Friday, February 29, 2008

Listening to the comforting tones of someone who devoted his life to literature and did not regret it.

I just finished one of the most exhilarating, life-affirming books I have ever read:

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster (Incidentally, if you Google image search "E.M. Forster," I show up on the third page). Tentatively but authoritatively, Forster discusses fiction and life and the function of each in relation to the other. He insists on the universality of the novelist, exhorting his lecture audience to imagine all the prominent writers of the past few centuries seated in one room together, scribbling away in tandem, in his meditation on the constancy of human nature.

I found the quotation that I have under my profile (the reason for my being a search result of his) in a section here involving an old lady and her response to logic. I think, but I'm not entirely certain, that Forster is sympathetic to her, so it will remain where I have it, though my disclaimer will, too.

The consummate novelist-reader, Forster mocks literary criticism and then proceeds to do his own version of it. Able to speak in a tone at once commiserating and instructing, he makes a solid defense for the writer's craft. My favorite passage of the book: "That is what is so tiresome about new books; they never give us that restful feeling which we have when perusing the classics."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"I went to the opera last Friday night"... fulfill a requirement for my Intro to Music class, and I got an article out of it, too. Click on the picture to read it, and view my original version below, the one I had to cut for space and, in the words of my editor, "dumb down."

I went to the opera Friday night. I’ve always wanted to say that. Well, maybe not always, but certainly since watching the theatre intrigues in books and movies like Persuasion, Vanity Fair and Madame Bovary. What was so captivating about the opera for 19th-century audiences?

I got my chance to find out when donors to the San Diego Opera offered subsidized student tickets this month for Mary, Queen of Scots, or Maria Stuarda, bel canto opera written by Gaetano Donizetti in 1834. As we took our seats I could hear the orchestra tuning up, building the excitement. “It’s a perfect marriage of music and drama—Italian style,” Nick Reveles, director of education and outreach, said of the opera in an introductory podcast offered on the San Diego Opera’s Web site.

The orchestra’s introductory passage set the stage for the drama as the curtain rose, and then receded to complement the opening aria sung by Elizabeth, played by mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich. Elizabeth determines that as her half-sister Mary, sung by soprano Angela Gilbert, poses a threat to the throne of England, she must sentence her to death. Opera is not about a captivating plot, or even accurate history (Elizabeth and Mary never actually met), but rather broad strokes of emotion. At center here is the vicious power struggle between two would-be queens.

“You love opera, and you don’t even know it,” Reveles said. “Your entire life has been surrounded and scored, if you will, by opera.” Indeed, attending the opera was like watching a flawlessly scored movie. The orchestra swelled and ebbed around the voices in exquisite nuances of emotion. Elizabeth, proud and fierce, declares her hatred for the enemy of her state, which is sharpened by their rival affections for the Earl of Leicester. Mary, the soon-to-be martyred heroine, defends herself in their venomous confrontation scene, but ultimately submits to her fate with magnanimous grace.

The elaborate costumes recalled the lush fashion of the era. The sets, minimal but stylistically evocative, including a notable park of Fotheringay Castle surrounded by a ceiling-high wrought-iron fence, effectively set off the action of each scene. Through a pair of rented binoculars, I spotted Dr. J. Craig Johnson, associate professor of music at PLNU, as a bemused English spectator among the choral crowd watching the sister-queens meet for the first time. Thanks to Reveles, I listened with relish as Mary spit out her infamous “vil bastarde,” or “vile bastard!”

Though the entire opera was sung in its original Italian, I understood every line, for an English translation was projected above the stage. As two candelabras glowed orange high above the stage, a harp intertwined itself with Mary’s final aria, illuminating her victimized cry of forgiveness towards Elizabeth. As the executioner raised his axe above her outstretched neck, the stage went black.

It’s not just about the opera, I discovered, but about the entire experience. To hear singers who can fill an opera house with pure, resonating sound, to listen to a subtly penetrating orchestra embrace and elevate, to experience the acute visceral culmination of the sets and costumes, and to sit side by side with people who can afford the ticket I only got through the generous donors’ offer—that is what captivated me.

The pictures are black and white because I couldn't get the red eye out. Angelica blinked in the last one, but it was the best one of us all together, so . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

While we're on the subject of songwriters...

I was listening to a podcast from last week, and I really liked a lot of what folk singer David Wilcox had to say.

"I love how when a song is kind of wrapped up, you know like we wrap a present, so that the person receiving it can be involved in discovering it. When the language of a song is gift-wrapped like that there is something magical that happens, and this idea pops in your head like it’s your idea."

I've noticed that catalyst effect before, but I've never considered that it could be an intentional act on the artist's part. I have often wondered if a thought that occurs while reading or listening to someone ekse's work rightfully belongs to me or them. I guess it could depend on whether they were doing it on purpose, like Wilcox apparently does.

"I love getting to know people through their songs, starting friendships in the middle rather than at the beginning, because music has done all the hard work for us about finding out where does this person find joy, and what makes them angry and what makes them happy and what gives them hope. When you know that about somebody, then you don’t have to spend the first whatever talking about the weather."

I like to think that writing in general is much the same way as this.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

One more Writer's Symposium post.

Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot, spoke as a songwriter during the Symposium a couple of weeks ago. I have to admit I almost didn't go; I guess because I associate Switchfoot's music with my middle school years (Learning to Breathe was the first CD I ever bought), I didn't expect him to be any more insightful than I was back then. I guess being so quick to judge just goes to show how much more insightful I've become since then.

"Timeless, transcendent truth is not something I'm going to come up with," he admitted. But he added, he feels his job is to "put transcendent truth in a frame."

He described the process of writing many of his songs as "like an oyster with a grain of sand in it—you wrestle with it, and sometimes you come out with a pearl."

His advice to aspiring songwriters ran along the lines of, "There's this perception that because you're in front of more people, you're more significant. I feel like sometimes the most significant parts of your life happen when no one's looking." He encouraged them to play alone, for no other reason than for themselves, or whomever they are singing about.

He later asked, "What if all music is worship?" Deciding that something is worth singing about is lifting it up to a place of contemplation and admiration. "In that sense, you have to be careful about what you're writing."

He defended the sometimes obscure spirituality that Switchfoot has been accused of. Declaring his dislike for blatant, didactic lyrics that tell one what to believe, he commented, "If it's something that I have to dive into, then suddenly I'm excited about it."

He said further, "You go to church, you go to the bar on the corner—you find hurting people. I think sometimes there's this misperception that the Christian and the one at the bar are looking for different things."

He also commented on the state of his business. "The industry is dying, but music is thriving. There's always been good music, but now people have access to it more than ever."

He played a few songs from a solo EP he's just released, including one about riding the train from Santa Barbara to Oceanside after visiting the mission there, for which he donned a hands-free harmonica to accompany his acoustic guitar. Into his lyrics he wove incidental observations between lines of thoughtful musing, lending the song a genuine sincerity.

I waited so long to post this because I wanted to get this picture from my friend of the speaker himself and me.

He also signed my ticket stub. I don't know if it's good for anything, except maybe as a reminder of all that he had to say that night.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"At a time and place where people should be getting smarter about everything, they are getting a lot less smart about themselves."

While I was flipping through this month's issue of Psychology Today, I caught an article that described my world in surprising detail. Building on the increasing prevalence of eating disorders among my demographic, the story identified and examined that odd cultural shifts that have been developing within it. I'd post the entire thing, but it's really long. The link is here.

The university may block MTV and VH1, and the students might complain about the Point Loma bubble, but they're still very much products of our society. That my school is Christian mitigates some of the social pressures that are undoubtedly found in its secular counterparts, but of course my classmates are not not wholly immune to the culture at large. According to the article, "Richard Hersh calls it the culture of neglect: kids grow up overly dependent on their peers—'in essence, kids raising kids'—without developing a strong sense of self."

Disregarding the psycho-speak, I can't tell you how painfully apparent I've found this to be. Girls skillfully mask so much and carefully cultivate the personas that they want to project, but, as the article continues, "Fear is the dark heart of contemporary girl culture." I for one often feel like I have no idea of what's going on between my classmates, though it's usually summed up by, "drama."

The article empathized with the fact that I can't always get a straight answer. "[T]he damage goes especially deep because contemporary adolescents 'have no language for reflection,' [Steven Levenkron] says. 'They don't know how to think about hurts. That makes them feel alone in the world.' Anorexics, he contends, have only a very primitive language. 'They can talk your head off about body measurements and fats. It's all transacted with about 12 words.'"

Body image is the main topic of discourse. An assumed norm of perfection compounds the increasing internal competition among girls for academic and social distinction. After all, most liberal arts campuses are split 60-40 along gender lines, making the dating scene that much harder to navigate and ratcheting up the pursuit of thinness. That we all live and eat together constantly creates an astounding self-consciousness, prompting dinner-table questions such as, "Which is healthier for me, cinnamon sugar toast or ice cream?" Girls fast and diet all the time, and even do it together, as the article attests. I passed a girl on the stairs this morning lugging a case of weight-loss shakes back to her dorm.

"The extension of schooling for more young people, especially girls—now the majority of college attendees—requires them to be warehoused together for years with those deliberately selected to share many of the same attributes, constraining exposure to the broader range of humanity." Altogether, the highly unnatural social construct that a dorm is may be ultimately detrimental.

"Missing in action is a rich internal life independent of peers. Hersh sees residential college life perpetuating and intensifying an adolescent pattern of overreliance on peer approval. It also, he says, elevates the body over the mind. And that combination subverts the developmental challenge of finding something far more durable: a stable identity."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidents' Day.

Today was cloudy and beachy and wonderful and so I did cloudy, beachy, wonderful things.

I made oatmeal and organized my closet. I vacuumed and dusted. I wrote some cards. The air was perfect for jogging and I had just figured out why my mp3 player hadn't been letting me upload new podcasts (hidden files filled with deleted tracks—I had no idea such things existed), so I took a run. When I got back, I was still feeling particularly domestic, so I decided to tackle the jobs that had been lined up in my sewing queue all semester.

First I patched a pair of five-year-old jeans. They're still wearable, I swear.

Then I used the same fabric to make a pillow. I got it from a remnant bin for like 75 cents, and I still have a decent swath left. That's a deal, I'd say.

I also rode my bike to OB and sat on the sand to finish part I of Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky. And now I'm at work. The end.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

And the party just keeps going.

I don't know if any day I've ever spent in Balboa Park has been anything less than stunning.

My whole immediate family came down Saturday, and since the afternoon's activities were my choice, I decided we should explore there first.

My sisters and me.

We took in the paintings at the Timken Museum of Art, the amazingly admissionless gallery featuring a Rembrandt, a Rubens, a collection of Russian ikons, and this composition depicting Christ healing the blind, among so much more.

A lot of our pictures are staged, but we get so few opportunities to stand stiffly in line together anymore, that we had to take advantage of this.

Where else in the world is February so gorgeous? I remember many snowy birthdays back in Cleveland spent fantasizing about West Coast celebrations. In fourth grade I bought a copy of Fodor's San Diego for a report and pored over it constantly, practically memorizing the passages on Balboa and the beaches. I played the Beach Boys at a sleepover one year, but somehow it wasn't quite the same.

And would you know it, I can unequivocally say that it is as good or better than I expected it to be.

For dinner, we headed downtown to Filippi's for unparalleled pizza, antipasto salad, and ravioli. The place is infamous for its neverending line out the door, but it moves fairly quickly, and while you wait you can look at all the imported Italian specialties for sale in front: salames, cheeses, pizzelles and tiramisu, plum-flavored sesame seeds . . .

I haven't celebrated with both my grandmas for years, and never in California. Such a special treat!

My sisters baked me a lovely cake.

My parents found me the perfect present: a bike with gears! It is precisely what I envisioned, and worlds apart from the beach cruiser I've been pumping up and down Loma's hills.

Afterwards we got tea and coffee at a cafe near Shelter Island and spent some time in caffeinated conversation. I truly enjoyed myself, and I think everyone else did, too. And I really enjoyed riding my new bike to church this morning.

Friday, February 15, 2008

14 February 2008.

So my dad came down yesterday and we hit the town. First, we found a cafe in OB that I'd heard good things about, and rightly so. They have an entire wall of glass jars filled with loose teas, and after you select one, they prepare the individual bag for your drink. I had lavender and he had oolong, and we sipped our teas, split a blueberry scone, and watched the sheets of rain blowing in over the water.

Next, we found a table at Anthony's downtown before the Valentine's rush arrived. The rain cleared just in time for the sunset.

We got ice cream in PB and drove out to La Jolla. It was so, so nice.

In the morning I woke up to a ceiling of valentines. My roommate hung cards from all the girls on our hall for me.

My roommate and the roses my dad had brought me.

So sweet!

Monday, February 11, 2008

What's worth reading in The Point Weekly this week.

So it took me three weeks of phone tag and my own brand of, albeit tentative, investigative journalism, but I finally got enough material on this kid to write the story. That's what I get for volunteering for an assignment. When the news editor handed me the lead, it seemed simple enough—a profile on a precocious PLNU student who somehow got a gig with PBS to be the next Mister Rogers wouldn't be that hard.

But when I started asking questions, not everything seemed to be adding up (note the discrepancy in the penultimate paragraph), and so I had to tiptoe around and make sure that everything that ended up in the article was verifiably true. But I also had to be as sensitive to the subject as possible. I got a frantic phone call from this guy's faculty adviser after I had interviewed her and then emailed her a follow-up question, during which she expressed concern about the article. "I just got some weird vibes when you were in my office the other day." (How's that for investigative journalism?)

Gay Talese said last week that, of all the human interest stories he's done over the past fifty years, he's always been able to talk to his sources again after the stories were published. I didn't want to screw up my very first. And, let's face it, this story could have gone in some very unfortunate directions.

I also composed the captions for the "You're in good company..." section of our Valentine's Day "Salute to Singles" center spread. I've never harbored any ill will toward the holiday because it's always been like a giant birthday party for me, but I can see where some bitterness might arise, especially around here, where we're going to have the annual wedding center spread in a few weeks.

If they're not clear, they read as follows. I thought they were pretty funny:

Concert pianist, competitive ice skater and secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice speaks English and Russian fluently. She has only basic knowledge of French and Spanish, which are Romance languages.

Pope Benedict XVI has sported red Italian shoes made of kangaroo hide.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that while all of the protagonists in Jane Austen’s six completed novels ended up married by the last page, Austen remained blissfully unattached.

Although Stacy London graduated with a double degree in 20th-century philosophy and German literature, she currently co-hosts What Not to Wear on TLC. She lives in Brooklyn with her two cats, Moo and Al.

Hryhoriy Nestor was thought to be the oldest man in the world when he died at age 116 in December 2007. He never married.

In 2003, Rebecca St. James released the abstinence anthem “Wait for Me.” While she’s waiting, she’s devoted 2008 to raising awareness of malaria.

Henry David Thoreau spent two years alone on the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”

The Apostle Paul championed the single life in the first century AD, telling the Corinthians, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” in February.

My 11 am class was cancelled, so I just sat outside and read the newspaper.

Later on, as I was walking back to my dorm, I glanced out at the water and saw a sea of clouds instead.

I don't know what caused it, but it was beautiful.

Of all the Loma sunsets I've seen this year, none have been quite like this.

Guess who's an officially published copyeditor?

My professor's book has been published and is available through Wipf and Stock Publishers, and will soon be on

Friday, February 8, 2008

More gems from the Writer's Symposium.

Gay Talese is probably best known for what Esquire magazine called the greatest story ever published in their pages: "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." He also wrote for the New York Times and the New Yorker, and has published many books of what is often called creative non-fiction. I read his memoir, pictured above, over Christmas break in anticipation of his visit to my school.

Interview-style, as Anchee Min did a few nights ago, he spoke of the path he's taken as a writer. For a story that later would frame the memoir, "I spent five months in China . . . Much of my reporting is just hanging out with people. I don't interview them at first; I just hang out."

He explained that most, perhaps 80%, of his research never ends up published. "You ask, who cares? Well, you can't ask who cares, because so often the answer is nobody."

He also derided the stringent pragmatism of modern life, emphasizing the importance of slow, involved investigation. "Any intelligent person could Google [a fact] in five minutes. When I'm looking through an encyclopedia, I might find something else that I wasn't looking for. . . . I think the problem with journalism today—it might be a problem with life today—is that people are too goal-oriented."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I voted for the first time ever yesterday!

Okay, so I registered as a non-partisan and only voted on ballot measures, but still, it was exciting. I would have voted for Mike Huckabee, but only the Democrat and Independent parties were allowing non-partisan votes. I briefly considered voting for Hillary Clinton, because she's much more likely than Obama to lose, regardless of which Republican she'd be running against, but I couldn't have that on my conscience.

Last night I went to my first Writer's Symposium event, with author Anchee Min. She was breathtaking, so much better than I'd expected. She sat poised in her chair, feet and knees spread apart, heels together in the epitome of Chinese femininity. After reading her book, I didn't expect her accent to be so pronounced. She said she learned English by writing. She wanted to be a secretary, so she took writing classes. She'd ride elevators in Chicago asking unsuspecting people to correct her grammar. "I'd ask, 'Is it, I was going tomorrow?' They say, 'No, no, I am going tomorrow."

And she was funny. At one point, she leaped up to demonstrate the military routine they'd have drilled into them in the labor camps she lived in. "You have bayonet like this, hshaw! Hshaw! Twist it so entrail and intestine come out."

Later she sang a piece of Chinese opera, her foot turned outward and arms spreading. "Madame Mao said woman looks best at 45-degree angle."

She described the awfulness of living during the Cultural Revolution, tapeworms and pits for toilets and the constant fear that someone would catch you for committing an anti-Mao incident, but said that they didn't know how bad they had it. The Communist Party showed them footage of starving children, and told them that they were Americans. The Chinese kids thought they were doing without so that the American kids could have food. It wasn't until a neighbor got a tv and they saw real Americans demonstrating outside a city hall, that Min began to doubt what she'd always believed to be true.

She said that she came to the US because she was going to die in China. After her writing teacher gave her his book to read, she resolved to write of her experiences. "If he had given me Virginia Woolf, or, or Hemingway, I wouldn't have the guts. But because he gave me his book, I thought, I can do that."

She talked about how her life is now, how she married a Marine who had fought in Vietnam, even though if they had met a few decades ago they would have killed each other without a second thought ("He said on our wedding night, 'I hope I don't have flashbacks.' I said, 'I hope I don't have flashbacks!'") She talked about walking her daughter to school in the rain with garbage-bag ponchos. "The neighbor drive by and she says, 'Hey, would you like a ride?' I say, 'No.' I in labor camp!"

She described how writing is taught in China. "They say, 'Wind is revealed by trembling leaf.' That's old Chinese proverb. In America, it's 'Show, don't tell.'"

Casting my vote in the afternoon made Min's account of despotic government control that night that much more powerful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Em-dash, E.M. Forster, email—I sense a theme here.

While conducting some typographical clarification last week, I discovered what is quite possibly the funniest blog post title I've ever seen. Ready for it? "I want my, I want my, em-dash key"

Last week I also discovered a magical, revolutionary thing called the RSS feed. With this "really simple syndication," I found I could have updates of any compatible website sent to my Yahoo homepage. No more trolling NPR for new podcasts—links to new episodes in the ones I subscribe to will show up as soon as they're posted.

In Honors Comp, my prof quoted that E.M. Forster line under my profile picture word for word. I had to smile.

Yesterday I got an email informing me I had sold my Communication textbook, and today I shipped it out. I don't remember what I bought it for, somewhere around $80-100, but I sold it for $50, which I'm only too happy to take. I spent almost $500 on books altogether last semester, but contrived this semester not to spend a thing.

Monday, February 4, 2008

What's grey and white and read all over?

It rained a lot on Sunday, but it looked really beautiful while it was doing it.

Friday night I went out with the newspaper editors for pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup with mung beans and mint) and frozen yogurt. Saturday I did productive things like laundry and homework. Sunday the rain prevented my hallmate and me from biking to church for the second week in a row. We got a ride from the couple who heads the college ministry. At the end of the service, though, the pastor announced that he's leaving in June to move to New Zealand and go into full-time missions. So sad! I was hoping he'd be here at least as long as I am. His second job as RD here on campus made me feel like his messages had special relevancy for me.

Sunday night I went in to help with the paper's final edits like usual and got to assist in compiling this week's center spread, with pieces like coherent definitions of a caucus and a delegate. Surprisingly, no one had heard of before.

Storms are funny here on the coast. Instead of the curtains of showers that drenched my childhood in Cleveland, rain here most often comes in spurts, like someone is perched in the tree or on the building you're walking under with a hose and a thumb. Between the wind and the random splashes against my window, I didn't get much sleep last night. Four hours, tops. But when I woke up (strangely wired at 7 am, even though I didn't have to be anywhere until 9:45) the sky was clear, and so was my mind. I actually had a really good day, full of affirmation and spirited words. And I'm still conscious and coherent at 10:45 pm, as this post will attest.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself."

An article in Harper's this month clarified and strengthened my dedication to the written word. Author Ursula K. Le Guin delineates the "alleged decline of reading," positing that literacy has historically been limited to the privileged and that only recently, during what she terms "the century of the book," or 1850 to 1950, did it become common currency in all strata of society. She likens the corporatization of the book industry to the homogenization of food (as all our packaged goods become corn-based, so many plots are recycled and made of essentially the same stuff) and rails against the executives who don't realize that in the long run, "a few steady earners" like J.R.R. Tolkien, amass considerably more than "a hot author who's supposed to provide this week's bestseller" like J.K. Rowling.

She distingushes the art of reading from other, less demanding forms of entertainment, readily admitting that few outside of school have the time to sit down and read. "A book won't move your eyes for you the images on a screen do. . . . No wonder not everybody is up to it. . . . It doesn't have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it you again when you're fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you're reading a whole new book."

My favorite line in this essay: "You can look at pictures . . . or read a book on your computer, but these artifacts are made accessible by the Web, not created by it. . . . Perhaps blogging is an effort to bring creativity to networking, and perhaps blogs will develop aesthetic form, but they certainly haven't done it yet."

Oh, but we're so close.