Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hate in My Love-Hate Relationship with Utah

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to morning radio during the first hour or two of my work day. It’s been a semi-refreshing change of pace from listening to music absolutely all day long. (Yes, I said it.) One of the main radio stations I’ve been listening to (via the Internet) is Salt Lake City-based X96, whose Radio from Hell was my morning show of choice back when I lived in Utah. Because I’m two hours ahead of the Beehive State, I can join the Utah program later in my day without having missed much of the broadcast.

While it’s been fun revisiting Radio from Hell, listening again to Utah radio is souring my opinion of the state. Not because of Utah radio itself. I’ve been surprisingly disappointed with the radio offerings in this corner of the US, including Atlanta (which I would have expected to have even more radio options than SLC, but which is actually much worse). However, the news stories and advertising on Utah radio remind me all too much of a culture that I have not missed. To begin with, Utah is surprisingly snooty. I don’t think I realized this until I left the state and then returned for the occasional visit. Salt Lake City is a more cosmopolitan city than many would think, and I’m convinced that you could be quite happy living there if you were a snob. There are advantages to living in such a place—SLC features some very nice restaurants, parks, and shopping, for example—but there is also a sense in which Utah residents are relentlessly, even if silently, judgy. It’s a cliquish place to be. It really is.

That brings me to another part of Utah culture that I’m just not interested in. It’s fractured. There is such an “us vs. them” mentality. You might not notice it too much if you stick to your own kind, but I don’t like the underlying tension that it creates. Obviously, this is something that stems from the heavy religiosity of the state, and yet it exists because people on both sides of the divide are so often closed-minded and judgmental. One group seems to operate under the guise of, “You’re great, as long as you’re just like me!” The other seems committed to thinking, “You’re great, as long as you’re not one of them!” It gets tiring. In my experience, it’s a more implicit than explicit part of the social dynamics of living in Utah, and yet it is both pervasive and annoying.

I mentioned that advertising has stirred up my disdain for certain aspects of Utah culture. Even when I lived in Utah, I was painfully aware of how much Utah advertising caters to a particular demographic. Though I fall largely within that demographic, I always found it rather insulting that I would be pandered to in such a cheap and discriminatory way, with other members of the community who don’t belong to the target demographic being ignored altogether because, hey, who cares about them (and aren’t we all more comfortable pretending they don’t exist anyway)? But it’s worse than I had formerly realized. Having lived outside of Utah for roughly six years, I now recognize just how much even the most innocuous and, as it were, secular Utah advertisement is catering to a very particular crowd. It’s quite subtle, but it’s there. It’s the most obvious in cases of “funny” commercials. I’m not sure I can explain how so, but the humor is often insultingly stupid. “Corny” is probably an apt description. I don’t think humor has to be raunchy or edgy, but if you want to keep things clean and wholesome, at least make it intelligent. Sometimes I get the impression that Utahans (and thus those whose livelihoods depend on appealing to Utahans, such as certain advertisers) are more concerned with something being appropriate than with it being creative or artistically good. If something is wholly inoffensive, it’s lauded—not just morally, but creatively! Insofar as something is not squeaky clean, it doesn’t even deserve consideration—it simply can’t possess any artistic value in that case. It’s an attitude that really irks me.

I’m writing this blog entry because I feel a bit crestfallen. When I visited Utah last summer, it actually sparked a genuine desire in me to live there again someday. Of course, I was simply on vacation, interacting largely with friends and family. I wasn’t living my normal, day-to-day life. Listening to Utah radio every morning over the last week or two has given me a tiny taste of what it might be like to be re-immersed in that culture on a more permanent, normal-life basis. It’s somewhat unappealing. Then again, who knows. Last time I was in Utah, I was also feeling inspired to live life my way and not give a crap about what others think. (Those feelings eventually gave birth to this post, several months later.) Perhaps if I were more in touch with that attitude right now, I wouldn’t mind living in Utah. I worry, though, about falling back into normal attitudes and ultimately feeling like I haven’t progressed at all, like all of the progress I’ve made over the last six years has been lost. I’m really on the fence about ever returning to live again in my home state. If the opportunity presented itself, I think I’d probably go for it. But I sincerely fear that I might regret it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review: A Mind of Its Own

In A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, psychologist Cordelia Fine examines a wide range of empirical evidence suggesting that one’s behavior is often greatly influenced by one’s unconscious mind. A classic example involves showing subjects a variety of words, several of which are associated with the elderly (“wrinkled,” “retired,” etc.). The subjects never consciously recognize a theme, and yet they walk more slowly (re: more elderly-like) after the experiment is complete than do subjects who are not exposed to these geriatric-related terms. Presumably, priming these subjects to think subconsciously about the elderly causes them to emulate, to some degree, elderly behavior.

As fascinating as this research may be, this is all material that has been covered equally well in a variety of other books, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to Jonah Lehrer’s vastly superior How We Decide. For that reason, there is little to recommend Fine’s tome in particular. Not that the book is without strengths. Foremost among them is the straightforward organization of content, with chapters like “The Deluded Brain,” “The Weak-Willed Brain,” and “The Bigoted Brain” clearly demarcating the kinds of research that will be discussed therein. That being said, any advantage the book’s organization may hold is offset by Fine’s writing. The author is so determined to win over her audience that the first several chapters are virtually drowning in whimsy. The relentless and cloying cutesiness of Fine’s prose is almost unbearable, though, thankfully, it tapers off quite a bit as the volume continues.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Running Time: 102 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * ½ (out of four)

When we first meet Martha, she is one of several young women and men living at a hippie-like commune in the Catskills of New York. There, she is known as Marcy May, a name bestowed upon her by the group’s older, father-like leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Name changes are just one way in which the newest members of the community are “cleansed” of the lives they are trying to leave behind. Other “cleansing” methods are decidedly more prurient. Even so, Martha has devoted a full two years to the group before deciding to run away early one morning. After a desperate call from a pay phone, Martha finds herself living with her estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), neither of whom have any idea where Martha has spent the last 24 months. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Martha is not altogether in her right mind. With an almost childlike ignorance of personal boundaries, Martha is emotionally fragile and increasingly paranoid. Her ties to the commune, even if purely psychological, are proving difficult to break.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a case of a movie being less than the sum of its parts. As Martha, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to identical twin megastars Mary-Kate and Ashley) is hauntingly effective. Her round, looking-glass eyes convey as much innocence as they do brokenness, as much trust as they do horror. She is demure and seductive and equally convincing in both respects, even as Martha, never completely her own person, remains oblivious to these traits. The tone of the film is also expertly maintained. It is pensive and unsettling, often in an eerily understated way. For these reasons, any five-minute segment, considered in isolation from the rest of the film, indicates that the film is a good one, perhaps even great. Only by considering the movie in its entirety does it become clear how lacking in substance it really is. The main problem lies at the very heart of the film—the cult from which Martha escapes. The group just isn’t well-defined. It is never quite clear what their purpose or intent is, and the more sinister they are revealed to be, the less motive is apparent behind their actions. As much as one might hope otherwise, the mysteriousness of the community proves not to be a cinematic device meant to increase suspense, but a shortcoming of writer/director Sean Durkin’s script. Durkin clearly has a talent for making movies. He just needs to spend more time on developing the underlying stories.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Movie Review: Being Elmo

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Directed by Constance Marks
Running Time: 80 minutes
Originally Released: January 23, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * (out of four)

It isn’t easy being red.

Or maybe it is. You wouldn’t know for certain after watching Being Elmo, the documentary that chronicles Kevin Clash’s rise from avid nine-year-old fan of Sesame Street to puppeteer of the most famous redhead at the Children’s Television Workshop.

While the film is called Being Elmo, a more appropriate title would be Becoming Elmo. The bulk of the movie tells the story of how Clash became interested in puppetry at a young age, began designing his own puppets soon thereafter, and through a series of somewhat serendipitous events, came to work with Jim Henson. At the age of 24, Clash joined the cast of Sesame Street and gave a new voice and personality to a puppet that, for approximately a decade, had made several appearances on the show and yet failed to resonate with audiences and Clash’s fellow puppeteers alike. In Clash’s hands, that puppet became Elmo, who after nearly 30 years is arguably the Oprah Winfrey of the puppeting world.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, Being Elmo conveys surprisingly little of Clash’s personality and of how his life, personally and/or professionally, has changed since Elmo became Sesame Street’s resident superstar. The film gestures at the fact that the high demand for personal appearances by Elmo, and thus by Clash, has taken something of a toll on Clash’s family. But this is not a film that wishes to wallow in the doldrums, and whatever challenges Clash’s career may bring are quickly swept under the rug, if mentioned at all. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the whole, the movie remains uplifting, charming, and even touching. And yet one can’t help but wonder at many aspects of Clash’s life that the film completely ignores. How does Clash’s immediate family feel about Elmo? Is Elmo a part of the family, or a source of jealousy and resentment? What is a typical workday like for Clash? How does Clash prepare for a typical episode of Sesame Street, especially now that he’s co-executive producer? What is his creative role on the show? These are all obvious questions to ask, and Being Elmo remains completely ignorant of them. Consequently, this is a documentary more tickling than it is tantalizing. How appropriate.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


As of 330pm yesterday, I am now officially ABD. ABD stands for “All But Dissertation,” which is super cool academic jargon for a Ph.D. student who has completed all of the requirements for a doctoral degree other than writing and defending a dissertation. This means that the student has completed all coursework, requisite qualifying and/or comprehensive exams, and successfully defended his/her dissertation prospectus, which describes how one’s dissertation is expected to proceed.

This is exciting news, though I should (in some sense of that word) have been to this point about a year ago. The semi-official plan is that Ph.D. students will defend their prospectus by the end of their third year, which would have been May 2011 for me. I started working on my dissertation prospectus last spring, and my first official draft was submitted in July 2011. It would be another eight months before I submitted and defended a final version of my prospectus. Don’t let that fool you, though. I worked on the prospectus very little during that time. Given how minor the revisions were between the first and final drafts of my prospectus, I should have been able to defend my prospectus by late August or early September 2011. In theory, anyway. In reality, I started teaching my own courses and … woosh! … eight months went by like that. Teaching a class you’ve never taught before is, as one of my professors put it, “a time vacuum.” It’s like a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week job to prepare a college course from scratch, and you don’t really have time to prepare for it until you start teaching it. It’s rather absurd, really, and not wholly unlike speeding down a highway that you’re also in the process of constructing (all by your dang self). Things are going to get incredibly busy again, in part because of a yet another teaching gig this summer (see here), but defending my prospectus takes at least some weight off of my shoulders. It’s nice.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Joy of Picking My Seat

I bought a new office chair today. It was a totally spontaneous purchase, but probably long overdue. My previous office chair was about ten years old and getting a bit ratty (and squeaky). The mechanism for changing the chair’s height hadn’t worked in quite a while, so I’d been stuck on the lowest setting for who knows how long. I don’t think I realized how bad things were until I stumbled upon a chair sale at Office Depot and decided to try out a few, several of which felt much more luxurious than I am used to. And now, as I write this, I am seated happily in one of these chairs—one that is much nicer than my previous chair ever was.

Though the purchase of a new chair was unplanned, I have been thinking lately about getting a new chair. My primary motivation has been to get myself a bit higher off the ground and thereby improve my wrist comfort. Sitting low to the ground, I’ve always had to reach slightly upward in order to type. My arms were never bent at an ergonomically endorsed 90-degree angle. It was more like 75 or 80. Recently, my wrists (and palms) started to ache a bit whenever I was working, and I believed it had at least a little bit to do with my arm positioning. But my new chair rectifies that, and I’ve already noticed that my arms feel a lot more relaxed as I type. It may not prevent carpal tunnel, but I assume it will help.

The benefits of the new chair will, I believe, go beyond my original expectations concerning wrist comfort. Seven years ago, I blogged about “pain in my left leg, reaching all the way up into my lower back.” I blogged about it again a few months later. The truth is, I still have that pain. It’s permanent, apparently. (I haven’t sought much medical attention for it, but the couple of times I’ve mentioned it to doctors, they haven’t been very helpful.) I no longer think of this ailment as leg pain, but as back pain. Reaching back with my hands, I can feel what seems to be a knotted muscle in the lower left quadrant of my back, where it aches basically 24-7. I don’t dwell on it much anymore, but I have to be somewhat particular about how I sit or lie. It especially affects me in bed. I can’t lie on my left side for long without the pain getting worse. It goes all the way down my leg, along the sciatic nerve, which is why I originally identified it as leg pain. But nowadays the really noticeable pain is mostly in my back.

Looking at office chairs today, it occurred to me that my chronic back pain might have developed from my prolonged use of the previous chair. It was a fairly cheap chair, and the cheaper chairs I saw at the store today all recommended sitting in them for no more than 3 hours per day. I didn’t think about or notice any recommendations like that when I bought my original chair. I simply bought it, all because I had started working from home and was going to be sitting in a chair for several hours a day. It seemed much better than a kitchen chair (as I’m sure it was). Anyway, perhaps I screwed up my back by sitting in it so much. I didn’t know the particular model of chair you sit in could make such a long-term difference, and yet as I tried out different chairs at the store today, as I moved from one chair to the next, I could feel my back pain becoming more or less pronounced. It donned on me then that, at the very least, my ten-year-old chair hasn’t been doing me any favors. Hence, the purchase.

Now that I’ve got the new chair in our home office, I am even more aware of the differences between it and my old chair. At the store, I was consciously assessing the chair I ended up buying. I was trying to think about how it felt and how much better it would be. But now that I’m home and into my normal routines, those differences are even more obvious to me, precisely because I’m not trying to notice them. I plop down into this new chair, and my body says, “Hey, what the—?! That’s now how it’s supposed to feel!” My spine doesn’t settle in the way that it expects to, my back feels all cushy and supported, etc. I’m realizing now that it’s an even more exquisite upgrade than I’d expected. Aside from my back and wrists, I’m finding that being higher off the ground is beneficial to my knees. Like my arms, my legs were never bent at a 90-degree angle when I sat in the old chair. I either had to stretch them out a little bit in front of me, or I had to bend them slightly under myself. Sometimes my knees would get achy after a long period of time in the chair. The new chair should help immensely, an unforeseen but very welcome benefit.

To wrap this post up, I want to give a shout-out to Eddie and Peter, both of whom helped me put this new chair together. I think it was the most helpful assistance I’ve ever had from my sons while building something. It was fun.