Monday, June 30, 2008

vacation #2...

Dear Readers,

Just a heads up to let everyone know that until July 4th I will by hiking, spinning, stretching, and yoga-ing up at Canyon Ranch with my mom – a bit of maternal bonding over sore thighs and foot cramps. So wish me luck on my detox/spa/fat camp getaway; I’ll be back next week!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

“I felt like an alien at Penn.”

“Don’t write that I took you to a Starbucks!” Melissa Duclos says with a laugh at the end of our interview at, uh, an anonymous coffee shop on the corner of 2nd Ave. and 9th St.. The place was actually lovely – there was even a waiter walking around with bits of sugar cookies, something that I have never seen at other S*****ucks in the city but that Duclos says is common in China, where she once taught English for six months (and learned that the Chinese are fond of cookie samples).

Duclos’ résumé also includes waitressing in Philadelphia and Atlanta, a job that prompted customers to ask, “What are you doing here??” after they found out she had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

“I felt like an alien at Penn,” Duclos admits, referring to her disregard of the “investment-banking-or-die” track popular with many a Whartonite. After graduating as a creative writing major, Duclos dabbled in the aforementioned waitressing, went to China, and moved back east to Brooklyn to tutor. She now attends graduate school at Columbia, tutors privately at a center on the Upper East Side, and teaches a writing class at Columbia for freshmen undergrads.

All the while, Duclos has been working on her first novel – well, technically it’s a second draft of her first book, which she describes as being an “awful young adult novel.” She has perspective though, and realizes that the nature of the writing industry requires tough skin.

“For a while, I had rejection letters from agents taped up to my wall. I understand that you have to be rejected before getting published…it’s just something you have to go through,” she says.

While in Atlanta and China, Duclos hardly worked on her novel at all. However, living in Brooklyn and being surrounded by artists and writers has really helped keep Duclos focused on her writing. “Knowing so many other writers really keeps me on track – they are people to talk to, and it makes it easier to be self-disciplined. Sometimes non-writers don’t realize that writing a novel is a job, even though I don’t get paid for it.”

Being an unpaid writer myself, I know exactly what she means. If I had a nickel for every time one of my Wharton friends poked fun at me with a snide, “So what exactly are you doing all summer – blogging?”, I’d surely have as much money as they are making at their internships.

Duclos feels that writing doesn’t get as much artistic street cred as, say, oil painting, because it is so much more accessible to the common person. “When people hear I’m writing a novel, they are like, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to do that!’” she says.

We both agree that relying on Word’s built-in thesaurus application is hardly an acceptable way to write a novel – Duclos actually thinks it’s awful because people are so inclined to replace simple words with longer ones that make no sense in their contexts (this reminds me of the “Friends” episode when Joey uses the Word thesaurus and it replaces his name with “baby kangaroo.”).

However, as a writing teacher, Duclos uses the accessibility of the craft as an encouragement mechanism for her students – as in, everyone can write, it’s just a matter of learning and honing the right skills.

Teaching has also educated Duclos on the email etiquette, or lack thereof, that students use when addressing one another and their professors. Duclos realizes that, as a grad student, she’s younger than your average balding professor and has her students call her “Melissa.” However, that’s no excuse for the absurdly casual way they address her via email. “They’ll send me an email at 3 a.m. that’s like, ‘hey what was the homework’ – that’s what their classmates are for!”

Colloquial discourse has become much more textual with new technological mediums: texting, IMing, Facebook messaging, and emailing are the new protocol. Duclos believes that students are so used to being informal in their email conversations that they think it’s acceptable to basically say “yo whattup” to their superiors.

It’s not as if my generation is totally void of written manners; most of us have been taught how to compose a charming thank you note or a professional cover letter. We just have to learn how to meld the familiar world of emailing with the formal world of handwriting.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say, if you’re a Facebook junkie, a picture is worth a thousand friend requests. Or if you’re a writer trying to summarize your identity into a pretty little package called a website, a picture is worth a thousand dollars – or a book deal.

While lunching at L’Express on 20th and Park, Michael Hyde and I discussed the ways in which the Internet has changed one’s understanding of self-presentation. A pretty profound conversation to be having over goat cheese salads and fries (I think the waiter kept re-filling our water glasses to eavesdrop), but very relevant to Hyde – and anyone with a published book, a website, or a Facebook account.

In December 2005, Hyde published a book of short stories called What Are You Afraid Of?, a compilation of older and newer tales that all share the “darker themes” typical of his writing. The book was extremely well-received, winning the 2005 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

“My stories are American gothic – not English gothic with castles, but stories with broken houses and dysfunctional families, as well as some supernatural stuff,” Hyde explains.

After the book came out, Hyde decided to set up a website with the help of his friend Margaret Penney. “I wanted it to represent the themes of the book visually and textually…it sort of shows what I’m all about,” he says. He also wanted the site to be long-lasting – perhaps speak to future books and projects he would be working on.

While creating the website, Hyde realized he would have to think about self-presentation: how did he want to package himself on his website? In a way, we are all self-made and self-serving brands, and websites or profiles are like personal advertisements. Should we appear intelligent and introspective? Cute and quirky? Sarcastic and cynical? How do we condense our multi-faceted selves onto screen-sized pages?

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination,” Hyde explains. Well, that would pretty much be everyone.

Along with trying to snag a spot on the Internet between innuendo-ed eHarmony profiles, weirdly artistic Myspace pages, and formal resumes on Linkedin, Hyde had to consider how his book would fit in with the rest of contemporary literature.

“You have to think about how your work will be perceived…everyone fits in a certain way, but you have to have a realistic sense of what is marketable to the public,” he says.

Just as we critique our friends for their choice of Facebook profile pictures (as in, “Cindy’s hair looks so stupidly trendy, someone should tell her she’s not making a statement” or “Linda would flash a peace-sign in that photo – who does she think she is, Ashley Olsen?”), even books are not exempt from the shallow scrutiny of the public eye. We do, of course, judge them by their covers, which is especially interesting in the case of Hyde’s collection.

He says that he didn’t initially write the stories with horror in mind – they are more like paranormal psychological investigations. However, with dark silhouettes of tree limbs and purple text that looks like it’s dripping down the page (à la the Word font “Thriller”), What Are You Afraid Of?’s cover begs to differ.

“The press marketed it as a horror book…although I did have a problem with the font choice, it was sort of out of my hands at that point. I just don’t want to confuse or mislead readers into thinking the book is like ‘Carrie’ or ‘The Shining’ when it really isn’t.”

If perhaps Hyde’s book sends mixed messages of what it’s all about, I think that his website strikes the perfect balance of creativity, eeriness, and organization that evoke just what he is: a very talented, clearly professional writer who happens to write about a young girl obsessed with her dead classmate’s murder (buy the book to find out more!) and diseased tomatoes that make people sick (strikingly relevant in the wake of our salmonella scare).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

“all the superhero stuff is from my real life; the roommate stuff I had to imagine.”

“My roommate is the most evil man that ever lived.” That thought (probably amidst a fight over toilet paper or spoiled milk) is what sparked the idea for Drew Melbourne’s comic book, Archenemies. The graphic novel is about two roommates, Ethan Baxter and Vincent Darko, living in New York City. As if they don’t have enough problems already what with the skyrocketing rent and shrinking square footage of New York apartments, they have yet to learn that Ethan’s alter ego is a superhero and Vincent’s is a supervillain.

“All the superhero stuff is from my real life; the roommate stuff I had to imagine,” Melbourne says with smug grin that almost makes me believe him. We are sitting at a quaint diner on Hudson Street, complete with red-and-white checkered table clothes and sticky banquettes. This is the first time I’ve talked to a comic book aficionado, and I’m fascinated to learn about how they are made.

Because the multi-step process requires a variety of skill sets (a writer, a penciler, an inker, a colorer, a letterer, an editor), there is a big emphasis on collaboration. The Internet has become a crucial way through which comic bookies can connect and communicate with one another. Using the Internet both increases production efficiency and expands one’s professional contacts. You could even work with someone living in Australia, as Melbourne did, and complete a book without ever meeting face-to-face.

Of course, this can be a negative aspect of an online community: “Superman was created by two teenagers, an artist and a writer, who were friends from down the block…now, there’s sort of a pitfall when you can’t work with someone right in front of you,” Melbourne says.

Besides using the Internet to turn his comic book dream into a colorfully kitschy reality (supervillains and all), Melbourne started an Archenemies website to supplement to the actual book.

“The website is a way to expand the experience of reading the comic,” Melbourne says. He thinks that novels are enough entertainment in and of themselves, what with their length, density, and complicated content (not that the riffs between Ethan and Vincent are not complicated in their own ways – talk about hating your roommate with a vengeance.). However, comics can only offer their readers so much, which is where the website comes in.

“I used the site to publish ‘special features,’ like extra content and stories, as well as to build buzz before the book came out,” Melbourne says mid-chew.

Internet comic book societies form virtual niches akin to those created in video games like EverQuest (only without the avatars and animated ogres). Because these two pastimes have a largely overlapping fan base, it’s understandable that an EverQuest player, who loves the feeling of community he gets when battling an oversized rat with a new avatar friend, would want to recreate a similar sentiment for his new favorite comic book.

However, just as Vincent’s alter ego seeks to destroy mankind, the Internet has its own evil side: piracy. “Comic books feel the same bite as the music industry,” Melbourne says in reference to the dark trend that always makes me think of Jack Sparrow pillaging wooden barrels of iTunes files. Internet communities only increase accessibility to these pirated items, such as downloadable PDFs of a comic that have been scanned into someone’s computer.

“Who does this?” Melbourne wonders aloud, and I agree – why would someone go through the trouble of scanning pages and putting them online without the incentive of monetary rewards or even a cookie?

“It’s hard to quantify people’s individual ethics,” Melbourne decides. “People steal without even thinking about it.”

Even in this situation, there is a silver lining. One man’s questionable morals (and questionable motives – seriously, what pleasure does one receive from pirating comics? I don’t get it) can actually be another man’s free marketing.

“I actually felt a certain level of pride when my book was pirated online,” Melbourne admits without an ounce of his usual sarcasm.

I guess knowing a guy likes your book enough to want to illegally publish it online is almost as fulfilling as if he had actually plagiarized it!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

“access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.”

After an hour of wandering around the edge of Alphabet City looking for chic boutiques, only to find myself in an Urban Outfitters identical to the one on Penn’s campus, I met Tahneer Oksman at the charming Gramstand on Avenue A. I ordered a deliciously spicy iced chai and sat with Oksman in a cozy albeit dimly-lit corner (some guy actually accidentally shut off our lamp at one point) of the coffee shop.

Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Oksman received her master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago, reading “a lot of really long novels” in the process, and tutored for a year before moving back east to Brooklyn. She now attends CUNY Graduate School and teaches English at Brooklyn Community College, a job that she says has actually helped shape her own writing.

“I didn’t really understand grammar until I had to correct it,” she admits with a laugh, “and now syntax is more important to me in my writing than it was before.”

Teaching has also forced Oksman to deal with the “what-do-you-mean-I-can’t-use-Wikipedia” type of research that college students are so fond of. However, she is undaunted by the questionable validity of online information. “There are always things you can do to check accuracy,” she says confidently. “I tell my students, ‘dot-org is okay, dot-edu is okay, dot-gov is okay, no dot-coms.’”

I think that’s a pretty good place to start – “dot-gov” certainly has a nice political ring to it. Oksman actually thinks that learning to question what you read online, or anywhere, is a fundamental part of being an educated and intelligent person. As she puts it, “the Internet levels off all info, and everyone starts from scratch.”

Whether we’re perusing The Times or a celebrity tabloid, we should always read with active, doubtful minds.

Having an active mind works in tandem with having the ability to choose what you read. Some feel that the tremendous amount of information online can be overwhelming and physically restricting. A perfect example: Last night I spent about 45 minutes browsing through old JuicyCampus posts, only to then question my sanity and wonder why I hadn’t gone to sleep yet. Reams of pixilated gossip can be quite hypnotically enticing.

However, there’s a lot of printed text available today as well; I’m not running out and buying More (I hold nothing against the magazine, but it’s mainly for the post-menopausal crew of which I am not yet a part) just because it’s there. We always have a choice, and I can’t really blame the entirety of the Internet for the fact that I imprisoned myself on JuicyCampus last night.

Likewise, Oksman thinks, “access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.” There’s a certain feeling of power, which sometimes needs to be counteracted by willpower, I suppose, knowing that there’s a whole world of interesting stuff out there – and YOU can decide what to read and what to ignore.

Oksman takes a similarly optimistic viewpoint on blogs: “If anything, they give people a chance to speak,” she says.

Part of Oksman’s work for her graduate school dissertation focuses on photography and memory. She loves the dichotomy between the two: “do photos stifle memory? Can they help you mourn? Are photos just about information, or emotions too? What’s captured in a frame versus what isn’t?”

One of her favorite photo-related books is Jeff Batchen’s Forget Me Not, a text that deals with “vernacular photography” and examines the hierarchy of high art vs. low art. Batchen argues that snapshots are held to a lower standard than “artistic” pictures, when really all photos are beautiful and have unique messages to convey to their audiences.

Breaking down hierarchies tends to be a positive, progressive thing. Today’s society has a definite stratification that involves relegating blogs and personal websites to the bottom of the publishing barrel and glorifying more legitimate magazines and newspapers.

This is like saying that a Polaroid snapshot of your best friend mid-laugh has no artistic value compared to a Richard Prince photograph of a topless woman on a motorcycle (did anyone see that exhibit at the Guggenheim last year?). Is this the right way to think about art?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“print has been under terrible pressure since 2000.”

To an outsider, Mary Kuntz’s recent career switch might seem quite intrepid: she went from BusinessWeek, where she was employed for thirteen years as an editor with “significant responsibility,” to McKinsey & Company where she now deals with client consulting and management of the McKinsey Quarterly. Two equally impressive yet very different jobs.

But to Kuntz, the move was necessary. “Print has been under terrible pressure since 2000,” she tells me at yet another Starbucks (they should give me free coffee or something.). “I had to handle a lot of painful lay-offs at BusinessWeek, and it was becoming harder and harder to achieve our goals when so many people no longer worked there.”

To be honest, this disclosure depressed me immensely. While I’m not always a glass-is-half-full kind of gal, I have tried to remain optimistic in the face of what Leslie Bennetts referred to as the “imploding profession” of journalism. But if someone as successful as Kuntz felt the need to, in a sense, hop a lifeboat off of this hopeless Titanic, what does that say for the rest of us?

However, for the sake of our collective sanity, I will try to fill that metaphorical glass back up. Because let’s face it – we can’t ignore the Internet. We can’t ignore how much it has affected print, and we can’t ignore how amazing it truly is. So we can all give up and lament, between shots of whiskey, about the tragic downfall of journalism (seemingly akin to the fall of the Roman Empire), or we can roll with the changes like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

And roll is exactly what BusinessWeek has done in the past few years. One of Kuntz’s proudest professional accomplishments, she says, is having helped during the magazine’s major redesign project. “If you take a BusinessWeek from a few years ago and one from today,” she claims, “the two will look completely different.”

Some changes were aesthetic, such as using smaller photos and “quieter” graphics to make pages look more “serious, thoughtful, and elegant.” The stories, photos, and graphics were all changed to be more conceptual than literal.

Other changes allude to the fact that the Internet has changed the way we acquire information. BusinessWeek added a summary section meant to recap longer, heftier stories and essays. Additionally, the letters to the editors have been relocated to a spread in the back of the magazine called “Feedback.” In this newly developed section, if a particular story receives a lot of reader attention, all the comments will be laid-out and the author will have a chance to respond.

Sound familiar? The aggregation of the publication, this act of condensing long pieces into pretty little blurb-like packages, is an obvious reflection of the Internet, which is so fond of recapping and summarizing for the convenience of its overly informed readers. The magazine’s “Feedback” section is very blog-like itself, facilitating a textual dialogue between authors and readers. With people being newly accustomed to speaking their minds on the Internet, wouldn’t the inability to respond to printed articles seem repressive and confining?

Monday, June 16, 2008

“spending all day long reading blogs can be so paralyzing.”

As Lindsey Palmer enters the Starbucks at which I’m stationed for most of the aforementioned sweltering day, she asks me if I'd like a drink. I decline, being sufficiently caffeinated from my previous meeting with Suzanne Maynard Miller, so we bask in the air-conditioning sans coffee.

Palmer is employed as an assistant editor at Redbook, a job that she thoroughly describes as being “50% writing, 25% research, stats, and idea generation, 15% administrative, and 10% managing interns and teaching.”

With such a full plate, it took Palmer a while to figure out how to incorporate writing fiction, the seductive not-quite career that she loves, into her bustling New York City life. “I love fiction because it’s not relevant in the way that magazine writing is… not to sound ‘new age-y’ or anything, but it’s a very grounding way to be with yourself.”

Today, an enormous amount of relevant information (assuming that everything from Lindsay Lohan’s questionable sexuality to the presidential election can be deemed “relevant”) reaches the general public. We are all swimming, or drowning, in an info-saturated ocean. It can be a relief to read and write about things simply because they interest you, not because you are trying to win the “Who Can Be The Most Informed” race. Palmer actually thinks it’s unfortunate that we have access to so much information, observing that some of her coworkers “spend all day long reading blogs – [doing this] can be so paralyzing.”

In the few years that Palmer has worked at Redbook, she has witnessed many changes in the publication, all of which are like blinking neon arrows pointing towards the Internet. Redbook’s first web editor was hired in January of 2006, and since then the publication has hired two more, making the site a “huge part” of the magazine.

However, while many journalists and editors equate the rise of the Internet to the demise of printed publications, Palmer doesn’t think that the Web could ever replace magazines entirely – “they are two different activities,” she says. “Shorter amounts of time are spent online, so online material is more like ‘snippets’ as opposed to long essays [in magazines].”

Palmer cleverly labels the key difference between the two as the difference between “bathtub” reading and “desk” reading. Chronic bath-takers such as myself (much to the amusement of my friends, who either call me a grandma or a five-year-old) enjoy reading longer magazine articles while soaking in the tub. Of course, that whole no-electronics-in-water thing affects this trend as well.

On the other hand, short blurbs are much more conducive to sitting at a desk at work, when you can only afford to steal glances at your favorite blogs

Internet reading and magazine reading are like cricket and baseball – they’re in the same family and look sort of similar from the outside, but they are completely different activities in actuality.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“sometimes I force my kids to be bored.”

As I trudged down 5th Avenue in a dress and sandals, my purse seemed to be approximately seventy pounds and each breeze that blew through the steaming, roiling, 100˚ city felt like a blast from a blow-drier. When I finally saw the promising green corner of an “S” peering from behind a building, I literally thought the Starbucks was a mirage; luckily, it was real, and it was the place where I was to meet playwright-cum-mother Suzanne Maynard Miller.

Miller kindly made the pilgrimage towards this coffee Mecca on the subway, all the way from Brooklyn and with a sick child in tow. A playwright who claims to have once “had an affair with essay writing” but eventually returned to her “original love,” Miller writes realistic comedic dramas that focus on what she believes to be the most vital ingredient in theater: honest human-to-human connections.

Which is ironic, I muse, considering the fact that I am asking her about the state of questionable human-to-machine connections. Ironic still is the fact that in grad school, Miller actually did write about humans and their relationships to machines in the half-completed play called “The Utility Place.” The piece was a series of three vignettes that each revolve around a different household utility (such as the telephone, gas, and television). One of the characters was a female telephone operator who mystically hooked-up telephone-users from 1976 to 1776, a link that transcends both the human-to-human and the human-to-machine connections we know and love.

“Technology is great and important,” she allows, “but in the end I worry about the wires and chatter that constantly surround us – there is no longer any sacred time for thinking. The cell phone is a double-edged sword.”

Miller values the concept of both a physical and metaphorical “empty desk” when writing, a sort of Lockonian tabula rasa that works in tandem with the calisthenics necessary to hone creativity’s erratic wings. When she taught writing at her alma mater, Brown University, and at the Rhode Island School of Design, Miller encouraged students to leave their physically confining computer screens and get off their lazy butts (my words, not hers) when researching for papers.

“There’s something exciting about searching the stacks for books – though there is so much available online, leaving your chair and getting the blood pumping is important. I always connect physical motion with creativity,” she says.

Miller seems to have adopted a similar parenting philosophy. “Sometimes I force my kids to be bored, just to give them the space to make up their own games,” she says. I wholeheartedly agree with this notion, recalling that my own childhood consisted of make-believe camping, hairdressing, homemaking, and teaching – none of which would have materialized had my boredom been constantly subdued with T.V shows and mind-numbing electronic games.

The concept of being bored has become almost obsolete, a quaint notion that reminds us of 19th century ladies sitting primly in their parlors doing absolutely nothing. Such a situation would never occur today – if you have nothing to do, turn on the T.V! Search the Web! Stalk your friends on Facebook! Technology and boredom are like oil and water or country clubs and hippies – they just don’t mix.

On occasion, Miller has used the Internet professionally. She was recently working on a project for which she needed to learn modern teenage slang – or, in other words, “how the heck kids talk these days.” Rather than interviewing a bunch of teenagers (who, quite frankly, probably would have answered in monosyllabic grunts), someone directed her to

As the name suggests, the website offers thousands of slang words and their definitions, one of my favorites being, “megan: to laugh until liquid comes out of one's nose.” On my planet, Megan was still just a girl’s name…and I am one of the aforementioned teens who supposedly speak this way.

So now it’s back to the central theme in theater and, I suppose, in life: human connection. Did SlangSite allow Miller to be temporally efficient (and to discover a hilarious new website), or did her lack of face-to-face interaction devalue her “research” experience?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“I felt like I was a blind squirrel finding an acorn.”

Ivan Maisel’s interest in writing began slowly, meandering its way from a vague idea to a full-fledged career once he experienced the “little thrill you get when the rhythm in your head matches what you type on your screen.”

When he was younger, Maisel aspired to be the next big radio announcer for the Atlanta Braves; with his extraordinarily deep Alabaman twang, he wasn’t entirely off base. However, after attending Stanford University – and proudly being the last guy in his class to declare his major – Maisel fused his love of sports with his knack for the written word and began covering college football for the Atlanta Constitution.

His claim towards his initial academic lack of direction (“my major ended up being American Studies,” he chuckles, “the most generic major there is.”) is undermined by the fact that he found his professional calling during those first few months at the Atlanta Constitution – he has covered college football ever since, reporting on the sport for the Dallas Morning News, Newsday, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.

Maisel was the first college football writer hired by in November 2002, a move that was extremely strategic from a professional standpoint – it seems as though he foresaw the imminent turn journalism would take on its bumpy ride towards Internet domination.

At the time, he “felt like [he] was a blind squirrel finding an acorn,” the proverbial acorn being the question, “Where is journalism headed?” or “What is the state of my profession today,” or “Will I be ruining my career or heightening it if I begin working for a website?” – something like that.

Ultimately, Maisel had a sense that the Internet was “where things were going,” an inkling that was only confirmed when he did some research. “I called three or four sports information directors (the people in charge of media) in different regions of the country and asked them the same questions: did they take web journalism seriously? What do athletes and university students read? All the answers pointed towards the Internet.”

Working for a website, Maisel says, has actually been relatively similar to working for a newspaper – especially compared to working for a magazine, the glittery diva of this journalistic triumvirate. “Magazines belong to editors – newspapers and websites belong more to the writers,” is how Maisel sums up the difference. Because newspapers and websites are published much more frequently than magazines, which have weeks to edit and groom and tweak articles, Maisel feels that reporters “own” their newspaper and website articles in a more substantial way.

I ask him if his affinity towards over ESPN the Magazine could be explained through the professional/social/sartorial/culinary mantra that I follow loyally: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” He laughs and explains that his philosophy is similar, but slightly tweaked: “I don’t play well with others. Let me do what I think I know how to do well and I’ll be nice.”

Perhaps it’s this confident attitude that landed him a spot as the only journalist on a recent six-day trip to the Gulf with five college football coaches from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Georgia, Yale University, the University of Miami, and Auburn University. Maisel recorded the trip, which consisted of visits to three air force bases and the navy ship U.S.S Nassau, by writing blog-esque diary entries to be posted on each day.

“It was incredible to see the tasks those men and women undertake, and the pride and efficiency they showed. They had such joy in their eyes knowing that these coaches came 8,000 miles to see them,” says Maisel of the trip, during which the coaches held sessions to sign autographs for the troops and participate in panel discussions moderated by Maisel.

If his Internet journal entries in and of themselves are not enough to demonstrate the remarkable progressiveness (due to remarkable wireless connection) of online journalism, perhaps the fact that Maisel was able to type an entire 700 word article into his BlackBerry (due to not-so-remarkable wireless connection) truly conveys how much publishing has changed.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

“my dinky piece on Jimmy Buffet was replaced with a news feed about Myanmar.”

I held my interview with Nate Chinen in the middle of a traffic jam on the corner of 14th and 9th. We sat at a small cluster of café tables that conjured an adequate facsimile of a park, though Chinen hesitated to describe it as such. The corner turned out to be an appropriate place to meet: book-ended by a three-story Apple store and Google’s New York City headquarters, what was once a playground for “transvestites and hookers” has been transformed by the arrival of technology.

Chinen, a jazz critic for The New York Times, was once a creative writing major slash drummer slash jazz aficionado at the University of Pennsylvania who blindly moved to the city upon graduating. In other words, he did “the typical thing people do with an English major.”

His aimlessness was soon quelled when he was discovered by famous jazz festival producer George Wein. Wein was looking for someone with whom to co-write his memoir, Myself Among Others, and Chinen made the cut. After completing the book, a process that Chinen describes as a “monastic immersion” in the legend’s life, he worked for AOL City Guide and wrote for The Village Voice for about three years. His work was soon noticed by The New York Times, where he has now been writing music reviews for two and a half years.

Chinen believes that The New York Times has taken full advantage of the perks provided by the Internet. Using the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality, the paper did not fight the omnipotent forces of Google and Blogspot but instead created its own website.

Not only does the website demonstrate a “clear investment in web extras and features in the music department” such as interview and music clips, but they have also developed multiple blogs, which Chinen thinks provides an excellent way to “augment coverage” on a variety of beats. Just last month Chinen attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and though he wasn’t the critic assigned to review the event, he was able to send mini blurbs to The Times’ ArtsBeat blog at 3 a.m in the middle of a concert.

“People are really into blogs because they are so instantaneous,” Chinen says. He discusses one particularly interesting instance in which he wrote a “dinky” blurb about Jimmy Buffet that ended up on the website’s front page, only to be later replaced by a much heavier piece about the Myanmar cyclones.

Chinen could hardly believe that his relatively inconsequential Buffet bit could hold the same place in cyberspace as one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters. But such is the fluidity of the blogosphere, allowing a breadth of varied content to be conveyed to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I ask Chinen what he thinks of our culture’s comfortable acceptance of technology’s overwhelming impact on music – the first thing that comes to mind is the clearly synthesized, electronically robotic voice of Britney Spears blasting through the speakers of innocent listeners. However, Chinen prefers to discuss the aesthetic implications that technology, and the way in which it expands musical accessibility, has brought about.

“Music used to be shaped by localities: Memphis blues and Louisiana blues sounded different,” Chinen explains. “Though there is still an element of that in today’s music, intrepid listeners can be influenced by a lot.”

This smorgasbord of musical influences has the potential to blur previously stalwart boundaries separating pop from R&B and classical music from African tribal chants, a development that Chinen “has to think is a good thing, although there are always ways to take technological freedom too far.”

The arrival of the iThings in our technological canon (i.e. iPod, iTunes, iPhone) has allowed people to customize their musical palettes in a way that, prior to the iThings, had never been possible. As recently as five years ago, the radio and MTV still controlled the tunes that reached the easily manipulated ears of the public; today, however, I can avoid the aforementioned Spears by simply creating personalized playlists on my iTunes.

The result? “Taste has become slippery,” says Chinen. “We are no longer in the era of ‘inescapable pop music’ when everyone listened to the same songs – musical taste is less uniform, more fragmented.” It’s true – I don’t even know what’s being played on the radio these days because I plug my iPod into my radio when I drive and listen to my iTunes when I’m in the house.

Again, it’s hard to say whether or not this new “slipperiness” is a stride forward or backwards on the treadmill of pop culture. All I know is that finding a so-wrong-it’s-right YouTube mash-up combining Kanye West’s “Goldigger” with Beethoven’s 5th could not have happened in the Carson Daly-run regime of yesteryear.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"the internet is full of nut jobs."

“The [controversy over the] title was the first red flag,” admits Leslie Bennetts of her best-selling-yet-contentious book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? “It was just a play on words off The Feminine Mystique, but women thought I was claiming that their whole lives were mistakes.”

The many debates over Bennetts’ book, which discusses the economic, emotional, and psychological repercussions that potentially occur when married women leave the workforce, mirror the extent to which the issue has been argued historically – it almost seems like an unsolvable puzzle. Bennetts, however, approached the topic in a methodical, fact-based manner that opposed the emotional standpoint from which it had previously been viewed.

Though one may think that The Feminine Mistake was one of the biggest accomplishments of Bennetts’ renowned career (which boasts five years at The Philadelphia Bulletin, ten at The New York Times, and twenty at Vanity Fair), she claims that merely “surviving as a journalist” has been her proudest endeavor, especially in the face of what she refers to as the “imploding” nature of journalism as a career.

Journalism has faced profound changes within the past thirty years, some so overwhelming that they have rendered the field “scarcely recognizable” to Bennetts. First and foremost, she believes that my generation is so caught up in the glamour of magazine jobs that we sometimes forego the necessary training one acquires by working at a legitimate newspaper.

“Kids don’t realize that you have to learn the basics of the job first…many people start their careers at magazines and screw up because they don’t have a strong skill base,” she says.

Many of the changes in journalism have, inevitably, come about due to the Internet, an “information delivery system” that Bennetts believes has little to no authority. Whereas esteemed papers such as The New York Times employ professional hierarchies to ensure that only the most qualified journalists convey information to the public, “the Internet is full of a lot of nut jobs” writing without validity or even skill.

Bennetts thinks that when you combine frivolous writing with the fact that “people would rather scour the Internet for news about Paris Hilton than actually pay attention to what’s going on in the world,” legitimate concerns arise about the “quality of the information that’s reaching people these days.”

This issue is only underscored by the fact that the Internet provides numerous venues used to comment on the news rather than actually convey it. Whereas The New York Times notoriously finds writers with strong literary voices and “bludgeons that voice right out of them,” the world of blogging has opened up a whole other can of worms in which “attitude, snarkiness, and snobbery [are what sells].”

Having been both a reporter and an editor myself (albeit for a high school paper – but at my age that’s how the resume tends to read), my question is whether a fresh voice is necessarily a bad thing. It can certainly go awry on many occasions – it’s hardly appropriate to use frivolous or sarcastic diction when reporting on Rwandan genocides – but I think there is some wiggle room when writing in a venue as casual as blogging.

No one would argue that blogs could possibly trump The New York Times in terms of validity, professionalism, or thoroughness. However, as long as blogs don’t replace their more the more legitimate counterparts, I think the two can coexist peacefully in their respective cyber-schools of thought. Maybe they shouldn’t even be compared because they are so fundamentally different. Readers must simply remember to take blogs’ content with a grain of salt – or perhaps an entire saltshaker.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

i'm back...

To my throngs of screaming fans (i.e. Mom, Dad, etc.):

I apologize for my short hiatus from the blog world – I just returned home from a week in the smog world, AKA Los Angeles. Expect a brand new post within the next few days!