Tuesday, November 30, 2010

winter in my mind

Texas weather might be more inconsistent than the Obama administration (oh snap! and I'm a liberal, keep in mind), but I've decided to construct the Christmas season from the ground-up this year. Tonight it's cold, and I write to you with a warm Chai latte to the right and a pile of notes to my left. Winter is all about writing meaningful words. It's all about stories. I hope to have some good ones to share soon. In the meantime, I've got the Frank Sinatra Holiday station rolling on Pandora, hot cocoa in the pantry, and some pie recipes to try. And that's just for the first week of December.

Happy month of merry, folks!

public history 101

I ran across this article from the New York Times this afternoon:


Another piece of ruins has collapsed in on itself at Pompeii. This follows the news about a month ago that the alleged "House of Gladiators" (where men were said to relax pre-battle) fell to dust just outside the amphitheater. How can a ruin collapse? Good question. Everything at Pompeii at least partially collapsed almost two thousand years ago when Mt. Vesuvius rained its fire down on her. The crux of the Times article is really just the spawning of a debate in public history--save the ruins (which means pumping money to fund special preservation strategies) or leave them be?

The topic struck close to home because I toured Pompeii this past May. I spent an afternoon there (not even long enough to see half of what's there, to note). I ambled along with my friend Catherine for hours, tracing and re-tracing the confusing passageways, wincing as the stones underfoot jabbed right up through my Keds. (Yes, I was wearing Keds...the cute kind.) Pompeii is a beautiful mess, let it be known. It's iconic at this point, plastered on the pages of history textbooks, the subject of many a coffee table book, pushed by travel agents the world over. And in many ways it lives up to expectations. It is a pile of ruins, jagged and haphazard because the volcanic ash selectively preserved its image. Recognizable artifacts--frescos, statuary, and the like--are scattered throughout and serve as shocking reminders that what Pompeii really can offer are haunting glimpses into the life of a community cut short. Vesuvius lurks around every vista there, and on our journey the clouds bundled around it threatened torrential rain.

At the entrance to Pompeii, right off the Trenitalia platform, you encounter public history at its absolute worst. Stall after stall of souvenirs, all of them cheaply made, where pompous men will haggle with you until you finally decide to just run away from them. The food is gross and expensive. People rush around you every which way, you must protect your pocketbook, and the air kind of smells, to be honest. But the beautiful thing is that once you buy your ticket, that's all behind you. I turned to Catherine when we entered and asked, "Is this right?" because the entrance pathway looked way too calm and indiscreet to be the gateway into one of the most wondrous sites of ancient history remaining in the modern world. There are no souvenir stalls in Pompeii. There is no food to be had, just water available from some of the original fountains. There are hardly any signs. Without the headset (which I never purchase, because why would I want someone else interpreting what I see for me?), it's a maze that you have to give yourself over to. At one point Catherine and I ended up on a hill above the ruins, felt lost, and considered climbing down into a roped-off part (maybe too fragile?) and sneaking back to where we could hear voices.

My point is that even though the weather and the process of aging are finally taking their tolls on what's left there, something's been done right. History is allowed to be history there, untainted by the bright colors and intrusive guidebook-mentality we encounter at just about any historical site these days. Even the Vatican has give in to some of that.

I don't have a solution for Pompeii. Does anyone really need to have one?

Monday, November 29, 2010

real quick-like

My family tries. We all do. There's just some kind of ornery glitch that makes holidays feel a little tense, a little awkward, like a cross between a Saturday Night Live skit and PBS News. Le sigh. Highlights this Thanksgiving weekend? Apparently my 14-year-old cousin came very close to bashing his head on a rock at Mt. Bonnell. One of my uncles commented that I look like Keith Richards early in the morning. Really? Let me go out on a limb and say that I have some ex-boyfriends who would joyfully disagree with that one. What else. We ate a lot of food. Eleanor charmed, then screamed, then charmed, then screamed some more. She has eight teeth now, she's walking. Pretty soon we'll be sending her off to Harvard I suppose ;)

In other more interesting news, I may be featured on Slate magazine in the next week or so. More to come when I know details. And it's not an article I wrote! It's an article that may indeed include some thoughts I contributed (and will, I think, be quoted on).


Wednesday, November 17, 2010


reading: Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Because I want to see what all the fuss is about. Because some epic twist of bookfate placed all three books in the series in my hands yesterday, for free. I'll take it. Because now I'll be able to see the Swedish film adaptations and the inevitable American film adaptations (my brother-in-law is convinced that Hollywood will tap tiny Ellen Page for the part of Lisbeth...I think he's probably right).

listening to: Pheonix (French band recently made pretty damn big through their inclusion in Wimbledon promos) Pandora station, featuring: Radiohead (re-discovering them is always moving, over and over), The Postal Service (who will remain forever underrated, even though they were around experimenting with electronica and melodramatic lyrics long before all these latest indie darlings), Mumford and Sons (current fave song = "Winter Winds"), etc., etc.

waiting for: the FedEx dude to knock, so I can get mah new phone. One of the fancy Droid-things. I hope I can figure out how to work it. Byebye, chipped, slobbered-on, cracked-up Blackberry.

drinking: coffee, of course.

dreaming of: a sunset in Roma, a finished dissertation, some people I love.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

recommendations at random

Tonight ends a week that flew by in a mad rush of obligations. Good ones, mind you. On Monday I went with my dad for a fly-by-night roadtrip back to Shreveport. I spent that evening at my best friend's house, surrounded by her babies, red wine (for us, not the babies), and a warm blanket. By Tuesday night, I was back here at home in Austin dealing with a technological crisis--the loss of my trusty laptop. My dad bought her (I think she was a her) for me back in the Spring of 2008, and since then she's been my constant companion--through the coffee binges of comprehensive exams, the perils of research, more of hours of procrastination that I'd care to count, and, lately, the tedious task of dissertation writing. Thanks to the Geek Squad at Best Buy, my documents are safe. And thanks to an amazing friend, I'll be back up and running soon. Friday I bid a weekend farewell to my sister, who jumped up to DC for a getaway weekend with the husband. And, yep, that left me as sole caretaker for an 11-month-old. Single parents everywhere, I want to buy you cookies. And hire you nannies. The little munchkin is my world, she lights up every second, never fail, but 4:55am wakeup calls wreck havoc on someone not used to rising much before 8am...umm...really ever.

Spending time at the house with her was comforting, though. I bummed around in old pajamas and performed a story-hour for her. We ate banana cookies and clapped a lot. In the evening after she went to bed, I caught up on book and music recs. And now I share them with you.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty--This novel repeatedly shows up on "top books of the last decade" lists, so I found a copy for six bucks at Half-Price (shout out!) on Lamar and gave it a go. The plot descriptions don't let on, but it's a coming-out story at its core--a witty, and often erotic (which is why the BBC rushed to make it into a mini-series), tale of a gay man society-jumping in Thatcher's Britain. All 1980s and coke references, part satire of wealth and part art history tutorial, the book is ultimately a cautionary tale. Love lust, but don't let it overtake you. Love beautiful things, but don't let them drive you. Enjoy yourself, but take care of yourself too. The language is efficient, sophisticated, sometimes clipped. Couldn't put it down, read by the light of a dim lamp one night as not to wake others...that hasn't happened in a long time.

The Weepies, album Say I am You--I stayed away from them at first, because they seemed WAY too much the new darlings of the indie crowd. But, alas, the buzz is correct. Soft voices, straightforward lyrics, the whole album feels like a lazy Sunday morning with coffee and crossword puzzles with a jilted lover. Weird, huh? Not if you're me. "No amount of coffee, no amount of time, no amount of whiskey, no amount of wine...nothing else will do. I've gotta have you." How can you beat that?

First Aid Kit--Teenaged sisters-singers from Sweden. I can't even properly describe how ethereal their music is. Listen to "Ghost Town" and "I Met up with the King"--better yet, watch the videos on youtube.

More soon.


Friday, November 5, 2010

hanging out in the woods with The Decemberists

Again, huh? That's what roughly 60 percent of my close friends will ask after laying eyes on this post. Yes, again, The Decemberists beckon the dark, the dank and lovely, the haunting narratives of nineteenth-century history...and beckon me to them one more time as well.

I fell in love with Colin Meloy's voice during a walk in the woods in March of 2007. I used to go hiking at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia, just on the outskirts of Athens along the Oconee* River, with a dear friend who always understood that I wanted to walk behind him. I took the band along with us in my earbuds. The dampness of the woods, the twisted turns of roots in the ground, the faint cackles of birds returning...it all seemed appropriate for Meloy's darkly lovesick vocals. On one particular occasion I managed to twist my ankle about halfway through the walk. Ashamed to admit how much pain I was actually in, I walked through it, wincing for a good mile before I fell prey to a good sit on a log. And the song "Red Right Ankle" cycled through the playlist in that instant. Seemed perfect. Felt perfect.

I have followed them through three tours now, the climax of which was their theatrical presentation of The Hazards of Love onstage at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. With that album, they made a rock opera for the indie crowd. Meloy is a lover, a coward, a hero, a gangster, a chimney sweep.

On January 8th, 2011, they'll unveil The King is Dead. In celebration of the upcoming release, they've offered a free download of a B-side called "Down by the Water" (featuring the haunting Gillian Welch, to note). Just go to their website (http://www.thedecemberists.com) to get it.

*correction courtesy...you know who you are

Monday, November 1, 2010

time travel

It's been the theme of my life this past week. No, I haven't gone crazy, and no, I'm not building a time machine in our back bedroom. We do have a digital robotic vacuum cleaner though.

My dad called me a few days ago and asked me if I'd seen the "time traveller" video on youtube. Okay. My father doesn't introduce stories gracefully or...sufficiently. What he was attempting to tell me about was the video that went viral recently involving the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus. Some filmmaker in Ireland freeze-framed a shot of an old woman walking past Grauman's Chinese in the movie's premiere footage. He claims she's holding and talking on a modern cell phone, and that must mean she's a time traveller (I mean, duh). Well. I watched it. Admittedly, it's freakish looking--one of those black and white images that ends up looking creepy because someone told you it's supposed to be creepy. But if you have a right mind (which I pride myself in often, given my troubling genetic pool), then it's easy to rationalize. Old-fashioned hearing aid, crazy lady talking into some random object...anything. Got it, check. None of this is the point. That day, I went to lunch with my dad and humored him for a bit about the topic. Then I saw and seized a perfect opportunity to try and learn something new about the man that raised me. I asked him where he'd go, if he could go anywhere back in time. Here's what he said, almost verbatim:

"Well...I guess the real answer is that I'd go back to Boston at the time of the American Revolution. You know, see how the people actually wore, what they seemed like. Understand what this country actually looked like back them. I'd just walk the streets."

I didn't expect that one. Not from him. Maybe from me, self-professed history dork for life. But what I realized deep in my gut, listening to him say that, is that he and I have more of a common thread than I had ever believed...and we share it with most Americans. It's an innate sense, a pulling force, a need, to mine the past for the answers to who we are. What else made me think about this? Halloween of all holidays. Kids love it, for sure, but most adults who celebrate Halloween use it a a chance to dress up as a character that they feel projects some part of their own internal monologue. That's why so many people dress up as historical figures, I think. Three of my friends were Frida Kahlo this year. Where did that come from? But they're all artistic, smart woman who, I'd imagine, admire the artist's individuality, spunk, and tragic narrative. Call me cynical, but I do think we all secretly hope to be part of some epic, haunting narrative. It's like the Irish guy trying to scare us with 80-year-old movie clips. The historic is often the haunted.

One more thing. My dad just revealed to me on the phone a few hours ago that he knows the location of several VHS tapes of my childhood. My sister's fifth grade graduation. A trip we took to Colorado when I was ten. I told him I wanted to watch them immediately. Will it be a little strange to see myself so long ago? Yes. The past scares us because it's a truth (often quite beautiful) that can no longer be argued with.