Friday 29 August
Endings of Things

Filed under Endorsements

Irish-goodbye_thumbI had two models in mind when I had to start writing the ending to the taxidermy book. One was Eggers’s Frisbee-throwing soaring prose at the end of A Heartbreaking Work, and the other more pressing influence (my book’s practically dripping with it) was Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, with its incantations of black and blacknesses. I guess I wanted a huge buildup of feeling, and then a kind of slap in the face. I’m proud of it, the ending, but I don’t think I want to write those kinds of endings anymore.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this stuff in terms of songs on records. There are songs that are Grand Endings. Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” for instance. Most of Bill Callahan’s final tracks. I interviewed him once, Bill Callahan, and he admitted to being proud of his sequencing on records, and though I don’t think I’ve ever said a bad thing about the guy I’ll say his sequencing is a bit too spot on. It’s so stuffily perfected, like a short story in a literary journal that comes from someone’s MFA thesis.

What’s weird is that Callahan’s got worse at this over the years (cf. Julius Caesar‘s “Stick in the Mud” to Apocalypse‘s “One Fine Morning”) while Radiohead seems to’ve gotten better. This whole idea came to me while listening to Hail to the Thief‘s “A Wolf at the Door” which is a shockingly good final track. It ends the record like a leaf blowing quickly off screen, as opposed to a slow pan skyward or a slow fade to black.

Another model ending: the final shot of Grey Gardens, Little Edie’s face spinning out of the frame. I’m hoping to write more endings like this, ones that sneak up on you and leave you bereft of something. Endings that, if they were a poem, wouldn’t even signal to listeners at your reading that it’s time to sigh audibly.

The best final track ever sequenced is the Pixies’ “Brick is Red” off Surfer Rosa.

In related news, I’m a big fan of the Irish goodbye.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-08-29  ::  dave

Sunday 3 August
Hack Tweets

Filed under Comedy

Among other things going on in our apartment, we’re watching CMT’s broadcast of the Starsky & Hutch remake. I thought about tweeting this:

It seems the Ben Stiller character just messed things up irreparably. (Watching every Ben Stiller movie at once.)

It was unsatisfactory, because this is just a sarcastic and convoluted way of saying “Man, Hollywood movies are so formulaic.” So then I came up with this one:

This year for Halloween I’m going as that moment when the Ben Stiller character messes everything up irreparably.

More dissatisfaction. I mean, it performs a kind of cleverness in how it turns something abstract (hackneyed film trope) into something concrete (costume), and there’s a kind of surrealness to the tweet that (at least initially) feels nice. But that surrealness is just trumped-up artifice, and that’s why I think it’s a lousy joke tweet.

Then, when trying a third time, I realized why I wasn’t going to succeed: this is a tweet about watching TV and feeling like I’m smarter than the TV I’m by choice here watching.

This morning I read much of Mike Sacks’s And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of interviews with comedy writers. There were a number of refrains among these men (and two women) when it came time to give budding comedy writers advice, but the one that stands out now is how many people urged writers to get out in the world and write about what they find. That too often writers write jokes about the kinds of jokes they’ve seen before and know are funny.

It’s how I tend to tweet.

Twitter is neat, but too often it becomes a tool to socially enhance our (mostly) solitary TV watching. This is not the same as being social.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-08-03  ::  dave

Monday 21 July
Modelo: A Beer for Hyper-Insecure Boys

Filed under TV

I mean where do I start with this one?

I don’t need to point out what’s so odious about this one, but can you imagine how insufferable the kind of guy would be who calculates his every move from the time he enters a new bar?

What’s interesting here is that Modelo, a relatively shitty, low-rent beer, has invested some money in an advertising company that employs very smart people to help make it the new Tecate, which seems to’ve become the west-coast PBR owing to being inexpensive and never advertising. So Modelo might not be so smart, but these people they’ve hired? Very smart people. All commercials operate off our fears and anxieties, and nothing scares a twentysomething hipster more than not being cool. Or, more exactly, not being seen by others as cool.

I was always a nerd. I don’t remember how or when I learned that being an adult meant no longer needing to care what other people thought about me, but this is what I had faith in growing up. I understand worrying about whether you smell, or are pretty. But worrying about whether strangers in a bar you’ve never been inside think you have good taste? It’s maybe the definition of the hipster.

2 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-07-21  ::  dave

Wednesday 9 July
More on Teaching and Learning

Filed under teaching

interleaveContinuing my research into Bjork’s “desirable difficulties”, I found some video interviews he did that summed up a lot of his lab’s research into learning. One thing they’ve studied is the effect of “interleaving,” which means alternating among a set of disparate things to learn rather than learning them in dedicated blocks, one-by-one.

So for instance, they had test subjects learn painting styles throughout the history of art by focusing on 6 works each from 12 major painters. One group looked at and discussed all 6 works from Painter A, then moved on to the 6 works from Painter B, and so on. This was the “blocked learning” group. The other group looked at 1 work from Painter A, then 1 work from Painter B, and so on through all 12 painters. Then another round of new works. This latter was the “interleaved learning” group.

When, at the end of the learning period, each group was given a new set of paintings, to identify from their styles the artist who made them, the second group did better on the test. The group that learned through interleaving better recognized signature styles than the first one did.

But here’s the key thing: (more…)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-07-09  ::  dave

Thursday 26 June
Feedback Helps Performance But Not Learning

Filed under teaching

william-staffordI’m writing this paper on what neuroscience and cognition can teach us as writers of nonfiction—who, it’s been said, write essays that “show a mind at work” without, from what I can tell, learning much about how the mind even works. A colleague of mine in the psych dept at USF turned me on to the work of Robert Bjork down at UCLA, who developed the notion of “desirable difficulty” as an aid in learning, and today I found his seminal paper on the topic: “Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings”.

What I like about psych papers—particularly ones that look at learning and cognition—is how they demistify and take the romance out of what I and my colleagues have a tendency to romance and mystify: our training human beings to be writers.

I read this:

Richard Schmidt and his collaborators … have found that … reducing the frequency of feedback makes life more difficult for the learner during training, but can enhance posttraining performance. They have demonstrated that providing summary feedback to subjects … or “fading” the frequency of feedback over trials, impedes acquisition of simple motor skills but enhances long-term retention of those skills.

Schmidt works on motor skill learning, but Bjork found correlation to verbal learning skills, too. In other words, continuous feedback (like the kind creative writing students get in workshops) feels good and makes the task of learning feel easier, but there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t actually help learning.

2 comments  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-26  ::  dave

Monday 16 June
The Best Commercial on TV Right Now

Filed under TV

It’s this:

I hate commercials. Now that cell phones and the NSA’s domestic spying practices have driven “being dupefully surveilled” up to the top of the list of my greatest fears and anxieties, “being effectively marketed to” is at most a distant second. Still, I hate being effectively marketed to. I like DVRs’ commercial-hopping abilities. But I don’t hop over Esurance’s “Beatrice” ad, because every element is so exquisite.

Let me direct your attention to:

  • All parts of Beatrice’s outfit, particularly the scarf and its knot’s location w/r/t the hang of her bosom.
  • How Beatrice points to her “wall” and then revises that pointing for more emphasis and clarity.
  • The look the critical friend gives the supportive friend after her, “Ooh! I like that one!”
  • The cut on “fifteen percent” that shifts our attentions from the supportive friend to the critical one.
  • The faint gasp heard from Supportive in the wake of Beatrice’s unfriending.
  • The well earned vocal fry on 66% of these women.
  • Beatrice’s continued gesturing during Jim Halpert’s voiceover that broadcasts her pitying attitude toward this supposedly more savvy friend.
  • The piano in the corner at the end, which of course Beatrice can play and perhaps teaches lessons for.

It’s got in 30 seconds the same richness of detail dudes in magazines fawn over Wes Anderson features for. Every time it comes on I sit up in my seat, leaning forward the way I imagine Sontag did in the second row of a movie theater.

(Or was that Pauline Kael?)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-16  ::  dave

Saturday 14 June
Very Good Paragraphs

Filed under Very Good Paragraphs

From Jonathan Dee’s shrewd and unassailable review of the new Updike biography in this month’s Harper’s. More of a review of Updike and his career. Sadly it’s for subscribers only:

If there’s a category-buster in Updike’s vast oeuvre, it’s the tetralogy of Rabbit novels, which on its face is both realistic and nonautobiographical. Updike, in a foreword to the Modern Library collection of these works—which trace the life of a former high school basketball star turned car salesman, from disillusioning, rebellious young adulthood to material success to death—described Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (I have always hated the condescending obviousness of that last name) as “incorrigible—from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God.” But what strikes one now, reading across Updike’s oeuvre, is how similar Rabbit is, in the end, to Piet Hanema or Richard Maple or Henry Bech or other Updike stand-ins. He trivializes rather than embodies his era’s struggle with expanded freedoms by using them to grant himself moral immunity from the consequences of fucking whomever he likes. Characters don’t have to be likable, of course; but the off-putting aspect of Rabbit, Run isn’t that it’s about a man, worshipped in his youth for his natural talent, who doesn’t question his own droit de seigneur in abandoning his pregnant wife and young child to shack up with a local floozy (whom he treats with contempt) because he is bored; it’s that Updike—who later wrote of the “heavy, intoxicating dose of fantasy and wish-fulfillment” that went into the writing of the novel—proposes that he’s telling a story about America, not a story about Updike.

Boom! What’s great is how this review is more than a refutation of some common pro-Updike arguments, chiefly the “Say what you want about his misogyny, the man wrote some beautiful sentences” defense. Later Dee does some fair and smart quoting to show that Updike’s sentencing was often (as it so often is with writers) a way to use art and artifice to shirk more moral duties, to give himself license to avoid having to delve more sympathetically into his (female, usually) characters’ psyches. Rather than settle for refuting the Updike-as-lyricist defense, he makes a smarter claim: “It makes him seem like a more interesting and instructive writer, if not necessarily a better one, to understand his profligate [lyric] gifts not only as a strength but as a weakness.”


 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-14  ::  dave

Friday 13 June
Watch Old Spice Turn Moms into Witches

Filed under TV

Let’s begin a series of posts about TV commercials. Have you seen this Old Spice one?

I’m impressed by how smart it is. Here we have a bunch of moms with long skirts hanging out in a tree. One is weeping a rain of tears. She sings a minor-key A/A/B/A dirge lamenting her son’s new sexual prowess. It’s the exact kind of tune witches would chant in the woods around a cauldron. Listen again:

Old Spice isn’t nice
and it comes with a price.
My boy, Garret, chose to wear it
now he can’t help but entice.
All these ladies, all these women
are up on him like lice.
As a mother I condemn new
body spray from Old Spice.

More than the easily won, consequence-free attraction from hot models slightly older than you, what’s alluring to teen boys (I speak from experience) is knowing that you’ve both vanquished your mother while also retaining her undying love. It might be the key fantasy of adolescence.

This commercial’s a lot less fun than the ones where moms, like, slither across the floor and up on the furniture while singing a kind of power anthem about Old Spice’s ability to kick up the sexness vis-a-vis one’s son, but I argue that it’s way more psychically effective. I wish I’d written it.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-13  ::  dave

Monday 9 June
Things I Saw at the Smithsonian Today That I Love

Filed under Uncategorized

(mostly closed for renovations)

Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” (2013)
[worth waiting for or fast forwarding to 09:00]


 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-09  ::  dave

Friday 6 June
My Mother Told Me, According to My Mother

Filed under Books

I just logged in to my blog service’s Dashboard, and I skipped over the option for it to “Remember Me”, which seems an indication that I and my blog service have fallen out of whatever relationship we had with each other back in the sunny days of January when I was blogging like once a week!

At any rate, I’m typing this from Fairfax, Virginia’s own 29th Parallel Coffee & Tea, which is in the strip mall by my sister’s, just down from a mattress store and a 7-11, and which specializes in the kind of slow, thin-streamed poursover I’ve somewhat solipsitically assumed were only an artifact of the Pacific Northwest. These kind:


But I’m not having coffee, I’m having a pot of tangerine ginger tea that I don’t so much enjoy as feel all right about drinking now that my acupuncturist has told me ginger is a smart food to put in my body so’s to assuage certain digestive troubles I’ve been having for a long time. I drink tea and have an acupuncturist and I do yoga once a week. What’s my name?

On the plane over I read (in its entirety! in addition to watching three Portlandias!) Donald Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, which is both about the death of and dedicated to his mother. He spends lots of time throughout citing certain family-history data in something she once told him. But like get a load of this sentence that opens a paragraph toward the end of Part III:

My mother told me that the storage facility in which S. had deposited his Frederic Church—I had, I realize now, come to think of the painting as belonging to S.; and, with this in mind, and on the strength of hearsay evidence transmitted through channels that I knew from long experience to be unreliable (S. and my mother), had come to regard the painting as a genuine Church—the storage facility, as I was saying, was, according to my mother, very badly damaged.

It’s exactly the sort of exquisite Byzantine mess I like in a sentence’s form, but look also how that mess extends to its content. Twice therein we’re told this information came from his mother, before and after the long em-dashed appositive which explains that information (i.e. “hearsay evidence”) coming from his mother should be understood as unreliable.

The move’s rampant. I just flipped the book open to page 53 at random and found: “At the age of fifty-two, he died. My mother told me later that his weight had dropped precipitously, that he’d turned yellow, that, at the end, he’d bled through his skin.” Antrim could just as easily drop that “My mother told me later” bit and serve up his information as the reliable narrator we’ve long by now presumed him to be. But he pretty much never does.

Is this move a shirking of reliability on his own part? Are we to assume that anything preceded with “My mother told me” might be untrue? Or is this a kind of default self-policing regarding facts or moments Antrim thinks are testing our belief? Or maybe it’s a way to keep pushing his mother on the page, which makes sense given the project as a whole.

I didn’t love The Afterlife as much as I loved its sentences. I did appreciate its structure: seven parts that don’t follow chronology and cohere only in terms of the narrative voice and cast of characters. They’re not even all about his mother. It was great, but it was clear to me by the time I got to the end that anyone born after 1970 who tried to publish this book would be encouraged if not forced to do so as essays. I don’t have the book jacket on my library copy, but it’s great that there’s no clarifying subtitle anywhere in the book. That it’s allowed to just be a book.

Because without question my anxious mother (who has a tendency to put the “mother” in “smother” [I kid!], and who knows I’m back in Virginia but won’t see me for another five days) had assumed from its title that this blog post was about her, I’ll apologize for any confusion here. Sorry, mom. See you soon. Stay tuned, four other readers, for a lot of blog posts in the coming days, most of them about television commercials.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-06-06  ::  dave

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