Quantcast
Video of the Day

Masthead

Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.
Friday
Jun102011

In Which You Go And Tie A String Around Us

Believable

by ALEX CARNEVALE

God gave Italian-Americans The Godfather and Frank Sinatra, the Irish community Good Will Hunting and Jack Donaghy, and the Armenian community the Kardashians. The U.S. has had little to no artistic engagement with Muslim culture and certainly nothing resembling a killer app. The only thing Muslims are doing on American television is kidnapping Jack Bauer's daughter or getting high and eating cheeseburgers. America bulldozes immigrant cultures; the cold of Canada seems to incorporate Muslims without the use of a hammer.

There are about 783,700 Muslims in Canada. (There are 348,605 Jews and six to ten Scientologists.) A poll from a couple of years ago suggested that 64 percent of Americans wouldn't allow their son or daughter to date a Muslim. In contrast, a 2005 Trudeau Foundation poll revealed that 78 percent (!) of Canadians believe that U.S. foreign policy is a cause of Islamic terrorism. Polls are polls, but it's not hard to conclude that Canadians have far more favorable impressions of less than a million Muslims in their midst than American does with the proportionally far smaller 4 to 5 million Muslims in their midst.

Zarqa Nawaz accepting an award with the cast of "Little Mosque on the Prairie"

Art proves this more swiftly than sociology. In 2007, Saskatchewan-based writer Zarqa Nawaz premiered her show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The sitcom eschews a laugh track in recognition of the fact that exactly how humorous you find its jokes depends on the specific audience. Since everything else is merely transitory and art and underwear are the only enduring elements of civilization, Laura Ingalls Wilder should be proud, flattered, and very surprised.

It is doubtful the South Dakota-raised Wilder had ever seen a mosque. In this respect, she is not much different from the majority of Americans living over a century after she was born. Wilder began her writing career because of her daughter Rose, who had similar aspirations, and eventually the senior Wilder wrote a column in a local newspaper for many years called "As a Farm Woman Thinks." Little House on the Prairie was almost completely rewritten by Rose Wilder Lane, one of the most highly compensated female writers of the 1920s.

Women were always the best libertarians because the centerpiece of their platform was freedom for women. (Coincidentally, this was one of the strategies of early Islam.) I learned much about life from Little House on the Prairie; most notably, that intercourse on the prairie is frequently uncomfortable and often occurs in trees.

Life strolling the gentle fields of the Dakotas was idyllic and tremendous. If you didn't like someone, there was a high probability they would die of malaria within the week. Anderson Cooper had not even been born yet. By 1945 Rose Wilder Lane penned a weekly column for the nation's biggest black newspaper imbued with the libertarian ideals inherent in the wild freedom of her mother's pioneer life, honed by travels around the world.

The point of the Little House on the Prairie series of books was to create stories that parents could read to their children without falling asleep themselves, and it is this cross-generational appeal that the television show attempted to replicate in 1974, sometimes clumsily. Despite purportedly taking place on the Minnesota prairie, Little House On The Prairie's set was obviously California. (At one point Melissa Gilbert was so inconsolable about a subplot that she ran up a mountain.) Continuity errors only emphasized the main point: that America was a new Eden, replete with wonders so raw and unexpected they represented a ongoing delight.

Saskatchewan is Eden for Muslim immigrants. Little Mosque on the Prairie concerns Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh), a lawyer from a secular Muslim family who becomes the iman in a tiny little town called Mercy. Rashid quickly sets his sights on a half-white doctor named Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt) and spends the rest of his time exploring the intersections of the two cultures. Now in its sixth season, Amaar's mosque currently shares space with the mercurial, somewhat racist Reverend Thorne (Brandon Firla), who manages the most disturbing television portrayal of a man of the cloth since Father Ted.

The point of Little Mosque on the Prairie is to turn Muslims into kindly beacons of humanity. Even the most doctrinaire Muslims are revealed to have a heart of gold, and their opposite number, a light parody of Rush Limbaugh, is also revealed as a benevolent dictatorship of staged thought. Little Mosque on the Prairie has been incredibly successful and was recently renewed for a final season.

An American version of Little Mosque on the Prairie has been "in production" long enough to know it will never happen. A show with a Muslim protagonist won't be greenlit by network television executives, despite advocates who draw suggestive parallels to The Cosby Show and Seinfeld. Each show did the work of changing the way a generation of people think about an American minority, and like Little Mosque, they rarely ventured outside the most familiar comedic strictures.

The world is bigger now than it was then. The engagement of the West with Muslims no longer occurs solely on Western soil.

In 1923, Rose Wilder Lane began her own travels through the Islamic world. She spent a rewarding period in Albania, Armenia, Syria and Egypt before approaching Baghdad in a Ford Model T specially outfitted with tires to traverse the desert, nearly running out of gas in the process. Her cohort was forced to depend on the kindness of a local tribe for supplies.

Once she reached the city, she felt let down. It was nothing to compare to a place like Damascus, Rose thought, and she was unable to enter the mosques because of a prohibition on Christians in holy places. She later wrote, "And in Baghdad, where India comes up the Tigris to smudge clean Arabia, I turned back. The fabulous East was the easier way home but I had seen enough of its human misery, its killing toil and ignorance and humility, its so-called 'spirituality' born of hopelessness and starvation, and the revolting snobbery of Westerners too stupid to recognize their own brutality." We can feel her frustration. With British officers everywhere she went, there was no chance of knowing the place the way she wanted to.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He twitters here and tumbls here. He last wrote in these pages about Roald Dahl.

"8 Years From Now" - Ellen Winter (mp3)

"Comfortable" - Ellen Winter (mp3)

"Anything to Preoccupy" - Ellen Winter (mp3)

I somehow always have this idea that as soon as I can get through this work that's piled up ahead of me, I'll really write a beautiful thing. But I never do. I always have the idea that someday, somehow, I'll be living a beautiful life. And that, too...

- Rose Wilder Lane

Thursday
Jun092011

In Which We Are Unable To Copy Her Melancholy

Cut Off Shorts, High Top Converse

by ALICE GREGORY

My Girl
dir. Howard Zieff
102 minutes

It took great restraint, watching My Girl last weekend, not to mouth along to all the dialogue. I was a little nervous – it had been a decade since I had seen it last. Though I knew 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss ("Tough break!" "I like my name.") couldn't possibly be as compelling to me now, I worried that I wouldn't be able to empathize with my former self who tried to imitate her every gesture. Only recently have I heard people my age reference My Girl as some sort of common childhood artifact. I didn’t realize it was a generational touchstone, and I’m glad I wasn’t aware of its popularity as a kid. If I had known that my worship was anything less than private, I might have been embarrassed. Idols should be individual.


Poor Howard Zieff. It’s always surprising to re-remember that My Girl isn’t a John Hughes movie. It bears all the marks of his auteurship: the leafy, recognizably American town; the broken fourth wall; the cued pop music. It’s tender and funny and sad and it takes its young protagonist seriously. Vada (Anna Chlumsky), the daughter of a widowed mortician (Dan Aykroyd), grows up lonely, somewhat neglected, and preoccupied with death. Her only friend is the similarly unpopular Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) in whom she confides her love of her teacher, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne) and her hatred of her soon-to-be-stepmother, Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis). When Vada loses her mood ring in the woods, Thomas J. goes searching for it, is attacked by a swarm of bees, and dies. Only in the grief-ridden aftermath of the event does Vada bond with her father, finally accept that she did not kill her own mother who died in childbirth, and come to love Shelly. Vada’s voiceover is introspective and familiar, full of tidy revelations and moments of self-actualization.

I remember not only the words and intonation of every line of dialogue but also trying, gracelessly, to integrate them into daily conversation:

“Oh, wow, a real Evil Knievel.”   

“Nephritis is a kidney disease, you don't get it from hot dogs.”

“Dad, didn't you say you needed prunes REAL bad?

It goes without saying that the lines were too specific to blend in very seamlessly. Like an idiot savant, my recall can be at once prodigious and frighteningly narrow. I can still recite Vada’s poem by heart (“I like ice cream a whole lot/It tastes good when days are hot/On a cone or in a dish/This would be my only wish/ Vanilla, chocolate, or rocky road/Even with pie à la mode”), but I seemed to have forgotten the more major elements of the story: the general morbidity, her dream to be a writer, the brazen foreshadowing of Thomas J.’s death (the tiny coffin carried in at the beginning, the boy in the wheelchair at the doctor’s office, the dead fish). This attention to detail at the expense of a larger message, if anything, set the precedent for later lapses in critical reading. 



I’ve thought a lot about why I revered Vada Sultenfuss so much. Not having brothers, the fact that her best friend is a boy must have been attractive to me. I too had a close male friend, Charles, but our rapport was much different. I didn’t have the upper hand, for one; I mostly trailed him, pretending to enjoy his hobbies: netting crabs, hunting mushrooms, firing potato guns. Charles is in school to become a dentist now, and we don’t have much in common anymore. But I remember our friendship as imbued with romance, much of which was mentally kindled, surely in the image of My Girl.  

Cool Girls abound in middle school, thin out in high school, and are mostly forgotten about by college. They can effortlessly transform a heinous outfit into a stunning one and render a forgettable song into an anthem. No matter their age, they force aporetic thought: is she wearing that necklace because it’s cool or is that necklace cool because she’s wearing it? Adolescent overvaluation of another person – fictional or not – is good practice for being in love, a state in which the hierarchy of action and justification is inverted and every gesture seems retroactively inspired, amazing because they did it.


Vada was my original Cool Girl, endowing random items with totemic value: phrenology charts, Sunbonnet Sue quilts, Schwinn bikes with streamers, those perfectly worn-in overalls the Gap could never replicate. And so many mannerisms to copy! There was that half-cannon ball she did when jumping into the lake, left leg jutting out, nose plugged. There was the way her forearms hyperextended on the nurse's desk. I learned the word "resilient" from her and the phrase "intellectually stimulating." I overused both.  

I gave myself hangnails and taught myself to dribble a basketball like Vada. I wasn’t reckless enough to be become blood brothers with anyone though, as she does with Thomas J. – I knew about AIDS.  I asked for a copy of War and Peace for Christmas one year, not realizing that Vada reading Tolstoy in 5th grade was meant to indicate naiveté and pretension. My mom refused the request, suspecting correctly that my interest was not literary. Instead, she told me that not only would I like Anna Karenina better but that we already owned a copy.

I envied the sort of after-dark freedom shared between Vada and Thomas Jay, the warm nights of Madison, Pennsylvania, which allowed her to wear peasant blouses while I, in Northern California, was stuck bundled in Patagonias. These were the days before eBay, so my imitation was more approximate than it was accurate. I wanted a red, straw cloche like Vada’s, but a rust-colored, canvas bucket hat would have to do. I wore a mood ring, but the gem would fall off during games of recess foursquare and I had to Epoxy it back on when I got home everyday. Like Vada, I dressed in flannel shirts, cut-off shorts, and high-top converse. Only now can I look back and identify the uniform of a lesbian fixed-gear biker.  

I also, obviously, just thought Vada was really pretty. At one point, Shelly catalogues her every feature: “sparkling eyes,” “the cutest little nose,” an amazing mouth.” There is indeed an overripeness to Anna Chlumsky’s beauty, an actress whose face, come puberty, would rot into a Topanga-esque vulgarity. Macaulay Culkin too: a cherub-turned-skull. Together, they’re like a visual justification for pedophilia; their fresh faces stamped with the expiration date of looming adolescence. Acne and swollen hips are just around the corner. Get ‘em before they turn.

Though surely unable to articulate it, even at nine I could sense that there was some crucial contrast at play between intellectualism and infantile habits, between reading War and Peace and climbing willow trees. Vada Sultenfuss represented a sort of personality that I’m still attracted to now, that ability to modulate between two polar registers: the jock who studies, the scholar who watches reality TV, the White House chief of staff who attends all his childrens’ soccer games.  

Really though, what I was most drawn to was the film’s permission to indulge imaginary crises. Like most everything directed at young adults, My Girl suggests that reckoning with tragedy yields complexity, that misery breeds interiority. Vada is smarter, funnier, and more feeling than her classmates. She succeeds in adult writing classes, talks sarcastically about terminal illness, and is hopelessly in love with her teacher. Growing up, I feared that I was too untroubled to be interesting. My Girl was my first confrontation not with death, but with its absence in my own life. It prodded me to hypothesize perverse fantasies about being orphaned, about cousins drowning. I knew I couldn’t rely on my own experience for the sort of suffering we’re told makes one smart.   

 
I could recruit friends to play cards with me on the front deck, as Vada does; I could fast-forward to the scene in which she recites her final poem and copy it down, word-for-word, in my notebook; I could convince my parents to buy me a goldfish, like the one she wins at the carnival. I could acquire Vada’s props and mime her movements, but I was unable to copy her melancholy. My mother wasn’t dead; my father wasn’t an undertaker; my friends were all alive. Superficial mimicry seemed like the easiest way to cultivate depth. My emotions were – and still are – performative. Affecting a sentiment until I feel it remains my first instinct, my greatest strength, and my worst foible. Thanks, Vada!  

Alice Gregory is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here.

"Rider" - Okkervil River (mp3)

"Wake And Be Fine" - Okkervil River (mp3)

"I Guess We Lost" - Okkervil River (mp3)

The new album from Okkervil River, I Am Very Far, came out on May 10th and is available here.

 

Wednesday
Jun082011

In Which Strange Birds Flock To Remote Marshes

Dry Season

by RACHEL MONROE

1

For most of December, it was 45 degrees inside our house, and I only took off my long underwear to get in the shower. Even then, the few bare-legged seconds were miserable enough that I mostly didn’t bathe. It didn’t seem all that important, suddenly; my boyfriend and I had broken up, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to look at another human being again. What was dating but spending time talking to someone you would eventually break up with?

But being alone wasn’t much fun, either. I cooked wearing mittens, puffing out sad clouds of breath into the cluttered kitchen. I felt sorry for myself. I couldn’t stand being in my room, but outside it was even colder, so I stayed in and sulked. My bed became a nest of Heath Bar wrappers, half-read books, papers I was supposed to grade. In the middle of the night, I’d stretch my toes and touch a spoon. Tangled sheets, dust that was somehow unvacuumable, shards of glass on the floor from whatever the cats had knocked over in the night. I was incredibly boring to be around. I kept apologizing for this, boringly.

The things I found pleasure in embarrassed me: exfoliating scrubs I couldn’t really afford, Jane Austen, when my cats fell off the table. Licorice tea. Kate Bush. BBC miniserieses. I started reading Middlemarch and wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks. I got kind of fat. I told my roommates everything (I needed to tell someone). No one would kiss me. The winter started to feel infinite.

photo by liz donadio

2

The problem that Virginia Woolf doesn’t deal with — and so, perhaps, those stones, that river — is that once you have the room of your own, you still have to sit there, in your chair, with your own brain.

Marion Milner doesn’t address Woolf directly in A Life of One’s Own (published in 1933, five years after A Room of One’s Own, and out of print for nearly 30 years until it was recently reissued by Routledge), though there’s the clear reference of her title. But while Woolf worried more about the systematic oppression of women and its impact on their creative integrity, Milner’s struggle takes place within the bounds of her own brain.

Basically, Milner wanted to figure out what she wanted. She starts out thinking it’s a simple question worth an afternoon of introspection, and then quickly figures out that it’s harder than it looks; she’s much better at tricking herself, pleasing other people, obsessing about her hair, and feeling vaguely anxious about nothing in particular. And so, A Life of One’s Own is a document of seven years worth of Milner trying to notice the way her brain works and then messing with it through introspection, automatic writing, annotated lists, thought experiments, and sketches done with her eyes closed. She doesn’t want to be your guide or your guru; she just wants to walk you through her experience, and hopes you may pick up something of interest along the way.

Milner started her project when she was 26, and finished the book at 33. Even though all this took place more than 80 years ago, there’s plenty here for, say, a thoughtful, creative, anxious person in her late 20s to relate to. We know we should know better by now, but we don't.

Okay, I’ll presume: Milner could be you. (And by "you", I guess I mean me.) She doesn't know what she wants, so she takes out a blank piece of paper and writes WANTS in big letters at the top, then comes up with dozens of things, none of which are quite right. Her list, in part:

To think out why I can’t ‘get at people.’

To buy silk stockings I bought the wrong ones.

To make S. think I’m not so innocent as I look in fact, rather a woman of the world did I?

To make love with someone I loved I didn’t because there wasn’t anyone.

She is frustrated with herself; she says things, then takes them back; she can’t keep her thoughts straight:

I’ve discovered where a great part of my thought goes. I was thinking about my new frock and red shoes.

At the Club I wanted T. to be thinking ‘What a charming and interesting-looking girl’ although I hate his voice and face.

So you’ve thought what have you done, a little work, a little vague chat?

I don’t know what I want. I’m a cork bobbing on the tide.

I don’t feel very much like writing down my soul’s adventures.

I liked the smooth roundness of my body in my bath but would like someone else to like it.

She tries to trust — but can't completely — the "still small voice... that tells me in spite of the clatter of the crowd, 'This is ludicrous, absurd,' 'That is stupendous, immense.'"

But what tricky things to track, your thoughts. As soon as you start to look, they change shape or sink back into the murk of your mind, like the blobs in a lava lamp. They don’t fit easily on spreadsheets, something Milner — trained in psychology, surrounded by scientists — struggles with at first. But she found that she "could not afford to ignore" this "private reality, a reality of feeling rather than knowing." This private reality either does not exist or does not matter to "the scientist" (a specter who haunts the book, a judgmental figure in a white coat, frowning), but Milner happily co-opts scientific language and methods for her own uses; the book is full of observations, hypotheses, tests, re-formulations.

As she sums it up in the preface, A Life of One’s Own is her account of her attempt "to manage my life, not according to tradition, or authority, or rational theory, but by experiment." Or, as the haiku-like subhead for chapter one puts it: "Discovering that I have nothing to live by/I decide to study the facts of my life/By this I hope to find out what is true for me."

Some of that experimentation is through language, through the search for the right verbs and metaphors to translate her mind’s movement. It keeps secrets. It noses for crumbs. It spreads its tentacles, or narrows into a focussed beam of light. It behaves like water, a worm, a butterfly, a baby, a room that needs sweeping, beetles skimming the surface of a pond. Her ideas are "strange birds seen in remote marshes."

photo by liz donadio

3

In “On Self-Respect,” Joan Didion looks back at a "dry season" from her own past and "marvel[s] that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor." But isn’t that exactly how it goes? When I'm happy, I'm too busy swimming or kissing or eating cookies to track the topography of my moods; when I’m uncomfortable — mentally, I mean — I poke and poke and poke at my brain as if it were a sore tooth.

Is this what wallowing is? Is this how a person becomes boring — a brain that spends all day chewing on its own misery? Milner finishes her book in London in 1933, as fraught a time as any, but politics don’t enter into her account at all. Milner’s husband, baby, parents, friends, and colleagues barely warrant a mention. A Life of One’s Own is, in its essence, an exercise in self-absorption.

For a while, I liked to pretend that Joan Didion was my spirit animal. If I found myself whining (mentally, I mean), spirit-Joan would slap me hard enough to sting. She did it out of love. Spirit-Joan says: The fastest way to alienate yourself from the world is to let your worry about your worry keep you at arm’s length from everyone you know, even yourself. Worrying about your own boring self-absorption is certainly no way to become more boringly self-absorbed. Spirit-Joan says: Get some self-respect.

While I was reading it, I talked about A Life of One’s Own so much — maybe because I was happy to have something to discuss that wasn’t my own sadness, or maybe because talking about this book was a different way of talking about my own sadness — that three of my friends bought it. Then I started to get nervous. Wasn’t there something kind of Oprah magazine about the whole thing, only made a bit exotic through 80 intervening years and the fact that Milner calls dresses "frocks"? WWJDS (What Would Joan Didion Say)?

I think what I mean is, is it okay to think about yourself this much? What about the rest of the world — its orphans and endangered species and your best friend’s lost cat?

photo by liz donadio

4

Consider the scene near the end of Middlemarch, after our heartbroken heroine, Dorothea, has spent the night crying on the floor, she wakes up calm and goes to the window:

...there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

And a parallel scene toward the end of A Life of One’s Own: Milner is on a weekend steamer train out of London, feeling conflicted and confused about her professional life, until she’s struck by the half-second image of "a fat old woman in apron and rolled sleeves surveying her grimy back garden from her doorstep."

An educated woman, trapped in her own head, looks out the window of her mansion/steamer train and sees a her poorer, working twin. Both Milner and Dorothea receive the image as something of a knock on the head reminding them of the wider world, with its gardens and babies and chores to get done. Of course, neither Dorothea nor Milner goes on to interact with these working women; instead, they’re just an occasion for epiphany, and the privilege inherent in that is something to save to dwell on on a gloomier day.

The point is, Milner dives into her brain and comes out the other side. Three-quarters of the way through A Life of One’s Own, something changes; other people start to creep in the edges of the narrative. Toward the end of her experiment, Milner is amazed to find that, instead of finding transcendence through nature and solitude — a major theme of the first half of the book — she now "chiefly reckoned each day’s catch of happiness in terms of [her] relationships with others." She marvels in the wordless communion that comes from "spreading myself out towards a person," sharing moods, even in silence. She gets really into sweeping: "I seemed to like it because it was a kind of communication, it expressed my feeling for the house I kept clean and the people who lived in it.” Once she calms down her own mind, other minds start to matter.

Still, how to get there? Ultimately, for me, the most instructive thing in the book isn’t any of Milner’s brain-tricks or explicit revelations; it’s the way the Milner who writes the book (age 33) treats the Milner of the early diary entries and experiments (age 26): with a sort of fond blend of exasperation and empathy. What if we could, for one afternoon, hang out with an older, more chilled out, more self-accepting version of ourselves? I would probably take mine on a long walk and talk about boys and cry. Just like how sometimes I think about time traveling to hang out with my overwrought 20 year-old self, and just brushing her hair and cooking her a big breakfast.

Midway through A Life of One’s Own, Milner experiments with sketching a dragon: "I could not have said at all what it meant, I only knew that I thought it would be fun to have a picture of all that I disliked in myself." Which is a funny idea of fun. But why not? It can be fun to look at your own sadness or anxiety or general mental clumsiness. And it can be fun to come out the other side of it, and look back fondly, and then go out to meet the world.

Rachel Monroe is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is on a commune right now, but usually she lives and works in Baltimore.

Photographs by Liz Donadio.

"Beat For" - Jamie xx (mp3)

"Fog (Jamie xx remix)" - Nosaj Thing (mp3)

"Far Nearer" - Jamie xx (mp3)