Saturday, February 04, 2006

My Favorite Painting


The Gulf Stream (1889) by Winslow Homer Posted by Picasa

It's said that this painting--a lone man on a wrecked boat chained to the deck during a storm at sea, as a tornado nears him and sharks circle around him, while in the far, far background a ship passes by completely--was so upsetting to the people who saw it, Homer had to announce that the man aboard the ship was picked up and lived. It's my favorite painting; I've never seen fear and doubt portrayed more accurately or expressively in any other.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Spelling Matters

There is apparently quite the controversy going on right now in Naperville (very near to me) over something called creative spelling. Apparently, kindergarten kids in Naperville are now allowed to spell words in any manner they wish, so their creativity won't be stifled until they get to the now ironically-named grammar school. This morning in my linguistics class we spent 30 minutes debating the issue.

The class seemed evenly divided--some thought it was good, some didn't. I spoke up in the debate defending creative spelling, but I'm not sure 100 percent how I feel about this yet. In class, I argued that it is good for a six-year-old to learn how to express him/herself before being pigeonholed into form. I think a lot of children get frustrated when learning to write and spell because they're constantly being told what they are doing is wrong. It creates a sort of distrust of the educational system and ruins self-esteem. I think the major problem in American education right now is the emphasis on self-esteem and tolerance at the expense of facts, forms, and learning to question. Maybe, I argued, if a child felt comfortable before he/she learned that what he/she was doing was incorrect, it might make it easier to learn correct formal spelling. Then we wouldn't have to keep coddling kids in primary school.

One must also take into account that English is one of the hardest (if not the hardest) languages to learn to read. Even harder than French, according to a recent study! Too many letters make to many different sounds. Too many homonyms. English has evolved so that head and bead are now pronounced differently (where once they weren't) and says and days are pronounced differently (where once they weren't). English has 26 letters, but 40 sounds. Or, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, through is pronounced thru, but it looks like thruff.

I didn't really agree with any of the arguments to the contrary.

"The standards are falling! The standards are falling!"

Can they actually fall any lower? Take a look at the literacy scores in America, will you? Something like 1 in 4 kids can read at the level they're supposed to be at. Many Americans look at reading as a chore. Jesus, read an e-mail or (forgive me, mea culpa) a blog. Does this country really care about education standards, or know what they are?

"Spelling errors make children look stupid."

Yeah, that's what does it.

"Spelling is standardized and should remain so in America. It's traditional."

Without even bringing up Old English and Old Norse spelling variations, or the fact that English grammar is a Germanic derivation that stupidly adheres to rules of Latin organization, I should point out that this argument was brought up by a woman who named her daughter Mackensy. Not McKenzie or MacKenzie, but Mackensy. As if giving your kid a surname for a given name wasn't bad enough...

"You can't let children grow up in an alternative world where spelling mistakes don't matter. They do matter."

Well, most parents let their children grow up in an alternative world where Santa Claus exists, sex and violence don't, honesty counts for something, most people are moral and good, and cheaters never win (and winners never cheat). Once they finally get over that reality check, I think the proper spelling of relief is the least of their problems.

I think the real problem here is America's traditionalism and distrust of new ideas. Some people do really seem to believe that once they get out of high school or college, the learning process has ended. But it never really does. Spelling is something that needs to be reinforced, perhaps even something that needs to be eased into. A child should learn to trust his/her own mind and voice before being told their thought processes are wrong. At least, that's how I look at it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How Boring Are the Oscar Nominees This Year?

The complete list of nominees is available elsewhere, so I'm just going to bitch about them selectively.

BEST PICTURE
Okay, I haven't seen a single one of these movies this year so far, so I can't really judge them, but doesn't it seem like they picked the five most obvious movies this year? They all have some kind of message to them that makes all five choices seem pretentious. Brokeback Mountain: being gay is noble and heroic. Capote: being gay and creative is noble and artistic. Crash: racism is bad, mmkay? Good Night, and Good Luck: fascism is here and it's pervasive. Munich: violence is wrong. Again, I haven't seen any of these films (Crash and Capote I have no interest in, the other three I haven't been able to get to yet), but these are the senses I get from the media. Are they the best films of the year? I don't know; the best movies I saw this year were North Country and King Kong, so what do I know? Either way, last year's candidates (Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, and the overrated Sideways) seemed more loose and less pretentious.

BEST ACTOR
No surprises there, either. Entertainment Weekly, which has been pushing Hustle & Flow so hard all year that you'd think they invested in the damn thing, likes to pretend that Terrence Howard's nomination is a wonderful surprise. I don't know, it didn't shock me; it's very trendy to like him in that movie, and to like rap movies. The media right now is as precious about rap as they used to be about folk music. It's the real voice of the common people, apparently. I'd be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix didn't win. I still say Andy Serkis deserves a nomination; he gave a real performance that could not have been fully the work of special effects artists.

BEST ACTRESS
Keira Knightley needs an Oscar like I need a vagina, alright? It's probably going to be that horrible little goblin Reese Witherspoon, although Felicity Huffman is nude enough to win (think about the nudity content of the last several winners of this award: Gwyneth Paltrow showed her tits, Hilary Swank showed her tits and lezzed it up with a woman, Julia Roberts pushed up her tits, Halle Berry submissively let herself get ass-fucked by a white man and showed her tits, Nicole Kidman at least played a dyke, Charlize Theron showed her tits and lezzed out; how did Hilary Swank win again last year? Did no one show their tits?).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR and ACTRESS
Again, not a single surprise here. Supporting Actor will go to the most actor-y role, and Supporting Actress will go to whichever one had the best lines. Quick side note: it's nice that Michelle Williams got nominated (I do like her), but it bugs me how she and the two men have been getting all of the press for this one. What about Anne Hathaway? And why don't they ever go for genre? I mean, Deep Roy had to create a lot of different characters for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You think that wasn't hard work? Sean Penn couldn't do that.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Corpse Bride? Lame. Robots was much better; at least it actually had a story.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY and BEST DIRECTOR
It seems like most voters think that a director does the job of a cinematographer (setting up shots), when a director is more of an overseer. Therefore, Best Director usually goes to the wrong person (you want to talk about managing an enormous production, and Peter Jackson will win every time). Best Cinematographer is a category that somehow translates to "Prettiest Vistas," so The New World or Brokeback Mountain will win, while something like King Kong, which has the added difficulty of assimilating a lot of special effects into a real setting (and is therefore more artistic) goes unnominated.

OTHER LAMENESS
Best Costume Design: Again, where are the genre movies? How hard was it to follow 200 year-old templates for Pride & Prejudice or Memoirs of a Geisha?
Best Documentary Feature: I kind of reject March of the Penguins. I still haven't seen it, but most critics seem to agree that it constructed an anthropomorphizing narrative and wasn't really a documentary. Was The Incredible Journey a documentary?
Best Original Score: We don't have to nominate John Williams every single year, do we? I haven't seen Memoirs of a Geisha, but I do have a promo of the soundtrack, and right up there with the Star Wars prequels and the first two Harry Potter movies, it's some of Williams's laziest work. More of his Debussy pastiching doesn't really deserve a nomination.
Best Original Song: Down to three nominations this year; shouldn't we just dump this one?
Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing: How many average people understand the distinction? I say we just retire these to the technical achievement ceremony. Shorten the show down a bit.

And a quick plea: why can't the Academy put out all the films eligible for Best Animated Short out on a DVD every year? We never get to see these movies, and it would be nice if there was an outlet so that, you know, we could see them and care about who wins.

Honestly, at this point, if Jon Stewart weren't hosting I don't know if I could be bothered to watch them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Co-Workers

Thinking about working at Barnes & Noble, there's some people who've just jumped into my head. Since I'm in that kind of mood, I just thought I'd reminisce a little bit.

SAM was one of those goombah types that thought he was a lot better and more popular than he was. I don't know, I just thought the idea of one of those greasy-haired Bensonhurst types with the gold chain saying things like "salud" all the time was kind of funny, especially since Sam was born and raised in the Oakbrook, Illinois, area. He pissed me off once because he made fun of my mix tapes. At the time, I was listening a lot more to my large film score collection instead of rock music, and it used to drive him crazy; still, I claimed the stereo as my own when we were working alone (he had worked there longer, but I was older and worked full-time as opposed to part-time during the summer). Sam's chief interests were trying to get laid by one of the supervisors and trying to start "interesting conversations" about books.

JOHN was a big black dude who looked like Mike Singletary and Mike Tyson had their DNA combined into one person. And then got a job at a bookstore. He was a pretty traditional guy, and he talked a lot more about all the work he did than he actually spent time doing it, but I liked him. He was one of the many supervisors at B&N who wanted to supervise a different section than he had, so he didn't enjoy his work and didn't do it very much. But he had a real positive energy about him. I used to order Milo Manara graphic novels, which are erotic art and such, and I remember someone checking me out at the register one day. John came over and asked: "What's this?" Then he picked up one of the books (wrapped in plastic) and looked at the back. "What the heck?" I just smiled and said, as pleasant as can be, "It's European porn, John." He dropped it back on the counter and walked off. With an embarrassed smile, he uttered his catchphrase: "You're trippin'. You're just trippin'." The higher-ups were looking for a reason to fire him--he wanted to be a manager, and it was just never going to happen--so they kind of railroaded him. Poor guy; he was a shitty worker, but a good fella.

CHERI was the kind of young girl you expect to meet in Oakbrook Terrace: pretentious and stupid. She yelled at me on my first day of work because I tried to order something and didn't put my last name on it. I asked someone else who worked there about her, and she told me: "Don't worry about Cheri, she has no power." Cheri was the kind of girl that the managers kept finding fake jobs for to keep her busy and quiet. What she really wanted was to be a supervisor and then a manager, but they didn't trust her to do a good job (and rightfully so; she was already quite self-important). One time, after being passed over yet again, she went into the manager's office and cried on her lap over the rejection. So they would put her in charge of something that didn't really exist to shut her up--kind of like Gareth on the UK version of The Office. She really thought she was incredibly nice, too, but she was one of those yuppie bitches who needed power over everyone. She was engaged to a med student, and she used all the resources she could find to get his textbooks for a much cheaper price (including her 30% employee discount). Everyone in the store just knew he was going to dump her after he graduated, and he did just that.

HEATHER and TOM were engaged, and ended up getting married (and I don't think they really invited many people from the store, even though she kept throwing the goddamn thing in everyone's face). Heather was icky thin, but kept bragging about how she was voted the Best Legs in Valparaiso or something. She was timid but opinionated, had a teaching degree but couldn't get a job without teaching in Chicago, and very full of how beautiful and smart she was. And Irish! She definitely had America's condescentive love of all things Irish and twee and blarney and all that bullshit (even though her last name, as I loved to point out, was Scottish). Tom worked in the cafe (eventually becoming cafe manager), and smoked a pipe. He was a cool guy. Too cool to marry a shrew like Heather, at any rate.

JOAN was an interesting enigma; I always thought she was a lesbian, but it was never confirmed. She was in her forties or fifties, lived with her mother, and had a "friend" she used to hang around with all the time. She became an assistant manager and went on to manage her own store; she deserved it, too, she really knew what she was doing. I was hot for her and used to flirt with her something awful, which she always found hilarious; she used to talk to Carl and I about things like why men should have chest hair. A real lady, though.

PAT was the kind of woman who always annoys the shit out of me; an older woman with too much time on her hands. She didn't need a job, she just wanted something to do during the day. I know everyone liked Pat, and it's not that there was really anything wrong with her... she just rubbed me totally the wrong way. She was imperious to some degree, and I didn't respond well. We always got along, sure, but I got really fucking tired of hearing about Makinac Island and bird feeders and the kind of lame hobbies older Midwestern women pick up because they're not interesting.

MARIA I don't remember very well. She was fiction supervisor when I started, but she didn't work there too much longer. All the guys thought she was the hottest chick in the store, but I didn't see it. I also thought she was kind of a bitch. My only real memory of her was when Sam asked her what her favorite book was, and she told him that was a stupid question. "There are too many different kinds of books in the world." Precious, yes, but I thought it was funny, if only because Sam felt like an idiot for a rare moment.

DICK was the best manager we had at that store; I would've done anything for him. He tried for a long time to get the Joliet store, but they moved him to Kankakee instead. He told me later that if he had gotten Joliet, he was going to take me with him as receiving manager, which meant a lot to me. He hated the management system of B&N, especially the weekly meetings. "In an office with real communication," he would always say, "all you need is an occasional memo. Weekly meetings are just for second-guessing and not getting any real work done." He was one of those great older guys who still believed in wearing a grey suit to work. Dick hated business-casual and would never be seen in Dockers. He had a real work ethic, and I respected the hell out of him for it; I never worked as hard there as I did when Dick worked there, because he inspired my loyalty and I felt I owed it to him to make him look good.

JULI was a sexy, sexy, sexy girl, but she was also one of the guys and incredibly hilarious. She and I had a real similar sense of humor, and I had a crush on her for a while (awkward, considering Becca worked there--she actually got me the interview with Dick, who hired me on the spot). She wore glasses with these thick, black frames and had gorgeous red hair. Becca described her once as looking like a sexy version of Marcy from Peanuts. Some of the best times there were when she was in charge of magazines and spent most of the day in the receiving room with me and Carl. She went of to college at some point, but then she got married and stopped having any contact with her friends. It was depressing to see such an independent girl tamed by her traditional leanings; her parents were very, very traditional.

More to come later.