In the fall of 1995, I took a class on the technological history of communication. I didn't particularly care for the professor -- we got off to a bad start because he preferred his students to join his cult of personality, and I don't do culty -- but I did end up loving the subject, appreciating the insights he patiently guided us toward, and giving reluctant props for how he launched us there: with a reading of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.
I'm on the lagging edge of the LP listeners: I spent a lot of my childhood studying record album covers and trying to figure out what they had to do with the music (AutoAmerican blew my mind in the third grade). I'd make up stories -- perhaps the dragon on the Asia cover was summoned by the bridge in "Heat of the Moment"? And wasn't it nice that everyone in the Mamas and the Papas were such good friends, they could all hang out in a bathtub together?
Then I was buying CDs by high school and -- well, jewelboxes don't have the same visual cachet.
Perhaps we as a culture are poorer for that. Because how else can we see such delightful treasures as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has collected in "Worst Album Cover Ever?"
A lot of these covers are surprisingly poignant, as the subjects project nothing more than an earnest desire to entertain the listener, and by golly, they'll do that if it means covering themselves in sour cream and shocking the grandchildren. What can I say? I'm a sucker for sincerity. However, some of these album covers suggest richer backstories. Those are after the jump.
Common Core asked high school students 41 questions about the humanities. The results have shocked and appalled people -- the word "ignorant" is used to describe the kids ("Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions," NYT, Feb 27, 08). Evidently, a quarter of American teenagers didn't know Hitler was Germany's chancellor during WWII. (There was no reportage on whether or not they thought he was merely the FTW gambit in any online argument.)
Naturally, I was curious to learn exactly how little the generation that'll be funding my social security (ha!) knew. Slate has the test in their "Hot Documents" feature ("A Depressing Survey of What High Schoolers Don't Know"). Showing a little stunning ignorance of my own, it took me until the second pass-through to realize the correct answers were starred.
I was able to answer all but one correctly. And before you all point out that I have the benefit of college on my side, let me point out: thanks to AP testing, I waltzed into Virginia Tech with my humanities, social sciences and literature requirements all but completed. My college education was left-brained in the extreme. Any liberal arts education I have, I got courtesy of living in Virginia ("400 Years of History and Counting") and reading constantly. Anyway, I biffed #24, as did 50% of kids tested. Mrs. Cantwell, I'm sorry I forgot the purpose of the Federalist papers. AP government was 19 years ago.
In any event, take a look at the questions and see how many you can answer.
So I found Stuff White People Like and was cracking up reading the posts. Whoever's writing it is a comic genius; the anthropological approach and deadpan tone absolutely kill me. (And, in my opinion, kicks the ass of the deadpan John Hodgman/McSweeney's precious-ironic-overgrown-kid "comedy.")
(I am looking forward to seeing future installments on VH1 Classic, the New Yorker, overpriced chocolate, and Hanna Andersson clothing.)
But what I really find thought-provoking are the outraged comments on the "About Us" entry. The people insisting that the entries aren't about all white people, and how dare there be such stereotyping ... it's funny watching how people react when they're the subject of stereotyping and they're not used to it.
What is it about dead couples that captures the imagination? Is it the idea that some people's love lifts them out of autonomy -- and that can be both transcendent and terrible? Is it pondering the ease with which people can slide from selflessness to self-destructiveness?
Whatever it is, there's been some ink devoted to the suicides of artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. She took her life on July 3 this year; he followed a week later. Their friends are still groping for an explanation -- something about shared paranoia and conspiracy theories. The New York profile is a good start -- "Conspiracy of Two" (Aug 20, 07) -- and for those of us who remember when CD-ROMs and videogames for girls were cutting-edge, it's like a sobering footnote to the dot-com boom years the same magazine covered in "Silicon Alley 10003" (Feb 28, 00).
Vanity Fair follows with their Jan 08 piece, "The Golden Suicides," which echoes the New York narrative: Los Angeles' entertainment industry culture was rough on the couple, who had been riding high after a decade in which they were lauded as gaming-industry pioneers and included in the Whitney Biennial. VF also includes a link to the film Duncan made that was included in the Biennial.
Those two pieces take a decidedly East Coast-centric view, blaming Los Angeles for wreaking havoc on the delicate psyches of two gifted artists. It's unsurprising that the L.A. Weekly's "The Theresa Duncan Tragedy" (Aug 1, 07) has a different perspective; in her take on the whole situation, the reporter argues that Duncan and Blake didn't develop demons in California; they had been there, sleeping, all along.
In any event, I think watching how this story was covered -- first by the nimble weeklies, then by the local publication, then by the national glossy -- demonstrates the staying power that the doomed-lovers trope has for storytellers and readers alike.
A few months ago, David Denby wrote "A Fine Romance," (New Yorker, Jul 23, 07) in which he derided the recent spate of schlub-scores-hottie movies as deviating from one premise of good romantic comedies -- the fight between equals -- and posited that these movies are anti-woman, writing:
All the movies in this genre have been written and directed by men, and it's as if the filmmakers were saying, "Yes, young men are children now, and women bring home the bacon, but men bring home the soul."
The perilous new direction of the slacker-striver genre reduces the role of women to vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up.
A few weeks ago, Mary Spicuzza wrote "Slacker Guys and Striver Girls" (SF Weekly, Nov 14, 07), in which she notes that unlike the movies, many go-getter women don't treat their boyfriends like fixer-upppers. She reported:
University of California at Santa Cruz literature professor Carla Freccero, whose research focus includes contemporary feminist theories and politics, suspects the slacker-striver films reflect some men's feelings that their manhood is being attacked by feminism. "I don't like that genre of comedy at all," she says.
Freccero says the genre consistently revolves around male-focused plots, and is yet another example of antifeminist backlash. In this case, there's a presumed "economy of scarcity of men" who have their lives together, meaning successful women had better be willing to settle for serious slacker dudes. "It's not about truth, it's a perception," she says.
(There's a Patton Oswalt routine that makes me snort every time I listen to it, about how those KFC bowls are really "failure piles in sadness bowls." Part of me wonders if the American slacker dudes who are currently drifting onto the pop-culture radar would order this. )
And two nights ago, I finally saw Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Both movies reminded me a bit of the British series Manchild -- the protagonists may indulge in some indulgent, adolescent antics, but it's clear that they're paying a price for doing so, and in every case, the men must reckon with their own character and why they've gone for the immature option. If these guys grow up, it's not because some bitch of a woman wants them to, but because they want to. Viva the cultural differences across the pond!
... Because it's doing a bang-up job exploring the ways in which cultural assimilation issues play out in everyday life.
I linked a while back to "Picnics, Games and Culture Shock" (Jun 30, 07), which examined the challenges parks personnel faced when trying to mediate the needs of several different ethnic groups in public spaces. Last week's "Feathers Are Flying" (Jul 14, 07) looks at a culture clash in my high school stomping grounds, Prince William County: chickens kept as backyard pets in suburbia.And today's "Two Cultures, Slowly Uniting in Matrimony" examines how thriving Asian communities across the DC Metro area are transforming, and being transformed by, the local wedding industry.
It is coverage like this, which examines how people handle such quotidian details like family pets and wedding planning, that seems to provide a better snapshot of immigration's impact on America than a dozen op-eds that all boil down to OMG illegals!111!!!!!
Reading the papers this morning, I was struck by the similar sentiments in "Love's Labor's Lost" (WaPo, Feb 14, 07) and "its not u :(" (WSJ, Feb 14, 07). And those sentiments would be: "These young adults today, with their 'hooking up' and their 'IMing,' they're like animals without any relationship skills!"
What is also disturbing -- to me, anyway, is how WaPo writer Laura Sessions Stepp manages to cast blame -- subtly, mind you -- on those rotten feminists for this whole mess. Why, if it weren't for us telling our daughters that they could be ambitious and accomplished, they wouldn't put their own success above finding a nice person and learning how to be a better girlfriend or wife!
(Where is the coverage focused on how young men feel about this turn of events? Why is it incumbent upon women to examine their relationships and alter their thinking? Why no article about the male experience here?)
These articles about These Unromantic Kids Today are kind of striking because it seems like there's an increase in "What Have We Wrought?" coverage in re: people in their twenties and thirties, and this is going hand-in-hand with some serious Boomer nostalgia. I happened to read "Boomer Humor: the Way We Laughed" (Newsweek, Feb 11, 07) last night, where the basic premise was "Until we came along, nothing was funny, ever. And nothing is still as funny as we are."
After I retrieved my eyebrows from their skeptical orbit, I laughed at this:
Jon Stewart, born in 1962, is technically a boomer, but "The Daily
Show" (which echoes and improves on "SNL's" 31-year-old "Weekend
Update"), can hardly be considered boomer humor.
So take that, all you Gen Xers! Jon Stewart isn't one of you! (although most definitions would argue otherwise) and he's not doing anything "Weekend Update" didn't do, except those in-the-field segments or Indecision 2000. So The Daily Show is still a boomer number!
I am adding this coverage to my growingportfolio, filed under the label "damage, What is your?"
In keeping with its usual coverage trends, the NYT reported on Feb 11, 07:
A survey last year of 400 respondents by the career Web site
Experience Inc. found that 25% said that their parents were
involved in their jobs “to the point that it was either annoying or
Career service directors were the first to feel
the tide of parental love. Julia Overton-Healy, who runs that office at
Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, tells of a call from a parent
demanding to know the time and place of her son’s on-campus job
interview, so she could be there, too. Seniors at Roanoke College in
Virginia freely acknowledge to their career director, Toni McLawhorn,
that their résumés were actually written by their parents.
are having a nightmare with this,” says Stephen Seaward, director of
career development at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn.
“I’ve heard of instances where parents were calling employers on their
child’s behalf and asking why they didn’t get the job or where they’ve
called to negotiate salaries. Meanwhile, the employer is thinking, ‘Can
this student handle himself if they have to have someone do this for
I thought about those helicopter parents when reading New York's "How Not to Talk to Your Kids" (Feb 19, 07), where author Po Bronson notes:
[Roy] Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is
largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s
so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from
So I wonder if these helicopter parents who are hovering over their kids on the job aren't doing so because they're afraid to see how their children will do without them. If so, it's tough to know who to feel sorrier for: the parents who rely on their kids for their self-esteem needs, or the kids who have to shoulder that burden.