says are bad for society.

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