This month is — who knows why — supposed to be the month for stories. I’m a big proponent of (Inter)National Novel-Writing Month, and I even said I would be sort of trying it in bits, even as my time at Medill winds down to its final weeks and the final project–a long form narrative piece that I’m rather excited about–looms ever larger.
Part of that has been The Shallow Project, which has been a blast, even if the photo element has proved easier at maintaining than the writing part; and part of that has been a side Tumblr I’m keeping for a story that I know very little about. Which is interesting, because usually when I start (or even fail to start [yet]) a story, I generally know some salient facts about the end, or the premise, or the characters. Right now I’ve got a setting, the barest amount of backstory for the two protagonists, and a vague idea of how writing this story is going to be intensely personal in that way that may or may not be obvious from the outside.
To be fair, I didn’t have any ideas about my half of The Shallow Project before we began, and all I needed for that was to move the story forward every single day. With writing, though, I want to be more certain. I’ve got some bits and bobs — I originally set myself a 750 words a day goal, but then, well, school — and I’m pleased with myself for just writing scenes or character moments, rather than obsessing about plot. When I make the time for it, though, I’d like to sit down with Chuck Wendig’s foul-mouthed and actually perfect questions to answer for character enrichment (which seems more doable than making my way through this comprehensive list of other great ideas). One thing I love about improv is that the story comes from character interaction, not a plot determined by an outside force. I have some plot points in mind, but more than that, I just need to know enough about my characters to set them loose and let myself be surprised.
It should be interesting. I’m not explaining much in public, but if you’re curious:
My day on campus was supposed to be over at 12:20, but I figured I’d stick around, since Martha Raddatz was speaking. You should remember Ms. Raddatz as the moderator of the 2012 vice presidential debates; she’s also a very accomplished political and foreign correspondent. I’m only a Medill student for (ulp!) less than two months, so I have to take advantage of opportunities when they come up, right?
Martha Raddatz, as it turns out, was awesome. She was beyond lovely and had some great, great stories and advice. You can stream the event (about an hour) here, and/or read about it in The Daily Northwestern. After she spoke, students were lining up to talk with her and take pictures with her. I was going to skedaddle and catch my train, but I figured I’d thank her, especially for her words about covering military and veterans’ issues. Except I couldn’t find my phone! So I just said hi, and went on my way. There’s always a reception after these things, so I snuck in for a cupcake and a quick chat with one of my classmates. At which point… I found my phone. Right in my pocket, where I’d put it, on silent, before the talk.
Luckily I did get a chance for a selfie with Ms. Raddatz, who was gracious and friendly even though her handlers were tapping their watches. (Alas, I think it’s one of my less flattering photos, which… happens a lot when you’re taller than everyone else, including the person taking your picture. Oh well! It’s not like I don’t have selfies covered. They’re an evolving art form and a means of sociopolitical expression, after all.)
So, now my weekend starts! Time for more reading, writing and reporting, and maybe a little bit of fun too. Maybe. For the meantime, some link-mongering! Below the jump, we’ve got stories about radical education in Matamoros, Mexico; portraits of pre-Taliban Afghanistan; access to live shows at the Globe (yes, that one); a breakfast recipe I need to adapt to be egg-free (stupid allergies), because it just sounds that good; diversity in comedy, and more!
An amazing thing happened this morning. For the first time ever, I finished a 5K training routine. What began in August as a way to pass time during a month-long break actually sort of became an obsession. I get it now. I smell worse and feel better than I have in years. Running? Let’s be pals. You’re addictive. You’re great.
I’ve got to hand it to Zombies, Run! for achieving the impossible, by which I mean convincing me that voluntary physical activity is, in fact, fun and rewarding and not just something you should do because of crushing societal pressure. And while I hesitate to call this a journey, just because of the horrific cliche, there have been some stunning highs and hilarious misadventures along the way. (Lesson learned: If you buy a pair of running tights online and they feel like they might fall down, don’t try and run in them anyway.)
I thought I was going to make this post on Monday, and I did in fact have a really amazing run two days ago. (Forty-two minutes at a pace of 10:16, what! Who am I, and how did I come to brag like this?) But the final ZR 5K mission is deceptive: it seems to end nine minutes before it actually ends, so runners: once you do the thing, don’t stop the app. They don’t really tell you to run or walk or just stand there wheezing, but just. Wait for the little voice that says “Mission complete!”
That said, I’ve been embarking on an experiment since my last post about running. I wanted to see if I could see changes as I progressed through the program. I’ll let you decide if that’s the case. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy (and laugh at/with) this gallery of selfies taken at the end of each run since September 1. Myself, I’d call it a decisive victory!
PBS starts airingThe Hollow Crown in the United States this week, which of course will culminate with Henry V, source of the above and many other inspirational quotes. I have a lot of feelings about these productions, and if I can get my act together, I’ll post them as each episode airs. I’ll have a few other balls in the air by then, though: not only does my final quarter at Medill start a week from today, but I also plan on revisiting one of my great storytelling loves of all time, HBO’s Band of Brothers.
In some ways, I’m in journalism school because of this show. I owe my interest in oral histories to a friend who, knowing I liked this miniseries, shoved Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” into my hands and told me I had to read it. During my newsroom quarter, I focused on reporting on veterans and military families, which is, I’ve discovered, a beat for which I maintain a passion. If I’m honest, my interest in the paratroopers of the 1940s pushed me to seek out the stories of today’s service members, to whom I’m very grateful for their trust.
For about a year and a half, I was one of those people who watched Band of Brothers on loop. I’ve read all the books (Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends by Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere remains my favorite), I’ve visited museums, I’ve noticed dates that otherwise would have passed me by. And I’ve remained captivated by the process of building and assembling and creating a work like that. When history is so messy, and the way we remember even messier, how do you still tell a good story? How do you, as a writer or actor or producer, balance such profound and delicate responsibilities? Everything about Band of Brothers fascinates me, bottom to top. (The actors still hang out and call each other by their character names, did you know that? More than a decade later, they’re that close.)
I’m looking forward to coming back with a fresh set of eyes. I don’t think I’ve seen an episode for at least a year and a half, and it’s probably been two or three years since I last saw the whole series. But I’ll admit to some hesitation about diving back in. Caring about Band of Brothers means you also care about the surviving men of Easy Company. You hear about it when their health fails or they pass away, and even if you knew an actor’s portrayal instead of the man himself, your heart still aches a little. Many of the websites and forums that used to post notices seem to have gone quiet in the intervening years; I almost don’t want to know who we’ve lost since I last checked in.
I also wonder about the place of Band of Brothers in U.S. American society itself. No matter how harrowing the art, war and art are always going to be different. It’s the art that tends to become part of our mythology, though, and I have a lot of questions about that.
There’s a lot of art in Band of Brothers, and sometimes it demands that history steps aside. Not all of this is instigated by the producers: the men of Easy Company had decades to shape their own stories before Stephen Ambrose interviewed a one of them. At a certain point, the viewer has to accept that this story is going to be a collage rather than a photograph. Surely some postmodern philosopher-critic can come up with a pithy quote about truth and experience and record and the act of telling a story. (Suggestions welcome; comment away!)
I have the language to talk about Band of Brothers as a work of art; I will attempt to address some of the other attending issues, but I will probably mess up and miss the mark, so please, feel free to engage me in the comments when that happens. (Feel free to do so even if you don’t disagree with me! Even if it’s just “Oh my heart, that scene!” or “My favorite character!”)
I kept extensive (though not always useful) notes about my earlier rewatches. This is one of the useful bits:
Each episode has a focal character, a foil character and a clear theme. “Day of Days” is Winters, Guarnere and seeing the elephant. “Carentan” is Blithe, Harry Welsh and coping with fear. “Replacements” is Bull, Garcia/Hashey/Babe and taking care of each other, and so on. We have the first and last episodes that are really about everybody, and serve an explicitly narrative purpose — establishment (“Currahee”) and denouement (“Points”) — though even those had their themes, first among which I would say is unity. Other series themes include politicking and power dynamics (“The Last Patrol”), disillusionment and sudden truths (“Why We Fight”), and leadership and transitions (“Crossroads”).
Each episode has a very distinct cinematic and directorial flavor: “Crossroads” has Tom Hanks and his typewriters and the differing visual styles between frame story and flashback; “Bastogne” is a largely silent fairy tale; “The Breaking Point” has all those quick asides and intimate conversations; “Why We Fight” has the broken elegance of gentile Germany paired with the horror movie of finding the camp.
This is some of what I hope to focus on during this rewatch.
Before I close out, here are two links I unearthed that interest me, and may inform some of my thinking going forward:
Any further recommendations, links or articles or books or documentaries, would be most welcome. I also hope to reread Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, and, if I do the timing right, at least a few of the biographies, autobiographies and oral histories from the veterans themselves.
After a week of 90+ temperatures, when the air cooled off and the clouds were racing across a bright blue sky, Julie and I finally decided to do it. We’d been saying we would bike to the Chicago Botanic Garden for weeks, if not months: with conditions like this, there was no time like the present.
I’ve been happily doing my running thing for about a month, but my bike has, unfortunately, spent a lot of time in my apartment building’s laundry room this summer. No worries, though, right? We had a map and an open schedule, and Google said we’d be there in an hour and a half.
Google makes some funny jokes sometimes, fyi.
The original plan was to take the North Branch Trail, which has some occasionally confusing bits that we were totally prepared to tackle, thanks to this helpful comic. We fumbled our way through a number of interruptions and detours, but figured this was probably the last hiccup that would bother us; it appeared that we’d have smooth sailing as soon as we passed, say, Devon Street.
Not actually the case! All through Lincolnwood, Wilmette, Skokie and into Evanston, we had to start and stop at very busy street crossings (though we did get to enjoy some interesting public art along the trail). By the time we made it to Evanston (more winding through streets, at which point we nearly hit the football stadium, distressingly close to the lake), it was nearly 2 o’clock and both of us had been counting on eating lunch at the Botanic Garden by then.
Waking up at 8 o’clock is my favorite, I think. This is my new reality for the month of September, since Medill, along with the rest of Northwestern, is on break for most of it. 8 a.m. is nice: the air is clear, the birds are singing, and I don’t have to join the harried 9-to-5ers on the train. I can sit here in my kitchen with the windows open, taking my time with this tea.
Yesterday I hit a panic point in my staycation. As the quarter got more and more overwhelming, I just let a lot of things go, and my apartment has been paying the price: dishes piling up, laundry all over the floor, papers scattered everywhere. It’s a parody of how a grad student lives. (Don’t look, Dad.) You know that “Clean ALL the things!” comic? That hit me around 8 o’clock last night. All of a sudden, after spending days on my couch hoping Tumblr would be more interesting with this push of the refresh button, I was clearing off countertops, loading up the dishwasher, savagely reorganizing, ready to purge and recycle and straighten up.
This happens with me. I have to go a certain amount of time and let myself get really bored and restless so I can throw myself into big projects. This one feels different, though. This one has an undercurrent of existential terror.
First things first: I’m making this post because Zombies, Run! is having a great sale for their apps, and if you think you’d enjoy a story-driven 5K training app or a running app, even if (like me) you don’t enjoy zombies, you should go for it before Tuesday, September 3.
Okay, that’s the context, though if you read to the end you’ll get to see the worst selfie taken in the history of the world, so maybe that can compel you to listen to me yammer about why I dig running now when I’ve never quite managed to latch onto it before.
I’m one of those creative types who’s spent most of my life resisting exercise. Not really out of an inherent laziness (though there is that, to a certain extent), but sports was always something only worth a shrug in my house growing up, if it was acknowledged at all. Neither of my parents enjoyed or sought out physical activity, and there was always this simmering resentment of sports culture (and how our losing sports teams in the city school system always seemed to get more funding than the arts) that meant I was never encouraged to want it or enjoy it.
I’ve finished my second whole book on the Kobo and am plowing into my third. Yet for the past few days I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I had to read a couple outside reviews to nail down my feelings. The positive one points out that it’s a love letter to books and reading, while at the same time exploring the tension between history, literate societies and oral societies. The frustrated one more mirrors my own experience, in that I spent most of the novel irritated by the ponderously layered language and cultural constructs, and by the “boy meets dying girl, dead girl haunts boy, boy falls in love but must set both of them free” plot.
That’s not actually a spoiler, that’s the jacket summary, but I came to this book knowing nothing about it, only that it was supposed to be good and that it featured a non-European fantasy world, which, hurrah! And as I was reading, it occurs to me how much media I consume in which I sort of know what’s coming — you’ve read the book before you watch the movie, or it’s a remake or a mash-up or it’s based on a fairy tale, or you can see the plot coming a mile away. I didn’t have a clue what the book would be about for the first hundred or so (ebook) pages. It gets off to a very slow start with little indication of what the story will become.
The experience of reading the book gave me much more to chew on than the book itself. Let me try and break it down. I found myself dealing with three main threads:
What’s the world look like?
Is a haunting plot the same as a colonialism/globalization plot?
Why do I keep reading books that, in the end, I cannot connect with?
It’s been raining in central Ohio for most of the almost-a-day I’ve been here. I’m the first of my siblings to arrive, but soon all four of us, plus others, will be in the house with Dad. This weekend is the stone-setting at my mom’s grave in Athens. We unveil the headstone and signal an end to the year of mourning.
Six months ago, give or take, I wrote Half of the first year, trying to take stock of what it’s like, losing your mother to a hideous, protracted cancer. In some ways I’m getting better (I’m writing fiction again!), and in some ways I’m even more of a mess than I realized.
Pretty soon my family is going to start arriving, and I’ll have no quiet until I’m back in Chicago on Monday afternoon. Let’s not talk about the obscene amount of schoolwork and the outside projects I have to make progress on somehow. But at the moment Gus the basset hound is snoring by the French windows, and my dad is downstairs with classical music thundering through the floorboards, and this is pretty nice.
My advisor wrote, “I don’t know what the appropriate encomium is for a stone-setting ceremony, but I hope the proceedings go well for you and your family.” Me too.
In lieu of more thoughts, let me leave you with an article that’s been on my mind since I found it earlier this week. How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society starts off with all the information about having babies late that just doesn’t apply to me or interest me yet — all those worries about old eggs. (My parents were 41 and 43 when I was born, and people used to warn my mom about old eggs. Whenever I accomplished something noteworthy, my parents would smile and nod at me and say, “Old eggs.”) But then the article changes, and it becomes the piece I was hoping it would be: a discussion of fear, of the social and familial pressures of being new parents in your late thirties and beyond, and, at last, a frank discussion of what having children late means in terms of a parent’s lifespan.
There is a lot that I could say about this, but it’s a very raw time right now, so I’ll just leave this here for another essay.