Category Archives: books/literature

Recently in “Issues”

I can hardly believe it’s already reading week and halfway through the term. Where did January (and half of February) go? I promised I’d write updates on “Issues in Modern Culture” — that obviously hasn’t happened since before the term started, so here’s a short recap of the past five weeks.

The Authors course plugs along with a different author and lecturer every week. We’ve had a seminar on Wallace Stevens, in which it was agreed that Stevens’ poetry is beautiful but often indecipherable (glad I’m not the only one who thinks so). Take “The Snow Man” as an example:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Then NS, one of my favorite lecturers so far — he runs a great seminar — led a discussion of Jean Rhys and two of her novels that “are not Wide Sargasso Sea“: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. Both somewhat depressing, but class discussion was interesting, as we started with word association and moved on to gendered spaces, notions of prostitution, and conflicts between emotion and transaction in Rhys. We had a somewhat odd seminar on Elizabeth Bowen — I’ll let you read Sarah’s post about that. Click to her post as well for a summary of our seminar on Nabokov‘s Lolita, which was with another of my favorite lecturers who is an incredible discussion facilitator. I agree with Sarah in that the seminar actually made me want to re-read Lolita, because Nabokov packs so much into the novel that isn’t evident on a first reading.

(No) thanks to horrible wind and rain and poor transport planning on my part, I missed the Chinua Achebe seminar…

Over in Modern Sex,” it has been a fascinating module as we’ve moved from Freud and Schopenhauer to Wagner, D.H. Lawrence (Sarah summarizes the Women in Love seminar), Thomas Mann and André Gide (part of “hebephilia week” as we’d done Lolita in the Wednesday seminar), and modern gay fiction. Our lecturer, HS, is clearly so passionate about the subject matter and he thus runs very engaging seminars.

The course began with considering the question, “What is modern sex/sexuality?” The modern conception of sexuality is that humans began to be categorized according to their sexual desires. We discussed how Schopenhauer and Freud address sexuality and sexual attraction in their writings: instincts, “debasement,” “neurosis” stemming from unappeased desire, and all that good (psychoanalytic) stuff.

The stage thus set by Freud and Schopenhauer, the second seminar involved watching the entire 4+ hours of Richard Wagner‘s music drama Tristan und Isolde — while I am not really a Wagner fan, the seminar did shed some light on Tristan and its subject matter (plus, it was fun to play with some German). We talked about formal and thematic musical and linguistic parallels (Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” reflected in Wagner’s use of Leitmotif; also use of alliteration and rhyme) and lots of dialectical themes: darkness vs. light, love vs. death, conscious self vs. instincts/will, delusion vs. reality in ideas of separateness and togetherness…it was a richly packed seminar with lots to think about (and music to enjoy!).

Our fourth seminar was on two short novels by Gide (The Immoralist) and Mann (Death in Venice) about men who are attracted to young, beautiful boys: ensuing discussions included amorality/immorality, Mann’s visual imagination, noble vs. debased love, and so on. For the last seminar we read excerpts from four modern “gay” novels: Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex, and White’s The Farewell Symphony. They were fascinating to read and discuss in terms of how homosexual fiction writing has changed from 1948 (Vidal) to the 1990s, and how narrative structure and point-of-view (3rd person vs. 1st person) influences how we absorb and think about the texts and stories.

I loved the Modern Sex course and am sad it’s over — now I have to think of a topic for the 4,000-word essay we’ll have to write; it can be about anything related to modern sex/sexuality. Talk about choice. Next module I’ll have five weeks of Post-War American Poetry, which should be interesting (and totally outside my comfort zone), and the Authors course will wrap up with…more authors!

For a full list of what we’ve read so far this term and in the entire program(me), head over to my Reading List page.

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This Term in “Issues”: More Authors, Modern Sex, & American Poetry

Winter break is winding down. I’ve handed in my “Contexts” essay draft (on the BBC series, Sherlock) and await my tutor’s feedback. Term two of my Issues in Modern Culture MA starts next week. Here’s what’s in store…

The “Authors” course continues with a canonical author a week. Last term we covered Flaubert, James, Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Green, Joyce, Woolf, Cather, and Beckett. This term we’ll kick things off with Stevens, then move on to Rhys, Bowen, Nabokov, Achebe, Bishop, Plath, Pynchon, Stoppard, and Coetzee. With the exception of some Stevens and Bishop, I haven’t read any of the upcoming authors, which is both intimidating and exciting. I’m particularly looking forward to the Nabokov and Stoppard seminars, in part because of the material and in part because they’ll be taught by young female lecturers, who can be few and far between in the upper echelons of academia.

Last term, our second course was “Contexts,” which I really enjoyed. This term, our second course will be two five-week module courses. For each set of five weeks, we take one of three “options”: A) Film OR Ludic Literature OR “Modern Sex”; and then B) 21st Century Fiction OR “Cultures of the Night” OR or Post-War American Poetry.

First up for me: “Modern Sex: Eroticism and Literary Writing.” Great title, isn’t it? I picked it because the reading/seminar list looked the most interesting. The course description says,

This set of five seminars will explore cultural representations of desire, of sex and eroticism, and of sexual identity, from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Tantalized yet? Just take a look at the seminar titles:

  1. The history of “sexuality” (i.e., Freud and super sexist Schopenhauer): “introduction to ways of thinking about desire, the individual, the species, connections between sex, love and death.”
  2. Wagner, Desire and Death: watching and discussing Tristan und Isolde. Though I’m not a huge Wagner fan, I do like opera — this seminar was one reason I chose to take the course.
  3. D.H. LawrenceWomen in Love and DHL’s ideology about sex.
  4. Thomas Mann & André GideDeath in Venice and The Immoralist
  5. Modern Gay Writing and Cinema: works by Hollinghurst, Edmund White, Christopher Coe, Oscar Moore.

My second “option” module will be Post-War American Poetry, with one poet a week for the five weeks of term. We’ll do Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Derek Walcott — I can’t remember the other two. Though I have never identified as a “poetry person,” this course appealed the most to me of the three options, and I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to branch out and challenge myself with some non-prose.

So that’s this term in “Issues.” The above courses run through March, then we have a month off, then we write write write (and write some more). I hope to post some updates and musings as the term moves along.

Is there anything in particular you’d like me to write about this term? Please let me know in a comment!

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Year in Review: 2013

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr / Guten Rutsch! З Новим Роком!

2013 was a year full of changes and new experiences for me, like moving to a new country/city, getting an English teaching certificate, and starting an MA program (back to university after three years out). My German improved — and my Ukrainian waned. I also joined an amazing running club in my area of London and was able to spend much of the summer at home in the States with my family and F. Overall, 2013 was a really good year. Here are some more fun statistics summing up the year:

2013 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 155
  • books read: 19 for fun, plus >30 for my MA (including some short stories/poetry/essays)
  • visitors hosted in London: ~19
  • miles run: 931.89 (76.71 miles less than in 2012, but I cycled and swam more in 2013 so overall probably racked up more mileage)
  • qualifications received: 1 Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • countries been in: England, Belgium, Germany, USA
  • memories made: too many to count

Are you satisfied with your 2013?

Looking back, I am satisfied to have achieved most of my intentions for 2013: learning my way around London, living frugally, cycle-commuting, “me” time, exercise time, healthy eating, starting an MA program, and staying in touch with people . I didn’t take advantage of as many free/inexpensive opportunities as I could have, but we did visit quite a few of London’s free museums and markets with visitors.

Here is my non-exhaustive list of intentions for 2014, in no particular order:

  • Successfully complete my MA degree
  • Expand my skill set in teaching/tutoring, writing, and editing work
  • Keep improving my German
  • Stay healthy and fit:
    • Run a half marathon or two and take part in as many running club events as I can
    • Get more comfortable with road cycling by riding or spinning consistently
  • Keep exploring London via free/inexpensive activities
  • Get a job and work visa after my MA so I can stay in London
  • Stay in better touch with friends/family in all parts of the world (make better use of Skype, WhatsApp, etc.)

What are your intentions for 2014?

This Week in “Issues”: Photography

Now that the term is more than halfway over, it’s high time for another “Issues in Modern Culture” (that’s my MA program) update. After an intense five days immersed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I looked forward to Friday’s seminar on photography.

Our primary reading was Susan Sontag’s iconic On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Both books made for enjoyable and thought provoking reading. Sontag’s is an incredibly detailed history of photography as she sees it, and is also strikingly modern in its discussion of what photography is and what photographs represent. I was also pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of Barthes; he’s notorious for his dense, quasi-philosophical literary criticism. 

The seminar turned out to be stimulating and rewarding. Our lecturer, GD, facilitated an interesting discussion of photography and had a slideshow of some of the photos Sontag and Barthes mention in their works, which he referred to periodically. At the beginning of the seminar, GD posed a couple of questions that we kept coming back to throughout the two hours:

  • How has digital photography “changed the game” since Sontag and Barthes wrote their books?
    • Does it change the way we experience photos?
    • Does it change our relationship to photos?
    • Does it undermine Sontag’s & Barthes’ points (since they were writing in the ’70s, the pre-digital age)?

These questions brought us a few times to the topic of social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Because digital photos are instantaneous — we can view and share them almost immediately after taking them — they have perhaps eliminated the need to wait for the “perfect moment” to take a picture. The instantaneous nature of digital photos also leads them to take on a more filmic quality. Sontag mentions that photos are taken to validate experience; this leads to a sort of voyeurism in the photographer (10*). Today, this voyeuristic tendency is taken further, as (digital) photos are shared on Facebook and Instagram, blurring the lines between private and public as we give others access to many parts of our lives and spend time assessing our friends’ lives via their photos.

Digital photography may also cause photography to be distinguished less as an art now, because today anyone can take photos (but not every person who takes photos is an artist). How, then, do we decide if photography is art? Sontag’s argument that photography “is a medium in which works of art…are made,” not art itself (148), may break down in the digital age because the medium is less specialized — there’s no film to carefully develop with special chemicals.

In a way, digital photography has made the medium even more democratic; we talked about how this could be good or bad. On the one hand, digital photography doesn’t respect the investment of of the photographer, like non-digital does. On the other hand, we can photograph anything and anyone can take photographs. But it also problematizes the relationship between the image itself and what Barthes calls the “referent” — the subject of the photo.

We finished the seminar by focusing on two photos — a Winogrand and a Sander — and musing on how to write about photographs. Do we analyze them as texts? Do we read in social context? Do we read them subjectively? There are myriad ways in which we could write about a photograph: its composition, framing, intent (posed/staged vs. candid/natural), angles, spaces, symmetry/asymmetry…The list goes on.

Other topics we touched on in the seminar were the natural surrealism of photography, the theatrical nature of photography (as Barthes argues), the simultaneous passivity and aggressiveness of photography, and photography’s realism. It was a fascinating discussion and left me with a lot to think about.

What’s your take? How do you think digital photography affect our experience of and relationship to photographs today? Post your thoughts in a comment, below.

*Page numbers from Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc, 1977.

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News Roundup: Mid-November 2013

It’s November. That means many cold, gray, rainy days. But lots of interesting reading has helped keep me warm when it’s miserable outside. This month’s News Roundup includes some juicy stuff related to Ukraine (my country of Peace Corps service), classical music and success, the importance of libraries, sex and healthcare, and cycling. Read on, follow the links for the full articles, and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Ukraine & Eastern Europe

  • A few weeks ago, the New York Times Travel section featured a lovely piece, “Lviv’s, and a Family’s, Stories in Architecture.”  L’viv, the unofficial capital of western Ukraine, has a fascinating history, having been variously controlled and inhabited by different ethnic and religious groups. The article does a wonderful job of reading L’viv’s history through its architecture, as evidenced by this excerpt (it really is a beautiful city and worth visiting):

A short walk through the city’s historic center would take me past buildings that reflect contributions of its Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian and German communities, all of which had roots going back to the late Middle Ages. I saw churches from the many different denominations that shaped this city’s skyline: a squat Armenian cathedral from the 14th century with a jumble of intersecting roofs; a huge 17th-century Baroque church built by the Jesuits and modeled on the Church of the Gesù in Rome; Ukrainian Orthodox three-dome churches.

  • Here’s another interesting article on L’viv, from Germany’s Die Zeit, “Flucht vor dem Kopfsteinpflaster” (“Escape from the cobblestones”). Apparently L’viv has proclaimed itself the cycling capital of Ukraine. The author discovers that’s not saying much, but there is one man who has a dream to create over 250km of bike lanes in Ukraine by 2020. Having been to L’viv a few times, I can say they have a long way to go, but it’s not impossible to try and make cycling in the city more popular. Good for them.
  • Speaking of Ukraine, the first Sunday in October was Teachers’ Day, for which Ukrainian schools go all-out. I’ve written before about my experiences of Teachers’ Day in Ukraine. The Oxford University Press blog also has a nice article about it, “Celebrating World Teachers’ Day,” that talks about the importance of teachers and teaching literacy.
  • “Comparing The United States to Ukraine” is a fascinating look at the two countries; the former of which I am a native, the latter where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ukrainians used to ask me, “what you do like better, Ukraine or the US?” — this comparison really shows the plusses and minuses for both countries; in many ways they’re hard to compare. (Thanks to fellow Sniatyns’kyy Rayon PCV Sarah for bringing this to my attention.)
  • “The Russia Left Behind” is a moving look at the slow decline of small Russian villages along the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It’s also a great piece of multimedia journalism, with videos, slide shows, and maps as you travel the route along with the authors.
  • This BuzzFeed list, “17 Bizarre Foods Every Russian Grew Up With,” is great because I know many of the foods from Ukraine. The only food I’m not familiar with is #13 (kishka). My favorites are #15 (vinaigrette) and #2 (“fur coat” salad, which actually grows on you despite how weird it sounds). Salo (#7) and kholodets (#6): not so much!

Music

  • “21 of the best insults in classical music” is just a good piece of fun — I found most of these completely hilarious.
  • In more serious music news, “Is Music the Key to Success?” is a great piece from the NY Times. The author cites a bunch of famous and successful people who studied music at some point in their lives. Having studied a bit of music myself, I can agree about “[T]he qualities…high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideasMusic may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.”

Humanities

  • And the humanities debate continues…This month, the NY Times featured a set of letters from education professionals around the country on the “Role of Humanities, in School and Life.” I was pleased to see that the President of my alma mater (Oberlin College), Marvin Krislov, contributed a letter in which he said:

I have seen how studying English, history, art and languages gives our students entree into cultures and callings. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across academic disciplines, humanities students learn to better reason and analyze, and to communicate their knowledge, creativity and ideas.

[W]e have an obligation to read for pleasure…If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. […]

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. […]

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language…we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

Sex & Healthcare

  • Here’s a fascinating Guardian article on “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” The author cites some alarming statistics and notes that, “Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by…disapproval.” The entire article is worth reading.
  • Along similar lines, also from The Guardian: “Why young women are going off the pill and onto contraception voodoo.” This is so scary! Please, ladies (and gents), use real, scientifically-proven birth control. No, the pull-out method is not a reliable form of contraception. I leave you with a somewhat stocking excerpt:

[M]ore than half of the unintended pregnancies in the US occur among the 10.7% of women who use no contraceptive method at all…This finding comes only a few months after a study carried out by…Dr Annie Dude at Duke University. Dr Dude’s findings revealed that 31% of young women in America aged between 15 and 24 had relied on the pull-out method at least once. Unsurprisingly, these women were 7.5% more likely to rely on emergency contraception than others and…of those who relied on the pull-out method, 21% had become pregnant. Apparently, these women had never heard the old joke: you know what you call a couple who use the rhythm and pull-out methods? Parents.

  • In the US, the “Obamacare” debate and issues continue. I don’t know why so many people need convincing that it is important for everyone to have healthcare access. Nicholas Kristof, in “This is Why We Need Obamacare,” says it better than I can: “While some Americans get superb care, tens of millions without insurance get marginal care. That’s one reason life expectancy is relatively low in America, and child mortality is twice as high as in some European countries. Now that’s a scandal.”

Cycling

[T]here is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

Living London, Writing London

In mid-October The New York Times published a piece called “Lessons from Living in London,” written by Sarah Lyell, who spent a number of years living in London as a correspondent for the paper. Coincidentally, that same week my MA course‘s “Contexts” seminar covered Henry James’ travel essays on New York (from The American Sceneand London (from English Hours).  James’ “London” is a brilliant little travel piece; though it was written 125 years ago (!), many of James’ points about the city are still relevant today. In the following, I attempt to bring together Lyell’s and James’ essays with my own observations on living in London — though I’ve been here less than a year, I can already relate to a lot. 

One of the first things I noticed after moving to London was how the city seems to be made up of little pockets and neighborhoods that trick you into thinking you’re not living in a city of 8 million. But when you have to go somewhere, you realize how huge it is. Lyell puts it well:

Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole, and because it can be an undertaking to travel to another part of town for a social occasion, geography starts to feel like destiny.

This is so true. Our little area of North London feels very neighborhood-y, and everything we need is within a 1.5-mile radius. It would be easy never to venture further afield (a-city?), and indeed it is “an undertaking” if we decide to go somewhere outside of our familiar neighborhood bubble. We have to plan ahead and take travel time and mode — Tube, bus, bike — into account. How late I’ll be coming home determines if I’ll cycle or take public transport. Whether or not I’ll even go depends on how long it would take to get there and back related to how much time I’d be spending at my destination. I never had to think about these things before, in the States or in Ukraine, where everything was within walking or driving distance.

In a similar vein, Lyell and James both touch on a fascinating result of living in London (and in many other big cities, I imagine). James classifies London as “democratic,” by which he means “You may be in it, of course, without being of it…” (16*). Lyell must have read James’ essay, because she essentially paraphrases him when she says “Londoners wear their urban identities…lightly, living in the city but not necessarily of it.” She goes on to note that “In London, people keep themselves to themselves, as the expression goes, and this can feel either liberating or lonely.” I’ve chatted about this phenomenon with a few people recently: how it can be freeing to remain in your head as you move through such a big city, but how it can also be lonely never to smile at or strike up a conversation with any other people. The latter seems to be largely a London (or European city) thing; I’ve been told that in northern England people are very friendly and often chat with strangers. In the States, too, it’s pretty likely that people will at least smile at each other after inadvertently making eye contact.

Of course — I bet you thought I’d never get to it — we can’t talk about London without mentioning the weather; Lyell and James both know this. Lyell approaches London’s weather with a sense of practicality and as the last word in her essay: “Finally, when you leave the house, dress in layers so that you can add and subtract items according to the vicissitudes of the weather.” Layers are definitely key here. The weather is changeable; you may head to work under a clear blue sky, but it isn’t unlikely you’ll be going home in a rain shower. I almost always throw in a rain shell when I cycle to university, just in case. James also notes the weather, most memorably near the beginning of the essay when he writes about “the low, magnificent medium of the sky” and how the weather causes a “strangely undefined hour of the day and season of the year […] the red gleams and blurs that may or may not be of sunset” (7). James hits it on the nose here — the sky often darkens in the afternoon, and I wonder if it’s already evening until I look at my watch and realize it’s still early the middle of the day. Or the low clouds will hang in the sky all day, giving everything a dull grayness which makes it hard to tell how early or late it is.

A cultural quirk that Lyell (and any other foreigners who have lived in London) points out is that “there are as many meanings for the word “sorry” as there are hours in the day.” As far as I understand, “sorry” can mean “excuse me,” “I apologize [for bumping into you],” “What?”, and “Sorry for interrupting.” I’m sure there are plenty of subtler meanings that I haven’t yet picked up on. James seems to take a jab at this tendency when he writes, “It is doubtless a single proof of being a London-lover…that one should undertake an apology for so bungled an attempt at a great public place as Hyde Park Corner” (12). I chuckled at that — I guess “sorry” has been in the mix for quite a while!

There is a lot in the James essay that I would love to delve further into. In my MA course’s seminar on James’ travel writing from London and New York, our professor (we’ll call him PH) noted how the London essay is (was) a new kind of travel writing, a combination of travel essay, memoir, and meditation on the meaning of London. PH also touched on how James’ characterization of London is as an “urban sublime”: it exceeds limitations and expectations, and there’s some kind of ambivalence between the city’s cruelty — “the mighty ogress who devours human flesh” (15) in this “hideous, vicious, cruel” city (4) — and its charm, beauty, and “immeasurable” or “infinite” qualities (18, 20).

I also love the last sentence of James’ “London” essay, which basically disregards the previous 30 pages he’s written:

...out of [London’s] richness and its inexhaustible good humour it belies the next hour any generalisation you may have been so simple as to make about it. (29)

That pretty much sums it up!

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Do you or have you ever lived in London or somewhere else as an ex-pat (or native)? I invite you to contribute to the dialogue by leaving a comment below with your own experiences. It would be great to get a conversation going. In fact, my good friend Sam also read these two pieces and was also inspired to write about them, since he’s lived in London and just moved to New York City. Look out for a guest post from him soon!

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*page numbers from: Henry James, English Hours (1905), London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011.

At the theatre: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

When Sarah put forth the opportunity to get £16 tickets to see Olivier Award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeI jumped at it without second thought. This was the first theatah (say that with a fake British accent) experience in London for both of us, and it was totally worth it. Sarah wrote a blog post about our evening, too, which you can read here.

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah's phone

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah’s phone

On Thursday evening we joined the tourists, wanderers, and other theatre-goers around Leicester Square, Chinatown, and the aptly-named “Theatreland” (yes, it says that on the street sign). The Curious Incident is on at the Apollo Theatre, a tall space in which we sat in the next-to-last row. That didn’t really matter; we could see almost all of the stage with a nearly bird’s-eye view. I did miss a little of the dialogue here and there because of the distance, but overall it felt quite intimate.

The play was excellent. It’s based on the eponymous book by Mark Haddon, which Sarah has read and taught to high schoolers in the States (I haven’t read it but now I want to). Sarah said the book is narrated in the first person, as the thoughts of 15-year-old autistic math(s) genius Christopher Boone. But how does one make a play out of first person narration without turning the entire piece into a monologue? This production solves that problem by having Christopher’s tutor, Siobhan, read/narrate a good chunk of the material as he wrote it in a journal for her. While Siobhan narrates his thoughts, Christopher acts out what she reads.

One of the best-executed scenes, exemplary of the narrative technique, was when Christopher is imagining what it would be like to be an astronaut. Siobhan narrates while the stage darkens, “stars” come out, and Christopher is picked up, twisted, and turned by four people in a zero gravity-like state. The entire play used movement in innovative ways like this and I found this choreography very effective.

Along with its effective use of movement, this production used a minimal set really well. You can see what the stage looked like in my photo below — those white boxes were moved around to represent whatever they needed to (chairs, a TV, a fish tank, train seats), and white light was projected onto the stage to create outlines of houses and other spaces. There were also lots of little cubbies in the walls and floor that the characters would open to retrieve props.

IMG_20131024_191555

In addition to the set itself, the use lighting and sound effects worked well. When Christopher goes to the train station by himself for the first time, signs start scrolling and flashing across the stage as announcers’ voices read them out and layer on top of one another — it becomes a loud, chaotic confusion of lights and sounds. This, we understand, is what it feels like to be in autistic Christopher’s head: completely overwhelming and lost in a large, public space and surrounded by strangers. It was really effectively done.

Needless to say, The Curious Incident was extremely well-acted, particularly by Mike Noble as Christopher and Rakie Ayola as Siobhan. Noble, in particular, is entirely believable as Christopher, who wants to solve the mystery of “who killed Wellington [the dog]?” and who ends up unearthing a whole bunch of other mysteries in the process while ultimately just wanting to take his maths A-levels.

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Have you read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” or seen the play? Share your thoughts in the comments!

If I Hadn’t Joined the Peace Corps

Recently on his blog, a fellow Ukraine RPCV, Danny, asked himself the following question: “What might my life be like, if I hadn’t gone off to Ukraine with the Peace Corps?”

Like Danny, I’ve often thought about this question. I can certainly say what my life wouldn’t have been like if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps:

  • F and I wouldn’t have gotten together; circumstances and location put us in a fortunate position. Had I remained in the States, probably nothing would have transpired.
  • Following that previous point, I wouldn’t be in London. F and I decided together that London would be a good place to live/study, as it offers opportunities for both of us to pursue our interests/specialties. If we hadn’t gotten together, I might have extended my service in Ukraine to the end of the school year (spring 2013) and then returned home to the States to start grad school there. Instead, here I am embarking upon an MA degree in London!
  • I may not have done a CELTA; part of the reason I decided to do one was to be productive in London while waiting for grad school to start. I had generally thought about doing some kind of TEFL certification after Peace Corps, but who knows if it would’ve happened if I hadn’t moved to London.

So what would I have done, if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps? Here’s my best guess:

  • I would probably have taken a year off to work, likely in Rochester while living with my parents. During that time, I would probably have studied for and taken the GREs, then started a PhD program in the U.S., on the straight and narrow path to academia.

But now, starting my MA after three years out of school, I’m not sure if I’ll end up in academia or not. And I’m okay with not knowing — if nothing else, the Peace Corps certainly taught me flexibility and openness to change!

It’s amazing how the decisions we make affect the rest of our lives. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Dickens’ Great Expectations:

Imagine one selected day struck out of [your life], and think how different its course would have been. …think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Perhaps my “first link” was the decision to join the Peace Corps in Ukraine…I’m certainly glad of my chain formed thus far and look forward to how it will continue to be shaped.

Issues in Modern Culture

“Hi, I’m _____________ and I do ‘Issues’.”

That’s how about fifteen of us introduced ourselves in this week’s inaugural Contemporary Short Fiction Reading Group.

“Issues” is, of course, short for “Issues in Modern Culture,” which is the official name of my MA program at University College London (from here on out known as UCL). It’s a “taught” program on Modernist literature with a smattering of culture/society/historical context.

This post will give an overview of the program’s structure — quite different from the US university system — and what we’ve done thus far. I can’t promise to post weekly updates but will try to periodically share particularly interesting tidbits. I will also update my Reading List with the texts we’re meant to tackle each week.

There are 47 of us “doing ‘Issues'”: Brits, Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, a Romanian, an Australian or two, an Israeli, and probably people from other countries whom I haven’t met yet. Many have just finished their BAs, but some of us (myself included) have been out of school and doing other things for a number of years. A pretty diverse group, overall.

We’re split into two groups for our weekly two-hour seminars, of which we have two. Yes — only 4 “contact hours” per week! That’s already a departure from the American system, which likes to get you into class as often as possible. Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll take four courses:

  • “Authors” spans both terms and, as you may expect, covers the main (canonical) authors leading up to and through literary Modernism. For Authors, we have to read at least a novel or so per week — that’ll keep us busy when we’re not in class. Our first two weeks covered Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and In the Cage); next week is Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim).
  • “Contexts” happens this term and looks at the social/historical/cultural contexts behind the development of Modernism. It’s broken into two chunks: “Modernity and the City” and “Modern Forms.” We’re in the first part now and have already covered Baudelaire’s poems and prose poems on mid-19th-century Paris. Tomorrow’s seminar is called “Epiphany and the Everyday” and is theory-based (think Barthes, Blanchot, Lefebvre — dense stuff). Next week is “Detective Fiction”: Poe, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler. I’m pumped for that and will think fondly of my first-year seminar in “African-American Detective Fiction” at Oberlin.
  • Next term, we’ll pick two of six more specific “Options” — each will last half a term. Our choices include “Modernism and Sex,” “Film,” and “Cultures of the Night.” Exciting! More on these later.

Unlike the American (undergraduate) system, where we had at least two or three papers to write throughout each semester, the grades for our MA depend on one paper per course at the end of each term, plus the dissertation. And no class participation grades to pad the final mark. Not much room for error! But, as a classmate pointed out, getting the MA is the real goal in the end, regardless of final grade.

We have a group of professors/lecturers/teacher-people helping with the course — each lecturer teaches his/her specialty, so we have a different seminar leader almost every week (with some repeats). This is nice because we’re getting “expert” perspectives, but it also may prove difficult to form any kind of personal/professional relationships with our lecturers. We will be assigned a Tutor, though, who will guide us on the Contexts paper, so that will be a good connection to make.

That’s about it so far. I’m still getting to know my classmates, but the ones with whom I’ve interacted are nice, smart, and interesting. Everyone seems really excited and willing to collaborate. Stay tuned for future updates, and don’t forget to check out my Reading List to see what we’re studying.

News Roundup: Sushi, Food Stamps, Shakespeare & Three Sisters

As we move into October (October already?!), here’s a roundup of what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month. Click the links to access the full articles. Thanks for reading, and please post your comments/questions/requests below!

Upcoming posts: more recipes (squash, anyone?), an overview of my MA program, and two reflective/retrospective Peace Corps-related musings.

Just for Fun

  • I’m making my way through George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, after having seen the first three seasons of the HBO series. It’s kind of fun to read the books after having seen the series; it’s filled in a lot of gaps that I remember being confused about. Anyway, if you have read and/or seen Game of Thrones, you’ll get a kick out of this hip hop remix.
  • Runner’s World periodically posts (humorous) “motivational posters.” This one is a recent favorite.
  • Oh, programmatic music! “The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration” from the Oxford University Press blog, took me right back to Music of the Romantic Era. Give it a read/listen — it’s good fun.

Education

  • “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s)”  is an astute NY Times op-ed by Joe Nocera on the US’s system for educating teachers, which seems to have a lot to be desired. Granted, I have not been an education student in the US, but from what I’ve read, and what Nocera says, there is too little classroom practice and too much theory. How about schools actually teach how to teach? Nocera notes,

Melinda recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory! (Denise went on to get a master’s degree in education, which she laughingly described as “not exactly hands-on.”)

America & The World

  • As you probably know, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine from 2010-2012. We were technically employed (but not, since we were volunteers) by — or “serving” — the US Government. Yet it felt strange to say that. “What it Means to Serve your Country” addresses just this: that we think of “serving your country” as something military-related. I’ll let this excerpt speak for itself:

…for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say “I served my country.” It shouldn’t be. Service to country isn’t linked to combat.

[…]

Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life–high school, college, work–to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.

  • “Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi” is an excellent piece of journalism on the former sushi chef for North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Even if you care nothing for the politics, read it for the fascinating story and quality of writing/reporting.
  • “Panera CEO learns about hunger on his food stamp diet”– the article title is pretty self-explanatory. Food stamps are part of a really important program in the States for people who live below the poverty line. This article made me like Panera even more than I already do. A sampling:

We, in corporate America, must be part of the solution. At Panera, we have tried to stretch ourselves to think of how to address hunger in new ways and challenge others to do the same. We have developed five nonprofit “Panera Cares” community cafes with no set prices and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in products to food banks. Our view is that unless we at Panera take care of the world that we live in, there won’t be any society left to support us. If the past week has taught me anything, it’s that hunger is not a problem of “them,” it’s a problem of “us.” Hunger exists in every community, in every county, in every state.

Literature & Life

  • Charles Isherwood over at the NY Times has a thought-provoking article called “To Renovate or Not To Renovate?” Isherwood discusses theatre productions of Shakespeare plays and muses about the benefits and detriments to setting Shakespeare plays in modern times. An interesting read.
  • “Embracing Revision” is a piece from The Equals Record with wise words for writing and life that I connected with:

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

Russia

  • “Russia Leans on its Neighbors” talks about how much Russia is bullying the former Soviet republics not to sign trade alliances with the EU. Having lived in western (EU-leaning) Ukraine, this bullying infuriates me. Not to mention, the US is hardly taking any stand against Russia’s behavior. Here’s a taste:

The Kremlin openly dismisses its neighbors’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Glazyev…called the idea of Ukraine’s desire to take a European course an act of “sick self-delusion.” Only the European Union reprimanded Russia for the move against Ukraine. The United States remained silent. The failure of Washington and the European Union to articulate a coherent policy for Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been interpreted by Moscow as a tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union — and license for Moscow to seek renewed hegemony there.

The stakes are high. Even if Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and the rest are not paragons of liberal democracy, their independence and security should be in the interest of the United States and its allies in Europe.

News Roundup: August Edition

I’m headed back to the UK this week and thought I’d post a news roundup so you can see what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month while in the States. In this month’s edition, we have some humor, some good advice, international news, thoughts on teaching, and more. Enjoy, and please leave a comment below if anything particularly grabs your attention!

Just for Fun

  • My hometown, Rochester, NY, is well-known as the home of Kodak and Xerox. Cameras and copiers are great, but the hidden gem that originated in Rochester is really Wegmans. Rather than waxing poetic about it myself, let me point you to this BuzzFeed list which pretty much sums up the awesomeness of this more-than-just supermarket.
  • Any runners out there will appreciate this “article” from Runners World, titled “The 25 worst questions to ask a runner.” I’ve certainly been asked a few of them over the years I’ve been running…

Athletics

  • A handful of studies have popped up recently on strength training for runners, and what kind will best help running economy. “How Strength Training Ups Masters Marathoners’ Economy” is a nice overview of a study finding that high weight/low repetition strength training, even for long distance runners, can improve running economy. Though the study was done with masters, I think it’s safe to say the same would be found in younger runners; this refutes previous beliefs in the running community that distance athletes should do low weight/high rep strength work so as not to get “bulky.”

English Majors & Being a Teacher

  • “The Ideal English Major” is a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education on why it still matters to be a humanities major, especially an English major, and what we English majors are really like. Here’s a sampling, though I recommend you read the whole article:

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are.

[…] Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

  • On a semi-related note to being an English major, here’s a great essay on teaching, summed up by its title, “The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do.” In the US, it is sad that many people still choose teaching as sort of a back-up plan, as in “well, I can always teach.” Teachers are not respected enough in the States, and people think it’s easy (newsflash: it’s not) so often choose education as a career path if nothing else comes along. That’s one of many reasons the US’s rankings in education are so poor compared to places like Finland, which has rigorous standards for becoming a teacher. I’m not saying all teachers in the US do it because they think it’s easy or the only thing; on the contrary, I know many amazing, inspiring teachers who are doing it because that’s what they love to do. My ramblings aside, here’s an excerpt from the article; read the rest if you have a chance:

Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

So, maybe you just have to take our word for it. The next time you walk into a classroom, and you see the teacher calmly presiding over a room full of kids, all actively engaged in the lesson, realize that it’s not because the job is easy. It’s because we make it look easy. And because we work our asses off to make it look easy.

Advice

  • Author George Saunders gave the Syracuse University convocation speech earlier this year. The NY Times Magazine‘s blog, The 6th Floor, posted his speech, which everyone, graduate or non, should read. This is my favorite part:

Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

  • Here’s a great piece from a father to a daughter, called “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex.” It’s empowering and honest and wonderful. Here’s a taste: “…I won’t tell you sex is bad, or that you’re bad for wanting it, or that other people are bad from wanting it from you if you’re willing to give it. I refuse to perpetuate, even through the plausible deniability of humor, the idea that the people my daughter is attracted to are my enemy.”

International

  • “Through the Eyes of the Maasai” is a beautiful piece from the NY Times Travel section, giving insight into the lives and society of the Maasai people in Kenya.
  • F is German, so he closely follows German and European politics. I try to keep up, but it’s not my go-to news topic. He sent me a great article recently from The New York Review of Books, “The New German Question”, that gives a good overview of German politics.
  • My good friend Sam is doing some research for his masters’ degree on measuring happiness in terms of “wellbeing” indices. Sam says, “The problem, of course, is that increased production alone does not guarantee a happy, healthy society.” Read the rest of his smart piece here: “How do we move towards a society that prioritizes wellbeing?”

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News Roundup: The Humanities, Exercise and Addiction, Women’s Rights, & Kristof’s return

Sorry for the lack of recipes lately — I’m certainly making delicious things in the kitchen here at my parents’ house for the summer, but they are mostly standard family dishes that I don’t think to post here, or that I didn’t take enough part in the creation to justify posting. More recipes coming soon, promise! In the meantime, here is this month’s News Roundup, with a bit of everything: comedy, wisdom, addiction, abortion, the humanities, breastfeeding, and eggplant… It’s a mish-mash, but I hope you’ll take the time to browse through the list and click through to read the pieces that look most interesting to you.

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Broccoli, Eggplant, & Wisdom

Exercise, Addiction, & Body Image

  • “Addicted to Endorphins” is one of the NY Times‘ “Room for Debate” topics, where they ask a handful of experts to write in their thoughts; this topic asked, “Is all this emphasis on exercise healthy, or dangerously compulsive? Can exercise like running be addictive?” One of my favorite responses came from evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman:

Our deep evolutionary history as physically active foragers and hunters helps explain why our bodies are inadequately adapted to long-term physical inactivity. Almost every organ in the body—from bones to brains—needs periodic physical stress to grow and function properly.

It is often said that exercise is medicine, but a more correct statement is that insufficient regular exercise is abnormal and pathological. In this regard, wanting to be physically active every day is no more an addiction than wanting to get eight hours of sleep.

  • Watch this TEDxMidAtlantic talk by model Cameron Russell, called “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.” It’s a smart, honest, well-thought-out talk that both men and women, especially anyone who has ever dealt with body image issues, should spend less than 10 minutes watching.

Women’s Rights / Feminism

  • “What happened when I started a feminist society at school” is a smart essay in The Guardian written by a 17-year-old who set up a feminist society at her school and for doing so, received an appalling amount of verbal abuse from the boys at her school. She and her group posted pictures with girls holding handwritten signs stating “I need feminism because ______” as part of a project called Who Needs Feminism. Rather than being celebrated for this, the girls were ridiculed and the school made them take the photos down. It’s sad. In the author’s words,

We, a group of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old girls, have made ourselves vulnerable by talking about our experiences of sexual and gender oppression only to elicit the wrath of our male peer group. Instead of our school taking action against such intimidating behaviour, it insisted that we remove the pictures. […]

It’s been over a century since the birth of the suffragette movement and boys are still not being brought up to believe that women are their equals. Instead we have a whole new battleground opening up online where boys can attack, humiliate, belittle us and do everything in their power to destroy our confidence before we even leave high school.

  • But there are good men out there! This Guardian piece is a heartening take on abortion from the male perspective. The author says: “I support a woman’s right to safe, legal abortion because centuries of history shows us that women are going to get abortions whether they’re safe and legal or not. And when they’re not safe and legal, these women will often die terribly or be damaged irreparably.”
  • Nicholas Kristof, my favorite NY Times opinion writer, returned after 5 months off with two fantastic op-eds. “A Free Miracle Food” is actually the second one, with the main point that breastfeeding is a natural and necessary thing to do and that it can especially help decrease infant deaths in developing countries. Kristof explains,

…in the poorest countries, the main concern is that moms delay breast-feeding for a day or two after birth and then give babies water or food in the first six months. The World Health Organization strongly recommends a diet of exclusively breast milk for that first half year.

In a village in Mali…I watched a woman wash a baby — and then pour handfuls of bath water down his mouth. “It makes the baby strong,” a midwife explained.

On hot days, African moms routinely give babies water to drink. In fact, breast milk is all infants need, and the water is sometimes drawn from unsanitary puddles.

  • The NY Times featured a long essay last week called “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” The author focused on students at U Penn and how women are now “hooking up” more frequently; it’s not only the guys, seemed to be her point. My first reaction was “DUH.” Many (female) acquaintances and some of my friends at Oberlin often had one-night stands, some drunkenly and some not. I found a lot of things to contend with in this article. Here’s my list (but you should read it, too, and tell me what you think): A) Nothing should preclude a serious relationship — when it happens, it happens, and you work it out, sometimes having to make cost-benefit decisions. B) If someone is so rigidly fixated on exactly what (s)he must do for the next 10 years and refuses to change, (s)he is probably too busy for a relationship anyway or will be too focused to notice when a good one passes him/her by. C) Also, the things the article brings up are ultimately genderless — it’s not about men vs. women, it’s about people and the decisions they make. That said, the “default answer,” when drunk/high, is definitely not “yes.” D) Finally, you don’t by any means have to choose between marrying young and not having a relationship at all, especially in 2013…seriously?!

The Humanities

  • Before we get into the “are the humanities dead?” debate, here’s a fun graphic of Dickens’ novels, ranked by “most Dickensian.” It’s whimsical, but I love it and totally agree that Bleak House should be at the top.
  • And now, “Are the humanities dead?” I am a proud English major / literary scholar and lover of the humanities, so this debate hits close to home and I’ve been following it closely.

Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

…outside of this elite set of private schools, the humanities are holding their own, and at institutions with a far wider demographic of students. At schools nationwide, the number of students majoring in the “softest” humanities — English, foreign languages and literatures, the arts — has been remarkably steady over the last two decades, hovering between 9.8 percent and 10.6 percent of total bachelor’s degrees awarded. […] Students remain grabbed by the questions we pose in humanities classrooms — about style and character, politics and perception, love and ethics — and by how we follow these lines of inquiry into the pages of a novel, or the composition of a painting, or the prose of a philosophical treatise.

Kristof’s Return!

  • I promised you another Nicholas Kristof op-ed. “How Could We Blow This One?” was his first piece after five months of leave, and he certainly hit the nail on the head: “Doesn’t it seem odd that we’re willing to spend trillions of dollars, and intercept metadata from just about every phone call in the country, to deal with a threat that, for now, kills but a few Americans annually — while we’re too paralyzed to introduce a rudimentary step like universal background checks to reduce gun violence that kills tens of thousands?”

That’s it! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these. Leave a comment or email me at whereveriamyouaretherealso@gmail.com

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News Roundup: Running, the Arts, (Sex) Education, & Comic Relief

I can hardly believe it’s been more than two months since my last news roundup. High time for an update. This roundup includes a variety of articles and blurbs that caught my eye over the past couple of months. Topics range from running to language/linguistics to sex education to gun control, obesity, and more. As always, I’ve categorized the articles as best as possible so you can troll for what interests you the most. Click the links to read the full articles, and feel free to leave a comment or email me (whereveriamyouaretherealso@gmail.com) with your thoughts on any of these.

Running

  • I love running and do it willingly, but some days this is the only thing that gets me through: Runner’s World Motivational Poster #45.
  • Most runners, especially anyone who has ever run track, will appreciate this.
  • My Oberlin track coach preached (and still preaches) “PMA” to all his athletes. What’s PMA, you ask? That would be Positive Mental Attitude. In a nutshell, believe in yourself / be optimistic and good things will happen. I was skeptical for a time, but then started to mentally prepare myself for long marathon training runs by positive self-talking, telling myself the run would be fine, go well, I’d be strong and feel good. Guess what? It works! This Runner’s World article, “Train Your Brain to Run Your Best,” proves the point further and is worth a read for any athlete.

Language & Literature, Art & Music

    • Confession: I love opera. Okay, that’s not really a confession because I am not ashamed of it. True, my appreciation for opera didn’t come until college, but while at Oberlin I was able to see some amazing singers perform in a wide variety of operas and opera scenes. Oh, and I took a musicology class on Mozart’s last five operas. Yes, it was awesome. Anyway, if you are an opera lover or are just wondering what the heck all the fuss is about, check out this fun BuzzFeed article, “What Happened to Opera?” It’s fun and you can watch some videos of incredible singers.
    • Speaking of Oberlin, Amanda, a good friend of mine and fellow Obie, writes for Critics at Large and last month wrote a beautiful piece on Andy Warhol and her experiences of learning “from the artworks themselves” that began in the Allen Art Museum’s print room. Here’s an excerpt (though you should read the essay in its entirety, just to sink into Amanda’s outstanding prose):

“I learned quickly, but not from lectures or textbooks – I learned from the artworks themselves. Entire movements, periods and cultures – Japanese woodblock prints, the satiric eighteenth century engravings of Hogarth and Grandville, loose pages from medieval illuminated manuscripts – communicated themselves to me as archives without histories, until pulling prints became not unlike a daily descent into a dark, empty movie theater where all you could see were images, images, images flickering in the shadows and sublimely untethered from narrative.”

  • “Looking for Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin” is an interesting piece from the NY Times‘ Travel section; its timing was particularly good because I had just read Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, two fictional memoirs of sorts about the author / his protagonist’s years in Berlin in the early 1930s. (The second story is what Kander and Ebb based their musical Cabaret on.)
  • If you’re part of my generation, you probably speak with slashes, as in “I was thinking we could go to the movies slash do something else together this weekend.” “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” is a smartly-written piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education by a professor who asks her students to teach her two new slang words at the start of every class. She goes on to discuss the use of “slash” in spoken conversation. A fun piece worth the read.
  • Staying in linguistics territory, I read a great blog called The Inky Fool; this fool is Mark Forsyth, who has also written two books (The Etymologicon and The Horologicon), both of which I’ve read. This blog post, entitled “Plumbing with Aplomb,” is a particularly good example of Forsyth’s intelligent and witty discussions of linguistics.
  • This is just for fun: maps that show “the deepest linguistic conflicts in America.” The maps show how people in different regions of the States pronounce the same words, or the different words they use to mean the same thing. It’s pretty interesting; I (not surprisingly) found my hometown of Rochester, NY to be more midwest-leaning in some pronunciations and more New England-y in others. In terms of my own pronunciation, most of it matched that of other Rochesterians but some didn’t match how I speak. How do your pronunciation and vocabulary match up with your home region?

Children & Education 

  • NY Times “Sunday Dialogue” recently asked “What Makes a Good Teacher?” They present a letter to the editor to which readers are invited to respond. I even sent in a response for this one; though mine didn’t make it into print, it’s worth reading the original letter and its responses for all of the diverse ideas and thoughts people have about what makes a good teacher.
  • On a similar note, an opinion piece called “No Learning Without Feeling” argues against the US’s new Common Core State Standards and their (ridiculous) focus on standardized tests. The author makes a good point that this isn’t the way to get kids excited about learning and literature:

“The truth is that high-stakes standardized tests, in combination with the skills-based orientation of the Common Core State Standards, are de-emphasizing literature in the English classroom in favor of “agnostic texts” of the sort familiar from test preparation materials. These are neutral texts created to be “agnostic” with regard to student interest so that outside variables won’t interfere when teachers assess and analyze data related to verbal ability. In other words, they are texts no child would choose to read on her own.

  • NY Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow does an excellent job of providing his readers with shocking statistics about what is wrong with our (American) society. This piece, “The Kids Are (Not) All Right,” is no different, and props to Blow for alerting us so we can try to change them:

“…according to data released last month by the Children’s Defense Fund, each day in America:

2 mothers die in childbirth.

4 children are killed by abuse or neglect.

5 children or teens commit suicide.

7 children or teens are killed by firearms.

67 babies die before their first birthdays.

892 babies are born at low birth weight.

914 babies are born to teen mothers.

1,208 babies are born without health insurance.

1,825 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.

2,712 babies are born into poverty.

2,857 high school students drop out.”

  • The above piece is from April. Just last week, Blow wrote another op-ed, “These Children Are Our Future,” in which he gives us a “statistical portrait of the high school class of 2013” and what the class would look like if there were 100 students in it. It’s a really powerful set of statistics that everyone should be aware of. Blow notes that,

“We have not sufficiently prioritized some fundamental safety structures for children in this country — fighting child poverty; supporting all families (including single-parent ones) and their children through policies like paid family leave and early childhood education; insulating children from a culture soaked with violence; and educating children fully about sexuality and pregnancy, and allowing them open access to a full range of safe sex options (which would reduce our extraordinary rate of sexually transmitted disease, prevent more unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions).”

Sex & Sex Education

  • Taking Blow’s last point above, about sex education, there have been a few well-written essays floating around about that. This NY Times “Room for Debate” collection asking, “At What Age Should Sex Education Begin?” is particularly worth reading. Many of the contributors made excellent arguments for why/how/when (at what ages) sex education should be taught, both at home and in schools. One such contributor wrote,

“Irrational fear – the cultural belief that teaching young people about sex will cause them to have sex – keeps administrators and educators from doing what they know is best: providing young people with developmentally appropriate, sequential and honest sex education. Never mind that 30 years of public health research clearly demonstrates that when young people receive such education, they are more likely to delay sexual initiation, and to use protection when they do eventually become sexually active, than those who receive no sex education or learn only about abstinence. Withholding information about sex and sexuality will not keep children safe; it will only keep them ignorant.”

  • There’s a new book out called What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by journalist Daniel Bergner. Salon recently published an interview with Bergner about the book, which made me really want to read it. The piece is aptly called “The truth about female desire: It’s base, animalistic and ravenous,” and I recommend that every woman and man read the article. Here’s a short excerpt to pique your interest: “One of the scientists, who was really influential in calling attention to the size, put it this way: the reason we’ve ignored this is because we’ve managed to convince ourselves that one gender is all about reproduction and the other is all about sex. That is, women are all about reproduction and men are all about sex. Again, a complete distortion.”

Gender, Culture, & Machismo

  • Having lived in London for about six months now, I have already noticed plenty of linguistic, cultural, and social differences between Americans and Brits. This “Short Cuts” essay from the London Review of Books seeks to explain some of these differences in a humorous way. The essay is worth a read for any American or Brit who has spent time in the other country. Here’s a sneak peek excerpt about something I have found to be absolutely true:

“In the English manner, he apologised several times that night for joining my friends and me at our table. An Englishman will apologise to you twice in the course of inviting you to dinner when you are friendless and desperate and couldn’t feel more grateful for the prospect of company. ‘No doubt,’ Eagleton writes, ‘the British will soon be apologising for being stabbed in the street.’ Americans apologise only when they’re overwhelmed by guilt and want very much to be forgiven.”

  • Moving from cultural differences to gender differences, this Science Daily paper entitled “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth” explains how “From empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.” My dad has also done some research and teaching in the area of sex/gender differences, so he brought this to my attention.
  • And now onto differences in sexuality, with this op-ed on “How Latin Culture Got More Gay.” The essay can best be summed up with this quotation: “These developments not only undermine stereotypes about machismo, but also the assumption that the prominence of Catholicism makes progressive change impossible. Same-sex marriage is legal in Belgium, Portugal and Spain, and Ireland recognizes civil unions. As the United States Supreme Court debates same-sex marriage, perhaps it should consider the precedent set by other nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Seriously. Get with the program, USA.

Obesity & Food

  • “Research: Childhood obesity is a product of environment” looks at three new studies that point to environment over genetics as a greater cause of obesity. In their words, “Childhood obesity is a disease of the environment. It’s a natural consequence of normal kids with normal genes being raised in unhealthy, abnormal environments.” Worth reading the entire article.
  • Perhaps even more worthy of your precious reading minutes is the essay, “Fat City — What can stop obesity?”  by physician Karen Hitchcock. The piece is subtitled “Why obesity is not your doctor’s problem” and goes on to explore social constructs and thought patterns contributing to the obesity epidemic, serious health problems caused by obesity, and much more. It is an emotionally powerful, excellently written piece that I cannot adequately summarize here, so I beg you to go read it yourself.
  • On a food-related note, Michael Pollan has a new book out, that Mark Bittman (one of my favorite food writers) discusses and excerpts in his Opinionator piece, “Pollan Cooks!” Among other things, Bittman quotes Pollan as saying, “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” I completely agree.

Ukraine

  • I always keep an eye out for Ukraine-related news, since I feel a tie to the country after spending 2+ years there in the Peace Corps. So you can imagine how happy I was that Ukraine recently held the first gay rights rally in Kyiv. Brave people, those 50 demonstrators; clearly still a long way to go toward tolerance and acceptance.
  • Another big issue that, like homosexuality, is highly stigmatized in Ukraine, is HIV/AIDS. This Ukrainian girl, featured in a BBC article entitled “Ukraine’s youngest HIV campaigner,” is a heroine for speaking out about her experience living as HIV-positive in Ukraine. This also helps explain why Peace Corps Volunteers’ work with PEPFAR and HIV/AIDS education continues to matter in Ukraine.

Miscellaneous US-Related

  • Every American should read “10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.” I hazard to guess that Americans who have traveled a bit won’t be surprised by most of the statements made in the article, but it’s important for the less-well-traveled to read and understand the astute points the author makes.
  • And now onto gun control…a touchy subject, yes, but read Todd May’s Opinionator piece, “Is American Nonviolence Possible?” and that’ll give you some perspective on why the US needs serious gun control. I’ll start you off with this set of statistics:

“Clearly, we are a violent country.  Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries.  […]  Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence.  We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests.  We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief.  Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate.  And we torture people.  It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

  • With the above in mind, read this excellent op-ed by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who herself was the target of gun violence a couple of years ago. In “A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip,” Giffords states about the Senate gun control votes, “I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.” Shameful.

Whew! That ought to keep you busy for a while. What have you been reading lately?