Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Phone Is Cool Like You

Elizabeth and Bill today
Prada phone

I used to be really cool. I was soon to learn that I was not.

I belonged to a celebrated Manhattan Writer's Group, and my friends had names you might hear of someday. This was just before the bohemian had morphed into "hipster." My bohemian forward-fashion was remarked on. I lived in north Williamsburg with all the other cool people, a "suburb" of the Lower East Side. I was a girl in the center of things.

One day I saw someone in my neighborhood wearing a suit. Around a decade ago. Since you would never see a "suit" in north Williamsburg, I recognized it as a Sign of the end- the Upper West Side was about to move in. This meant of course that rents were due to go up and push us out.

So goes the life cycle of a bad neighborhood: first the most courageous of the artists come in and make the place habitable, then the bohemians (like me) come running after and kick out all the natives of the neighborhood, and then once the neighborhood has become interesting, the yuppies come in and kick out all the bohemians. Sure I was part of the problem, but now the next cycle was going to be my problem.

Suits appear in Brooklyn
shameless use of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in blog

This man in the suit was touching his ear and talking to himself. Then I realized it was one of those new cell phone thingies, which people in business had just begun to use, and yuppies. These symbolized their status even more than did their suits. Wall Street, money, ambition, power, and other suit professions, as opposed to the search for beauty, truth and meaning. Yes there was once such a time, when no self-respecting artist or bohemian would have a cell phone. Or be seen anymore near one. I mean that literally, as you shall see.

It wasn't long before, as I prophesied, my building was sold and the rent doubled. For complicated reasons I had to abandon it before the end of the month and to crash in a friend's living room. I was homeless, so if I wanted to make appointments to look at apartments, I had no choice but to buy one of those cell thingies. To a 21st century eye my phone was clumsy and had no special functions. But for that time it was practically science fiction. As a self-respecting bohemian I found it a little embarrassing; but honestly it was the perfect solution for my predicament.

my predicament
fr Malte J├Ąger's photo travel book: 
'Couchsurfin' the World'

I met some friends for dinner in the neighborhood. I waited on the corner with my friends Elizabeth and Bill, waiting for friends of theirs. She worked in a junk shop and he tested computer game programs. Both were Williamsburg artists. I was homeless, and we were waiting outside a restaurant I could not afford. While everyone else would eat a nice Italian dinner, I planned to order a small soup.

My watch told me it was 7:00, time to make a call about an apartment. I pulled out my little cell phone. Elizabeth and Bill looked at me, eyes wide. "You have a cell phone??!" like it was a bad word. I was self-conscious, embarrassed and apologetic. I tried to explain that I was homeless, but they just didn't seem to get it. How ironic that they thought I was like a yuppie.
sent away

They actually made me walk down the street away from them so their friends when they arrived would not see me. I let them make me feel ashamed. Yet they were about to eat in a restaurant I couldn't afford. I did order my small soup (minestrone). Frankly it makes more sense for an artist to be embarrassed seen through the window ordering a $20 entree.


I have a shiny apple in my HIP pocket

The real irony didn't hit me until last year when I saw the viral video of Atomic Tom, a hip rock group with fabulous haircuts and one even in a suit, riding on the NYC subway, who supposedly (turns out not really) had their instruments stolen. They all just happened to own iphones, so they played a song together on their phones. 

I'm sure I am the only person who saw this viral video and thought, "How uncool." It seems somehow incongruous, these two worlds clashing, the haves and the have-nots. Since when did artists become consumers? Perhaps it was my experience with Elizabeth and Bill that makes me feel this way. I haven't quite adjusted to the fact that what once was incongruous is now the proper combination.  

Don't get me wrong, I do love the video. But you know what I'm about to say.
Not Elizabeth and Bill

What irony. While I am still using that same clunky old no-function phone from a decade ago, what do you want to bet that Elizabeth and Bill are proud owners of the latest sleek iphones, with upgrades and new apps each time. As a computer program tester, Bill is surely proudly geek now, chasing the latest technology. So much for cool, I'm still on the wrong end of it.

Don't get me wrong, I also think these phones are cool, and geeks are cool (I always did), and all the rest of it too. My clunky phone is still a little embarrassing, except this time for the opposite reason. It's very possible that someday I will- but for now I just don't- own one;  I just don't really need one. Mine isn't great but it's good enough. It's good enough! To me my phone is cool like you, Elizabeth.

Several months after writing this, the author confesses she has succombed to 'smartness.'

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Do I Study Alexander Because He's Cute?

The finest nose:
Alexander the Great on his
horse Bucephalos
by Charles le Brun 1673 (detail)


born 356 B.C. --  died 323 B.C.

= 2300 years older than me

Why does a historian choose a particular subject and hold to it for a lifetime? Why did Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, and historical fiction writer Mary Renault, for example, choose to "spend so much time with" Alexander the Great? What is there in an historical figure that pulls the researcher on, year after year?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Spelling Bee Confession

"Summer," Jacques-Joseph Tissot

A writer is sometimes called upon to write nearly anything. What is it like to be the Caller for a spelling bee? What is it like to write the word list? And strangest of all- what is it like to have the power to make or break a winner? This is where I failed- I'm here to confess: I threw the Texas Regional Senior Citizens Spelling Bee.

I was asked to write the list and be the Caller, and my list was then used for the State Spelling Bee. To make a list I consulted a few spelling bee lists. I added some words on my own from a thesaurus, as the dictionary is complicated by word particles, botany terms and foreign words for mud hut.

There is a certain type of word that just "looks" like a Bee word. Once you've seen such a list, you can recognize them anywhere. They tend to have doubled letters like 'perigee,' unexpected vowels like 'camouflage,' surprise letters like 'c' in 'reminiscence'- and a certain weight to them, an independent, well-rounded feel. Take for example the difference between 'splendor' and 'splendid': which is the Bee word? I bet you can tell.

all the rage in Paris
but not in Texas

I ended up with many pages of tricky words: a few pages of easy, a few of intermediate, and a few of difficult which I labeled "tie-breakers." But on reflection, I realized that I couldn't use the hard words. This was my theory: This was not a competitive nationwide Bee. I realized that the goal of a Senior Citizen spelling bee is not just to see who is the best speller, it also had to be fun, for both contestants and audience. It's not fun to watch spellers dropping out like flies.

In that case, there would need to be a few rounds of fairly easy words so the fallout rate would be slow and give everyone some kind of a chance. The audience is strung along and the tension increases, but slowly. Only gradually would harder words be introduced- but never too hard. Words that a very good speller would get. At every level, words they and the audience knew. Never "surtout," "reliquary" or "rubefacient."

And so I did this. I began with several rounds of:
splendor (see, you knew!)

gathering of the 'Society Dilettante'
London c 1780s, Sir Joshua Reynolds
Eventually I moved to these:

Once it was clear who was really good, it could be ratcheted up a notch- not too much, just what would distinguish a good speller from an excellent one:

I decided against controversy like:
Matisse, "Dance"

When I arrived at the Bee, I saw the seniors sitting in bridge chairs and murmuring excitedly. I was announced by the Activities Director of the Senior Center, then I took the microphone. I began the list, calling the words like an actress, to make it more exciting.

It went as I'd planned, slowly for awhile, so we'd have fun, then a little faster, until finally the race was down to two people. The man was large, expansive, a Texas "good old boy." He wore a light-blue summer suit jacket and his shirt strained at his stomach. He was someone quite distant from my experience or who I felt comfortable with. The woman, however, was a spry, delicate, chatty black woman, very classy and personable. I wished with all my heart for her to win.

Idyllwilde Arts Academy, Missouri

I looked at my list. Whatever it said was going to determine the winner. First, his word. I felt hopeful, it was ''naivete": maybe a bit too easy, but still a chance he might fail. I saw the word after that- HER word- and my heart sank. It was "baccalaureate." She'd never make it.


To my relief the man missed his word. He'd gotten his 'i's' and 'e's' mixed up. But he was not yet out, as the little woman hadn't gotten her word. Once again I looked at her word, and happened to notice the word after that was "savvy." How much simpler it was! How did it even get onto my "difficult" list?

I hesitated a split second to check my moral judgement. A perceptive person might have detected that slight hesitation. Should I? Should I? It was only one word away. . . it could have come out that way otherwise . . .

"Savvy," I said.
Yes, I did.

The little lady came to me afterwards and squinted up at me. "Really!" she exclaimed, irritated, I realized. She shook her head. "Savvy?! Come on!" I don't know how she knew, but she did. She felt cheated out of her glory, on such an easy word- denied the chance to show what she could do, win fair and square on her own merit.

And so the little lady went on the the State Bee, which was held in the same place. They made their list from my complete list of words, but they brought in their own Caller. For another thing, there were two readers, each following a copy of the list, to make sure nobody jumped a word. The Caller spoke in a flat monotone. The folks complained later that my calling was much more entertaining.

I am admitting it only now: I threw the Texas Regional Senior Citizens Spelling Bee.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Vitas: Diplomatic License


Vitas is the name of a young Russian pop star who within the past few years has become a major celebrity in Asia, particularly China. Vitas has a five-octave range, it is said sometimes reaching five and a half.

I am very curious to understand what exactly appeals to the Chinese about this Latvian/Ukranian young man. I have done some reading and watched many videos to try to understand this curious phenomenon. I think his relationship with China sometimes borders on controversial.