Last Rites for CNN

Image by The Young Turks

Image by The Young Turks

CNN died this week.

Boy, did they blow it when on Wednesday they reported the fictitious arrest of a suspect who at that point hadn’t even been identified. But that isn’t even my biggest complaint about the television news media’s performance this week.

I follow very few Twitter accounts: 39 at the moment. My elected representatives. My local paper. A few political commentators I like. A couple of fun things. And a bunch of writers and literary magazines. So on Monday, when I suddenly had 30 new tweets in a few minutes, I figured something was up. And it was: an explosion at the Boston Marathon. A serious explosion.

The first question in this situation is always: Is everyone I know and love safe? I had no friends or family at the event, so I was spared that particular anguish.

I turned on the TV. Here’s what I wanted to know:

What happened?
Who did this?
Why?
Are people still in danger?

Instead, on MSNBC I heard a terrorism expert talking about… I don’t even know what he was talking about, but it had nothing to do with what I wanted to know at that moment. On CNN, I heard an on-site reporter, audibly nervous now that she was in the middle of a crisis instead of covering a recreational event, call in to say she was in a locked-down business and couldn’t see anything and had no access to any official. Then Wolf Blitzer used the T-word.

I turned the TV off and went back to Twitter, where the real information was.

I knew that – I lived in Boston for nearly twenty years – but if you’re not from New England, you might not, and it seemed an important detail. Don’t call your sister’s office; she’s not there.

That gave me a good summary of the situation; it was accurate, factual, and included what wasn’t known, inviting me to wait for an update when accurate information was available. And it wasn’t necessary to repeat it over and over and over to fill up hours of live coverage.

But the real difference was in the amount of information that was actually helpful:

This was all useful information, especially for people more closely involved than I, who had totally different needs for information. If CNN had been airing this kind of information, instead of useless reporters saying nothing just to avoid dead air – for that matter, if they’d just shut up for a few minutes and aired video with similar helpful chyrons from local officials – I wouldn’t have turned off my TV in favor of Twitter.

Maybe it’s different on Twitter if you follow hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve never understood how it’s possible to do that; it’s all I can do to keep up with thirty-nine. Or are you not supposed to actually pay attention to individual tweets? I’m a Twitter newbie, maybe I’m doing it wrong. And Twitter isn’t without it’s difficulties: in the middle of a crisis, previously scheduled items – whether an innocuous joke or even a perfectly fine book promotion – are annoying at best. And any idiot can set up a fake account and pretend to be anyone. But on Monday I became convinced of one thing: in a crisis, for breaking news, Twitter is better than CNN or MSNBC. The news people have become irrelevant now that we have direct access to the people with actual information.

For some reason I didn’t watch the networks on Monday; maybe that was different. I found the NBC coverage of the last phase of the Friday Night Standoff to be uninformative (since there was nothing to report until they took the guy into custody), but also unoffensive, whereas on MSNBC, Chris Matthew lost any credibility he may have still had when he asked the former FBI and AFT agents who were his interviewees if the FBI could determine the ethnicity of the suspect from the photograph, to see if he was “from Yemen or something.” Even the MSNBC segments hosted by Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, two of my favorite people in the world, annoyed me with irrelevance and the need to parade a constant stream of speculating experts.

But Twitter worked for me just fine. From now on, my breaking-crisis-news source is Twitter. It’s the death of CNN. And that’s kind of sad.

Remember how CNN started? Not the date they went on the air, which was way back in the 80s, but when they really came into their own, in January 1991 when Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett watched the start of the war live, up close, and personal from their hotel room. Today, that doesn’t seem like much. In fact, war correspondents have been covering combat since before WWI, and some of us grew up watching the Vietnam war on the evening news. But this was the first time we’d watched the start of a war, live, on tv.

But they’ve turned into something else, and they’re not really useful for breaking news any more. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, of course. It’s my go-to channel when I have 15 minutes to kill and have idle curiosity about what’s going on in the world. Fareed Zakaria has his moments on GPS. And I never miss Howard Kurtz and Media Matters, though it’s frequently just a way to poke competitors in the eye and call it “media analysis.”

The problem with 24-hour-news is, you have to have 24 hours’ worth of news. Or repeat the same news over and over, every hour. Or turn not-news into news. And when over time you end up with a bunch of competitors, you have to do that flashier, sexier, and above all – first. You end up with Wolf Blitzer holding a pressure cooker because props are good TV. You end up reporting the fictitious arrest of a suspect not yet even identified. Compared to that, the misreporting they did on the Supreme Court decision last June was a trifle.

Maybe it’s all about cutting costs, or about ratings, about replacing actual journalists with on-air talent who test well with focus groups. But it’s how you become something I watch when I have nothing else to do, instead of the place I go when something happens. It’s how you become airport news.

I tend to lag behind the curve. I didn’t get cable TV until 1992 (I saw the Gulf War reporting at a friend’s house). I only got high-speed internet a year and a half ago, for pete’s sake. And I just started using Twitter this year. So maybe I’m the only one who wasn’t aware that cable news, as news (as opposed to issues discussion and political commentary) was dead.

But I know it now.

Changing the Way I Read

It started last August, when I read Roxane Gay’s essay/call to action, “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” about writers of color:

The world of letters is far more diverse than the publishing climate would lead us to believe. You only need to open your eyes and open your mind. I challenge everyone to pick five (or more) writers from this list with whom you are not familiar, look up their work, see what these writers are about.

Though the phrase “binders full of women” would become a laugh line a few months later, that’s exactly what she created: an online binder of the names of writers of color, with links to web pages and blogs, for anyone thinking they’d like to read (or publish) more diversely, but with no idea where to find diverse voices. Turns out, it’s not really that hard; you just have to look.

Like one of the good well-meaning people I am, I nodded my head in approval and did pretty much nothing to change my own behavior. Oh, I looked through the list, I noted who I’d read and who I hadn’t, and I bookmarked it. Did I change my reading habits? Not really.

I’m pretty much an impulsive reader. I click on links and end up buying a book on a whim (or, more recently, put them on hold at the library in my own version of austerity). This haphazard approach has mixed results. I have books from five years ago on my to-be-read shelf, and I have a book waiting for me at the library (library books have to get priority, since they, unlike me, have deadlines). But a lot of it depends on my mood at a given instant. If I were to pick a dozen must-reads from last year (besides the short story prize anthologies and literary magazines), would I pick those same dozen books I actually read? Probably not. Do I want to change that? Yeah, sure. Am I going to? Um, maybe later, I’m kinda busy right now.

Then, just last month, two near-consecutive media events convinced me to change the way I read.

First was Andrew Ervin’s response, also published in The Rumpus, to the VIDA report showing the wide gender gap in book reviews printed in the most widely-distributed and prestigious journals and magazines. Andrew discovered he, another well-meaning sort, was not immune: only 23.5% of his reviews were of books written by women.

The big question I face now is: What can I do to change this? I don’t want to be part of the problem any longer.

And that’s where I started some serious cogitation. I don’t want to be part of the problem, either. But I was still not sure what to do about it.

Then Media Matters published their report on the diversity of Sunday morning talk show guests, divided by White Men and Everyone Else (and that pretty much illustrates the issue right there, doesn’t it). Across the board, on all networks, a little more than 60% of the guests who got to explain their views to the American public were white men. Except for UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, where 57% of the guests were Everyone Else (for some reason, Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, also on weekend mornings directly following Chris on MSNBC, was not included in the statistics, which again, pretty much illustrates the issue).

Hayes explained the diversity of his guests to the Columbia Journalism Review:

“We just would look at the board and say, ‘We already have too many white men. We can’t have more.’ Really, that was it,” Hayes says. “Always, constantly just counting….

“You have to say, ‘We give ourselves this rule,’ and that’s going to force us to just be more resourceful,” Hayes says. “Because I genuinely don’t think there’s another way to do it. If you don’t do that then the inertia and the tide are so strong, unless you are committed as a priority to actively fight against it, you’re going to end up reproducing what everyone else does.”

You have to change, or you’ll end up doing the same old thing. That’s what Andrew Ervin said. That’s what Roxane Gay said.

That’s what I say.

So I’m changing the way I’m reading. Not entirely, of course. I’m still committed to the BASS, Pushcart, and PEN/O.Henry prize anthologies, to TNY and One Story. They come with some measure of diversity built in, particularly of gender. But the other reading – the impulse reading – that’s where I can make a small change.

The first step towards changing the future is seeing the present, and coming up with a measurable goal.

I created a spreadsheet of the books, using my Goodreads account, to get a statistical picture of my reading habits for the past couple of years. Leaving aside the anthologies, I discovered the following:

In 2011, 75% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2012, 64% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2013, 50% of the books I’ve read so far were by White Men.

At least I seem to be heading in the right direction. I could stop reading for the year right now… no, I have a better idea.

For every book I read by White Men, I’ll read a book by Everyone Else. I’ll stay at 50/50 for 2013.

[I had a whole riff about the strangeness of determining who’s white and who isn’t, but I got scared that it could be misinterpreted, so I deleted it. Then I realized I deleted something because I got scared, and that’s not who I want to be, so I’m putting it back in again, and if someone wants to complain about it, go ahead.]

Some of this got a little tangled, of course. Nothing’s ever as simple as statistics makes it seem. The most fun exploration was, what is “white”? How do I count someone who’s biracial? And how do I find out race, when I don’t know anything about the author and the bio doesn’t say? Do I just find a picture and guess? And just what am I suppposed to do with Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, whose American father and mother from the Northern Mariana Islands “raised her on a yacht in the South Pacific”??!? At least she’s clearly female (and, by the way, her novella The Man Who Danced With Dolls is spectacular), so I can put her in “Everyone Else” and not worry about it. Hisham Matar, whose Anatomy of a Disappearance has been on my to-read list since I read the excerpt “Naima” in TNY, is on Roxane’s list, but not Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (or Etgar Keret, and I also want to read Suddenly, A Knock On The Door) – how do I count these?

Yes, I’m having a little fun with this. But I’m also glancing alongside a serious question: since “race” is so nebulous and meaningless, why have we as a society given it so much power? And can changing the way I read help to fix that? No, probably not. But at least I won’t be part of the problem any more. And the more people decide to not be part of the problem, the smaller the problem becomes.

My goal opened up more interesting cans of fascinating worms. Would I have been so quick to grab Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, on the strength of his wonderful Financial Lives of the Poets and guided by a bunch of awe-struck reviews, had I instituted this rule at the time? Maybe. As is, I’m sorry I “wasted” one of my White Men slots on it. I’m glad I didn’t spring for the Saunders collection – not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but because I’ve already read four of its stories – and adored three of them (but I wouldn’t have wanted to have wasted another WM slot on what would amount to six stories, see?). This is why (some) White Men worry about reverse discrimination: they know exactly what it means when you have to be better than everyone else just to seem as good as. They invented the game.

On the other side, I wasn’t really tempted by the new Diaz, though I love the final story; I just don’t really want to read more “Miss Lora“-style stories, and I’m more interested in the science-fiction novel the excerpt “Monstro” was taken from. I bypassed Alice Munro, for the same reason I didn’t check out Saunders; I’d read four of the included stories (at least I think they’re included), and while they’re outstanding, I wasn’t going to pop for the rest of them. So I’m not going to be reading books I wouldn’t otherwise read, just because they’re written by Everyone Else.

So am I changing the way I read, or not? Yes, but it’s not a matter of not reading books I want to read or reading something I’m less interested in – not at all. That’s usually the complaint about quotas – and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about – that less qualified minorities will replace more qualified majorities. I disagree with that premise. I think it’s a matter of expanding the base of choices, and being sure you’ve got a full view of the field. And looking at what’s meant by “qualified,” which in the case of reading often boils down to: “Just how much of my desire to read this book is based on being able to casually mention to my friends that I read it?”

What this means in practical terms is that I keep expanding my field of vision. I see fifty, a hundred book commentaries every week (depending on how much attention I’m paying to Twitter and my feeds). It’s easy to remember the book everyone’s talking about. Just by the numbers in the VIDA report, the book people are talking about most is probably going to be a book by a White Man.

What if instead I kept a running list of books, paying special attention to those that don’t get that much attention, the books I only see mentioned once or twice, by someone who makes it a point to read diversely? A binder full of books by Everyone Else. What if I start thinking of a book as a little more interesting because it was written by someone who’s going to give me a different perspective, because it’s about a person, theme, event that isn’t familiar? What if I value Other Voices as much as I value Big Names? I can’t read every book that appeals to me, but I strongly suspect I can still read most, if not all, of my “must haves” and still keep my Diversity Quotient at 50/50 if I’m a little more mindful with my impulse choices.

I’m not trying to change the world here. I’m just picking a book to read. And I won’t be part of the problem from now on.

Zin is on Vacation!

Hello I am Zin and I am taking a vacation from blogging! Everyone should take a vacation once a year right?

I have too many ideas and no time to actually do any of them so I will not be posting for the next few weeks or maybe a month but then I will be back with more Literaria and next weekend is the Edible Book Festival and I will tell you about that too when I get back and other things as well.

Sunday with Zin: Naked Shakespeare

Hello I am Zin and on February 1 Shakespeare went Naked! And I watched!

Naked Shakespeare is a performing arts group in southern Maine that performs Shakespearean sonnets and brief scenes from his plays in everyday places like taverns and summer fairs without costumes or lights or scenery or even a stage! They just show up and speak! It is pretty remarkable! On February 1 as part of the First Friday festivities here in Portland they took over the Atrium of the library for a performance. It was quite strange because the Atrium is very small, it is maybe 30 feet wide, and people were sitting on the floor and wee littles were crying and people were coming and going and the actors never got distracted! It was amazing to watch them keep focused on what they were doing!

They had a special challenge because they were in the middle of the floor with nothing but a bench and people were lined up against both walls and the ends, so it was like they were in the middle of a rectangle of audience! They had to keep moving around so everyone had a chance to hear and see them up close and all of this was improvised which I think is pretty impressive when they are also performing Shakespeare!

Because of the time of year the theme was “Will You Be Mine” and the works were about love of all kinds from the love sonnets and the comedies to of all things King Lear and Cordelia! That was my favorite because the actors were really good! When Lear entered I think the whole audience was worried the actor was having some kind of medical problem he was so convincing!

I took a video recording of the Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising…”), a short scene from Measure for Measure, and a longer passage from Troilus and Cressida which I have never read or seen before. Because the actors were sometimes two feet away and sometimes fifty feet away the sound is a bit odd but it gives an idea of the very un-Shakespearean setting! At least un-Shakespearean as we are used to seeing Shakespeare performed now.

Good words and good performers work anywhere!

FLOODED: The Benefit for Longfellow Books

Imagine this:

You’ve got cancer. You’ve just completed a round of chemo with a new drug, a nasty one that not only knocked you on your ass, but knocked your white blood cells right out of existence, so you’re three days in the hospital on IV antibiotics trying to get the infection under control. You’re feeling like crap, so you haven’t had time to worry about the historic snowstorm – Nemo, some nitwit at The Weather Channel decided to call it – that started last night. It’s all white from your hospital bed, anyway.

Oh, and you’re the co-owner of a Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore, which you coaxed into existence when the bookstore you managed went under after the new Borders opened at the mall thirteen years ago. Of course, Borders is Books-a-Million now, but your little place is still there, though you get a little nervous every time a showroomer aims a cell phone at a best-seller, or you see someone sitting at Starbucks with a Kindle. Still, you love what you do, and that counts for a lot.

Your phone rings. Who’s calling on a night like this, a night white with snow? Ah, it’s your buddy, neighbor to the store, probably going to give you a pep talk. Ok, you’ve got the energy to deal with that. Though for someone who’s just been lying in bed for three days, you’re awfully tired. You hope it’s because your body is working hard along with the antibiotic, and maybe making new white blood cells to boot.

“Stu, I’m standing outside your store, water’s pouring down from the ceiling, alarms are ringing, fire engines are pulling up, they want to break down the back door… ” You wonder briefly if this is some kind of strange semi-hallucinatory reaction to the antibiotic, but the phone is very real in your hand, your friend’s voice is very real in your ear, and apparently the water and alarms and firemen are very real at your store. But you’re tethered to this IV bag with a length of tubing and to this bed by chains of fatigue, so you call your co-owner (who might also wonder if you’re hallucinating; hell, you still sorta wonder/hope maybe you are, yourself) and he says he’ll check it out.

He calls a little while later. There was indeed water pouring into the store from the ceiling. Water + books = not good. “Stu, the firemen were carrying books out of the way of the water! Double armloads of books! A Bucket Brigade of books! Firemen saving books! Like they’re children!” You wonder again if there’s something in the IV antibiotics that causes hallucinations.

But no. The storm blew in a window on the second floor above the store. Snow blew in and melted, which would’ve been bad enough, but the real trouble started when the pipes froze because that set off the sprinkler system that’s doused – ruined (sprinkler water isn’t clean and pretty) – half your stock. Only half your stock, thanks to the Portland Fire Department. But you’re going to be closed a while.

Maybe this is it. You’ve been selling books in one way or another since the 70s, but maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

Turns out, the universe may be trying to tell you something, but Portland is telling you, Not So Fast.

Within two hours of the story being Twittered out by the Portland Press Herald, your Facebook page will have 200 offers of help.

Within two days, you’ll have to ask people to stop calling and dropping by the store as you clean up and try to figure out a recovery.

Within four days, the Maine Publisher’s and Writer’s Alliance will schedule FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books – and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo and a host of other Maine writers like Ron Currie, Jr., Bill Roorbach, Monica Wood, Moira Driscoll and Brock Clarke will all volunteer immediately for the panel – at the SPACE Gallery, which will donate the facility for the evening, since you’ve schlepped books the four blocks so many times for so many literary events over the years (Zadie Smith being the first, back in 2002), and Rogue’s Gallery will provide T-shirts at cost with “We Survived the Flood of 2013” on the front and “Longfellow Books, Fiercely Independent” on the back for sale. The Benefit will sell out in less than a day, probably the quickest sellout in SPACE Gallery history. That night will be full of love, full of humor, full of books, full of talk about books and writing those books, full of t-shirts, full of readers, writers, and business people in a tiny city that won’t let its bookstore go gentle into that good night.

And this is the story you will tell.


Footnotes: Because this story was too important to me to be cluttered up by links, I’ve listed them all here:

Longfellow Books now scheduling readings just like old times
Zin posted about the flood; I wanted to get my two cents in, too, so I got to do this post about the recovery
FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books, organized by Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance – thanks for a great evening
WCSH-6 News Coverage of the recovery
Portland Playback Theater, a unique troupe dedicated to “the art of improvisation with real-life stories spontaneously shared by members of the audience” who donated the $900 in proceeds from their March First Friday performance
Richard Russo, who discussed how painful it was to write his new memoir, Elsewhere
Monica Wood, whose memoir When We Were The Kennedys Zin discussed last year after attending a reading at PPL.
Ron Currie, Jr., whose new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles features a character named Ron Currie, Jr., who’s a writer…
Bill Roorbach whose new novel Life Among Giants about a football player’s tragedy started with the notion of fame
Brock Clarke who skillfully moderated the Fiction discussion in a hilarious direction (“There’s a lot of sex in these books”) so we didn’t get a chance to hear much about his latest novel, Exley
Moira Driscoll, actress, audio book reader, and gracious Memoir panel moderator
Rogues Gallery provided t-shirts which became an instant hit

Time for a break…

It’s that time again. Zin will be here tomorrow for Sunday with Zin, and I’ll be back next Wednesday and Thursday for recaps. Then I’ll pick up my regularly scheduled schedule.

See you on the other side.

Sunday with Zin: Keep Calm and Turn the Page

Keep Calm and Turn the Page!

Keep Calm and Turn the Page!

Hello I am Zin and this is a story that has a sad beginning but a warm and hopeful middle and I believe it will have a happy ending!

You probably know we had a big storm here that started on Friday, February 8 and went for two days. Maine got a record snowfall of 31+ inches! We had the usual problems we have with snow. But Longfellow Books, my Fiercely Independent Community Bookseller, had some extra problems beyond too much snow!

First the storm blew in a window on the second floor of the building above the bookstore and snow blew in and melted and dripped through the ceiling into the bookstore!

Second, the pipes in the building froze!

Third, because the pipes froze, the sprinkler system went off and water sprayed all over the books!

This set off all kinds of alarms but there was a blizzard out there! So it took time for the store owners to get there and I am surprised they were able to, but they were, and the fire department was there already, they had broken in the back and covered some of the books with tarps and were carrying books out of the store to save them! Firemen saving books!

“It was a reverse ‘Fahrenheit 451,'” Bowe said, referring to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction classic, in which books are outlawed and burned by firemen.

That sounds like a book person!

About half of the 30,000 books were ruined! They hope insurance will pay for most of that but they have also been closed for a week and they expect to be open only sporadically for at least another week!

But like the sign in the window says: Keep Calm and Turn the Page.

That sounds like a book person, too!

This bookstore was voted Portland Icon in 2012 so Portland is helping! The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance has arranged two events and a third way to help:


First, a Cash Mob on Saturday, March 2, for people to show up at the store and buy books! They can also buy Great Flood 2013 Gift Certificates for later on if they do not need any books right now! I know I am going to need some books later this year so I think I will get one!

Second, a Panel Discussion at the wonderful SPACE Gallery on Sunday, March 3: FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books! Richard Russo and Monica Wood will talk about memoir, and Ron Currie Jr. and Bill Roorbach will talk about fiction – all Maine writers, all who have given readings and talks at the bookstore in the past, three of them I have read, two of them appear in this blog! I have my ticket already! I bought it when I got the email announcing the event! And it is a good thing because three days later it is sold out!

Third, MWPA is collecting donations by PayPal and check until March 15!

It sounds crazy to give a donation to a private business but a retail business especially one as tenuous as a bookstore that must close for two weeks needs help and they are part of the community and hold so many wonderful events for free we must do something! The bookstore has been getting calls and Facebook queries asking how people can help so now they have three concrete ways to help!

The two owners Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson were employees at Bookland (I did not know that) which was the bookstore that went out of business 13 years ago (I remember that) when Borders opened in South Portland so look who is still standing! They have held it together this long and they are not going to let a storm get in the way:

“Never underestimate the power of an independent bookstore,” [Bowe] said. “We have survived the chains. We have survived Amazon. We have survived the Kindles. The bookstore is one of those good places in the community. We will struggle, but we will get there.”

Again that sounds like a book person and I believe him!

Reading Matters: Public #Respect for Writers

I went to my Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore on Friday evening for a reading by Maine resident Eleanor Morse, author of the recently published White Dog Fell From the Sky. Typically, about 25 to 40 people attend these readings, and most show up at the last minute. The reading at 7pm was to be preceded by a half hour of what was billed as “Zimbabwean music” which could’ve meant anything from a recording to the Maine Marimba Ensemble (none of whom are Zimbabwean but they specialize in traditional and contemporary Zimbabwean music). I figured I’d listen to the music, snuggle into a corner seat out of the way of latecomers, and if the music was canned, I could always, ahem, find something to read.

It didn’t work out that way.

At 6:32 the main room of the store was jammed. Forget sitting – there was barely room to stand. The instrumentalist and vocalist were indeed playing and singing from the side room. I wandered back and thought I’d snagged a reasonable spot to stand.. but they kept coming, and coming, and coming… I ended up on the steps to the basement. I couldn’t see the table where the speaker would be, or the musicians, or, really, anything other than a wall of people in front of me. I had to leave; I was getting claustrophobic, and I wasn’t going to be able to see or hear anything from where I’d ended up.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I’m rejoicing! On this Friday night in January, in Maine, at least 100, perhaps 150 people came out to hear a 62-year-old female author talk about her novel set in Botswana during South Africa’s Apartheid. It helped that Oprah listed it as a Must-Read for January 2013. It helped, of course, that she’s a local (she’s from Peak’s Island, and the store owner said the latest ferry had deposited half of the island’s winter residents in time for the event). And I suppose it helped that we’re in our January Thaw and it was well above freezing. But still, the enthusiasm of that attendance, the mellow intensity in that store, more than compensated for any disappointment I felt at missing the talk.

This is good news.

Skip to Saturday morning, with me working on calculus (yes, I’m taking yet another math course) and half-listening to UP with Chris Hayes, part of the weekend-morning liberal porn block on MSNBC. I could’ve sworn I heard him say George Saunders would be at the table next, which, of course, would be silly; UP features political, economic, and social policy wonks, activists, commentators, and academics, not fiction writers, not even fiction writers known for their anti-consumerism viewpoints.

But it was indeed George Saunders, whose recently-published collection Tenth of December includes several terrific stories I’ve read from TNY and BASS, like the great title story, the truly astonishing “Semplica Girl Diaries” and the heartbreaking “Home.”

But it wasn’t just George Sanders. It was also Ayana Mathis, whose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie I started last week. And Victor Lavalle, who I’m not familiar with (but perhaps I should be; The Devil in Silver looks interesting), and Michael Chabon whose name I seem to have been mispronouncing all along.

Four literary fiction writers. On a political commentary show? Yes – discussing President Obama’s political narrative, multiple voices, a foot in two worlds… politics and literary theory collide.

It’s all available online [addendum; no, it isn’t, just one segment is still available here] in four six-minute segments. Yes, it is political. Yes, everyone there likes Barack Obama. Yes, there are some places they could’ve gone, maybe should’ve gone, but didn’t. But the storytellers are gathered around the Pastry Plate (which is so popular to viewers, it has its own Twitter account with 2000+ followers; no, not me, I have enough trouble following people, let alone carbohydrates) to talk about storytelling, and they do.

Some highlights:

Section introduction (Chris Hayes):

Perhaps more than any other national political feature in recent memory, Barack Obama has used speeches and big rhetorical set pieces to define his character, tell his story, and propel actual political events….
Given Barack Obama’s remarkable gift in storytelling and the impending second act of the drama of his presidency, we thought it would be enlightening to invite some genuine experts in storytelling to give their thoughts on the narrative President Obama is creating.

George Saunders:

What he’s really doing is saying to the listener, ‘I trust you deeply. I’m going to be as honest as I can, I’m going to tell you the weirdest marginal truths, and because you’re as smart as I am, you’re going to lean forward.’ In fiction that’s an important principle, to assume the best of your reader, don’t puppeteer, don’t condescend.

Ayana Mathis:

It is this question of creating a narrative of yourself… and it is a combination of public perception and his own perception of himself.

Victor Lavalle:

People who are drawn to fiction are asking the writer, “Do a good enough job to help me become invested in someone else for a time, so I can see our common humanity, our common pain, our common everything, and maybe come out of here with the sense that I’m not the only one feeling this loneliness, this sadness…” that’s part of the pact of writing fiction vs nonfiction.

Chris reads a quote from the January 2010 Junot Diaz TNY essay, which may have inspired this whole angle; even Flannery Connor gets a quick mention as an aside.

Then there’s the usual closer of the show, “Now We Know,” a report of something each guest has learned this week. Mathis talks about her discovery of the use of a blossoming pear tree in two disparate works, Saunders comments on the value of humor thanks to some galley proofs he read, Lavalle bemoans the poor quality of bootleg DVDs, and Chabon worries about this giant thing scientists just discovered floating around out there in the universe, a cluster of quasars so huge it can’t possibly exist. It was the most fun Now We Know segment in a long time. That’s what happens when you talk to writers.

Two public displays of affection for books and writers: What a great start to the weekend.

Sunday with Zin: Puppet Opera

puppets finale

Hello I am Zin and I love opera! And I love puppets! So what could be better than a puppet opera?

Paper Bull Puppets and VOX Maine put on Hansel and Gretel this year! I did not attend the formal performance where they had live singers and a pianist but they did excerpts at the library and even though it was announced as a Children’s Event, it was ok for adults to go! So I was able to see it! It was really wonderful! It was something like a dress rehearsal for them with all the scenery and the shadow work and it was lovely! They did the beautiful “Evening Prayer” scene which was really lovely! Unfortunately Hansel’s head came off at the end of the first excerpt so they had to repair him during intermission but one of the guys came out and had us singing and he talked about opera and puppets, so it was just fine!

They do not use hand puppets or marionettes, but bunraki, a traditional Japanese theater that uses hand-guided puppets! Two or three people, dressed in black, handle the puppets, one the head and body, one the arms and one the feet! It kind of looks like they are taking care of an injured child because they are all gathered around these three-foot-tall puppets but after a while I stopped noticing the people and just looked at the puppets!

puppets closeupI went to the library early to browse the Edward Gorey display again and maybe find some new thing to read and in the lobby were Hansel and Gretel! It was so cool, the puppet handlers had them sitting on the fountain and they just were trying to generate some interest so they let me take a short video and some pictures! There was a lady telling the puppets not to fight and I wanted her to be quiet but she kept telling them to kiss and make up and they did! Then the puppet handlers talked to us for a while and while they were talking Hansel and Gretel’s heads were moving like they were looking around, and Hansel poked Gretel and pointed to something in the commissary, it was really quite good, they made those puppets look alive even when they were talking to us!

puppets headerI did not know this before I went to see the show but it is very appropriate that Hansel and Gretel is a puppet opera because that is how it was written! He wrote a few songs for a puppet show his nieces were doing, then he wrote a few more and a few more and suddenly he had the whole story as an opera! It is frequently performed this way in fact!

Thank you Paper Bull Puppets and VOX Maine (and Portland Public Library) and I hope you do another show soon!

Notes to Those who Erroneously Found Their Way Here via Peculiar Search Terms

To: does anyone put dishes in a lawyer bookcase (7/29/12)

First, let’s call them barrister bookcases, shall we, because “lawyer bookcase” has me seeing self-important guys in suits crammed behind the glass, threatening to sue me if I don’t let them out. Now: It never occurred to me to put dishes in my barrister bookcases, as my dishes are in cupboards and my barrister bookcases are full of books. But I’m always impressed by creativity. Perhaps people who put their dishes in their barrister bookcase put their books in the dishwasher?

To: can u fix god up 2 help karen carlson 2 come !,god (4/9/12)

Well, thank you, that’s very kind of you, but I really don’t need any help with that, and I would like to think God has better things to do.

To: the 8 weirdest things women have hidden in their vaginas (4/10/12)

Initially, I thought the prosthetic eye would take it. But no; once the rolled-up Donny Osmond poster entered the ring, the competition was over. And by the way, I clucked when this one took me to HuffPo (oh, come on, tell me you wouldn’t hunt down something like this), but not for long: the original source is a BBC3 program titled “Bizarre ER.” They are famous for keeping a stiff upper lip over there.

To: has grechian carlson cheated on husband ( 7/30/12)

This is something people worry about?

To: what does taco stailing hoe mean? (9/30/12)

At first I assumed this should be “taco sailing home” which brought images of little people in crispy corn tortilla shells headed across a salsa sea. But I’ve discovered through assiduous research it should actually be “taco stealing hoe,” and while I thought it odd that a garden implement would be interested in, much less capable of, stealing tacos, to my surprise, there is an Urban Dictionary entry for this moniker.

To: well apart from shoe jobs which happend as i got older, as long as i could remember i’ve always liked putting things into girls heels or boots without

Don’t finish that sentence. Please.

To: how to mell a stobs (6/23/12)

As near as I can tell, you simply whack it a few times. But you may wish to consult an expert.

To: frida kahlo monobrow propfourteen in one day?? (5/15/12)

So that’s why I got a spike of hits on a year-old post having nothing whatsoever to do with Frida Kahlo but nonetheless displaying the Frida Kahlo minibook from Etsy (it’s a long story) on that day. Was it a Frida Kahlo holiday? And darn, I missed it. Maybe next year.

To: “roukis sean thomas” or “roukis s thomas” or “roukis thomas” or “r s thomas”,surgery,workshop ( 7/22/12)

Are you a podiatrist stalker?

To: can i sue my private chef for unsafe food handling (10/8/12)

This is America, one can sue pretty much anyone for pretty much anything. The real question is, will such a lawsuit be successful. Perhaps you should consult the lawyer in your bookcase.

To: is tamas dobozy an asshole

Let me guess: you’re a student. When you’re a student, everyone’s an asshole.

To: free incest novells containing pedophelia,cheating, mother and son to read (11/12/12)

Respect writers by paying them fairly for their work, please.

To: why are they called chux pads (11/6/12)

I researched this pretty thoroughly (which explains why I’ve never accomplished anything in life), and have found no definitive answer. I did discover a highly interesting article outlining the perils of pioneering and the rewards of mass marketing, as Johnson & Johnson, makers of the original “Chux” brand of disposable diaper (possibly playing on the term “to chuck” for discard), failed miserably only to see P&G create Pampers ten years later and revolutionize the world of baby poop disposal. I also discovered there is a Kinky Medical Blog. This concerns me. If the FBI should confiscate my computer, what will they think?

To: im eight weeks pregnant and i have alot of bumpling in my side is this just gas i don’t fart or release it (11/28/12)

Please do, before you explode.

 

Sunday with Zin: Pecha Kucha

Hello I am Zin and welcome to the October 2012 Pecha Kucha Night in Portland Maine!

Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pa-CHOK-cha” and meaning “chit-chat” in Japanese) is like a flash art exhibit! Except sometimes it is about more than art! There have been 2,226 stories told so far since 2003 worldwide, probably one near you! It was started as a design thing in Tokyo, and grew from there!

Each presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds each! That is six minutes and forty seconds to display and narrate 20 slides of whatever you have! Paintings, sculpture, projects, sketches, ideas, dance, poetry! Anything that can handle narrated slide format! And no introduction – the emcee takes care of that! It is amazing how much ground you can cover in that time!

I learned about Pecha Kucha at the Sidewalk Art Festival this past summer via Dana Trattner, who showed the art she painted over the years through several eye surgeries! I made a note to go to the next one, and it was last month at the wonderful SPACE Gallery!

My favorite was Lindsay Stockbridge, a sculptor and recent MECA graduate who was inspired by her walk of the Appalachian Trail! Before she left she made some sculptures of beached whales, because that is how she felt! When she saw the trees she imagined them as the legs of giant moose, so she made a bunch of moose! Some of them she bronzed! Then she made a 4×4 house in the sand that washed away with the tide leaving only the frame! And because, she says, we always look for a face or figure in inanimate objects – like the man in the moon, or even the moose! – she sculpted a conch shell with a hand coming out of it – this was I think my favorite thing I saw all night!

Moose Sculpture by Lindsay Stockbridge

Moose Sculpture by Lindsay Stockbridge

Activist and USM Art Teacher Jan Piribeck described her work on the Good Fences for Good Neighbors project! Since there are a bunch of ugly chain link fences in the Bayside area, a group of artists got together and created art from them! They used only recycled materials, things that would have been thrown away. One of the most available materials was Blue Wrap, the stuff medical facilities use to wrap up sterilized items! It is not reusable once it is removed from the medical instrument, but it is not soiled or damaged in any way, it is just not sterile any more, so people are looking for ways to re-use it, and these artists came up with this one! One of the fences cast a shadow of faces on the ground when the sun was at a certain angle, it was amazing! And the Blue Wave fence just blew in the breeze like a real wave!

One of the goofy things at Pecha Kucha was the Flashlight Sponsors! Do you think this is worth $25 to a local business: “Your logo slapped on an 11×17″ billboard and personally marched across the stage for all to see. As your logo makes its way across, the emcee will say a few kind words about your business while it gets beamed at by a 1,000,000 candlepower flashlight.” It was really cool! It was like something out of Vaudeville!

Dave Weinberg is a graphic designer and illustrator with a hobby: collecting captioned cell phone pics for his Cellphone Sketchpad blog! Some are funny, some are pretty! Anyone can submit! With or without the headline and caption!

Kevin Tacka is a Portland artist who also makes fountains for each First Friday celebration! He considers it a success if it works without losing water for 3 hours! He makes these videos of them on YouTube! My favorite is Who Let the Kitty Out of the Bag for his Cat-Topped Fountain from 2010! I am amazed at how creative he is with fountains! Water falling from the sky, the Pyrex, the Wedgewood, the Campfire Cowboy, water shooting through the sky over his sketchbooks onto an old canvas – I never realized fountains could be so much fun!

Marty Pottenger talked about one of her many projects, Art at Work, particularly the City Writers Group that gives police officers, fire fighters, engineers, accountants, parking lot managers, anyone who works for the City of Portland, to meet, write, and react to work-related prompts like First Day, or Mentors.

Not everything was about art! John Ossie told us how a bow saved his life! As in bow and arrow! He had been getting worse and worse with degenerative disk disease in his back and neck, in more and more pain, on so many medications, but he was dragged to a yard sale by his wife and he found a bow and started working with it and it did great things for exactly the right muscles and he is much better now! He even went camping! And oh by the way he is a skilled archer, he shot an arrow that split right into the one already in the target! That is very hard to do! So the bow he found by accident was a real gift! And Brody Wood read her poetry while a dancer performed and the slides were cast on them, it was very interesting!

All of the presentations had something to say and were unique and interesting! Portland has an event about once a quarter and I bet there is a Pecha Kucha night near you! If you have been to one, or if you go to one in the future, tell me about it!

I Can Breathe Again…

They threw everything they had at this guy. Grover Norquist. Citizen United. The Tea Party. Karl Rove and his American Crossroads. Dick Cheney. Sheldon Adelson. Donald Trump. Targeted suppression of voting rights on a scale that makes Jim Crow look like an amateur. Racism – subtle and not – and outrageous but convenient lies. The comfort of ignorance. The revisionism of an Etch-a-sketch campaign. Even Dancing with the Stars. And, of course, God.

And he won anyway.

Here’s where the Democrats could use a little God.

Not the God some of us already have – the one who says “forgive seventy times seven” and “as you did unto the least of these you did unto me” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (funny how fundamentalists can switch from literal to metaphoric interpretation when they need to).

No, we could use a God more in the image of the right wing, a God who needs hurricanes to make his point. Like sending a hurricane on the first day of two consecutive Republican conventions, and a week before the election when things are nail-bitingly close and the RepBot has momentum. You know that if things had gone a little differently – if the hurricane had hit North Carolina on Labor Day or Sandy had suddenly veered East and never made landfall – the red airwaves would’ve been proclaiming the Will of God.

But Democrats will have to suffice with the will of the American people. Which once in a while is capable of more than you ever thought it could be.

I didn’t even realize how tense I’ve been about this election until about 7pm last night when I started to get scared. I tried to read. I tried to play a game. I tried to watch a movie. I was a mess. So I found comfort in the tweets and retweets of Baratunde Thurston, David Rees, Nate Silver, Melissa Harris-Perry, Roxane Gay, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Thanks, guys, I needed that. Until 11:12pm when I could relax and watch the Rove/Trump comedy hour.

Congratulations, President Obama.

Sunday with Zin: Coursera

Hello I am Zin, and I love to learn! And the Internet may be full of crap and nonsense but it is also full of wonderful ways to learn and I just discovered a new one!

Way back in March I heard about Khan Academy, and I still do a few math review exercises every day just so I remember how, and sometimes look at a video on History or Art! One of these days I am going to try Physics (again – oh, how many times I have tried to study Physics!) or maybe Chemistry and if I go slowly enough I might get somewhere! It is a very good place to catch up on the stuff you either missed in high school, or have forgotten about!

But now I have discovered Coursera! It is another FREE online classroom, this one more about college-level and career-development courses in many disciplines! Like Computer Science, Business Management, Life Sciences, Humanities, etc etc! There are 33 participating universities! And these are real universities, like Duke and Wesleyan, not the ones on matchbook covers and in strip malls!

I am right now in Week 2 of “Design: Construction of Artifacts in Society” which lasts until mid-December. It is meant to present a design methodology, so it cuts across mechanical, product, and system design by talking about user “gaps” and the most effective way to go from a need to a product! So far the examples have been an ice cream scoop, a scooter, and an urban cart! I am having some trouble with the logistical aspects of the course (I did not know I would need a camera, and I am not sure I actually want to build an artifact) but I am very much enjoying the video lectures! The text is downloadable as well. There is something about a video lecture that is so much more absorbable than a textbook alone!

The teacher also does practical examples, like observing his son scoop ice cream to show how to determine important user needs (he runs the scoop under hot water twice to warm it up; what if the scoop could be designed to hold heat better? He holds it awkwardly, what if the handle were contoured? And it is funny to watch his teenage son who perfectly captures the “awww, Dad, you are so lame, do I really have to do this?” affect of the good-but-trying-not-to-show-it kid). He visited an ice cream shop to observe them, but they were not happy to see him! They would not let him film the employees scooping! I am surprised, I would think a store would be happy for the publicity!

It seems this is a real thing, too, not just some thing someone made up to overcomplicate the issue! It is a whole process, and right now we are on Defining User Needs. There is an entire methodology for determining and phrasing and categorizing and prioritizing those needs! And the most interesting tidbit I discovered: a focus group is less time-efficient than one-on-one interviews for determining user needs! Maybe not for other things, but in this, it is!

The other thing I found interesting is the different types of user need, and they can be graphed by how well they are met by user satisfaction! Some are “linear needs” and the better the design meets them, the happier the user is, which is what you would expect, yes? But some needs are “must-haves” and if they are met, the user does not even notice them, but if they are not met, the user will be intensely dissatisfied! And some needs are “latent” and they are things the user does not even know s/he needs but if they are met, the user will be very delighted! So there are ways to make your user miserable, and ways to make your customer very happy, and it is a matter of prioritizing! I love this kind of theory!

There are more than 5,000 students from all over the world taking this course! We have a forum set up for us to discuss issues and ask questions and communicate with a TA (we can not email the professor directly, since there are just too many of us). Considering it is free, it is quite remarkable!

I am not sure why these schools are offering these courses! The best I can figure is that it is a test-run for distance-learning, sort of like a survey but more practical. They can see where people get lost, what happens that goes too fast, and because it is free, they do not have to give refunds if students are unhappy!

Most new classes begin in September or January, but there are new ones just about every week. Introduction to Astronomy, How to Reason and Argue, and Drugs and the Brain are coming up in the next month: Go see if there is something you would like to learn!

Sunday with Zin: Literary Death Match Portland (ME), Ep. 1

October 15, 2012 — In a lit-brilliant debut at One Longfellow Square in Portland (Literary Death Match’s 45th city!), it was Lily King who outdueled poet Gibson Fay-LeBlanc in a wild game of Author Word Jumble that saw King win by a narrow margin of 1.2 seconds to win her the LDM Portland (ME), Ep. 1 crown.

Hello I am Zin and did I ever have fun at the first-ever Literary Death Match in Portland (ME)!

Do not confuse LDMs with your routine reading! Yes, there is reading: four local authors read! And to keep them within the time limit, they are shot with nerf disks every 30 seconds starting at 7 minutes! And in the second round they must play a game! Do you see what I mean that it is not your typical reading?

But as I said, there is reading! Yes, at LDM-Portland (ME) Ep.1, Monica Wood (remember Monica from Ernie’s Ark?) read an excerpt from When We Were The Kennedys so I was cheering for her!

It was also especially good to hear Sarah Braunstein read her Barack Obama FanFic explaining his poor performance in the first debate (you see, back when he was a child in Hawaii, there was this little girl he used to hula-hoop with… even Presidents get nostalgic, be it ever so ill-timed!) – and you can read it yourself at the Good Men Project! Or listen to it FREE on iTunes!

But the semi-finals went down to Gibson Fay-LeBlanc for his hockey poetry because, well, who can resist even the idea of hockey poetry, and Lily King with a mouse penis (nothing can top a mouse penis) and a round of Author Jumbles, from Nin and Poe to Asimov and Huxley!

Would YOU have recognized BLUME (as in Judy) in time?

Would YOU have recognized BLUME (as in Judy) in time?

And congratulations to Lily King, winner of LDM-Portland (ME) Ep.1!

I have known about LDM for a while but never really paid attention: I was always intimidated by Todd Zuniga and Opium Magazine (it is one of those impossibly cool litmags) so I put the LDMs in the category of “things I am not cool enough to appreciate.” But my blog buddy Stan (hello, Stan!) sent me an email to tell me LDM was coming up here! He has been to the ones in Boston and loves them! So I went to the LDM and either I am cooler than I thought, or Todd is not that cool – or maybe he is so cool, he is willing to do things accessible to the un-cool! As it happens, he is completely cool, and also very nice, posting pictures of the Portland match even as he was racing to London! He is nothing like I expected, he is very goofy and fun and easygoing!

What is Literary Death Match? It is a… literary comedy variety show? Part WWE, part game show, part standup, part celebrity roast, part community theatre? I do not know how to describe it, but fortunately I do not have to, you can see a speed preview on Youtube, or for that matter, you can watch dozens of clips from past matches, or listen to an entire LDM on iTunes!

But you should really go! They are all over the place, in cities of course like London and New York and Chicago and LA and Beijing (Beijing? Yes, and Shanghai!) but also giving local writers a chance to shine in less expected places like Kansas City and Tulsa and Iowa City and Raleigh and Vilnius! Yes, a Lithuanian LDM! That is reason itself to go when they come to your neck of the woods, to support something so cool! Todd described the project as a “gateway drug” for those who might not know where to start reading!

Check the schedule at the LDM website to see where they are, or sign up for the newsletter or Twitter feed to see when they are coming to your area! Or even email them and ask them to come, that is how they ended up in Portland!

Past winners include writers we have talked about on these very pages, including Roxane Gay, Baratunde Thurston, Etgar Keret, Andrew Kaufman, Elissa Schappel, and Amber Sparks. And the judges are from all manner of disciplines, people like Jeffrey Eugenides, Tig Notaro, Toure, Lisa Loeb, Chuck Palahniuk (you knew he had to be in the mix somewhere, right?), W. Kamau Bell, and Amber Tamblyn.

You want to go, you do, trust me!

Was That The Earth Moving Or A Big Truck?

Last Saturday evening, I started signing up for my free month of Netflix (yeah, yeah, that’s pathetic, go ahead, make fun of me) when I lost cable internet and tv service for what would be twelve hours. I noted it was a sign of the times that I was pretty nervous – what if something terrible had happened, like a bomb or a nuclear meltdown or whatever it is that disrupts cable service, and how would I know about it, being informationally stranded? I understand cable phone was out, too, but luckily I haven’t bought into the whole “bundling” idea so I called someone and was reassured nothing major was afoot; I spent a pleasant evening reading and note-taking for later blog posts (leaving research for later) and in the morning all was back to normal.

Last night I finally (four days later) got around to finishing my signup and actually watching something on Netflix (no, I won’t say what – there’s a limit to how pathetic I’ll publicly prove myself to be) when something odd happened. I had my headphones on, so I wasn’t clear exactly what it was: it felt like someone stomping on the floor behind me, hard enough to shake my chair and rumble the hardwood. My cat doesn’t weigh enough to cause that kind of vibration, and I was the only one in the apartment, so I turned around, startled, to check for… I’m not sure what. Nothing was there, of course. Angela and Rayanne re-demanded my attention (ok, maybe I will humiliate myself, but only for those lame enough to get the reference) so I chalked it up to the new neighbor next door moving furniture, or the guy sharing custody of his four-year-old upstairs letting the little kid run through the place again, and went back to high school.

I ignored an earthquake.

Ok, so it wasn’t much of an earthquake. It was, as they say, “light.” 4.0, no damage, no injuries (though one store was checking lightbulbs because here in Maine you can’t tell if a lightbulb has broken unless you listen to it carefully). But one that most people feel, especially indoors. It was centered 40 miles to my west, and was felt all over New England and upstate New York, presumably into Canada, because on the East Coast, earthquakes travel like that, seeing as our crust is “older, colder, and denser” than the tectonically-active West Coast. Wouldn’t you know.

I want a do-over. Because I kind of missed it. I realized what it was 45 minutes later when I moved from computer to TV and saw a news crawl while watching debate prep on MSNBC. And I nearly missed that, too, since I don’t read those news crawls any more, but the words “Maine earthquake” jumped out at me.

That’s me. I had to see on TV that I’d been in an earthquake.

Today someone asked me if my cat was acting funny beforehand, since animals are supposed to sense impending earthquakes. My cat can’t sense her food dish sometimes, so I doubt it, but who knows. All I know is she wasn’t running around screaming or clawing at me. Sorry, Lucy.

Hey, come on, I live a block away from what passes for Downtown Portland, and my living room window overlooks a parking lot. Sometimes it’s noisy. Sometimes 747s headed for the Jetport fly low overhead. Twice a week, when the street-cleaning trucks or snowplows go by around midnight, it always reminds me of that scene in The Killing Fields where the Khmer Rouge tanks drove through the city. So a little rumbling, what’s the big deal.

I missed an earthquake. There’s something sad about that.

And I’m wondering if Netflix is cursed. I’ll give it one more try, probably tonight. So be ready, Northern New England. Who knows what will happen this time.

Sunday with Zin: First Friday in October 2012

Hello I am Zin and I had so much fun at First Friday this month! It went from Edward Gorey and string quartets to blacksmiths with marimbas and break dancers in between!

First I went to the Edward Gorey exhibit titled “Elegant Enigmas” at the library! Even if you do not recognize the name, you probably have seen his work! The exhibits included first editions for many of his works, from the 1982 illustration for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and War of the Worlds to his backdrop and costume sketches for the 1983 Carnegie Mellon production of The Mikado! And his completely crazy alphabet books, including my favorite, The Glorious Nosebleed (“He wrote it all down Zealously”)! It is truly Zin material!

A string quartet was playing in the lobby when I left, so I waited and listened with about thirty other people because we would have had to walk between them to get out! Everyone just stood and listened, it was like a six-minute pause, very sweet!

Across the street in Monument Square a different band was playing – The Maine Marimba Ensemble plays contemporary Zimbabwean marimba music! I did not know there was contemporary marimba music, but of course there is! It is wonderful, you can watch videos at the link above!

And because it was a warm night, many people were out for First Friday! Some of them were funny – there was a man trying to preach and a group of girls in green makeup and dressed as monsters – maybe zombies? – kept following him! They had a sign on a sheet between two poles that read “DamnedNation” or something like that, and it was so funny, because they can not tell him not to preach but he can not tell them not to be on the sidewalk either! I actually am not 100% sure they were not part of the same troupe doing street theatre!

There were also several dancers, including one young man doing break dancing (ouch, the brick sidewalk must have hurt his back!) using a glass storefront as a window! That is what happens a lot, people just come out and practice whatever it is they do and they put a box or a hat down and hope someone gives them money! Some girls doing modern dance did the same thing, they had hula hoops but they did not use them while I was watching.

All the galleries and stores and of course the art college (MECA) had displays and lots of stuff going on, but my favorite thing was the Blacksmith! Sam H. Smith – that is really his name – is a Master Blacksmith and had a mini-forge and hammer and was making hooks and pokers and triangles right there on the Congress Street sidewalk! He was very nice and answered a lot of questions (yes, this is what he does for a living, and he has to abide by the same First Friday rules as the musicians because his instrument is the anvil). Update May 22 2013: Today the Portland City Council banned fire! Not completely just for blacksmiths and jugglers and street artists because of safety concerns! He seemed very careful to me but I do not know much about fire safety but I am now so sad I will not be seeing him again at First Friday any more! The website for Sam has disappeared but you can still find him at the Portland Forge page on Facebook!

Thank you Portland for another great First Friday!

Sunday with Zin: Fifty Shades of East Millinocket

Hello I am Zin! I have learned so much about paper in the past few months!

First there was Richard Russo talking about his new book Interventions being printed in Maine on sustainable paper. Then it was Monica Wood and her memoir about growing up in a paper mill town, and her short story collection set in a paper mill town. And now, it is Fifty Shades of Grey which is printed on Maine paper!

When Random House ordered 3,000 tons of Baxter Brite Grade paper for the books, the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket had to open more machines and hire more workers to fill it! And they might open the defunct mill in neighboring Millinocket to make the wood pellets that supply the paper mill to supply the 110,000 tons needed to print the European editions!

In the video from the recent Rock Center story (the appearance of the story on a national newsmagazine show is itself covered by the Bangor Daily News), they encourage people to buy the book, not the e-book versions! Like papermill engineer David Jamo, who has not read the book (I have not either) says: “There’s nothing like the feel of a book in your hands.” E.L. James might be able to think of a few things.

I am very happy for the workers in East Millinocket and I hope their prosperity continues and they enjoy the fruits of their labors for a very long time! But can I admit there is also something very sad about this! It is like the beautiful 2011 Holiday Message (picture above) from mill owners/financers Cate Street Capital (“To our new friends and neighbors in Millinocket and East Millinocket”). Those majestic snow-covered pristine pine trees might be captioned: “Now cut these suckers down and turn ’em into mommy porn!”

Sunday with Zin: at the 2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival

Hello I am Zin and last weekend was the 2012 Portland Sidewalk Art Festival!

Every year, the city closes down the main downtown street on the Saturday a week before Labor Day weekend and artists take over! Some years it is very hot, or rainy, but this year was perfect!

You can see a whole slideshow of photographs of the festival! [no longer online] There are also a lot of slides of cars which was a different festival but somehow the pictures are all together in the same slideshow so you have to zip through some of them! Unless you like cars in which case you will have twice as much fun looking!

Most of the art was of the “pretty art” variety – landscapes, animals, and a lot of Maine scenery which is fine, it is pretty! Not all of the artists are from Maine but I think only Maine people can win the Prizes! I would say all of the four prize winners were of the “pretty art” variety. I do not remember seeing any of the prize winners (there were three hundred artists and I did not even get to some of them) but they all have websites where you can see their work:

Third place went to Heidi Wilde for her Wilde Accents, reverse paintings on glass (“Life captured in a window”)! This is an interesting idea, and requires some planning, and some are done in multiple panes which is clever! I like some of her small-town scenes!

Pamela Jo Ellis won second place with her watercolors.

First Prize was for the Collagraph Prints of Kathleen Buchanan, owner of Grey Seal Press!

The Purchase Prize which puts a piece in the WCSH collection went to Catherine Meeks of Artistic Sisters! She works in an interesting array of media, from Paintings and Illustrations to iPad Digital Finger Paintings (ooooh! An artist who embraces pop technology!) and Polaroid Image Transfers.

I had my own prizes! The Zinnies! Some of them are from Maine, and some are not, but they all seemed a little different to me!

My Oliver Sacks award: I was drawn to the intensely bright colors of Dana Trattner but even more drawn to her story: “The art before you is a celebration of my new visual world.” She has had many eye problems (keratitis, astigmatism, and believe it or not, color blindness!) and each procedure, including corneal transplants, has changed her perception and her art! She gave a seven-minute slide presentation at Pecha Kucha Night (a kind of speed-presentation for artists and designers) in 2010! Not only her use of color but of contrast changed! It is an amazing seven minutes! She speculates: “…I’ve been wondering how different art might be if famous artists had been forced to wear glasses constantly. In the book The World Through Blunted Sight, Patrick Trevor-Roper states that many Impressionists, such as Cezanne, [were] nearsighted and painted without glasses. So I wonder, is it like Thomas Wolfe said in The Painted Word, that art critics started impressionism while the Impressionists were merely drawing what they saw?” I think this is an exciting thought!

My Best Use of the Name of the Artist award: Burrealism is the work of John and Carolyn Burr of Springvale, Maine! They do reverse acrylics, using acrylic sheets instead of glass which is pretty cool! Their subjects are sometimes brightly surreal (floating cubes and spheres in architecture, planet landscapes seen through Grecian columns) but sometimes more traditional and nature-themed.

My Emotional Tug award: I loved the lonely silhouettes of Sus Iserbyt! She is originally from Belgium and now lives in Massachusetts. I am not sure what this elongated style is called (she just calls it silhouettes), but it interests me! Another artist painted in the same style – you can see a couple of examples on Slide 28 of the WCSH slideshow, behind the man wearing the hat) but that artist was not at the booth at the moment I was there so I could not talk to her to see if there is some word for this style (if you know, please tell me!).

Some runners-up for the Zinnies:

Renaissance Man: Chris Newcomb (ARTernatives) of Gorham, ME does some acting, writing, and storytelling in addition to his steelwork! I wonder if I will see him at some future MOOSE meeting!

Art on a T-shirt: I loved the Wild Woman series of paintings by Peyton Higgison; he also does landscapes, and he and his wife Chaké run the Wilderwoman Country Store in Brunswick ME and sell t-shirts online with some of the Wild Woman designs on them!

Found Materials: Geri Geremia from New York caught my eye with her mixed media pieces using gold leaf and corrugated cardboard and other textures!

Sense of Humor: Phillip Singer does puns (A Mangoes to a Bar or Apple of My Eye). I like puns!

Nostalgia: I was charmed by the old-time street-corner jazz portraits of Joel Beckwith from Vermont!

I had a lot of fun at the Festival and thank you to all the artists whose work is so wonderful!

A New Look – and some time off

If you’re a frequent visitor here, you may notice things look different. Very different. Allow me to explain.

I got a new computer.

This is a good thing. I bought my former computer in 2004, so I was due.

Thing is, everything looks different on a laptop. Sharper. Brighter. This is also a good thing. Most of the time.

But… where I once saw my blog as a slightly smoky mint green fading across the screen, all of a sudden I was assaulted by glaring white and that annoying shade of blue-purple known in catalogs of cheap polyester clothes as “periwinkle.”

I was deeply ashamed. This was the face I was showing to most of the world?

So while I set up my new computer (turns out the “free” WiFi offered by my landlord is a joke for a computer; seriously, it was worse than dial-up at least 75% of the time. And I know about dial-up; I just moved into the 20th century with a cable connection a year ago) and panicked because my printer, bought 2 years ago, claimed it didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout Windows 7 (easily fixed by the correct driver and a USB cable, but still), I also played around with different themes.

Nothing’s perfect, of course, but I’m a lot happier with this (“Piano Black”) than I was with the prior theme. I’ll probably do some additional tinkering with backgrounds and such, but this should do for a while. I did some housekeeping, like converting rarely-used categories to tags, and taking the Pages off the sidebar, since they’re now displayed across the top of the screen. I’ve still neglected the Quotes and Random Miscellany pages, but I can’t bear to delete them quite yet.

I’ve also moved the fiction Zin and I have published to the Online Fiction Sampler page, as we’re both coming to terms with the fact that we’re just not fiction writers. Not good ones, anyway. I’m toying with the idea of including some of our orphan stories, mostly Zin’s, if I can figure out a way to do so unobtrusively. Get them off the hard drive and let them go outside a little bit, albeit in a safely fenced-in yard where they won’t create any trouble.

I’m still getting used to a new keyboard; it’s playing havoc with my typing, especially note-taking for tv recaps, and it’s slowing me down considerably. I’ve always been a fast typist, but the combination of tendonitis in my thumbs (not related to computer use) and numbness in my hands (ditto) and now a change in keyboard feel has me discombobulated. I may have to bite the bullet and get a supplementary keyboard. By the time I finish plugging stuff in to the laptop, it’s going to be a desktop. The touchpad isn’t as bad as I remember from when I occasionally used my boss’s laptop back in the old days; either they’ve improved, or I have. And I love the 2010 version of Word; I was using a bootleg 2000 disc.

Mostly I’m recording this for purposes of retrospection at some future point. I’m not someone who enjoys change; I need to remind myself that I regularly do deal reasonably successfully with change. So right now I’m still somewhere between upset and nervous. But I’ll get over it. I always do. I just have to remember that.

I do need a break. I’ve exhausted my backlog and haven’t done all that much reading or notating over the past week, so I need to catch up. Zin will be here tomorrow, and I’ll do TC and PR next week, and the following week I’ll be back with more literary posts.

Sunday with Zin: Everything Was Beautiful At the Ballet

Ballet in the Window

Ballet in the Window

Hello I am Zin, and today we go to the Ballet at the Library! This is one supercalifragilisticexpialadocious library we have in Portland, with art and authors and furniture and now ballet!

In the evening on June 29 (yes, it was a long time ago, I got busy doing all sorts of other things and my files got mixed up so it just came to the top of the pile now) the Portland Ballet gave a performance in the window of the library! This window faces Congress Street at Monument Square, which is pretty much the center of Portland!

We stood outside on the sidewalk or across Congress Street in the actual Monument Square (yes, there is a Monument, to World War I veterans), and I would guess there were 100 – 200 people, most of them there the whole time, plus a lot of passers-by who were going somewhere but stopped to watch for a while!

The dancers were in the Atrium of the library. In the construction that was just completed a couple of years ago, this is a tiled area for food and beverages so you do not have to go somewhere else if you want a cup of coffee or something to snack on while you are visiting the Library! It has a glass front facing Congress Street! It was like peeping through a window! Except that is what we were supposed to do!

This was part of the Portland Fringe Festival, an Arts weekend that featured several events in more traditional venues and a few weird freebie things to catch the eye of people who might not go to the Ballet but might stop to watch. I knew about it in advance and planned to be there, but I thought it was a great idea, and if I had been just walking by and saw it, I would have stopped!

They did five numbers, with music piped out to the street! I was on the sidewalk 10 feet from the windows so it was quite loud but it had to be for the people across Congress Street!

I wish I had pictures – I know they exist because I saw a lot of people taking pictures (I do not have a camera) but I could not find any online, except this one on the Facebook page of the Portland Ballet! You can just barely see a couple of dancers! On the ground floor! They are wearing red! And you can see me! See? On the sidewalk? No, not there… yes, there! There is Zin! I emailed the ballet company to ask if there were any pictures online but they are on vacation so I do not have an answer yet; if I get one I will update!

The complete program of five numbers with full credits is below.

They started with “Cleansing Fountain” which used an old hymn, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” That sounds terrible, yes? “Drawn from Immanuel’s Veins; And Sinners Washed Beneath The Flood Lose All Their Guilty Stains.” If you are familiar with Christian imagery, you know that blood plays a big role! Lots of blood! Are you washed in the blood! Nothing but the blood of Jesus! If you do not know what is going on you can think it is pretty gross, but it kind of makes sense within the theology! And it is a pretty hymn (I have not been “religious” for many years, but I very much like hymns – I am singing it right now in fact, can you hear me?), it was done in very gospel-spiritual style, with five girls dressed in red shorts and tanks. They kept holding out their arms and shaking them, and I thought that was because the blood was flooding over them, but I saw a review in the paper from an earlier performance that called it “flowing movements with mournful evocation and lovely lines and shapes, juxtaposed with jerking gestures of anger.” I am not sure why they would be angry (maybe because blood is pouring over them?), but since I do not know anything at all about ballet (this was actually more like modern dance but I am not sure where one ends and the other begins) I will defer to greater expertise!

Somebody” to the music of Queen (“Somebody to Love”) was a duet, two strangers finding each other in their busy lives! “Saudades” is a Portuguese word which connotes a certain kind of intense and deep longing (it does not easily translate to English) and used a piece of music about the Azores. And “In Closing” used “Pictures at an Exhibition” which is always cool!

The program lasted about forty minutes. At 8:30, the listed start time, the Director announced “We will wait for our Lighting Director to bring down the house lights a little bit” since it was not quite twilight yet, and it was a lot easier to see inside the windows fifteen minutes later! I thought that was clever!

I love these crazy things that crop up once in a while – a couple of years ago there was a program of music in various odd settings, and I found a Afro-Caribbean vocal group singing in the bakery section of the supermarket! These things are a lot of fun!

The Program:

Cleansing Fountain – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: Elliot Goldenthal; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy, Hannah Wallace, and Jennifer Jones

Somebody – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: “Somebody to Love” by Queen; Dancers: Joseph Jefferies and Jennifer Jones

Asunder: (Maine premiere) – Choreography by Jennifer Jones; Music: “Smoke & Mirrors” by RJD2; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy and Hannah Wallace

Saudades: (Portland premiere) – Choreography by Joseph Jefferies; Music: “Ilhas Dos Acores” by Madredeus; Dancers: Joseph Jefferies and Jennifer Jones

In Closing – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Hans Zimmer; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy, Hannah Wallace and Jennifer Jones