Monday, December 16, 2013

The Phone Booths of Lincoln, Nebraska

Two phone booths occupy the streetcorners of Lincoln, Nebraska, three blocks apart, one at the intersection of 11th Street and N, the other at 14th and N.  Their appearance surprised me, since they're the only ones I can recall seeing in America (though Canada has their fair share).

Phone Booth at 11th St and N, Lincoln, Nebraska

Both are near parking lots where one might conceivably need to phone for help in the event of a dead car battery or leaking brake line, and both are in neighborhoods just outside of Lincoln's college-friendly, restaurant-filled downtown.  Both stand in close proximity to staples of an older community: a library, a bus station, an electric shaver repair shop, a travel agency.  I like to think that phone booths symbolize sections of a developing city too old to be of practical use, yet too new to be preserved as historical areas.

Phone Booth at 14th St and N, Lincoln, Nebraska

I wonder what will happen to these and other relics of the mid-twentieth century, especially those that occupy public spaces.  I think how this story has played out a million times with cobblestone streets, outhouses, and downtown railroad crossings, most gone, but some remaining as curiosities.  Unlike art, which can serve an aesthetic purpose in any time period, when objects designed for practical use become outdated, we perceive their uselessness and they become garbage.

11th St and N Booth, Interior

Though they may serve a purpose for those caught without a cell phone, these phone booths have value as history and as landmarks of individuality, objects that help us imagine an earlier time more vividly than reading about it in a novel or seeing it on film.  Places, like any other form of art, can show us another form of experience.

Seek them out.

Interested in phone booths?  This guy's collected pictures of pay phones from every continent.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Your Trip to New Orleans

New Orleans: it's all t-shirt shops and restaurants.

Jesse Roessler submitted this week's final Art Swap entry, the story behind his five-page comic and 
 postcard collection, Your Trip to New Orleans:

You resist the urge to reach out and touch the gator.

The inspiration for the postcard project came from a good friend of mine coming to stay. As we were going around town sightseeing (as well as doing touristy things such as a swamp tour), I started thinking about what makes visits to the city unique and what parts of the experience are consistent across visits. It can seem that whatever odd things one comes across are actually quite normal thanks to their consistency.

St. Louis Cemetery #1. "All the graves have to be above ground," the guide explains. "We're essentially standing on water."

The comic is a bit of lagniappe (the term used down here for "a little extra"). I've been making poorly drawn, loosely plotted comics since I was bored studying for an AP Art History exam in high school. The theme is, well, my frustration with having to answer the question "why did you move to New Orleans?" as if there were one solid answer.

Jesse Roessler is currently a graduate student in clinical health at Loyola University in New Orleans. You can read more of his musings and adventures at his blog, crawfishclovis.

That's all the Art Swap projects for this year, and I'd like to extend my thanks to everyone who participated, followed the weekly blog entries, retweeted links, shared Facebook posts, and in general spread the love.  Watch for info about next year's swap in late winter or early spring.  

Interested in joining for 2014?  Post in the comments, e-mail ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com, or hit me up through the usual channels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Pillow Creatures

Eden Scheans's Art Swap project appears as a normal set of miniature pillows on one side...

...with sharp pointed teeth and asymmetrical button eyes on the other.  Each one has a name and comes with a set of personality traits listed in the pocket of the mouth.  My Tolkien-esque wilderness scene creature (top photo, second from left) has a penchant for folk music and rich food:

Name: Lawrence
Fave Food: Trail Mix
Likes: Bird Watching
Dislikes: Tourists
Fave Beer: Guinness
Fave Band: Mumford & Sons
Vices: Psychedelic Mushrooms

In addition to her talents as a seamstress, Eden also co-founded a her own cotton candy business, Fairy Floss Northwest.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Soldiers of Love

Joe Handschiegel was going to give everyone a set of boobs for the Art Swap, but circumstances, alas, did not work out in his favor.  His backup plan was this set of army soldier paintings in all different colors, though two prints featured hearts only.  How's that for symbolism?

Why read a boring bio of Joe when you can play along to an interactive Easily Distracted game show based on his hobbies and adventures? (Click on Episode 8.)  He also has his own IMDB page.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Art Swap 2013: The Interquest Explorer Treasure Hunt

Hidden among the prints and the photos and the calligraphy, each Art Swap envelope contained a scrap of paper with this image:

Those who followed that link embarked on an online scavenger hunt of epic proportions, a hunt that takes them through the internet's most popular hangouts and darkest corners, with every step testing the explorer's creativity, cunning, and skill with a mouse.  One clue leads to another, and the puzzles are sometimes obscure, usually funny, and always full of animator Jeff Gill's trademark doodles.  Successful explorers will earn themselves a prize, and the final reward (I won't spoil it here!) is well worth the effort. 

What are you waiting for?  Give it a try - Click this link to get started!

Good luck in your quest.

Jeff Gill is a for-serious animator who's worked on South Park and other shows, and whose cartoons, doodles, and musical stylings can be found scattered about the web:
Animations on Youtube (sample below!)
More animations on Vimeo
Goodbye Spacebar, a daily blog of doodles
Songs Jeff made up in his car while stuck in Los Angeles traffic

Monday, October 28, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Cunning Calligraphy

Chicago's own Kaitlin Vogtner presents a set of five matted calligraphy pieces, each bearing a different inspirational message in felt-tipped pen.  Impressed?  You should be: This is only her second calligraphy project.

On that note, sincere kudos to anyone who tackles a new medium, whatever it may be.  There are far too many experiences out there waiting to be had.  Today is that day.

By day, Kaitlin Vogtner works as a pediatric speech-language pathologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, and by night she develops her calligraphy and typography skills for future lettering projects.  She's also an occasional guest on the Easily Distracted: The Podcast, and plays a mean game of Pirates.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Pirates on the Sea of Board Games

Back in August, I spent a night in Chicago with fellow Art Swappers Jon Trainor, Kaitlin Vogtner, and Brad Stasell playing Pirates, Jon's board game contribution to the swap.  After three rounds, I can safely declare the game a complete success, even though I didn't win.

Pirates was the brainchild of Jon Trainor and Barry Pfingsten after about four margaritas, and the only Art Swap project not designed to fit in a postal mailbox.  The board is an open sea of squares that players navigate by rolling a single dice (which, like Clue, can take a frustratingly long time).  Across the sea are islands with buried treasure, and players roll dice before the game to determine which three specific treasures they must find and retrieve.  The catch is that any player can dig up any treasure to trade for bonus cards that provide all kinds of useful abilities, such as increased attack power, or moving diagonally.  If a player has the treasure you need, you can attack them in a single-dice showdown.  If you have a treasure someone else needs, you can bury it on any square and leave the other player scrambling to dig it up.  The first player to get all three of their treasures wins.

Despite my comparison with slow-moving games of Clue, each game of Pirates moves fast, and takes less than an hour to play.  With four people, the treasures get scooped up after only a few turns, dividing the game into an initial phase of acquiring treasures and items and a second phase of journeying across the board to retrieve a distant treasure or attack a player who's dug up yours.  Because two players might very well need the same treasure to win, hilarity and battles inevitably ensue when the people around the table figure this out.

This showdown for the final treasure is undoubtedly the most challenging and fun part of the game, though because this high-strategy portion only lasts a few turns, Pirates becomes a game best played multiple times in a row to gain full satisfaction.  The attacking feature initially seems unbalanced (Note: I'm not just saying this because I lost every attack), since the defender wins in case of a tie and can take both a life and an item from the attacking player upon victory.  However, the inequality makes acquiring items to boost your attacking power a better strategy, as is foiling another player by stealing treasure rather than risking a hazardous battle.  It's also to players' advantage to shout out guesses for who needs what, and to bargain around the table to prevent another player from winning.  All are allowed, and players are encouraged to make their own cards, decide house rules, and otherwise alter gameplay as they see fit.

Though I neglected to get a picture of us actually playing the game, here's a generic 1980s back-of-the-box board game photo of a family playing Life instead.  Enjoy!

Boy, this family sure loves sweaters.
Jon Trainor is the brainchild behind the Blingasaurus Rex series of internet song mashups introduced in the 2010 Mix CD Swap. You can listen to his mixes via Soundcloud or Tumblr.  He's played in all kinds of bands (including the Chicago-based I Think Everything I Say), co-founded the Easily Distracted podcast, started a financial advice blog for the Nerdist, and is currently programming his own computer game.  This is his first board game, about pirates or otherwise.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Tags and Hemp

Andrea Starr contributed not one, but two Art Swap projects to the mix: a handsome collection of hemp jewelry, and a set of animal illustrations drawn on suitcase luggage tags.  The jewelry includes necklaces, bracelets, and anklets, while the tags feature animals ranging from clownfish to buffalo.  A dolphin pendant  necklace (above, middle) marks a subtle crossover between the two sets. 

Andrea Starr has, at one time or another, produced artwork in most every medium I can think of, and a few that I can't.  In addition to having worked in architecture, jewelrymaking, fruit picking, and landscaping, she's one of the founding members of Fertile Underground, an organic food co-op, grocery store, garden, and cafe in Providence started with Kickstarter backing and still bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the people of Rhode Island.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Wooded Creatures

Gray Heron

Katie "K-Jax" Jackson blends painting and woodwork in this series of fourteen veneer paintings of flying, swimming, and land animals from the northeast, all of which are perched, standing, or sitting in tune with the grain of the wood around them.  Check out the full series here.

Painted Turtle
Cedar Waxwing

Katie Jackson is a graduate of Bennington College and the New England School of Architectural Woodworking, and currently builds and sells custom benches, tables, nightstands, and other furniture through her website, Katie Jackson Woodworks.  I don't know if people still call her K-Jax, or if it's only me who does that.  Aside from her many works of furniture, she also built the meteoroid mobile shown below, inspired in part by the Aggro Crag from Nickelodeon Guts.

Meteoroid Mobile (actuators not shown)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Bags with Style

Magnet-clasp cloth bag with single inside pocket.

Bennington alum and Alaska native Rebecca Grabman contributed this series of reusable cloth bags (suitable for both sexes) made from recycled clothes and materials.  The series includes magnet-clasp bags, handles of varying lengths, and bags with buttonhole pockets.  The combination of both wide and thin plaid lines forms an eye-catching clash balanced by the solid handle and bottom, thus putting the typical grocery-store cloth bag to shame.  More photos below:

Finished product.
The shirt-cutting stage.

Rebecca Grabman works and teaches awesome stuff at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.  Her website,, features pics and videos of her many, many fashion and experience-interaction projects, including a computer-interactive obstacle course, a purse that records and plays back audio conversations, and a machine that voices user-generated propaganda.  She also worked on the combination tap dance/light show featured below.  I regret that we never became better friends in college.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Art Swap 2013: The Four Gentlemen

This week's Art Swap spotlights a guest post by Chinese brush painter, Erin Mapes.

I first started learning Chinese brush painting while studying abroad in Hangzhou, China. The university offered the class for international students, and I thought it would be cool to learn a new art form. It was challenging, but I enjoyed it because of how different it was from what I was learning at Bennington. Brush painting is a highly stylized and symbolic art form with a long and rich history. I love the simplicity, the color, the lightness of the strokes, and the difference from my usual artistic process (which is often complicated, full of uncertainty and self-doubt, and incredibly long).

My four subjects are bamboo, plum blossoms, orchids, and chrysanthemums. Together, they are known as “The Four Gentleman,” and each one is thought to have its own unique character:
Orchids ( 兰花,Lánhua) = Spring.  Symbolizes grace, virtue, and purity.
Bamboo ( 竹,Zhú) = Summer.  Symbolizes strength and honesty.
Chrysanthemums (菊花,Júhua) = Autumn.  Symbolizes moral strength and cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
Plum blossoms (梅花,Méihua) = Winter.  Symbolizes perseverance, rejuvenation, and hope.
I hope that gives everyone a new appreciation for this (really cool!) art form, and I'm happy I had the chance to share it with all of you!

Erin Mapes counts fiber art, painting, teaching, and Dr. Mario among her many skills.  You can view examples of her scarves, necklaces, and yarn in her Etsy store (currently on hiatus), or read her thoughts on being an environmentally conscious artist.  She currently lives in Berlin, Germany, in a neighborhood populated by aging hipsters.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

New Look, Same Wave

This blog's design has been badly due for an overhaul since 2008, and today I finally gave it one.  I'm in a new state (Nebraska), I'm back to blogging regularly, and this seems as good a time as ever.

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when things in life go stale.  While the process is gradual, initiated changes must come suddenly.  I'll get the timing right someday.

Any and all comments welcome.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Art Swap 2013: The Twentysomething Road Trip

Last spring, Chicago native and podcaster extraordinaire Brad Stasell set out on a birthday road trip through Wisconsin and Minnesota to grow up, go someplace he'd never been, and find out what being twenty-eight was all about.

His Art Swap project was a half-hour long podcast about the experience, the Best-Worst Day of his life, assembled from journal entries and on-the-road video diaries, and featuring music from Metric, Daft Punk, Architcture in Helsinki, Band of Horses, Imagine Dragons, Rihanna, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and lots more. In the spirit of Jack Kerouac, sometimes being on the road gives us the perspective we need to figure out what really matters, and Stasell's trip is no exception.

Plus, there's a hot tub.

Listen to Stasell's road trip podcast here, via streaming or download.

Stasell is also the man with half a plan behind Easily Distracted, a biweekly/monthly/every so often podcast where he and three friends (including fellow Art Swapper Jon Trainor) discuss news, roller coasters, and horror movies, but mostly just make a lot of jokes.  In true Easily Distracted spirit, here's some out of context quotes from the show:
On a scale of one to ten, how naughty were the nurses?

Stasell's definition of being smart is catching herpes.

I always heard that summer camp was a good time for first kisses.  I heard that after I went to camp, though.

So, I had given this stripper a lapdance earlier in the night....
Oh, you like water?  Here's some fire.
Trainor: It's different though, because white people don't have a history of lynching.
Stasell: ...I think you mean a history of being lynched. 
Check out Easily Distracted here, or follow them on Twitter at @distractedeasy.  You won't regret it.

Every Monday for the rest of the year I’ll be highlighting a different project from Art Swap 2013. Interested in sharing something of yours next year? Post in the comments section, or e-mail ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Art Swap 2013: The Many Faces of Nicholas Cage

"I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther." - Painting by Sam Roman
Illustrator, painter, needlepoint artist, and fellow Leighite Samantha Roman's contribution to the Art Swap shows her love of humor, pop culture, and vivid colors.  I'm not sure which is scarier - the bees, or the middle Cage face.  In addition to her illustrations and comics, Sam's also done paintings based on characters from The Simpsons, High School Musical, and The Office.

For those of you interested in having a wild-eyed Cage to call your very own, prints of this painting are available for a mere $25 - which includes shipping!  To get yours e-mail Sam at samantha.k.roman[at]gmail[dot]com, or visit her website.  You won't be disappointed.

You can see more of Sam's paintings, illustrations, and other artwork (including an Adventure Time themed cross-stitch!) on her website, an unmistakable cone of ignorance, or at her art blog, Drawn in a Hat Store

Oh yes, and among Sam's other talents, she's also well-versed in the hats of The Great Gatsby.

Every Monday for the rest of the year I’ll be highlighting a different project from Art Swap 2013. Want to throw in your own metaphorical hat for the event? Post here in the comments section, or e-mail ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Art Swap 2013: Japanese Calligraphy

Every Monday for the rest of the year I’ll be highlighting a different project from Art Swap 2013. Interested in joining next year’s fun? Post in the comments section, or e-mail ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com. 

 I didn’t make this – Yukichi Fukuzawa did.
I’d originally planned on writing a short story for the Art Swap; but wouldn’t it have been more fun to try something new? 

Japanese calligraphy, or shodō, is a Japanese art form dating back over 1600 years, though it’s now practiced mostly by elementary school students as a required course. The country is proud of its calligraphic writing: one sees it inscribed on pottery, hung over restaurant doors, framed in museums, and sold on the street.

When I was in Japan, one of my students gave me a calligraphy set and showed me the basics: air-tracing kanji and hiragana letters over paper, pouring the ink, holding the brush straight over the paper, then, and only then, drawing the strokes that make up the letters. The strokes follow a strict order, and you can lose yourself in the pattern.

In calligraphy, setting up one's work space is an integral part of the process. I’m getting there.
But that was three years ago. Earlier this summer I set out with my ink bottle, instruction book, and plenty of scrap paper to learn enough calligraphy to make an Art Swap project. The strict posture and rigid brush handling feel unnatural at first, but your hand soon becomes used to holding the brush while the other steadies the paper, and, with practice, it soon feels like writing anything else.

I did make this one though. Try to guess whose name it is!
My end result was sixteen names written in katakana (Japan’s special alphabet for foreign words and names – think of it like Japanese italics) for everyone in the swap. They weren’t bad for a first try, though the later names were marred by brush flattening and humid working conditions. To help people decipher their altered Japanese names (mine, for example, is pronounced ian rojāsu), I printed up How-To reading guides to accompany each one. (Not to Art Swappers: There’s still a prize out there for anyone who can solve the final quiz!) 

My first attempt at hiragana.

As a bonus, last weekend I made my own 5x7 card for Bennington’s alumni weekend exhibition, to be hung with the rest of the cards in the Deane Carriage Barn in their yearly alumni project. It occurred to me that this was the first creative thing of any kind I’d done for Bennington since graduating, which gave me the pleasant feeling of contributing to a community that, though it now feels decidedly foreign, once meant a lot to me. And if it not for the Art Swap, I doubt I would have done anything at all.

(Special Note for Bennington Alum: If you’re interested in the 5x7 exhibition, the received-by deadline is this Friday, September 6!)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Art Swap 2013 - The Lowdown and Story

Sorting the goods from the Art Swap, pre-mailing.  It was difficult to walk around for those two days. 

After college ended, the loss of both a community to share my work with and the structure to guide it bothered me for a long time. School had structure: teachers giving out assignments and a degree that needed to be completed and friends down the hall working on cool stuff that made us want to work on cool stuff too. The working world lacked community to an extent I found alarming. Somewhere in the post-college abyss, I was fairly certain, there existed young people doing paintings and sculptures and operas and comedy acts and lyric essays who were willing and eager to read, watch, listen to, admire, critique, and discuss their own work, but I wasn’t sure where they were or how to find them. I did, however, find a lot of people who felt the same way I did, both those who were unemployed and those who worked day jobs they weren’t really interested in.

I was inspired to do the first CD Swap back in 2008 while (voluntarily) sequestered in a sleep research study in Boston without windows, internet, or phone for two weeks. There were, however people: twentysomething interns and college students working at the sleep lab for science credit, medical experience, or weekend cash. They were bored of taking blood samples and delivering cafeteria meals, and wanted someone interesting to talk to about Woody Allen movies and feminist interpretations of male behavior, or the experience of working in the lab itself. It was the first time in months I’d met new people who had something to say, and the experience inspired a new feeling of optimism. I wanted to do something collaborative. I just needed something to do.

I remembered my friend Trainwreck talking about a CD Swap at his company where everyone made a mix CD, burned enough copies for the group, and exchanged. Though Trainwreck hadn’t gotten much out of it, I was pretty sure my friends had better musical tastes. New music was also something I hadn’t gotten a lot of since college. It was as good an idea as any.

Organizing the CD Swap, the people involved (friends from college and high school, and a few friends of friends), plus my own mix kept me busy and focused in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. My own writing at the time wasn’t going well, since I found myself unsure of my audience. Having an outside project, a kind of community, made the project more rewarding. The others as well gave the project their best: they designed elaborate covers, thought up clever themes, included bonuses, and even created original song mash-ups. Seeing them put in so much thought and effort made me push harder, and in retrospect partially replaced the more direct criticism I was used to from college.

The CD Swap went so well that we did another, then three more, totaling five years and well over a hundred CDs (for those involved in all five). By the end, though, the Swap had developed problems too big to ignore: higher than ever numbers of people and CDs, waning interest among veterans, and an alarmingly high number of last-minute dropouts. The CD, as we know it, is also nearing the end of its days, and doing an online swap seemed so banal as to not even be worth it. I also found myself remembering something Randall told me after he burned his final mix: “There’s only so much you can do with other people’s music.”

The solution then was to expand. Taking again an offhand idea from Trainwreck, I planned out an Art Swap, where instead of burning mix CDs, people would make well, something else. The swap was open-ended enough to appeal to anyone creative (be it in writing, music, drawing, video, sculpture, needlepoints, computer programs, websites, food – I used a lot of lists when I sent the e-mails), yet required enough effort to scare away those likely to flake out. The result, as seen in the above photo, was an assortment of projects unlike anything I expected: calligraphy, jewelry, re-usable shopping bags, an online scavenger hunt, even a board game. I also received a lot of messages from people who were happy to get their packages, but happier still to find the audience and the motivation to make something they were proud of.

For the next sixteen weeks, I’ll be featuring all of the Art Swap projects on this blog, with a different one posted every Monday. You’ll see pictures, audio files, a scavenger hunt, and other fun stuff, each project different than the last. I encourage you to check out their blogs, listen to their podcasts, and follow up on things you like. And if you’re sitting there reading, excited about this whole thing, wondering why you never knew about this before, post in the comments or send an e-mail to ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com, and I’ll let you know when we do the next one in 2014.

After all, what better use is there for the internet than sharing cool stuff?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Canadian Observations

Top 5 Distinctly Canadian Experiences From My Trip to Ottawa:
5. Took pictures of takeout chains featured in the movie "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World."
4. Played cribbage for a toonee.
3. Heard The Tragically Hip on the radio - twice.
2. Saw Gord Downie dance.
1. Ate poutine. Delicious, delicious poutine. 
BONUS: Ordered a double-double from Tim Horton's. 
I drove to Ottawa to see the Tragically Hip in concert and to visit my old co-worker from Japan.  Despite the Tragically Hip's being absolutely huge in Canada, with multiple hits, lots of radio play, and a cultural ubiquity yearned for by bands everywhere, no one in America seems to know who the hell they are.  Check out their stuff here.

In a roadside Tim Horton's parking lot I saw this large truck proudly brandishing a Confederate flag. This provoked a slight mental breakdown as I attempted to figure out why citizens of another country were supporting the Confederate South.

Barely visible on the dash is a model of the General Lee from Dukes of Hazard, which explains pretty well how fans of the show, or of Southern outdoor culture in general, could use the Confederate flag not to represent issues of white supremacy, states' rights, or hometown pride, but to fit in with social fandom.

Parkways like this one run around the city of Ottawa and through its center. There was never a lot of traffic anywhere, and it seemed like most people lived in the city limits, rather than in suburbs. I also saw a lot of people of all ages walking, riding bikes, and taking the bus. Compared to places like Boston, New York, and Washington, most of the area around Ottawa and Gatineau (on the other side of the river) is empty space, with a large national park about twenty minutes from the city.

Bell telephone booths with swinging plastic doors, two of the many I saw on the trip. I'm not sure if pay phones get more action in Canada, if they're unused and waiting to be removed, or if public phones receive some sort of government subsidy.

Pizza and poutine place inviting viewers to combo it up.

Rideau Hall, and home of the governor general of Canada. The governor general (a job that doesn't exist in the states) acts as the queen's representative in Canada by signing bills and convening with the prime minister. (Canadian readers: feel free to correct my oversimplified and possibly erroneous explanation in the comments section.) The hall is free and open to the public, and the tour guides provide a pretty good crash course in Canadian history.

One thing that struck me overwhelmingly about both Rideau Hall and the museums I visited was that, while the museums in America's capital cater to a wider audience of domestic and international visitors, Ottawa's tourist attractions warmly celebrated Canadian pride. Hanging flags with the providence names abounded, and signs reminded visitors that this was your museum, to celebrate your country. Bilingual signs in English and French formed the impression that all Canadians were welcome. Ottawa's tourism website even declares that the capital region is "Canadian, just like you."

Far from making me feel unwelcome as a foreign visitor, the distinctly Canadian warmth seemed sprung from necessity rather than xenophobia: the city, unlike DC, was simply not expecting many foreign visitors, and had focused its efforts of welcoming domestic ones. Rather than viewing the sentiment as quaint, I found their nationalism inspiring, and unlike anything I've seen in America in some time.

To Sum Up: Ottawa is awesome and you should go there. You should also listen to the Tragically Hip.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Morning Walks

In the mornings before work I walk down Milford Street to where I park my car. The morning air is cool and my mind is calm without the demands of the day to overwhelm me. I notice details like the raised carvings on a neighbor’s porch, or the electric lamps sticking crookedly out of a garden, things that make the world a more interesting place.

It is during these three minutes—the elongated stretch after leaving the apartment but before putting keys in the car’s ignition—when the day’s opportunities are open and waiting. I do not have to drive to work if I do not want to; I could easily go somewhere else where I could discover something new or pursue some goal I would like to achieve. Now that summer’s begun and I no longer wear my button-down shirts and ties, the morning walk could easily be the start of a long journey to a place I have never been.

The feeling exists for those few minutes and is gone, because the drive to work is familiar: I know where I’m going and I’ve been there before. The feeling does not exist on the way home, when the workday is complete and tasks accomplished. Evenings abound with other possibilities, but I think about the daytime ones most.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mail-Order Rebates: There'll Never Be an App For That

Filling out a mail-order rebate is a concrete test of skill. Think about it: in the digital age, everything that companies do (job applications, car registrations, college registrations, college classes, classified ads, telephone listings, funeral arrangements, pizza delivery, bill payment, package tracking, ink cartridge refills, ticket reservations, and photo printing, to name a few) is online except mail-order rebates. Why is this, you ask?

First, consider the reasons that companies offer online services to consumers. They know that online services are easier, as people can avoid the bothers of talking with salesclerks, finding directions, and putting on pants. Those who aren't shy about technology are more likely to choose online services over real-world ones because of convenience, and some will even avoid doing things that can’t be done online because they're so used to the convenience. This is because most people will always take the easiest way out of a given situation so they can extend less effort, save time, and encounter fewer problems. Thus, companies will always have incentive to make their processes easier so they can sell more products and make more money.

Mail-order rebates are the exact opposite. Companies advertise rebates that sound appealing (“Just $49.99 after mail-in rebate!”), and since everybody loves getting money, customers feel like they’re getting a deal and now have incentive to buy the product. After the customer makes the purchase, however, the company is no longer trying to draw in that customer, and no longer has an incentive to make the process easy.  Actually, the company now has incentive to make the process as difficult as possible so they can avoid giving out rebate money.

Consider three examples: an instant rebate, an online rebate, and a typical mail-order rebate, along with the steps required to complete each. Which one sounds more appealing to a company?

Example 1: Instant Rebate
Customers must:
1. Buy product
2. Do nothing – cash register is set to automatically deduct rebate
Customer Effort Required to Receive Gratification: None
Percentage of Customers Finishing All Steps: 100%

Example 2: Simple Online Rebate With Direct Deposit
Customers must:
1. Buy product
2. Keep receipt from purchase
3. Go to website (listed on receipt)
4. Fill in form
5. Enter code from receipt
6. Check off box saying Terms and Conditions have been read
7. Wait for company to send rebate
8. Receive notice of rebate automatically deposited into bank account
Customer Effort Required to Receive Gratification: Marginal
Percentage of Customers Finishing All Steps: Almost All

Example 3: Typical Mail-In Rebate
Customers must:
1. Buy product
2. Keep receipt from purchase
3. Keep form received at purchase
4. Keep box item originally came in
5. Locate pen (that works)
6. Locate flat surface (to write on)
7. Copy information from receipt on to form
8. Locate scissors
9. Cut UPC label off box
10. Locate envelope
11. Put forms and UPC in envelope
12. Copy address on to envelope (Important: Must be done before Step 13)
13. Lick and seal envelope (bitter taste left in mouth)
14. Put stamp on envelope (may require buying stamp from post office)
15. Locate mailbox
16. Insert envelope (may require opening mailbox door)
17. Wait for company to receive rebate envelope
NOTE: Steps 1-17 must be completed by the Offer End Date listed in small print on the order form. 
18. Wait for company to process rebate form
19. Wait for company to send rebate check
20. Open probable junk mail in hope that it might be rebate check
21. Open rebate envelope (letter opener optional)
22. Put check somewhere safe
23. Put on pants
24. Drive to bank
25. Park car
26. Go inside bank
27. Fill out deposit form
28. Look up bank account number (for deposit form)
29. Wait in line
30. Give deposit form and check to bank clerk while answering routine questions about whether there’s anything else you need (there isn't)
31. Take receipt from clerk
32. Optional: Write deposit amount in checkbook
Effort Required to Receive Gratification: Way More than Online
Percentage of Customers Finishing All Steps: Way Lower than Online

Companies know that people will consider the steps, the resources involved (pen, envelope, stamp), the trip to the bank, the trip to the mailbox*, and procrastinate filling out the forms until after the expiration date because it’s always easier to put off doing something difficult than it is to put off doing something easy. Or, they’ll falter somewhere between Steps 2 and 12 (and, occasionally, between Steps 20 and 23). Still others will just plain forget. Even those who complete the process might not get their checks if they’ve neglected to correctly read the instructions (often explained in tiny print or with big words).

* Recently, the phrase “Save a trip to the mailbox” has entered the vernacular as a way for companies to make paperless bill payment more attractive. The trick lies in their using the word “trip” to turn routine mail drop-off into an arduous journey comparable to Hannibal crossing the Alps or Frodo bringing the ring back to Mordor.

Companies know these things, and they’re not going to change. They’ll never be an app for mail-in rebates; for the foreseeable future, the prizes will go to those who follow instructions, have access to envelopes and stamps, check their mail carefully, and manage their time well. The smartest consumers will win out, and those who thrive on instant gratification will pay more and be left behind.

I write about this topic because it provokes a bigger question: is the lesson taught by mail-order rebates an anomaly in a changing world of new technology and ways of doing business, or is it proof that the time-honored skills of accuracy, planning, and being prepared will inevitably yield success?

I wish I had the answer.

For Further Reading: writer warning consumers about tricks companies play in offering rebates
US News & World Report article encouraging consumers to smarten up

Monday, April 8, 2013

Something Universal

In books, I'm always searching for moments that reveal truths I've intuitively felt but have never understood clearly enough to attempt expressing. Sometimes you discover an author's more successful attempt to describe exactly that feeling you've always had but could never understand, and in hearing this thing from someone else, you realize it's something we all share.

I came across one last week in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "The Rich Boy." The protagonist Anson, who has spent most of the story successful, drunk, enjoying wild nights out, and making out with hot girls, has reached his late twenties and finds himself alone in a New York hotel phone booth on a Saturday evening, reaching out to people from his old life [italics mine]:
Later he said that he tried to get me three times that afternoon, that he tried every one who might be in New York — men and girls he had not seen for years, an artist's model of his college days whose faded number was still in his address book — Central told him that even the exchange existed no longer. At length his quest roved into the country, and he held brief, disappointing conversations with emphatic butlers and maids. So-and-so was out, riding, swimming, playing golf, sailed to Europe last week. Who shall I say phoned?
It was intolerable that he should pass the evening alone — the private reckonings which one plans for a moment of leisure lose every charm when the solitude is enforced.
I've experienced this a thousand times, and I'm sure you have too. How often have you been overwhelmed with work projects, overtime, studying, classwork, family gatherings, or housework, dwelling first idly then intensely on all the fun or productive things you could do if only you had the chance: the novels you want to write, e-mails to answer, foods to cook, shops to check out, music to listen to, hobbies to spend more time with, or whatever else you'd like to be doing that you just don't have time for.

Now, how often have you been surprised with a free evening, a day off, a work vacation, or unemployment seemingly without end? You had a plan, but now it's gone.  The initial respite from stress turns into an excess of free time that becomes impossible to fill. What happens to our imagined projects then? They go from alarmingly real to frustratingly unfocused, or maybe we realize that we never wanted them that much at all. (Maybe we should have written them down.)

Fitzgerald knew this back in 1926, and little has changed since then. One could easily imagine Anson in polo shirt and Crocs sending text messages to everyone on his contact list and getting terse, negative responses, then reaching only voicemail as he became desperate enough to call. Fitzgerald describes this feeling using far fewer words than I've done here. We know what he's talking about; we've all been there. He's touched on something universal.

These are the things I think about when I'm stuck at home on a Friday playing Tetris instead of at the sold-out showing of The Room with Q&A by Tommy Wiseau. Damn you, UNH.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Defense of Zelda 2

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link on the NES gets a lot of flak, and arguably so. It’s the black sheep of the series, the maladjusted but convivial cousin who still lives with his parents and never got his driver’s license. The game consistently ranks as the worst non-CD-i Zelda game ever on forums and gaming blogs due to its difficulty (flying one-eyed blobs everywhere), arcane puzzles (items found by entering random squares on the overworld), frustrating repetition (players start from the beginning at every game over and must traverse the entirety of Hyrule all over again), lack of story (Zelda’s asleep – now wake her up!), and distance from other games in the series. Zelda 2’s gameplay includes features not found in any other Zelda game: an experience-based leveling system, side-scrolling battles, random enemy encounters, and prostitutes that refill your life (see below). It’s a disorienting transition for players that started with A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening, and frustratingly outdated for players whose Zelda experience began on the N64 or later.

In every town, Link meets a woman of the oldest profession eager to invite him inside...
Even though I would rank Zelda 2 at the bottom of the series, I would never call it a bad game. I’d rather play Zelda 2 than most of the other titles released on the NES, and find it deserving of its #58 spot on Nintendo Power’s final all-time favorite games list. Why, then, do people view Zelda 2 with such indifference and downright hate?

...and leaves with his life refilled.
Since the Zelda series has become tantamount to gaming perfection in players’ minds, they’ve grown used to a certain type of gameplay and are reluctant to accept a title that doesn’t dazzle in the same way. They hold other series titles to the same standard, and enter into them with expectations that leave them disoriented when they go unfulfilled. Being above-average just doesn’t cut it for a Zelda game, but if Zelda 2 were a non-franchised entity featuring another hero, another princess, and another land, and players viewed it without the expectations garnered from other games in the series, they would have to view it on its own. After all, a game can’t be the worst in the series if there is no series.

Players who give Zelda 2 an honest playthrough without enjoying it are most often exhibiting a distaste for the platform battle genre in which it holds a place. While the overhead view and item-based gameplay of the original Legend of Zelda would reappear in later titles, Zelda 2’s stand-and-crouch swordfighting battle system is more easily relegated alongside 8-bit staples like Contra, Castlevania, and Journey to Silius. Zelda 2 is meant for those desiring this kind of action experience that relies heavily on skill, though I rank it above these other games for its complexity and focus on exploration. These skill-based action-adventures haven’t fared well in the 3-D era, and players are often shocked to find this style of gameplay counted as canon with Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, whose gameplay has had more longevity for present-day players.

Too bad you can't throw some holy water at him.
Zelda 2’s status as franchise misfit can be better understood when viewed as a product of its time. In 1988 there was no Zelda formula, and no expectation of item-based exploration, overhead perspective, or multiple quests that layer the storyline, as these features of a Zelda game had not yet been concretely defined. Rather, Zelda 2 is Shigeru Miyamoto’s attempt to try something that hadn’t already been done, to give the gamer an entirely new experience, and to expand on the original game. They did not want to start a Mega Man franchise where games sprung from the same formula and used the same sprites as their predecessors—they wanted to surprise players with something new.

The idea of a sequel radically transforming the original game was prevalent in other early NES franchises before they became franchises. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest notoriously took its side-scrolling predecessor and added an enormous world-map, weapon selection, non-player characters, and infuriatingly obscure puzzles, transforming a linear action game into an open-ended adventure. Super Mario Bros. 2 (originally released as the non-Mario Doki Doki Panic in Japan) eschewed Goombas and fire flowers in favor of Shyguys and vegetables, while the original Super Mario 2 (The Lost Levels on the SNES) was condemned in Japan for using the same graphics and being too similar to its predecessor. In both cases, the third game retained the formula of the original and helped cement that formula in the gaming consciousness, but no one could have predicted this at the time. How different would our view of Mario be if Nintendo had continued to produce games where POWs clear a screen of enemies, potions create doors to shadow worlds, and jumping on enemies produces no effect? These principles would have become associated with the Mario series, making the original Super Mario Bros. the anomaly.

Imagine if Super Mario World looked more like this.
Without the gaming community hungering for something familiar, designers in the late ‘80s were freer to take games in new directions, and these pioneers were unafraid to turn an overhead Zelda game into a side-scroller, to have Simon Belmont’s world go from day to night, or to let Mario hurl one enemy at another. When these ideas didn’t catch on, the spirit of experimentation gave way to consistency within the franchise, and players came to expect these reoccurring standards as the norm, leaving designers to try their new ideas on unknown titles.

Instead of viewing Zelda 2 as a series mismatch or an outdated curiosity, players should enjoy it for what it does well. The leveling system is neither too easy, nor does it require a lot of farming, and it encourages players to master the battle system in preparation for later challenges. Link’s spells are fun, useful in battle, and take the place of the item-based challenges found in later games. Completing the dungeons requires solving puzzles unique to the game’s design (for example, falling into a pit and transforming into a fairy to reach a higher path). Maze Island and Death Mountain push the limits of the overhead scenes by making it difficult simply to get from one place to another. And that last boss is still damned hard.

Don’t judge Zelda 2 for being different than what you expect; judge it as its own unique experience. Those who don’t will miss out on something that can't be counted as spectacular, but is still very good.

Or you can be like this reviewer, who calls it the best Zelda game ever.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Officespeak Dissected: On Use vs. Utilize

In his groundbreaking work, Talk Around the Watercooler: The Syntax of Officespeak (2003), Chicago linguist Bertrand Hillworth describes the twelve syntactical and dialectical patterns that differentiate Officespeak from regular English. In chapter seven (“Throwing Out the Phrasal Verbs”) Hillworth documents the tendency among Officespeakers to choose longer, more complex Latinate verbs where casual English speakers would use shorter, Anglo-Saxon ones:

Officespeak Casual English
purchase buy
initiate start
identify find
disseminate let (someone) know
utilize use

Hillworth, however, understates both the overwhelming predominance of the utilize substitution in Officespeak and the discord between utilize and the more casual use. Consider the dictionary definition of the former:
utilize vt [F utiliser, fr. Utile] (1807): to make use of : turn to practical use or account 
A synonym study of use reveals that
UTILIZE may suggest the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something 
These definitions imply that utilize, in the strictest sense, means to use something that is otherwise not being used, or to use something for a purpose other than its intended one. Thus, one can say:
Having accidentally brought the backpack full of office supplies on the camping trip, I utilized a letter opener to clean and gut the salmon.
I utilized my brother’s toothbrush to clean the inside of my hubcaps.
In the Macgyver pilot, the title character utilizes chocolate bars to plug a leak in the reactor. 
Consider situations where use would be more appropriate for these same items:
Rather than risk a papercut, I used a letter opener to open the morning mail.
I always use the same toothbrush for longer than I should.
Don’t eat the chocolate! Let’s use it for smores instead. 
However, as Farnsworth (2005) and Creyton (2008) document, Officespeakers are more likely to use utilize as a synonym for use in their everyday work speech:
Our organization can utilize the technology grant to purchase new computers.
You can utilize either the main entrance or the side door in the morning.
I suggest utilizing your time productively. 
In each example, (all taken from Creyton), the speaker uses utilize as a synonym for use while ignoring utilize’s definition of using something for a purpose other than its intended one. So widespread is utilize’s appearance in American offices that the literal definition has become all but lost, with the majority of Officespeakers expressing disbelief when confronted with the difference.

Creyton offers further proof of utilize’s ubiquity in the administrative world by noting that utilize is the most common dialectical trait for casual English speakers to copy when attempting conversation with Officespeakers. Simply put, if a non-Officespeaker meets an Officespeaker, he’s more likely to slip a stray utilize into his speech than to pick up on any other aspect of the dialect.

Why is utilize so common? Linguists differ widely on this question, but Farnsworth’s theory holds that because utilize is such an easily copied way of giving a matter the illusion of importance, those who aspire to pomposity in their professional lives subconsciously emulate it as a way of sounding more important, though they’ve not yet mastered the other Latinate verbs on Hillworth’s list or learned to alter their verbs into nouns (i.e. say be a recipient instead of the simpler receive). Thus, an overuse of utilize implies that not only does the speaker harbor dreams of advancement, he or she may be an apprentice Officespeaker not yet comfortable with the dialect.

The Economist recently gave a nod to my coining of the term Officespeak in an article on reflexive pronouns. Click here for the full article.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Five Books Every Twentysomething Should Read

Several years back, during one of my online rants about the lack of reading in America, an old Bennington classmate called bullshit and offered some advice: Don’t chastise people for not reading enough, because they probably don’t know where to begin.

He’s right, of course. Bookstores and libraries are intimidating places that make it difficult to know whether a particular book will be an awe-inspiring epiphany or a waste of your time. If you’re at the same point in your life as I am, or have found any of this blog’s ramblings and reflections relatable, I recommend these five books as ones that expose the delights and perils of being a twentysomething in a way I wish I was capable of.

Starting with the most highly recommended, here’s the list:

#1. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995)

The movie version is amazing (beating both Say Anything and Better Off Dead as my favorite John Cusack movie of all time), and the book is better. I recommend High Fidelity to everyone for four reasons:
  1. It’s a quick read
  2. It’s funny 
  3. It’s relatable
  4. It has enough pop culture references that you’ll feel clever for getting at least a few of them
But it’s more than this that make this book stand out. Hornby speaks to our insecurities, our curiosities, and to those thoughts we all have but can’t quite explain. His protagonist, Rob*, fucks up with women and wonders what went wrong, is mean to his friends without knowing why, and is disconcertingly aware of his unsettled state. He runs his own record store, revels in the music he loves, yet he’s unhappy and can’t seem to grow up. We spend the entire book in Rob’s head as he wonders about himself and the world around him, including those mysterious first discoveries of sex:
This is the sort of sex education I never had—the one that deals with G-spots and the like. No one ever told me about anything that mattered, about how to take your trousers off with dignity or what to say to someone when you can’t get an erection or what “good in bed” meant in 1975 or 1985, never mind 1955. Get this: no one ever told me about semen even, just sperm, and there’s a crucial difference. As far as I could tell, these microscopic tadpole things just leaped invisibly out of the end of your whatsit, and so when, on the occasion of my first. . .well, never you mind.
The entire book is full of these observational gems, most of which never made their way into the movie. It’s those moments when an author reflects on something you’ve always known, or been thinking about, or maybe just thought about in a different way, that make me love the medium. A good book will show you things about the world around you, and High Fidelity is no exception.

* Author’s Note: At the risk of being fact-checked in the comments section, I’ll note that Rob is actually a thirtysomething in the book, though his plights speak to anyone above college age who isn’t happily married with kids.

#2. Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a basketball star in high school, but now demonstrates the MagiPeel vegetable peeler to housewives at department stores. His own wife drinks too much and watches television all day, and together they live in the same suburb they lived in when they were young and life was more exciting. One day, Rabbit gets in the car and starts driving, searching for something he can never quite describe to anyone and desperate to separate himself from his life’s confines. This is how the book begins.

Harry’s nameless dissatisfaction is still relevant today for college graduates who now lack the structured environment to pursue the things they used to. Readers are unsure whether to encourage Rabbit on his journey for self-discovery or to chastise him for abandoning his family. Is he a bad person for leaving his son and his pregnant wife? Or is he bettering himself by striving to break free of his bleak suburban existence? The novel never tells us for sure, and this dichotomy makes it all the more interesting.

Rabbit, Run also isn’t as dense as Updike’s later work, and is a far easier read than anything he wrote in his later years. His novels are full of great descriptions of things (for example, the dot on a tube television that lingers after you turn it off, or the way a stack of chairs gradually leans forward if you pile it high enough*), and contain a gracefulness of prose that perfectly captures these moments in time.

Finally, this one deserves a place on the top five books that changed my life because it (arguably) prompted me to break up with my own girlfriend. Who can argue that such a call to action isn’t indicative of the book’s power?

* Images from Rabbit Redux and Couples, respectively.

#3. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

A lot of people read this book in high school and hate it; I probably would have too if I’d been forced to read it when I was sixteen and still living out the comforting routines of adolescence. The Sun Also Rises is a book for people whose lives lack definition and purpose: its expatriate characters wander Europe, drink themselves stupid on absinthe and champagne, avoid their families, work uninspiring jobs, and never get any girls. Its narrator, Jake, was left impotent after World War I, and can’t consummate his relationship with Brett, the woman of the group, who’s content to live up the night life with the rest of them instead of settling down and having a mess of children like a good housewife.

The book lacks a clear plot, and is basically just the main characters moving from one alcohol-fueled romp to another for two hundred and forty pages. While this frustrates a lot of people, I find it to be a more accurate representation of real life (which, in most cases, also lacks a clear plot). Behind the nights out and the exotic trips, Hemingway’s brief, understated prose hides a distinct sadness as readers become aware that nothing will come of the characters’ lives. This should make The Sun Also Rises more relatable to unmarried twentysomethings who lack concrete goals and whose jobs offer few opportunities for advancement, but it’s jarring for readers to see this emptiness captured in novel form when they’re accustomed to a three-act structure. Though more happens closer to the end (I won’t ruin it), the novel is best enjoyed as a look at the highs and lows of what life shouldn’t be.

#4. Afternoon Men, by Anthony Powell (1931)

This book is the British version of The Sun Also Rises, but with more plot. There’s more to it than that, but the situation is the same: a bunch of unmarried twentysomethings get drunk, have sex, nurse their hangovers, have witty conversations, and do very little that can be considered productive. The main character, Richard Atwater, spends the book in pursuit of a girl, Susan Nunnery, he really likes but who just isn’t interested in him. Let me clarify: no jealous boyfriends, no hidden psychological trauma, no climactic confrontations, Susan Nunnery just isn’t interested. The very banality of Atwater’s courtship makes it relatable because we’ve all experienced infatuation with someone we have no chance of getting with.

Like The Sun Also Rises, this is a novel of understatement, where we have to read between the lines to understand the characters’ feelings. In this dialogue between Atwater and Susan Nunnery before she leaves for America, we see both Atwater’s desperation and Susan Nunnery’s flippant replies:
“Anyway, I shall see you when you come back.”
“Yes,” she said, “whenever that is.”
“But you said it would be soon?”
“It will be soon. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Do you mean you’re going away for ages?”
“No. Only a little time.”
“We shall meet when you come back, shan’t we?”
“I don’t know. It always seems rather a business. Our meetings.”
“Perhaps we’d better not then?”
“I think we’d better not.”
“You won’t be away long, will you?”
“No,” she said. “Not long.” 
Aside from their unfulfilling relationship, Afternoon Men is notable for being one of the books to best portray a character slacking off at his job: Atwater works as a museum clerk, where he spends his workdays writing letters to friends and trying to convince visitors that their time would better be spent else elsewhere. Office Space, eat your heart out.

#5. Murphy, by Samuel Beckett (1938)

The most difficult book on the list (though easily the most approachable of Beckett’s novels), I’m including this one because, unlike the first four, Murphy features a protagonist who cannot fit in with society and has no desire to. Murphy is an Irishman living in London who wants nothing more than to sit in his rocking chair and be with his girlfriend Celia, a former prostitute who thinks Murphy should get a real job like everyone else. The thought of gainful employment makes Murphy ill, but rather than lose Celia he leaves his apartment in search of work, where he’s set adrift in a world that’s strange to him. The novel’s other characters, driven by money, sex, and greed, pursue and take advantage of Murphy to satisfy their own ends, though all he really wants is to be left alone.

Though Murphy speaks to the more misanthropic reader, the novel is essentially about a young person looking to make his way in the world and not having an easy time. Substitute Murphy’s chair for the comfort of living with one’s parents, and the novel becomes a story about growing up and becoming independent. (It’s not surprising that even in the 1930s Murphy is provoked by a woman to leave his nest.) Beckett, however, is never critical of his main character, and Murphy’s discomforts and misfortunes are unceasingly real.

I love this book, and in thinking about it recently, realize how relevant it really is.  Ours is a generation of Murphys: unwilling to face adult responsibilities, cynical of what the outside world can offer us, and eager to retreat into solitude (again, substitute Murphy’s self-reflection for, say, the Internet). How many people do you know who are stuck at home, spend too much time online, and are cynical about their chances on the outside? Could this be because the outside world is as twisted as Beckett makes it out to be?

I might be stretching this a bit, but if you can decipher its nonlinear plot and arcane dialogue, this one might offer you some perspective on your own existence, as I hope the other books on this list will as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Manchester in January

People in my neighborhood often leave large objects on the sidewalk on the chance that the garbage men will pick them up. This tree was one of three I found in the span of as many blocks. The house next to ours is continuously disposing of old television sets (they got rid of the biggest flatscreen one first, then a set more appropriate for a living room entertainment center, and now there is a bedroom-sized one sitting on the curb). Another house discards printers and VCRs from twenty years ago, and I estimate that if they continue this trend they will one day be throwing out old 1080p monitors and iPod Touches for their neighbors to make fun of.