The Case for Enthusiasm

April 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

If you read this site, you’ll already be aware of the fact that I’m a pretty sarcastic person. I’ve been known to say that my mother tongue is sarcasm, but that’s not quite true — it’s my father tongue. My mother is generally quite positive.

I am also fairly critical, a skeptic, and I definitely sometimes yield to the temptation to be elitist with regards to art and entertainment — Mumford and Sons? Really? — but I am also a sucker for enthusiasm.

How I feel about the Olympics/Disneyland/a new Toni Morrison novel/insert thing I love here

The two worlds I spend most of my time in are academia and the art world, and I’m constantly surrounded by people hating on everything. It gets tiring. Wow, you don’t like Sylvia Plath, congratulations on your discerning taste, jackass. While academia certainly has a canon that it’s acceptable to worship/you’re expected to worship, academics can also fall prey to the hipster ethos of “the more obscure it is, the better it is” (unless it’s written by a woman: then it’s “chick lit”— or possibly young adult lit — and unworthy of serious discussion). And while artists love geeking out with each other over shared love of a certain writer/painter/musician, they also love hating on anyone whose work becomes successful. Just ask any young poet about the Dickman brothers: it’s a love them or hate them thing, and bitches will throw down.

Did you just say All American Poem was a shitty first book?

John Lithgow knows what's up. (Also, these gif Tumblrs are all over my Facebook feed recently, so you're getting some gifs today.)

But really, I’m so bored with all this hating. A few weeks ago, The Awl published a piece in which they’d asked a number of editors of literary magazines, as well as some contemporary writers, to name books or authors that they’d loved in the past and are now ashamed to think about. Quite a few mentioned Ayn Rand (duh), since many writerly and intellectual types go through an infatuation with her — she particularly appeals to the individualistic mindset of the teenage years. Now, while the woman’s philosophy was batshit insane, I think the fact that thousands of teenagers read her massive novels (Atlas Shrugged is a brick: the thing’s like 1200 pages — imagine a high schooler choosing to read a 1200-page novel) and feel galvanized by them is a sign that she has a certain kind of talent.

The Beats were another oft-repeated example of books people used to love but now are embarrassed to have cared so much about. The Beats are an easy target, and I think it’s kind of lazy to say you hate them. It’s like saying you hate Nickelback: you don’t have to provide any reasons, everyone just nods along. Of course, Nickelback makes me want to drive my face through the wall, and I think their lead singer is impressively unattractive, but still, hating them isn’t very original. It’s the same with the Beats: you can say they’re simplistic and self-indulgent and overly grandiose, and everyone will just go with it. Even though what’s really simplistic and self-indulgent is regarding this passionately inventive and massively influential group of writers as somehow insufficiently literary, but whatever — have fun at your Douche Convention! (I will defend Alan Ginsberg to my grave. “America” is one of my favorite poems of all time.)

Apparently the lead singer of Nickelback is named Chad Kroeger. I'm sorry, Chad, but you are one creepy-looking mofo.

The part of The Awl article that really bothered me, though, was Edmund White’s comments on Virginia Woolf. What he said:

My reaction:

Well fuck you very much. You cannot tell me that reading Mrs. Dalloway isn’t a journey for your very soul, or that Orlando isn’t a tour de goddamn force. (Also, thanks for writing off basically the only female modernist anyone takes seriously — sorry, Djuna Barnes, but almost no one remembers you, even though you’re a genius — or rather, one of the only female novelists period that people are willing to accept as truly great, because she can keep up with people like Faulkner and Joyce, which she fucking does, by the way.)

Now, Mr. White teaches at Princeton, so I’m sure he feels entitled to belittle anything he damn well pleases. And that’s his (annoying) prerogative, but I’m really tired of a culture in which degrading others’ work is the key to establishing yourself as a “serious cultured person.” (Are you wearing a monocle? Why are you not wearing a monocle, serious cultured person? If you’re going to talk about how television is the opiate of the masses, you should at least be wearing a monocle. And a bow-tie.)

Are they playing...Coldplay? Guards, take them away!

Imagine you are standing on a ladder, the top of which reaches a platform with a plate of cookies on it. Hitting the person next to you doesn’t get you any higher in the air, it simply knocks them down to a lower rung. There still isn’t anyone getting the cookies. (And yes, the ladder/cookie bit is an analogy for the progress of the human race. Where do I pick up my Philosopher of the Year award?)

And as much shit as I give various things/people on this site, it’s ultimately more fun to gush about something I love than to rant about something I hate — thus all the pictures of puppies and bunnies and Bradley Cooper.

I die.

I’m trying not to tamp down my natural enthusiasm in my life or apologize for liking the things I like. Yes, I write literary criticism that looks at Faulkner through the lens of poststructuralist and other twentieth century philosophical theories of consciousness, and I ALSO LOVE THE HUNGER GAMES. I LOVE THEM. I LOVE THE CHARACTERS. I LOVE KATNISS AND PEETA AND CINNA AND EVERYONE. I SOBBED THROUGH THOSE FUCKING BOOKS. THEY ARE INCREDIBLE AND THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU DISS THEM:

I think The Hunger Games books demonstrate keen attention to character development and a masterful management of plot, and you can make fun of them and of me all you want, but at the end of the day, I’m the one that gets to marry Peeta Mellark in my mind…I mean, what?

I adore Peeta in the books, so I was very skeptical about the casting for the film. Against my expectations, however, Josh Hutcherson was phenomenal as Peeta in the first movie. So now I obviously love him.

I’m campaigning for enthusiasm. Let’s love things and not feel ashamed for it.

My friend C is a continual example to me in this. C has perhaps the most unabashedly open heart of anyone I’ve ever encountered; she’s got love spilling out of her very pores: love for people, for nature, and for art and entertainment, both “high” and “low.” She doesn’t distinguish between these last two; she just loves things. Her heart is practically bursting with affection and joy when she watches Pretty Little Liars, and that enjoyment is not at all ironic. She feels no need to regard such a “trashy” TV show cynically, and watching her watch PLL is an absurdly enjoyment experience in and of itself.

We have a friend who doesn’t watch TV and sometimes when we’re talking excitedly about a show, he looks at us like we’re paramecia to his homo sapien. And we’re like, bitch, talk to Frank O’Hara:

My Heart

I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
not like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart–
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

— Frank O’Hara

I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar. So let’s roll back the cynicism a bit. I aspire to be this excited at least once a day:

How (Not) to Get Your Writing Published

March 5, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m currently reading submissions for a bi-annual literary journal, sifting the “stellar” from the “has potential” and the “just get it away from me.” Since I’m currently an unknown writer sending my poems out to various publications, whispering, “Like me, like me, like me” when I mail them, I know the vulnerability of putting your work into the hands of someone potentially willing to publish it.

I’ve been writing poetry since early childhood. My premier preschool-era poem still hangs on my grandma’s wall; it is entitled “Happy Birthday Grammo” — my spelling was not all that at age 4.  Despite my two decades of writing since then, however, I’m still an “emerging writer,” in that I’ve never published a book. Or published in a lot of journals. Or developed a following. Okay, “emerging” is a generous term; I’m still very much in the early stages of getting published beyond my grandmother’s living room. And since I’d like people to read more than a single poem written in magic marker, I really hope that people at various journals and publishing houses are going to give my work a chance.

Especially since at any other journal I’d be the submitter, when I’m reading submissions sent to the lit mag I work for, I truly try to give each one the benefit of the doubt, assuming each poem will be good until I’m proven otherwise.

But sometimes I’m proven way otherwise.

My friend J made this stamp as a gift for another friend, who is an editor for a literary journal and who also teaches poetry to undergrads. I don't care if it's a joke -- I'm starting to want one of these.

Over the last two months, we’ve been processing significantly more submissions than normal because we’ve been reading all the entries for our annual editors’ prize. I’ve read over 500 poems that have been submitted for the contest, and that “benefit of the doubt” period I try for is getting shorter and shorter. (Are you familiar with the concept of the nanosecond?)

There are a number of things submitters do that immediately set their poem on the slippery slope to the “no” pile. (Subsections of the “no” pile include the “hell no” pile and the “oh, please, please let me never think of this again” pile.)

To help you, the submitters, (but mostly to help me and other editors deal with this crap less in the future), I’ve compiled the following points to help you avoid ending up in one of the nine circles of rejection hell.

1. Read the gorram directions.

a. If the journal’s submission instructions say, “Please submit no more than [insert integer here] poems/stories at a time,” what should you do? That’s right! Your should submit twice as many as they ask for because anyone anywhere would be happy to read more of your poems!

No. My biggest piece of advice for submitting to journals is to go out of your way not to piss off the people who will be evaluating your work. If I open your submission file to discover that you’ve included eight poems even though we only allow six at a time, I’m immediately annoyed, and I think two things: 1) This person did not read the directions, and 2) This person thinks that he/she/ze is above the directions. Well, guess what? Since I work for the journal, those are my directions, and your ignoring them is like giving me the middle finger while I’m doing you the kindness of trying to consider your work seriously, even if the title is “One in a Million” (Note: actual title for a poem I recently read — try to avoid cliches, especially in the title: it’s your first impression).

You don’t want me thinking you’re lazy, negligent, or arrogant before I even read your poems.

b.  If the instructions say, “Oy! These are going to be blind submissions! Don’t put your name on the manuscript!” then my suggestion is: don’t put your name on the manuscript! If you’ve submitted to a contest or an editor’s prize or anything else that asks you to remove your name from the file holding the poems/stories, but you ignore this and put your name and contact information on the first/last/every/any page of your manuscript, the person reading your submission can and probably will just reject it without reading it, since you didn’t follow the rules.

Conversely, if the mag asks you to put your contact info on every page of the manuscript in order to make it easier for them to contact you later, do that. If you don’t follow the directions, everyone will know how poorly you did on the “listening” portion of the STAR tests as a child.

2. Submit all your pieces of writing in one file, unless the directions indicate differently. Why? Multiple files are a hassle for us.

Many publications now allow you to (or even prefer you to) submit online. Writers usually do so by uploading their work to a dropbox feature on the journal’s website or through a service such as ManuscriptHub, or Submishmash, or Submittable.

We use, and after writers electronically submit their work, our readers must then download each file in order to review it.

Each submitter has his/her/hir own folder, and you will have assuaged me if I open your folder to find only one file (.pdf or .doc/.docx or something please — if I have to figure out how to open up some bizarre file type I either 1) won’t, or 2) will be incredibly annoyed by the time I actually get to your writing). If, however, I open the folder for submitter #4559 and find four separate files, each of which holds a poem about one page long, I will be muttering obscenities to myself as I open them. (You only want this to happen after I read your poem, as in, “Fuck! This poem just tore my heart out and fed it to a vulture and then put the vulture through a wood chipper!” This is how I react to things I like; I’m weird.)

3. I am judging you based on your font. When I open your (one, please just one) file, the font is the first thing my eyes register. Before I can evaluate your title or even the poem’s visual form, really, I either notice your font or fail to notice your font.

a. If I fail to notice it, that means you used Times New Roman: good job. Times New Roman is totally innocuous — it’s easy to read and is the default font for Word documents.

b. If I notice it and it engenders a happy feeling in my chest, that means you used a font other than the old standby of TNR, and one that is aesthetically pleasing but conservative. Examples of this include Georgia, Palatino (my current favorite), Garamond, Cambria, and plain Times (somehow slightly more beautiful than TNR).

Poets care an inordinate amount about font and spacing; I’ve had multiple protracted discussions with other poets about which fonts we prefer and why, as well as the benefits of 1.15 spacing and the evils of double-spacing a poem. You might think we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks to spend time alone in our rooms thinking about fonts, and we probably we are — but we’re the obstacle between you and publication, so we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks with power.

c. If I notice your font and it engenders a tight, burning feeling in my chest that makes me look for the nearest chair or small child to kick, that means you used something absurd — a flowery script that I can barely read or some pseudo-handwriting that looks like a kindergartener scrawled your poem in crayon (unless you are a kindergartener writing a poem destined for your grandmother’s wall, this is unacceptable). I will not take your poems seriously anymore. I will read for evidence to support my new belief that you are a dilettante/moron/cat that stepped on the keyboard while Jane got up to make a cup of coffee.

4. I’m judging you based on your poem’s visual form. Never center-align your poems. Never. Just don’t. It shows that you’re an amateur.

The only acceptable center-aligning that I can think of occurs in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, in which she center-aligns a series of ceremonial poems/stories that interrupt the prose at various points, and these are center-aligned to emphasize that they are spoken, i.e. this is oral tradition: Native American myths spoken throughout the generations. And even in the midst of this brilliant, astonishing, acclaimed novel, I still cringed when I came upon poems placed in the middle of the page.

5. If you haven’t racked up any demerits during numbers 1 through 4, congratulations! I am now actually reading your writing without any negative feelings!

But now I’m judging you based on your title.

Coming up with a title can feel like lot of pressure. I mostly suck at it. The easiest thing is to use a very simple title and thus dodge the bullets of “cliched” and “overdramatic.” If you write a poem about a cornfield, call it “Field;” a poem about a lover, call it “For Thomas” (feel free to substitute the name of your own lover).

That “One in a Million” poem? My expectations immediately fell from this-person-could-be-the-next-Anne-Carson to writing-from-a-Katherine-Heigl-movie-level. Similarly, don’t call your poem “Tortured Hell that Is My Soul” — you don’t want me thinking this is a discarded Dashboard Confessional song from 2003. (Keyboard confessional: I secretly loved DC back in the day, and I’ll still rock out to “Vindicated” if given the chance.)

A title prepares readers for the poem, primes their expectations. A title can lead grammatically into the first line of the poem (I have a poem called “She Asks Me How You Are,” and the first lines are “And I tell her / you’re wonderful”), or a title can provide vital information (W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” which centers on the Nazi invasion of Poland on that date, which marked the beginning of World War II) or convey a tone (“In Vermont No One Can Hear You Scream” and “The Things I Do When I Am Not Doing You,” both by Gregory Sherl, who great and you should check these poems out right now — go on, click the link).

Your options for titles are myriad, but the safest is a one or two word title that is quiet and doesn’t distract from the poem. Of course, if you can come up with a title that does something more than be innocuous, kudos! Just so long as the thing it does isn’t “sound like a 13-year-old’s diary.”

I’m a big fan of the super specific, super long title. James Wright was a master of these. Great titles of his include “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” the latter being one of Wright’s most famous poems (and one of my absolute favorites). He also has a poem called “In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems,” which consists entirely of the title: there is no poem; the horse ate it!

Of course, you can use a subtle title such that the poem’s ultimate tone or content comes as a surprise. When I first read Matthew Dickman’s “Grief,” I certainly wasn’t expecting the first line to be “When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla.”

There are so many options for titles, and you should feel free to experiment. I had high hopes for a poem I read entitled “If Proust Had a Facebook Account.” Just remember that the title is a reader’s first opportunity to get an impression of your writing; you don’t want that impression to be, “Did he copy this title from his great aunt’s needle-point pillow?”

7. Rhyme. If your poem sing-songs like a nursery rhyme and isn’t a re-imagined nursery rhyme that has the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe on welfare, there’s a problem. Use rhyme carefully (and, when in doubt, sparingly).

8. Be careful with controversial topics. I will cringe if you mention Jesus, or write a poem about 9-11. Writing political poems or other poems with an agenda is very hard. Read an anthology of anti-war poems: most of them will be heavy-handed. A poem (while in progress) needs the facility to change and grow and expand according to its own artistic needs; having a very definite message or moral that you want the poem to convey stifles the possibility for the poem to surprise you, its writer.

This is not to say that a poem dealing with a controversial event or issue cannot be successful — I write political poems sometimes — but if I’m distracted from the actual language and content of the poem thinking, “This is an Iraq War poem,” or “This poem really, really wants me to believe in Jesus,”  your poem will fail in terms of both art and message.

9. Be individual. This is the most difficult task I can give you; the pressure to be entirely unique as an artist (and a human being), to do something no one has ever done, to create a phrase no one has ever used, can feel immense. Don’t feel overwhelmed — simply develop habits that will help you make your voice distinct from the voices of others. Namely, read. A lot. Read all kinds of things — poetry, novels, nonfiction, humor, genre fiction, news — but pay special attention to others writing in your genre, be that genre poetry, the short-story, or what have you.

Pay attention to images and words that you see repeated amongst different writers so that you can avoid over-used images or words or phrasal constructions. People at our journal were joking recently about how many poems we get that compare hands to starfish, and low and behold, one of the submissions I was reading this week actually used that metaphor. I found myself laughing quietly while reading, as well as expecting this poem (the starfish/hand image came in the first few lines) to be rather uninventive and unsuccessful. I hope no one reading my poems is reacting to them that way.

10. All my submission advice up to this point can be summarized in one point: don’t alienate your reader. If you can avoid any red flags that shout “This writer is an amateur!” or “This writer didn’t read the directions/doesn’t really care about this!” or “This writer is either a child that doesn’t speak English or a goldfish!” then you are in business.

Finally: get your stuff out there. Don’t be intimidated by all my bitching and raving; be careful and be attentive, but put your writing into the world. Though the editors and other staff reading journal submissions can seem scarily critical, as if they are just waiting for a reason to hate your work (and I probably just added to that intimidation factor — sorry about that), all we really want is to love your work.

When I see a poem with a font like Renaissance-era calligraphy, I’m annoyed, yes, but mostly I’m sad. My annoyance comes from being disappointed: I was hoping that poem would be spectacular.

The people reading your submissions want you to succeed, so fly, little bird, fly! into the wide literary sky!

Avoid cheesy imagery and terrible rhymes like that last sentence and you’ll do wonderfully.

I Do Not Trust People Who…

February 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m a judgmental person. I like to think myself as “discerning” rather than “judgmental,”  but let’s just call it like it is.

I try, however, to keep my criticism to myself (and close friends) — with the blatant exception of this blog. I can certainly be a bitch, but ripping someone a new bodily orifice because she admits to liking Mumford and Sons is just unnecessary.

Plus, maybe it’s my intense love for media so bad it’s good, or so overblown it’s great, but I don’t want other people to feel as if I’m looking down on them for watching The Vampire Diaries. Perhaps the base impulse here is my desire not to have others look down on me for watching Pretty Little Liars. Or Gossip Girl. Or Beauty and the Geek (man, I wish that show still existed). I have so many guilty pleasures I’ve just started calling them pleasures.

But I have known quite a few people over the course of my life that are unapologetic elitists. Or “pricks,” to use the common parlance. This is one of my least favorite personality traits, so naturally, I keep trying to date guys who possess it.

But really, I hate people who are dickish about what other people like. If the woman who works two cubicles down from you loves Taylor Swift, unless she plays “Love Story” on repeat without headphones, shut your damn mouth.

All that said, while you are free to like and dislike whatever you want (you are quite probably wrong, but that’s your prerogative), I do think it is fair to judge you based on what you know about and do not know about. If you think Camus is a perfume, I will think less of you.

Thus, below you will find a list of knowledge gaps, behavioral tendencies, and character traits that mean I will not trust you.

I will not trust you if

1. …you cannot quote Mean Girls. I don’t expect everyone to have memorized all ten seasons of Friends like I have (except for my best friend K, I do expect this of her. Luckily, she doesn’t disappoint), but Mean Girls is one of the movies of my generation (I will give you a pass on this point if we have a significant age gap). If you don’t know what I mean when I say that “My father, the inventer of toaster strudel” would not approve of something, our senses of humor are not going to align.

Why is this line the best thing ever? I don't even know. Speaking of: this is the best valentine I've ever seen. Thanks, Feminist Ryan Gosling.

2. …you don’t know who Paul McCartney is. During this Sunday’s Grammys, featuring an appearance by the man himself, the twittersphere blew up with this mess:

via Buzzfeed -- to be read with a keen sense of disgust and a fear for the future of humanity

I can forgive the people who haven’t heard of Bon Iver — although that ignorance demonstrates that we probably can’t be close friends, and we can definitely never date — even if they (well, Justin Vernon, so “he”) won their “Best New Artist” Grammy in 2012 when their first album came out in 2008. But Paul McCartney?! Paul McCartney!! Please God, tell me you know who the Beatles are.

I hate when older people say that the younger generation is taking the world straight to hell, but come on, is this a generation that have not only never heard the Beatles, they’ve never heard of the Beatles. Hello, Hades, I hear you have good pomegranates here…

3. …you do not like Adele. It’s fine to be sick of her songs getting overplayed on the radio — especially “Someone Like You,” which is an incredibly emotional and touching song and which I don’t want to hear after some Bruno Mars shit while I’m shopping for groceries. If you genuinely think that Adele is not a good singer or a good songwriter, even if her style is not necessarily for you, you have the musical IQ of Paris Hilton (remember “The Stars Are Blind”?) and are the emotional equivalent of fossilized dinosaur dung.

I didn't watch the Grammys, but I am happy she won all of the things. She deserves all the recognition she can get, even if the Grammys are a pandering mess that often make the Oscars look like the paragon of artistic taste.

4. …you do not like/watch television. My perverse fascination with The Bachelor aside, I truly think that television is an unfairly maligned and undervalued art form. The structure of multiple episodes produced over a long period of time allows TV shows to develop characters in a manner that other more limited media, such as film and even (non-series) novels, simply cannot approximate. This is not to say that television is a superior art form to film, but it can achieve things film cannot, and vice versa.

There’s a reason I sobbed wildly during the season 5 finale of Bones when Booth and Brennan finally express their love for each other and then not only do not get together, but depart for different parts of the globe for the next year. I care deeply about these two as human beings, and while I know that they are fictional characters that do not “exist” in our traditional understanding of the term, I do think that fictional characters engage us emotionally in important and useful ways, and as someone who loves stories, all forms of stories, I love a medium that allows narratives of human lives to be explored and examined over such a protracted period of time.

Anyone who doesn't think these two should be together was tragically born without a heart. Or the brain region responsible for feelings of empathy, as Brennan might more accurately say.

Plus, no one who’s ever seen Battlestar Galactica can say that television is an inferior art form. That show is like a philosophical treatise. With bonus Tamoh Penikett.

BSG's confronting the notion of fear of the Other would make the show incredibly necessary and beautiful, even if its many other nuances were absent.

I have friends who would like to spend all of their time climbing trees and growing organic food, and who are genuinely not interested in TV, but these people similarly are not interested in/do not like/do not know anything about film. The other day I was talking to a friend about a poem I wrote that features Ryan Gosling’s dog, and she said, “Is that an actor?” She wasn’t putting me on — this is simply someone for whom electronic media, including television and film, are not even peripheral to her life.

However, 9 times out of 9.78, if you are the kind of person to say, “What is this ’30 Rock’ of which you speak? I don’t watch television,” you’re probably an elitist asshole.

Most redeeming thing James Franco has ever done.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

January 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

I’m one of those people — you know the type, people who pick out grammar and spelling errors constantly. In ads, signs, published writing, other people’s speech. Mostly I keep these observations to myself, since I have enough other qualities to explain why I’m single, but every once in a while, an error comes up again and again until I find myself spontaneously shouting in an aisle of Safeway. Alone.

No, this time I’m not talking about the need to use possessives with gerunds, or who vs. whom (though I read an interview with Rachel McAdams in Glamour a week or so ago, and she continually used whom correctly and now I have incredible respect for her — I may put too much emphasis on people’s ability to speak properly as evidence of their character worth).

I’m talking about the word “ironic.” Nathan Fillion knows what I’m talking about.

Rick Castle: Thank you.

Kate Beckett: For what?

Rick Castle: For using “irony” correctly. Ever since that Alanis Morissette song, people use it when they actually mean “coincidence.” It drives me nuts!

People call things “ironic” all the time, usually when something unexpected or coincidental happens. Identifying irony sounds both smart and flip, and in our “I’m too cool to care” society, saying “That’s ironic” in a droll tone works just as well as heavy-lidded eyes or a cigarette for getting you cool points. Most of the things people claim as “ironic,” however, aren’t. Really aren’t. There are several kinds of irony, but the kind that’s driving Castle crazy is situational irony. Other types include verbal irony, which constitutes saying the opposite of what you mean (similar to sarcasm) and dramatic irony (also called tragic irony), in which the audience of a play/book/movie knows something the character doesn’t, as in, “Romeo! Don’t kill yourself! Juliet’s just pretending to be dead. Oh — he drank the poison. Whoops.”

Situational irony occurs when something that happens is the exact opposite of what you expect. This reversal, in which expectations are upset, is important. If Sally refuses to go in the ocean because she’s afraid of getting killed by a shark, then gets mauled by a seagull on the beach and dies from those injuries, that would be irony. A variation on this kind of irony occurs when an action has the opposite effect it is meant to have. Let’s say I decide that I’m going to improve my health by eating better and, to this end, eat an (antioxidant-rich!) pomegranate, only it turns out I’m allergic to pomegranate and I die. That would be ironic. (Also, if a story involves someone dying, apparently I’m more likely to find it ironic.)

Also ironic: the fact that in a post about the misuse of “irony” as a term, I will probably make some mistake as to explaining it and misuse the term myself. F#&$ing Muphry’s Law.  (That’s right, Muphry’s, not Murphy’s. Check it out.)

Sometimes irony is mean.

The world is full of ironic things — but it’s even more full of non-ironic things.

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

We can mostly blame Alanis Morissette for Americans’ current complete misunderstanding of what irony means. Her 1995 single “Ironic” lists a series of situations while intermittently interjecting the refrain, “Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?” For anyone who’s been listening to the lyrics, the answer is a resounding “No”.

Rain on your wedding day? Bad luck.

A free ride when you’ve already paid? Bad timing.

Good advice that you just didn’t take? Bad decision-making.

Calling a song “Ironic” and then filling the lyrics with things that aren’t ironic? Now that’s irony.

Still, in case you’re still having difficulty distinguishing between coincidence and the literary term used in conversation more than any other (don’t worry, denouement, I love you, even if other people think you sound like a sneeze), let’s look at an example of a situation that is not, I repeat not ironic. When I was a teenager, I did a lot of musical theater, which led to my having very colorful friends.

I wish.

One night, a bunch of us were hanging out at my house, just sitting around (or more accurately, sitting on each other — theater people aren’t known for their physical boundaries, and hormone-drenched teenagers even less so). There was talk about watching a movie. My friend D had some bootleg DVDs from China that his aunt, a flight attendant on international routes, had procured for him, including the first Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Nemo. This was summer 2003 and both of these movies had only just come out in theaters and were definitely not available on legitimate DVD.

We elected to watch Pirates. The Pirates DVD, however, looked like an eight-year-old had videotaped the screen in a movie theater with his cell phone (well, this was 2003, so I guess it couldn’t have been a cell phone camera, but you catch my drift).

Every time I see this image at a theater, I think, "Why is David Boreanaz in a movie theater with a hand cam?"

Having determined not to watch what appeared to be a grainy postmodern art piece about the alienating effect of mainstream entertainment, we replaced the Pirates DVD with Finding Nemo and then proceeded to ignore the movie entirely.

In the midst of a pillow fight/loud argument/spontaneous a cappella Grease sing-along, our choreographer (who, in an instance of homophonic glory, was named Corey) showed up with her boyfriend, whom we hadn’t previously met. Corey was older than the rest of us, post-collegiate, probably 22 or 23, and her boyfriend was even older than her — i.e. a real adult with, we were about to learn, a job.

They walk in, look at us, then look at the TV. Corey says, “This is my boyfriend, ____. He works for Pixar.” We’re watching a bootleg Pixar movie and someone from Pixar shows up in my living room? Now I’m afraid I’m going to have a Truman Show moment when I realize that my life is a sitcom.

Was this situation unfortunate? Yes. Was it unexpected? You bet your ass. Was it ironic? No. What was ironic was the fact that Mr. Pixar didn’t give a shit about our pirated movie (not to be confused with our Pirates movie).

Cheeky bastard.

I am tired of this

December 1, 2011 § 5 Comments

Things I am tired of:

ONE  The Kardashians, Kim in particular. Was her wedding a scam? Considering that she and her “husband” allegedly made $20 million off their televised wedding and were subsequently married for only 72 days doesn’t exactly scream “True love!,” but really, I could not care less. If the tabloids didn’t feel the need to publish a cover story on every inane thought that comes out of her plastic mouth, there would be no reason for her to even consider a scam wedding and we as a society would have been saved all this grief!!

Mostly, I’m just angry that gossip about Kim Kardashian takes up any space in my brain (I learned writing this post that I don’t know how to spell Geico, but I do know how to spell Kardashian – ugh). That’s important real estate that could be devoted to cultural historical knowledge, or lines from Friends.

When Daniel Boorstin wrote The Image in 1962, he coined the term “famous for being famous.” A celebrity, in Boorstin’s mind, was assumed great because he was famous, whereas a hero was famous because he was great. Guess which one our media theorist thought was better? If he were raised from the dead, Boorstin would only need to see the magazine-banked checkout line at Safeway to scramble back into his hole in the ground.

Was the wedding a scam? Kim Kardashian, words cannot express the immensity of the fuck I do not give.

Also, James Bond hates you.

If Daniel Craig called me a "fucking idiot," I'd probably cry to.

TWO  Jimmy Fallon. He apologized for the whole Michele Bachmann, “Lying Ass Bitch” brouhaha, showing that not only is he  an annoying douchebag, but he isn’t even willing to stand by his douchebaggery. Bah. Give me some Craig Ferguson any time.

I can't even handle a picture of Jimmy Fallon, so here's some Scottish for ya. Funnily enough, this is the face I make while watching Craig Ferguson's show.

THREE  The Republican presidential race. It was funny for a while but now it’s just sad.

This whole race has become a carnival. When do we put them in the dunk tank? It can be part of a debate on waterboarding if we need to make it seem relevant.

FOUR  Geico commercials. Can switching to Geico really save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance?

I couldn’t give a rat’s ass because I’m overcome with a violent urge to stab that pig in the neck and then eat a pile of bacon.

I’m willing to admit that advertisements do alter my willingness to patronize a company; if I did switch to Geico, I’d feel like I was rewarding their long assault on my ears/eyes/brain.

Alternately, Allstate (also not my insurance provider) lulls me with the dulcet tones of President David Palmer (the best fictional president since Josiah Bartlet and Laura Roslin), and/or amuses me with the everyday problems Mayhem causes drivers.

Very close to the Geico ad, only hilarious, and it doesn’t make me want to punch babies. Or pigs.

People magazine actually named Allstate’s Mayhem actor as one of its Sexiest Men. I do find him strangely alluring…I can’t tell if he’s attractive or if I’m just excited that his ads are actually clever.

FIVE  The Salvation Army volunteer ringing the bell outside the university apparel shop at the Corner.

It’s nice that you want to help a charity, but you don’t need to swing that thing like you’re bashing a gnome over the head. It sounds like someone is being murdered in a bell factory.

SIX  Men yelling at women from cars. Really? Really?

SEVEN  Humidity. In California, where I’m from, we don’t have humidity. Here in Virginia, it was humid on Monday, the 28th of November, and like 65 degrees. I barely survived summer/early fall. I can’t take a shower every six minutes; sometimes I have things to do outside my house.

EIGHT  People assuming, insinuating, or flat-out stating that a humanities degree is useless. “Oh, you were an English major? So what are you going to do with that, teach? High school or elementary?” I’m glad you asked. As an English major, I got to study novels and poems and to examine the human condition in depth. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m going to use the resulting knowledge of how not to be a condescending, presumptive ass hat.

NINE  Mini skirts and Uggs. That’s still a thing? No.

I'm cold but only right here!!

More bitching to come!

Vanity Plates: A Tramp Stamp for Your Car

November 9, 2011 § 6 Comments

I am a new resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, and I have become aware of an epidemic in this town – an epidemic of personalized license plates. I don’t intend to be hyperbolic when I say that, in my estimation, one in every ten cars here has a vanity plate.

While technically not as dangerous as other widespread diseases, such as cholera or the bubonic plague, precautions should still be taken against it. Safe sex practices can prevent against the transmission of HIV, but they cannot prevent against vanity-plate-itis. Before you know it, you could turn out to be dating a guy with this plastered over the ass of his car:

As a native Californian, this specific plate rankles me because Californians don’t usually emblazon their douchebaggery on their license plates; they let you figure it out from their driving.

In Charlottesville, however, vanity plates are displayed proudly, often surrounded  by any number of bumper stickers or window decals.

Personalized license plates present several potential problems:

1) I can’t read it. Is that a zero or an “o”? When do I pronounce the numbers for the sound and when are they just numbers? Sometimes a vanity plate just seems like a purposeful jumble of unrelated letters and numbers, and when I spend a minute and a half at a light without figuring out what it is supposed to say, I will inevitably become pissed off. And we Californians channel this kind of aggression into driving – and into yelling profanity while driving – which does not help me in my attempt to adapt to Virginian driving practices, which are the automobile equivalent of that lovey-dovey couple saying, “You hang up first.” “No, you hang up first! Teehee!” I’m constantly pleasantly surprised by how polite drivers are here, though after the red Taurus in front of me lets pedestrians cross the street for upwards of three minutes, my surprise becomes less delighted.

2) I can read it but I have no idea what it means. I walk the two miles from my place to the UVA campus most days of the week (I like walking), and I always see a parked blue pickup with a license plate reading “KID 05.” You are the fifth kid in your family? You graduated from high school/college/plumbers’ academy in 2005? While your vanity plate may have significance for you, it means squat to me. In everyday life, language is a communicative medium, and since the people most exposed to vanity plates are strangers, I think they should be decipherable to the average person. Otherwise, all the letters and/or numbers translate to is annoyance.

3. I can read it and understand it. But it’s superfluous. You don’t need a license plate reading “LEX RYDE” to let everyone know you drive a Lexus. We already know. Because you’re driving a Lexus.

4. I can read it and understand it. But I still don’t care. I simply don’t understand the need to turn your car into a permanent sign communicating your occupation/field (“ER MED” and “UVA FISIX” are two I’ve seen recently, though I’ve come across quite a few that reference medicine), family composition (“FAB 4SUM”), or general likes/dislikes (I saw “F5 TRN80” this morning; F5 is apparently the highest/most dangerous classification of tornado on the Fujita scale, one of three accepted scales for ranking hurricanes. Okay…)

Now, these are the problems vanity plates provide for me, random driver on the road, reading the sentiment you found so important that you needed to say it everyday, to every person with the use of their eyes, which, to be fair, seems to be only around 90% of drivers.

Let’s consider the problem this personalized plate creates for you, the vanity-plate-haver: it makes you memorable. “But, that’s all that I wanted! To make sure all strangers know and remember that I am a ‘CWBYS-FN!'” since the big football helmet sticker and lone star flags flapping out your windows didn’t do a good enough job.

Sometimes, though, as a driver, you don’t want to be remembered. You cut somebody off in traffic. You make an illegal left-hand turn. You accidentally scratch someone else’s car in the parking lot and just want to drive away and leave it. I’m not condoning any of these actions, but if, per se, one were to engage in such illegal and/or frowned upon actions, one wouldn’t want every person witnessing them to be able to say to the cops, “Oh yeah, I remember the license plate!” – which they will if it reads, “BBR4EVR” (I have not seen this license plate and I pray to god/dess/whatever that no such Beiber license plates exist).

Vanity plates are the tramp stamps of cars. Like a lower-back tattoo of a flower, a sun, or some tribal-ish scrolls, a personalized license plate tells strangers something about you, yes, but not something good.

Please, do the rest of the world a favor and just say no to personalized license plates. They’re called vanity plates for a reason; the thing they communicate first and foremost is their owners’ sense of self-importance.

Can this kind of egotism ever be excused? My best friend once saw a BMW with a plate that read “CAPTLST.” That plate is acceptable. Why? That man is being a douchebag on purpose.

Also, on my walk to campus one day recently, I came across this license plate:

This one is either the pinnacle of irony or a case of significance going so high over someone’s head, it’s at the height of a Southwest airplane (Fly Southwest! Your first checked bag is free!).

Not as obnoxious, by far, as vanity plates themselves, themed license plates offered by the state (showing a whale, a national park, etc. and often donating a portion of their proceeds to the cause championed on the plate) can also be a bit much, especially when a “Kids First” plate is surrounded by bumper stickers reading, “Life begins at conception!” and “GUNS SAVE LIVES!” (I saw that second one on an SUV whose bumper stickers had more text than Herman Cain thinks bills should have.)

This seems like the correct moment for me to admit that I am very tempted to connect the preponderance of vanity plates in Charlottesville with the fact that Virginia is home to many more conservatives than I am used to, but anyone who’s taken a basic social science class knows that correlation does not equal causation, so I will simply note that Charlottesville seems to have a lot of both personalized license plates and conservatives. Also, bagels. There are a shit-ton of bagel places here.

All that said, the one license plate I feel moved to defend can be found below. Using the annoying personalization option to comment on the annoying themed license plate option? I can get behind that.

Apparently the Virginia DMV has revoked this plate. See here for the disappointing details:

New Study Confirms Leggings Are Not Pants

November 6, 2011 § 225 Comments

A recent study at Harvard University entirely debunks the popular notion that leggings are pants. Such a firm conclusion was slightly unexpected, according to the study’s authors. “Clearly a hybrid of tights and trousers,” lead researcher Deborah Collins commented, “leggings retained the real possibility of falling on the ‘pants’ side of the dividing line between these two types of clothing.”

Indeed, early in the research process, Collins and her partner in the study, Martin Hilfiger of Boston University (no relation to the fashion mogul), hypothesized that leggings might, in fact, be pants, due to the apparently endless number of women that he encountered daily on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, wearing t-shirts over partially opaque leggings, often with the seeming declaration, “Panty-lines be damned!”

“Of course,” Hilfiger cautions, “the fact that many people believe something has no relation to the likelihood of its actually being true.” He rants briefly about the Young Earth Creationists before returning to the subject of his study.

“As a man, and thus someone who has never considered leaving the house without traditional pants,” Hilfiger notes, “I thought that the women I often saw walking down the street in only leggings might know better than I.”

Upon beginning the rigorous study, however, and abandoning personal suppositions for science, Hilfiger quickly discovered that leggings have far more in common with tights, Spanx, and even underwear, than they do with pants.

“Leggings are pants, but only in the British sense of the term!” Collins laughed. In Britain, the term “pants” refers to what Americans call underwear.

Both Hilfiger and Collins cited as important to their work Catherine Baker’s landmark 1994 study which confirmed that tights are not, and should not be used as, pants.

“Baker’s research,” Collins said, “helped us design a rigorous study, while also laying necessary conceptual groundwork. Of course, her study also allowed me, personally, to have confidence that our current work is important to society.”

Those in the fashion world have reacted to Collins and Hilfiger’s results with the surprise of those reacting to a study declaring the sky to be blue.

When asked if leggings are pants, Anna Wintour simply frowned.

The “Fug Girls,” the two writers behind the popular fashion blog, have long written a series of sardonic responses to celebrity pantlessness called “Look Into Pants.” These blog posts sometimes feature celebrities’ ill-advised substitution of tights or leggings for pants.

Others on the web are contemplating the proper response to such damning new research. The crusaders behind – whose manifesto states that “The wearing of tights as pants is an abomination” – are currently considering developing a sister site,, in response to the scientific verification of leggings’ not-pants status.

Collins reports that her and Hilfiger’s results are entirely conclusive.

“Our margin of error is plus or minus 0.00021%,” she noted. “So no, there’s really no way leggings are actually pants.”

Some within the psychology community, however, question the wisdom of publicizing such a blatant denouncement of wearing leggings as pants. Psychologist Lynn Brockton of the University of Southern California has predicted a higher suicide rate among sorority girls and Lindsay Lohan following the news of Collins and Hilfiger’s study results.

Note on 6 Nov 2013: Apparently literally thousands of people have read this post today. Not sure how that happened, but I’d like to make a few things clear.

Firstly, this entire post is a joke. The studies it cites are not real. The people it quotes are either fake or have never actually said the things they are being quoted as saying. It falls under a category of posts called “The Scallion,” which is a play off the title of the satirical news site The Onion. It’s satire.

Secondly, this post is not meant to be body-shaming.  I think it looks weird to wear leggings as pants if you have athletic legs, curvy legs,  skinny legs, what have you.

Finally, this post is not meant to tell anyone what to do. Lots of people probably think things I wear are weird, and that’s totally fine. For instance, I’m a grown woman who frequently wears a sweater adorned with a fox face made of sequins. You are a beautiful and unique snowflake, and you are free to house your snowflake legs in leggings if you so desire!

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