Posts Tagged 'Culture'

In the News: Cities, Notebook Love, and Presidential Proclamations

Technology (and the like)

» Scary fact: did you know the cell phone industry actually admits the health risks of cell phone radiation? Apparently this is not the stuff of conspiracy theorists anymore: Apple recommends holding your iPhone no closer than 5/8″ to your body, and BlackBerry recommends holding your phone a full inch away. Read more in Tom Philpott’s article: Is my smartphone making me dumb?

» Some “Tough Love” advice for having a better life: Americans need to stop multitasking while eating alone.

» The event already passed, but I really like the message behind Jimmy Kimmel’s National Unfriend Day. The idea is to restore meaning to the word ‘friend’ by cutting down on facebook friends who… well, aren’t actually your friends.

» The event already passed, but I really like Jimmy Kimmel’s “National Unfriend Day.” The idea is to cut down on facebook “friends” who… aren’t actually your friends. Heck, you can do this anytime and restore some meaning to the word ‘friend’.

» Read a good paperback recently? I like this down-to-earth ‘best books’ list from The Guardian (via The EarlyWord)

Pen | Paper | Ink | DIY

» Etsy, how I love thee. Check out their recommendations for keeping analog time in 2011 – nothing digital about it.

» Jonathan Safran Foer, I love you and your unmakeable book more than Etsy.

» I hate to bash NaNoWriMo so soon after writing a positive post about it, but I’m just so in agreement with this article that I had to share.

» DIY Love: Social activists have long protested the consumerism of Black Friday by celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead, but I’m even MORE supportive of this new (more positive) approach: Make Something Day.

» Ooh, lovely burgundies, wines, and maroons:  Ink Mixing with J. Herbin’s Anniversary Ink (via Writer’s Bloc)

» Hooray, two of my favorite things: Notebooks and gardening!

» I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but Rhodia/Clairefontaine/Exaclair have some of the best customer service and genuine grassroots marketing. Ever.

Rurality | Urbanism

» Poor urbanites: apparently New Yorkers are the most stressed Americans since the economy collapsed – but not because they’re doing worse than other parts of the country (they’re not). It’s because the city doesn’t offer effective ways to deal with stress. (via Daily News)

» But! This whole city-stress phenomenon may not be unique to New York. A recent study showed that the overstimulated atmosphere cities had a negative impact on attention span, memory, and on mood in general. (via CNN)

» Somehow I find the idea of “Proclamations” adorably antiquated, but this one I can get behind: Obama declared November 19-25th “Farm-City Week”

» Whoa whoa whoa – Kentucky canceled a coal plant?

Miscellaneous Cultural Fun!


A [Semi-Autobiographical] Tutorial on the Politics of Blogging

First things first: If you’re a new reader or subscriber, welcome! Whatever it was about yesterday’s post that intrigued you, I hope to offer more of that in the future. And do please continue to comment with feedback, suggestions, and (constructive) criticism.

This Weekend's Comment Moderation Madness

A good RLF (ahem. Real Life Friend) of mine who subscribes to this blog gave me some incredibly valuable feedback yesterday regarding my post, “Why Don’t Intellectuals Go To The Rodeo?”. He observed that my writing style (my “blog-voice,” if you will) was much more removed in that post than usual; that this detachment may have contributed to the sense of judgment that some readers felt.

As my hip urban friends would say: “Truth.” *

Compared to previous “lengthy sociological” posts, my discussion about the rodeo was far more journalistic. I place at least some of the blame for the stylistic change on having just re-read David Foster Wallace’s essay about the Illinois State Fair. Unfortunately, that essay is one of the few where Foster Wallace loses his compassion halfway through—and it works against him. Detachment is useful on occasion, but I wasn’t expecting my experiment to be featured on the WordPress home page.

Ironically, back in the infant days of my blogging career, I almost titled The Orchard “Blogging for Dialogue” because I was passionate about the importance of storytelling—in sharing life-stories—in the pursuit of understanding and sympathy across cultural differences. This idea emerged out of womanist theory, farming on a former Virginia plantation, and, well, my life.

The discussion in the comments section was a valuable reminder that detachment must be balanced with compassion and storytelling. It was only when I took the time to share my own background that the post took on the angle I originally intended it to. Some of my favorite comments came from readers who shared their own stories—rural or urban, lovers or haters of the rodeo.

In a weirdly serendipitous coincidence, I ran across an article from Stepcase Lifehack while entrenched in moderating comments called “31 Proven Ways to Get More Comments on Your Blog.” The #1 thing on their list?

Take a Stand. – Most bloggers wallow in moral cowardice because they fear backlash. Take some time to outline your beliefs on an issue that matters to you and publish your thoughts. …Readers love watching to see if you’ll lose your cool in the comments of a post.”

I guess I asked for it. Luckily, when it comes to comments, I take my mother’s (typically Southern) advice: “kill ‘em with kindness.” I also take her (typically feminist) advice: “learn how to say no.” So, when I chose to reject a few offensive or aggressive comments, I took the time to email them personally and have a dialogue that way. I highly recommended this strategy, for the record.

But hey, for all this touchy-feely business, bloggers also have to have some snark (of which I have plenty …I think. At least, in real life).

I’ve tried to maintain a fairly tricky balance on this blog—the balance between Real Things and Non-Essential Hobbies (or, as I think of them, “Pretty Things”). I’ll be honest: I enjoy posting about Pretty Things. It’s less risky. When it comes to watercolors and fountain pens, the worst I can do is bore an uninterested reader.

But with Real Things—well. That’s a different game.

Other important lessons:

  1. Cover all your bases.
  2. Walk the line between snark and sensitivity.
  3. Maintain Mutual Respect (for both readers and for yourself).


* Does anyone know if this is a TV reference? This past year, everyone at my college suddenly started saying in response to everything, and I was clearly left out of the loop.

Why Don’t Intellectuals Go To The Rodeo?

EDIT: I’ve been getting quite the response to this post (which is great!) but I wanted to insert one note before I continue to moderate comments. If you’re visiting my blog for the first time, do please take a look at my information page first. My own background is from the rural South, and I started this blog for rural culture and rural rights, especially Appalachian and Southern economic/ environmental oppression. I am an intellectual (if by that you mean kinda dorky and quiet), but even my college thesis was about rural-urban interactions and power dynamics.

So please, don’t mis-read this post as an attack on the rodeo. I had a great time! And I met some great people (and yes, I did talk to the “locals” –although the majority of the crowd was certainly not from Cheyenne, so I’d say we were all visitors in one way or another).

This is meant to be a sensitive, but also fair, exploration of the question that was in my head all weekend: why don’t I see more people with tattoos and shaved heads at the rodeo? I’m also trying to imply that urbanites and intellectuals go to the rodeo– because as far as I’m concerned, the more diversity in a crowd, the better the communal dehydration.


So I’ve been trying to re-hydrate all week after drinking nothing but beer this past weekend. I don’t mean that I chose to drink beer all weekend; I mean there was no available beverages except beer (and soda, which I don’t drink). At one point, I tried sipping water from the campground bathrooms. (Not recommended, for the record.)

Where did I experience this marathon dehydration, you ask?

…That would be the Frontier Days Rodeo, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Which I guess means that I’m really west of the Mississippi now.

Still, my colleagues and I definitely stood out of the crowd: one of us with tattoos down her arms, and another one with a shaved head… The two men in our group, on the other hand, tried to embrace the weekend with plaid shirts and cowboy hats (with only moderate success). You can distinguish the urban and East Coast men from the cowboys and ranchers because their buzz-cuts are neatly shaped at the back of the neck. (I noticed this sitting at the back of the bus ride from the camp ground). When it comes to “reading” other people’s appearances, little things like that are just as significant as tattoos and shaved heads.

Stamped For Entry

The general atmosphere of Frontier Days is basically that of a state fair (same grease-soaked food, same vomit-inducing rides) but it all revolves around the rodeo stadium– and of course the evening country concerts. The majority of the day-crowd is definitely nuclear families, who have all somehow managed to produce exactly one son and one daughter.

The night crowd is… well, let’s just say that one of my colleagues had his foot peed on.

You can identify the real cowboys because their shirts are tucked in. Their jeans are stiff and pressed, and they have this kind of awkward silence about them, like they’d rather not be in a crowd. Everybody is sunburnt, but the cowboys have this terra cotta skin that looks like decades of layered sunburns. Also, their belt buckles are big.

One of my colleagues informed me that “buckle bunnies” are the cowboy-version of groupies. I’m not sure whether he was lying or not.

Anyways. I spent the weekend wondering why urban-liberal-intellectuals (ULI’s) never appreciate events like this. It’s more than pretension or animal-rights politics; I think there’s a genuine discomfort with some basic cultural element of state fairs, rodeos, and theme parks. David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” where he basically stumbles around the Illinois State Fair in a totally overwhelmed haze.

Here’s my tentative hypothesis

I think urban liberals don’t like these events because they function as a perfect metaphor for all of the large-scale violence that we experience on a national and cultural level. A little too perfect a metaphor, maybe.

Because in fact, going to the rodeo is basically a stadium of people getting off on violence. This is true of most spectator sports, but at the rodeo there is a more obvious gladiatorial element: the entertainment relies quite literally on watching one living being dominating another. And if you don’t think that this mirrors larger forms of violence, just wait till you walk outside the stadium and see the family leading a group of boys, each carrying a full-size, blow-up AK-47. Ah, the innocence of childhood. What is most warfare, really, except one nation roping another into submission?

There are a few events where cowboys team up to rope a calf or a colt or something. They’re kind of like allied forces in domination! Familiar? I like the actual bull riding the best, because it seems the most evenly-matched. Check out this guy getting trampled. High entertainment, for sure!

Perhaps the presence of t-shirts that say something like “Welcome to America. Now Speak English” are a better example of the way that these events revolve around an “us versus them” mentality. Which is ironic, because these events are supposed to be communal events. Foster Wallace talks about this too, in the aforementioned essay about the Illinois State Fair: “The state fair is rural Illinois’ moment of maximum community, but even at a Fair whose whole raison is ‘For-Us’, Us‘s entail Thems, apparently.” In that essay, he’s talking about the tension between agricultural folk and the family crowd, and ag-folk’s outright distain for the carnies. At the Frontier Days rodeo, patriotism was the thread that linked all these metaphors together: whether it was the American flag-patterned prizes, or the cowboy who received the biggest applause for serving in Iraq.

Anyways, it seemed pretty clear that these elements worked together towards a common cultural theme: violence against thems. And this includes the way that many ULI’s stereotype obese Midwesterners (the primary fault in DFW’s otherwise-brilliant essay), or blame conservative ranchers for miscellaneous political ailments. Because, despite the uncomfortable and unhealthy culture of Frontier Days, I think cowboys themselves have a hell of a healthier relationship to animals than suburban PETA activists who refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the human-animal relationship. They do respect those bulls, for sure.

(…Not that I think cowboys are living great lives– check out this crazy fucking horse!)

A Beautiful Wyoming Sunset


I’m working on a long essay about Frontier Days for print publication, so this post is a preliminary and abbreviated version of that. Mostly it’s just a summary of my thesis.

The Tools of Our Culture

One of my first posts on this blog was a book review of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” one of my top ten most influential books. The context for the review was “rurality” –a way of thinking derived from rural culture, which questions our relationship to technology and to the earth. I’ve also recently discovered Nicholas Carr, who thoughtfully critiques the internet just as Postman examined and critiqued the television. (Both highly recommended)

All of this is to say, just published an article by Trevor Butterworth that mentions both of these writers in the first paragraph (brownie points!). The topic of the article turns out to be–surprise!–fountain pens. Click on the link to read the original article (and credit to Amateur Economist for the heads-up on this article).

It’s fascinating to me how this tiny writing instrument has offered a way for people to contemplate technology and digital culture on a larger level. Writing with a fountain pen has become a metaphor for our larger fears about losing contact with the Real, Breathing World– and it offers a tangible way of reconnecting.

Commercialization of Childhood

Fascinating series about kid-targeted marketing.

Escape and Awareness

*This is an article I wrote recently to show to a local magazine*

I’m fascinated by my youngest sister’s character. We’re 8 years apart, but sometimes it feels like I’m several generations older. It becomes clearest when we’re talking technology: she’s never known a world without computers or television, but when I was a kid, my family owned neither.

She’s also into fantasy, something I worry about. I’m not gonna lie; I judge anime fans. Not because I think anime is bad in itself, or because I’m a product of a society that looks down on any costumed culture that doesn’t involve barely-dressed women posing as nurses or playboy bunnies; No, I’ve arrived at a general unease with anime culture very slowly, over the past six or seven years, and through various friendships and acquaintances with [some very good] people who are anime or fantasy fans. My distrust comes from the insular, protected “bubble world” that many fans create, settle into, and rarely leave– a world that has very little contact with reality, and that expands beyond any one series to whole cybercommunities with fanfiction, fan art, and other forums that blur the line between watching, reading, writing, and living. It’s a world that cares little for social action, much less social justice: a cozy little bubble that doesn’t challenge its inhabitants; it indulges them.

I’m not arbitrarily hating on anime, which is something that many Americans do. To these people, anime stands as a symbol for an “East Asian” takeover of American culture and commodities. These people will likely find it very difficult to admit that the escapism that anime provides for many American adolescents is no different than the escapism that American television offers– which affects far more American adolescents than anime ever has.

It would also be a mistake to group my bias with our general cultural distaste for what we have deemed “nerd games” — Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Second Life, etc.* That’s just a symptom of America’s need to preserve an [increasingly fragile] ideal of the socially-adept independent man. (Yes, “man”– how often do you see girls in mocking portrayals of D&D?)

So, I use anime as my first example because it has been most visible in my friendships with fans. But my distrust of anime is the same as my distrust of Harry Potter, and any series that spawns conventions, internet alter-egos, fanfiction, fan art, etc, etc. Basically, my gripe is with the escapism itself.

In many ways, the escapism into mainstream television is worse, because it doesn’t carry the social stigma that anime and fantasy do. However–partly because of that stigma–fantasy and anime are more prone to creating self-contained worlds on the internet or elsewhere, devoted to their dramas. This is changing, of course; I’ve read more bloody posts about Dancing with the Stars/So You Think You Can Dance in the past two days than I hope to ever encounter again.

This may sound like nostalgia for a time that I never knew, but I don’t think that this applies to fantasy from more than 30 or 40 years ago. Lord of the Rings definitely spawned a subculture, costumes and alter-egos included, but with less-developed mass-marketing techniques and the lack of internet, LOTR never created the full, daily, and self-supporting fantasy facade.

My sister doesn’t “do” anime, but she reads a lot of fantasy, and not much else. She’s a voracious reader (which is something my 12-year-old self can identify with), but the vast majority of her reading material is fantasy series. When I pester her to read non-fantasy, she complains that the Young Adult sections of the bookstores are all about sex, boys, or vampires. …Okay, fair point. The writing in the Twilight series is nearly as bad as HP fanfiction written by a 14 year old. Also, I’m a bit proud that she hasn’t branched from fantasy to vampires.

However, even after reading some books I recommended [The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime]**, my sister seems to have a clear aversion some basic literary tenets: unhappy (or ambiguous) endings, any narrative style that doesn’t start with a description of a medieval-esque village, any regular ol’ coming of age story… etc.

Some of this is just her age– and of course I felt the same way at her age. You want to believe that your own life will have a happy ending, so you read up on them. But my sister has an option that I didn’t have: of staying in that fantasy world way into her adolescence, into her adulthood. And yeah, that scares me.

I mean, okay, I read Dealing with Dragons in 2nd grade and definitely had a brief love affair with ass-kicking princesses, but then I displaced my mystery/fantasy attractions onto Celtic and Irish culture (cultural “oops!” moment), and then was kicked into reality when my family filed for bankruptcy. And I don’t think you have to stop playing dress up when you’re an adult– but at 20, you can dress up for a multitude of awesome reasons (themed party? mood elevator?) that do not involve impersonating a comic character.

Then, the other day, my sister said something that clicked: something along the lines of “I don’t want to read a violent book.. then it’s just like watching TV.”

Oh. Duh.

What else would explain the rise of all-encompassing escapist media cultures? Not only do they offer the option to leave your own life behind and enter into the lives of characters, but you can rewrite their lives and plots to bring your personally preferred ending into “reality.” In a sick, sort of ironically American way, we’re bringing up a generation that’s more saturated with “reality” than any before– in the sense that they’re being exposed to mindless sex, mass violence, and all sorts of subtle visual and psychological messages about the meaninglessness and futility of the world, way earlier than any other generation of Americans.

Sure, television in the 1950’s was a facade as well, serving to reinforce all sorts of gender and racial stereotypes. But at least then a kid came face to face with reality through a personal experience–actually having awkward unsafe sex, getting in a physical fight–instead of having it ingrained from birth by both TV/movies as well as the news, which supposedly covers real life.***

For me, this was an important message for me as a writer. It’s dangerous to write too sentimentally (readers will not be able to reconcile the text with their own lives), but it’s also dangerous to indulge in violence and meaninglessness in the name of “realistic” writing. For my sister (and, I assume, most American kids born after her) there is another, far more appealing option just waiting on the computer.

I highly recommend “The Future of Reading: Digital Versus Print,” an article from a series in the New York Times about “how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read.”

The good news is that my sister seems to be embarking on a fascinating quest to balance escapism with awareness. When I introduced her to I Love Lucy, she became obsessed. She even tried convincing her science teacher to watch it– though the teacher, a 30-something who would have grown up with the more contemporary relationship to technology, claimed she “didn’t like things in black and white.”

The even better news is that when my sister and I watch I Love Lucy, we laugh hard and then yell in protest when something ridiculously sexist happens. Has anybody seen the episode where Lucy starves herself to be thin enough to perform in Ricky’s show, and has to be carried off in a stretcher at the end? Yes, hilarity. It used to be just me pointing out all the sexism on the show, but lately my sister has been bringing things up as well.

Makes me proud, it does.


*Although I struggle with an underlying distaste for these game cultures in general, my hunch is that this is more of an internal struggle with growing up under the “nerd” label, and with my own desire for escapism.

** (yeah, she’s sort of an advanced reader)

*** I’m clearly underestimating the detriment that white racist sexist heteronormative television had on earlier generations. I only want to point out that it may have been better than today’s media culture in at least one way.

Screen Time

For the past three years, I’ve been taking a break from movies. Actually, from screens in general– I can’t remember the last time I watched a television show. This is partly because of a general cultural transition shifting our idle time from TV’s to computers– but it’s also a deliberate way of life. I made a basic post about this decision already. I wouldn’t say that it’s been an “experiment,” per say, but I’ve certainly noticed the effects. Thus I bring you… the effects!

The Good:

  • I’m a hell of a lot more productive. I’m reading more and producing more art than I ever have.
  • I can have a conversation without compulsive ADHD-like symptoms, i.e. checking my phone, sending a text message, taking out my laptop. Obviously this skill is hindered when the other person is exhibiting these symptoms, but still, it comes in handy…
  • I notice the real world. I notice the weather, the people on the street, the taste of my coffee.
  • I engage with things that directly affect me (my family, the local debate about building a Wal-Mart on a Civil War Battlefield site, etc.), instead of things that don’t (i.e. the lives of celebrities, that ‘ugly’ contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, a funny youtube video, etc.)

The Bad:

  • It’s been harder to maintain conversations with certain friends. I don’t get any of their references, and they don’t seem to know about anything that hasn’t happened on a screen.
  • I’m a bit of a ornery old man when it comes to kids on cellphones. Sometimes I just want to knock it out of their hands…

That being said, I do think there is some amazing stuff being produced in the cinema. It’s one of the few “screen-places” that can still affect deep and genuine emotions about political things. I don’t know how many people actually walk out of the movie theater and decide to change something about their lives as a result of seeing a movie, but eh, that’s not something that I can really control.

So here’s some wide-releases that I’m excited about (in addition to Good Hair, Chris Rock’s documentary)

Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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