Friday, March 29, 2013

I hate the sound of pencils scratching on paper (Or, Weird aversions to specific things)

The sound of pencils scratching on paper makes me cringe. My shoulders tense up and I feel like my ears actually hurt. Once I hear it, if it keeps going the sensation keeps getting worse and worse, kind of similar to how you get more and more ticklish, once those nerve endings are stimulated. This never used to come up, but John is "kind of a pencil person"; he even uses the old-school pencils you have to sharpen, which sound ten times scrapier than mechanical pencils. If the paper is particularly dry or rough (as in manila paper), again: ten times worse. And just thinking of the sound of an old, dry eraser scraping against paper, or a dry cloth being wiped across rough unfinished plywood, makes me want to crumple up and cry/die. Running fingers across dry paper or plywood is horrible too. I've got a bad case of the chills just writing this.

I just googled it and this particular kind of "misophonia" seems to be associated with autism/Asperger's. Weird.

Do you have any weird sensory aversions to very specific things? Last summer, during a game of Balderdash, I learned there's a word for a feeling of discomfort experienced while touching something fuzzy, like velvet, a peach or a tennis ball (haptodysphoria). What on earth would cause these things?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The 10 Best REM Songs, In Order

I'm not a true fan or anything, but in my estimation:

  1. "Find the River"
  2. "Sweetness Follows"
  3. "Fall on Me"
  4. "The One I Love"
  5. "Shiny Happy People"
  6. "Stand"
  7. "Exhuming McCarthy"
  8. "Near Wild Heaven" 
  9. "Man on the Moon"
  10. "Nightswimming"

Nothing after '93 really counts, though I do kind of like "The Great Beyond." I don't want to get into the worst REM songs ... but "Everybody Hurts" is definitely my pick for dead bottom.

UPDATE: My favorites, I notice, are neither very early nor very late in REM's recording career. There seems to be a tendency among fans (of any artist/musician) to prefer or even fetishize "late work" or "early work" but I find I often most appreciate mid-career work, in the sweet spot between underdevelopment and overdevelopment/self-indulgence. For example, I think Under the Pink and Boys for Pele are Tori Amos's best albums. Make mine extra-medium.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Feelin' aesthetical

The other day I was off to the side of a conversation about Tom Waits. I don't much care for Tom Waits, so I stayed to the side. One of them said something to the effect of "Tom Waits is the musical genius of our time." Nobody asked me, but that got me thinking about who I would call the musical genius of our time. I'm not sure what "our time" really delineates (Tom Waits' first record was released in '73 — 40 years ago!), but even if we're just talking about pop-type music, a lot of contenders spring to mind — Prince, Tori Amos, and Sufjan Stevens, to name a few. It's not just that I like their songs (I don't even own any Prince discography), but I think of them as virtuosic.

I drove to Boulder this morning to see a talk there, and listened to Seven Swans on the way. It's basically Christian music, and I'm an atheist, but I don't care because it's soooo beautiful. I don't really use iTunes anymore, but for four or five years, the main ways I listened to music were in my car on the way to and fro work (an old red GMC Jimmy that I bought from Chris Tonelli for $50) and via iTunes on my computer, because I didn't have a real stereo. I think my counts got reset when I switched computers and re-installed iTunes, but at the time, the most listened to song in my account was "The Dress Looks Nice on You."

I'm not much of a completist. Meaning, I rarely go all out collecting and/or consuming the complete works of any artist, even those I really love, unless it's easy to do so because they only made a few albums, movies, etc. When I've set out to do that in the past — read every book by a single prolific author, or buy every album by a single prolific musician — I've always eventually run up against stuff I didn't like, and lost steam. Now I get a kind of comfort out of knowing that there's stuff left to discover from artists that I really love. Like, if I ever got locked in my apartment in some kind of post-apocalyptic situation, I know I haven't even finished all the Anne Carson and Wallace Stevens on our shelves.

You know what? Meg Ryan is a really good actress. But you can kind of only tell when she's cast against type. I mean, I'm not saying she's always "made good choices," film-wise, but if you ever think she's America's Sweetheart and nothing more, watch Hurlyburly or Jane Campion's In the Cut. She can play seedy, trampy, drugged out no problem. I see her as more versatile than, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh, her co-star in In the Cut, who is great at seedy but is always kind of seedy. I think Meg Ryan could probably do anything. Too bad she's mostly done cheesy crap. She's also been in two of the worst movies I've ever seen: Joe Versus the Volcano and Prelude to a Kiss.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Vanity, continued

The Berger quotes from my last post refer, in part, to the below painting by Hans Memling:

Berger writes:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical.  
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

This hypocritical moralizing in art forms a clear parallel with the conservative line on rape, where women are complicit in their own assault. The same culture that blasts us from all angles with the message BE SEXY, pushing us to spend time and money to appear young and beautiful for as long as possible, reminding us always that we are objects for visual consumption, condemns us for vanity and blames us for inviting male attention. A woman on the street will be told by strangers to smile; a rape victim will be accused of flirting.

I also have some notes on how to make this painting better:

  • The top and bottom halves of this woman's body look fairly unrelated. There seems to be some spinal misalignment.
  • Naked women rarely wear sandals.
  • Mirrors don't work that way. 
  • Dogs don't have mouse heads. (Alternatively, mice aren't dog-sized.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hey guys, feel the male gaze upon you? No? Must be nice.

I've noticed that whenever I talk to men (no gender-based offense, please, you know I love you) about beauty, they start digressing on a tangent about how attractiveness is totally subjective and contextual, etc. And yes, duh, for you, it is. Personal, one-on-one attraction is subjective. And (I guess?) it's easy for men to think that's all there is to "beauty." But: news flash: that's not how it is for women. The whole thing about the "male gaze" is that women are forced to see themselves in the third person all the time. And the question of "beauty" or "attractiveness" is always bifold: There's objective attractiveness and subjective attractiveness. It seems that most men think of beauty or attractiveness as being firstly and primarily subjective, and the judgment is in their court, as in, "I get to decide who is attractive, to me; I define the terms." But women, I think, see attractiveness as objective first, and subjective second, because they're always made to hold themselves against cultural standards of beauty -- which, it would seem, have very little if anything to do with what most people find subjectively attractive. Hence that cognitive dissonance -- i.e., I know men find me attractive, but I also know I don't look like the cultural models of beauty. 

Now I'm going to drop a bunch of John Berger quotes on you. These are all from Chapter 3 of Ways of Seeing:
A woman must continually watch herself. 
Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. 
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.  
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.  
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. 
The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. 
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. 
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.
Women are depicted in a quite different way from men -- not because the feminine is different from the masculine -- but because the "ideal" spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Things I have loved I'm allowed to keep

That's from "The Flowers," Regina Spektor's contribution to the great canon of denial songs (e.g., "I Ain't Missin' You At All" — I have long intended to start a list of these). I am very sad that Google is killing its RSS reader, Google Reader, in July. I have used Google Reader daily since 2007. They killed it once before, now they're killing it again. Sadface to the max.

Anyway, a couple of things I have loved in the past 24-48 hours:

1. This "cultural history of Love's Baby Soft." The Awl is doing a series on "teenage fragrance memories" and nobody told me?! Here's an excerpt:
Baby Soft was born in 1974. The company that brought it to market, Menley & James, an imprint of the pharmaceutical bigwig Smith & Kline, had already been marketing beauty products to young women for several years. And yet, with the unveiling of Baby Soft, the company's concept of "young women" was revealed to be sort of… gross. The perfume's slogan was "because innocence is sexier than you think," and its most beguiling, bewildering magazine ad pictured a very young girl made up in creepy-sexy adult face: a proto JonBenet. In a corresponding early TV spot, a young woman (the same one shown above) timidly fellated a lollypop as a creepy male voiceover intoned that the fragrance captures the scent of "a cuddly, clean baby… that grew up very sexy." 
To make things weirder, in the same way that Seventeen is actually aspirational reading for pre-teens, Baby Soft wasn't so much aimed at "young women" as it was at girls who were looking forward to being women in the future. A 1974 Gimbels department store ad in The New York Times declared Baby Soft "the new way for big girls to baby their bodies" and assured that it was "created with Gimbels young customer in mind." Somebody, somewhere, seemed confused about the difference between babies, and girls, and women. That didn't matter: If Baby Soft was not the very first perfume marketed for the coming-of-age set, it was certainly the first smash hit. 
Eventually, in the 80s, the marketing angle shifted away from "sexy baby." Instead, Baby Soft billed itself as a weapon of clandestine feminization. This was the era of shoulder pads—a time when being a strong woman was sometimes confused with being masculine. An ad from this era pictures a cool tomboy, hanging with her dude friends, and the line, "underneath it all, she's baby soft." Women were trying to figure out how to have it both ways; Love's was selling girls a secret method. (This was a theme: Secret, "strong enough for a man," would be crowned the decade's top women's deodorant.)
There's also a piece about what your chosen GAP scent says about you. I never owned one of those original GAP fragrances, but my best friend in high school wore Heaven.

2. This song (a Kristin Hersh cover of a Vic Chesnutt song) coming on my iPod before I started running, so I could sing along:

Monday, March 11, 2013

AWP: Some observations and rules, after the fact

You know when you put your music on random for a party and "I'm Like a Bird" comes on like six times? AWP is like that; there's always someone you see over and over everywhere. This year, Mike Young was that person. Not that Mike Young is the "I'm Like a Bird" of writers.

I hug almost everybody. When in doubt, hug. That's my philosophy.

When you walk into a big room with a lot of pretty things for sale (like Barneys, or the AWP bookfair), it's good to set up some arbitrary rules to prevent yourself from buying like everything. This year my arbitrary rules were: 1) I'm not buying anything until Saturday, and 2) I'm only buying books by friends, be they real-life friends or Twitter friends. Here's what I bought:

Rise in the Fall by Ana Bozicevic
Vow by Rebecca Hazelton
Mother Was a Tragic Girl by Sandra Simonds
Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood
Wolf and Pilot by Farrah Field
This Is What It Is Like to Be Loved By Me by Jared White
The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather
I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying by Matthew Salesses

OK, John actually bought those last two. He got to them first. Other friends with newish books, I either didn't pass your table or I already have it.

I don't like marathon readings. They usually turn into hostage situations. What I hate is when you're standing next to someone you only get to see once a year and want desperately to talk to, and if you so much as whisper a comment to your friend, even something positive like "Isn't he awesome?" everyone around you goes gestapo with the whirling heads and sibilant hissings. This happened last year in Chicago, when I was standing next to Matt Rasmussen and Mark Leidner was reading, and I didn't want to interrupt or disturb Mark Leidner, I just wanted to talk about what a good performer he is, and I couldn't, because poetry readings cultivate stifling, silent atmospheres. I wanted to write a manifesto called POETRY NEEDS SPACE, about how you can't appreciate any art when it's crowded up against too much other art and the atmosphere is poisonous to discourse. I understand that you need something close to silence if you're going to listen to someone read, but that's why normal readings end after 2-4 readers, or at least have an intermission, so people can get up and shake it out. Poetry is too intense and requires too much concentration to just sit still and absorb for three hours straight like it was a Kevin Costner movie. If you're going to cram 20 readers into one event, you need to figure out some other way to create space, like having lots of breaks or multiple stages. Because what the F is the point of going to a poetry reading if you can't talk about the poetry? I can feel alone at home. Anyway, I never wrote that manifesto.

To end on a positive note: I only went to one reading (mine; sorry) and it was great. Lots of the aforementioned space, plus variation in style and genre, and a really good audience. So thanks, people that organized it and were there.

How was your AWP, if you went? I mean, we don't have to talk about. I know it's over and boring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Some Notes on Beauty, Part 3

I think it’s funny that a few weeks ago, I posted a minor aside on beauty at the end of a post about something else, and everyone commented on the aside, but hardly anyone commented on my two posts fully devoted to “beauty” (Part 1, Part 2). Am I driving my usual male readership away? I’m not sure if most of my readers are actually male, or the males are just more likely to comment (probably?). I’m always surprised when a woman I know or know of (either a friend or a writer I admire) tells me they read my blog, because so few of them ever comment. Anyway, I think “beauty” is a gendered term; though I might describe certain men as “pretty” or “beautiful,” it’s clearly been feminized by the US culture at large.

I like to read trash on planes. I brought Heroines with me for the flight to Boston, but spent most of the time reading the March issue of Allure. There’s a very annoying essay by A.L. Kennedy, a Scottish writer, about her fraught relationship with her own looks. I guess I’m interested in stories of people who always considered themselves unattractive and later found out they were attractive or whatever, by whatever means, but honestly, I think there is something about this chain of events that often leads people to be kind of annoying, at least temporarily. Think about it: the hot girl in college who was “homely” or just dorky in high school, suddenly realizing her power – wasn’t that girl always pretty annoying? Like she always had to tell you every time somebody remarked on her attractiveness? Life tip*: Other people hitting on you = need to know basis, and most of the time, nobody needs to know.

*Also a note to self.

Anyway, this woman recounts how she was short and basic-looking and people always told her she was clever and never told her she was pretty, so she decided early on that looks were irrelevant. Which is all well and good. But then she comes to some suspect conclusions. For example: “Beautiful woman [sic] aren’t funny—unless they think they’re ugly—because they don’t have to be. People like them anyway.” Look, this is the kind of thing only a mean, insecure person would say. You could just as easily claim that beautiful people aren’t nice, because they don’t have to be, or that beautiful people aren’t interesting. But I know this to be false because I have beautiful friends who are also funny, nice, and/or interesting. You could also say that beautiful people don’t have to wear makeup or nice clothes—why would they, etc.! But in my experience, people would rather be attractive in two or three or four ways, if possible, than one. Then, also, there are unlikeable beautiful people. For the record, I also know unattractive people who aren’t funny. Guess what, all the combinations are possible! It’s just that when you start selecting for rare traits (very beautiful, very funny, very intelligent, etc.) it starts to get unlikely that you’ll run across people with multiple “gifts.” That’s not sociology or psychology, it’s statistics.

Then she goes on to talk about some dude she’s dating who is “visually intoxicating—he really is horribly beautiful”—but he doesn’t know it! UUGGHH. The myth of beauty without vanity. Smarty-pants Autumn at The Beheld made an interesting point recently about cognitive dissonance w/r/t beauty—the idea that a woman can experience herself as attractive and have deep insecurities at the same time, and that this dissonance is what the beauty industry preys on, rather than the storied self-loathing. I like and find truth in this idea. The idea I object to is this cultural myth that all women hate themselves and have no idea what they look like. What demeaning bullshit.

A friend of mine told me that, due to various factors in his/her background, he/she thinks non-religious types find him/her more attractive than religious types. This led me to a realization: I always assume that only intellectual types find me attractive, whereas I have limited currency in, say, a sports bar. Which points to that cognitive dissonance—my sense of my attractiveness or lack thereof is always qualified, always followed by a “but.” (Pun intended: One of my most complimented body parts is my ass. (A nice ass is the last refuge of those with flat-chested kitten syndrome.))

BTW, the next article in the magazine was about “pickers,” i.e. people who self-mutilate, who overgroom. (See Carrie Murphy’s admitted addiction to her blackhead extractor.) There was a line about a woman who picked at the inside of her elbow until the muscle showed through. Eczema horror, anyone?? Reminds me of the woman whose head itched so much she scratched through to her brain.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kale 'n eggs

I just typed up this recipe for KR, whose favorite vegetable is kale, so I figured I'd share it with y'all too. It's a variation on eggs in purgatory, but less saucy and more vegetal. It's been in the regular rotation around here for weekend brunch. I don't measure when I cook, so please treat amounts as guidelines.

What you need:

Butter and/or olive oil
1 small bunch of kale
1 small onion or half a large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup or so of decent-quality canned tomatoes (diced works well) plus juice
1-2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice or nice vinegar
Salt, pepper, and sugar to taste
4 eggs
Cheese for garnishing (optional; parmesan, cheddar, whatever you have)

What you do:

First, put a pot of water on to boil. Wash the kale well, then tear the leaves off the stems into bite-size chunks. Salt the water generously, then throw the leaves in to blanch for 3-5 minutes, until tender but not falling apart. Drain the kale. (I guess raw kale is all the rage, but I can't stand chewy kale. If you like your kale al dente, feel free to blanch it for just a minute or two.)

Meanwhile, chop or slice the onion (your preference!) and sautee it over medium heat in a large skillet with some butter or oil. Once it's softened and starting to brown a bit, add the garlic and give it another minute or so, then throw in the kale, tomatoes, and acid, and season to taste. Let this mixture come to a simmer.

After it's simmered for a few minutes, lower the heat a bit, crack the eggs on top and cover the pan. You'll need to watch them pretty closely (a glass lid is ideal); give them 5-10 minutes to steam-poach so the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. If you want, grate a little cheese on top during the last minute of cooking.

That's it! Divide into flat bowls for eating, and serve with toast if you're among the toast-eating. Serves 2 for brunch, or 4 for a light brekky.

Variations: Cook up some chopped bacon and use the bacon fat to sautee the onions and garlic; you can either leave the bacon in to cook in the sauce, or take it out and crumble it on at the end as a garnish. You can also use any other kind of hearty green (collards, chard, etc.) or salsa instead of tomatoes. You could also add sliced mushrooms or other odds-and-ends vegetables you have in the fridge (peppers, shredded carrots, etc.).