Initial thoughts on Abdul-Jabbar’s ‘Mycroft Holmes’ and some second-cousins to it

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a book recently about Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older, less famous, possibly smarter, brother. Apparently Abdul-Jabbar is a great Holmes fan, and credits his admiration of Holmes with at least some of his sports prowess: he says he treated the game like a problem to solve, and tried to be Holmes and identify the faintest details that would give him an edge in play.

I’d say it worked.

I’m really enjoying Mycroft Holmes so far, and I’m a bit more than halfway through, so I think we can safely put a checkmark down for it at this point. I love Holmes stories, and have read/listened to/both all the Doyle originals several times, and have thoroughly enjoyed a number of spin-offs: Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, for instance, and the several eerie adaptations by Neil Gaiman, and, sure, Benedict Cumberbatch’s angular antihero-in-the-modern-world.

I find it interesting and useful that Abdul-Jabbar chose to focus on Mycroft: he’s the less developed and defined character, of course, which gives A-J more freedom as a writer to craft a character to his liking, and it means most readers aren’t coming at the book with strong preconceived notions. And it’s a doubly genius move to make it an origin story rather than try to compete with Sherlock at the height of his powers – we get a Mycroft who is still trying to groom his slightly psychopathic but incredibly bright younger brother. That said, his Mycroft – and his Sherlock, for that matter – are entirely in keeping with the outlines of the ‘types’ they’ve now become, and historical details and such are expertly handled and entirely convincing.

(He did have a co-author, and I have no idea of the breakdown in labor, of course – perhaps she’s a history person and took care of that side, although it’s just as likely that A-J made himself an expert, as he is a very smart man and a very careful thinker.)

What I’m particularly enjoying is how A-J manages, seamlessly, to incorporate race politics. Which some people, no doubt, are going to roll their eyes at, and wonder why everything has to be about race, and why can’t we just focus on pure characters and stop getting bogged down in this ‘race card’ mentality —

Which… not to put to fine a point on it… fuck you. If you’ve ever met another human, you probably noticed and made assumptions about his or her gender and phenotype and class, and so has everyone else who ever met another human. This is neither good nor bad in itself, but it behooves us to think realistically about the implications – and often those implications are quite serious, as when 19th century Brits see a spot of fun in beating up a black man for ‘putting on airs’, or when 21st century Americans are quick to put the blame on blackness in response to very questionable cop-citizen interactions.

So I think it’s fascinating, how lightly A-J handles his secondary main character, Cyrus Douglas, who is a black Trinidadian who has immigrated to England, and becomes friends with Mycroft based on the latter’s taste for fine cigars. This means that we are never quite free from awareness of the weight of ‘having race’: before Douglas can run an errand on the ship, for instance, he has to consider how he will be perceived as a black man. When Holmes chastises an old dowager for essentially gripping her purse tighter when she passes Douglas, we have to think about what ramifications this might have on Douglas’ future interactions on the ship. And then, once they arrive in Trinidad, we see how suddenly it is Mycroft whose movements are circumscribed, and whose color signifies more heavily.

In short, we are able to see that both figures are handicapped by their perceived race, in different ways in different contexts, and to different extents — but we never lose sight of the ways that race impacts how a body is allowed to move through the world (or not).

Politics aside, it’s also a really entertaining story, and well written, and a lot of fun, and I whole-heartedly recommend it on those merits alone – but I think its politics are also incisive as fuck, and extremely well done.

Which — and we’re short on time, so I’ll make this quick — got me thinking about the response to Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’.

Apparently a lot of white people are very worked up about it.

The husband and I watched it earlier, and agreed that we didn’t get all the references (I didn’t realize, for instance, that ‘bama’ was a derogatory term for a lower-status black person in the south, and thus that Queen Bey calling herself a bama was a healthy middle finger to respectability politics, among other things) (when in doubt check genius), but also agreed that it’s a pretty good song, and that the video has some important and pointed images.

I mean, for real: when that little kid is dancing in front of a row of riot cops, and they put their hands up?

That means in a big way, in this hands-up-don’t-shoot world.

But I guess it’s too shocking for a lot of white people, to be reminded of how we failed, flamboyantly, as a country, when Katrina hit, and black people bore the brunt of it?

But, um… this is our country, and our legacy. Our being white doesn’t mean we can just ignore things that happen to not-white Americans. I’m still working my way through a really thought-provoking and challenging essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about James Baldwin and how not everybody bought his assertion that this is an American problem, not a black or white one, but I’m still pretty persuaded by his assertion that this is an American problem, and that my job as an American is to address it, not walk away because my skin color lets me.

(Of course, then see this piece on how color politics is at least as big an issue within black communities, especially in New Orleans, where the Creole third complicates everything all to hell…)

Never mind that not everything is about us.

I don’t have a strong take-away. I’m still trying to manage TMJ pain and keep all my muscles utterly relaxed, and frankly I think I have a little codeine hangover, so I’m not getting into anything, and I think I’m over time in any case. But I for one welcome our not-necessarily-lily-white overlords, just think what we can do, working together —

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Filed under art, books, culture, goals, history, identity, literature, politics, pop culture, reading


I just gave the cats some catnip. It doesn’t seem to do anything to them, really, but Clio and Stanley roll around in it like it’s going out of style. Oscar just snarfs it down as fast as he can. And he shoots at me like an arrow as soon as he hears the little tub lid being pulled back. I don’t give them catnip that often, but he is always up for it.

He saw where I put it on the bookcase (rookie mistake, I know) and now is making stretching forays in its general direction. He can’t get to it, but he very well may cause some mayhem trying.

For my part, I have never been much for the green stuff. I tried it a few times in high school and it made me anxious and paranoid. I haven’t smoked weed at all in some 15 years.

I did like acid in my youth. I had some good times floating on that high. Never did it often, but always had fun. Tried mushrooms once, but it wasn’t for me.

This is not actually a drug post, though, and not simply because my history with illicit substances is quite boring (you’ve basically heard it all now – I never tried cocaine or MDMA or heroin or anything like that, and am quite unlikely to do so now, so we’ll never know if I would have taken to them). My drug stories are all quite boring too, frankly.

I do like my booze as much as the next lady (and more than many ladies, no doubt), though, and that is one piece of this post. Put a pin in it.

These last few days, maybe weeks, I’ve been having problems with bruxism (grinding/clenching teeth at night). The fancy custom mouthguard I got after a bad episode last year protects my teeth from wear, somewhat, but it doesn’t prevent the activity itself. And when I spend a night clenching my jaw, I naturally wake up with an ache that runs from the crown of my head to my temple, then tiptoes in front of my ear, then branches to send one strain out under my cheekbone and the other down into the rounded edge of the lower mandible.

Occasionally – twice before now – it has gotten bad enough that I actively Took Steps: the first time I was certain it was an ear infection and actually went to the emergency room (we’d just moved, I had no set doctor, the soonest appointment I could get was a month or six weeks down the road). The next time it was more like what I’m feeling now, but on the other side and worse, and I called my mom in tears to see if she had any pain meds left from her various adventures with broken bones and cancer, and she did, and she drove them over to me, and it worked.

Today was not nearly as bad as the previous two, but the lesson I took from those is that one ought to be proactive in these situations, and not wait for the cycle of clench-therefore-tension-therefore-clench-therefore-pain to escalate.

I got down the tylenol-with-codeine that I was prescribed for my root canal last year. Still sixteen bright white pills: I never took any then.

The last time I took opiates was about twelve years ago, for an [actual] ear infection, when I lived alone in Austin. I called my mom that night, too, in a panic, because I was really, really high, and I felt scared and out of control, and I hated it.

Thus the decade-and-change of opioid avoidance.

But I took a tylenol-with-codeine earlier tonight.

To much better effect this time, I’m happy to report: I was definitely high, and very woozy, and quite sleepy, but never got anxious. Probably because the husband was there – it’s much less scary to feel surprisingly high in good company. And it helps even more if you’re anticipating the effects.

That’s where the adult beverages come in: I didn’t get to have an adult beverage tonight, because mixing codeine and adult beverages is verboten. Apparently the tylenol makes it kind of hard on your liver, so there’s that, but mainly it seems that codeine and alcohol can have a synergistic relaxation double-whammy, and you can get so relaxed that you literally stop breathing in your sleep. Which is not on my to-do list just now, thank you.

I’m not especially high anymore, but I am still foggy-headed and tired. And I’m happy to report that the ache is mostly gone.

And my plan now is to take a long hot bath in the hopes of yet further reinforcing this whole ‘relaxed’ mode, so no poem tonight, and only this perfunctory post that is at one and the same time about being high and yet decidedly mundane.

The only question now is whether we shall check in with Oliver Twist or dive into my new book about the first Russian translator of the Iliad.

I think I’ll bring them both up, just to be safe.

May this be the most serious medical issue of our 41st go round-the-sun —

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Goings on and ets cetera

(‘Ets cetera’ like ‘attorneys general’ and ‘courts martial’, right? I dunno. It made me laugh.)

My Saturdays seem to have gotten into a rhythm: I browse recipes idly in the late morning/early afternoon, drift out to the grocery store listening to a book, then cook the afternoon away before the husband and I chill out in the evening together.

(The husband, independently but complementarily, has taken to tidying, sweeping, and vacuuming on Saturdays, which I am all in favor of.)

Today’s recipe theme, incidentally, was ‘Maple Syrup’, since my mom inexplicably gave us a half-gallon – literally a half gallon – of maple syrup for Christmas. So there was crock pot maple pork shoulder (which will become pulled pork tomorrow, and which will then be available for sandwiches and tacos and whatever else we feel like doing), and vegetarian ‘chili’ based on this recipe (basically I only changed a few things: cut down significantly on cumin because I don’t like it much, replaced turkey with fake-ground-meat, left out the pepitas, and generally played fast and loose with proportions) (I am contractually obligated to call it ‘chili’-in-air-quotes, by the way, because not only does it lack meat, but it possesses beans, both of which are anathema to proper Texas chili, but it is really a very good not-chili), butternut squash and apples in maple glaze (I haven’t tried it and have my doubts, but the husband said it was pretty good), and personal apple dumplings things with maple glaze (which I have had, and which was definitely pretty good).

That may seem quite a boring day indeed, but it was a decent balance to yesterday.

My rich friend sent me a gift that arrived yesterday, for one thing: a nice card, a chocolate Jesus for the husband from Bond Street Chocolates:


from Jesus link above

And a mixed box of chocolates for me from the same store that I immediately hid away, because the husband will eat them like Pringles, whereas they will last me a month or more, because I hoard and savor chocolate a bit pathologically. Also a lovely agnes b. scarf with a cherry blossom print:

from the above link

from the above link

(I don’t really know what ‘agnes b.’ signifies, but the logo was all over the box and ribbon and scarf so I assume it’s an Important Brand, and anyway it’s a very pretty scarf, and I looked up some ways of wearing square scarves, and I am fairly confident I can make it work.)

More practically, I got two recommendation letters written in the morning, although I didn’t get around to printing them out, because I’m waiting on an address for one of them. I’ll probably get them printed on Monday.

Then a work meeting, which was in person – usually our monthly meetings are virtual – and which was weird, because the last meeting resulted in the most bizarre and defensive overreaction by the boss over misunderstanding some tensions and frustrations. But, as they mostly are, the meeting was useful, and I learned that only one more vote (by the Board of Trustees) stands between us and our jobs being some kind of mystical undefined quasi-tenured situation, although the only clear parameters we were given was that it would become increasingly important that our eval scores be high, and that we all needed to keep our scores above average, which… sigh. Apparently we’re to become Lake Writebegone or something.

Then drinks with the happy hour friend and another colleague, which was a little light-going because this colleague tends to keep things fairly light (the husband calls him boring, which I don’t agree with – he just tends to keep everything a little bit jokey and superficial, which is fine, and can be fun).

Then I (and my buzz) met the husband to see Gogol’s The Government Inspector, performed by a local troupe that calls itself the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (NB opens to music). We’ve seen them before, and they’re really very good. They specialize in absurdist theater, and have some very talented physical comedians among them. We saw them do Kafka’s The Castle in 2013, and Gombrowicz’s Ivona, Princess of Burgundia in 2012, and there were several productions in the intervening years that caught our eye but that we just didn’t make for one reason or another.

Today, by the way – since we’re jumping around, but the Gogol brought us back to literature – I started listening to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s new novel, Mycroft Holmes, about, er, Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother. I am really enjoying it thus far, and have a lot to say about it, but let’s put a pin in that for another night.

And we’ll close with a brief aside on Mr Stanley Bull Squinklepants, III, because he has just come to sit on my lap in his awkward, uncertain way. Now that he is more settled in, we are realizing that his awkward uncertainty was not simply part of the settling process, but is fundamentally part of who he is. So he frequently expresses a fervent desire for something, for instance, but we have yet to figure out what it is. Clearly it is expected to come from us, based on how he follows us about and looks up at us longingly with his giant alien blue-green eyes, but he wants nothing that we offer: food is disappointing, being picked up is panic-inducing, being petted is uncomfortable, toys are boring…

And by the way, when he does play with the cat toys? He looks like a very bad actor trying to portray a cat playing. Like, have you seen Will Ferrell’s SNL audition reel, where he does a cat? Stanley is kind of like that. Quite unconvincing. Trying too hard, or protesting too much, or something.

Plus, when Oscar harasses Clio and Clio starts yowling, Stanley comes running, meowing anxiously all the way, but then just kind of hovers around both of them, not intervening, not really knowing what to do.

And then there’s the, ah, inappropriate moments he’s prone to when left alone with certain kinds of fabrics (known culprits include chenilles, shearlings, and fleeces, at least – heavy flannels are suspect but not yet implicated. Suffice to say that we’re becoming quite good at policing our habits around putting textiles away).

So we’ve taken to calling him autistic, which is, broadly speaking, terribly insensitive and all that, but there you are: it entertains us to no end, and makes many of his behaviors a bit more explicable.

Plus, why not an autistic cat? Who are you to say that cats are only allowed to be neurotypical?!

Pfft. Racist.

[Ahem: a bit of anxiety has pushed me to interject: if you really are inclined to be offended by that, please first click through the various ‘autism’ and ‘spectrum’ tagged posts on TDP; if you’re still offended after reading those, by all means let loose in the comments.]

But this whole time, he’s been sitting somewhat stiffly in my lap, glancing up at me from time to time. He’s a good cat, for all his weirdnesses.

And this is more than enough text, even for skipping yesterday.


Filed under around Phila, culture, goals, identity, literature, musings, reading, theater, varia

Off-balance, and some videos

It was a good day, on the whole. I didn’t have to use my AK, for instance.


The mini-lecture/discussion in the fairy tales class went well on my end, at least, though I never know what they get out of things. They can look so engaged, and ask the right questions, and then five minutes later tell me that they’ve never heard of The Thing I’ve been talking about.

(Which reminds me of a moment in college: professor invited us over to have dinner with her and Peter Meineck, and I expressed my excitement, although I didn’t know his work well. She pointed out that the book we had been poring over for the past month was by him. So, right. Empathy.)

Since I’m reading the Zipes book as essentially a tautology with a primary implicit argument made by means of an accumulation of examples, I asked the students what they thought about that: was it legitimate to argue by example? Are reasons necessary?

And one student said no, and yes, because leaving everything implicit makes the reader do too much work, and makes the reading boring. I cautioned her, Check in with yourself when you feel bored, because it’s very easy to confuse ‘being bored’ with ‘being asked to do difficult work’.

I’m obsessed with that this semester. Last semester I was obsessed with story, this semester it’s the difference between something being boring and something being hard. A surprisingly fine line, sometimes.

Although, as I tell my students, I basically believe everything can be interesting.

I mean, I’m a baseball fan, for god’s sake. Ask me about the rule 5 draft or equipment fines. Once you admit that baseball is fascinating, ‘boring’ is no longer a category you can take very seriously.

My home classes had their library presentations, for which a librarian comes over and teaches students about navigating our extensive and astonishing library system (15 different physical libraries, I think, and something like 7 million items?). The noon class was great. They laughed at the librarian’s jokes, and were game, and did their job.

(I love that librarian, incidentally. He’s been working here for 30 years, and has a PhD in folklore or something (and yet no, he isn’t the librarian for my fairy tales class because logistics), and has a sense of humor as dry as mine, and looks like a gnome, and, like me, goes through life with the premise that basically everything is probably pretty fucking interesting if you can find the right tack.)

I sort of warned him about my afternoon class; he asked me about it in a downtime moment in the noon class, and I said, well, there are a lot of upperclassmen, and a lot of business/finance guys, it can be a tricky bunch.

And indeed they were less game than I would have liked, and way too many students were spending way too much time responding to chats and messages or whatever the kids call them these days.

I gave them a gentle shaming about it after, but honestly I don’t think Kids These Days™ even register such things as distracting.

Ironically, I forgot to talk about how to be a respectful listener in that class, and thus forgot to go into how this is all a joint adventure, and it’s on them to figure out how to learn. I do my best to facilitate and support their learning, but they have to play too, or it won’t happen.

Next class.

Ballet started out great: I had a pretty good barre, and was feeling agile and strong for the first part of center…. and then, at one point, I just got tired, and lost all my balance and focus, and was a mess. Which was especially bad because we had a ton of new people in class tonight – like, 6 new people who had little or no ballet experience – so my teacher was relying on me to be a good model, and I was not managing to step up.

There was a woman a little bit older than me – 50 or 60, maybe – who had maybe never had ballet, or at any rate had been long away from it, and she was stationed on a barre between me and D., who is a gorgeous dancer, and often does triple pirouettes and such while messing around after class. This new woman was game, man, and I don’t know if she ever really landed an exercise, but she was hard-core, and kept going, and I was very impressed.

And I sincerely hope that she took the smiles and pats and words of encouragement from me and D. as honest, well-intentioned encouragement, and not as facetiousness. I am always humbled by ballet, as you know, but I am lucky enough to have, by nature, a body that is predisposed to dance in some ways, so I am even more humbled by people who really don’t have that kind of leg-up, but nonetheless keep coming back, and keep dancing.

Which reminds me: Dalia Carella posted this video to facebook recently, and I laughed so hard, because this is precisely how I felt on Monday:

It’s okay if your shoes aren’t doing it.

If only it were only my shoes not doing it.

I have no idea how long it’s been, or if we’re under or over time. I somehow got so behind this week: tomorrow I have to finish a student recommendation letter that I have only kind of started, and go to a work meeting, and send my boss an email with all the impressive things I’ve done this year (ahem), and have a drink with my friend whose mom just died, and then meet the husband to see a Gogol play in Center City. So I am spending my Thursday evening feeling like a wreck who has no idea how to do anything, apparently including but not limited to standing in an elegant fifth position while waiting for the music to start.

I grant that all of these are first-rate candidates for First World Problems, but I’m American, what else can I do but live in my context.


Some brilliant team made this CGI video of how the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 went down in Pompeii, and it is at once terrifying and fascinating.

I am pretty familiar with the basic details, and yet my heart rate literally increased as I watched, and my breathing got faster. That is some serious Nature that went down there.

I thought I had other videos. I guess I can suggest Louis CK’s ‘Horace and Pete‘. It’s not free, but if you are a fan of Louis CK’s work, I doubt you will be disappointed in this. It is funny and dark and weird and silly and bleak and full of believable human characters and performed by an all-star cast (Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi…), and it seems like he’s going to take it further in future episodes.

But I think I’ve done my day, and am ready to let entertainment wash over me in the form of Rosemary and Thyme — one of you turned me on to this, and I am now addicted, so thank you / curse you.

And I’m behind on comments, but I’m behind on everything. I swear I’ve read what you took the time to share with me, and I promise I’ll respond, but as you can see I’m very dramatic right now, and need someone to bring me a fainting couch.

But we’ll rally, I’m sure.

Here’s to catching our breath —

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I very rarely lose things. Rarely enough that it is notable and strange when I do.

This is mostly because I am a highly ritualized creature: everything I own has a place where it belongs, and if it is out of place I feel it as a little nag, so I remember where it is.

(This is how I am able to be both obsessively tidy and generally messy: I prefer tidiness, but even in the midst of great untidiness, I still know where everything is, and where it belongs, and that I will get it back there eventually.)

Monday I left my umbrella at ballet. This group has rented the studio on Monday nights for this month, so when our class finishes everything is chaotic and crowded, plus the rain had stopped, so I just elbowed and squeezed my way out and didn’t even think about it. I’ll probably be able to retrieve it tomorrow.

This afternoon, as I was leisurely strolling to the train to go hold office hours, something clicked in my brain, and I suspected that I didn’t have my bus pass. I opened my wallet; nope, not where it belonged. Not in coat pockets. Went back home, searched all likely locations: nowhere.

This is a monthly transit pass, you understand, and we are on the third day of the month, and a replacement would put me back $90, so I was very sad.

But all praise: it had just slid under the futon in the sewing room a bit, and we’re all set for 26 more days of publicly transiting with abandon.


Some nights I have nothing to say, and some nights I am brimming with ideas — tonight is one of the latter, but, alas, I need to work something out for class tomorrow, so that’s where we’ll stay.

Tomorrow in my fairy tale class, I am at long last going to break down what is going on with our central text, and what it’s about, and why it’s hard. Typically I would do this by leading a discussion and having students identify the strengths and weaknesses and structures and significances and all that, but this book has prompted me to extreme measures:

I am going to actually give a little lecture about the book, and what it’s about, and why it’s hard, and offer my reading of it.

This is a tricky proposition. I tend to avoid saying much about what I think a book is ‘about’ in my classes because it shuts down my students’ interpretive channels: they assume that my reading is the right one, and theirs is inferior, and just accept what I tell them. If, instead, I force them to construct their own reading and then explain it to me, they get much more out of this whole exercise – including a visceral awareness that reading is always an act of interpretation, and thus always at least a little bit subjective. Which, theoretically, helps them become more sympathetic writers, as they will be aware of the work they are demanding of their readers.

So I’m going to use this post to talk through tomorrow’s mini-lecture and discussion, to make sure I have my thoughts organized.

Our book is written by one of the great folklorists of the contemporary field, and is quite interesting, and would be an enjoyable read if I were just perusing it for fun.

It is also diffusely organized, if we’re being kind, and I have been struggling mightily to identify its argument.

Tonight, in the course of working through it, and talking to the husband about it, and putting together a prezi for my students, I realized why: it is not an argument so much as a tautology illustrated by a series of interesting examples.

So the central premise of the book is that fairy tales are memes [on which more in a second], and the central argument, then, is that they have developed and evolved memetically.

[Here I explain ‘tautology’ to my students. It’s Greek, if you’re curious, and means essentially ‘argument by means of the thing itself’.]

Chapter One provides a brief overview of the scholarship on fairy tales, and then establishes that Zipes will be borrowing the theory of cultural memes as a framework for thinking about them, borrowing from Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (I think it’s that one, I really don’t care an ounce for Richard Dawkins, so I’m not sure), in which he hypothesized a theory of something analogous to biological genes but relating instead to culture.

Like genes, memes are adaptable and responsive to their environment. Like genes, they replicate by and through people. Like genes, they carry essential information — only they construct and describe culture rather than biology. So memes are cultural information transmitters. Little trains on which culture moves from person to person and through time.

It’s an appealing theory on the surface, but really falls apart when you stop to think about it. Also, why should culture work according to the rules of biology? But you can see the Wikipedia entry on memes for the major objections. Since our author takes it as a given that it is a useful theory, we can only run with it if we hope to make sense of this book.

It will be important at this point to note that ‘meme’ comes from a Greek word to do with imitation, and that the specialized meaning Zipes and Dawkins are using is a bit different from the popular one that has arisen with the interwebz.


(whence) (from way down in the comments)

So that’s the framework that governs the rest of the book: fairy tales are memes, and we know this because they act like memes.

Okay. That’s what I see as the central point of the book, although he makes sub-arguments within each chapter that are only loosely related to it.

Chapter Two looks at a moment in the 17th century in France, when literary salons were en vogue, and one particular woman, Madame d’Aulnoy, popularized the composition and sharing of little magical tales, and called them les contes des fées, or ‘fairy tales’. For Zipes, this is – to use the language of comparative literature and literary theory – an intervention in the memetic replication: fairy tales from an oral to a textual medium, but retained their essential essence — they evolved and adapted in response to a new set of social forces.

This chapter also makes the argument that these French women were using fairy tales as a means of subverting the social forces oppressing them, which is interesting, and which tells us something important about fairy tales – they are all about contradictions, and at one and the same time reinforce and resist social norms – but which is not strictly relevant to the central point of the book, which is to think about the memetic activity of fairy tales.

Finally, chapter two lets us see how reliant Zipes is on feminist theory and New Historicism — and, in the context of my class, to revisit the concept of literary theory.

Chapter Three focuses on two iterations of the Bluebeard story: Charles Perrault’s 17th c. text, and Catherine Breillat’s recent film. Zipes can thus look at how fairy tales jump from one medium to another, which picks up more the virus aspect of memes than the gene one, but is still clearly memetic.

This allows him to talk about the ways that fairy tales can transcend their authors, which is not especially surprising if they are memes, but also to criticize formalist and structural interpretations, because – since fairy tales are memes – any interpretive schema that ignores cultural context is bound to go wrong. As: Breillat’s film could only have been made in the context of the modern age (because technological constraints) and in the shadow of feminism (because  of its perspective).

Chapter Four situates itself around the premise that, just as biology can help us uncover biological and evolutionary history, so memetic theory can help us identify the history of specific stories and figures. He takes Baba Yaga as a particularly good illustration of this, and goes on to argue that she is a composite of several pre-Christian Slavic goddesses, and – more to the point – that this fact illustrates how memes work: pagan goddesses lost their efficacy in the Christian era, and so adapted themselves by becoming fairy tale witchy figures, of which Baba Yaga is one of the most distinctive. So, again, cultural context is essential for making sense of any cultural artifact — which sounds like New Historicism to me, is that still a framework literary theorists use?

That’s the heart of tomorrow’s lecture, and it has been very helpful indeed to work through it here, so thank you! And my students would thank you, if they only knew.

I’m still luke-warm on this prospect, and concerned that I might inhibit their own interpretations by offering mine, but this is a really challenging book, and I think any damage done by me imposing my interpretations on them will be outweighed by the valuable conversations this interpretation will allow us to have.

Here’s hoping.

Fortunately, my home classes have library day, which is fun, and for half of which I get to kick back and watch a librarian do all the work.

Oh, by the way:


Yes, thanks to an absurdly warm week, and a particularly absurdly warm day of steady rain, our deck is finally accessible again! Just in time for it to get cold again, probably, but at least I can go refill the bird feeders now.

Happy interpreting, my friends – it’s so often an opaque world —

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* Ways we know Mr Stanley Bull Squinkles, III, was not always a stray: (1) Doing that little ‘pat your lap’ thing to encourage a cat to jump up is almost Pavlovian for him; once he hears the pat, he is positively compelled to jump towards it. (2) The speed with which he runs into the kitchen whenever a can is opened, and then the intense expectancy with which he looks up at you.

* Things that went well today: My midday class had a fruitful and interesting discussion about the different ways of conceiving of knowledge. The student who made it explicit is Malaysian, and talked some about how Malaysia (and many other East Asian countries) view knowledge as a communal, public good, and so feels little need to cite; the West, on the other hand (broad strokes, as always), with our obsessions about individuality and worship of genius, becomes congruently obsessed with and worshipful of rigorous citation practices.

At least some of my jokes landed in all of my classes. To be clear, I am not a comedian, and certainly don’t ‘tell jokes’, but I am who I am, and I tend to incorporate into my lectures and discussions little details and tangents that make me laugh on the fly (or seemed especially effective in earlier classes). Given my decidedly arid sense of humor and delivery, my students don’t tend to think I’m nearly as funny as I think I am, but we can’t all et cetera.

I didn’t have many student meetings between classes, so I sat outside in the unseasonably warm sun (with remnants of last week’s blizzard all around) and listened to the most recent Greg Proops, and laughed out loud several times. It stresses me out when he starts to abuse his audiences, sometimes – like, when he does it for real, about people who sit and chit-chat, not when he jokingly berates them – but his memory is prodigious, and his knowledge of baseball and history legitimately remarkable.

* Things I wish I had handled better: Team Seniors in my last class got on my nerves a little. It’s because Berlin and London were sitting next to each other, and they are the least… ‘pliant’ is not the word I want, although there’s a soupçon of that involved… game and willing, I think. Perhaps not convinced there’s anything to be gained from my class, but putting up a good front, and that is all I require from seniors. Especially in spring.

Paris and America, so far, are doing an excellent job. I catch America occasionally exchanging Meaningful Glances with London or Berlin, but that’s fine. I have no problem with that, so long as it doesn’t get out of control. Paris seems legitimately invested, or is doing such a good performance of Legitimately Invested Student that he has achieved Suspension of Disbelief.

But I had to snap-snap Berlin and London twice today, because they were falling into whispers. Partly it makes my autistic features flare up, and I find it almost impossible to keep my concentration in the face of other conversations (this is way less of an issue in casual situations, but actually quite a challenge when I’m teaching). And partly it’s rude, and they’re seniors, and, as I’ve said, it is essential to the health of my class community that they are kept in-line as a model for the freshmen.

I have a Plan on this front, incidentally. Right now we’re at the snap-snap ‘Gentlemen, is everything okay over there?’ and snap-snap ‘Gentlemen, stay with us’ stage. Next is the Light Shaming stage, where I embarrass them just a bit. That will be hard for me, as I am myself so sensitive to embarrassment – mine or others’ – but these are privileged finance majors. I think they can handle it. If all that fails, we come to calling them in to office hours, which will annoy me to no end, so fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that.

Things as yet unclassified as ‘having gone well’ or ‘having gone badly’ because I really can’t decide: Today in my fairy tales class, we had the library presentation. It was on the schedule for Thursday, but the librarian and I worked it out for Tuesday because it was better for her schedule. And I forgot to warn students. So I sent them an email yesterday afternoon explaining the situation, and telling them to look at the readings on the schedule for Thursday, and acknowledging that I was giving them less than 24 hours, and that therefore didn’t assume they would all be able to read them in great detail, but hoped they would at least skim them all.

think that was the right thing to do, in light of my oversight. I think it is the respectful thing to do: it was my mistake, so I adjusted my expectations of them accordingly, and let them know.

But I can’t stop thinking that giving them permission to skim assigned readings is dangerous.

I went with ‘respect’ trumping ‘dangerous’, but time will tell.

In my last class, in our discussion of the ways that home and self are mutually constitutive, Paris was giving a very thoughtful answer about how the physical, concrete space of, and items in, a home were actually a kind of performance of ideal self, and I laughed, and then wanted to explain that I wasn’t laughing at him or his thoughtful answer, but rather at being reminded of the old joke about how you should never sleep with someone who doesn’t have books in their house.

That got a pretty good laugh, although I didn’t look up to see who was laughing. I wanted them to be able to exchange all the looks they wanted for a second without my interference.

Now, this is college, so that kind of joke is fine, and, as I’ve said before, the only ‘policing’ I do in class discussions is to do with respect, I don’t really get worked up with ‘bad words’ (which I never use (believe it or not), and which students rarely use, because they are extremely well socialized to ‘proper culture’) or ‘risqué’ topics. But I tend to avoid risqué topics myself, in the service of maintaining my Objective Leader stance.

Still, that’s really good fucking advice.

And yes, I’m letting both senses of ‘fucking’ – adjective and noun – operate there.

* Moments I enjoyed: sitting in the afternoon sun, as mentioned above.

The evening idly chatting and perusing the day’s media with the husband this evening.

The walk from campus to the bus. It felt warm, although it was actually not much above freezing, and it was a clear calm night, and the lighted buildings – I mean the big buildings that typically have some kind of colored light accents – were all red, for some reason, and I wondered for the first time if there is rhyme or reason to the colors on the buildings in this city. Like how the Empire State Building’s colors change for various events and seasons.


Speaking of, this bit of graffiti I noticed when I stopped to take this picture:


I’m not really sure what the image is – a paper with a tack in it, right? Is it a reference to that game that got so much attention last year? But I haven’t played it, so I don’t know, I just recall a bulletin board as part of its central ‘trailer’ iconography.

* Words I think I may have used imprecisely in this post: congruently; mutually constitutive.

There are lots more ‘somes’ to discuss, of course, but we’re a tad over the half hour, and I’m now looking forward to some cheese and some TV before bed.

some goats

some goats


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Filed under around Phila, culture, education, identity, language, learning, musings, teaching, varia

The luxury of dance

But first!

Quick notes on tonight’s class. Which was particularly humbling, even for a Monday class.

We did tour jetés, for instance. This was shortly into center work, and before we did it my teacher raised an eyebrow and said, okay, well, it’s time: we’re doing tour jetés.

(Yes, that is a bunch of 11 year olds doing better tour jetés than I managed tonight. Although, to be fair, it was my first go at it, and they’ve had some practice.)

I can’t remember everything now, but it was an intense class. I think my teacher may be feeling competitive about that guy who did Friday center, and is now trying to make us learn EVERYTHING.

Which… okay. Bring it. I’ll look like an asshole a lot of the time, but I’m game. I’m learning. I’m getting better.

It’s a low bar, I’ll grant, but I’m slowly approaching it.

Baryshnikov’s bar is not my bar. My bar is much lower, and even so I am approaching it VERY SLOWLY.


I took ballet for a year or two as a young child, but my mom made the mistake of giving me an ultimatum: do the performance or quit ballet. So I quit ballet, because I really did NOT want to perform.

(My mother still regrets this choice, some 35ish years later.)

My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was coming up, but they would have made it work. They made piano lessons work, and made it work when I landed on a scheme to trade work at the stables for free riding lessons. My mom was maybe not the best at certain aspects of the mother-child relationship, but she always tried to nurture my dreams.

So I saw this article recently about ballet classes in Iran. Basically, apparently ballet classes are verboten in Iran. The teachers have to run their classes in secret, and have to be careful about admitting new students because they might be informants rather than actual students.

I guess people can be arrested? for dancing?

On the one hand, this makes me unbelievably sad, because no one should ever be prohibited from dancing. What can be more natural and joyful than expressing emotions through movement. Whether you’re doing academic tour jetés or just letting loose. This plane of existence seems to be all about embodiment, so we may as well make the most of it, right? And anyone who stands in the way of that is standing in the way of humane living. Seriously.

And on the other hand, it makes me ecstatic, because nothing can stop us from dancing. People will always dance. Dance is implicit in our heartbeats, that initial drumbeat we move to.

(I’ve shared a different version of that song before; but since I used the phrase ‘nothing can stop us dancing’ tonight, I had to share it again, as it is literally a line in the song.)

We’re a bit shy of the half hour, but it’s fine. This week in teaching is going to be a bit more complicated than they usually are, so I wouldn’t mind a little extra time to review my class plans.

We haven't had a restful Oscar picture in a while, I just figured we were due

We haven’t had a restful Oscar picture in a while, I just figured we were due


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