Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Archive for the ‘Story-Telling’ Category

Traveling Light

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About two years ago, I took Amtrak from New York City to Pittsburgh (Cleveland was the ultimate destination, but we ran into a blizzard) with a dozen other Brooklyn kids to film a semi-improvised, open-ended ‘train film.’ A friend, Gina Telaroli, conceived of and directed the project, which came to be titled Traveling Light.

Anyway, the finished product—Gina calls it “a video essay celebrating cinema on the railroad tracks”—got some nice words from folks writing year-end film reviews. On film site Notebook, David Phelps calls Traveling Light “a type of found object” and writes:

 … what starts off as plain-air documentary comes quietly to seem like a closed movie set in which the inhabitants are subjected to shifting red flares and matted Midwest, magic lantern backdrops. Instead of pinning down space, the long takes can defy it—the constants, determining the movie’s own space and screen, are unseen windows—in the train’s endless trackback.

And on Moving Image Source, critic B. Kite says:

I think they put cameras in everything now. And that gives a lot of the newer durational work a kind of floating anxiety, a need to justify its existence, which usually finds expression in either a sense of intense strain (grandiose images composed unto death) or, at the opposite extreme, those soggy, shapeless lumps of space-time I’ve come to call “video bloat.” So how unexpected and cool to come across Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light, a feature that demonstrates neither the hyper-consciousness of the first camp nor the apparent unconsciousness of the latter but instead maintains a remarkably composed comfort in its rhythms and objects of attention. A train trip from New York to Pittsburgh under brown mid-winter skies, past tract houses, snow scabs, and those deeply unmysterious piles of concrete somethings that always seem to crop up in the blank, functional spaces of America. It’s hard to say whether the hanging melancholy is a state of mind or just an expression of the weather, but it rests at the center of the film and exerts a steady sweet-sad pull until the trip finally comes to terminus in one of the loveliest shots I’ve seen in digital.

So, yay. Gina shoots lovely things, and deserves the attention. Besides which, I have her to thank for finally getting to visit Pittsburgh. In 5 feet of snow. With no means of escape. For two days. Oh, and inspiring the amazing Whirlwind Cross-Country Amtrak Adventure! that consumed the first few months of my 2011 …

Photo: Ian Westcott

Written by ENB

January 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Catalogued: The Summer Without Men >> Siri Hustvedt

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 Hustvedt, Siri. 
 The Summer Without Men / by Siri 
     Hustvedt. - New York: Picador, 2011

1. “In Athens, they formalized ostracism to rid themselves of those suspected of having accumulated too much power, from ostrakon, the word for ‘shard.’ They wrote down the names of the threats on broken pieces of crockery. Word Shards. The Pathan tribes in Pakistan exile renegade members, sending them into a dusty nowhere. The Apache ignore widows. They fear the paroxysms of giref and pretend those who suffer from them do not exist. Chimpanzees, lions, wolves all have forms of ostracism, forcing out one of their own, either too weak or too obstreperous to be tolerated by the group. Scientists describe this as an “innate and adapteive” method of social control. … The Amish call it Meidung. When a member breaks a law, he or she is shunned. All interactions cease, and the one they have turned against falls into destitution or worse.”

2. “It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it; it is shapeless; an inchoate procession of words and things, and let us be frank: We never recover what was. Most of it vanishes. … Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway. It is retained afterward and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.”

3. “In his journals, Kierkegaard writes that dread is an attraction, and he is right. Dread is a lure, and I could feel it’s tug, but why? What had I actually seen or heard that created this mild but definite pull in me? Perception is never passive. We are not only receivers of the world; we also actively produce it. There is a hallucinatory quality to all perception, and illusions are easy to create.”

4. “The whole story is in my head, isn’t it? I am not so philosophically naive as to believe that one can establish some empirical reality of THE STORY.”

5. “We must all allow ourselves the fantasy of projection from time to time, a chance to clothe ourselves in the imaginary gowns and tails of what has never been and never will be. This gives some polish to our tarnished lives, and sometimes we may choose one dream over another, and in the choosing find some respite from ordinary sadness. After all, we, none of us, can ever untangle the knot of fictions that make up that wobbly thing we call a self.”

Written by ENB

September 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm

On Getting Dressed for the Office

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Stock Photo, Women Office Workers

One of the worst parts about going into an office again is trying to dress like a grown-up.

My current office isn’t one with a terribly strict dress code—jeans can be worn any day as long as they’re not worn every day, and sartorial eccentricities are tolerated wordlessly—but it sure isn’t working from my bedroom in Brooklyn. Which means a certain degree of Trying To Look Appropriate is still required.

During my first job out of college, working as as admin assistant/proposal editor for a big science research firm, I loaded up on striped button-downs, wide-legged trousers, tweed skirts and sensible cardigans from Old Navy and second-hand stores. I thought I looked “professional.” Until one day it occurred to me I just looked boring. Frumpy.

I looked like a secretary in Ohio who shopped at Old Navy.

Edie Sedgewick

So I vowed, from then on, never to attempt to look like a Getty Images version of an office worker again. Instead, I would try to translate my natural style—which tends toward extra-in-Jesus-Christ-Superstar (the film) meets Edie Sedgewick meets a kindergartner—into an office-friendly version of itself. And yet, at this, I often (read: mostly) fail miserably. Take today, for instance:

I seem to be wearing a pair of tight, flared, bubble-gum pink pants (Express by way of the thrift store), a brown t-shirt, a short-sleeved tan windbreaker, cowboy boots and large rainbow-beaded hoop earrings.

I realize that the way I talk about my office-clothing choices completely removes any personal agency from them, but that is how it feels. One minute I’m in pajamas, one minute I’m in a towel, one minute I’m in a pleated seer-sucker mini-skirt with black tights, a peasant blouse and a blazer. Much like boyfriends, or finishing an entire bottle of Malbec, these things just happen.

The upside, I guess, is that no one will ever confuse me for a Hill staffer.

And sometimes homeless folk compliment my shoes.

Written by ENB

April 21, 2011 at 12:06 am

Facebook Poetry // Vol. 1

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I was scrolling through my Facebook “Most Recent” newsfeed last night, and saw three messages in a row that struck me as kind of funny when taken together. I copied each of these three status updates on a sticky, then scrolled down the rest of my feed, to the point at which I would have had to click “Older Posts,” copying a snippet of each status update or the comments/ephemera attached to it and adding to the note. The result—slightly stylized in use of  things like line breaks and italics—is kind of delightfully silly. May I present to you: a Facebook Poem.

most recent
march 6, 8:32 p.m.
howling forever
this is fucking incredible
this is bat country
I know the peace and quiet won’t last long

miss her a lot
absolutely exhausted

vicious circle:
early dinner at Romans,
what happened this winter …
reading the only thing you ever needed to hear
A good tv show
Ultimo asado con el club de montanismo
Vancouver, WA – If interested in purchasing a costume, or an appearance,
experiment today

Created a video response to the message—

What happened this winter

March 6, 2011
Is anyone else in a stew over social networking?
4 new photos //
Good Friend Electric //
the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it.
Doing taxes.
Bears and wolves have eaten all my food

Rain Graph
added A day job to his work
miss you buddio
7 hours ago
Nights in Ultraviolet
gardened, 2 loads of laundry, room cleaned and last week’s laundry away
strong traditional folk sensibilities
I love when my dreams feel like movies

IL and Matty’s B-day …
Love me some Lord Kitchener.
for every thirsty fiend in the commercial art world, including tangential unpaid bloggers
and grids –
District of Columbia,
Viva La Revolucion!
Please do not be shocked.
conclude that we need more rigorous assessment and choice
it’s been too long
Daughter of longest-living American
Watching Best of Christopher Walken on SNL
It’s gonna be Party Time!

Like two dead cats covered in mulch,
Come one, come all to the mythical land of Western Washington
Matt Yglesias and the Edu-Nihilism Straw Man
12 hours ago
his manic tailspin is going to lead to something terrible
12 hours ago
He should go to jail.
Minor Threat
This should not be difficult for me.
i know,
I don’t remember the beginning at all
He’s awful …
This fat ugly sasquatch been walkin round the house coughin with her fish mouth open and not washin her hands
people like this—
Clark’s At Faneuil Hall,
and too many more that are going to make me very sad to remember.
20 hours ago
Writing with Patsy Cline by my side
Old Photos
If we want, we can walk down to the 3rd St. Promenade afterward
This country has lost site of what is important and sacred
collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step
What all has gone on in the past several months?
since my first visit to San Fran …
Found more issues when I tore things out.
Yesterday at 9:04 p.m.

May I urge you to to go forth & create & share your own Facebook poetry …

Written by ENB

March 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm

no moss

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the secret

don’t worry, nobody has the
beautiful lady, not really, and
nobody has the strange and
hidden power, nobody is exceptional or wonderful or
magic, they only seem to be.
it’s all a trick, an in, a con,
don’t buy it, don’t believe it. the world is packed with
billions of people whose lives
and deaths are useless and
when one of these jumps up
and the light of history shines
upon them, forget it, it’s not what it seems, it’s just
another act to fool the fools again.

there are no strong men, there
are no beautiful women.
at least, you can die knowing
and you will have
the only possible

— Charles Bukowski

Greetings from our nation’s capitol. I was here just a few weeks back – first for a wonderful Liberty Fund conference on Hayek, then to work from an office and visit friends and quake with terror at the Thundersnow!. I went back to my parent’s house in Cincinnati for a few days, and then just narrowly missed Chicago’s Great Blizzard, arriving there the Friday after the storm to find my friends, of course, building an igloo. I stayed in Chicago for nine days, and upon returning once again to Cincinnati I figured, “Why stop?” So last week I threw together the framework for a NorthSouthEastWest, 1.5-month bout of itinerantism. Nomadism. Vagabondness. Call it what you will (just not “transient train hopping;” that phrase has gotten me in trouble before during a Teach for America job interview). I hitched a ride with some family down to Washington, D.C. for a few days. I’ll be Amtrak-ing from here down to New Orleans, then hitting up Los Angeles and possibly other cities in California, followed by Chicago and Panama City Beach, Florida. All of these locations have been chosen because of proximity to friends, with the exception of New Orleans, where I have just long wanted to go and never been. In some places, I may be working on some Exciting! Things! with friends. In others, I may just sunbathe. And work, of course. I’m lucky to have a job I can perform from wherever.

So, that’s happening. I have been twittering my rules for nomadism, which have so far included:

Step 1 // Buy a bigger suitcase.
Step 2 // Buy a fancy DSLR camera
Step 2.5 // Learn to use fancy DSLR camera…
Step 3 // Come up with pretentious name for travels. I like saying this is my ‘Bukowski phase’
Step 4 // Hitch a ride with a cowboy. Otherwise known as my Uncle Bruce. http://ygrog.com/gyf6vwbj
Step 5 // Love affair (duh)
Step 6 // Good friends with futon, tofu stir-fry, Lambic. And a sun-porch.

I assume there will be more. Along with pictures of skylines. I’ve already been taking a lot of pictures of skylines. And I promise a travel-worthy March mix soon…

But really, what I want to do in this post is link to this and this. Two pieces by Ann Friedman, about her own recent travels.

See, I have also driven cross-country from West to East. Twice. Once to New York, once to Washington. I made both of these trips, which I remember as pretty unremarkable (which is to say I don’t remember much about them at all), with other people. I have gone West when I’m seeking greatness, and East when I’m feeling resignation. West is possibility, East is inevitability. West is risky, East is safe. It’s not that I’ve been unhappy on the East Coast. I have found great friends and professional success there, too. But going West always seems to mean moving toward something new and wonderful. I realize this is just a narrative I’ve imposed on the series of choices I’ve made, but it also feels true in some objective sense.

Well. We’ll see.

Extremely Dangerous Tree

It's all sorts of dangerous out here.

Written by ENB

February 23, 2011 at 5:48 pm

pencils down/manifest: a fall mix

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With all due respect to modesty, this is probably the best fall mix I have ever made.

It is helped, I suppose, by the sheer awesomeness of so much music that is out right now—including a few new songs by a few new friends new (and, yes, an oldie or two; and, yes, a few artists included twice because I don’t know why people say you can’t do that).

And holy return of the 2004/2007 bands, right? New Sufjan, Arcade Fire, Jenny Lewis, Nelly McKay … It’s like I’m living in a basement apartment in Columbus, Ohio / a studio in upper NW DC all over again …

Anyway: It’s exciting. I like fall shoe trends right now (lace-up boots!), fall outerwear trends (capes! like snuggies as evening wear!), and I like fall music. It all must mean something.

Or perhaps not. I have a tendency to read a lot more into fall (rebirth! potential!) than most, having never outgrown that whole back-to-school excitement (a feeling, I suppose, not shared by all, but I always loved school, and summer just gets to be too much after a while, doesn’t it?). Either way—enjoy:


pencils down/manifest: a fall mix
[click that to listen to the whole thing all together]
[that note is for my sister, who can never figure out how to listen to anything I send her]


1. Now that I’m older – Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz:

2. Ghost Confessions – Cinema Red and Blue – Cinema Red and Blue:

3. Coast to Coast (remastered) – Dirty Beaches – U.S. Girls // Dirty Beaches Split 7″:

4. Tyrant Destroyed – Twin Shadow – Forget:

5. God – The Beets – God EP:

6. Kiss With a Fist – Florence & the Machine – A lot of love, a lot of blood:

7. Crash Hat – The Bonfire Band – One Man Can’t Carry Half a Piano:

8. My Pet Snakes – Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now:

9. Late Again – Nelly McKay – Dear New Orleans:

10. This Beautiful Idea – Badly Drawn Boy – It’s What I’m Thinking: Photographing Snowflakes:

11. Commandante – The Mountain Goats – Devil in the Shortwave EP:

12. I Didn’t See It Coming – Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love:

13: [excerpt from down there] – U.S. GirlsU.S. Girls // Dirty Beaches Split 7″:

14. Sprawl (mountains beyond mountains) – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs:

15. Girls in Love – Painted Face – Undreamt EP:

16. A Crime – Sharon von Etten – Epic:

17. I’m a Pilot – Fanfarlo – Reservoir:

18. Scandal at the Parkade – Owen Pallett – A Swedish Love Story:

19. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough – Cinema Red and Blue:

20. Everything is New – Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights:

21. All Delighted People (classic rock version) – Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People EP:

22. The Suburbs (continued) – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs:

What to expect when your blogger’s expecting

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Since I’ve already begun telling so many people in real life (including, finally, my mother), I might as well come out with it digitally: I am expecting. A baby. Well, at least I hope it’s a baby (just before I found out I was pregnant, my sister had a dream I gave birth to a zombie cat). It turns out my uterus is not, as I casually suspected, inhospitable to life.

I am not freaking out too much, yet. Or, rather, I have known for almost 2 months now, so have passed the major freak-out period (OMG I ate pot cookies in San Francisco a week after the baby was, unbeknownst to me, conceived! and the like). I have prenatal vitamins. I’ve quit almost all of my vices (caffeine has proven to be tougher than alcohol & cigarettes combined, though I’m going with the latest research that says up to 200 mg a day is okay). My best friend and her husband (the only close friends of mine who already have a child) sent me a box full of “What to Expect” books, a picture frame for the ultra-sound photo, snack bars, an adorable baby lamb stuffed animal (organic wool, of course), and a wire coat hanger—“Just in case (sorry it’s not rusty)”—because that is the kind of lovely but sick friends I have. She also tells me her mother is already knitting me a baby blanket. And my grandmother is searching out her trusty old pencil-on-a-string so, she says, they can determine the baby’s sex while I’m home for Thanksgiving.

Because I am the kind of person who shares way too much personal information in public forums—no, it was not planned.

But because I am also the kind of person who believes, in the abstract, that abortion is a more-or-less morally neutral act—yes, this is a choice.

So! I’ll accept your congratulations. Or your warnings, pregnancy tips, reading suggestions or cartons of ginger ale (“morning” sickness OMG).

And because I am an insufferable yuppie, I suppose (*side tangent: if, in the 60s, hippie yuppies were nicknamed “yippies,” what do you call today’s hipster yuppies? yipsters?*), the two books I have so-far purchased include The ECO-nomical baby guide and Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives. This last book, and all the recent scientific research it summarizes (you can check out an abbreviated version from Time magazine) is terrifying from both a personal and a societal standpoint, let me tell you. But more on that later.

Which is I guess the last point I wanted to make: Oh, my!, are you probably about to get an eyeful of feminist-tinged pregnant lady rants. Please don’t be worried—I promise not to start writing about the latest in diaper bag technology or anything like that. I just imagine that people’s expectations for me and my fetus are gonna provide ample opportunity for commentary. Hopefully, it will be fun for us all!

I’m also gearing up for a move to Chicago, because I apparently need to complete my trifecta of stints in Cities Midwestern People Move To (isn’t there some sort of toaster I can win for this?), having already spent some time now in NYC and Washington, D.C.

Now: Do I start working towards bylines in Parenting or on Babble?

Written by ENB

November 1, 2010 at 7:01 am

Posted in Story-Telling

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The midwest farmers’ daughters

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It’s impossible for me to think about California, at this point in my life, without thinking about Joan Didion. I came to Didion recently-ish—I think it must have been just a little over a year ago, I was on the verge of moving to New York and Conor told me to read Didion’s famous moving to and moving away from New York essay, “Goodbye to All That,” to which I responded:

I adored it. But I wonder—did you feel that way, when you moved to New York? I don’t. I worry I am too old, or too stubborn …

Which just shows you what a pretentious, dramatic twit I can be sometimes, because of course I got swept up in loving it here (and also just, Gawd, you know?). It’s been about one year and one month since I moved here, and I may or may not be as bad as when my then-boyfriend first moved here, moved into the McKibben lofts, and called me at my apartment in DC at 2 in the morning to tell me that the loft building across the street had started blaring and singing “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and then the residents of his building started doing it back at them, and then they were all having a Holland 1945 sing-a-long and wasn’t that just magical and New York the best? Shoot me if I ever become one of those people, I told my DC friends.

And now I live in a house with 13 other members of my creative collective, Goddamn Cobras, and make raw pies and have housemates who play in a band called Zebros in our basement.

So, there’s that.

What all of this has to do with California is that, on the official one-year anniversary of my move to New York, I was not in New York but in Ojai, California, shooting a movie and/or camping out in dried out riverbeds and forests and lagoons and farms and mountaintops and beaches. That land is incredible, let me tell you; as a lifelong midwesterner with a splash of east coast, I had no idea how beautiful California could actually be.

But what a weird little place, that state. How can a land so built on frontierism, on lone rangers and outcasts and outlaws (you see, I not so long ago finished both Didion’s first novel, Run River, and her book about California, Where I Was From, and also spent last fall and winter watching John Wayne and Sergio Leone movies, so I have these grand sort of notions about California’s founding) be so … progressive, in all the most negative senses of the word? And why doesn’t someone advertise a medical marijuana shop without using the old tropes of psychedelia? Why do the lemons in California get so big? And how the hell did Los Angeles even happen? Why are there so many car dealerships on the strip between L.A. and Santa Barbara? And how does anyone ever get anything done what with the beaches and the sunsets and the palm trees and all of that? Why did I want so badly to feel some sort of connection to a silly place that was once a different place (in my case, the first studio warehouse and lot, for Keystone Studios, opened by Mac Sennett, in what’s now Echo Park, but what does it matter—I wanted to see a Celebrity House, you know; I went looking for Mabel Normand’s Alvarado Street bungalow, I had to visit Haight-Ashbury)? And why do people in San Francisco pretend like they don’t have the worst weather? Why does California, the Idea of California, draw people, like the Idea of New York City, even still, even now—a highway not just a highway but a California Highway; a sunset a California Sunset … A weird little place, that state.

I hope to visit again sometime.


* I am now reading Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the first Robbins book I’ve even attempted—I tend to lump him in that group of Overhyped Gen X Male Authors I Have No Interest In, like David Foster Wallace and Dave Edgars and I think Thomas Pynchon, though he is probably much older, isn’t he?—because when I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on my own, no radio signal, no music of any kind, no visibility much beyond my headlights, all fog and endless bridges—to be saved only by the prospect of Guadalupe, because Jables said I would Love It, only to find the most dismal, empty town, Mexican track housing, and suddenly 56 degrees when I fill up my gas a few towns later—or even during the filming of our goddamn western, when Fanny’s house was all slightly-off-key vintage upright pianos, Bearclaw banging on the keys theatrically (in his full Sheriff costume), and fresh mulberries sunshine outside bathtubs wine and toasts—which of course all made me sad because somehow nostalgia and enjoyment always hit me in reverse, well—I don’t know where it came from, didn’t know the phrase referenced a book, a song, anything at all, all the same it became a bit of a mantra, just a little bit, which is silly–it’s silly, right, okay? I know—but nonetheless it became a bit of a mantra, “even cowgirls get the blues,” that somehow cheered me up (I had been wearing these amazing cowgirl boots as a part of my film costume and now refused to take the boots, or my turquoise jewelry, or my ragged jean shorts, off, you see), so when I saw this old Tom Robbins’ paperback copy in a used bookstore in San Francisco with Rachel for four dollars and 50 cents, I had to pick it up. Even cowgirls get the blues. Only by now, I have owned the book for over two weeks, and I’ve only read ten pages.

It’s hard to like a woman with giant thumbs, and it’s hard to feel like a cowgirl in Brooklyn …

Block Party

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But when I look around these days, at the bars, at rooftop parties, on the streets and avenues of this still-great city, I see an army of young people out there having a good time. They retain all the optimism of youth. Their prospects may be just as grim as everyone else’s, but they don’t let that affect them. They use their relative poverty to their advantage, creating fun through thrift. They are building the very memories that they will look back on a couple of decades from now and think, “Man, that was the greatest summer ever.”

And it will absolutely be true. Two decades from now we will all be bog people living in warring tribes among the marshes of the New Jersey Meadowlands, skinning rats to provide pelts for warmth and eating their chemically-infested flesh for the tiny bits of protein we are able to provide to our bodies. As the kids of today huddle around the tire fires of tomorrow, they will tell stories to their undersized, two-headed children (assuming mankind remains fertile then) about those balmy summer days before the floods and fires when a six pack of beer and a bittorrented rip of the new Arcade Fire were very heaven. It will sound like paradise. [The Awl]


My utter refusal to put words to screen around these parts (or any parts of the Internet, for that matter) can be explained in one word: Summer. Summer, darlings! I forgot to pay much attention to it for the bulk of July and early August, but then suddenly The Awl was already writing eulogies, and my Goddamn Cobra compatriots and I were putting the finishing pre-production touches on the western we’ve been planning since last fall, and tomorrow I set off for two weeks on the west coast, one week in the midwest, and holy September it will already be fall by the time I set foot in my beloved Brooklyn again!

So some summer had to be had these past couple weeks, because like a new acquaintance of mine said recently, re: being A Man, “Eventually you have to know when is the right time to be all schooled in the ways of Cusackian “Say Anything” (i.e. open your fucking mouth and share your feelings and express yourself) and when is the right time to get all caveman and slut it up something rough and proper.” Or, like another new acquaintance of mine said recently, “Shit is way fragile, man.” Now is not the time to get all Cusackian about this summer, because this summer is dissolving, fast! And because when we’re all nursing our 3-eyed cucumber babies and eating rat people, or whatever it is, then —well, I think you get the point.

But what I wanted to say—or what I wanted to show you, rather … hell, maybe it’s best if I just paraphrase Eli Cash: Well, everyone knows the kids in north Brooklyn are capable of this short of audacity to enjoy ourselves, this orgy of flagrant optimism. What this block party footage presupposes is … maybe it isn’t just us … ?

*Note: In my quest to simply show the diversity of ages and ethnicities voraciously enjoying this sunny summer Sutton street day … I may have kept in a lot of gratuitous footage of cute kids dancing to hipster DJs playing Lady GaGa … (also, please pardon my poor editing skills, and the occasional oohs and ahhs from Hugh and I in the background).

* P.S. This was my first-ever block party! Whole-street garage sales were the closest we got to block parties in the suburban Midwest …

Written by ENB

August 26, 2010 at 2:03 pm

How I learned to stop worrying and love the zeitgeist

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Conor calls for ‘slow journalism’ over at The American Scene:

I think I saw something about someone wanting to start a Slow Journalism movement. I am on board. Or if no one said that, then I’m doing so now. We’ll wait somewhat longer to write up news and analysis, worry less about news pegs, blog about worthwhile books that were published four years ago and articles that appeared on the Web five months ago, or seven years ago. We’ll lose the morning, every morning, but we’ll win the week. Or the month.

He’s responding to Dave Weigel’s intro over at his new Slate blog, in which Weigel grapples with the speed of the political news cycle In This Day & Age (I do dig Dave’s elevator pitch: So: Who’s running the country, who wants to take it away from them, and what are they all doing wrong? Let’s find out.) Conor says he pays no mind to who publishes first; he gets his news from friends and those established voices he trusts:

The whole of Red State or Big Government could be writing about a story before anyone else, but having concluded that I don’t know when I can trust them, and it isn’t worth the time and effort to fact check their work before writing about it, I won’t see the story until Dave Weigel or Chris Beam or Tim Carney or Mark Hemingway or some other person whose work I follow gets to it.

And I really don’t care if it’s a day later.

It sounds a bit like a vote for “epistemic closure” (am I using that phrase right, boys? I willfully ignored that whole debate; Slow-Journo street cred, score 1 me …?), but I more or less agree. It fits the theory that the only currency journalists have In This Day & Age (god, I love that phrase; all the moral panic it breathlessly implies!) is their name, and they can contract that name, that voice, out to different publications, different sites, but they better maintain control of it, because it’s really their only card. Publications have been and will continue to rely on and invest in recognizable “voices” or “brands” rather than “the news,” per se. It’s why, in attempting reinvention, AOL snapped up name-brand political writers; or why it perplexes me that in Atlantic.com’s site revamp, it reorganized content away from a voice/blogger-centric layout (not that I doubt it had very good secret reasons).

And this is all reminding me of Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, which I am reading (slowly) right now. This is my favorite point so far:

The old choice between one-way public media (like books and movies) and two-way private media (like the phone) has now expanded to include a third option: two-way media that operates on a scale from private to public. Conversations among groups can now be carried out in the same media environments as broadcasts. This new option bridges the two older options of broadcast and communications media. All media can now slide from one to the other. An e-mail conversation can be published by its participants. An essay intended for public consumption can anchor a private argument, parts of which later become public. We move from public to private and back again in ways that weren’t possible in an era when public and private media, like the radio and the telephone, used different devices and different networks.

The point he makes is so simple, but it struck me, still; that is the root of so much of what we talk about when we talk about journalism, the Internet, writers, authors, amateurs, user-generated content, social media, social networks, email privacy, influencers, news … Everything (Dave Weigel’s Journolist emails; your facebook profile; a photo a girl from third grade found in her parents’ attic, the electronic love letters you really meant to keep between you and your intended, the rough cut of the song you send a few folks to preview) is public media. Which is why it makes sense that, amid this, you know, little social shift wherein a good portion of the world’s conversation became public media, trustworthiness is one of the few viable, remaining currencies.

Or something like that.

Anyway, Conor, count me in! Because I’d like to write about Georges Simenon mysteries and what sense, if any, can be made of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I want to hear your and everyone’s thoughts on this 2001 Nerve essay, and not feel silly blogging about this New York Magazine article on soldiers and YouTube even though it’s over 2 weeks old. Because, I tell ya, getting out of DC helped give me a little perspective. It can be paralyzing when your drinking buddies are among some of the most well-known political or cultural bloggers. It can make you feel like there’s no point in writing a thing if you didn’t get there first, or don’t have a perfectly unique take.

Now Brooklyn provides its own kind of weird (everything you and/or your friends do ends up a sort of product that is very palatable for certain media types, I guess, but then again, sometimes you ask for it). But I don’t feel as paralyzed by the news cycle here. Sometimes, the whole business seems like a cross between a research experiment I might have set up in grad school (as it was, my thesis tried to discover some sort of ideological metamorphosis in U.S. celebrity-tabloid coverage based on our changing political & cultural atmosphere between 1996 and 2006. um, yeah) and a private game being played solely by those with the power, or misfortune, to believe in it. Or worse, to think they don’t.

But maybe that’s just me.

Written by ENB

August 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

‘Shame is no weapon against the shameless’

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This makes me giggle:

A bad reputation can set you free. After all, if you’ve already declared yourself to be a pot-smoking, acid-addled slut, your opponents are forced to oppose your ideas on their merits, rather than strategically revealing your hidden depravities. Shame is no weapon against the shameless.

– From an old Nerve essay I am just reading now, “A Ladies Man and Shameless,” by John Perry Barlow. It goes from giggle-inducing to sneakily gorgeous pretty quick, so watch out. It’s ostensibly all about love, sex and fidelity, but the reputation stuff also seems pretty relevant to all this end-of-forgetting hoopla …

Written by ENB

July 23, 2010 at 10:44 am

Where Have All the Vegans Gone?

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I would like to state for the record that I almost never earnestly call anyone a “hipster” (except Peter Suderman, obviously) or describe things as “hip” myself, but editors are always inserting the words into my headlines, subtitles or copy! Sigh. It’s shorthand. It’s a common cultural indicator, I get it. I get it. I just still wish it wouldn’t happen.

But, anyway, here’s a story I wrote for City Scoops NY months and months ago, “Where Have All the Vegan’s Gone?,” that’s finally appearing online:

Picture a restaurant in Williamsburg, or maybe the East Village. The decor is eclectic and artfully bohemian. The clients are youngish, thin, disheveled, and artfully bohemian themselves. In another time, they may have been slinging back soy smoothies, or gobbling down black bean burgers and tofu scramble with tempeh bacon. But this crowd is, instead, ordering the pork-shoulder sandwich, the ostrich-meat sliders, and the salad topped with bone-marrow butter and rabbit paté.

Aside from the “hip” reference, I’m pretty pleased with the article. It was something we began talking about last spring or summer, before it seemed like everybody was talking about the meat resurgence, just because we noticed that most of the restaurants we went to around Brooklyn had been shifting their menus. And it turns out we were right! Plus, I got to talk to Ms. Kathy Kirkpatrick, co-founder of the famed (i.e., in Rent) Life Cafe, who was super-sweet and interesting and gave me some hard numbers about meat and vegan menu-item sales to back up my postulating. It’s always fun when that happens.

Written by ENB

April 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

On Personal Essay Writing …

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I’m taking a personal essay writing class from MediaBistro right now. For my second assignment, I wrote an essay about getting back together briefly with an ex, and the comfort that provides.

My instructor and classmates’ comments were helpful. Some details of the timeline and relationship were fuzzy; I did need to provide more context, and make my point of view more clear. But a lot of the assumptions implicit in the comments surprised me.

Where I wrote about our initial breakup, my teacher asked, “Why did you break up? Did you want more from the relationship than he did?” Where I wrote about meeting back up initially a year later, she asked, “Did you contact him?” Where I wrote with mostly nonchalance about the initial breakup, she asked, “Did you really feel this way?”

Okay, I thought. Gender assumptions aside, I just need to clear these details up. But when I turned in the revised draft, I continued to get these sorts of comments from classmates. “You two seem to have a connection that is still there,” one wrote. “Did you really not care?” Everyone seemed to want me to feel more than I felt.

I’m not sure how to handle this. I know that personal essays, at least in the commercial market, are designed to provide just enough glimpse of a perspective to make the story unique while still managing to be relateable/digestible to a large audience. But I can’t (or won’t) conjure emotions or attitudes that didn’t exist.

I’m not sure if there’s a larger extrapolation here about commercial personal essays, or if I’m just musing …

Written by ENB

February 17, 2010 at 10:27 am

On Families and Food

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Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s story about food in the New York Times’ magazine’s food edition—well, the beginning part, about his grandma and her relationship to food—I suddenly feel compelled to share some of my own family history about food. As I may or may not have mentioned here many times before, I grew up eating the quintessential turn-of-the-millennium American processed foods diet: Poptarts and lucky charms for breakfast. Lunchables, dunkaroos and doritos for lunch. Chicken patties and canned green beans for dinner. The only vegetables we ever ate fresh (not from a can) were broccoli and potatoes. The legendary story my college friends like to tell is when I bit into the skin of an orange freshman year. I didn’t know that wasn’t how you ate it. I’d never had an orange that wasn’t canned, or that my mother hadn’t already peeled and put in fruit salad.

Learning to change my eating habits has been an ongoing process over the past 4 or 5 years, one that’s mostly been enjoyable—and one that’s also been fraught with complications. Like, for instance, disordered eating. I’ve spent various years of my life consumed with what would be, medically termed, ED-NOS (eating disorder, not-otherwise-specified)—a mix of anorexic and bulimic tendencies that never quite reached a dangerous level but was nevertheless, um, not healthy (if, most of all, mentally). I’ve always been a bit weird about food: my mom says from the time I was about 5, I’d refuse to eat more than three separate things per meal. Why 3? I don’t know. But if we had chicken, green beans, bread and rice, one of those would have to be left out.

There are a billion reasons why a person develops disordered eating habits, and I’ll spare you a dissertation on my own. But the reason I bring all this up is: my parents visited last weekend. My parents are both average for middle-aged midwestern parents, which is to say, once very thin and athletic but now chubby but not fat. They are constantly trying to lose weight, but have little idea how to go about it (one of my mom’s favorite diet lines is, “But all I had all day is tea and girl scout cookies!”). Most of my friends now are quite into food: food politics, food preparation, cooking, growing and eating food. And Brooklyn is full of amazing restaurants—the kind of places with interesting, locally grown, elaborately and lovingly prepared dishes. I took my parents to a few. Along the way, my boyfriend and roommate talked quite a bit about food.

And what did my dad have to say? Boy, your friends sure are obsessed with food. Or, by weekend’s end, “I’m a bit tired of all this food talk.” It made me feel weird, uncomfortable. Was their something unsavory, gluttonous about it?

And, I realized: food, in my family, in my culture growing up, is something to be enjoyed, but not too much. My dad (and, by consequence, me) likes meat, but doesn’t like preparing it, or eating it when it feels too much like an actual animal. He likes to be eat, sure, but he doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking about where it came from, how to make it, its effects, etc. I always thought that was healthy. But as I’m encountering new ways of thinking about eating, about food, I realize that may be just the problem. We should think about our food. We shouldn’t just guiltily enjoy whatever crap happens to taste good, and then try to exercise or rationalize it off. We should concentrate more on only putting things in our bodies that we don’t feel guilty about. And, if that means having to talk about food, to obsess about it: so be it.

I’m saying all this just as my roommates and I are embarking on a modified raw food diet. We’re on day 3. The main goal is to cut out anything processed, plus dairy, meat, pasta, soda, etc. Maybe I should say it’s more a ‘natural foods’ diet than a raw foods, as we’re not averse to cooking our veggies and such. It’s requiring a lot of thinking about food. A lot. And I think it’s good for me—thinking about food extensively is a hell of a lot better than not thinking and ordering a dominos pizza or jaunting down the street for a corner store sandwich every day.

Of course, there is a link—a link between thinking about food for health reasons, and about thinking about food like an anorexic person. I’m drawing all sorts of parallels these past few days. It feels like similar behavior to me. But maybe that’s only because thinking about food, to me, has always been thinking about restricting food. If not restricting, I wasn’t thinking about it. Thinking about food in order to enjoy it more, and to get the maximum health benefits from it, seems like an okay change, and one I’m welcome (and, falteringly, trying) to make.

Written by ENB

October 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm

To Do

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1. call Becca, Johnny, Karin, Justin
2. look up Berlin, artist things
3. start raw foods diet/quit smoking
4. buy bolt bus ticket to DC
5. work on Twin Peaks burlesque routine for Brooke’s show
6. email German girls
7. meet Sharath, Steve for drinks
8. order pot from delivery service guy
9. figure out times for Chicago, California trips
10. order new fire baton

Yeah. I think since moving to New York, my To Do list has gotten exponentially weirder.

Written by ENB

October 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Posted in My Life, Story-Telling

Sleep as Social Process; The Sadness of Science Journalism

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I have a friend whose job is, basically, all about communicating science ideas to the public for a major science organization. In grad school, he was the only non-communication-major in my group of friends (I think he studied environmental biology or chemistry, though I can never remember which), and we used to like—on boring, late-night, slightly-drunken metro rides—to play the game, “Ask Dr. Science!,” where we came up with inane, vaguely scientific questions and demanded answers from him. These days, I often send him science-y articles that catch my interest, and he tends to write me back lengthy responses about why this article is crap, or that finding is not as great as it’s being touted to be, etc. Which got me thinking: I think my blog needs an Ask Dr. Science! feature, obviously.

Because my friend wishes to remain anonymous, we shall heretofore refer to him only by the utterly ridiculous “Dr. Science,” or, if you’re into diminutions, the Doc. The subject of our our very first Ask Dr. Science! column is this New York Times article on a gene mutation tied to needing less sleep.

Researchers have found a genetic mutation in two people who need far less sleep than average, a discovery that might open the door to understanding human sleep patterns and lead to treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

[…] Although the mutation has been identified in only two people, the power of the research stems from the fact that the shortened sleep effect was replicated in mouse and fruit-fly studies. As a result, the research now gives scientists a clearer sense of where to look for genetic traits linked to sleep patterns.

The lead researcher says her “fantasy” is that this might lead to a drug that can help people get by on less sleep without negative health consequences.

As someone who needs a full 8-hours or more of sleep per night (or copious amounts of caffeine) to feel decent, I have always regarded jealously those kind of people (in which category, unfortunately enough, all my boyfriends have always seemed to fall) who can get by on 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night. I seethe with envy at insomniacs. I pine for a safe upper stronger than coffee or red bull. I see my sleepiness as some sort of personal failure. And so: I am always interested in things that promise a possible end to this shameful shortcoming. Ah!, to cut my sleeping time in half! A girl can dream …

I sent the article to Dr. Science eagerly. He was not impressed.

First off, from a technical standpoint, how full of shit are the researchers here? And to what degree is this just hyping up a single study to justify continued funding for research? Nevermind the fact that the length of sleep people require is tied to far more than a single gene, the article states, “Although the mutation has been identified in only two people, the power of the research stems from the fact that the shortened sleep effect was replicated in mouse and fruit-fly studies.” Which begs the question,”How appropriate are fruit-flies and mice as models for studying the nature of sleep in humans?”

The article also has a quote from Dr. Fu,“When they wake up in morning, they feel they have slept enough,” Dr. Fu said. “They want to get up and do things. They arrange all their major tasks in their morning.” I hope the two women were subjected to more rigorous psychological testing than a couple of questions about their subjective state of feeling. How strong is their ability to consolidate memories after 6 hours of sleep? What about alertness, ability to concentrate, and willingness to exercise?

Anyway, I think it says something that at the end of the article that Dr. Fu chose the word “fantasy” to describe her hopes for the long-term outcome of this study.Namely, risk-free treatments for people who want to sleep less. I would like the article to have described exactly how the discovery will contribute to the development of such a technology. Skepticism about the actual significance of the discovery aside, the article glosses over the much more interesting question of “how much sleep do we actually need?” There was a related article about this in the same issue of Science. But it was (understandably so) restricted to a purely physiological discussion of the subject without any acknowledgment of how culture defines and influences what we consider to be the “appropriate” amount of sleep.

I admit, I glossed over his technical objections. But “how a culture defines and influences what we consider to be the appropriate amount of sleep?” How fascinating. I suppose I’ve never thought much about it before. What does Dr. Science know about different standards of sleep in different cultures, I wondered?

When I originally wrote that statement about cultural norms influencing sleep length I was in part thinking about how the adoption of certain technologies (in this case, artificial light, alarm clocks, and stimulants/sedatives) is itself a cultural practice. I did skim over a Wikipedia article that mentioned the “anthropology of sleep” before I wrote it just to make sure I wasn’t completely pulling something out of my ass, but it does appear that there is a small field of scholarship on this subject. Maybe its helpful to distinguish between an appropriate amount of sleep from a biological perspective from that of cultural expectation. So for instance, I think a neuroscientist would argue that the “appropriate amount of sleep” is the amount such that it doesn’t affect any of your cognitive faculties, alertness, attention span, and ability to engage in physical activity. But defining the optimum capacity for cognition, alertness, attention span, and ability to engage in physical activity is itself a social process. Although I would be willing to wager that most people feel more is better in each of those cases. So the questions becomes, at what point is enough enough? Where is the line between treating somebody with a disability and enhancing somebody who is already functioning at “normal” capacity? The baseline is dynamic and historically and culturally defined, so notions of treatment vs. enhancement are continuously being renegotiated by society.

I had to pause here and tell the doc about a play a friend of mine is writing, about a near-future society in which a test-batch of people begins on The Regimen, essentially a drug that only requires humans to get about an hour of sleep per day, or one full-night of sleep per week. He’s focusing on what this would do to not only work expectations, but how it would affect the relationship between a couple where one person is on the Regimen and the other isn’t. I love this kind of hypothetical stuff, and it also reminds me of the very-non-hypothetical debate over cognitive enhancement drugs.

But this is neither here nor there. Back to the Doc. He’s skeptical that Dr. Fu’s “fantasy” would be very good for society:

Let’s imagine for a moment that Dr. Fu was able to develop a risk-free treatment that allows people to comfortably rely on 6 hours of sleep a night without the use of an alarm clock to wake up and then function normally for the rest of the day. Why should we assume that would mean people would stop using stimulants and alarm clocks to further reduce the amount of sleep they need? So instead of going from an average of 8-8.5 hrs/night to 6 hrs, then let’s say people go from 6 to 3.5-4 hrs/night. How might that affect our culture? What would people do with all that time? Would businesses use it as an excuse to extend the work day by a couple more hours? How might it redefine what we refer to as “nightlife”?

And where in this chain of events in the development and deployment of such a sleep-reducing technology would people be given a choice about whether or not this is the type of society we want to live in? Or would we just sleep-walk (ok, maybe pun-intended) our way into this new world until it has become so entrenched that we can only attempt to create to a few modest regulations after the treatment has already become well established in the market and culture. How well has that approach worked for industrial agriculture and the way we eat food?

Anyway, it raises so many broad questions and I would just like to see science journalists raise a few of the issues rather than just congratulate the researchers. It looks like the author of the article only solicited one second opinion on the paper and it was from another physician doing sleep research. Why not ask a social scientist, an ethicist, or a historian about their thoughts on the subject? It’s a bit too important to simply leave it up to physical scientists to opine on the value of this research. So yeah, I’m not saying that a society where people only sleep 3.5-4 hrs/night would necessarily be a bad one to live in, but it warrants a broader debate than it will probably ever receive.

The sociology of science journalism! I hadn’t yet thought about that either. Sure, I publish “health discoveries” everyday on the Bulletin Web site, and wonder, vaguely and instinctively, what the point of reporting on these sort of things is, if it really creates any value, since findings seem to contradict each other and wind back and forth and get all twisty and bold and retracted every day or week or month. Oh, and I’ve read The Sociology of News, and I’ve thought about the way we cover press conferences and politics; I’ve wrote my graduate thesis on how we cover celebrities; I’ve pondered many times The Meaning of style-section articles … but I have never thought about the way we cover science. Or, if I have, it’s been with a vague assumption that science and health discovery reporting had to be kind of nebulous and shallow. Do you think the science journalism in the mainstream press in general is in a sorry state?, I asked Dr. Science.

Yeah, science journalism is definitely in trouble. Clearly not all journalists write these “gee-whiz, scientists discover X!” stories, but its pretty prevalent. Andrew Revkin at the NYTimes does a lot of good coverage of science. He has an interesting article on the phenomenon we’re talking about here with regard to slowly evolving research and contradictory results–what he refers to as the “whiplash effect.”

In it, Revkin writes:

When science is testing new ideas, the result is often a two-papers-forward-one-paper-back intellectual tussle among competing research teams.

When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Under nonstop scrutiny, conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public.

But with the current state of newspapers and journalism, can we really expect anything better?

Written by ENB

August 19, 2009 at 11:21 am

What Was Lost: Part III

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In Lockland, there was a Welling’s Jewelers (still there today, in fact) on the bottom floor of a three-story building on the corner of Benson and Market Streets. The middle floor was apartments, and the top floor was a burlesque theater. It closed in the 40s or 50s, but my dad’s been up there to do electrical work, and he said it’s quite opulent, all red velvet seats and the like.

Down the street, now, is a strip club in the basement of a bar. There is no stage, but a roped-off section of linoleum in the back corner. People stand around the ropes and throw crumpled up dolar bills at haggard-looking girls in Wal-Mart bra-and-booty-short sets.

Written by ENB

August 16, 2009 at 9:46 pm

What Was Lost: Part II

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Other things that have been lost: We used to not only have a movie theater, but every other damn thing a town could need, too. So did Lockland, next door, and really all the neighboring towns, my dad says. You did your shopping, banking—everything—in your own city. My dad grew up in Lockland. His dad worked at the paper factory in town, and he worked there himself, in high school, and again after he dropped out of college. A lot of people worked there that he knew, but not as many as worked at the other two factories in town, which were both slightly bigger. Almost nobody, though, went without working in one of those three factories at some point. If you lived in a town, you pretty much worked in that town, he says. Reading had a match factory, and indeed, every one of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles worked there.

I can immediately see 1,500 downsides to all this, but I can’t help thinking it would be nice.

Written by ENB

August 16, 2009 at 8:10 pm

What Was Lost: Netflix vs. Rubber Snakes & Dress Slacks

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RKO Albee, Downtown Cincinnati, from vintage postcardMorning coffee with my dad, we’re discussing all the lost businesses, factories and other establishments in our hometown of Reading, Ohio (the conversation is prompted by the fact that my great aunt just gave me the key to the city’s historical society building, and, boy!, am I psyched). He starts talking about the movie theater on the main street of our town that he used to frequent as a kid. All the little cities and towns surrounding Reading (itself one of the nearer suburbs of Cincinnati) had their own movie theaters, he said, and you only went to the neighboring town’s theater if you’d already seen what was playing at yours—a rare occurrence, because even though they only showed one or two pictures each, they switched frequently. He remembered all these great and silly special effects and theatricality, the kind of old-matinee lore—rubber snakes on the ground, or plastic spiders dropping from the ceiling, during horror flix; one movie with a “shocking twist” ending, for which kids were made to sign a waver upon entering that they wouldn’t tell anyone the surprise. There was another theater they sometime went to, and it was a little bit in decline already—the owners had closed down the concession stand and replaced it with vending machines. This was perfectly all right by my dad and his friends, however, who thought the soda machine—which dispensed not cans but little styrofoam cups that soda was then leaked into, like the automatic coffee machines you sometimes see today—was a marvel in and of itself, a sign of the future.

Later, when he started dating my mom (he was 17, she was 15, which would make this 1972), they would sometimes go to the big, old movie palaces in downtown Cincinnati—this was where you took a date, instead of one of the neighborhood theaters, if you wanted to impress her, he explained. In just a year or so, cultural norms would start to change, but that year, you would still put on a dress shirt, a tie, some slacks, to see an evening show.

I listen to these stories jealously. For movie going to be an event! For the awe, the clothes, the red velvet, the smoke! For the community nature of theaters, before they all became National Amusements, or Showcase Cinemas, or Loew’s. For the names—the Emory, the 20th Century, the Gaiety the RKO Albee, the Vogue—of the theaters themselves.

And then I think about Netflix. And how I can get 3 movies at a time, unlimited times, for under $20 per month. How I can find almost any movie I want—foreign films, indie films, those made 20, 40, 60 years ago. That I can have these movies delivered directly to my house, that I can watch them in my own home, or really anywhere, from my laptop, that I can send one back and a new one will arrive in a day or so. Would I trade all this for plastic spiders falling from the ceiling?

It’s easy to romanticize some things. “Oh, it was corny,” my dad says of those matinee theaters of his youth, but he gets kind of animated when he talks about them, nonetheless.

I’m sure, given the choice, most people would take the choice and convenience of services like Netflix (or of online movies, or of DVDs) over the spectacle of movie-viewing past. I think I would, too. But it’s still hard not to feel a little regret about what’s been lost. If I could somehow collectively erase our knowledge of how we watch films now while simultaneously bringing those days back: I would.

Written by ENB

August 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm