Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which the Author Uses "The Arts" Loosely and Inconsistently

By Standard * Other Standard Posts

Several months ago, two members of the Georgia State Legislature created a minor stir when they took to the floor to announce a “ ‘grassroots’ effort to oust professors with expertise in subjects like male prostitution, oral sex, and ‘queer theory.’ ” Their “grassroots” effort of course went nowhere, and, after several Georgia State Professors who had such expertise explained to the House Higher Education Committee that their research included AIDS epidemics and teenage attitudes towards oral sex, the House members claimed the media had blown the whole thing out of proportion. (You can find the article here.)

What interests me is not the media coverage, which was indeed abysmal—the initial article was misleadingly entitled “Steamy Sex Courses Fire GOP’s Ire,” and the reporter had not so much as made an effort to understand what “queer theory” might be—but rather the attitudes about higher education expressed by these House members (restated in the follow-up article).

“Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, and math,” said Representative Calvin Hill in a time of budget cuts (and here I am quoting the article’s indirect quotation of Hill), “universities should not offer classes that do not help students get jobs.”

The Humanities has always had a difficult time defending its role in higher education, but the current (and ongoing) budget crises of state governments have made matters worse. Alumni donate heavily to athletics, scientific and engineering research, and business schools, but neglect History, Political Science, Philosophy, and English. Taxpayers are generally not interested in Shakespeare. The state of Wisconsin, for example, has provided enough funding for my department to hire fewer than half the number of faculty members we have lost over the past three years.

Those who are critical of the Humanities have a point. Much of what I do as an academic is utterly useless. I spend months carefully crafting arguments about 400-year-old texts in the hopes that the one person who will read it—my professor—will like it. (Good, my professor will say, but not great. And then he or she will point out that someone else has already said more or less what I have said, except better.) The stakes will change as I move up in the ivory tower, but the size of my audience probably will not.

Why should the state pay for this type of research? Why should universities offer courses taught by these types of people—who clearly will not help anyone find a job?

Down with that upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie!

Yet a number of my fellow Around-the-Couch wordsmiths have attested to the value of their liberal arts educations. (Now may not be the best time to point out that a number of my fellow Around-the-Couch wordsmiths are—or at least were—unemployed.) In order to understand why the liberal arts may be worth saving, it might be helpful to consider the way in which Renaissance humanists—whose ideas were largely responsible for our notion of a “liberal arts” education—thought about the arts.

Unlike Kant, who would later argue that a work of art exists for our detached aesthetic contemplation and moral judgment (it’s much more complicated than that, I know), thinkers like Pico della Mirandola and Desiderius Erasmus thought of art in much more active terms: not only did art have a didactic (generally moral) and amusing purpose, but it actually acted upon its audience. Consider these lines about satire from Joseph Hall’s Virgidemiarum (1598):

The Satyre should be like the Porcupine,
That shoots sharpe quils out in each angry line,
And wounds the blushing cheeke, and fiery eye,
Of him that heares, and readeth guiltily. (5.3.1-4)

What begins as metaphorical effect—the sting of a porcupine—becomes literal affect: reading a satire will make the reader feel ashamed, which is manifested in a physical response (the blush). Or consider Thomas Heywood’s remarks about the power of theater in his Apology for Actors (1612): “so bewitching a thing is lively and well-spirited action, that it hath power to new-mold the harts of the spectators, and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”

Critics of the arts during the Renaissance were the exact opposite of those represented by Representative Hill. Rather than finding the arts ineffective (for helping students get jobs), the arts threatened to be too effective—depictions of vice could lead the audience to emulate vice. In a Sermon at Paul’s Cross in 1577, for example, Thomas White suggested that “the cause of plagues is sinne, if you looke to it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”

We all know the clichés that retain this understanding of the arts—“the pen is mightier than the sword,” for example—but when we think about art, most of us probably still side with Kant: we engage the work of art, not the other way around. But humanities classes demonstrate that the work of art—or the historical narrative, or the philosophical system, or the political argument, or anything that exists in the realm of ideas rather than fact—has the power to engage us: we are forced to think, to recognize that we think, to be critical of the way we think, and to understand that our way of thinking is not the only available way of thinking. These classes taught by experts in male prostitution, oral sex, “queer theory,” or that Upstart Crow Shake-scene can change the way we think—or even make us think for ourselves.

That may not help students find jobs, but somehow it still seems worth defending.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Opening of a Late Night Show Aired in the Middle Ages

By Doug Lieblich * Other Doug Lieblich Posts

(Massive Applause as King Artie and the Knights of the Round Orchestra Play an up-tempo Big Band rendition of Greensleeves)

(HOST enters in a dapper suit of leather jerkin).

HOST: Thank you. Thank you. Welcome to the program. Big news in the alchemy world today. In a stunning breakthrough, Apothecaries have linked our four bodily humors to the signs of the zodiac. Yes, now you’ll finally know when on the solar calendar God will smite you with the Black Death.

(Rim-shot. Big laugh).

MAN FROM THE AUDIENCE: Bring out ya dead!

(HOST points at the MAN in the audience and winks at the inside joke).

HOST: Spies from France have reported that Louis VI has just married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Apparently, Louis originally refused the arrangement, stating that he already had swine on his manor.


HOST: Women are inferior creatures.

(Big laugh, applause).

HOST: Speaking of the French. You guys following the 100 Years War? The new English longbow is wowing our generals on the battlefield. Tacticians describe the bow as having a curved spine, wooden body, and very high strung…oh I’m sorry, I was describing the Duke of Burgundy.


HOST: It’s hot out here.

(HOST cups his ear to the audience)


HOST: So hot that Joan of Arc thinks she’s just tied to a stick!


HOST: So hot, that Henry II’s iron grip over Ireland is starting to melt!

(Rim shot)

HOST: So hot, I’m using my religious tapestry as a beach towel! HAY-YO.

(Rim-shot. Big laugh).

HOST: Have you guys heard about these fellas we’re fighting in the Crusade out east. You know, the Ottoman Empire. Apparently, they’re worshipping a god who can’t be depicted in human form. Their messiah’s name is Mohammad and the faith rests on five…get this, five pillars. The religion is called ISLAM!

(Huge laugh).

ARTIE: A backward culture condemned by God alright.

HOST: You said it Artie.

ARTIE: But gotta love their spices.

HOST. Gotta love their spices.

(HOST returns to AUDIENCE)

HOST: In a controversial maneuver, Pope Gregory VII issued the Dictatus Papae, proclaiming the supremacy of the papacy over any king or emperor. Henry IV retaliated, saying it’s easy for Gregory VII to say stuff like that since there isn’t a Mrs. Pope to nag him with her womanly frailties.


HOST: Women are inferior creatures

(Big laugh).

HOST: Hamlet has topped the charts for the eighth month in a row. When asked about the success of his rival, Shakespeare, playwright Cristopher Marlowe was unavailable for comment. That’s right he was too busy being arrested for conspiracy, and then being stabbed in the right eye.

(Laughter as ARTIE and the Orchestra play losing game show jingle wha…wha….whaaaaa).

HOST: It’s Inquisition season! Spain expelled its entire Jewish population yesterday. Regarding the mass exodus….I…I can’t see what it says on the cue-card…oh that’s right, I’m illiterate. Why do I even hire scribes for this show?

(Cut to STAGE MANAGER wearing an executioner’s hood and a headset radio. He shrugs his shoulders).

HOST: And now ladies and lords…a dwarf!

(A DWARF in a jester’s costume runs back and forth on the set as AUDIENCE laughs and throws cabbage. Orchestra plays extremely uptempo Greensleeves)

HOST: (laughing) You are a person cursed by God and created purely for our amusement.

(Applause as DWARF runs off set)

HOST: We have a great show for you tonight. Saladin is here.


Host: Cardinal Richelieu is here.

(Huge applause, followed by AUDIENCE chants of “Richelieu, Richelieu”)

HOST: So stick around. We’ll be right back.

(Applause and throw to commercial as ARTIE and the Orchestra once again play Greensleeves)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating on the Couch

By je * Other je Posts

There are few things I enjoy as much as food. New York is a glorious and dangerous place for a foodie. In addition to the great restaurants and food festivals, if you like to take your meals into your own hands, you can find any ingredient with a visit to your neighborhood meat market, stroll through the Union Square farmers market, or quick trip to Chinatown.

Growing up, my family didn’t eat out much, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to trace back the love of food that my parents instilled in me. I love my mother’s cooking--it is intentionally simplistic. Her repertoire developed over time, with roots in Haitian and Latin American cuisine. Influenced in part by our American friends, my sister and I grew up with very strong opinions about what we wanted to eat. My mother would rarely let us indulge in this country’s staples like pizza or happy meals, but she accommodated our requests by stripping out the exotic ingredients in our culture’s traditional food to make it all a bit more kid friendly. As a result, she’s naturally refined her technique to produce very clean and precise outcomes, despite her tendency to eye-ball everything—which, I will add, is incredibly frustrating if you ever ask her for a recipe. My father, on the other hand, was always a bit more avant-garde when it came to the culinary arts. Most of his formal education and professional work has been in food science, and a scientist’s spirit of experimentation was always in full display in the kitchen. Sometimes the result was nothing short of stellar, but I can remember vividly (and still taste) every gastronomic disaster. But you could tell he enjoyed the drama, mystery, and anticipation, and he never felt bad about the result of his curiosity.

These two approaches to cooking, and the underlying affinity towards food that I inherited, sadly, lay dormant in me until college. Until I left for university, I took most home-cooking for granted and I was content to stuff myself with cafeteria tatter tots, KFC twisters, or Italian BMTs from Subway throughout high school. I’m sure many of you have held similar attitudes, and some probably still do. Things changed sometime during the first semester of freshman year. Meal plan novelty lost its luster; I quickly became bored with the same fare at the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls, and so I begin to explore more of the interesting restaurants and cafes near campus. Then, in my sophomore year, I started to work as a waiter in a local Japanese joint and in the act of delivering all those California rolls and orders of chicken teriyaki to drunk sorority girls and pseudo-intellectual townies, I developed an appreciation for food preparation and the pageantry of food service.

Shortly thereafter, I took a 2-credit evening cooking class (how’s that for course selection!) and mincing garlic has been a wonderfully cathartic activity ever since. I followed the night class up with our college’s famous wine tasting course. Aside from the pleasures derived from drinking-for-credit, the class challenged me to begin thinking critically about the components of taste. I’m certainly no gourmand, but I now “listen” to food more than most people, and I try to bring some of the lessons learned with me into the kitchen. Over time, cooking has evolved from an inconvenient means to satisfy my daily nutritional requirements for life, to my favorite hobby.

And so for all of you aspiring amateur chefs, I wanted to share some tips to get you ready in time for your summer potlucks & picnics:

Get a Knife

My father always thinks of the worst case scenario, and he never liked to take unnecessary chances when it came to home safety. Keeping a large chef knife was, in some paranoid way, tempting misfortune. Consequently, we only had serrated steak knives in the home since they were functional, but small—mitigating much of the risk of injury. This, in my father’s mind, was an acceptable compromise. And so, much like how I always believed everyone ordered meat “well done” I assumed that this is how most households were run. Then came that cooking class in college. Class 1, lesson 1: “A good chef knife and paring knife are a must-have in your arsenal.” I’ve found this to be true time and time again.

When you’ve got the proper tool and form, cutting and chopping are a breeze and you’ll be amazed at how much better your food will look when it’s not being ripped apart by the jagged teeth of a steak or bread knife. There’s plenty of great information out on the web and I’ll leave the endorsements to the experts, but a good knife that feels comfortable in your hand is the best investment you can make for your kitchen. One warning, it’s very easy to go overboard when purchasing cutlery. I recommend doing a little research to find something that fits within your budget.

Be Intimate

For my 21st birthday, my girlfriend’s parents gave me a gift basket with some gourmet tortilla chips & salsas, fresh ground cumin & dried chilies, margarita mix & a big ass bottle o’ tequila, and two cookbooks (best gift basket ever!). One of these books, Mexican, has been close to me ever since, essentially becoming a fixture of the kitchen of every apartment I’ve inhabited in the 5 years since. The book is full of vibrant pictures and colorful descriptions, covering the salsas, sauces, steaks, and sangria of our southern neighbors. The Book begins with a section devoted to the ingredients used throughout the rest of the book, thus providing a quick reference if you find yourself confused about how to prepare jicama or the intensity of poblano chiles.

Over the years, I’ve probably made more than half of the recipes in this book and it’s been a great way to develop some depth to an otherwise superficial (yet strong) love of Mexican cuisine. Now, when challenged by the availability of certain ingredients or when moved by an improvisational whim, I’ve taken liberties when making my favorites and through this exploration I know what steps to skip in a recipe, when to substitute (and when NOT to), which dishes complement each other, and most generally, the effects that certain ingredients or methods of preparation might impart on the taste, texture, aroma, or presentation of a dish. It’s difficult to know any of this without the familiarity that comes with spending some quality time with a good book.

Don’t Forget to Share

Cooking for 1 usually sucks. Scaling back a recipe can be very tricky and can also lead to a lot of waste if your ingredients are not easily divisible. Maintaining a store of fresh ingredients is even worse—trying to use up a whole bunch of parsley before it goes bad might require adding it to your bowl of Cheerios in the morning. I’m lucky enough to live with two ravenous eaters; these guys massacre meals compared to me. Not surprisingly, they have been very supportive of my passion for the kitchen and they’ve been kind enough to provide honest and astute feedback with every meal. Now, if they could just remember to tip..

If you’re not lucky enough to have your own hungry hungry hippos down the hall, host a few dinner parties. They need not be elaborate, and having another set of taste buds to enjoy your work will be both rewarding and enlightening. When cooking for others, remember to mind the presentation.

Give Yourself Time

I violate this “rule” often. I tend to be pretty ambitious when allocating time to cook: I get lost or distracted along the way and guests arrive before I’m totally finished. It’s something I aim to improve upon in the future, along with flossing daily and watering my houseplants regularly. Fortunately, I’ve never had one of those epic disasters that might have required some intensive intervention to rescue a botched dish or an entirely new contingency, but it’s something every cook should consider budgeting a little time for, particularly for high-pressure or important dinners. There’s always a chance that something bad can happen, so hope for the best but plan for the worst.

When using a recipe, read through it thoroughly beforehand and identify the critical path to execute your plan without delay or hiccups. Be mindful of the state of the ingredients at start of Step 1: if something is already peeled/chopped/sliced, you may not have time to do this in the middle of step 3. For example, if you’re instructed to fry garlic in olive oil and add 1 chopped onion once the garlic turns golden, it’s likely that there will not be enough time for you to work on chopping the onion once the garlic is added to the oil, so you should finish your chopping before adding anything to heat.

Explore & Internalize

Professionals in every field (be it sports, science, or art) are constantly reviewing history while broadening their knowledge with new ideas. So eat out, try new dishes, order the same plate twice, and don’t be afraid to be creative with your own concoctions. While you’re enjoying these meals, try to think critically about your experience. Most people never move beyond “this taste good”, but there’s a lot more going on in your mouth that you should try to understand (I’m sorry that sounded dirty). What flavors pop? Can you detect some of the supporting cast of ingredients mentioned on the menu? How does this compare to anything similar you’ve enjoyed in the past? These are questions that will allow you to begin to unravel some of the magic behind food.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Justice is Visually Stunning

By ned * Other ned Posts

12 Angry Men reminds us that classic motion pictures are thus for simple reasons. This black and white movie’s drama creates tension through the deliberation over a high-stakes criminal trial in a single room. The clash and metamorphosis of differing opinions demonstrates that change is possible and garnered a Best Picture nomination – losing to the stellar The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Aside from the deliberation room, the only other setting in the movie is the entrance of a famous New York City municipal center.

Unlike the simplicity of 12 Angry Men, the New York State Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street in New York City grandly casts a shadow on Foley Square below. The elevated portico harkens to the past with a Greek temple façade that masks more modern art deco masterpieces inside. In the latter style, the internal rotunda is painted with scenes from courtrooms of different Western cultures that our judicial tradition is built upon. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve on jury duty in this same building. The friezes in our waiting room highlighted a heroic vision of New York City’s majesty with a degree of handmade detail that modern buildings lack.

The building is fitting for our conception of the legal profession. The formal stylings match the suits and selected diction of the lawyers and clerks inside. Its gold embossed print and marble also suggested another side to the legal profession hyped in populous discourse – its money. The main street hatred of Wall Street spills over to the “fat cat lawyer.” Moreover, with people flocking to Ikea and Wal-Mart, the modern day consumer desires value as much as prestige. Perhaps the legal profession needs retooling for the post-Great Recession age.

A few models are emerging for a different type of law firm – or Law 2.0 as some call it. A few miles from the courthouse one New York law firm is an example of a growing trend. The firm Axiom is searching to find a model that minimizes costs and maximizes value to its clients. The Axiom plan revolves around lawyers based from home or at the client site instead of a law office with varying engagements and pricing structures. All of this work is to diminish overhead costs and the bottom line for the customer. Entrepreneurial ventures like this seems more fit in simple modern buildings such as Google’s headquarters.

But, I hope that our legal architecture remains rooted in the past. Places like the New York Supreme Courthouse in New York City evoke grandeur and formality. Our legal system is a peculiar institution. Built by mortals and tradition, it is often called imperfect. But, with decentralized power and faith in everyday citizens through juries, its structure strives to engage all instead of few in the power of a state. Distributing power that often corrupts the weak and strong alike. Those are high ideals that require a cathedral and not a campus.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Staying and Going

By Mike Corey * Other Mike Corey Posts

She called with a pretense.

“Have you made your law school decision yet?”

The answer is complicated, and begins with a cliffhanger. “Sort of.”

It’s why my blogging has been so sparse. How paralyzing waiting can be. My quasi-decision articulated—“I’m going here, but may be going there if I sneak in off the waitlist”—she revealed her reason for calling after a few moments of silence.

“My dad may be dying.”

He had been sick for years, I knew. But a bout with pneumonia to a body long-weakened by illness can be deadly. She knew it, and had flown from one coast to another to be by her father’s side amidst law school finals because of it. And now she wanted to know if she should stay, if she should abandon her summer clerkship, if she should just be by her father’s side.

I have become a de facto authority on conundrums such as these because of my unfortunate membership in the fraternity of sons who have lost their young fathers to cancer. My dad passed away in February 2005, with a few months remaining in my senior year of college. I met this girl a few months later, after she’d read an article I’d penned in the school magazine on my father’s life and death. She just wanted to share her sympathy then; now she wanted something more.

The problem she faced was all too familiar.

“I don’t know how much time he has left,” she said. “I have to believe he’ll be here in August, and a year from now, 20 years from now. But if something happens, I have to be here.”

These words were hard to hear, particularly when buttressed by the need for advice:

“What should I do?”

The only right answer, I confessed, is that everyone has a different answer to that question. Some people cope with situations such as these by dropping everything and entrenching themselves bedside; some need distance (geographic or otherwise). But most need a balance of the two.

I had fallen in the latter camp when my father was ill. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer during the first week of my senior year, he was scheduled to have surgery that November after several weeks of intense chemotherapy. I flew back and forth between Durham, North Carolina and Columbus, Ohio all fall, and negotiated an arrangement in which I would remain home after Thanksgiving break, coinciding with my father’s surgery and recovery in intensive care. I sent in my final exams over e-mail, as well, even as my father’s healing regressed.

It was at the start of the second semester when the thought first precipitated: “I have to be here if he dies.” I had made a promise to my father that I wouldn’t go back to school until he’d left Intensive Care, but as that grew more and more unlikely, I had to make a choice to stay or go.

I remember that conversation. Sitting in an empty waiting room at 6 AM, my father’s health had suddenly deteriorated. While he was coughing up blood in the other room, my dad’s doctors and closest friends sat down with my mother and me. One by one the doctors told me to go back to school, that if anything should happen, they would keep him alive until I could fly back from Durham. I could only say it once: “I have to be here.”

Six weeks later, I was awoken by phone call from my mother in Columbus. I had continued oscillating back and forth along with my father’s health, but now I would need to return one last time. His kidneys had begun to fail.

The time between then and my arrival at my father’s bedside was ungodly. My mother put the phone by my unconscious father’s ear, and I sputtered through tears in telling him I loved him, and that I was coming. I sat miserable on an airplane with business travelers, and began to sober up on the familiar car ride to the hospital. 6 months it had been in those halls, with those noises and nurses—with my dad. I had read to him, listened to him, spoken to him, telling him everything he would need to know, everything I needed him to know. He had become my best friend in those months, knowing each other as adults, not just as a father and child, but as men.

And that is what I hoped for my friend, that she and her father could be as close as they'd ever been before he departed this world for the next. She had to have the chance to achieve that, whether she stayed by his side or returned to school and continued with the plans her father had long hoped she would make for herself.

I remember in the final hours, a priest that had never met me came to deliver a blessing over my father. I had refused to move or to let go of my dad’s hand while the prayer was uttered, my stubbornness prompting the priest to tell me that he would never be so lucky as to have a son by his side in his last moments. And then the priest said he loved me.

It infuriated me then, the sentiment seeming so disingenuous. Love isn’t instantaneous, nor can it simply be expressed. Love was what I had for my father, and in those cruel seconds when death appears and disappears, love is all that death sees fit to leave behind. To be there to witness it, to help my father make that journey, was a blessing regardless, one I fervently hope my friend may have when her father’s time comes, hopefully some distant day far away from here and now.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Your Team Sucks! Sports, Fandom, and Schadenfreude

By Fidel Martinez * Other Fidel Martinez Posts

So, it turns out that Manny Ramirez is a big time cheater. That kind of makes me really happy. Actually, it makes me extraordinarily joyful. I'm not one who subscribes to the theory that the proliferation of steroid usage has desecrated the sanctity of baseball. Steroids is no worse a stain than the legacy of racism and exclusion in professional baseball. Truthfully, if given the chance to compete, there would be more than a handful of black players that would make Babe Ruth look like Chipper Jones, or whatever other white player has the appropriate stats to be inducted into the hall of fame but whose play was not particularly memorable. My point is that racism and steroids are both blemishes on a sport that has never been that pure to begin with. So why would the Ramirez revelation bring me so much jubilation if I don't agree with the idea that rampant steroid usage is ruining baseball? Quite frankly, because so many people out there do, particularly Dodger fans.

When I first read the news, the painful memory of the Dodgers sweeping the Cubs in last year's first round of the playoffs was completely erased. Sure, Manny Ramirez had a hell of a series, hitting everything that was thrown his way and wiping out what has been one of the best seasons in recent Cubs history, as well as making my favorite player Carlos "BIG Z" Zambrano cry like a little bitch. But, he's a cheater. He's also infertile. That makes it OK. That almost erases the image of BIG Z sitting in the bench looking sadder and mopier than anyone at a Morissey concert as he sings 'Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me" from my mind. Ramirez’s suspension is the ultimate trump card. LA fans can brag about beating us last year, but hey, at least none of our players are cheaters (that we know of yet). The only thing that would have made this story even better was if we had found out he was juicing in Boston. That would've been the icing to this wonderful cheating cake.

Bad news for teams/fan-bases you hate is always good news. When the A-Rod scandal broke, every fan in Boston rejoiced with a “wicked awesome” in that awful Southie accent. While I can't stand those Massholes, I certainly understand them. A curse on my enemy is my blessing. When Redskins player Sean Taylor was shot in the crotch and then passed away after a breaking and entering at his Florida home, I spent the following season reminding each and every Redskin fan I knew how their star player died. By being shot in the crotch. I even named my fantasy football team "I Shot Sean Taylor" because there was at least one Redskin fan in my league. Was this morally reprehensible? Probably. Ok, it was definitely a horrible thing to do, but I still slept wonderfully at night. I got my fair share of "oh come on man, that's not cool. That's over the line" from said Redskin fans. Was it going really going overboard, however?If they had found themselves to be in my position, would their behavior have been any different? I received a lot of heat when Tony Romo was sacked at the one yard line during that fateful NFC wild card playoff game against the Seahawks, and while I'm able to differentiate between losing a football game and someone losing their life, the intention of rejoicing in the misery of another fan remains the same.It was all done in the name of fandom, and under that guise, what is considered reprehensible by societal norm is justifiable.

That's what I love about sports and fandom. They provide the appropriate and necessary outlet for our most primordial desires. Rejoicing in the misery of others is a wonderful thing, and to deny yourself that pleasure is inhuman. The Germans even created the perfect word for it: Schadenfreude. In an utopian world, no one would ever derive pleasure from the misery and misfortunes of others. Unfortunately for us, we live in a place that's far from ideal. Much has been written about the nature of man and the prevalent conclusion (be it philosophical or theological) is that we as people are inherently evil. I don't necessarily subscribe to this outlook, but there's definitely a case to be made for it. Everyone enjoys seeing others suffer. If that weren't the case, things like the Fail Blog, or half the videos on Youtube would not exist. A 2002 New York Times article about Schadenfreude and the scientific studies it has inspired argues that the principle behind such "shameful joy" is inspired by Social Comparison Theory-- a theory in which we as individuals measure ourselves in comparison to our peers. If those around us suffer misfortunes it makes us feel better about ourselves even though their bad luck does not improve our particular situation.

Social Comparison Theory works wonderfully in the realm of sports. If I invest myself emotionally on a team that doesn't succeed, I can feel better about following a bad team if my opponents also suffer misfortune. It proves that I am not the only one who suffers at the hand of their team, and I'm able to sleep better at night. Sure, i am finding joy in the Manny Ramirez's woes, but at the end of the day he will still make millions of dollars by swinging a bat for our amusement. It becomes easier for me to laugh at him for using steroids (and for using a hormone predominantly used by women) instead of poking fun of some Joe Schmo who's having a really bad day. Plus, the douche made the Cubbies look bad.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great Turtle Race

By Doug Lieblich * Other Doug Lieblich Posts

My close relationship with my brother, Jerry was partially the product of living in isolation. Although we lived in the heart of Long Island suburbia, our house was situated off a major highway with no neighbors remotely close to our age. Since we lived so close to the highway, our loving—and very protective—Jewish mother ordered a gate around the property. We could explore, so long as it wasn’t in front of a speeding Mack truck. The two of us were literally fenced in—the sole inhabitants in our own gated community. At one point she even installed a second set of deadbolt locks six feet off the ground on all of our doors. This was to prevent us from running onto the street to see this fabled Mack truck we kept hearing about. I didn’t realize this wasn’t on every door in America until I was sixteen.

Since our parents worked on weekdays, Jerry and I lived in a seemingly empty house for large portions of the day. Our father popped pimples in his office while our mother held an independent real estate practice. I remember watching her don her coat, grab her briefcase, and kiss us goodbye as she walked out the door every morning. It took Jerry and me a few months before we realized that the door—and her office—connected to our house. With our parents at work, Jerry and I scampered upstairs and entered our own secret world. I relied on Jerry for company and entertainment value. And as my younger brother, Jerry was just happy to be included in whatever scheme popped out of my head at a given moment.

One such scheme involved the use of pet turtles we had received as gifts from a family friend. There were two turtles and since our house had two sons, it only seemed logical that Jerry and I each pick one as our own private turtle. We named them Leonardo and Raphael, in homage of our role models—the ninja turtles, not the Renaissance painters. I pledged to monitor them with all of the responsibility a hyper active six year old had. This mainly involved talking to it, poking it with a spoon, and other techniques in making sure your pet isn’t dead.

On a particularly uneventful afternoon, I took them out of their Tupperware home and proclaimed the commencement of the Great Turtle Race. This involved a meticulous construction of an obstacle course composed of wooden blocks, toy cars, and discarded board game pieces; it was a turtle death trap, and I am still grateful that my aunt, the crusader for all that is PETA, never saw it.

After we set the course, Jerry and I each acted as a manager for our own turtle client. I managed whichever one I thought was Leonardo; Jerry took the other one.

“Mine’s defective,” Jerry said. We both watched exasperated as Raphael trotted an inch to the first block and immediately retreated into its shell. Although, Leonardo was more active than his counterpart, he somehow fared worse. Jerry was quick to point this out, “He’s defective too.” I couldn’t disagree. In a desperate attempt to escape, Leonardo had lumbered away from the course, hoping to find refuge under the room’s radiator.

I remained optimistic. “He’s not defective. They just need something to race for.” I surveyed the course. It was surely challenging enough for any reptile, but what was it missing? I looked at Leonardo, who was now gnawing on the edge of the radiator.

“I got an idea,” I declared, racing back to their tank. It was in the bathroom, and a constant reminder of a tacit agreement between us and the turtles. Jerry and I would feed and protect them from predators, and in exchange, they would live in a porcelain covered room, dedicated to human excrement.

I returned to the course with two food pellets and placed them on the finishing block. After repositioning the turtles at the starting line, Jerry and I eagerly held them in place. We were cohorts turned competitors, a common dynamic in our relationship at this point in our lives.

“3…2…1…go!” We released. Nothing. I nudged my turtle toward the obstacle. I had to win, especially if it was a game I invented. My brother, always the arbiter of fair play, tended to acquiesce as the runner-up so long as I presented the illusion of a just competition. This time, however, my tactics were too blatant.

“No cheating,” he said, dragging Raphael against his will. An outsider could hear the terrified creature’s nails dig against the carpet, but we had much more important matters to attend. We had a race to win. Not to be outdone, I dragged Leonardo through the course as well, his head fully withdrawn in his shell, praying to the Turtle Gods that his last moments on earth would not be in the sweaty palms of a six-year old boy.

Neither Jerry nor I forsook our principles: I wanted to win at any cost, while he was genuinely interested in which was the faster turtle. Eventually, our antics escalated to us dragging our turtles through the entire course. Sure, we had given them ample time to move…they were after all turtles, but enough was enough. By now the race had devolved into my brother and I pulling two creatures to food they didn’t need through an obstacle course they didn’t want. They became our reluctant living race cars.

I don’t think anyone won the race. In fact, I believe that in a way, we both lost.

It was a terrible day for human-turtle relations.

After a few years, my family inexplicably traded Leonardo and Raphael back to the family friend in exchange for a single slightly larger turtle. I never found out where Leonardo and Raphael actually went. Perhaps like the fence surrounding us from the ubiquitous Mack truck which lurked behind it, the turtle trade was our parents’ way of shielding Jerry and me from the concept of death.

Jerry and I were much less enthused about this new turtle. His unimaginative name, Swimmy, was just one of the many instances of our lack of interest in his existence. We were, moreover, old enough to actually feed him and change his water. These new chores in conjunction with the discovery that he was a biting turtle—with an affinity for human fingers—diminished our efforts in his upkeep. Jerry, holding an innate love for all living things, quickly took my responsibilities, but he couldn’t work miracles for this clearly less exciting turtle.

Over time, Swimmy became even less active and progressively blurred the line between life and death. I privately changed his name to “Floaty,” much to Jerry’s chagrin. Despite Swimmy’s neglected environment, he was our first experience with mortality. Even when Swimmy clearly became a Floaty, Jerry was stuck in a denial phase. Whether it was hibernating, thinking, or just being “decomposed in half for a while,” Jerry’s attachment with animals made it difficult for him to accept their demise. An unfortunate result of his empathy was the presence of a rotting turtle carcass floating in our bathroom.

I tried not to let the sight bother me. It wasn’t really my turtle; it wasn’t really my problem. But every time I shuffled into the bathroom, anxious to relieve myself from nature’s call, I casually gazed to my left, seeing Swimmy’s remains drifting next to the sink like a green tea-saucer full of fungus. Go ahead and watch, I thought, see what I care. I washed my hands paying no heed to the corpse that silently taunted me. But as I left the bathroom, I couldn’t help but glance back and see if its shiftless eyes followed me on my exit.

I decided to wait it out. Someone would surely get fed up enough to deal it. Days passed, then a week, but still no turtle undertaker. Even our housekeeper who occasionally cleaned the bathroom left it there. Call me spoiled, but this baffled me. This meant that she had to enter the bathroom with the intention of sanitizing it—which as a top priority includes the removal of any dead or near-dead animals—and deliberately kept the chunks of reptile there. She even lifted the tank and cleaned the tile underneath it before setting the carcass back on the counter.

My parents never harped on the problem. They never nagged us to go “throw out Swimmy.” In fact, they never even addressed his death. They just stopped buying turtle food. I wondered about their inaction. Did they simply not care? Did they want to keep it as a memento? Perhaps it was to serve as a warning to future bathroom pets. I eventually realized, however, that they didn’t have the heart to break the news to Jerry and crush the boy’s spirit. It was just so much easier to leave the tank there than willingly expose your ten year-old to his first death of a loved one.

After two weeks, I concluded that the task of convincing Jerry of Swimmy’s transformation to a Floaty was left to me. Luckily, I had another scheme for him.

We loaded Swimmy into the toilet with formality and gravitas. I assured Jerry that it was a “burial at sea.” At the time, I was twelve years old, and just old enough to see the humor and irony in the situation. There was, of course, nothing solemn about flushing a beloved member of the family down the toilet. On some level, I knew this and was having a good laugh. The image of the dead turtle circling its way through the labyrinth of pipes which comprised our sewage system also appealed to my budding absurdist and slightly moribund sense of humor.

But part of me really did want to comfort my brother even if that comfort was partly a ruse. After all, wasn’t this the role of being an elder brother, to protect one’s younger sibling from the cruel realities of life and to turn the banal into the fantastical? The key, of course, was not to betray even the slightest sense of comedy and laughter. As long as I gave the ceremony the dignity it deserved, all would be well.

“He was a good turtle,” I told my brother.

“Yeah, he was,” he replied.

Slowly, as respectfully as I could, I placed my right arm around him, and with the left I reached for the handle of the toilet and flushed.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scott Pilgrim Must Buy

By LeKeith * Other LeKeith Posts

Before the release of The Watchmen Film, I noticed an increased number of copies of The Watchmen Book visible on the railways. I am including myself; not only did I borrow a copy but I then loaned out my borrowed copy to someone else. In an effort to make it up to the original loaner, I bought a copy to replace the borrowed copy. At one point, I had claim to 2 copies of the book but neither was technically mine. I know mental, right?

DC Comics has gone into overdrive trying to capitalize on the movie's one week of success. They've launched a site to point people towards some of their other works by established artists. I’ve read some of these titles and will willingly recommended All Star Superman or The Killing Joke, without hesitation. I wouldn’t recommend every title however.

DC isn’t alone in this; Marvel, to coincide with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has released additional comics centering on all aspects Wolverine. Wolverine is already a heavily favored and read character but the additional series focus on or relate to his origin stories. However, much like The Watchmen, there is a lot of story to condense for cinema, which can result in confusion for both the comic readers and the movie goers. I have a different suggestion that is more needed: Read the Scott Pilgrim series.

This is Scott. His surname is Pilgrim, hence the title of the series. Scott is an aimless twenty-three year old living in Toronto, Canada. He fills his days with his band, made up of his friends; they're, admittedly, not very good. He shares a tiny one bed, one-bedroom with his gay friend / roommate Wallace. By ‘shares,’ I mean mooches off of. He meets a girl - Ramona Flowers – and fancies her, setting off a chain of events revolved around a single principle:

In order to date Ramona, he must defeat her 7 evil exes.

Bryan Lee O'Malley is the creator of this series. From the first few pages in Volume 1, you can tell that O’Malley showcases his influences. The art of the series shows influences of Manga, which is a Japanese comic art style. The books are even Manga sized, which is about the size of a Reader’s Digest, around 5’’ x 7.5’.’ American comic books are generally .6.625’’ x 10.25’’. The art within the pages are in black and white; however, many of the panels not only reference color but self-referentially acknowledge that the book is printed in black and white. In terms of content, O’Malley is not one to limit himself, making anything and everything a possible reference within the series. In a quick gloss, you will potentially discover tabs for a song, a recipe for Vegan Shepard’s Pie, or – my personal favorite – classic videogame references.

Scott Pilgrim is an enjoyable and accessible read. The Watchmen and similar titles being recommended by DC are weighted, focusing on darker themes like death, corruption, moral deviations and other apocalyptic goodness. I have no problem with this type of reading material but sometimes I need a break. And I don't know you but you need a break too. With the summer approaching, this seems about as good as a time as any to revel in something more comedic. I’m not implying that Scott Pilgrim is without heft, that’s certainly not the case. Without going into too much detail, there is both major and minor character development that affects the series’ driving premise. The Watchmen and Watchmen-esque works are fairly dense; they require a more detailed understanding of comic books either in terms of character history or comic book themes. Scott Pilgrim operates on less of these principles than others do. It's a good comic for non-comic readers also.

I, too, am late to the Pilgrim party. I didn’t read the first book until I picked it up at the San Diego Comic Con 2008. I did so in bass-ackwards fashion: I bought one the day after O’Malley was there, signing books and selling original artwork, which my friend purchased. With months to stew over my errs, I picked up a copy of Volume 5 – mostly for the limited addition sleeve – first thing on Day 1 of the New York Comic Con 2009. I also picked up Volume 2 that day. That night, I read Volume 2, returned to the NYCC for Day 2 and bought Volumes 3 and 4. I read those the same night and completed 5 by the time the NYCC weekend was over. That weekend, the Scott Pilgrim books were my crack but the good kind of crack. They were like Madeleines. I came, I saw, I bought the limited edition t-shirt.

I want to be the one to take you through the looking glass. Trust me, on the other side, you will not be alone. It’s warm and comforting, like fresh madeleines straight from the oven. There is a large fanbase for this series that has yet to get mainstream attention.While the books have been reviewed by the likes of the New York Times, its fans have gone under reported. To be fair, articles about fans only happen when they reach BoSox or Potter like levels of 'dedication.' So it’s fine that Gawker doesn’t have any articles about us. But there is an official Myspace page, unofficial Facebook pages, and a Ning page. I know; I hadn’t heard of Ning either, not until SP.

We can get to all of that. Let me be your Sherpa, and we’ll take in a little bit of Pilgrim at a time. We’ll eventually reach levels of release parties like the one Rocketship had for Volume 5: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe. For Volume 6, We’ll throw BBQ’s, Theme Parties, whatever you like. First we have to start with Volume 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, which you can pick up at Bergen Street Comics. You should pick up Volume 2: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World while you're there. Take a look around the shop. It'd be a nice place for a release party, in my opinion.

They've already making a movie based on the series. O'Malley is working closely with Edgar Wright., the Writer / Director of both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. You love those movies! It's starring Michael Cera. You love Michael Cera! Admit it: He's second only to Paul Rudd, if that. You hate that your parents stole Cera from you because they liked Juno. Your tween sister (and her friends) co-opted him through Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (That soundtrack was clearly intended for you, not them). They still haven’t watched Arrested Development, probably not until that movie comes out. C’mon! We’re taking him back. If we read the books now, we can reverse the trend. Mark your pop-cultural territory, figuratively, not literally.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Contributor Bio: RTTF (“Rachel The Token Female”)

Rachel the Token Female (RTTF for your abbreviation pleasure) is a left-wing, drunken-philosopher type with an awkward sense of humor and a love of bowling. But (to quote Samantha Bee of the Daily Show speaking of Sarah Palin) what’s most important here is that she has boobies. She will bring a "feminine perspective" to Around the Couch, with all the mediocrity that that implies.

Rachel was raised in the lush environs of Irvine, California, and now makes her home in New York City. There she is employed in fighting bureaucratic baddies with the irrefutable power of statistics, and her mind (official title: Research Analyst at the Vera Institute of Justice). Rachel graduated from Yale in 2006, where she had the dubious pleasure of spending her college years with Fidel Martinez. She is also writing a novel.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

You've Done too Much; Much too Young

By ned * Other ned Posts

The annals of history are filled with famous men of character reversing sides. Paul went from persecuting to embracing Christianity. You could view the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees from the rival Red Sox from this perspective as well. But, not all historically significant changes of heart end up being considered with reverence. With Benedict Arnold, Karl Malone and Garth Brooks switching to the losing sides of England, the Lakers, and Chris Gains respectively; history has deemed them traitors.

I too have had a change of heart of epic proportions. For the majority of my pop music consumption, I have had a vocal aversion to bands with women leads. A part of it was aesthetics. The voices of many female leads of pop acts are less sultry or rich than whiney, nasally and thin (e.g. Tegan and Sarah). This is not to say that all male acts have exquisite voices (e.g. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!). But, at least I can sing along to them and my dog does not bark at the stereo. Additionally, part of my distaste was likely caused by a hint of male pride – for what young adult male would say they attended Lilith Fair.

The Author in Days of Yore

This is no longer the case now. My heart and ears are all a flitter with a few indie crushes. Neko Case’s coronet voice is much like her red hair – not subtle but interesting and colorful. Bringing in the ranks of Elvis Costello and Conor Oberst as fans and collaborators, Jenny Lewis is well beyond her Troop Beverly Hills days. Lastly, I am hopeful that Zooey Deschanel – front woman of She & Him and friend of the elves - will eventually see the error of her ways in engaging Ben Gibbard and seek me out.

What might explain this reversal? In the past my wallet would at times make exceptions to my general anti-estrogen stance. Perhaps that might be a good place to find what’s underneath my inclinations. One such feminine purchase was the 3rd Wave Ska act known as the Dance Hall Crashers. The album was initially inserted into my case logic CD binder in 1997 – at the height of the two-tone craze. Ska was rocking the suburbs at that time with popular acts such as Reel Big Fish, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Sublime. From that indicator, it’s not too difficult to make the leap that my choices have been influenced by trends. Perhaps my taste (or distaste) has simply been a product of the times.

Like many of my era, my gateway music was grunge and punk. Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Green Day dominated my music and also the airwaves of college/alternative/indie rock stations. The aggregate of early to mid 90’s music created this grimy masculine aesthetic - apparently also with male leads as demonstrated by my top of mind examples.

Clearly then I am a victim of society! Alt-rock, my genre of choice, must have been male dominated and is now becoming less so. Moreover, with bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the collegiate type and Paramore for the teenybopper and my indie crushes, intuition suggests this hypothesis to be true.

Being in the scientific age, this speculation needs statistical backing. As a data source, I turn to Spin Magazine for a couple of reasons. The magazine is a good source for the pool of music I would have been exposed to: its slightly less mainstream than Rolling Stone and broader in tastes than say the Alternative Press. Most importantly it has existed for a duration long enough to cover from 1992 (the year I entered middle school) to the present.

To show that alt-rock has been dominated by men, I took the magazine’s yearly top ten albums from 1990 to 2008 and categorized each along two lines: Male lead or Female/Mixed lead and Rock or Non-Rock. Non-Rock ended up essentially being hip-hop, R&B, and electronica, and Rock albums - coming from Spin - are then alt-rock (aka the population of albums that would potentially make it to my Discman). My hypothesis was that the number of female leads of critically acclaimed alt-rock albums has risen of late. If correct, my tastes have been driven by supply.

And the results ….

Basically, there is no correlation or trend when it comes to alt-rock acts and female leads. The grimy sound of the 90’s produced a number of successes including Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, PJ Harvey, and Hole. In other words, there was no shortage of critically acclaimed women acts in the indie universe. If anything, there are less now according to the editors of Spin.

So, what can we infer? If society is not the reason then it must be internal. This can only mean one thing. A challenge faced by many after college. Perhaps my greatest fear.

I am turning into a wuss and an adult. Verifying statistics: at a restaurant I am just as likely to order a glass of wine as beer. I have more sweaters than sweatshirts. I look forward to getting a good night’s sleep. I guess it is time to face facts.

With that said, I am off to listen to the sounds of Kate Nash as I head to my Yoga class.

The Adult Author Today