That one’s the penguin

February 16, 2009

Our Netflix queue has stalled recently–the new semester has gotten into gear, and so has our regularly scheduled programming, w/ Friday Night Lights, Lost, and BSG all returning for their winter runs–and this past week we found ourselves watching back to back documentaries.

The first one we watched was Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s portrait of the people who work in Antarctica, either as scientists or supporting scientists. Confession: for several years in my late teenagerhood, I fantasized about being one of the hired help for a season. While I’m no longer nearly obsessive enough to qualify as an Antarctica buff, I do have an infatuation the place. I bought my expensive Northface snow boots this year largely b/c they are a style named McMurdo. I think, though, that even if you have not been intermittently twitterpated with the Earth’s largest continent, you would find something to marvel at in this film. I never got tired of the various poetic explanations people offered for how they ended up in Antarctica. One guy (I forget his name, but his occupation was listed as philosopher/fork lift driver) said it was where all the people who rushed toward the edge of map found each other. Another guy said that it was like the planet gets shaken up, and everyone’s who’s not attached to something or somewhere floats to the bottom. I’m fairly eccentric at heart, but I no longer think I am qualified to work in Antarctica. Not quite yet.

One image, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of my head any time soon. Herzog interviews David Ainley, who has been studying a penguin colony for more than 30 years. Herzog conjectures that being around penguins so long has diminished his desire to talk to humans, but I think his terseness was in part attributable to hard questions Herzog seemed ready to supply constantly (maybe he resorted to the deep stuff when small talk didn’t pan out). Herzog asks him if he’s ever observed any evidence of mental illness in penguins. Being a scientist and all, of course he answers no, b/c there’s really no way to equate what we broadly call mental precisely with animal behavior. What does happen, though, is that sometimes a penguin can become disoriented. After he says this, Herzog shows us footage of one of these disoriented penguins, zooming away from his buddies who are on their way to the fish hole and towards inland Antarctica, where there is no food and where he will certainly die. I can’t stop seeing how surely he walks and scoots on his belly in what every other penguin could tell you is the exact wrong direction. He looks just as purposeful a the food-seeking penguins. Ainley says that even if the humans were to go and catch the penguin, and take him to the feeding ground or back to his home, he would turn around and go right back the wrong way. Once they are like that there is no way to stop them. So, all they could do is put the camera on him as he gets further and further away.

After this scene, I paused the movie and asked D if he thought that catching that penguin and autopsying its brain and seeing if there was some physical difference from the other penguin would change how humans treat similarly inexplicable behaviors in people. B/c there seemed to be something so clear about that image to me. The human race has its disoriented penguins–and I don’t think including that image of the penguin alongside images of Shackleton’s exploration team was at all coincidental. There’s all these penguins over here, getting food, and then there’s that penguin over there, hell bent on going some opposite direction. It’s hard to believe that penguin is making a choice. I’d be the last one to say I know where to draw the line between human choices  and human disorientation (do sane people need to go to Antarctica? write thousands of pages? paint huge canvases? would we trade the art and knowledge we gain from their extreme actions for their happiness? should we?)–but I wonder. If there’s no way to sort the beautiful extreme from the uselessly harmful extreme, what do we do when we see a penguin? Is there anything?

Coincidentally, the next documentary we put in was Man on Wire. The first time I saw footage of Philippe Petit walking between spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, it took my breath away, and I turned to Daniel and said, “See? That one’s the penguin.”


The Way I See It quotation on my my tiny free sample size cup of S-bucks’s new blend, Pike Place, is shorter than the advertising blurb that comes after the name of the person who said it:

“In the end, we’re all the same.”

-Ben Kweller, rock musician, His songs can be heard on Starbucks Hear Music station, XM Satellite Radio Channel 75.

I suppose you deserve lame, product placing quotations when you ask for free coffee.

But of course, I feel the need to think about this too much. This seems like a good example of a quotation that didn’t really need attribution–uh, duh, that’s been common upperish middle class hippie wisdom for a while now, plus I know the Dalai Lama has said it too– but isn’t really plagiarism either. It is just sucked straight out of the collective knowledge/ database.

But I don’t really believe it as much when a “rock musician” I have no context for other than his XM status says it as when the Dalai Lama says it. It sounds flat and unimaginative, not liberating or uplifting. Like, oh God, in the end, I’m just like you? Gag me. I guess I’m less interested in original material than credible sources.

Anyway, it’s nice coffee. I just wish someone would put me in charge of The Way I See It for a year or so. My eyes are tired of platitudes.

I also remembered this–Have I linked to this before? McSweeney’s Internet Tendency “Rejected Submissions for Starbucks The Way I See It.”

Friday Red: M Edition

March 21, 2008

Malbec  (Dona Carla) + Michael Clayton, aka the longest post-release netflix queue wait ever. Oh yeah, pour and play, it’s Friday.

“Make art, make art!”

February 25, 2008

Oh, staying up to watch the Oscars just got completely worthwhile. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova just won best song for “Falling” from Once. Like I said earlier, I have had a cynical, pragmatic hangover since 2004 and that song and that movie still charmed me to tears. Oh! It just got better–Marketa got cut off by the orchestra, and Jon Stewart just brought her back out to give her an uninterupted chance to say her thank-you’s. “Enjoy your moment,” he said. Good advice.

1 million scanned at U Mich

February 7, 2008

The University of Michigan libraries have now scanned and placed online 1 million books. As they detail here, that’s:

One million = 361,441,145 pages
One million = 42 terabytes
One million = 750 tons
One million = 146 miles

Here the Dean of Libraries at U of M talks a bit about why this is so darned cool, and what we can expected in the future.

A couple of months after I started working at my library, we had a party to celebrate the acquisition of our millionth book.  That took us 41 years, apparently.

A word came to mind for how digitization and the Web are changing intellectual work, and the word is leapfrogging. I have to think about why that’s apt more before I can articulate it, but that’s the image I had when I read about the millionth book. We all build off the work of others, and we have access to exponentially greater amounts of it every year. (Assuming that we can keep publishers at bay or at least stay brazen enough to push the boundaries of copyright further and further.)  I’m really pumped to think about what people out there might be able to do now that they can climb directly onto the back of all the UM people’s efforts and start from there. We’ll all think of something, I’m sure.

Banished words 2007

January 9, 2008

In keeping w/ my perennial new year’s resolution to be a better writer, which by extension includes being a better blogger, I am going to take Lake Superior State University’s list of words to be banished in 2008 to heart and attempting to nix them from my working vocabulary. I first heard about this story on a new year’s day talk show that I watched in a motel room in Traverse City, and I was thrilled to find out that the complete list is available online. Highlights of what NOT to say in ’08 include:

Perfect storm (I have to agree–let’s keep this term reserved for actual weather, okay?)

Webinar (oh thank you Jay-sus, that word is the scourge of the library science student)

Author/authored (as a verb–the commenter here “wonders if it would be correct to say that someone ‘paintered’ a picture?”)

Surge (I agree w/ this commenter: “From Iraq to Wall Street to the weather forecast – ‘surge’ really ought to recede”

And some are just plain hard to let go, but when I think about it for a second, it’s just time to stop saying:

BLANK is the new BLANK


Back in the day

But there is probably no single phrase I’d like to see terminated more than:

It is what it is.

Ach! What a piece of non-language. As one commenter on the list says, “It means absolutely nothing.” The abuse of English in this sentence alone is enough to get me riled, but what has really bothered me ever since I was first exposed to this saying in 2005 is that it seems to generally be used by people who are stuck in a bad situation and refuse to do anything to understand why that bad situation came about or what they might do to change it. It signifies an emotional quagmire that the speaker is so traumatized by that they have lost the ability to even be angry or sad about it. It’s not even at the level of “we’ll make the best of it.” Very few situations (eg the Iraq War, the abandonment of New Orleans after Katrina, the mortgage crisis) are what they are without someone, somewhere along the line having helped them get that way, and while it may be painful to realize that you are suffering from someone else’s bad decision, it is important to keep in mind that the only way it’s going to get better is if we try to understand why rather than simply being a resigned observer of what is. Sorry, that’s a lot of rant for a little phrase, but it’s upsetting to me when wrongheaded phrases make their way into casual conversation. It does affect how you think and see the world.

So, Friday Red turned into Saturday Orange Juice when D felt those telltale signs of a post-stressful semester cold as soon as he got out of school on Friday. Sucks how your body’s idea of a trade for protecting you while you really didn’t have time to spare is often to let you get zapped as soon as you could be having fun w/ your free time.

Still, with a little caution thrown to the wind and some help from our Netflix queue, we are making the sniffles into sniffle-ade and catching up on some stuff, which so far hasn’t included the massive amount of cleaning we haven’t been doing, but there’s time…

First off, we finally went to No Country for Old Men last night, and were as thoroughly impressed as we expected to be  after the rave reviews from all sides, except for Stephanie Z on Salon who I think we can now all safely declare a true hata. Many intelligent things have been said about No Country, so I won’t try to add anything, but I did find it an interesting example of a little game we liked to play in southern lit called “how would this have fared in workshop?” In particular, I was struck by how the script (which D tells me is composed largely of dialogue lifted straight out of the book) never really felt the need to settle on a single register of language. You had the pop culture (“I work at the Walmart”) mixed with the mythic (pretty much anything said by Tommy Lee Jones… can’t remember an example word for word enough to type, something would get lost) mixed with the more or less completely silly (“hells bells, sheriff!). And I’d say it worked nicely, and there were a lot more laughs than I was expecting. So, that was interesting. Also, I’m definitely in the camp of this movie being all about Iraq… I’m pretty sure that camp exists… but as we saw with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, I tend to find those parallels fairly often.

Today, we got through the first disc of Lost season 3, which is crack.

Then, b/c I’m trying to make season 4 of The Wire last as long as possible and saving Mr. Damon and his Ultimatum for later on in the break when long periods of time in family members’ living rooms may need to get filled, we perused the movies for free on demand with our cable, and found that Carrie was available. I just read the book this summer, and I have to say I really liked it (I am generally a fan of Stephen King though). Some parts of the movie haven’t aged all that well, but Sissy Spacek’s performance as Carrie is still perfect, and like Black Christmas, it reminded me that we’ve done a bunch of backsliding when it comes to popular movies. First off, Carrie opens with a girls’ locker room scene that has more full frontal nudity than I’ve ever seen in a movie… kind of weird, but realistic given the setting. Second, all of the actresses playing hot chicks in this movie would look heavy by today’s standards–not a stick among them. They are all slim, but none of them remotely have thighs that narrow toward the torso or skeleton arms. Third, it takes a kind of dead on, unrepentant look at the inherent inanity and potential darkness in teenage life. When they pull the stunt that sets Carrie over the edge, finally, you completely believe they would do something like that–they are not spared from their own cruelty by suggestions that they have an excuse or a basically good nature.

In between, I have had the distinct pleasure of not letting D do anything for himself while he tries to recuperate. Most of the time he is so on top of things w/r/t cooking that I end up sitting on my bum and being needy, but not this time! I’m SJ on the spot with all of his OJ, kleenex, and ibuprofen needs, reminding him that no, a glass of wine would not be a good idea right now… or wait maybe it would! Busting out the  corkscrew now. The only thing I didn’t do was make him chicken soup–we’ve got too many leftovers to get through before we fly off to Michigan. Not even a cold can save you from leftovers around here.

Okay, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and wine glass full so that I don’t wake up tomorrow having what he’s having.