Friday, June 12, 2009

Gestures in (Statistical) Literacy: Graph of Lunches

From an elementary school newspaper, in its original, vibrant grayscale, we proudly present: The Graph of Lunches.

For greater graphical detail, just click on the image. Never has the lunchtime quandary been captured quite this well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

From the Library: Getting Out of "Into the Wild": Tracking Christopher McCandless, from article to book to film to DVD

Late in 2007, Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild stirred renewed interest in the story of Christopher J. McCandless, the young man on whom the film, and Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name, focuses. It’s been over fifteen years since the young man walked out of civilization and into the wild, and the story of what happened to him remains in the public consciousness. But the three depictions of him--the original 1993 magazine article by Krakauer, the resultant book (1996), and then the film--are fundamentally different.

A graduate of Emory, McCandless tramped across the nation for the better part of two years before thumbing his way to Alaska to embark on a solo, natural “odyssey” of his own devising. If you’ve never heard of him, the facts are these: McCandless hunted and gathered in the solitude of the Last Frontier for more than a hundred days, but eventually starved to death at the age of 24, and lay dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan bush. Moose hunters found his body in September 1992.

This PDXWD writer came to McCandless unchronologically, seeing the film first, then reading the article, and finally the book—a circuitous route, true to McCandless’ style. The question that remained after all this exposure to the story, however, was: What are we supposed to make of Chris McCandless and the wide range of responses—from anger to understanding—his adventures have incited from readers and viewers?

One of the main problems in discussing McCandless is that we are apt to interpret his actions before we know much about him, a situation that makes it difficult to describe what he did without using such words as “sad,” “tragic,” “unwise” or even, as some people do, “stupid.” Both Penn's movie and Krakauer's book make compelling interpretations of McCandless’s ill-fated sojourn (though perhaps McCandless wouldn’t have called it “ill-fated” at all), but they also succumb, inevitably, to the very impulses they warn readers against: Krakauer and Penn cannot help but want you to agree with their visions of McCandless.

The film, for instance, features carefully-timed Eddie Vedder tunes that jibe with McCandless’ letters being written over the action. I wished many times that more trust were put in cinematography and the story itself, rather than elaborately-planned pathos--the film lacks important silences and is worse because of it. Penn’s adaptation shines a sympathetic, if not overtly heroic, light on McCandless and his trip, romanticizing the man's hopes and dreams. Penn presents an homage to the man, but the McCandless character is rarely allowed to just exist onscreen, because McCandless the man is forever refracted through Penn’s vision of him.

As a book, Into the Wild is vigilant in continually paying respect to McCandless, never allowing the young man to be boiled down completely. Krakauer does not hide that the impetus behind turning “Death of an Innocent” into a book was in part to rescue McCandless from those who called him dumb and ill-equipped after the article first appeared. (Many Alaskans lambasted the magazine for publishing a piece that would encourage more "crazies" to trek to and through their state.)

Rather than convince us of McCandless’s bravery with catchy guitar riffs or extended comparisons to visionaries of the past, however, the film and book might have allowed us to decide on our own whether what McCandless did was courageous, ludicrous, or both. Though those second and third options are certainly plausible, the overwhelming evidence the film and book present is that McCandless rests safely in sainthood. Both seem to imply that they don’t want McCandless maliciously interpreted, though to graciously interpret him is okay.

First published in Outside in 1993, Krakauer's “Death of an Innocent” (the original article that he expanded to create the longer, more robust Into the Wild) was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and is still available in Outside’s online archive. McCandless’ actions and inspirations were too complex and unconventional to be reduced to something simple, and lost in the film and book are the raw, uninterpreted facts of the original article’s reporting, and its unprocessed details that allow the reader to make of the situation what she or he will.

For me, therefore, these facts themselves—left alone, as they are in the magazine article, without elaboration or lengthy explanation—are the most compelling, because it seems that's what McCandless himself would have wanted. Indeed, the young man desired only to live as fully as possible without the burdens and layers of meaning and symbolism and interpretation heaped on him or what he did.

Monday, June 1, 2009

From the Library: Michael Davis's "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street," and thoughts on the dreams of the 70s in the era of Obama

One of this reviewer's earliest television memories is watching the upbeat intro to Sesame Street in a state of rapt attention. In the version I remember (aired in the early 1980s), Big Bird and pals run up and over a park hill and through the city as they ask in song, “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” And though I didn’t realize it until looking at Street Gang, Michael Davis's newly-released history of Sesame Street, a lot of what I learned about people, math, spelling, and society came from that show. But of all things on which to write a history right now, why Sesame Street?

“The show turns 40 on November 10th, for one,” Davis said via telephone with PDXWD recently, “but more importantly because the history of Sesame Street is the history of our culture. So many of the stages of children’s development are mirrored in the show, and I wanted to do a serious book about something we all know and all enjoy, giving people an opportunity to explore something they see every day, but never give much thought to.” Modeled loosely on the book Sea Biscuit, which Davis deeply admires, Street Gang tells the story of a pop-culture behemoth, letting readers in on the story of its development.

To read about Sesame Street is to notice that our society has experienced, as Davis puts it, “breathtaking change,” and that “the way we respond to each other is so very different than it was.” Sesame Street was one of the first shows in history to mandate that there be an integrated cast. African Americans, disabled Americans, and Latinos were all strong characters woven into the show’s fabric, even if the writers never drew much attention to the fact that it was teaching anything about diversity. Davis claims that exposing children to such diversity in the preschool years has a remarkable impact on the tolerance they extend as adults. “In fact,” Davis said, “I firmly believe that the progressive ideals of Sesame Street ushered in the era of Obama. It was a dream in the 1960s and 1970s that we could live in an integrated society, even if it really wasn’t like that then.”

And even though millions of its viewers have aged out of watching the show, Sesame Street continues to stay current. As Davis explained, Sesame Street has its own YouTube channel, and constantly takes on sensitive issues, such as a parent returning from Iraq disfigured. “The secret of Sesame Street’s success,” he said, “is they've never sat still for even a moment. They're continually asking what’s in the modern zeitgeist? What do children need now?”

As much as we may forget them in our daily adult lives, Oscar, Big Bird, the Count, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Ernie are by now part of our subconscious. “We hold these characters very dear to our hearts,” Davis said, “and they are so embedded in our culture that we want to share them.”

And Street Gang is a gorgeous and intelligent book that follows the creation and evolution of one of our nation’s most important shows. Because “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” has served, for decades now, as only a rhetorical question. The vast majority of us already know the way.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Interview: Object Mobile creator and proprietor Laura Moulton on Bing Lang Girls, pocket mustaches, and looking for the helper

Telling our boss we were going out for a quick cigarette, this individual mitochondrian of the vast leviathan that is PDXWD wandered into the south Park Blocks yesterday to visit the Object Mobile and its creator/proprietor, Laura Moulton. We later emailed her some questions about the project, which she was gracious enough to answer:

PDXWD: So how did this project get started? Did you have an idea and then look for funding or a program, or did you get funding or get involved in a program, and then develop the idea later?

Laura Moulton: I was one of a group of artists invited to submit a proposal for an art project through the Oregon Arts Commission's "Percent for Art" program. The main stipulation was that it somehow involve the Smith Memorial Student Union building, and students in and around it. In this case I was accepted first based on a general proposal, and then I developed a more specific idea of what I wanted to do as time went on.

PDXWD: What kind of art pieces/projects/installations have you done in the past?

Laura Moulton: An early print project I did was called the "Taoyuan County Cowgirl Gazette" which was basically a very weird 'zine my friend and I made while living in Taiwan. It featured reviews of different "Bing Lang" girls (scantily clad betel nut vendors who worked in little brightly lit booths), scandalous suggestions for classroom management while teaching English, and an odd crossword puzzle that caused even the most hardened expat to stub out a cigarette at the bar and pick up a pencil. After I moved to Portland, I worked as a temp at the post office during a Christmas holiday and I put together a homemade yearbook for all of the temps (complete with the requisite photo, hobbies, and inspirational quote). There was a surprising amount of hugging after I distributed it. My sidekick Ben and I ran the literary journal Gumball Poetry ( for about 9 years before we closed it down, and that was a project that distributed poems in gumball machines across the States and published online as well. More recently I helped create Project Hamad, a website that features the story of a Sudanese man named Adel Hamad whom the U.S. detained for more than six years at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. This past fall I attended the weekly art lectures for PSU’s MFA series and created a 'zine about each artist and lecture, which I then distributed to the MFA students in January. I also make collage and work with encaustic wax, though it's been a while since I was doing that regularly. I'm raising 2 small children, so I have to be more careful with the hot tins of wax.

PDXWD: Who made the Object Mobile itself? What is it made out of? How did you transport it
to the site?

Laura Moulton: The Object Mobile was designed and built by Greenworks Design Studio, which is basically comprised of designer/architect/artists including my brother, James Moulton, as well as the artist Kari Merkle, who among other things designed and installed the beautiful red velvet upholstery behind each typewriter. It's made out of wood and has plexiglass boxes which feature meaningful objects contributed by PSU students.

PDXWD: Where did you get the objects and writing that are already displayed?

Laura Moulton: I gave my two student assistants, Rozzell Medina and Crystal Baxley, empty freezer bags with a collections form in each, and they set out to gather objects from PSU students. Each object is labeled and has a brief description contributed by its owner. It's a great collection: a Dopey mug from Disney on Ice, a doll, a mixed tape, a pair of ankle socks that say "You can't afford me," and so on. Some really funny, tender contributions.

PDXWD: Where did you get the typewriters? What kind of typewriters are they? How did they handle the stress of being transported?

Laura Moulton: The typewriters are from a very cool old shop in St. John's called "Ace Typewriters." The owner is named Matt and he reminds me a lot of the writer Tim O'Brien. I was standing in the store with my brother James, studying all the different types of antique typewriters there, when I reached in my pocket and felt this terrible hairy thing. Since Matt was in the middle of telling me about the features of one of the typewriters, I tamped down a yell and when he was finished, I fished the thing out of my pocket and held it up in front of my brother. "Did you put your fake mustache in my pocket?" I asked him. Matt laughed, which is how I knew he was a good sport. There's a great story about him and his family's history with typewriters here:

So far the typewriters are holding up, though they are ancient Royals and by the end of today, the ink was getting faint on the page. The other problem is that we're all so used to this light, feathery typing on laptops now and these typewriters call for a serious finger-peck to make an impression. So as people sat down to describe their object, I think it was more of a workout than they'd anticipated. Hopefully not too much.

PDXWD: What kinds of difficulties did you encounter in getting this project completed?

Laura Moulton: Ugh. Bureaucracies. And just trying to spell the word "bureaucracies."

PDXWD: How have people responded to the Object Mobile? What have they asked you?

Laura Moulton: The Object Mobile is visually arresting and I've watched people spot the thing and then make a beeline for it, peer into its windows and really get into it. It's had a very enthusiastic response so far. I think people mostly asked about where the objects came from, whether the students will get them back (they will) and so on.

PDXWD: What kinds of things are people writing about? And what will happen to the things they've written?

Laura Moulton: A mushroom-shaped cookie container. A ring. A handheld tape recorder. A harmonica. A dirty little bunny. And many more great ones. My plan is to compile everything into an online 'zine (available in a pdf) and there will also be a print copy on hand with the final installation in the Smith building (2nd floor, just outside the elevators).

PDXWD: What will that installation in the Smith building be?

Laura Moulton: The permanent installation will be one wall of the Object Mobile, complete with the plexiglass windows that will feature several objects donated by students for the permanent collection. It will also have an explanation of the project, photos, and a hard copy of the collection of object descriptions (both typed and drawn) contributed by students who have participated over the last few days.

PDXWD: What has surprised you about the project? Any unforeseen events, feelings, thoughts, insights?

Laura Moulton: I guess with all the focus on building the thing, I hadn't given as much thought to how it would be to finally have it installed and interacting with the public. I had some really nice exchanges with people today, and I look forward to meeting and talking to others in the next two days.

PDXWD: What will happen to "the rest of" the mobile after Friday?

Laura Moulton: To be determined.

PDXWD: What will be next for you? Are you working on any other projects?

Laura Moulton: I have in mind a project called "Look for the Helper" that comes from an idea I got while reading "Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents." It's based on something his mother told him when he was a kid and he was troubled by some kind of terrible news article. She said that in every sad newspaper story, there was always someone who was trying to help the situation (doctors, nurses, friends). So that's how he approached media in general: he looked for the helper. I've got some different ideas going about that -- no specifics I want to trot out just yet. I'm also at work on a novel -- it's a bit slow-doing, but I remember: the oxen are slow but the earth is patient.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From the Library: Monica Seles's "Getting A Grip," and some thoughts on Hall of Fame induction and autobiography

Peripherally watching the NBA play­offs this year, PDXWD has often thought about Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, now retired and relegated to the sideline (read: couch), from where they are forced to watch Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, their on-court successors and the league's two brightest stars. What must it be like, we wonder, for once-infalli­ble athletes, now barely into middle age but ousted, to have to watch a new generation take over the sport they once dominated?

Contemplating your own athletic obsolescence is hardly an enviable situ­ation, megastar or not. Add in early and unmatched success, an ongoing and debilitating battle with food, a freak and psycho­logically-paralyzing occur­rence, and an attempted comeback, and you have a glimpse of the story Monica Seles tells in her new book, Getting A Grip: On My Mind, My Body, My Self.

Tennis prodigy of the 1990s, Seles won the French Open at 16 (the youngest champ ever), and has now, some 20 years later, written this autobiography to coincide with her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer.
That honor is complicated, of course, by the fact that in 1993, when Seles was at the top of the ranks, a deranged fan stabbed her in the back during a match in Germany. After the bizarre incident, Seles was out for two years, and never recovered enough emotionally to contend again. (And the assailant never served jail time.) “It’s a horri­ble thing that happened in my life,” Seles writes in the book, “and it irrevo­cably changed the course of my career and inflicted serious damage to my psy­che. A split second of horror fundamen­tally changed me as a person.”

Still, Seles said in an email recently to PDXWD, “as a girl growing up in the for­mer-Yugoslavia I never imagined I would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. It is a dream come true. Know­ing that I will be a Hall of Famer is a great honor and a great way to celebrate my tennis career.” Asked if she studied any other athletes’ books or autobiographies before writ­ing her own, Seles professed to having read athletes’ and non-athletes’ alike, including the work of Howard Hughes, Coco Chanel, Dara Torres, and Julie Krone. An autobiography of her own, she explained in her email, would help “spread the message to people out there who were struggling with their weight, like I did for nine years, and take con­trol of it and win that battle in life.”

Last year, Seles agreed to appear on the sixth season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” an episode she details in her book. She was the first female celebrity contestant eliminated. “While staying out of the public eye" since offi­cially retiring, she writes, "I’d been able to rebuild and fortify my core and I decided to put it to the ultimate test: ballroom dancing in front of millions of people. If I was going to test my newfound inner strength, what better way to do it than by risking total and complete public humiliation on reality television?” True enough.

After following Seles through these travails outlined in Getting A Grip, you begin to gain a fuller if sadder understanding of the pressures society puts on professional ath­letes, a fragile situation indeed considering the heaps of pres­sure athletes already load upon them­selves. “Who was I without tennis?” Seles asks about halfway through her book, and the question reverberates because the answer is so simple: just a normal person. Unlike you and me, though, Seles — along with the Jor­dans and Birds of our world (and the Roman gladiators before them) — had to age, compete, struggle, and remake herself in front of a passionate audience that was always watching.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

From the Library: The Last of Kevin Wilson's "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth"

“The Choir Director Affair (The Baby’s Teeth)”
Two stories in the same collection written in the second person! This could be a record and entirely out of control. A little disappointing, however, is the fact that “The Choir Director Affair” is not as tidy and interlooping as the previous second-person foray, but it feels more heartfelt, at least. In this story, our narrator is friendly with a married couple whose baby is born with a mouthful of teeth, teeth that are beautiful and perfect, but the sort of teeth that make “you feel like a real son of bitch” when you see them for the first time, because “why wouldn’t someone have mentioned this beforehand? A small warning: this baby will smile and it will startle you.” The real movement of this narrative, though (in line with the second paragraph’s promise, “The story isn’t about the baby anyway, but the father of the baby”), is in the repetitive and awful behaviors in which adult people find themselves eddying. The mother and father, like so many of us, “are arguing,” the story says, “but quietly, under the surface. Too much sugar in one’s coffee, newspaper folded and refolded in the face of questions, mentions of after-school activities.” This is terrible to read because it is so spot-on and reminds you of your ex. And so it happens that the father has an affair, lies about his whereabouts, leaves the child often in the narrator’s care when he romps with this other woman, and then eventually leaves the mother and destroys a little family. He goes to Austria, has wild times, enjoys this other woman fully, but is inevitably left by her. Do mother and father then get back together in a storm of forgiveness and kisses and sex, though? Of course they do. And does the child age into an awkward normal-toothed teenager? Of course he does. Why? Because “the things we once loved do not change,” the story ends, “only our belief in them.”

“Go, Fight, Win”
Hot damn, this story is solid, even if the first half of it reads almost exactly like the relationship between Jane and Ricky Fitz in American Beauty (replicated in eerie and precise detail, we might add). Besides this bit of deja vu, though, the unfolding of a strange and touching relationship between a 16-year-old reluctant cheerleader and her 12-year-old neighbor boy is well-crafted and subtle, eliciting many fine comparisons to the shorter work of Salinger and Eggers. Of special enjoyment is the care with which the girl in the story works on model cars at her desk at night; it provides not only the image on the book's cover, but resonates as a metaphor for beginning to piece together in our early years what we should expect out of life, and what it expects of us.

"The Museum of Whatnot"
This reviewer will be so bold as to call this the best story in the collection. A bold move, per se, because it is probably the most straightforward and classic of the bunch--without much trickery or literary bells and whistles--but also because it is the most nuanced. Had we the space, we would offer a Marxist reading of the protagonist's desire to rid herself of her possessions, and tack on another even closer reading of her job: a curator for a, you guessed it, museum of whatnot. But since we are not afforded with the desire at present to flesh out such readings, let it suffice to say that what happens, in not so many words, is the female lead curates and curates and curates (choosing and sorting and displaying everything from garbage bags of rubber bands to millions of paperclips), until she concedes it's okay to own some things once in a while. In addition, spurred by the advances of a doctor fellow who frequents the whatnots, our protagonist slowly discovers that the lonely life she has been leading has been a conscious decision all along.

"Worst Case Scenario"
It is unfortunate that Tunneling to the Center of the Earth ends with this story, not because it isn't good, but because it's just not as good or as polished as the rest. Wilson has said the impetus for this story "came from illogical fear and loneliness, which is where a good many of my story ideas come from," which is a compelling and fruitful place to be working from as a writer, but only if you allow your characters to explore these feelings wholly, and without encumbering them with weird stipulations. In "Worst Case Scenario," for example, the main character's own psychoses are the thrust of what we care about him resolving, and yet Wilson weighs the narrative down by giving the character a crazy job (collecting and reporting on worst case scenarios), when really the worst case scenario is the character's life itself. There is nice resolution to the story, but by then, we just sort of wish we had reread "Museum of Whatnot" instead.