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This American Life's retraction and the question that actually matters

I’m not a fan of This American Life. This will come as a shock to anyone (or any robot) crawling through this site gathering demographic information, because I fit the listener profile to a T: well-educated in the humanities, a writer, a liberal, a youngish white woman who listens to NPR almost constantly the rest of the time.

But the show just doesn’t do it for me. It’s a combination of things, I think. They tell a very structurally-specific type of story, one which, as they say on their website, centers around characters, conflict, and a universal takeaway. Clearly, I do love stories with characters and conflicts, but I find the ever-present universal takeaway on this show a bit too easy, something that allows listeners to feel as though they’re participating in the world simply by joining in the larger feelings-session. (More on this, specifically, later.) Also, I just don’t like Ira Glass’s delivery.

So when I realized last weekend that I was likely to be driving a uhaul truck over the Sunol grade from noon to one pm, smack in the middle of the This American Life broadcast on KQED, I was all set to bring my ipod and listen to another podcast. That is, I was going to listen to something else until I remembered that this weekend was Retraction Weekend, a one-hour show about a January episode entitled “Mr. Daisy Goes to the Apple Factory.” As I’m sure you’ve heard, Mr. Daisy was less than truthful about what he found in Shenzhen, and This American Life was retracting his piece and spending an hour talking about how and why this had happened. So I tuned in.

This piece encapsulates my impression of the general fact-checking failure; to put it briefly, Daisy told Glass that his translator, Cathy, could no longer be reached. That was that, until holes started showing after the original piece aired back in January. When Glass and his team started looking into things, Daisy said that, actually, her name was Anna, not Cathy, and he didn’t think she’d like to be contacted as she hadn’t known she was in a story at all.

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Pretty awesome local news


This is what I love about history

The world we have ended up living in, and the past that we think we understand, are so, so random. They tell you in elementary school that history is a fixed set of dates and names, when really it's far more akin to Dadaist poetry, the kind where you pull random words out of a bag. What survives and becomes significant may appear to be inevitable from our position at this late date, but in reality, it's all a bit of a fluke. (And the whole impression of living at a late date, well, that's another post.)

If things had gone slightly differently, we could have all been referring to, say, movie plots in a totally different way. You know, like that romantic comedy that is totally a Turnip Princess Story.

Five hundred fairy tales have been found in Germany, collected by local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth back in the 1850s. The volume didn't take off like that of his contemporaries, the Grimm brothers, but according to this article, they held him in high regard.

Until these things are all translated, I won't be able to weigh in on whether they were misplaced due to some ineffable quality they lacked or were a victim of some random event of the kind that often happened in the nineteenth century, like maybe an absentminded monk or a public that just wasn't into turnips. According to the Guardian, this should be soon, and I can hardly wait.


The Hardest Two Words: Not Yet

I’m on what is likely, no joke, my thirtieth draft of my novel. If I knew the actual number, maybe I’d also know how to tell you just what qualifies as a draft—is it a new start, regardless of the portions revised? Is it only when you get through the full monty?—but I make it my business to not know such things. It would only get depressing, then funny, and then right back to depressing again. Besides, I’m not out of the ordinary. If you don’t hang out with writers, this might come as a surprise, but taking five years to work on a first novel is pretty typical. And I’m not necessarily telling you that NaNoWriMo has it all wrong; I’ve found is that the first draft is actually pretty quick. It’s what comes along later that has a way of settling into your life like bedbugs. THIS time, you tell yourself and your loved ones, this time I’m really about to get rid of them! But I know that it’s not nearly as simple as that, and what’s worse, if your loved ones are at all smart, so do they. They know it’s not quite safe to come sit on your couch again. 

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One Hundred Meals Without Mustard

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

From Blue Pastures, by Mary Oliver

My college professor, perhaps my favorite, one who led me to write in such a way that my own writings, unbeknownst to me until far later, dovetailed uncomfortably with her own life, assigned her students this passage from Blue Pastures. Mary Oliver is never a bad way to begin a course on writing, but I can’t help wondering now, ten years later, whether she was intentionally frontloading us, giving us tools and information that would not come to fruition until, aptly, just now.

Let me explain: we were good writers, all of us, in a freshman year non-fiction writing class. We knew how to put together a sentence; we knew how to construct a line that would knock the socks off of our high school English teachers. And this knowledge had brought us to where we were, curled up awkwardly in stiff wooden chairs around an enormous wooden seminar table, deep in the bowels of institutional intellectual history--not far, in fact, from where the brave new psychologists of the 1950s had found that people not unlike us would shock others until the point of near-death if the man in white coat said so. That happened just around the corner, down a flight of stairs, back when the building had been the psych department.

But now it was the English department; the psych people had moved over, appropriately, to the base of Science Hill (always aspiring to be taken seriously by the hard scientists running down towards Commons from the nuclear labs), and we were there, at least twice a week, with our essays printed out and phrases turned and barely tamped-down egos. (The tamping would come, more fully, later on, after the towers crashed down and took the economy with them.) And we sat there, discussing Mary Oliver, as though we knew what we were talking about. My professor read her favorite passages as though the words had a taste to them, and we listened, nodding, professing awe at how she had gotten it right, just right.

Except. We had no fucking clue. We talked about the writing life, we talked about committing ourselves to the noble cause of our art, but we didn’t know anything about the forces that come upon you after graduation, when there are suddenly bills that must be paid and you are, for the first true time, responsible for payment. We didn’t know what it was like to have someone besides yourself care about whether you’ve gotten the milk, whether you’ve mopped the floor, whether you’ve considered what they want to do as you come across the weekend and all you want to do is sleep, but you know you shouldn’t. We had (and many of us admittedly still do not have) no clue about what children ask of you and your time and your ability to even get that weekend sleep, to allow those proteins to fold precisely on the dotted line, as they should, so that when you awake you are a functional human being. Our meals were set out for us, lines of salad food, lines of deli meats, stacks of breads and bagels and buckets of cream cheese and tuna salad, pan-fried meat in strange glazes that we turned up our noses at, we cafeteria vegetarians, reaching for unlimited cereal, hot chocolate mix, ice cream, orange juice, coca cola, overcooked pasta and gloppy red sauces, imperfect, as we saw so clearly, but THERE, no chopping required, no shopping required; all that world asked of us was to partake, three times a day, provided that we got up early enough for breakfast. 

But the image of the mustard stayed with me. I promised myself then that I would never fall victim to its siren call. But I didn’t know—how could I know?—that there were things more attractive than mustard. There was the job, not quite art, but emotionally demanding and largely fulfilling. There was the idea of the ideal community you should create with your friends post-college, of even how many friends you should have, and how many of them should brew beer and make worm bins and throw all-local dinner parties--don’t all your college friends of friends have friends like that? What’s the matter with you? There was the call of official recognition, the kind that comes so easily in the academic world and so rarely, infrequently, when you are no longer there, and it makes you want to go back, and don’t certain kinds of lawyers achieve certain kinds of social good? There was, is always, the allure of the shock of pavement or trail on my sneakers and knees that keeps me sane (and isn’t sanity worth nearly all of its weight in gold?). And these things are important, but it falls to us only now, ten years on, to decide how important they really are.

And so I thank you, my professor. You were probably sitting there in class snickering behind your entirely-appropriate look of literary satisfaction and intellectual enjoyment. You were training us, I suspect, planting the seeds of ideas that didn’t matter much then, didn’t mean nearly as much to us as we thought they did, but they’ve stuck, at least in my mind. I take out my copy of Mary Oliver now, and I laugh when I can at my freshman year marginalia, at what I thought I knew. With several bumps in the road, I continue to write, and I continue, now that I have some idea of what it actually means, to commit myself, over and over (because so often I forget), to a writing life.

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