Goodbye and hello

Hello, old friends, and welcome, new readers who dropped in by way of Freshly Pressed. I will be closing down this old blog soon; except for a few high-hit pages, like the PQFEW series, all the posts will revert to private.

I have been blogging about food literature and culture at Scenes of Eating for about two years, and have recently opened Scribal Tattoo for my interests in reading, editing, publishing, and other book business. Many of my old posts will be transferred to one of those two sites.

I hope you’ll join me there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Unclassifiable

On publishing and curating a public self

Last week, I received a copy of the anthology I contributed to something like five years ago. I feel deeply ambivalent about this publication; as I’ve recorded, the publication process has been disorganized and unnecessarily convoluted, and I am so far removed from the baby grad student who turned a seminar paper into this chapter. The book is handsome, and feels good in my hands. It looks well-made. I am glad it’s in the world, but I don’t really feel proud, or comfortable promoting it. My relationship with the editors is not good–at one point they threatened to remove my piece, to which I replied that they could be my guest–and I am deeply suspicious of the conciliatory messages they now send, such as “we are so lucky to be able to include your chapter, the publication is the better for it.” I am afraid to read my own contribution, let alone the others.

By contrast, yesterday I signed a permissions form for my piece about mint and the history of breath fresheners to be included in an OUP anthology of cultural texts (sounds like a college composition reader; more details to follow). I am SUPER psyched about this. I feel thrilled and gratified that the writing I do about food culture is reaching a wider audience than I am used to, and that it seems to resonate with some people–appealing enough to repost and retweet but educational enough to include in a teaching tool. I think that’s what I’ve wanted from the beginning.
Over the next few months, I will be building up a new blog–one focused on books, book business, and storytelling–that I will maintain alongside my food blog. As always, it will be a place to siphon off the mindfroth, all the busy thoughts that bubble up while I go about other work, but it will also be a portfolio to help brand myself as a thinker and writer. One day, which I finally finish those novels I’ve been talking about for years, I will want to have a readership in place, a selection of work samples to send to prospective editors. And I will be moving some of my old writing from this blog to that blog, and locking or dismantling this blog, on which I’ve been writing since 2006. This blog traces my path through grad school, reflecting my struggles and criticisms as well as the ideas that lit me on fire. But there’s so much of this blog that is personal: my own stories about loss and grief and violence that I may tell again but differently; my excoriations of badly behaved customers in the various institutions I’ve served; my very early, very boring navelgazing on all subjects academic and social justice related. This blog now feels like a diary to me; it’s always been public, but the public felt private when it was pretty much only my friends reading.
I’m sure I’m overthinking all of this, but it feels positive and also disorienting to simultaneously seek more attention and to curate a more meaningful distinction between public and private.

Leave a comment

Filed under Encounters with the (sur)Real, Saga of a Second Careerist

More Philadelphia Stories

Last night I went to a house party where I only knew one person.  I hadn’t been to the house before, so I had the address in my hand as I walked quickly through the dark. Just around the corner from where I thought the house party should be, I passed another house party in full swing: I could see rooms full of costumed people standing and laughing, plastic cups in hand.

For a moment I thought about walking in. It could just as easily have been the party I was going to, and I would know almost as many people there.

But I found the right party just around the corner. I poured myself some of the applejack cocktail I’d brought and scanned the room. By the time the one person I knew appeared, I’d already met several other guests, including a kindred spirit who also “didn’t know anyone here.” The next three people I met all knew someone else I already knew, out in the world beyond this party. We all had plenty to say to each other but before too long half of these new acquaintances and I were dancing energetically in the room set aside for that purpose, sweaty and happy. I was very glad I went.

*

On my way home, I passed a group of men talking loudly next to a church. As I walked by, they began talking to me, theatrically abashed and fauxpologizing. Then I realized that they weren’t having an impromptu party in the churchyard, they were having an impromptu pee in the churchyard.

“Are you serious,” I exclaimed, “there are a million bars around and they all have bathrooms you know!”

Noises of agreement and disagreement. They were just as drunk as I was, and we were all rather loud and performatively staging this referendum. One of them suggested that there was no good reason not to pee in the churchyard.

“Yes there is,” I insisted, full of italics. “I live here and I don’t want pee in my neighborhood!

Ah, touché. They conceded the point but the damage was already done, and I resumed my walk home. “You’re just going to walk away?” asked their primary interlocutor plaintively. “Yes,” I said firmly, “but I hope you all have a good night. Somewhere else. Where there are bathrooms.”

*

I still haven’t received my new debit card from the bank to replace the one that go shut off after the ATM fiasco earlier this month, and I haven’t made it to the bank for cash. However, my cute July haircut had grown entirely out of control, and so I found myself headed to a hair salon sight unseen purely on the strengths that it was nearby, inexpensive, and accepted my credit card.

The stylist thought I looked familiar. I couldn’t think why. He asked me if I used to hang out at Double Shots, a coffee shop in Old City. I did indeed, a long time ago when I was new to Philly and wi-fi wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. I hoofed it to Double Shots to work on my grad school homework because it was the nearest cafe with wi-fi that I knew of, and because I thought one or two of the baristas were cute. Now that I remembered the time and place, I remembered the stylist coming up to me, admiring my hair (it was very long then), showing me his book and talking about what he’d like to do with my hair (in a professional capacity, I mean). At that age, I had established a routine of cutting my hair once every three years, so I didn’t think I’d need his services.  I saw him once or twice after that, I don’t really remember. He remembered me vividly, including the fact that I occasionally dyed my hair pink.

It was strange to be remembered like this. Just recently I’d been feeling like everything that happened in my twenties was a dream, that I’d moved to Philadelphia to chase a dream, that I’d dreamed my way through the first few foggy years of grad school, alternately timid and brazen, not yet fully formed  yet full of nonsense. Not that I think the reverse is now true; I’m certainly related to that earlier version, but it’s hard to believe she existed. Did I really say that? How did I ever fall in love with such a person? Why did I think this or that was important? How could I have done such a thing? But I existed. I left imprints on the world. I had flesh and fabulous pink hair.

Well, now I have a hangover and a fresh haircut, and the reminder (that I need regularly) to be present here, in this moment.

16 Comments

Filed under Navelgazing, Overheard in Philly, Urbanality

Needless cruelty

Recently, my friend lent me an advance copy of a book we were both looking forward to, as it is the sequel to another book we both seriously enjoyed.  (I won’t be specific about the title or author, because SPOILERS ABOUND.  But even without specifying the book, a lot of this post will sound familiar – you’ve seen or heard similar tropes before.)  Anyway, I couldn’t put the book down; I drank it up for the price of a couple nights’ sleep.  There was a lot to love about the story and the telling.  But one of the last scenes of the book really threw me for a loop, and has sort of obstructed a pleasurable memory of the whole.  I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my response to it.

[TW]

The novel is fantasy fiction.  Toward the end of the book, some of the characters summon a powerful supernatural being, and the supernatural being rapes one of the female characters.

My first response to this – aside from a mental flinch – was to wonder why this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.
My next and lingering response was to be equal parts disturbed and annoyed that  this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.

Let’s have some context, borrowed from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown.  Sady is tired of seeing sexual assault as a way to “spice up” horror.  What I found particularly resonant about her post was the observation that most of the buttons pushed in horror are unusual; massacre and torture are horrific, but are blessedly infrequent occurrences in our part of the world.  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is incredibly common – so much so that the probability of a  survivor of sexual assault viewing any such movie is very high.  And the narrative strategy of using rape catapult a horrific scene into more-horrific is just… insulting, really.  Not to mention unoriginal.  Another thoughtful read on using sexual assault as a narrative tool comes from Shakesville: Melissa McEwan is contemptuous of the suggestion that the viewers need gratuitous sex and assault to demonstrate the extent of a character’s villainy.  (Concerning the presence of this visual shorthand in a fantasy film, she adds: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet’s climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape, as if the weather is just a suggestion but rape is immutable.”)

So back to the why.  I picked up and finished the novel described above while I was in the midst of reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which has put me in the mindframe for contemplation.  The Art of Cruelty is more exploration than argument, which I like. Nelson sets out to consider and analyze some artworks and poems that she finds disturbing, or that have been criticized for their depictions of cruelty; she’s not interested in a wholesale condemnation or relativistic defense, but she does want to find and model a way to query and assess such works.  The way she goes about this is similar to the way I’ve been taught to read poetry and art: what does x element of the work do?  What cultural bells does it set off, does it cause the viewer/reader to view or read is a particular way?  Does the experience of reading/viewing allow the reader/viewer some space with which to make meaning of it?

That’s what I’m asking myself about the act of rape in this scene, in this book.  What does it do for the narrative?

  • The scene that includes the act serves as a climax of one character’s story, and precipitates the climax of the total narrative.
  • The act demonstrates the  cruelty of the Supernatural Being.
  • The act is a trial for the Female Character to overcome.
  • The act is the source of the Female Character’s own supernatural powers.

Okay, fine. Now what if the scene had been deleted, or replaced with something else?

  • The scene that concludes with the act of rape, would without rape still serve as the climax of her story. As my friend and I discussed a few days ago, the summoning of the Supernatural Being is an incredible scene. It is shocking, horrifying, unexpected, meaningful – everything a good plot twist in a thoughtful book should be. (And then the Being leans her over a table and ZZZZZZZZZ and also UGH.)
  • Prior to the rape, the Supernatural Being demonstrates the extent of his supernaturality and cruelty in some pretty spectacular ways – emphasis on spectacle, with the Female Character acting as a horrified witness to the Being’s casual violence. Emphasis on horror, too, where “horror” denotes a class of events that falls so far outside of habitual human experience that we learn something about our own boundaries. (Not that horror is always meaningful! But there is a reason that the stories of historical cruelties still captivate.) Being supernatural, the Being could have done any number of things to the Female Character. It seems… odd, and out of place, that he chose to reenact that pool table scene from The Watchmen.
  • Setting aside the inherently problematic (and overused) trope of giving a female character a rape to overcome as a part of her character development: this Female Character has already overcome a great deal. Among other things, throughout the novel she negotiates a near-constant barrage of sexual harassment and objectification. Her response is to use these circumstances for her own gain, a compromise that earns her both power and damage. That was all well-written and well-considered, I thought. Adding one final, boss-battle outrage against her body just seems like overkill, an Intro to Fiction misstep.
  • And finally – the rape is the first act of sexualized violence in which the Female Character is utterly helpless (rather than complicit, and acting with some agency).  And it is the act that transforms her into a Supernatural Being herself. She is, in other words, a woman in her own refrigerator. She reminds me of the title character of The Wind-Up Girl, who does not discover her own strength until a barrage of unimaginably (yet attentively described) brutalizing circumstances pushes her past the point of endurances.  Not just brutal circumstances, but gendered circumstances. It reminds me, too, of that awful chapter in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which the narrator lovingly describes the stoic heroism with which a woman he knows survived a brutal attack. These are not flattering comparisons. They’re called Hideous Men for a reason.

To sum up: no, I can’t think of a single reason why this book – which I was prepared to love, which I did in fact love many things about – derailed me with an act of needless sexual violence. I question the choice to place rape in this seat of honor: narrative climax, boss battle, origin story. I don’t say that it should never be written.  I don’t even pretend to sketch out some rules about when it’s okay and when it is not okay.  I only want to ask – why is this here?

And I wouldn’t mind if authors, editors, and previewers would think to ask themselves the same.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Gender, Ideas

Blogs, logs, and plugs

I have updated my blogroll with a more transparent list of what I actually read on a regular basis.*  After Bloglines shut down, I tried on about a million feed-readers and finally settled on Netvibes.  Netvibes is a little complicated to explain, but I will try, because I have found it to be a useful organizational tool as well as an effective distraction.  Netvibes allows you to organize yourself a “dashboard” – or more (I have three).  You can add feeds and/or widgets to this dashboard, and view it in reader or widget mode.  Reader mode looks a lot like Bloglines: there’s a window for reading the posts and a sidebar with all of your feeds listed, and when new posts appear the blog is bolded with the number of posts next to it.
But widget mode facilitates my ongoing job search and my ongoing research.  My jobsearch dashboard includes a preview of my Gmail inbox, a preview of Craigslist’s writing/editing job page, two boxes of links to jobsites I check frequently (one for general publishing jobs and one for specific presses I follow), and a to-do box where I copy links to specific jobs I want to apply to later.  The Food Research dashboard is similar, but with links to Calls for papers and web previews of sites I refer to periodically, and – crucial to getting shit done! – a timer.

click to enlarge, but only slightly

If you join, I think there’s a social networking component I haven’t explored.  Look me up; I’m tanglethis, as usual.

Reading feeds is part of my daily routine; I check them when I wake up and when I get home from work, both to to keep tabs on issues that interest me and to unwind with some good reading.  The blogs I choose to read actually have considerable impact on what I know and how I think about it.  It sounds strange to say so; I think it’s not uncommon to feel suspicious of a fairly democratic medium, on which any asshole with an opinion (to paraphrase one of my grandmother’s aphorisms) can broadcast.  On the other hand, some folks who get payment and/or prestige for putting their opinions to print are publishing some truly ignorant and speculative fictions, so. . . Periodically I’d like to take time to respect and admire writers who write carefully, and with care.

Sometimes I’m a tl;dr reader, but lately the posts that cause me to reflect have been posted in something of a series.

  • Ta-Nehesi Coates has been reading Jane Austen, and he loves her.  I think Jane Austen can be somewhat of a divisive figure: people tend to either love her or find her quite overrated, and the former is nowhere near a cohesive group, peopled as it is both by fans of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and by diehard canonists who hate film adaptations except the BBC version.  For my part, I’ve never counted myself as among her biggest fans, but I devoured several of her novels in a week one summer when I had the time to do so.  Coates’ posts remind us that Austen remains readable in part because of her craft – her sculpted sentences, her gleefully dry sense of humor – and I appreciate seeing a male writer admire a female (and, as we culturally code her, extremely feminine!) writer this way.  But Coates also finds intersections between the world of Austen’s marriageable women and the language of hip hop, the texts of American slavery, and his own lifelong education.  I like this not only because I need to be reminded that gender and class always entangle themselves with race, too – easy for a white reader to forget in the ivory landscape of pre-Victorian gentry – but because Coates’ insights are more about why literature matters.
    You can search The Atlantic for Jane Austen, but here are some that stood out to me: “How do you teach beauty?” ; “Snobbery“; “No one man should have all that power“.
  • Captain Awkward has several posts on the art of saying NO – at work, in date situations, and more.  Captain Awkward knows you’ve been socialized to do everything in your power to avoid saying no, or telling people you don’t like what they’re doing, because expressing these negative sentiments are impolite!  Nonetheless, she insists, it is far more polite and safe to set clear boundaries as soon as possible; it’s much harder to tell people NO when you’ve already shown them what you’ll let them get away with.  Saying no gently, firmly, and immediately can save you a lot of irritation, or worse.
    This series has come up in conversation a lot lately; I know a lot of people who could use a refresher on being a little “impolite” in order to put an end to (or at least a damper on) bad coworker or date behavior.  I also wonder what I would have thought if I read these posts in my early twenties, when I needed to hear them most.   I am not sure if I would have understood then.  But now reading these posts is cathartic, almost, because I’ve been there and I know, right?
    No at work; No on dates; and more No.
  • The Fat Nutritionist has some food rules for you: eat food, stuff you like, as much as you want.  These posts are like a manifesto for intuitive eating, which is a concept that I may have alluded to in the paltry few of my “Body Unapologetic” posts, but is well described on FN’s blog.  The blogger, Michelle, has some fairly unpopular views that I happen to share: for example, that people are smarter than we give them credit for (or at least, they could be if we equipped them with information rather than punitive restrictions); that how other people eat is not really our business to judge or control; and that eating is about gaining (nutrition, energy, pleasure) not losing (weight, calories, whatever).  We want to eat food that is good;  No really, we want to eat food that makes us feel good; and for a bonus, “If only poor people understood nutrition!” (which includes a pyramid of food needs that I find pretty compelling).

*If you were previously on the blogroll and were removed, don’t feel sad; it’s just because your blog hasn’t seen an update in an even longer time than my blog.  If I know you and you want me to link you or at least read you, let me know!

1 Comment

Filed under Body Unapologetic, Books, Fun with the internets, Gender, Lists

In praise of beet stems




Veggie mishmash

Originally uploaded by tanglethis

I didn’t learn to like beets until I moved north. To be fair, I’d only ever had them out of a can, or boiled, or both. But finally a couple of more experienced cooks roasted beets in my vicinity, and I realized that they are in fact delicious and versatile.

Around that same time, I learned that you can eat beet leaves. Even so, it never occurred to me to eat beet stems until my CSA farmer sent us a recipe for them. Beet stems are a little sweet, like the root, but with less of that earthy beet flavor. They are very useful for filling out a dish that already has a couple of chopped vegetables – risotto, bean salad, random veggie mishmash – and I love the idea of using almost every part of a vegetable.

Beet stems are very fibrous, so they need to be softened with cooking – I find that roasting them with beet wedges or tossing them in a very hot skillet for a few minutes does the trick. Sometimes, as I chop them into inch-long pieces, I pull away some of the outer fibers; some stems might just be too woody to eat, and can go in with the stock veggies.

For lunch today I coated the stems, a sliced garlic clove, and some thinly sliced zucchini in a smidge of oil and balsamic, then sauteed them until the zucchini began to get translucent. I tossed some white beans, basil, and shredded carrot in the remainder of the oil and vinegar and added those to the pan. It was delicious eaten hot – savory and a little sweet – but you could probably also eat this cool, in a pasta salad or on top of greens.

6 Comments

Filed under Reckless Recipes

PQfEW: The Sphinx’s Riddle

One morning recently, I opened a book on mother-daughter relationships in fiction and was struck by this epigraph. As far as I can tell this is the poem (or “prosem,” as I sometimes call such things) in its entirety. I’m very interesting in looking up more of this woman’s work.

“Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and
blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a
familiar smell. It was the Sphinx. Oedipus
said, “I want to ask you one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You
gave the wrong answer,” said the Sphinx.
“But that was what made everything
possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs
in the morning, two at noon and three in
the evening, you answered, Man. You
didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you
include women too. Everyone knows
that.” She said, “That’s what you think.”

3 Comments

Filed under PQfEW