porcelainandporcupines

Archive for July 2015

There are a lot of different ways to think about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, released last week. The most obvious would be as a novel, and, as a novel, it must be said: it is not very good.

I avoided reviews of GSaW before reading it, but since the headlines were inescapable I knew the general consensus was negative. This was very much a surprise as I was reading it. It was imperfect, certainly, but things would have to go off the rails pretty spectacularly to deserve being called a “mess”. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when things did go utterly off the rails in the final sections of the book.

The problem here is, as you are no doubt aware even if you too have only read headlines, that the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is racist. Rather, the problem with the story is not that he is racist, but in the discussion of how Jean Louise – who we all remember fondly as Scout Finch, and who is the actual protagonist of this book, despite getting fewer headlines – tries to come to terms with her discovery of this great failing in her father. We all were Jean Louise Finch last week, as we, too, tried to understand what could have happened to so drastically alter the most upstanding and moral figure of our childhood, who helped shape our understanding of right and wrong, who we all looked up to.

Unfortunately, though recognizing your parents as the flawed human beings they are could be a very rich topic, it is not presented well here. It takes the form of a couple of debates between characters – Jean Louise and her uncle, then Jean Louise and Atticus, and then she and her uncle again – spanning several pages, of just individual characters talking about their ideas. Even with the best of writing, this kind of philosophical argument is generally not terribly interesting to me. But these chapters of Go Set a Watchmen are not even close to the best of writing. The ideas presented are, generously, half-formed; it’s sort of like sitting too close to college freshman who are talking, about anything really. They’re also, frankly, pretty offensive; while much ink has been spilled about Atticus’ racism, Jean Louise does not come across any better; certainly not by today’s standards, anyway, although I’m certain that at the time, you could be progressive and in favor of equality while still being pretty racist. Seriously; it’s bad, you guys.

But the debate about race in Watchman, too long and poorly formed as it is, is incidental to the plot, really. Because the true struggle of the book is how Jean Louise will come out of this crisis still loving her father. And that, I think, is where Watchman actually becomes pretty interesting; it’s not successful as a novel, but it is a great case study for the writing process, and, particularly in this time of self-publishing, the importance of editors. Because, up until the end, there is a lot to like in Watchman. The talent and joy Harper Lee has in writing is impossible to ignore through most of it. And a talented editor was able to steer the book away from the thornier issues Lee was not properly addressing, to focus on the vivid recollections of Scout’s childhood, and her adventures with Jem and Dill; to enable Scout to love Atticus in the way that Jean Louise clearly wanted to, even though she couldn’t.

In the end, if you’re looking for a good book, I would not recommend Go Set a Watchman. But, if you’re interested in writing, in watching the development of a creative project, I’d say it’s a worthwhile read. I’ve got a copy you can borrow, but, even with all of it’s flaws, I’ll definitely be wanting it back.

I like just about everything on This American Life except for Ira Glass, and the reason I don’t like Ira Glass is the way he says “Of course.” He says it every episode, not to express agreement with a guest, although he may do that too; the particular “of course,” to which I’m referring comes when the show returns from commercial (or so I imagine; I, of course, listen to it online) and Ira explains what TAL is all about: “Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.” Although I did confirm the wording against a transcript of the most recent podcast, I was able to write that from memory; I am not kidding that he says it every week.

What makes the “of course,” so annoying is that, in confirming that everyone already knows the set-up of This American Life, it calls into question why they’ve included this little mid-show introduction in the first place. I mean, I get that you want to offer a little orienting for your listeners rather than just plunge them back into the middle of the story, or, more often, the beginning of a new story. And I have, theoretically, no objection to restating the This American Life thesis statement during each episode – you never know when a new listener is going to tune in. But in saying “of course,”, Ira is implying that even the newest of listeners is already familiar with the TAL mission. It’s certainly possible that This American Life has achieved the sort of cultural saturation where everyone does, in fact, know what it is even if they haven’t actually been exposed to it themselves; but there’s no need to be smug about it, Ira. And frankly, if everyone already know what you’re going to say, maybe use the time to say something else. Just imagine how much more exciting weddings would be if that happened.

It seems like a lot, I know, to dislike Ira Glass entirely on the basis of two words, even if they are two words he says over and over again. But, of course, my judgement does not rest solely on those two words; instead, for me, those two words perfectly encapsulate the sense of smugness that pervades every episode of This American Life. A show, I should probably mention, of which I would consider myself a big fan: their stories are often interesting and always well told, even as it seems like the radio counterpart of The Daily Show in its reassurance that the universal japes and ridiculous straights of life it wryly observes do not impact its audience; we, the listeners, are above all that foolishness.

An ability to pinpoint a meaningful phrase in a work came in very handy as a literature major. However, as the years have passed and I’ve grown too stupid to read a book, I’ve had to find another outlet for my critical skills. And, while television would be the most obvious target, since I spend so much time with it, it’s actually people that really allow my literature-comparing skills to shine. For example, I recently had the following conversation with a co-worker:

Me: Yeah, I have to put in my air conditioners this weekend.

Coworker: Oh, do you have someone to do that for you?

Me: [?] Uh, no? I do it myself.

Coworker: Are your air conditioners not very heavy?

Me: [??? + irritation/need to suppress ire] No, the ARE very heavy, it’s just that I’m strong enough to lift them.

Coworker: [dumb expression on her face]

We here on the blog, of course, came into this conversation already in progress; while I’ve embraced the necessity of having tedious conversations with coworkers, I make a real effort never to initiate a conversation with this particular one. Because I just can’t stand her.

To you, of course, giving the credit to the air conditioners rather than to me probably does not seem like a terrible crime against my person, certainly not worth wasting your time reading about, especially since I did in the above conversation get the implied credit for having somehow gotten ahold of the world’s only light window-unit air conditioners. In fact, you may not  consider it even remotely egregious that her initial response was to utterly disregard my active statement of installation in favor of automatically assuming my incapability of said action.

I, of course, understand your point. In fact, after tamping down my rage to neutrally yet extremely informatively reset the conversation to its proper subject, I wondered if I was, perhaps, somehow overreacting to the blank stare I received in response by thinking my coworker was a dumb, stupid cow. Which then, of course, made me consider whether the overreaction hadn’t happened sooner. I mean, this a woman who once “complimented” another female coworker by telling her she looked like a secretary, and there again seemed uncomprehending when this was not greeted with thanks. I should not have been surprised by her belief that I, as a woman, am probably useless.

And that, of course, is the actual issue. Not the isolated (and, it must be remembered, very, very stupid) comment about air conditioners, but that this is only the most recent, and surely not the last, in a long line of comments betraying her weird attitude toward women. Which I initially was willing to believe due to her advanced age and being raised in a time when feminism was a new concept and something a woman wouldn’t necessarily want to be known as, until I noticed that, like a high school mean girl, none of her insensitive remarks are ever self-directed. Additionally, the negging is only a subset of her larger personality issues, which I won’t detail extensively here now at this time, but will return to later.

The point, of course, is that, as with Ira Glass, while I may be overreacting to an individual comment here or there, the much larger issue is that I just do not like this person. I don’t. And no matter how much I might try to focus on the positive or let these comments go, there will always be another one. It’s an endless if irregular flow of reminders that,the reason I don’t like her is because she sucks. And it has become unbelievably tiresome to pretend otherwise.

You, of course, are maybe wondering when this pretending took place? After all, if you are reading this, we’ve probably spent time together, and anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with me over the past entirety of my life knows that I will eventually turn any conversation to how much I don’t like someone or something about work. Here online, though, I have actually tried to avoid the topic. For one thing, it undoubtedly does not look good during a job search for a prospective employer to find an archive demonstrating an inability to get along with one’s coworkers. For a girl, I mean; a guy can write anything he wants and it’ll be fine. For another thing, I’m sure the 6 of you reading this would tire quickly of reading the very same story over and over again, even if a few of the identifying details have been changed.

But what I realized as I sat wondering whether I was overreacting to be so bothered by this very irritating conversation about air conditioners is that I don’t actually care if I am. And that I like to complain; in fact, it makes me happy to detail an excessively minor thing and say “Look, look! Look at the nonsense that exists in the world, that I have to deal with almost every day.” Because even if I didn’t, it would still happen; in fact, there have been 3 more incidences since I started writing this. If I have to bear witness to this, then my reward is that I get to talk about it. So get ready: there will be plenty more where this came from.

An interesting thing is that I tend to wake up earlier in the summer. Actually, that’s false on two counts: it’s not at all interesting, and I wake up early year-round, due to Oola’s solid understanding of breakfast-time that does not alter with the seasons. Although it does, somehow, take into account daylight savings time. But in summer, with the sun already being up and the apartment already being warm, I will *not* go back to sleep after feeding the kitten but instead get going on my day. And while it might make sense that this earlier start would lead to arriving earlier to work, what I instead do with that extra time is extend my commute. So that I get to work at the same time, but it takes much longer to get there.

I did briefly attempt to use the extra time to get myself a fancy coffee drink with the intention of sitting in the fancy coffee place and enjoying, but it turns out the early morning baristas are a slow moving bunch and any extra time I thought I’d had was whittled away as I waited in line. Instead of subjecting myself to such frustration early in the morning, I instead use the extra time to incorporate more walking into my day, but without having to call it exercise, which I would never do.

And so it was that, on Tuesday morning, I found myself at 6:45am on Newbury Street with a particular place to be but in no hurry to get there, and I thought to myself “Self, why don’t we check out the old work neighborhood?” Which, as is once again the case, is distressingly close to my new work neighborhood. I’d seen in passing that there have been a lot of changes on Brookline Avenue since last I passed that way, and actually walking down the street I experienced up close how many of the things I used to see every day gone. For one thing, the storefront with the green awning that stood empty for the entire 9 years I walked down that street is gone altogether, having been replaced either by something completely unmemorable or a Crossfit gym which, now that I’ve seen two of them, I guess are supposed to look like the unfinished and never-used home gym in your neighbor’s garage, circa 1987.

More notably, the office I worked in – on 3 different floors – has been extensively renovated, or at least it appears to be from the sidewalk; even in passing it no longer resembles its humble beginnings as a renovated parking garage. It was too early in the day for anyone to be entering or exiting the building, unless it’s maybe staffed entirely by Oompa-Loompas held captive by a new corporate overlord; either way, it looks like the sort of place where work could be done, rather than a temporary holding cell for aimlessly malevolent chaos.

The view across the street has changed considerably too. Gone is the entire building that housed a rotating selection of failed restaurants, replaced by something unmemorable or perhaps another Crossfit. The restaurants themselves were entirely unmemorable too, all except one: B.B. Wolf, which was not memorable because of the quality of the food – as a barbecue joint it was inhospitable to the vegetarians in our lunch crowd. We seldom ate there, but it did play host to a manager’s meeting where we discussed the planned upgrade to Windows NT, a meeting memorable not for its location but because it was at this meeting a tall and handsome colleague asked me what NT stood for; I wasn’t sure but supposed it could be New Technology. We agreed that made sense, even if we couldn’t quite figure out why either of us was invited to the meeting. Although it is interesting (but again, not really) to think I was with a single company from whatever preceded NT to whatever preceded Vista. And I am glad I wasn’t there for the Vista upgrade, if there was one, because if there was, I am certain it didn’t go smoothly.

Anyway. While handsomeness and the ephemeral of necessity of new technologies are always fun to think about, what makes B.B. Wolf truly memorable is an equally trivial but slightly more explosive staff interaction when the thoughts of the Admin Team, which I supervised, turned to the mystery of what B.B. Wolf might stand for.

This was an afternoon conversation, quite likely on a Friday, but definitely at the point where people begin to realize there’s more time left in the work day than they can possibly fill on their own. It may be hard to imagine such a thing now, but remember: this was in the time of Windows NT; not even Friendster had come along yet, meaning the only people you had to pass the time with during the day were those in your immediate vicinity. Unless you wanted to use the phone. Which could only make calls. And would have been corded, so you wouldn’t even have the privacy to talk with your friends about how much you didn’t want to talk to your coworkers.

So it was in these dark times that someone chanced to glance across the street and wonder aloud what the B.B. might stand for. I momentarily shared their wonder; as far as I recall, the minds behind B.B. Wolf never actually elaborated on what the double-b might mean anywhere on their menues, and while they’d probably use their website to explain the whole history of the name today (some places do just go on and ON), if they’d had a website back in the days of NT, they probably would have been some sort of short-lived yet brazen start-up instead of a short-lived barbecue restaurant of indeterminate brazenosity.

As I wondered, I recalled noticing a theme the few times I’d looked over their menu: pigs. 3 of them. Living in houses. Maybe under a constant threat of being blown down? Thus, I concluded, the B.B. must stand for Big Bad.

I did not immediately share this with my coworkers. As manager, you want to allow staff a certain amount of room to resolve issues on their own. Also, it’s important to recognize that a conversation happening in your presence is not necessarily an invitation to join in; this was their investigation, and, as manager, I didn’t want to cut it short. Particularly since the answer was so easy, the solution would be reached soon enough.

But it wasn’t. I do not remember every possible permutation they came up with for B.B., which is no doubt for the best, but I do remember they eventually settled on Bar Be. Like Bar Be Cue, but with a wolf. That makes sense, right?

It doesn’t. I mean, it’s not a completely terrible idea, by which I of course mean that I myself had briefly considered that B.B. was some kind of play on BarBecue, and had even gone so far as to fleetingly consider Bar-be-wolf might be it. Until I realized that, even for a startup, Bar-be-wolf makes no sense at all, and moved on to other possibilities before finally settling on what was undoubtedly the right answer because I turned out to be right about the NT thing.

The Admin Team, though, wasn’t moving on. Once Bar-Be-Wolf came up, they stopped considering other possibilities in favor of discussing among themselves how that had to be correct. In the surest sign they considered the matter resolved, they made motions toward getting back to work.

I was torn. As manager, it’s great to have a staff that can be productive without urging. As a human being, there is no greater frustration than people deciding to be wrong, particularly when their decision to be wrong makes them happy. What could I do? I’m sure I had other options, but in the end, I did this:

OH MY GOD, IT’S BIG BAD! IT STANDS FOR BIG BAD! GET IT? BIG BAD WOLF? FuuuuuUUUCK.

Before anything else, I am a human being. And, even in the days before the internet, it was important to let people know when they were acting like idiots, even if you had to do it in person.

Jurassic World has gotten some mixed reviews, and rightfully so: some really annoying shit happens before the dinosaurs show up and start eating people. Why anyone would think a child running away from a dinosaur would be more dramatic if said child were sad about his parents impending divorce is beyond me; in a movie like this, the bulk of the drama should be coming from the dinosaurs. And, to be fair, once they show up, everyone you’d hope does actually get killed, so I still give it a thumbs up. But, if you want to make a dinosaur movie but feel like you need something more than a child narrowly escaping the literal jaws of death, here are a few divorce alternatives for upping the drama:

1.Make it Class Trip day at Jurassic World!
More kids makes more suspense. Plus, the teacher could get eaten; since the only real hero who dies in the current Jurassic World is a brontosaurus, this would add a few actual stakes to the story while also allowing the shy and quiet transfer student in the class to step up and shepherd the rest of the class to safety with his or her heretofore unknown leadership skills.

2. Make the older sibling a teenaged girl!
If we’ve learned anything in the past three years, it’s that all you need to avert the apocalypse is a spunky brunette teenaged girl. (Okay, there’s a boy in that last poster, but he’s very attractive, so I’ll allow it.) Imagine how effective she’s be if, instead of being from an impoverished district and having only her own cunning to help her survive, she had actual high tech weapons at her disposal! Dinosaurs running amok? Easy peasey lemon squeezy. WHICH BOY IS SHE GOING TO TAKE TO THE PROM?

3. Have the parents actually be divorced!
What better place for a weekend dad to take his estranged and slightly resentful children to assure them that they’ll always be a family? Nothing brings together broken families like dinosaurs. Plus, in the sequel, we can watch them go to family therapy to deal with the trauma of having been hunted by dinosaurs, as well as the survivor’s guilt of having seen so many others perish. Not to mention the lawsuit as the mother sues for sole custody after the father so recklessly endangered her children. Good times.

4. Have the siblings be identical twins!
Okay, this one is not quite as fully fleshed out as the others – which, in fairness, set a pretty high bar. But there must be a way for a movie whose entire premise is cloning genetic material to incorporate identical twins: they’re nature’s clones! Plus, they could do that thing where it looks like they’re standing next to each other, but it turns out one of them is actually just a reflection of the other. But which one? The dinosaur would never figure it out! Or would she?


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7 other followers

Fun With Song Lyrics

what we talked about when we talked about love in the '80s

The Cambridge Room

Historic tidbits, facts, and notes of interest on Cambridge, Massachusetts brought to you by the Cambridge Public Library's Archivist.

PST...

My Life in Pacific Standard Time

Grammar Party

a blog about grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and sometimes cats

Everything's JOK

Just one idiot's opinon.

TPN meets FOG

Swirling about in the fog of the SF Bay Area and my head