Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chick Flick Cliches and Ideas for the Anti-Valentine's Day Party

Since we are on the cusp of February, which has perhaps one of the most reviled holidays ever (Valentine's Day), chick flicks are coming out in full force. Bridget Jones's Diary, While You Were Sleeping, and the like will take over networks and basic cable, and there will be no escaping from them.

Most of us are familiar with chick flicks and the cliches associated with them. However, just in case you aren't, here is a surprisingly good video (made to promote the film He's Just Not that Into You) that provides a funny and quick look at 10 of the most common chick flick cliches.

If you are planning on spending Valentine's Day alone and bitter at either the hype surrounding the holiday or at the fact that you are spending the holiday watching movies with your cat, may I propose the idea of a chick flick drinking game? Get some single (and preferably sardonic) friends together, tell them to dress down (sweats are allowed and encouraged), break out the booze and really fattening food (premium ice cream, chocolates, etc.), and pop in some rom-coms starring Renee Zellwegger, Hugh Grant, or Julia Roberts. Using the cliches mentioned in the clip, make up the rules to your drinking game. For instance:
  • Each time the two characters who are obviously supposed to be together put off telling each other what they really feel, take a shot and (almost) tell the person to your left what you really think about him/ her.
  • Whenever a musical montage with a sappy or romantic song that helps underscore the characters' feelings comes on, take a drink and then launch into a spontaneous dance number with your fellow drinkers.
If you are not in the rom-com mood, you can substitute any romantic/ sappy movie you desire, as long it contains some of the cliches mentioned above (this pretty much excludes period films of the Merchant Ivory persuasion or any period romance that takes itself too seriously). For instance, if you have single guy friends who balk at watching sappy movies, start the night off slowly with Jerry Maguire, which has sports, Renee Zellwegger, and Tom Cruise before the world knew he was completely nuts. If your party consists of single (or really bitter) women and gay men, feel free to pop in Stepmom, where there is plenty of crying and singing comforting songs into spatulas.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Quick Look at Google Chrome

With the exception of Barack Obama, I am not a person who embraces change. While I do like updates to things, more often than not I find myself tweaking a personal page and then almost immediately changing it back to the way it was. I have been using Firefox for several years, and despite some Firefox crashes, I am pretty happy with it. However, as I was waiting for school closing updates on Tuesday night, I noticed a number of advertisements on YouTube for Google Chrome, Google's web browser. Since I had nothing better to do, I decided to download it and give it a whirl.

The best thing I can say about Google Chrome is that it is very simple and streamlined. The browser doesn't have a lot of clutter; the address bar also doubles as the search bar, and the toolbar at the top of the browser is positively austere. The upside of this minimalist approach is that it allows for more of the screen dedicated to web page itself. The browser also boasts a bookmarks toolbar that allows for easy access to your favorite pages. Although this pared-down browser threw me for a look since I am used to the bells and whistles found on Firefox, it was fairly easy to navigate and to import my bookmarks from Firefox.

Another neat feature that Google Chrome has is the ability to let you go incognito and browse without the fear of another user finding the page you were looking at in the browser's history. While you could certainly use this for many a nefarious purpose (internet cheating, reading porn, looking at firearms, etc.). it does have some positive potential uses as well. The most benign example would be if you were looking for a gift for a spouse or loved one, and you decided to research an item online. This way, you could research and shop to your heart's content without the fear of your wife/ husband/ son/ daughter/ life-partner inadvertently ruining the surprise by finding the information in the browser history.

That said, I'm not ready to get rid of Firefox and convert to Google Chrome. I've noticed that Google Chrome tends to run a little slow for me, and it does not always respond as quickly as I would like. There seems to be a 7-second tape delay whenever I try to close a tab, access a new tab, or drag a tab into its own window. Also, I like my Firefox setup, which allows me to easily copy and paste information and clip information into Evernote.

With all of this said, I'm not super-savvy when it comes to computers, so I know I have probably left out a number of Chrome's features. If you want a more in-depth review of Chrome's pros and cons, check out this one from PC World magazine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Benjamin Button Vs. Forrest Gump

I don't go to the movies very often, so I haven't seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which has somehow tricked the Academy into giving it 13 Oscar nominations (seriously, most of the reviews I read for the film were kind of "meh"). However, according to a (sadly unavailable) video from Funny or Die, I don't need to see Benjamin Button because the film basically follows the same trajectory as Forrest Gump. Although Gump does not contain a shirtless Brad Pitt, I think I'll stick with Tom Hanks and BB v.1.0, if only to avoid the overpublicized insanity that is Branjelina.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Thoughts on Evernote, Part II

So I've been using for almost a month now, and I still have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it does offer a lot of convenience and it keeps my notes in one place (at least in theory). If I think of something that I need to do at work, I can type it into Evernote and then easily access it on the web from my work computer. I've started using Evernote more to save web clippings and pages when I'm browsing online or when I find a recipe that I think I might like to try down the road. Not only does this keep me from cluttering up my bookmarks with these little pieces of information, it also ensures that I don't file a link away in a folder where I might forget about it.

Despite these uses, I'm still not completely sold on Evernote, and I don't see it replacing my trusty supply of Post-Its or Moleskine notebooks any time soon. If I'm sitting on the subway or am away from a computer, a paper note is the only way for me jot down something important. Furthermore, even if I use it to compile a shopping list or a list of books to pick up at the library, I still have to make a paper list so that I can use it when I am in the store or the library. Another issue I have with Evernote is the fact that it doesn't allow me to decrypt information through the web program. For instance, if I decided to save a password for something at work in Evernote, I cannot use the encrypt/ decrypt function because my operating system on my work computer does not work with the Evernote download for Macs.

Until I get an iPhone, I don't see Evernote replacing the more traditional means of taking notes and jotting down reminders. In the first month I have had it, I have created a grand total of 14 notes and used 6% of my allotted space. However, even if I never become a full-fledged Evernote addict or enthusiast, I do appreciate the options that it gives me, and I definitely plan to continue using it in the future.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poetry: "Simple Gifts" and Post-Inauguration Afterglow

Today is President Obama's first full day on the job, but I'm still basking in the post-inauguration glow. Yesterday, most people were on an endorphin high of epic proportions. Although I wasn't completely enthralled with Elizabeth Alexander's poem, John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts," played by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero was incredible.

If part of the melody sounded familiar, it is because Williams incorporated the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" by Elder Joseph Brackett into his composition. While the melody is probably best known from Aaron Copeland's score for the ballet Appalachian Spring or as the hymn "The Lord of the Dance," Brackett's original lyrics are quite good and reflect many of yesterday's sentiments:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Poets of Inaugurations Past

Since we are mere hours away from Barack Obama's inauguration (CNN has a very helpful countdown clock in the corner of its television channel if you are interested), I thought that a quick look back at poets of inaugurations past may be of interest. As many people know, Elizabeth Alexander is tapped to compose and read a poem at inauguration. Although this seems like a gesture steeped in tradition, having a inaugural poet isn't all that common. In fact, according to the New York Times, Alexander is only the fourth inaugural poet. However, she is in good company; her predecessors are Robert Frost, Maya Angelou (Clinton's first inauguration), and Miller Williams (Clinton's second inauguration).

JFK was the first president to have a poet read at the inauguration. He famously asked Robert Frost, the premier American poet of the day (and perhaps of all time), to read "The Gift Outright" at the Kennedy inauguration. Frost, who had a keen mind of his own, composed a poem called "Dedication." The poem's ending quite clearly shows Frost's admiration of Kennedy:
"It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour."
Unfortunately, the sun was blindingly bright upon the snow, so Frost, who was 87 at the time, was unable to read his poem. Undeterred, he recited "The Gift Outright" from memory. Frost's handwritten copy, which he gave to Kennedy, is on display at the Kennedy Library.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Poem for MLK Day: "I Care and I Am Willing to Serve"

When I first started teaching, I came across a book called Teaching with Fire, which contained poems submitted by teachers that helped them sustain the fire to teach. While I gave both copies that I had away, one poem from the book remains in my memory even though I haven't read the book in years. Marian Wright Edelman's "I Care and I Am Willing to Serve" not only encapsulates the mindset of many teachers (and many people who dedicate their lives to serving others), but it also fits the mood for today, which president-elect Obama has used to call people to serve others.

Edelman's poem, which she used in a fantastic commencement speech at Tulane University in 2001, helps all of us confront our shortcomings. However, it does not let us off the hook. Even though we may not have Martin Luther King, Jr.'s eloquence and have a myriad of insecurities and limitations, Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, encourages us to go out and make a difference in any way we can.

"I Care and I Am Willing to Serve"
by Marian Wright Edelman

Lord I cannot preach like Martin Lurther King, Jr.
or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou
but I care and am willing to serve.

I do not have Fred Shuttlesworth's and Harriet
Tubman's courage or Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's political skills
but I care and am willing to serve.

I cannot sing like Fannie Lou Hamer
or organize like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin
but I care and am willing to serve.

I am not holy like Archbishop Tutu,
forgiving like Mandela, or disciplined like Gandhi
but I care and am willing to serve.

I am not brilliant like Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois or
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or as eloquent as
Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington
but I care and am willing to serve.

I have not Mother Teresa's saintliness,
Dorothy Day's love or Cesar Chavez's
gentle tough spirit
but I care and am willing to serve.

God it is not as easy as it used to be
to frame an issue and forge a solution
but I care and am willing to serve.

My mind and body are not so swift as in youth
and my energy comes in spurts
but I care and am willing to serve.

I'm so young
nobody will listen
I'm not sure what to say or do
but I care and am willing to serve.

I can't see or hear well
speak good English, stutter sometimes, am afraid of criticism
and get real scared standing up before others
but I care and am willing to serve.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: A TV Guide to Life

In the past decade or so, a spate of books about popular culture's salubrious effects have come out, simultaneously paying homage to certain figures while also making us feel better about watching so much television. These books, like The Daily Show and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and Everything Bad is Good for You, challenged the notion that popular culture was paving civilization's road to hell and made the argument that television and movies were actually making us smarter and more thoughtful.

While many of these books are interesting to read, if for no other reason than it is fun to see what twisted, Rube Goldberg-like devices the authors must use to help connect Satre to The Simpsons, I take these books with a shaker of salt. Consequently, I approached Jeff Alexander's A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know from Watching Television with some skepticism. Imagine my surprise when I found an often amusing (and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny) look at the plentiful quirks found on television, particularly in scripted TV shows.

The first (and perhaps most important) thing to note about Alexander's book is that the title is a bit misleading. After glancing at the title, I thought that Alexander, a writer for the wonderfully snarky Television Without Pity, was going to try to convince readers that television actually has life-applicable lessons. This is not the book's intention at all; instead, Alexander dissects some of the most familiar tropes found in television, such as the quasi-incestuous relationships that creep up in the workplace (after dozens of failed relationships, why don't the doctors of Seattle Grace on Grey's Anatomy expand the dating pool to outside the hospital?) to the complications that come with having superpowers (characters with superpowers are either noble and tormented or evil). Along the way, he takes the time to point out some glaring absurdities that populate some of television's biggest hits (why do people hang out with Jack McFarland on Will & Grace and Phoebe Buffay on Friends? How do the four women on Sex and the City manage to consistently find time to get together?).

As he skewers one television-derived lesson after another, it is obvious that Alexander knows what he is talking about. In his analysis, he references popular current and past shows, and a passing familiarity with the shows certainly helps in completely understanding what he is mocking. However, many of these shows are so well-known that even a casual observer will be able to get his references. The book's organization of having separate chapters dealing with an overall theme (such as TV and friendship) is very effective in that it allows readers to skip around without any problem.

If you are looking for a serious discussion on what television has to offer in terms of useful knowledge, you will want to read another book. However, if you are looking for a humorous, somewhat irreverent look at television, Alexander's book is for you. It may even convince you to take some time away from the TV and curl up with a book.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Thoughts on Evernote, Part I

So I've been using Evernote for almost two weeks, and I wanted to give an update on it. So far, it seems like a good tool, but I haven't found it particularly useful. I have a grand total of 7 notes on it (mostly web clippings), and I did download the desktop icon so I can use it without being online. One helpful feature that it has is that it enables you to encrypt your information. For instance, if you have something that you want to keep private (such as a credit card number or password), you can encrypt the text that you want to keep private using Evernote through the desktop (you may also be able to do this through your iPhone). When you want to see the information, you click on the hidden info and type in the password you assigned it.

Beyond that neat little trick, I haven't found Evernote all that helpful. I would probably get more out of it if I took my computer everywhere with me (not going to happen) or had an iPhone or other smart phone that allowed me to use Evernote on the go (not happening anytime soon). Nevertheless, I think I will continue to persevere in using the program. Stay tuned for more updates and thoughts in later blogs.

ETA: I posted a few more thoughts on Evernote. Click here to read them!

Thursday, January 15, 2009 is P*ssing Me Off

I usually enjoy reading and its interesting perspective on the news and culture. However, two articles it featured today have seriously annoyed me. Let me give you a fair warning: these articles are wildly different, so don't try to find a connection between the two. There really isn't one beyond the fact that they are both objectionable. Hang on folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

The first one is about Facebook and presents some arguments as to why there are some people who don't join it. Farhad Manjoo says that people who do not join Facebook basically boils down to an elitist, holier-than-thou attidue. He encourages these people to give up and join since everyone else is on it. However, not only did Manjoo's article not present a compelling case for me to join Facebook, it actually made me want to continue to be a holdout. Besides subjecting readers to the sort of taunting peer pressure most of us were warned about in DARE (Drug Abuse Resistence Education), he also makes some generalizations that are not true (and rather offensive)

I have several reasons for not joining Facebook, but I don't look down upon anyone who decides to join it nor do I consider myself better than the millions of people who use the site. Besides the face that my lack of photographs would make my page look very austere, I find that I get easily addicted to things online. If I ever started using Facebook, I have no doubt that I would be on it at all hours, reading updates. The other reason I don't use Facebook is that I don't want the added responsibility of knowing what everyone I know is doing at any given time. For instance, I don't want to know that a former student of mine is out partying. Some people like being hyper-connected and informed; there is nothing wrong with that, but it isn't for me.

The other Slate article that angered me concerns Barack Obama's letter to his daughters, which was published in Parade and which he wrote as a response to a question posed by the magazine. Besides the fact that Emily Bazelon is outraged about this letter instead of some more grievous problem or occurrence (such as George W. Bush's cavalier attitude towards the last eight years), I was particularly offended by her interpretation that this is "a burden" on the Obama children. Um, I think that Ms. Bazelon and I should talk burdens. You place a burden on your child when you decide to run for vice-president while knowing that your unwed teenage daughter is pregnant. You place a burden on your child when you repeatedly are unfaithful to your wife/ her mother and you hold the highest office in the land. You place a burden on everyone when you decide to start a war based on lies and faulty intelligence and then don't have the gumption to admit that you made a mistake. Those things are unnecessary burdens. Publicly expressing your love for your children is not a burden.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Happy Movie Musicals for Hard Times

While the inauguration of Barack Obama is only eight days away (yay!), the news in the US has been very dire recently. Adding the economic and housing problems to the post-holiday/ winter doldrums makes everything seem that much darker. Even if you don't suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the weather in most places during the cold and dreary months of January and February would be enough to get almost anyone down.

If you can't afford a quick jaunt to the sunny Caribbean (and who can nowadays?), musicals are here to help! However, you need to be careful when looking for a movie musical to help lift your spirits and put a spring in your step. Many of the recent musicals worth watching, such as Chicago, are not exactly light-hearted nor do they cause you to immediately run out and love life. Actually, when you start thinking about it, many of the old musicals (The King & I, Carousel, Grease) aren't exactly as lighthearted as they would like you to believe. The first two are particularly sad, and Grease is all about succumbing to peer pressure (dress like a tart to win a guy's heart!).

However, do not fear! There are plenty of fluffy, happy musicals out there (particularly if you don't overthink them like I do). Although the movie musical is no longer the sunny jaunt that they were during the golden age, these Technicolor spectacles are readily available on video or DVD. Here are a few to get you started...

Singin' in the Rain - This is arguably the gold standard of movie musicals. From a pratfall filled "Make 'Em Laugh" to the dreamy "You Were Meant for Me" to the ecstatic title number, there isn't a bad minute in this film. Even with some of my favorite movies, I tend to fast forward through some of the numbers of dialogue. However, every moment of this film is incredible. Plus, Gene Kelly is at his dreamiest. Just be certain to ignore the interesting (but slightly disturbing) backstage drama that went on (apparently, everyone was afraid of Gene).

Hello, Dolly! - Okay, so this isn't a great film (or even a particularly good one), but it is pure cheese and spectacle, and sometimes there is nothing wrong with wanting that. In addition to having Barbra Streisand (which can be a plus or minus, depending on your feelings about her) as an improbably young Dolly, you also have a pre-Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford singing "It Only Takes a Moment" and "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" (both of which were used in Wall-E).

Meet Me in St. Louis - Despite the morose clip I posted earlier, Meet Me in St. Louis is a pretty happy film (and, without giving away too much, it has a happy ending). While the story's conflicts seem fairly inconsequential (will the family move? will the boy next door notice Esther?), but this goes along with the idea of looking back to a simpler time.

The Bandwagon - This is a sly backstage musical that doesn't always get the attention it deserves. The awesomely overwrought first attempt at the musical within a musical is hysterical, and Fred Astaire, who was at a Tony Hunter-like point in his career, is dashing even when he exhibits a slight height complex when paired with Cyd Charisse.

One final thought: for those of you who are skeptical of the uplifting possibilities of singing and dancing, you may want to witness Stanley Donen's acceptance speech for the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Besides being very humble and gracious, he does a marvelous little number that makes the audience (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) very happy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movie Review: Love's Labour's Lost

One of the great things about a snow advisory is that it provides a great excuse to sit around at home and idly flip through the channels to see what is on. This month one of the free movies available on my cable subscription is Kenneth Branagh's version of Love's Labour's Lost, which he re imagines as a movie musical set in the 1940s. As I noted in an earlier post, this was far from a great film and had some atrocious acting. However, since I had the time, I decided to revisit it to see if my initial judgment was correct. While the flaws that I noted earlier still ring true, I must admit that the film's concept is actually quite interesting, even if the execution leaves a great deal to be desired.

Love's Labour's Lost is one of the oddest of Shakespeare's plays; even though it is considered a comedy, it doesn't have a traditional comedic happy ending. Furthermore, some consider it to be the most Elizabethan of Shakespeare's works, and a great deal of the language and word puns are not easily understandable (or even translatable) for modern audiences. Consequently, Kenneth Branagh's idea of taking the play, cutting the hell out of it (approximately 1/3 of the dialogue from the original remains), and replacing sonnets and word play with songs and dancing isn't a completely horrible idea, at least on paper.

However, problems arise when these ideas are realized. Branagh does make some helpful and effective choices, such as including periodic newsreel footage that recaps the information for the audience. Unfortunately, this decision is utterly necessary, since it is very difficult to understand the plot if you are relying solely on the actors. Although some of the actors have a strong grasp of the language and Adrian Lester, as Dumaine, is quite facile at singing and dancing, the entire production feels rather shoddy and half-finished. Even though the actors gamely try their best and are quite energetic, their enthusiasm doesn't always make up for their lack of skill at singing, dancing, or interpreting Shakespeare's language. Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard seem particularly lost, and their line readings are often embarrassing to watch.

The other problem is that Branagh's homage to the movie musical of the 1930s and 1940s (think Fred and Ginger) lacks the original musicals' wit and polish. Some have noted that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers understood the inanity of their genre; consequently, they have a twinkle in their eye as they deliver their lines. However, Branagh et al's take on the movie musical waffles between complete sincerity (see any number that Branagh is in) and winking acknowledgement of the genre's limitations (the patently fake sets, the purposefully [one hopes] horrible choreography for "The Way You Look Tonight).

The other problem is the abrupt change of tone at the end, even though it is arguably the most effective scene in the entire film. While most of the movie takes on a frothy, light tone (Nathan Lane is in the cast, for crying out loud), the last 10 minutes bring a sudden death and the start of World War II. As the ladies leave, the characters break out into Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and we are treated to a black and white montage of the characters dealing with the war. The result is Fred and Ginger meet Casablanca. Even though this is incongruous and not entirely successful, it is the most surprisingly moving part of the entire film.

Love's Labour's Lost is undoubtedly flawed. Even my high school students, who readily admitted that they had a difficult time understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, were stunned into silence when faced with Alicia Silverstone's attempts at speaking the bard's language. However, it isn't a bad introduction to the play, and there are much worse ways of spending 90 minutes of a snowy Saturday night than watching a group of actors willingly and agreeably attempt to tackle singing, dancing, and Shakespeare in one fell swoop.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Curse of Disney Channel, Part I

A quick warning: if you like Disney Channel or any of its shows/ movies (High School Musical, Hannah Montana, etc.), then this post is probably not for you. I've been meaning to spew my hatred for the Disney Channel for a while, and it is not going to be pretty.

Once upon a time (so I am told), the Disney Channel actually had standards and presented at least moderately entertaining and interesting shows starring actors with some talent. Unfortunately, even if that time ever really existed, it has come and gone. Walt Disney, who apparently had some very questionable work tactics and ideas (to say the least) would be horrified to see what passes for entertainment on the channel that bears his name.

Quite frankly, the Disney Channel is one of the main hubs of mediocre talent. Along with the upsetting rise of reality television (which is everywhere, but most noticeably on Fox and MTV), the Disney Channel has started foisting some of the most annoying and shrill child actors onto pop culture since Steve Urkel first came on the scene. In order to be on a Disney show, apparently the only things that you need are:
  1. Minimal talent (preferably in acting and singing)
  2. The ability to look really happy and excited while doing inane things
  3. Photogenic but ultimately bland features
Of course, Disney has happened upon some people who surpass these standards. Shia LaBeouf and Keri Russell, both of whom got their starts on a Disney Channel show (Even Stevens and The All New Mickey Mouse Club, respectively) are both prime examples of talent; one could even make the argument that this applies to Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. However, for every genuinely talented star that comes from Disney are at least a dozen mediocre ones that are overexposed on merchandise and in the media.

Take, for instance, Vanessa Hudgens. She's cute and got incredibly (INCREDIBLY) lucky by being in the ubiquitous High School Musical franchise. However, I can't imagine Meryl Streep or even Anne Hathaway worrying that Hudgens is going to present any real competition for roles. Hudgens manages to fulfill all three of the criteria mentioned above. She can act and sing (sort of), she seems extremely perky, and she is pretty but not terribly memorable. Regarding her talent, she's okay, but so are the workers at any given Coldstone Creamery, who must sing for tips (and don't have the luxury of multiple takes). For those of you who want more proof, just check out her big duet in HSM2, where she can't generate any chemistry with Zac Efron (her boyfriend in real life) and manages to suck at lip synching. The scene is the perfect example of negative talent, where she is a virtual black hole that devours any talent in her path. Watching her try to carry a scene by herself is akin to chasing and watching tornadoes: even as you recognize the spectacle you are watching as ultimately destructive and threatening to your well-being, you can't tear your eyes away.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Raul Esparaza + Wicked = Surprisingly Good

I made absolutely no secret about my intense hatred of the musical Wicked. In some ways, I find that show even more abhorrent than Legally Blonde the Musical, and I have discussed numerous times how much that show bugs me. Part of the reason I have a problem with Wicked is that the music is uneven at best. Some of it isn't bad ("Popular") while a lot of it suffers from bad lyrics ("Like a seed dropped by a sky bird" - what the hell?). When coupled with the show's not-very-subtle moralizing, I had a difficult time sitting through the musical when I saw it on Broadway.

However, I came across a clip of Raul Esparaza singing "Defying Gravity" with Seth Rodetsky at the piano. It is surprisingly good. If you want to read the background on how this came about, go here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Book Review: 211 Things Any Clever Girl Can Do

At long last, I am forcing myself to sit down and write the review for this book. When I first read it several months ago, I found myself comparing the book to the some of light, inoffensive sitcom or romantic comedy I sometimes turn on when I am cooking dinner or cleaning my apartment. It is a pleasant diversion and keeps things from being too quiet, but it isn't all that engrossing or thought-provoking. Although my reread of the book for this review confirmed my earlier reaction, it also helped me figure out why I found this book simultaneously amusing and forgettable.

Like many books that have come before it, Bunty Cutler's 211 Things Any Clever Girl Can Do offers advice for surviving life. It is in the same vein as The Daring Book For Girls in that much of the advice seems to hearken back to a more innocent period, one in which knowing how to churn butter might be practical knowledge rather than just interesting trivia to use as filler during a cocktail party. Cutler's book even uses old-fashioned illustrations of young women in dress popular during the earlier part of the 20th century. However, not all of the advice given has to do with anachronistic knowledge. Besides churning butter, pruning tea, and figuring out if a man likes you, Cutler also offers tips on getting out of a car without showing your underwear (one wonders if Britney Spears and other celebutantes have read this book) and dealing with telemarketers. There are also more whimsical sections on making a macrame bikini, swinging on a trapeze, and giving yourself a Brazilian wax (there are some things that are probably best left to experts).

If these activities sound rather random and unrelated, it is because they are. Although Cutler arranges the book in sections such as "Life of the Party" and "Fun and Games," the juxtaposition of helpful tips (French braiding hair and removing stains) with more fanciful advice (riding an ostrich and curtsying) makes for an occasionally disconcerting and frustrating read. While the book is a lot of fun, this "everything and the kitchen sink" approach may not be the best way of giving advice (The Daring Book for Girls is considerably more cohesive because it opted to focus more on old-fashioned activities). Consequently, if you are looking for some helpful tips and don't mind an incongruous mixture of practical and fanciful advice, then you might enjoy 211 Things Any Clever Girl Can Do. However, if you are looking for a single guidebook to help you (or someone else) navigate the perils of modern living, you may want to look elsewhere. Testing 1, 2, 3...

In an attempt to become more organized, I am trying out, a website that has recently received some press in Real Simple magazine (a publication I am always excited to open but which always seems to disappoint me in some way) and on this list of 21 Excellent Web Apps for college students. In some ways, Evernote seems like a great idea. However, since I'm pretty much a pen-and-paper kind of person (I have tried to use numerous Palm Pilots but always went back to my trusty paper calendar), I don't know how useful Evernote will be for me. Only time will tell...

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Poem for the New Year: Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"

"The Darkling Thrush"
by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy has never been accused of being a glass half-full type of author (anyone who has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure would agree with me). Indeed, most of his works have a decidedly dark and fatalistic tone. While he once considered himself a meliorist, meaning that he believed that the world was slowly changing for the better, events such as World War I caused him to eventually abandon this hope.

However, "The Darkling Thrush" offers a considerably more hopeful Hardy than his other works suggests. Although this relatively optimistic mood did not stay with Hardy, it is nice to think of him getting some solace, however brief, during the last evening of the 19th century. Enjoy the poem and be certain to read Robert Pinsky's interesting commentary on the poem at

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2009, and here's to hoping that it goes a lot better than the previous year.