Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in Time: 'The Wilder Life'

There's an old picture of me, my cousin and my little sister with Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I think I was seven or eight at the time. I'd share it but a) my parents moved when I was in my mid-twenties, so most childhood stuff has been relegated to basement purgatory, and b) I had a perm until I was twelve. Enough said.

Though I'd like to forget my 80's hair, I can't shake the feeling I got from reading the Little House books - nor would I want to. I mean, come on: calico dresses! Sunbonnets! Fiddle music! Making button strings and snow candy and cornhusk dolls! I was never much for the TV show - sorry Michael Landon, Pa did not have feathered hair - but my uncle gave me the set of Laura books when I was six years old and I was, to quote Ben Folds, not the same after that.

I totally made a button string. I distinctly remember opening On the Banks of Plum Creek and asking my mom what a dugout was. I tried to recreate the feeling of being in a covered wagon one winter night when my extended family was crammed in our car. My dad did not enjoy being called "Pa"and was not receptive to playing the fiddle for my amusement.

In 2009, I met author Wendy McClure at an event. I'd read her account of Weight Watchers woes, I'm Not the New Me, and loved her snarky yet wistful tone. I always like meeting an artist who's not an asshole (not that many of them are, I'm just a pessimist at heart), and Wendy proved to be sweet and funny in person, just like in her writing. She mentioned she was writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. "Oh my God, I loved those books!" I enthused to her later. "But why did Pa move everyone around so much? He was like a Manic Pixie Dream Dad!" Maybe Wendy was being polite, but she seemed to know just what I meant.

Turns out, there's a legion of us Laura fans. I didn't know at the time because most of my classmates thought reading was for weirdos, but I was far from alone in my Little House fandom. I wasn't the only perm-headed little girl who enjoyed the comforts of electricity and, you know, NOT having to deal with a grasshopper plague, but yearned for a calico sunbonnet and a general store where sugar was in a barrel, not in a bag. Technically, as the older sister with blonde hair, I was more of a Mary, but I identified with Laura's occasional naughtiness and propensity to say the wrong thing. Also, I really wanted a rag doll named Charlotte.

In The Wilder Life, McClure explores Laura fandom and takes it one step further, visiting old Wilder homesteads and new tourist attractions, taking in Little House pageants and the musical stage version starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma, churning her own butter and finding out what was in those airy-fairy cakes served at the home of (that bitch) Nellie Oleson. There's a mournful quality behind much of the book - at the time she was writing it, McClure had recently lost her mother and revisited the Little House series for comfort. It makes sense she'd reach back to a simpler time, both in her life and in Laura's.

However, as McClure reveals in the book, Laura's life wasn't always so simple. Both Laura and her daughter Rose weathered a lot of hardships as adults. Even as a child, Laura's existence wasn't all sugaring-off dances and Christmas-stocking oranges. There are chunks of time missing from the books that involve bad luck and child labor. Also, grasshopper plagues. Rightfully pissed-off Native Americans. Years when Christmas was really the only happy day.

Still, through her research and travels, McClure conveys Laura's real and imagined lives with fondness and hope, and explores a book series that had a real impact on little girls in 70's and 80's, and is still widely read today. Throughout most of my childhood, I felt like I didn't fit in. Instead of playing sports, I was more at home with my Little House books (okay, and my Sweet Valley Twins books, but that's another story). And even though I'm now a relatively well-adjusted thirtysomething, the fact that I was part of a larger group of misanthropic perm-heads and didn't even know it at the time? It means something to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Night Only: 'After Hours'

One of the best things about writing is the justification of all sorts of random questions and obsessions. Basically, I can ask anyone anything with the vague excuse "it's for something I'm working on!" In the past several months, I've posed these inquiries to my followers on Facebook and Twitter:

1) What were you listening to in the 90's?
2) What are your favorite movies set in New York City?

(P.S. If you haven't answered these, leave a comment!)

In response to the latter, my friend Molly suggested "After Hours," a Scorsese film from 1985. I had no idea this film existed. And I was far from disappointed.

Griffin Dunne - all soulful eyes and charmingly imperfect teeth - plays Paul, a quiet word processor who ventures into a coffee shop one night after work. He chats up the pretty but cryptic Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), and who invites him to the SoHo loft she shares with kinky artist Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). A bizarre chain of events ensues, involving overdoses, windy cab fare, papier mache, sixties-obsessed cocktail waitresses and a heavy dose of paranoia for Paul, who just wanted to hook up with the girl who shared his affinity for Henry Miller.

I love the idea of a single, life-changing night, and so movies that take place within this time frame ("American Graffiti," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist") have a special place in my heart. It's my goal to write a novel with a one-night timespan someday. Though I'd never want to have the utterly weird night Paul experiences in "After Hours," it's so fun to watch. Scorsese keeps the pace fast and the camera angles Hitchcock-esque as this meek desk jockey sinks further and further into paranoia. Dark comedy is extremely hard to pull off successfully ("Take Me Home Tonight" couldn't do it), but "After Hours" has a nightmarishly silly tone that works.

And it couldn't have taken place anywhere else. The New York City of "After Hours" is dark and gritty, with all-night diners, drafty lofts and grimy dance clubs with basement abodes. It's like a really strange moving performance art piece - yet with a realistic air. I could imagine someone actually experiencing this night, even as the circumstances rocketed further out of the ordinary. Not to mention the incredible cast: Rosanna Arquette almost but not quite annoyed me as the manic pixie dream girl, but luckily Paul tired of her just as I did. Teri Garr's turn as a beehive-sporting waitress made me forgive her for the utterly spewtastic "One From the Heart." (Do not see "One From the Heart." Ever. Even if a zombie apocalypse renders it the last film on Earth.) And for all the "Home Alone" fans out there, Kevin McAllister's mom and dad appear: Catherine O'Hara in all her oddball glory, and John Heard as a weirdly sexy bartender. Oh, and Balki from "Perfect Strangers" is in the first scene. I may or may not have spooked my cat when I screamed.

I wonder if "After Hours" could be made today. I think yes, but it would make the indie circuit and I don't know if someone with Scorsese's clout would be approached to direct. Either way, I'm glad it exists. To me, the film comes across as a love letter to the real New York City, where strange people do strange things and one single night presents endless possibilities.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Yam Who I Yam: Blogging and Honesty

Forgive me y'all, but I'm a little shaken right now.

Over the past week, it's been revealed that one of my fellow bloggers is not who she says she is. Now, before you say "stop the presses!" hear me out. It turns out this individual, who had quite a large following in a specialized interest community that had expanded to several major stores and companies, had in fact defrauded hundreds of readers. As in, she took money from them for a service that was performed incompetently or not at all.

This behavior went on for at least two years, in part because many were hesitant to call her out. After all, she supposedly had a glowing reputation and a lot of endorsements. Some had met her in person: in other words, this wasn't some perv-dude in his mom's basement, or even somebody's sister in male drag a la JT LeRoy. And she appeared to have a lot going on in her personal life: unemployment, a sick pet, relatives in distress. Most of all, she just seemed so nice!

Only she wasn't so nice after all.

Whether or not this began innocently, she has allegedly stolen money from over 100 people (and those are just the ones coming forward). A David Mamet character once said something to the tune of, "I'm a confidence man, not because you put your confidence in me, but I put my confidence in you." This blogger put her confidence in thousands of people. And whether or not money changed hands (or however you'd put it in PayPal terms), we were all duped.

Fortunately, I never gave this person any money. But for several months I was a devoted reader of her blog. After years of dismissing the idea as "shallow," I started to care about my appearance. Her site and many like it were extremely helpful in showing me how to mix and match, how to maximize the contents of my closet, how to look for sales and dress my body type, and how to develop a personal style. As a lady on a budget in an expensive city, I deeply appreciated the assistance and encouragement. And it was lovely to find a community of like-minded intelligent women who were interested in fashion but who were anything but shallow.

Several months ago, I attended an event co-hosted by this blogger and a major store. For me this event was a short train ride away, but my sister and two of her friends drove several hours. We met this woman, chatted with her and had our pictures taken. She was extremely sweet, remembered my sister and me from a photo we'd emailed her, and seemed flattered that most of our party had road-tripped for the express purpose of meeting her in person.

Before this week, I hadn't read her blog in a while. I've fallen away from the blogosphere somewhat, as paid writing assignments now have to take priority. But learning how to dress myself, for lack of a better phrase, represented a "grown up" life change for me, one that's manifested itself in many positive ways.

Yesterday morning, my sister contacted me with the breaking news: words like "fraud" and "criminal" were being thrown around. A Google search revealed that this wasn't just a single case or two of incompetence. There were a lot of lies told, a lot of potential issues at play. And the blogger herself remained vague, before going into hiding completely.

Of course there was hate on the interwebz: that people were stupid to put their confidence in someone they'd never met, that her readers were stupid to care so much about something so trivial anyway. So much victim-blaming, with a hint of misogyny: if something's cared about by a group of women, how important can it be? These commenters ignore the larger issue: in the interest of saving a buck, individuals put their trust in someone else, only to be ripped off and violated. That goes beyond a niche interest.

And as a blogger, in the same city as this woman, I am personally offended. Incidents like this make people question everything. Bloggers in general look bad. And I hate that my beloved city is associated with this.

When I started this site in 2009, I wanted more practice writing. That's it. I highly doubted anyone outside my circle of friends would read it. Two years later, I have a little following and I love it. I have relationships with publicists, authors, readers, and I wouldn't dream of taking advantage of those. For a time I tried to monetize the blog, but I realized it was much more fun to seek outside freelance gigs and continue to make this a place where I could write about whatever I wanted, and people could read and comment, or not.

At first I tried to stay relatively anonymous. After a few months, however, I shared the blog with a coworker who praised it. And when I started getting freelance assignments and linking the sites on my page, I realized my anonymous days were pretty much over. (I do restrict my personal Facebook page, but if you'd like to become a fan of the blog click here.)

Let me assure you, those who do not know me in real life, I am who I say I am: a relatively imperfect 31-year-old who nerds out about celebrities, movies, books and other fancies. I read obsessively. I study burlesque and yoga. I write YA fiction. I wear a lot of dresses.

Like a lot of others right now, I'm disturbed by the dishonesty that pops up in the blogging community. I want to assure you that while I don't share everything with my readers (gotta keep some things private), I work hard not to deceive anyone. Because right now I'm one of many hurt and confused women throughout the world. I know how it feels.

Monday, September 12, 2011

From Memorial to Labor Day: Summer Music

Image via

First, the serious stuff: I'm not going to do a 9/11 post. I thought about it, but it seems like a cheap way to get hits. I'm also not wild about the media saturation. Don't get me wrong: grieving on the tenth anniversary is perfectly appropriate. It's just not for me. I remember where I was and what I did, it was a sad and scary time, I'm very fortunate I wasn't more directly affected (as in, I didn't know anyone in the towers or on the planes, and my relatives in New York were safe). While I think it's fine to recall and reflect, I don't feel the need to relive that day.

Moving on.

I'm already sad about summer's end. I live in Chicago, where hopefully we'll continue to have nice weather for several weeks before three days of fall and then several months of freezing our asses off. This summer, thanks to research for writing projects, a stellar public library, and the friends I rely on for new tunes, I discovered a lot of excellent listening material and revisited an old favorite. Here are my top five favorite summer musical finds:

1. The Band and Endless Highway: The Music of the Band
Last year, I got into music of the sixties and seventies as research for a novel. Along the way I discovered that Levon Helm, who played Loretta Lynn's father in one of my all-time favorite biopics, Coal Miner's Daughter, was more than an actor. Helm was part of The Band, a groundbreaking folk-rock group. Around Memorial Day weekend I gave them a listen and I wasn't disappointed. The melodies alternate between fun and soulful, with an old-school country twang and a rock 'n roll twist. Now, I'm still not a Band expert and I haven't listened to everything, but some of my faves so far include "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek" and the utterly heartbreaking "Rockin' Chair." And thanks to my local library, I also found Endless Highway, a 2007 album featuring Band covers by contemporary musicians like Guster and Jack Johnson. My personal favorite is Death Cab for Cutie's wistful take on "Rockin' Chair."

2. Squirrel Nut Zippers
Research for a new fiction project has taken me from the sixties to the nineties. As a wide-eyed teenager, I was hugely into the neo-jazz group Squirrel Nut Zippers. The frontwoman and I even share a last name! Needless to say, I was over the moon when the group played at my college freshman year. After releasing several albums, the group split up in the mid-2000's, but the music's aged so well I'm aching for another swing revival. Also, I wish I could croon like Katherine. If you're an SNZ neophyte, track down "Lover's Lane," "Hell" and "Good Enough for Granddad." Don't forget to dance along.

3. A Tribe Called Quest
"Can I kick it? Yes you can!" I wasn't a fan of this powerhouse hip-hop quartet in their heyday - before I discovered alternative rock, I was mainly into showtunes. (And yet, I still wondered why I wasn't popular in junior high.) However, this summer I reviewed Michael Rapaport's documentary about the group on assignment for The Film Yap. If the stunning creativity and fascinating group dynamics weren't enough to draw me in, the intelligent lyrics and sick beats did the trick. The very next day I put The Anthology on hold at the library, and now I'm so obsessed that I compare myself and my best friend Bob to Phife Dawg (me, the five-footer) and Q-Tip (the abstract), respectively. "Can I Kick It?" is seriously groovy, and I also love "Electric Relaxation," "Luck of Lucien" and "Award Tour."

4. Foster the People
My pals Bob and Stan always know what's up with indie music and more importantly, what their friend Unpro will enjoy. Stan got me into Fun. and The Format, and for that I am forever grateful. And a few weeks ago, Bob was astounded I hadn't yet discovered Foster the People, immediately burning me their CD, Torches. The combination of peppy danceable rhythms and fairly dark lyrics (which Fun. also does very well) are incredibly appealing. If you're a radio listener, you've probably heard "Pumped Up Kicks" (the lyrics are disturbing like whoa when you really listen), but I encourage you to give the whole album a try. I adore "Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)."

5. Muppets: The Green Album
Just . . . yes. This album needed to happen. Jim Henson's ability to create truly human characters out of brightly colored puppets, and to inspire emotion in children and the adults they become, is something the world had never seen before and may never see again. It's important to preserve this legacy, and The Green Album goes a long way to achieve this goal. Bands such as OK Go and Weezer may offer their own spin on classics like "The Muppet Show Theme" and "Rainbow Connection," but the melodies and lyrics remain unchanged and phenomenal. Who didn't enjoy Kermit and Rowlf's duet "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" as a kid? I sure did. Then I listened to Matt Nathanson's cover and realized how flipping ADULT those lyrics are. Not inappropriate for kids or anything, but wow. There's some real heartbreak going on. On a lighter note, I dare you not to giggle at Sondre Lerche's exuberant "Mr. Bassman." And I triple dog dare you not to cry at Rachael Yamagata's astoundingly wistful "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." Mr. Henson, as I've done many times in my life, I tip my funky hat to you.

(Click here to read about what happened when I revisited The Muppets Take Manhattan.)

Did you discover any cool music over the summer? Leave a comment!