Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soundtrack of your life - due 4/20/11

(By the end of the day, let's say, as I have not been as assiduous as I should in getting it posted.)

Last blog assignment, people. Also your last shot at having any fun at all in this course. I always try to include this at the end of the course for a few reasons: For one, it lets people have something personal and creative to include in the portfolio if they want to, because so much of the second half of the course is academically demanding. For another, you've had to listen to my music all semester, so this is your chance to show me (and each other) yours.

The assignment is simply this: If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be? In my head, my life already does. So pick a couple of songs – the precise number is up to you, but maybe 2 minimum, 10 maximum? – and give a short (or long!) explanation of why you would include them of a soundtrack to your life. The explanation can be very personal (“This is the song I play when I kiss my pillow and cry because Marilyn Monroe is dead”) to the fairly impersonal (“This is my favorite song to dance to because it’s got such a good beat”). Again, it’s up to you. Here is my list that is WAY too big because doing this was more fun than doing my real work:

“The Great Historical Bum” - Chad Mitchell Trio (kinda, it’s a really old song, but their version is the one I know best). This is what my crazy illiterate great-uncle Leroy recites any time he’s asked how old he is, so I grew up with it memorized. You ask him how old he is, and he says, “I was born about ten thousand years ago / There ain’t nothing in this world that I don’t know / I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses / And I’ll whup the guy that says it isn’t so.” He really is totally illiterate – he suffered massive head trauma as a child and lost the ability to read or write as a result. He has a farm in a part of Minnesota that they still haven't gotten around to paving yet. He was pretty much the most awesome uncle ever when I was growing up, because he let me blow lots of my childhood on driving his fire engine and poking sheep with a stick. He also had a brain tumor that took away a lot of his fine motor skills (cleaning and plucking chickens for a dude with no motor skills is not very fun, incidentally), and was once trampled by his own sheep when he accidentally pissed off one of the rams. Wow, it turns out that my childhood was pretty damn awesome. I look a lot like him. Hjalmer Willard LeRoy Hawkins, bless you and your crazy. (I’m allowed to use “crazy” as a noun because I’m getting a PhD, see.)

"Thirsty Dog" - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Oh, man, I love this one. It's fast and loud and my favorite song ever about making an apology. It sort of manages to sum up my feelings about almost every apology I've ever given - the speed of the song speaks to how I always want to blurt out the apology as fast as possible to get it over with, and the lyrics are the perfect mix of genuine shame, regret, embarrassment, self-pity, rage, and alcohol: "You keep nailing me back into my box / I'm sorry I keep popping up / With my crazy mouth / And jangling jester's cap. / I'm sorry I ever wrote that book / I'm sorry for the way I look / But there ain't a lot / That I can do about that."

"I'm Your Man" - Lizzie West. This is a cover version of a Leonard Cohen song. Cohen and his gravelly voice are pretty awesome, but also kind of creepy, so I think this version of it is the sexiest song ever recorded. Hands down. You could try to argue against me, but you would lose, because I am correct. It's also the only song I couldn't find anywhere on Youtube (not her version that is).

"Fuck and Run" - Liz Phair. Oh, hush, this isn't anywhere near as dirty, or as personal, as some of the stuff I could have put on here. This is from kind of an old album, but I only encountered it relatively recently. Phair does a lot of really creative and daring songs about sexuality and relationships, which is part of what I love about her. When I first heard this song, I started smiling, because I thought it sounded like it was going to be a fun song about one-night stands. ("I woke up alarmed / I didn't know where I was at first, / Just that I woke up in your arms.") And then . . . it wasn't. It was about the singer admitting that the way she was treating her life and her relationships was unsustainable, because there was something fundamentally broken about her. By the time I reached the end, I actually had a little lump in my throat at, "I can feel it in my bones / I'm going to spend my whole life alone." I think it really speaks to that little spot in everyone where you're convinced that you're the only one on the planet who hasn't figured love out.

"The Ocean" - Dar Williams. I sing this in the shower like every morning.

"Olga's Birthday" - Rose Polenzani. I used to sing this in the shower every morning.

“Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West. This is a Scots-Canadian folk rock band. No soundtrack of my life is complete without this one. I first heard this song performed by an enthusiastic Canadian with an acoustic guitar on New Years' Eve, 2003, in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a great, crazy, drinkin', partyin' song about going abroad to England: "You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best / I've been gone for a month / I've been drunk since I left. / These so-called vacations / Will soon be my death / I'm so sick from the drink / I need home for a rest." At the time, I'd been living in hostels in Britain for seven months, surrounded by insane Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and others, who were drunk all the time and occasionally stoned. (Except for the Quebecois, who were stoned all the time and occasionally drunk.) It was a great time: I was never bored even though I was working some horrible jobs, and I loved the people I lived with. Mostly. However, there was always this sense that we knew that the way we were living wasn't really healthy, and that some day we were going to have to go home. That night was just a perfect performance, with all these drunk and desperate expatriates shouting "TAKE ME HOME!" at the end of the chorus, and every time I hear the song, I go right back there in my memory.

"Tupelo," also by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This gets an honorable mention just because the title of this blog is pulled from the lyrics. Say what you like about how weird the guy is, but he really is one of the most amazing lyricists of the twentieth century.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Field trip time!

Don't worry, you aren't going far. By Wednesday, I want you to have gotten your body into a UW library and written about it. I want you to:

* Use the search engine at the library website (http://www.library.wisc.edu) to find a book related to your topic. It may be that you have to be a little creative - if, for example, you were writing something about the recent protests around the capitol, you obviously wouldn't be able to find a book written on them. But you could find a book on the history of political protest, or collective bargaining/unions, etc.
* In that book's record, figure out which library it's in.
* Now go to that library and find it. I don't care if you check it out, just find it on the shelf.
* Now blog about it. Your blog should have a short story of your search (both for a book to look up and the book itself), a description of where it was INCLUDING what was nearby it on the shelf, its Library of Congress call number, and a bibliographic entry for your book.

I'm doing this not because I hate you all and want you to suffer, but because I think this is genuinely a useful, interesting exercise. In my own research, I've found that, half the time, finding one relevant book and then just looking on the shelves around it is incredibly useful in terms of finding other texts and ideas. It's true that I work with literature, so I don't have to worry as much about making sure I'm reading super-recent stuff, like you do when you work in the sciences. Regardless, it's still a good thing to become oriented with the physical space of the library.

Here's mine:

This was actually kind of hard for me, because I already have most of what I need to do my writing already checked out. I decided that I should probably do some reading about what other people have said about one of the absolutely monstrous texts that I'll be writing on later in my dissertation: Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead. I did a search in Madcat for the title of the book, and came up with a couple of promising leads. One in particular seemed really interesting - a book of essays about American Indian writing. Only one of the essays in it is actually about Silko, but the book as a whole is about looking at how different countries react to indigenous writings and concerns, which is kind of what I'm working on.

Book was in Memorial Library, which I know pretty well, particularly this area of the stacks. I made it up to the correct floor (thankfully, almost everything I ever need is on either floor 2 or 2M, so I don't have far to go). I found the book on the shelf and snagged it, then looked around it. It was, naturally, in the middle of a big clump of books all about reading American indigenous literature. Some of the books were ones I actually already own - I bought them rather than checking them out so I could scribble notes all over them and not have to worry about having to return them. There was one nearby that I grabbed as well: Gerald Vizenor's Fugitive Poses: Native American Scenes of Absence and Presence. Vizenor's kind of a big deal in the field, and while looking at the index didn't show much that was related to specific books I'm working on, I still think looking at it as sort of a general background thing will be useful. I checked them both out.

The actual original book I went to find was:

Pulitano, Elvira. Transatlantic Voices: Interpretations of Native North American Literatures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Its call number is: PS153 I52 T73 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Wednesday, we're going to talk a little bit about Fowles' article in the course reader: "Advertising's Fifteen Basic Appeals." This will give us a chance to talk about both mass media in a way we haven't done before, and visual rhetoric/aesthetics, if you're into that kind of thing. You'll have a blog assignment to help you sort of get your head wrapped around what Fowles is talking about. So, first, read the Fowles. Then, pick an advertisement. It can be in any format (print/radio/tv, etc.), from anywhere, any time, good, bad, indifferent - but it should probably be something you either have a very clear memory of, or access to. You can pick a few if you want to bring up in class, but you should only write about one. Your blog assignment should consist of:

a) A description of the advertisement - describe it to someone who's never seen/read/heard it. Explain where it appears/appeared, the context for it, anything else that's useful for understanding it.

b) A quick analysis of how it's supposed to function. What is the appeal of the piece supposed to be? How is it convincing you to buy (or "buy," if it's an advertisement for something that's not technically a product, like a charity?) what they're featuring? Can you categorize it under one of Fowles' appeals? How effective is it, actually? You can post it if it's available to you and you can figure out how, but it's not necessary. If you use an ad from any print source in your possession, I'd appreciate it if you could bring it in to class on Wednesday so we can look at it.

Example which I regret picking because it's actually sort of difficult to describe:

A few years ago, Brawny paper towels released a series of short advertisements that I believe were only available online. The Brawny paper towel man has been on their package for a long time, and this series of commercials were all conversations a version of him as a super-sensitive, rugged lumberjack in a cabin out in the woods. The one I'll describe was called "That Thing You're Going Through." Like all the other ads, this featured the Brawny man speaking to the camera directly as though it were a person - specifically, a woman, who never speaks herself. The POV (point-of-view) camera enters the rustic cabin, where the plaid-shirted Brawny man appears to be cleaning a Shetland pony with paper towels, in front of a crackling fireplace. As he spots us/the POV, he asks us to move to the couch, and sits down. He comforts the POV about "that thing you're going through" - he's very sympathetic about it, though it is never specified exactly what that "thing" is. He then informs the POV camera that sometimes when he feels bad, he saws wood, and invites us to saw wood with him. The commercial ends with the POV apparently comforted (it/she/we nods in response to his question about feeling better) by his compliments on how well we saw wood. There's a sort of romance-novel-cover feel to the visual aesthetics - the colors are warm and the man himself has the sort of light stubble and strong jaw that you'd see on one. Again, I believe this was only viewable online - certainly, when Brawny itself was still hosting the advertisements, there were some that were online-only, because they were interactive and could be assembled by the viewer, piece-by-piece.

There's so much that's interesting about this advertisement that I sort of want to write a whole paper on it, now. Like, he never actually says that the POV is a woman, and we don't have a voice, but we know we're supposed to be a woman by the way he's talking to us. But, relevant to the assignment, if I absolutely had to pick appeals from Fowles that it uses, I guess I'd have to say that it depends on the needs for sex and escape, neither of which seem to have very much to do with paper towels. I feel like it's a little problematic in fitting into those categories because the ad is so clearly over-the-top that what we're seeing are humorous parodies of what women are told their needs in those areas are supposed to be. Women are supposed to like men who look like romance novel covers, and they're supposed to like men who talk about their feelings, but this guy is so exaggerated in his intensity that he feels more like a serial killer. So it uses a fair dose of humor in getting its message across. The funny thing about it is that it worked for me. Seriously, whenever they're available, I still buy Brawny paper towels to this day - when my housemates and I first discovered them, we spent about a week laughing so hard we cried, and I still buy Brawny out of a sort of nostalgic gratitude for that.