Sunday, August 31, 2008

Know what they're looking for in Reykjvak?

An ovarian palace.

Could this rival Russian tweens?

One of my friends works at Google, where he eats a lot of catered food and plays a lot of Guitar Hero. Apparently, they have a giant screen which constantly scrolls all the search terms that people are typing into Google all over the world. I like to think about my friend, on the opposite side of the country, seeing the words "ovarian palace" scroll across the screen, and laughing at those words, not having any idea that they were at that very moment leading someone in Iceland to this very blog.

I was born into a world without the internet. We used to think robots were scary. I fully expect to be part robot before I die.


That's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tropic Thunder saved my thesis

No, not really, but sort of. After reading my last blog post, a friend expressed concern that I had sunk DEEP into the world of thesis, and could probably use a break. Tuesday night, we went to see a late-night show of Tropic Thunder, which I had heard from different sources was, "Amazing!" and, "Awful! Awful Awful! I hate it so much!"

If you choose to see it, I recommend finding someone to tell you they hate it first. That worked for me. I neither loved nor hated it, but I'm glad I saw it, and I can say without equivocation that the end credits are rockstar.

I'm not sure it speaks well or ill of the movie that I couldn't stop thinking in thesis-speak while watching it. Lots of "isms" -- post-modernism, post-post-modernism, hyper-realism, performatism. On the one hand, it suggests that, good or bad, the movie's keyed into a cultural moment. On the other hand, some of that time I spent thinking in isms was probably time I was meant to spend, you know, laughing.

Not that comedy can't make you think -- but I'm not convinced all the thoughts it sent bouncing around my thesis-addled brain were intended.

So here are some of those thoughts (and, yes, they do contain mild SPOILERS):

Hyper-realism -- that's the fake Christmas tree that looks more authentic and iconic than a real one, the housing development so polished and filtered that it represents "home" more convincingly than it behaves as one, the map so detailed that it ceases to become a map and becomes the landscape itself. Push post-modernism over a cliff and you get a reality so mediated, with so many layers, that there's no source. You can never know what's real. Maybe the real has ceased to exist and been replaced by signs. This movie plays on that -- a fictional movie that contains a true movie about the making of a movie based on a true story that turned out to be fake.

There are thoughts that a new sincerity's going to replace post-modernism, is replacing it already, something that allows for an awareness of representation while putting aside the irony that goes with it. This movie makes you long for that, but it doesn't offer it at all -- although maybe a little in that the audience is very much in on the joke (I'm thinking of Tom Cruise dancing). In that moment what's funny is the reality of this ridiculous, iconic actor being in this movie doing this dance. The representation's still there, but that's not what we're responding to.

I also appreciate the consistency in the movie of choosing the most offensive things for these fake actors to perform, although I agree with those who say it doesn't always work. But think about the Vietnam movie -- I love Vietnam movies. I love the music. I love the nostalgia they invoke for a time I didn't even live. And in the opening sequence of Tropic Thunder when they're shooting a gory, ridiculous, obligatory battle sequence for the fake Vietnam movie, those same iconic songs are playing, and I couldn't help but feel foolish for being manipulated by them -- not only by having been manipulated by them in other Vietnam movies, but in the moment of watching this fake one.

At some point I was thinking Nick Nolte's character represented the Real -- here's this embattled, wrecked veteran to reveal the jerk nature, not only of these actors, but of me, the girl in the audience who enjoys watching movies about terrible, terrible things she will never really comprehend. And I'm kind of on his side. I'm looking forward to seeing him get the better of the jerks -- it's going to be cathartic. But Nick Nolte's not Real. He's a jerk, just like the rest of us.

And when we seen the scene reenacted, in what's supposedly the characters' reality, it's not at all sincere -- just another ridiculous layer. It can't be sincere. We've been jerked around too much -- we're in on the joke to the point where it's not even a joke but a sad bit of irony. I don't find this enjoyable, but I don't think it's without interest.

This movie succeeds and fails in a single place -- this absurd layering that is at first ridiculous and eventually tiresome and a little sad.

And no, my thesis isn't about Tropic Thunder, although I think I could write one. Watching it and thinking about it declouded my brain. That night I read some articles from Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America's Classic Children's Books by Jerry Griswold. I had trouble falling asleep because my brain was structuring my thesis, and when I woke up (early and full of energy), I wrangled my paper's opening into some kind of order. I wrote my thesis statement for the first time, and was much relieved.

You may be relieved too, if you've read this far, that the thesis monster sucking on my brain shows signs of submitting. I promise to cut out the "ism" speak soon as it does.

Currently reading: that Audacious Kids book

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Sometimes, when I wake up, I'm surprised I don't have pictures to post of the vivid dreams I had the night before. They're right there in my head, but I couldn't show them to you without drawing them or using lots of words.

I'm not going to do that with the one I had last night because it left me, to steal a phrase from Caitlin R. Kiernan's blog, "dreamsick." I'm not sure I use that word in the same way she does, but for me it means that the dream made me more tired than less, that I slept longer than normal, had trouble waking up, and that the dream was vivid and disturbing.

It wasn't a nightmare, not a dream I'm sorry to have had, but powerful in that it felt like I'd entered another lucid world, in this case a dangerous one, that was hard to leave and is still hard to stop thinking of as I go about my day. Stories come out of dreams like this I think -- I had one years ago, about "aliens and gardening" I like to say, that led me to write hundreds of pages. I'd like to think that one might still become a novel, but it might never make its way out of the drawer.

Last night's dream involved, yes, a dystopian future; a draconian, ancient god the size of a building; and a stadium big enough to house what survived of humanity. It was also grotesquely violent, and for the moment at least, I don't want to write about it.

Reading this morning, something in this line from Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea caught me.
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do. . . .

I like to think that's true of artists as well as mages, and maybe of all people who listen and follow.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sweet Relief

I'd been putting off working on my thesis most of the weekend, really resisting. But tonight, I thought, tonight I would get some work done.

Here's the thing, though. I've been feeling anxious and antsy for the last couple of weeks. You may have noticed it here, me going on about wilderness and obstructions and killer lobsters. I've been feeling like I need to get away somewhere (but I just got away), or reconnect with old friends (done that too), or unleash my inner romantic (oh, did I ever).

But none of that helped. All weekend I looked forward to this morning's Monkey rehearsal thinking that would do it, working with people onstage. And rehearsal was fun. But it didn't help. I left rehearsal feeling a cold coming on, and I took a long nap, and read some in bed, and experimented with vlogging, and thought about starting a nutrition program, and took a walk, and none of it helped.

And THEN, while I was watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympics (which also didn't help), I visited, on a whim, the 2nd Story website. 2nd Story's an ongoing storytelling, wine, and music series that a bunch of my friends work on. I listened to some of the podcasts, and they made me want to write, and I knew right away how stupid I've been, trying to work with laser vision on my critical thesis and not do any creative work on the side.

I don't get to turn creative work in for school until I finish the critical thesis. But I am a writer. And writers must write. And when they don't write, they get really cranky.

I know this, so what took me so long? Aside from my sense of duty to the thesis, part of what's been holding me back is that I've lost my momentum on my longer projects. They need focused attention, and my attention's focused on my thesis. But tonight I started something short, the mermaid story I promised Nicholas, oh, four and a half months ago. Ah, I feel so good for having written. 767 words, and slow words, because I was really enjoying playing with them.

Currently reading: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Friday, August 22, 2008

One way my life just got better

I'm going to be working closely with THIS GUY for a whole school year.

Wait, wait, which guy?

This guy.

Hm, I still don't recognize him.


Ooooh, THAT guy!

Seriously? I can't deal. LOVE IT!

Pics by Lauren, and Cassie, and Tai.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I'm studying The White Darkness again, which reminds me of my out-of-time love affair with Thomas Paine.

He's wondering why I've neglected him, but more important, he wants to remind me of something . . .

Tom: Rachel, it has been my understanding that one of the suppositions of this "blog" is to illumine the close association between the ridiculous and the sublime.

Rachel: Well, right, to "remember the sublime in everyday life . . ." I said I wanted to do that. You said the part about the ridiculous.

Tom: So I did. Clever, that.

Rachel: Very.

Tom: And your attempts at keeping a "blog," are they not, in and of themselves, to an extent, ridiculous?

Rachel: And sublime?

Tom: Hmm. You said it, not I.

Rachel: Oh, Tom . . . I wish you'd stop saying "blog" with finger quotes. You're hipper than that.

Tom: Hipper? Now who's hip?

Rachel: There's my Tom. So, your point is?

Tom: Lighten up.

Rachel: Fine.

While I was walking Parker to the beach today, wearing my "Eat More Kale" T-shirt, a boy of about twelve and his mom came towards me.

"Hey!" the kid yelled. "Kale, that's my name!"

The kid's mom could not stop laughing. I, lamely, said, "Oh, well, this shirt means kale, the vegetable."

"Hey, everybody!" the kid yelled to the crowds of people gathered at the start of the beach, "Her shirt says, 'Eat More Kale!' That's my name!"

Mom kept laughing. I walked faster.


Do Not Obstruct

I took this with my phone at the last residency in Montpelier. I'm liking the anarchy symbol beneath the "DO NOT OBSTRUCT ENTRANCE." I don't think of anarchists as putting up obstructions, but this one's saying, "Yes! OBSTRUCT! I'll obstruct as much as I bloody well like." Anarchists are mostly British in my experience.

Anyway, the pairing of these two signs suits my mood -- contrary for the sake of being contrary, throwing up blockades out of boredom. I really have no good reason to be bored. It's just that the last week's been so full and fun, even a little bit of downtime brings on that mix of nostalgia and shame that can hit after unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

On the thesis front, I found an article today that made a distinction between magical realism and the marvelous real that I really needed somebody to make for me. So that's swell.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I'm so exhausted. I am not so much like the sloth as like myself with many sloths hanging from my limbs.

It's all self-inflicted, but this is the first night in a long time that I haven't been finishing a packet, or celebrating a birthday, or entertaining out-of-towners, or retreating, or performing, or, sigh. I'm just tired.

Things I've done in the last 48 hours that I'd like forgiveness for:
- Self-disclosing way too much via email
- Moderating an online discussion while half in a dream state
- Going completely blank in the middle of an interview
- Complicating what I ought to be simplifying
- Missing what I never had

Read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson from cover to cover today. I'm so tired it didn't even make me cry. But I do wish I hadn't waited so long to read it. Almost done with Skellig, which I started and stalled on when I left for residency oh so long ago. Next up, Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

And you know that thesis I'm working on? Next draft's due September 10th.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Go see the play in a pool!

Pic by Logan Kibens

Fake Lake, written by Sharon Greene and directed by Halena Kays, is so lovely. And my friends are so good in it. And Misha Fiksel's music's perfect. It's a surreal experience, completely engaging. I spent the first half beaming and the second mesmerized by the sense of doom that pervades the whole piece.

Pic by Erica Dufour

Plus, it made me think about one of my favorite narrative genres . . . apocalypse. A couple of these young adult characters are waiting for the end of the world, because, as Sharon puts it, they can't imagine change except through disaster. That resonates with me personally and also when I think about adolescents I've taught. It's dangerous thinking, and still, even now, I find myself yearning for adventure and change and wilderness.

Disaster's not the only way to find it. I hope.

Back in Delavan again

Barrel of Monkeys held our annual retreat this weekend, heading out to Delavan, Wisconsin.

Oh, how I love you, Monkey retreat. But oh, how tired you make me. We had a full company meeting. We learned about puppets and podcasts and physical choices. We ate pretzels and fruit snacks and sang our new closing song.

Then we crashed on the lawn.

We punted babies.

We dancey, dancied

We played Four Square until four AM

At the last Monkey retreat I attended in 2005, I sobbed and sobbed, knowing I was moving away. I'm so thrilled and honored to be back among such extraordinary people. Sigh.

When I got home yesterday, I ate some leftover Thai food and fell asleep in my chair watching the 10,000 meter Olympic race. Sigh again.

Puppet pic by Lauren Sharpe, Dancey Dancied pic of me by Curtis Williams and the rest by Mike Tutaj.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I'm not kayaking

I'm pondering.

So here's some good pondering music. Happy birthday and a shout-out to my friend John Elliott, accompanied here by Raina Rose.

He tours the country in a car named Glen. We're lucky to have him in Chicago on his birthday, and he might be coming soon to a city near you. Go listen to his music at and thank me for telling you so.

Currently reading: Clay by David Almond

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I am Kayaking

You Are Kayaking

You have a competitive spirit, but you don't like to compete alone.

You do well in a partnership, where you can feed off the other person's energy.

If you have the right partner, nothing can stop you. Your energy is infinite!

Via Gwenda.

I haven't yet mentioned it here, but the anticipation surrounding the Olympics still gets to me like the build-up to Christmas and Halloween did in my youth. I'm a total sucker for the orgy of national spirit, sappy against-all-odds backstories, tiny country underdogs, and quirky sports no one ever cares about outside of the Olympics -- sports like water polo, which I'm currently watching. What's not to love about a sport that involves both speedos and protective headgear?

Attack of the Lobster People

I got my first draft of my critical thesis in yesterday, and got the best night's sleep I've had in a week.

Except that . . .

. . . my best night's sleeps so often include epic dystopian dreams. In this case, it took place in an underground biodome in Chicago, in (inexplicably) 2004. The biodome offered superior air quality and economic opportunities to life on the surface, but it was also dominated by psychotic mutant lobster people. One bite from them, like a zombie, would transform you -- turning a hand into a claw, a spine into a tail, or your face into a spiny mask, depending on the location of the bite. It would also, to varying degrees, make you strong, physically dominant, supercool-stylish, and free of conscience.

The lobsters largely lived and let live, but they would occasionally go on rampages, killing and mutating at will, or they would sometimes hold a lottery of sorts in which they chose new recruits to join their ranks. Some people would offer up their loved ones as sacrifices to avoid being chosen. Others would campaign for the chance.

My "character" in the dream got offered up in this sort of sacrifice by a stranger who caught me hiding in a doorway. While other girls were begging to be changed, my lobster sire chose me for my reluctance, and we entered a love-hate lobster relationship. We bonded like soulmates, made out, and then I shot him in the shoulder.

I'm still teaching myself to write one novel, but I've got a dystopian nightmare story in me somewhere. I can't promise that it will include lobster people. Can't promise it won't.

Currently reading: whatever I please, for at least a day

Friday, August 8, 2008

Don't forget to pop it . . .

. . . because you're a robot.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I just have to share / procrastinate

I've made some huge progress on my critical thesis in the past few hours simply by moving my text from Scrivener to Word. Those of you who use Scrivener will understand the significance of this. Scrivener's a playground, a wonderful playground, but it lets you split your project into endless pages and make files for your research so you feel like you've written something when really you've just cut and pasted.

On Word, I can see how the paper flows, make sure I'm weaving things in well, and type ENDNOTES. I love endnotes! They're supposed to be used pretty sparingly in MLA, but I already have three.

Plus, I have a tentative title, because I now have some idea of what I want to say: "Growing up Marvelous: Coming of Age and the Fantastic."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Signs you're writing a critical thesis

You abandoned your car in another neighborhood with the explicit intention of forcing yourself to take a three mile walk to, you know, clear your head.

You're excited to babysit because it's one sure way to get a break from thinking, and because the baby's storybooks will likely be the only thing you read this month not related to your thesis topic.

You're making questionable food choices (see Exhibit A below).

You purchased a pint of Ben & Jerry's One Cheesecake Brownie ice cream and started eating it with your fingers in your car on the way home.

You've lost the ability to fall asleep before 3:30 am, and when you do sleep, you dream about the mafia, ancient evil that lives under your old high school, and . . . the critical thesis.

Failing to sleep, you watch the last three episodes of the second season of Dexter, oh so good, while knitting a baby hat, while thinking about which of your acquaintances are most likely to be secret sociopaths.

Your days have melted into one long day, you've lost all perspective, on your thesis, on your life, and it all points to Monday, when the first draft is due.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Grrrr . . .

Turns out the only way to write my critical thesis is to, you know, write it. Who'd a thunk it?

Finished The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty and loved it.

It's smart, and whimsical, optimistic, and trickily plotted -- and most importantly, great for my thesis! I disagree with several of the reviews that suggest the adult storylines will lose the interest of teenagers, (the book covers lots of extramarital affairs, and I have to ask where all these reviewers get the idea that adult romantic intrigue isn't interesting to teenagers? I think all manner of scandalous adult behaviors are fascinating to teenagers), but I think I agree with Roger Sutton's suggestion that teens who are the right readers for it might be more likely to come to it if it wasn't published as YA.

Interesting problem because what's wrong with a book that's great for young adults being published as a young adult book? Well, it might draw in some readers who wouldn't have found the book otherwise, but it risks losing both adult readers and sophisticated teen readers. And that shows how much stigma still surrounds YA, even as it's getting more interesting.

This seems like one of those cases where the desire to have a clear marketing package forces categorization of a book that resists categorization. In my library, this book's shelved in both the YA section and the elementary section. A different version of the book was published in Australia as an adult book. I'm the age of the majority of characters in the book, and I loved it, but would I have found it if I didn't need to read it for school? Probably not.

In an article on "The Adolescent Novel of Ideas" for Children's Literature in Education, Peter Hollindale writes:
We continue to overlook the fact that these 'teenage novels' are enthusiastically read by preteen readers. They answer in part to a social phenomenon which has won plenty of attention in this quarter century: the foreshortening of childhood, earlier physical matrurity, and the virtual coming to be of a two-phase adolescence, where the 'preadult' (roughly from ten to thirteen) precedes the 'young adult' (fourteen or so until the age of leaving school).

Lots of books originally written for adults are now standard in high school English curriculums. Just as these books have been appropriated for teen readers, it seems that publishers of YA are simply seeking to appropriate these books one step earlier. One of the reviews of Spell Book mentioned how the age suggestion for YA books used to be 12 and up, but that increasingly, you see books suggested for 16 and up. Will YA eventually come to represent what its name suggests (a true "young adult" rather than "preadult" literature) and cease to be an aspirational genre, read mostly by preteens who look forward to young adult status?

I think that might be a good thing, both for YA and for young adults ranging in age from fourteen through their twenty-somethings, but I also see a case for abandoning categorization altogether, freeing readers find the books that are right for them. I'm trying to sort out what I think, so please comment if you have thoughts on this . . .

Sunday, August 3, 2008

High Summer . . .

. . . via camera phone

Puppets on the street

Kites on the beach

And happy dog days

This vid doesn't do it justice, but Parker's recently gotten into surfing. She attacks the waves, biting the water, and then turns herself sideways to let the waves push her towards shore.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Spirit animal

"I wish this would be the hottest summer ever," I heard a little girl in a bathing suit say to the man who had her propped up on his hip. She was small and unsuspecting. I could have taken her in a fight. Or at least knocked her out of the man's arms.

I do not wish this would be the hottest summer ever. I'm grateful for the window AC I got free from Craigslist, but not so much for the way it encourages me to burrow in my bedroom, with piles of critical writing stacked around me, an ice pack strapped to my head, and my dog sighing at me, "When did you get so boring?"

This means it's past time to go swimming. But not tonight. I'm off to my third play in as many nights, and I'll probably stay up past my bedtime again because summer makes me go nocturnal.

Like the wolves in my neighbor's truck.

I took these pictures for my friend Luke, who speaks to wolves, but today, mopey from inactivity and sunstroke, I just want to celebrate the sublime impulse that inspired my neighbor to buy these seat-covers.

Does he find them manly? Empowering? As a kid, I decided that the wolf would be my spirit animal, that it would appear to me in dreams as a guide. Is the wolf my neighbor's spirit animal, and does its image protect his truck from break-ins and wrecks? Does my neighbor, like Luke, appreciate the absurdity of stretching a kitschy obsession as far as it will go? Maybe he just really likes wolves.

Currently reading: The Spellbook of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty. I'm a hundred pages in and kind of in love.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I'm wondering if my lack of motivation to blog goes hand in hand with my current focus on critical rather than creative work. It's a different head-space, and while I'm sure some people can get them working in tandem, I'm not finding that it works great for me.

Yesterday, I hurt my brain considering "otherness," and "the hyperreal," and looking up terms like "extradiegetic," all from an article on The White Darkness. YA lit: it's for kids, but also for people with PhD's. I'm sort of enjoying my critical thesis, but I'm definitely feeling the creative tug and missing that writing.

Finished White Magic: Spells to Hold You by Kelly Easton today, and I'm still working on Minister's Daughter. Through no fault of its own, it lost some of my interest when it turned out to be unhelpful to my paper.

The research side of things is making me feel a bit like a spy, or at least like an adventuring scholar, something like the heroines of A.S. Byatt's Possession or Kostova's The Historian. I've got books on hold, a forthcoming alumni card for access to the Northwestern library, and a university in Liverpool is shipping a book to me free of charge, which made me feel very fancy.

My reading list gets longer every day, while my paper stubbornly refuses to grow.