The Wordy Birder

On Screen, Off Screen
May 6, 2010, 3:44 am
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One of the books I had a sort of one-night-romance with in grad school was Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of his massive multi-book collection A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or Remembrance of Things Past. That famous opening 30 pages of the text where Proust details a memory of his childhood touched something deep within my inner child (in a platonic way, of course), and I fell deeply, madly in love with Proust’s narrative voice and his fondness for all things memory related. Since I have a famously terrible memory myself, I found something of a kindred spirit in Proust: like me, he was brought back into a vivid memory of his childhood via biting into a petite madeleine cookie. Being a well-known food lover, I’ve had many similar moments in my life.

I never did finish Swann’s Way, and forget the whole Remembrance of Things Past collection. Ironically, I haven’t been reading much for pleasure these days–the lot of the English teacher’s life, I suppose. However, that petite madeleine moment and the memory it sparked has turned over in my mind ever since, and I found myself thinking about it today as I scrolled through what was probably the 87,545th wikipedia entry I have perused in recent years.

It was an entry about Jim Henson, of all people. In a moment of quiet teaching desperation, I showed Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth to my freshmen and discussed narrative voice and fantasy characterization. While they watched, I “wikid” Jim Henson. As I read through the details of Jim’s charmed life and too-early death, I got a creepy feeling akin to deja vu. I’d read this wikipedia entry before, I was certain–but I had no idea when or why, and to be quite frank, I completely forgot that Jim Henson had died of a mysterious and sudden illness when he was only 53 years old. I also forgot that hundreds of people put on a New Orleans style funeral for him, complete with the cast of the muppets, Sesame Street, and a whole host of his other puppet creations to send him from his Earthly life. After reading it the second time, I remember being moved by this idea the first time I had read it on wikipedia, and thinking over what such a spectacle would look like. I remember thinking that would be a good way to go.

If someone had stopped me on the street yesterday and asked me how Jim Henson died, I would have given them a blank stare. I had no recollection of that wikipedia entry before I looked it up a second time and read a good 80% of the way through. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked something up, then forgotten it rather quickly. But what disturbed me about the Jim Henson moment was that I had totally forgotten reading the entry about a man who I very much admired, and when he died in the early 90’s, I remember crying in my parents living room watching the news. He’s the only famous person aside from Charles Shulz and Michael Jackson whose death brought me to tears. I should have remembered that wikipedia entry, if I remembered any at all.

Wikipedia is an addictive little tool—even more so than google, in my opinion. There’s something so safe and reassuring about that encyclopedia format. It’s so much easier to use than that trusty old set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas that used to sit on my grandmother’s basement shelves, and it feeds my thirsty brain’s desire for trivia snacks multiple times a day. It gives shape and form to the vast, rollicking sea that is the internet, and it makes surfing those waves of useless information seem somehow academic and thus, legitimate.

I’m not so sure how useful wikipedia is in the long run, though. If one of the most touching and important wikipedia entries has been all but erased from my brain completely after I viewed it, does it make every moment I have spent on the site completely irrelevant? Granted, my sieve of a brain is not exactly the point by which all things should be measured, but it stands to reason that if I’m forgetting nearly everything, then it is highly likely most everyone is forgetting lots of things.

Proust was onto something. Our brains–and the senses so harmoniously attached to them–connect memories to moments, distinct and original–to sights, smells, touches, flavors, sounds. In the absence of all sensory markers, all information becomes repetitive, redundant, trivial, and indistinct. For someone like me, this is the death knell to memory. If there isn’t an emotion or, say, the taste of a petite madeleine to bring me back to a memory, chances are, it will evaporate.

I’m left to wonder what this means for the internet at large, and for objects like the kindle or the fate of email in general. I look at my dog-eared and tattered copy of Wilson Rawls’ novel Where the Red Fern Grows and I am instantly transported back to Ms. Hodgson’s fourth grade class, when she read the novel aloud to us, choking up when the doggies die. I remember knowing at that moment that books would always be a major part of my life. Would that moment be the same if I’d read that book on a kindle–with its mute-gray screen, singular text and font size, and same pasty white plastic carrier? I still have the handwritten notes of my first boyfriend tucked away in a box somewhere for perusal when I am old and gray, but the majority of notes from more recent loves all look exactly the same and exist in a digital mailbox somewhere on that lonely internet.

E plurubus unum (From many, one), the United States motto comes to mind when I start trying to coin a term for this phenomenon. It’s an apt metaphor for what both our country and the whole technology age in general has become. As we continue to downsize and synchronize from many languages to one, from well-worn and hard earned cd collections to slick digital ipods, from handwritten valentines to gmails, and from shared memories to wiki-moments, I’m left to wonder just how much of the real is left, and just what kind of a need we have for memories anymore–that is, of course, if we still continue to create them.


When idols grow up
January 26, 2010, 12:12 am
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What would my blog be without the obligatory tribute to Tori Amos? Oh, yes, yes, I know she’s been passe for something like ten years now. But real art is not about trends, nor is real admiration. I’m not just going to jump off the Tori Amos bus because you don’t think she’s cool anymore. Granted, I’m not going to do any Tori Amos name-dropping at the next Brooklyn loft party I go to, either, but that’s a whole other issue. I do have to save face publicly, even if privately I’m hollering along that I “never was a cornflake girl” on my evening commute.

What happens to our idols, though, as we begin to age? I remember being so moved by novelist Pat Conroy’s prose about the Carolinas that I quite literally applied to school in Charleston, SC. The vivid quality of his prose and the images of a dying, lusciously beautiful South that he laid bare in the pages of books like The Prince of Tides were enough to send my little New England brain into orbit. Not to mention the fact that the promise of entering into a school in a historic, beachy town where nobody knew my name was thrilling when I was sixteen. Now I see his work as a bit sophomoric and painfully sentimental, but I still feel deeply connected to those novels. They did, after all, change my life.

And that’s the power of our idols. They change our lives, if even in some slight, unknowable way. When you find someone you admire–someone famous, remote, and untouchable–you want to pass that secret to other people, to handle it with care like a fragile robins egg for another to see, know, admire, and pass on. You hoard your idols, collect their works, savor every droplet of inspiration that seeps from the speakers, or the pages, or the screen. They become you, you become them–their ideas become your obsessions, their words your creeds.

….and so it is with Tori Amos and I. The brilliance of her piano playing, the weighty, allegorical lyrics, the stunning, complex beauty of her face and her songs all existed out there in the intangible world of music. Loving Tori Amos was to love an idealized version of myself–stay with me, folks–in other words, Tori Amos was what I would be if I could redraw my own life starting at birth. If I had my way, I’d be an enormously gifted pianist with a penchant for literary lyrics and a wry smile. I’d write about Daisy Dead Petals and the Flying Dutchmen and I’d tickle the ivories and get paid millions to do it. Everyone would want to interview me, and I’d make my nest in some remote English farmhouse, complete with cows and birds and an extensive library filled with the rarest of rare books.

But no. Instead, I have had my years of Carolina thanks to Pat Conroy and my years on the “stage” as an English teacher, and I’m not penning top-charting bestsellers, but I’m writing about birds and laughing with kids as we dissect Shakespeare’s double entendres and life is good, not Tori Amos good, but certainly Tori Amos inspired.

I’m still a Cornflake Girl deep down, and always will be. Even if neither Tori nor I are really girls anymore at all.

The Jersey Shore
January 25, 2010, 1:03 am
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I should be accustomed to living in a land that is the butt of jokes by now. After all, I heard plenty of dim-witted fellow Americans spout off about how the South is full of a bunch of toothless bums who can’t wait to engage in taboo acts with family members when I lived in the South for eight years. I used to be able to just roll my eyes and hop back onto a plane and enjoy my idiot-free time with my lovely Southern friends on the beautiful beaches of gorgeous Charleston, SC.

…but there’s just something about this terrible new show on MTV: Jersey Shore. Have you seen this? The cast has to have a cumulative IQ of around 85, and its doubtful that any of them realize just how ridiculous they are. I googled it after yet another student made a reference to it in class. Now when I walk about, if I mention I live in Jersey, I fear that moment of recognition when someone envisions boozefests in Atlantic City with a bunch of 22 year old hooligans named “The Situation” and “Snookie” that aren’t even FROM New Jersey. Yikes.

This may be what inspired us, on some level, to take wandering trips around the Jersey burbs the last few weeks. This state is pretty incredible, and I don’t care how many Jersey jokes you’ve heard in your life. It’s too bad for you that you’re not in the Garden State.

Theaters of Girlhood
January 25, 2010, 12:35 am
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What kind of adult reads children’s literature? This adult. I’m not sure there is much else that is as nerdy. Unless you consider reading scholarly criticism of children’s literature to be even more obsessive and creepy.

I bought Seth Lerer’s book Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter a while ago. I do have a bit of a defense–I teach a course I designed called “Storytellers” in which we trace the narrative arc of storytelling from the days of Aesop to the Grimm’s brothers to Disney and on down to those cheeky chroniclers of human folly on This American Life.

Lerer’s book starts with a whimper, pandering to the audience and offering flimsy scholarly evidence for the ways in which audiences received and interpreted Aesop’s tales. can we really know this much from a few measly references to Aesop in crumbling documents scattered here and there? Doubtful. But it is the chapter on girls in literature that captured my interest.

Called “Theaters of Girlhood,” Lerer’s chapter traces the ways in which girl characters in children’s literature have achieved their place in the modern literary canon. With explorations of my favorite books from childhood (Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Charlotte’s Web) Lerer outlines the ways in which wily, sharp female characters have been maligned to roles of domesticity or tamed back into submission.

It’s actually pretty fascinating to look at these women as the precursors to modern tales like Harry Potter. Lerer points out that Harry always gets the praise and adoration from fans and from the characters in the text, even though it’s really the female Hermione Granger who does all the tough intellectual dirty work.

He writes convincingly about the ways in which the bookish, bright Anne of Green Gables–who dreams of being called Cordelia and of living in a kind of poetry-inspired dreamworld–is constantly pulled back down to Earth by not only her foster parents Marilla and Matthew, but by her teachers as well. Eventually, she becomes a schoolteacher and marries her high school sweetheart–a life much less exciting than the original sprightly Anne had dreamed of.

Lerer won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for the book, so I suppose he already has enough readers. But if you’re interested in any of the same nerdy scholarship on children’s lit that I am, I suggest you check it out.