In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Our Last 50 Referrers

Friday, June 18, 2004

Dear Vanessa -- * Madonna may be on the verge of converting to Judaism, here. * In a report on the success of Hanky Panky's 4811 thong (not online), the WSJ reports that "Thongs are the biggest thing to hit underwear in the last 20 years. They accounted for one-quarter of the entire $2.6 billion panty market last year." Let's see: subtract all over-60 women as unlikely to be wearing thongs; take into account the likely fact that many women between 40 and 60 don't wear them except on special occasions ... Hmm, that would seem to mean that every American woman younger than 30 is wearing a thong at this very instant. * Home-sex videos by two foreign public figures have turned up on the web. One video (read about it here) shows an Englishwoman wonderfully named Abi Titmuss -- hard to tell what kind of celeb she is -- frolicking with an as-yet-unidentified woman; the other (watch some footage here) shows a Croation pop star having torrid porn-type sex with a man. Question: has the scandalous and accidental release of a home-sex video become a required step in the gotta-be-a-celeb game? * Nicole Kidman takes a bath with a 10 year old boy in her latest film; authorities glower, here. * Prices have just been cut at this not-to-be-missed educational site here. * "Harvard Man," James Toback's last film, featured swinging FBI agents and a philosophy prof with a Betty Boop voice. For his new one, When Will I Be Loved?, Toback has persuaded Neve Campbell to take part in some "unconventional" love scenes. I'm a huge Toback fan. Although I'd never suggest anyone actually watch a Toback movie -- as a filmmaker, he doesn't deliver much beyond exuberant fantasy and inspired casting -- Toback himself is one of the most entertaining people I've ever met. When I had a chance to spend a little time in his circle some years ago, I often found myself thinking, "Wow, someone should follow this guy around with a camera. Now that would be a great movie!" I'm glad to see someone has had the sense to do just that. You can read about the Neve project and the Toback documentary here. * Another documentary I'm eager to see is this new one here, about the very eccentric Japanese erotic photographer Noboyushi Araki. I wonder how many of these links I obtained thanks to Daze Reader, here ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 18, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Yoga Sociology
Dear Vanessa -- One goes through life ... One observes tons of things ... One tries to account for a few of them ... One wonders about so many others ... Basic yoga sociology, for instance. For starters: it's not a secret that a lot more women than men show up for yoga classes. This fact doesn't seem like a hard one to explain. Yoga classes are, after all, classes and, as many visitors here have noted, women seem to like getting their exercise in a class setting a lot more than men do. The spiritual thing is v. hard for many men to take. Chanting, "om"-ing, talking about world peace, getting blissed-out -- well, why don't you just snip my balls off now? You're not supposed to plow through yoga; you're encouraged to experience yoga internally instead. Find your freedom inside the posture, connect there with something larger than yourself, etc. Dare I observe that experiencing things internally may come a whole lot easier to many women than it does to most men? And -- a big and underrecognized element here -- there's the whole yoga-clothes question. In a yoga class, you do a lot of stretching, bending, flopping over, etc, and you need clothes that don't get too much in the way. What's a fella to do? Sweat clothes are too thick and too hot. Regular gym shorts have no give in the groin, and regular t-shirts fall off when you're upside down. Gals have it much easier -- clingy stretch clothes! Women seem to like the feel of them (I have theories about why); women seem to enjoy parading around in them; and there's a big industry catering to the stretch-clothes-for-gals market. The occasional guy does show up in class wearing Lycra-ish shorts. When this happens, my mid-American background kicks into gear, and loudly. I look at this guy and think, "Dude! No!" Guys in stretch clothes? Rightly or wrongly -- and I can't seem to help this -- I leap to the conclusion that they're either 1) gay, or 2) from a Mediterranean background. What to do? I haven't solved the problem yet. When I blabbed about this conundrum to a woman yoga teacher, she laughed and told me that there really does seem to be no good yoga-clothing solution for us Real Guys. So explaining why yoga classes nearly always have more women than men in them isn't a toughie. I wonder sometimes if the gal/guy ratio varies depending on yoga styles and schools. I notice, for instance, that more men show up for Bikram (hot) yoga classes than for a more-typical class. This doesn't seem like much of a mystery either. Bikram classes are super-sweaty affairs -- and guys seem to like sweating more than gals do. (I know some women who despise sweating, but I don't think I've ever known a guy who has felt this way.) Bikram classes have no "spiritual" guff at all. Instead, they consist of getting ordered vigorously around,... posted by Michael at June 17, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Turbokitty on Jarmusch
Dear Vanessa -- When my favorite downtown artchick, Turbokitty, told me the other day that she loved Jim Jarmusch's new Coffee and Cigarettes, I instantly set to work badgering her to write up some thoughts about the film. This just in from downtown: Turbokitty Does Jarmusch I've seen all of Jim Jarmusch's movies. He's the ultimate independent film director. I've grown up with him. I find him so much cooler than some of the standard-issue Great Filmmakers. Or maybe he just speaks to me more directly. I sort of love to hate Altman and Kubrick, for instance. I see lots of both of their films -- they do get under my skin. But they strike me as old-fashioned. Jarmusch is not old-fashioned in that way. He's New Wave in the '80s sense, not in the '60s sense. He's cool New York. His new film, "Coffee and Cigarettes," doesn't have a storyline, It's a movie that nothing really happens in. Instead, you have these moments in conversation that pull you through the movie. There's a loose structure in the way he puts the vignetttes together. It's in black and white, and it's all people in cafes making small talk. Jarmusch is also analyzing coffee and smoking. It's a kind of refrain in them movie: people saying "No, I don't drink coffee anymore, it's not good for me." I read that he shot this film over 15 years. They'd rehearse a vignette for a day, and then he'd shoot the vignette the next day. And it had to be set up that way: a day for rehearsal, a day for shooting. He got his material in one day or not at all. So it's very immediate. Doing photography, you can do the same thing. You can set yourself little rules. For example, you might walk in and say, I'm giving myself an hour, what am I going to get done in an hour? That's when magic happens. You get totally crazy and something happens and you have no control over what's going on. I do that with my photography. I'll be in the passenger seat of a car, especially when I was in California, and I'll say, I'm going to shoot from the passenger seat for an hour. I'd take loads of stuff. Then I'd edit it. And I might get five amazing photographs from the hour. You can do that kind of thing with drawing too, because it's quick -- you can get it down. I don't think it'd work with oil painting or collage, let alone sculpture. It's gotta be a quick process, so really photography is the best. I love the process of getting out there and doing something. And I love quick results. I just made a painting that took me a month, and I thought I was going to kill myself. I wonder how many people Jarmusch shot that didn't get into the movie. Probably quite a few. The first one he did was with Roberto Benigni.... posted by Michael at June 17, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Dear Vanessa -- * Will Elder helped set the tone and visual style of Mad magazine back in the '50s, then went on to draw 25 years' worth of Little Annie Fannie comic strips for Playboy. I think he's one of the great American satirists, so it's pleasing to see that R. Crumb, Terry Gilliam and Jerry Garcia were and are among Elder's fans. A new coffee table book devoted to Elder and edited by the comics artist Daniel Clowes is now available at Amazon, here. The book's own website is here. Here's a good All About Comics biography of Elder. * Congratulations to Cowtown Pattie, who celebrated the big 5-0 -- youngster! -- with a trip up a mountain in Big Bend National Park. She blogs about the big day here, and includes some beautiful, dusty photos in her posting. * Do you read the columnist Michelle Malkin? (You can find her column here.) She's willing to take on tough subjects; she seems to do so honestly and clear-headedly. She often strikes me as fearless and smart, in other words, and anything but an ideologue. I notice that she has started a blog here, and has so far been a much more generous blogger than many pro writers are. * What is American conservatism? What kind of a conservative was Ronald Reagan? John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge make a little sense of these questions in the WSJ here. * The brilliant poet and essayist Frederick Turner writes about how his opinion of Reagan has changed over the years, here. Turner even manages to get in a slap at deconstruction -- way to go! * Robert Detman writes about what it was like to be in architecture school during the headiest of the deconstruction days, here. Robert offers an insight into Theory's appeal that I agree with wholeheartedly: "Deconstruction was sexy," he writes. That's not to approve of deconstruction -- anything but that. But it does strike me as a good starting-point for a discussion about the appeal of movements like deconstruction. Robert has written a really fab posting. Where's the resourceful publisher with the sense to spot a potential book in it? * I couldn't find it online, but the WSJ recently carried a bad-news report (from Harvard and via Nature magazine, not that this helped my Googling efforts) about how genes in the brain have now been seen to begin to deteriorate as early as the age of 40. Given the state of my 50-year-old memory, I can well believe it. What can we do to forstall some of the damage? Boring: get some exercise; take regular steps to relieve stress; eat sensibly; and drink a lot of green tea. UPDATE: Thanks to S.Y. Affolee (here), who found the abstract of the Harvard paper here. * I love the idea of super-short movies, so I was thrilled to learn about this site here. I wish I enjoyed more of the movies on offer, though. Curious to learn how... posted by Michael at June 17, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A New Sarah Susanka Book
Dear Vanessa -- Sarah Susanka, the architect and author who's best-known for "The Not-So-Big House," has just published another lovely and helpful book, Home By Design. Like "The Not-So-Big House," it's a beautifully-produced, practical, and visual guide to how to make a house a home. Susanka's titles refer to the idea that it can worth spending a little extra money and care on somewhat fewer square feet than Americans often do. She's urging us to buy quality, not quantity, in other words, and she's showing us how to do it wisely. Susanka -- and her designer and photographers, as well as the architects and builders whose work she features -- steers a middle ground that I suspect many homeowners will find helpful. Her books have real substance; they aren't mere lifestyle-and-trimmings extravaganzas. Instead, she discusses such questions as: Why do so many buildings and spaces these days feel barren? Why do so many houses fail to turn into homes? What's the difference between square-footage-surrounded-by-walls and a room you love? Her books are intellectually engaging, yet they're fun and easily-browsable catalogs of ideas too. These are user's guides, in other words, the contempo equivalent of the "pattern books" used by the local builders in the 19th century who created many of our best-loved houses and neighborhoods. Susanka boils Christopher Alexander's "patterns" down to a manageable number, discusses general principles as well as specifics, and gives lots of (superbly-photographed and laid-out) examples of how to put them to use. She isn't trying to bury you in theory, or to lock you into some absurd all-or-nothing system; she digs the fact that it's your project, and your life. Interesting, no? Hmmm, so architecture as an art form doesn't have to be about a solo ego showing off; it can instead be about helping people get more of what they want out of their buildings and neighbhorhoods. Susanka's own designs tend towards a modernism-meets-Arts-and-Crafts thing that isn't much to my taste. But so what. She isn't trying to impose her vision; she's offering general patterns that can be adapted to personal taste. She's here to serve, not to impose. When I talked to her once some years back, I found her modest and enthusiastic, firm in her convictions, and eager to acknowledge Chrisotpher Alexander as a giant. In fact, people intrigued by the Alexander approach will probably enjoy exploring Susanka's books, as they'd enjoy exploring Jacobson, Silverstein and Winslow's recent Patterns of Home, buyable here. (Two of this book's three authors collaborated with Alexander on "A Pattern Language.") No coincidence, by the way, that all these books are published by the excellent Taunton Press -- I blogged about Taunton here. Eyeballing books like these, you get some idea of what Alexander's ideas look like when put into practice by talented designers and builders. Although images can never replace on-the-spot, in-person experience, you can also begin to sense what these structures feel like too. Which is really the important thing, because the central goal of... posted by Michael at June 16, 2004 | perma-link | (1) comments

Book Elsewhere
Dear Vanessa -- * Is it unjust to bitch about how ingrown current American lit-writing can be? Those who think so might want to take a look at this amusing piece here for the Guardian by Katharine Viner, who was one of the judges for this year's Orange Prize. Like the other judges, Viner read 46 candidate books in six weeks -- heavens! Where's the discussion about how that kind of pressure might affect one's reading pleasure, let alone one's judgment about which books are best? Anyway, what did Viner find the low points of her read-a-thon to be? One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. In other words: quit trying to impress your writing-workshop buddies with your exquisite sentence-making, and get on with the story, please. * Many thanks to Doug Sundseth, who passed along a link to this funny Tedi Trindle piece entitled "How to Write A Literary Novel," here. * A few years ago, having gotten it into my head that I might enjoy composing short verbal things that rhymed, I signed up for an intro-to-poetry-writing class. What a surprise it turned out to be. I'd expected to be given a down-to-earth introduction to poetry writing, and I was looking forward to being drilled in simple poetic forms. First we'd master limericks, then we'd take on the sonnet! Instead, we were given a small set of tricks, er, tools and then hustled into taking part in a truly bizarre activity: concocting prose poems and arranging them in ways that made them look like poetry. (I'm told that this is what the standard-issue intro-to-poetry-writing course has become in this country.) I had the strong impression that I was far from alone in being horrified by the unhelpful nonsense we were being sold. I and my fellow malcontents would probably have been happier attending the West Chester Poetry Writing conference, which was organized ten years ago by the poet (and current NEA head) Dana Gioa and a fine-press printer named Michael Piech. The program is devoted to poetry in its form-and-narrative aspects, and this year's edition just wrapped. Here's the conference's website. Here's Mike Snider's preliminary report from the Conference. Some time back, I did an interview with Mike, who's a terrific poet and blogger; part one can be read here, and part two is here. Here's a good Christian Science Monitor blog posting about how horribly poets often treat each other. * The brilliant Donald Westlake has... posted by Michael at June 16, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Chicago vs. New York
Dear Michael: Your post about theater reminded me that I wanted to tell you about the impressions I've gathered about the differences between Chicago and New York since I moved here more than a year ago. First, I told a friend of mine the other evening that the thing about New York is that the folks there remain obsessed with their work lives, for their entire lives. This is of course a gross generalization but the difference in work culture is palpable. Here, everyone knocks off at 6 pm, goes home, kicks off their shoes, and doesn't give the office a second thought as they drift off into family affairs or heavy drinking. In New York, it seemed to me, people would bodily leave the office but remained neurotically obsessed about the stuff they just did, the stuff that was pending, and what everyone else at work thought about the stuff they just did. I certainly felt that heavy air hanging about me when I was working in New York. This difference is compounded on the social scene: in New York, people really sum you up by the job you keep. In Chicago, others are curious, genuinely so, it seems to me, and not just for the sake of score keeping, in the "does she have a job that's better than mine" sense or the "what can this person can do for me now or in the future" sense. Am I horribly skewed because I worked in New York media? Perhaps. But life here, in that regard, is quite a relief. Second, Chicago theater seems hidebound to me but I suppose you could see it as a good thing. You talked about Chicago's reputation for having "anti-glitz, anti-intellectual, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-into-it" theater, and, yes, it does. In spades. Almost, I sometimes think, to the point of parodic redundancy. The town has never shed its dependence on the Mamet-ian template for its theater art though there are interesting troupes around town doing fun stuff. The Hubster and I, for example, caught a show on Saturday called "The Rocket Man," which describes itself as being loosely based on a bunch of Ray Bradbury short stories, put on by an ensemble of twentysomethings called the House Theater of Chicago. It had a classic hokey sci-fi plot (boy is rocket jockey, boy meets girl in dreams, girl is Martian, boy gets girl, boy and girl burn up in the sun after system failure) and it was produced with hip ironic lo-fi stage effects (big plastic spheres for helmets, crazy straws as antennae on a Martian doctor, actors depict a rocket launch by running with a toy rocket overhead, 3D glasses). The thing that struck me was that the whole production's sense of hipster commentary (skewering homage to classic tropes) was very similar to stuff I've seen done in New York, specifically the Adobe Theater company's mid-career productions. But, the vibe was entirely different. Whereas Adobe/NY seemed to be clubbish and exclusive, the House/Chicago show was friendly... posted by Vanessa at June 15, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments

The Culture of Books
Dear Vanessa -- I notice that this year's Book Expo took place in Chicago a few weekends ago. Did you attend? If so, I'm curious to hear how it struck you. For those who haven't encountered it, Book Expo America is the trade-book industry's annual convention. It's quite a show; two or three thousand exhibitors display their wares to 25,000ish attendees. When it first began, the convention's purpose was to enable publishers to show off upcoming lines of books to retailers, who at the time were mostly local bookstores. What with changes in the business (the big bookselling chains, the absorption of much of the publishing industry into media conglomerates, etc), that original rationale has semi-evaporated. The show has become more of a general bazaar, as well as an excuse for people in the industry to mingle with each other, swap business cards, and size up the competition. During the years I semi-professionally followed book publishing, I attended 17 of these get-togethers. Fun and exhausting, all of them. But educational, too: I learned far more about the culture of books -- which is, like it or not, the matrix from which all trade books (including that tiny subset known as "literature") emerge -- from attending Book Expos than I did from anything I ever read by a prof or a critic. It's been wonderfully enlightening. In fact, I've had exasperated "if I were God" moments when I've decided that all authors should be required to attend a Book Expo. It's amazing how naive writers (and would-be writers) can be about the industry they're hoping to find a place in, and their dreaminess has at times driven me batty. At other times, though, I wonder. Some writers, I've found, get some of their energy from their naivete. And is learning the simple truth guaranteed to do anyone any good anyway? The other day, for instance, I heard about a published novelist who attended her first Book Expo and was so traumatized by the experience that she wasn't able to write again for another year. Then again, was the world any worse off? In any case, I enjoyed the Book Babes' wrapup of this year's BEA, here. As the years have passed since I gave up following publishing, my brain has gone on sifting and sorting what I observed and experienced. The picture keeps getting simpler and simpler. For instance, if someone a couple of years ago had asked me, "If you had to say which three new lit-fiction books from your years in the biz were the best, which would you choose?", I wouldn't have been able to answer. I'd read too many really good new lit-fiction-books -- how to choose from among them? Today, though? Not a problem: Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; Josef Skvorecky's Dvorak in Love; and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies. In memory -- though I'm not entirely sure why -- these three really stand out. Another hyper-general retrospective observation ... Many people... posted by Michael at June 15, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments