Historical Soap Operas

Babbage's difference engine.Image courtesy of Larry Johnson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

My mother’s memorial service was this past Saturday. That is not what this blog entry is about.

Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve been reading lately. It’s a biography of Ada Lovelace with the delightful title, Bride of Science.

Ada Lovelace, for those of you who spent high school not learning about the history of science, is widely considered to be the first computer programmer in history. She worked out proto-programs for Charles Babbage‘s difference engine, which–for those of you not familiar with it–is what happens when steam punk enthusiasts build a computer. Babbage was never able to build the entire thing, though he was eventually vindicated in 1991 when some English historians built one with the advantage of modern mold casting for the parts (covered in this biography, which I read last year, and which is interesting for that alone).

As the biography points out, in her own day, Ada Lovelace was far more famous for her parentage. She was the daughter of the poet Byron, the rockstar of his day, and her parents’ separation proceedings were the basis for some of the beginnings of what looks–to the modern reader–very much like modern celebrity culture.

I picked the biography partially because I enjoy reading about scientists, particularly women scientists. More than that, though, I have a deep and abiding love for science biographies from right around the time period where Ada Lovelace lived. Because there was So Much Science happening at that time, and scientific circles were confined to a series of fairly related genteel families, there are plenty of fascinating people about whom one can read. And–the part that’s fun for me–they show up in each other’s stories. Continue reading

Indulging in hobbies

I occasionally joke that I am a woman without hobbies. To some extent, this is true–when asked what I do for fun at job interviews (or, you know, dates, if I want to pretend to be less weird), I have difficulty coming up with anything. I like to take naps and listen to music while staring into space.

But, as this weekend reminded me, the joke isn’t entirely true. I know this because I indulged in almost all of my hobbies this weekend. To wit:

Organizing things: Something in my soul finds it deeply soothing to fold my clothing into bundles, and so I did. Every piece of underwear and every t-shirt I own is now ranger rolled, and opening my dresser is now a profoundly soothing experience. Neuroses!

Eating food on patios: I wound up lunching at Tomatillos, ie the only tex-mex place in Atlanta that isn’t trying to do some misguided fusion thing. For $5, they will give you pinto beans and cheese on your choice of tortilla. They have an outdoor patio, and sangria–like the tacos–is $5. There is nothing in life that I like quite so much as that kind of food, and this is the only place in town that approaches anything in the midwest. The weather was nice, and my friend was hysterical, and afterwards we got to go to a used book shop that had both a VC Andrews and a PG Wodehouse novel available for a reasonable price. (Did I buy the Wodehouse so the clerk wouldn’t judge me? Maaaaybe.)

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Meeting John Green

A few nights ago, my sister and I attended the Atlanta portion of the 2012 Tour de Nerdfighting. For those not in the know, this was a promotional event put on by John Green as part of his promotional tour for The Fault in Our Stars. In addition to the book reading and after-speech signing that is sort of standard at these events, this particular presentation included sock puppets, Hank Green (John’s brother) singing a song about quarks, and an 876-person audience getting rickrolled by two guys from the internet.

John Green talked to my sister about the Mountain Goats, though she thought he was talking to her about mountain goats.

It was pretty cool.

I enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars, which is a well-done book that manages to combine very sad things with very funny things in a way that is neither callous nor overly-emotional. It’s about two kids, ages 16 and 17, falling in love for the first time after meeting in a support group held in the Literal Heart of Jesus. Both of them have cancer. They’re also really funny, in a way that only literary teens can be. They’re also empathetic and selfish and worried about their parents in the way that actual teens are. You should read the book, if you haven’t.

Though I found some of my fellow book event attendees a trifle overenthusiastic (which, given that they’re in the intended age range for young adult fiction and I am not probably just means that I am crotchety and old now), everyone there seemed like good people. I don’t think I was that friendly and open and enthusiastically weird at 15, and so it’s cool to see people who are. Young adult book events are like incredibly friendly concerts. They’re their own little fandom community come to meat space.

I find the Green brothers interesting on a professional level, as they have managed to both create successful careers with multiple income streams facilitated by the internet. But on a more personal level, they seem like good people. I like that good people exist in any space, and I am even happier that they can sell out an auditorium so that it is full of enthusiastic, weird, friendly people who like what they’re saying. It’s a good sign.

Franny and Zooey and Rites of Passage

Yesterday, I finished re-reading Franny and Zooey. This is the third or fourth time I’ve read the book, which I found early on in high school. I relate to it the way that a whole slew of folks relate to Catcher in the Rye, which Salinger is of course much better known for.

For those who haven’t raed the book, it follows Franny Glass, the 20-year-old youngest sibling of a large family of kids who spent much of their childhood performing on a radio quiz show called It’s a Wise Child. After reading a book taken from the room of her  beloved eldest brother (who committed suicide several years before the book takes place), she attempts to pray without ceasing. Disillusioned by college, she has a nervous breakdown. The rest of the book consists of the next-oldest sibling, her 25-year-old brother Zooey, talking her out of her breakdown.

I always took more to Franny than to Holden Caulfield. I suspect that I would like him more if I reread Catcher in the Rye now, but when I first read it I was too close in age to him not to find him annoying. Franny was enough older than me that I liked her. True to form, now that I am the same age that she is, I see why Zooey is annoyed by her breakdown even as I have spent much of my time at Emory struggling with the same disillusionment.

In class this semester we talked about the structure of rites of passage. We focused on two models—one from van Gennep, and one from Lincoln. I think it’s interesting how the two Salinger books follow the two models.

Van Gennep‘s three-part structure for rites of passage (separation, liminality, incorporation) works incredibly well for many male initiation rituals. Professors love to use the example of fraternity hazing to illustrate the model, and to van Gennep’s credit it works very well. However, it doesn’t work for a lot of women’s rituals, which often depend on individual biological realities (like when a specific girl begins to menstruate) and focus on the girl’s relationship to her family, rather than her peers.

Lincoln‘s model attempts to find a more universal pattern from women’s rituals. In it, women’s rituals follow the model of seclusion, metamorphosis, and emergence. The woman’s ritual takes place alone or within her family home, rather than with the other girls of the village.

Neither model is universal, and there are plenty of cultures which violate the “correctly”-gendered model or conform to neither, but they are useful frameworks. It wasn’t until this year that I realized that Catcher in the Rye follows van Gennep’s pattern and Franny and Zooey follows Lincoln’s.

It was interesting to have my coursework so directly impact my interpretation of a book that I love. Buddy Glass, the narrator, asks whether the story is a mystical story or a love story, but it is of course also a story about a very American rite of passage. We talk a lot in my anthropology classes about how Americans lack rites of passage, and I think that Salinger shows two very American rites of passage in these books.

Why YA Matters

Yesterday, the WSJ published a (lazy, badly-written) article on how young adult fiction (YA), by virtue of addressing topics such as rape, incest, violence directed towards gay people, and swearing is gratuitous and bad. Why, asks the pearl-clutching author, should we be allowing kids to read this? Why do librarians celebrate banned books?

Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.

She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Librarians celebrate banned books, and teens read things that are violent or sexual, because parents like the woman who was apparently so stupefied that that she could not flag down a sales associate to help her and authors so pearl-clutchy and condescending that they address their (presumably adult) audience as “dear” exist.

Because those people? Those people are not helping their children when their friends start cutting or they are sexually assaulted and have no one to talk to because their parents are judgmental or because they don’t know how to deal with their friends who are coming out or having sex or being mean to them.

Those people are the reason that their kids are unable to talk to adults about these sorts of things, and I know that because I was the sort of kid who these peoples’ kids came to when that shit happened. I got to read.

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Dead Fish and Atheism

My late fish.

RIP, Bertrand. You will be missed.

This weekend, while I was at Clairmont Campus, my fish died. I also won $200 in a trivia competition. Things pair good and bad, I suppose.

So, on a slightly less macabre note: Biological Anthropology tshirts.

“Zygomatic: it’s a process!”

“I was reproductively isolated and all I got was this lousy dwarf elephant.”

Wholphin versus grizzpole, with the text “Hybridize this!”

A hobbit anthropologist uncovering a human skeleton. “They’re so big!”

“Alas poor Yorrick, I drew thee well.”

Anthropology: the most warped of the sexy, sexy sciences.

Other than that, I’ve been enjoying spending my trivia winnings on Etsy purchases–specifically a custom dress from this woman, who sews in Thailand, as part of my attempt to build an ethical, adult wardrobe, and a wine bottle serving tray from this woman as a gift from my mother, which was well-received. The purchases give me hope that I can, as I age, keep myself reasonably well-appointed without tearing my conscience apart too badly. My only worry is shoes. My Sociology course (Social Problems–we spent the first class watching a documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which was super fun) is rubbing off on me.

Tonight also marked the first Interfaith Council meeting. We ate Thai food with a group of 30 students and two professors, and we talked about faith in college. I was asked a question about how I–as an atheist–handle being alone in the world, without a God to pray to. There was also a hint of “how are you a good person without faith?” For the latter, I simply said that I strive to be the best person I can be, and to go to bed thinking that I have done as much as I can to make the world better and done as little as possible which harms anyone. It’s never been a fear of God which kept me from doing bad things–just a fear of disappointing those who love me.

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You were named for your Yankee grandmother.

Today was almost unimaginably lovely. After a Very Long Night (I had RA duty, and a drunk person jumped out of a window to avoid capture), I woke up to the most perfect early-autumn-in-Georgia weather. The sun was shining and there was a breeze and it was maybe 80 degrees outside. It’s not late enough in the year that I’m stressed out about homework. It was good.

I even managed to be appropriately collegiate and go on over to the Student Center for pizza and drinks with classmates for college football season kickoff. (It was for the free pizza, I admit, but still. I went!) I took the shuttle into Atlanta with a friend and went with her and my family to the Decatur book festival. In addition to the perfect festival weather, it was my friend’s first time going to an event like that and it is always so much fun to see people get really excited about these things. And it was fruitful! I got the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? tabs for banjo, and an issue of McSweeney’s (number 33–it’s a several-hundred-page newspaper). We even got to go to a recording of The Moth, which was fabulous. The theme was Southern Gothic, and Hollis Gillespie told a story, as did the founder of The Moth. He’s from Saint Simon’s, and his story was fabulous. Continue reading