Worst Song Ever, or Hate You Like This Love Song, Baby

This song appears on the mix played during the “boot camp” training sessions I do at Carleton. It’s a heinous piece of work, maybe the worst song I’ve ever heard. The video is just as bad. (FYI, Selena Gomez repeats “I love you like a love song, baby” just 18 times in this song. I would have sworn it was 1800, but I counted.)

Riding for Fun

I realized the other day that I hardly ever ride my bike for pure pleasure, the way a kid might. To be sure, I have a lot of fun riding my bike, whether commuting, running errands, training, or racing, but I never just ride around for the sake of riding around. On realizing this, I decided I’d take a few minutes each day to just tool around. As luck would have it, I was able to do that this morning, weaving among all the chairs still standing from Carleton’s commencement ceremony last weekend. It was pretty fun.


More Big Book News from Shannon!

Uh, wow. Big honking news!

Holiday Gift-Buying for all the Moms You Know (Including Yourself)

Faithful readers!

In just a few short weeks, in mid-December (exact date to be determined; I will update you!), my first book will be released by Booktrope Publishing. (OMG! Insert screaming and jumping up and down here.)

A comprehensive handbook for happy and healthy stay-at-home motherhood, The Essential Stay-at-Home Mom Manual: How to Have a Wondrous Life Amidst Kids and Chaos is a combination of professional self-help advice for taking better care of yourself, and real-life anecdotes and practical strategies for making your life as a stay-at-home mom easier and more fun. It’s for stay-at-home moms of all kinds (total novices or experienced SAHMs), with kids of all ages, and includes plenty of ideas and resources for any mom who could use some help keeping her kids entertained, her house reasonably tidy, and her sanity intact.

Originally, my book stemmed from this blog, but it expanded into a much larger project when I decided to use my expertise as a clinical health psychologist to address the parts of at-home motherhood that seem to trip women up the most (time for yourself; sleep; fitness; nutrition; mood; taking care of yourself and not just your kids; balancing parenting with other relationships; stress). Who doesn’t need help with all that, right? But don’t worry–it’s also a fun and funny read about life in the trenches of motherhood, with excerpts from this blog as well as examples of mothering craziness from my own life and the lives of other moms I know.

Plus, if you buy my book, you’ll get to read about just how grim my life was during my first year of motherhood, before this blog and before I had any other mom friends. Wouldn’t you love to find out just how much chocolate I consumed that year? And how much I cried? And how crazy I was? Sure you do.

My book comes out right before Christmas, so bookmark Amazon.com and get your mouse ready to click. I’m sure you know a mom or two who could use this book. Maybe you.

Reading List

More or less on a whim, I kept track of every single thing I read – online or off; blog post, newspaper article, magazine essay, or book; for work or pleasure or by accident – during August 2011. You can find the complete rundown on my Tumblr blog, My Reading List. Two takeaways:

  1. I needed about half the month to acquire the habit of plugging everything into this blog, but after that, doing so became second nature – so much so that I unthinkingly added a few new items even after the month ended.
  2. Jotting down a few words about each read item became an immense help to remembering the details of each piece. The effect was miraculous.

The Writer Reads

Shannon’s reading of her essay in Torn went very well! The house was packed with about 25 people (including the girls and Shannon’s parents, who came down to surprise her); her fellow essayist, Katy Read, did a wonderful job with her own piece; the Q&A was smooth and interesting; and of course Shannon read beautifully (and looked just as good):
The Writer Reading!

Ski Racing in Norway

The nordic skiing world championship in Oslo are well under way now, with five great races down. Even better (after lackluster crowds at the 2009 and 2007 worlds), the Norwegians are turning out in force: 70,000 turned up on Sunday to watch one of the premiere events, which was won by Norwegian Petter Northug:

The Norwegian media follows skiing pretty closely:


(Both photos from Oskar Karlin’s Flickr photostream.)

February Films: Exit Through the Gift Shop

My fourth movie of February was the amazing, hilarious, and captivating “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop, which purports to be about the British street artist Banksy and the international scene in which he works. The street art – graffiti, if you like – is mostly wonderful: funny, cutting, imaginative, beautiful. Banksy’s work stands out as especially interesting, because it’s at once so varied and so simple. The film is worth watching if only to see all this art.

Beyond that, I won’t really summarize the plot of the movie, but suffice to say that it works equally well as a straight documentary or as a mockumentary – or as both at once. (I only learned afterwards that the film might be a hoax – or that it might not be a hoax.)

February Films: Straight No Chaser

The third movie of February was the documentary Straight No Chaser, a sorta-biopic about the jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. I didn’t realize, beforehand, that the film was so old – from 1988, just 6 years after Monk’s death. When I learned that, my view of the film changed a bit. On watching it, I thoroughly enjoyed the music (Monk is one of my favorite jazz artists), but thought the “documentary” elements to be rather weak – slices of what were obviously just a few long recordings of Monk in the studio, traveling, or otherwise living. These sections seemed impressionistic at best, and unilluminating at worst.

After learning that the film was finished just a few years after Monk died, though, I realized that it was meant as much to be a vehicle for seeing Monk alive as a way to hear his music – much less to get a sense of his biography, which you can’t very well do. You do get a good sense of Monk’s personal oddity, which was even more impressive and challenging than his musical oddity. Monk was, the film makes clear though interviews and footage, a deeply troubled man who suffered, it appears, from some sort of bipolar disorder, and possibly from Asperger’s or another form of autism. The circular mania of many of his tunes seem to be musical proof of his mental state. It’s a wonder, and yet not, that he produced so much immortal music.

February Films: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Tonight’s film – number 2 of the projected 28 – was another animated movie: Fantastic Mr. Fox. I haven’t seen a Wes Anderson flick since The Royal Tenenbaums, so this was overdue, and sets me up to see A Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited. Mr. Fox was really good: the spectacular animation perfectly extended a story that would have been, frankly, insipid in another or lesser kind of animation. Mr. and Mrs. Fox were wonderful characters, and their son Ash and nephew Kristofferson were almost equally engaging. All in all, this is a great movie.

Shuffling My Music

I’m going cross-platform with this here Facebook “meme,” which asks you to use “shuffle” through the first fifteen songs that come up on your iPod. These showed up when I shuffled my iPod Touch, which doesn’t have all my music on it but does have most of the music I like to hear.

Thelonious Monk, “Trinkle Trinkle” (Monk’s Blues)
Kvarts, “Masurka” (Steinsprang)
Amerikan Poijat, “Chaconne” (Connections Finnish)
Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man” (Pixies)
Frisbie, “Martha” (The Subversive Sounds of Love)
Duke Ellington, “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo…” (Elllington at Newport (Live))
Art Tatum, “Humoresque” (Piano Starts Here)
Dosh, “Fireball” (Triple Rock)
Pavement, “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” (Slanted & Enchanted)
Cannonball Adderly, “Sticks” (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!)
Radiohead, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (In Rainbows)
Django Reinhardt, “Blue Moon” (Classic Early Recordings)
St. Vincent, “Just the Same But Brand New” (Actor)
Art Blakey, “Carol’s Interlude” (The Jazz Messengers)
Miles Davis, “Budo” (The Complete Birth of Cool)

Extreme Religion – Dangerous or Just Dumb?

Last night I finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, an examination of the violent extremes to which Mormons have gone to defend themselves and their religion. In Krakauer’s telling, this violence has often come as Mormons attempt to extend or maintain the institution of polygamy, which is still practiced by some thousands of “fundamentalist” Mormons in the American Southwest, Canada, and Mexico. This story, both lurid and integral to American history, raises several questions about the proper place of religion in American civic life, questions which are especially germane to the contemporary American political scene, where the religiously-charged populism of the Tea Party is apparently an ascendant force.

Krakauer structures the book around a heinous 1984 murder by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers, of their sister-in-law and and her baby – murders which the brothers believed had been mandated by God as being necessary to inaugurate the end time. The book has two threads. The first concerns the complicated social, political, and religious context in which the Lafferty brothers grew up, first within mainstream Mormonism (such as it is) and later within a virulent sect of fundamentalism. The second thread offers a history of Mormonism from its inception in early 19th-century New York State until the middle of the 20th century, emphasizing the way that violence – between individuals, between coreligionists, between Mormons and “Gentiles,” between the church and the federal government – shaped the development of the faith right up to the point at which the Lafferty brothers adopted the delusion that only they could usher in the restoration of true Mormonism – that is, Mormonism (re)centered on polygamy and utter disdain for any but “God’s laws.”

All of this was fascinating on its face. Krakauer’s a good writer, and here smoothly wove together everything from Mormons’ roles in the Indian wars to psychotherapeutic approaches to unusual religious belief. Given the story that Krakauer’s dedicated to telling (one suggested by the book’s subtitle), Mormonism as a faith does not come off well.

Krakauer only briefly draws explicit links between the sheer craziness of the Lafferty brothers (both still in prison) and the interesting question of whether all religious belief is crazy. Of course, he then dodges that question, though much of the evidence in the book goes to show that religious belief is a form of lunacy – whether banal (a virgin birth, an elephant god, a prophet riding to heaven on a horse, a dead man coming back to life) or extraordinary (punitive amputations, mortification of the flesh, slaughter of children).

If nowhere else, that lunacy comes to the fore in the way that certain kinds of religious belief in the United States actually work to prevent the acquisition of knowledge that is somehow worldly, or even common-sensical. Though there’s no end of examples of religiously-grounded anti-intellectualism – just look at the continuing controversy over evolution and “intelligent design” – the U.S. in 2010 seems to be especially plagued by it.

As I read Krakauer’s accounts of ludicrous Mormon beliefs, my mind immediately turned to the spectacle of openly religious “Tea Party” candidates espousing ridiculous ideas (Joe Miller, the Republican candidate for senator in Alaska, suggesting that the U.S. follow East Germany’s model for closing the borders) or for seeming proud to have little knowledge (Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for senator in Delaware, being unable to name key Constitutional amendments). Krakauer’s book, like other critical examinations of religious fundamentalisms, suggests that there is a kind of zero-sum relationship between extreme religious beliefs and everyday knowledge, a dynamic in which the impractical certainties of religious faith (even lunatic ones like the Lafferty brothers’) push against the useful uncertainties of everyday life. With extreme religiosity seemingly on the rise in the United States today, this is a distressing idea.

Turkey Ride

Starting my ride this afternoon, I rode past plumes of dust and chaff from the soybean harvest across the road from our house:
Soybean Harvest

Just a minute later, I had to stop for wildfowl: a group of wild turkeys meandering along the road after being driven from their home fields by the harvesting.
Wild Turkeys Far

I stood stock still on the shoulder of the road, and the birds got closer and closer to me
Wild Turkeys Near

Finally they were only six feet away, warbling to each other pleasantly.

Even when cars came through our little vignette, the birds only briefly stepped aside before reclaiming their spots in the center of the road. Eventually, they did mosey over into the opposite ditch and then into the cornfield beyond it.

Ben Katchor at Carleton

As I often say, one of the best things about working at Carleton is going to all the excellent events that the College sponsors. Tonight’s example was a wonderful lecture by the cartoonist/graphic novelist Ben Katchor, best known for his comic strip, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer – a strip I discovered in the Chicago Reader newspaper soon after graduating from Macalester and moving to Chicago. It was then unlike anything I’d ever read, and Katchor’s lecture – which he said he delivered to meet a special request from someone here – was no different: a “picture story” entitled “The Great Museum Cafeterias of the Western World: An Illustrated Lecture on the Design and Culture of Museum Cafeterias.”

Yes, that really was the topic, and yes, it really was that weird, as well as charming and hilarious and moving. More than anything, the story reminded me of the sort of story that Jorge Luis Borges might have written – a few bright threads of truth and reality woven into a cloth of fiction. Katchor’s story had some magic realism, some silliness, some heartstring-tugging , some facts, and tons of great pictures, of which my friend Doug Bratland took some shots (thanks for sharing them, Doug!):

"Mnemonic Merchandise" (Ben Katchor)
"Mnemonic Merchandise" (Ben Katchor)
"The Idea of a Sandwich" (Ben Katchor)
"The Idea of a Sandwich" (Ben Katchor)
The Museumgoer (Ben Katchor)
The Museumgoer (Ben Katchor)

Technology and Distraction

One item on the long list of great things about working at Carleton is that I can attend the weekly presentations offered by the College’s Perlman Center for Teaching and Learning (which is, perversely, called the “LTC”). Today’s presentation , conducted by a geology prof, a psych prof, and a student, was great:

Digital Nation: Electronic media are radically changing the way this generation of students thinks, learns and socializes–perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Join us as we view a brief segment from a PBS “Frontline” program that explores these issues, and discuss the potentially revolutionary implications of these changes.

The core of the presentation was a segment from Frontline‘s “Digital Nation” broadcast. Though I haven’t (yet) seen the entire show (which is available for viewing online), the featured segment unequivocally made the case that technologically-driven multitasking by college students (and, by extension, by others) is a practice that actually hampers the multitasker’s ability to accomplish tasks, alters the brain functioning of the multitasker, and even dumbs down American culture.

Those are heady claims, ones which the psychologst, Mija Van Der Wege, deftly qualified with information about multitasking and divided attention in general – not just the kind of technologically-driven multitasking villified (with some justice) by Frontline. The problem, Van Der Wege subtly argued, isn’t so much that technology makes us (pick your category: Americans, adults, humans) bad at multitasking, it’s that our brains are bad at it, whether the multiple tasks are checking Facebook, talking on the phone, listening to music, and writing a paper (the sort of scenario depicted in the show) or, say, tending children, singing, gathering berries, and watching for lions. We as organisms are just not wired to simultaneously do all that stuff – or, at least, not to simultaneously do all that stuff very well.

Van Der Wege’s point led naturally into a good Q&A session, which in turn led to a short post-presentation chat with a computer scientist (seriously: there aren’t many workplaces that allow a person to casually talk to scientists about their fields of expertise!) about the Frontline clip and the Q&A. As a self-described “technologist,” she didn’t take to the show’s contention (or the subtext in some of the Q&A exchanges) that technology per se was to blame for students’ multitasking, which jibed with my own reaction as an erstwhile historian of technology.

One key lesson that I gleaned from the history of technology is that problems that seem to be technological are often actually social problems which have been somehow folded into a machine, a factory, a process. Dividing the technical from the social often reveals that the real problem reside in social arrangements such as power differentials, resource allocations, or methods of learning. As one historian famously said, technologies are “frozen politics” – social decisions, capacities, knowledge, resources that have been literally engineered into a tangible form.

In the case of technologically-driven multitasking, the problem is less that our technologies allow, say, a constant feed of status updates from Twitter and Facebook and, I think, more that we have chosen to maintain many of our interpersonal connections through technologies. If the 24/7 social media world becomes too onerous, we could choose to disembed some of our relationships from technology, and in fact we see that happening with, for instance, “tweetups” – real-world parties attended by people who follow each other on Twitter. But the point here is that we’ve chosen, consciously or not, to allow technologies to constitute many of our social arrangements, and to shape many other aspects of life, such as how we read or write. As the Frontline piece pointed out, this isn’t new: the advent of print, for instance, destroyed the need to memorize huge quantities of knowledge – and the social role of those with that task. Similarly, the telephone has now been reshaping our social relationships for more than 125 years.

In questioning the value of being a “digital nation,” then, we should shift blame away from our technologies – with their seductive screens and sounds – and toward our own individual and collective decision-making. Just as we can choose to let Twitter and Facebook become tools for making friends (or to let the phone interrupt dinner), we can choose to turn off the smartphone and shut down the browser so that we can, say, tranquilly write for an hour on the laptop or sit in a comfy chair and read a book.

Which I’m going to do right now.