Annals of Online Dating
Published on August 31, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over on Gizmodo, this essay, which documents the writer's brief dating experience with a world champion Magic: The Gathering player, is getting a lot of attention. Basically, the writer considered the man's Magic habit a deal breaker - and also something that should have been disclosed on OKCupid, the dating site where she first met him. Here's her description of their first date:

"We met for a drink later that week. Jon was thin and tall, dressed in a hedge fund uniform with pale skin and pierced ears. We started talking about normal stuff—family, work, college. I told him my brother was a gamer. And then he casually mentioned that he played Magic: The Gathering when he was younger.

'Actually,' he paused. 'I'm the world champion.'

I laughed. Oh that's a funny joke! I thought. This guy is funny! But the earnest look on his face told me he wasn't kidding.

I gulped my beer and thought about Magic, that strategic collectible card game involving wizards and spells and other detailed geekery. A long-forgotten fad, like pogs or something. But before I could dig deeper, we had to go. Jon had bought us tickets for a one-man show based on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's life story. It was not a particularly romantic evening."


Rest Fest in Albany
Published on August 30, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about one of Albany's best musical events, a two-day festival held in historic St. Joseph's Church.

Here's the promo for the festival, featuring music by Albany band Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned.

Hurricane Irene Observations
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

First of all, I'd like to start by saying that I feel terrible for anyone who suffered as a result of the flooding caused by Hurricane Irene. 

Now that I have that out of the way, and at the risk of sounding incredibly callous, I'd like to talk a little bit about how mesmerized I am by floods. I wouldn't want them to happen every other week, and the damage and loss of life is very sad. But, wow, are they impressive. I learned this as a child, when the town of Hillsboro, N.H., where I was living at the time, experienced flooding. I don't know what most people do in response to flooding, but in my family we like to go look at it. From a safe vantage point, of course. And I don't think we're unique: My friend Julianne's house in Kentucky was flooded a couple years ago, and she seemed to share the attitude of my family; unable to stop the water, she and her husband got into their pontoon boat and went for a ride. "We figured we might as well have a beer and explore," she said.

I live in Albany, which fared fairly well in the storm. Schenectady, however, is a different story. I was in awe when I drove in to work, and at lunch I pulled off the road and joined the masses who were parking there and walking over to the river to get a look at the roiling waters. After work, I wandered down to the Corning Preserve, where the water had flooded up to the amphitheater, and over the bike path. There was a sign at the pedestrian bridge stating that the walkway was closed, and ordinarily I obey signs like that (at least in broad daylight), but throngs of people were casually ignorning it, and I decided to join them. In fact, it felt like a party! I ran into an old neighbor down there, and we gawked at the debris rushing past, the ducks paddling around the park and the picnic tables that were mostly submerged.

Predictably, some of the flood-related commentary has irritated me. For one thing, I don't want to hear that it was a message from God. (Yes, Michele Bachmann, I'm talking to you.) But she's not the only one saying stuff like that - one of my Facebook friends seems to think that the flooding, coming so soon after the earthquake, is a sign that we earthlings need to get our spiritual house in order. Frankly, I can't take anyone who presumes to know what God is thinking very seriously, and this is doubly true when there's a disaster.

I'm also tired of hearing people suggest that we over-reacted to the storm. I'm OK with criticizing the hysterical news coverage; it's one thing to keep people informed, and another thing to sensationalize and freak people out. (The TV reporters, in particular, seem to think that when they stand out in the rain for hours speaking into a microphone they've become martyrs to some kind of cause.) But I'm not OK with suggesting that too much was done. The preparation helped save lives and reduce the amount of property damage, and if too little was done, or the storm was stronger and deadlier, we'd be hearing a lot of screaming about how not enough was done. Also, the people complaining about how too much was done weren't affected by the storm. Go talk to someone in Vermont or Scotia, N.Y., and see how they feel.

Speaking of hard-hit areas, my onetime stomping ground of West Lebanon, N.H., saw a lot of flooding and nearby towns experienced a lot of damage. Here's a video of the Quechee Bridge getting washed away by the Ottauquchee River.

Most Commentary is Worthless
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Last week the Columbia Journalism Review posted an item posing a question I've been wondering about for some time: Why do we never hear from the working class on op-ed pages?

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to note that the newspaper I work at, a mid-size daily paper, features a fairly diverse range of voices in its Sunday opinion section. But big city dailies tend to restrict themselves to op-ed pieces from "important people," and although those people might have expertise and stature, they cannot be said to represent the vast majority of Americans, because they belong to an elite.

I suppose the argument could be made that average citizens lack the education and experience needed to voice an opinion on the op-ed pages of America's daily newspapers, but I don't buy it. Most op-ed content isn't very good, and I find it hard to believe that average citizens would do a worse job of expressing themselves than the elite. Also, if the elite read what the non-elite had to say, about what it's like to work in a blue-collar job, or in a town that has seen its manufacturing sector disappear, they might learn a thing or two.

The CJR piece notes that "While political debate in the past few years has centered on issues critical to working class Americans—like health care and entitlement reform, unions, taxes—America’s most prestigious op-ed sections rarely feature contributions from actual members of the working class on these issues. (The same could be said about war fighters on America’s wars)."


New York's Haunted Hudson Valley
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Courtesy of The Morning News comes this fascinating essay about the Hudson Valley's reputation as a hotbed of supernatural activity.

The piece mentions one of the most famous ghost legends of all, Rip Van Winkle's Headless Horsemen, but also specters I knew nothing about, such as the wailing maid of Kaaterskill Falls and rumors of a poltergeist in the state Department of Education Building in Albany. But the region also contains its share of living terrors, and author Tobias Seamon focuses on a clan of hermitic basket-makers called the Pondshiners, who lived in the Taconic Hills of Columbia County and avoided most contact with civilization.

Seamon writes, "The Pondshiners’ origins are obscured, to say the least. All that’s known is sometime in the 1700s or early 1800s, a small group of families—mostly named Hotaling, Proper, and Simmons—settled on 'the Hill,' an isolated height above a lake in what’s now Taconic State Park. Why they retreated to the woods is a mystery. One story was that they were Yankee ne’er-do-wells on the run from Connecticut’s puritanical censures. Another tale, likely apocryphal, said they fled Hudson Valley rent collectors during the 1840s anti-rent wars between tenant farmers and the upstate landed gentry. The few times anyone was able to get close enough to ask about their origins, the Pondshiners said they had no clue how they’d come to live on the Hill."

Sadly, the Pondshiners eventually disappeared. Seamon tells of their gradual demise, writing "Forced into society by compulsory schooling, the clans slowly integrated. The art of basket-making disappeared also, at least partly because the younger generations were so upset at being called Pondshiners that they no longer wanted to be associated with the craft. The last true Pondshiner artisan was Elizabeth Proper, who sold baskets to Columbia County shopkeepers well into the 1980s. Lizzy Proper also carried on the tradition of Pondshiner obstinacy, refusing to let anyone observe her weaving methods. One store owner who knew her laughed, 'If she liked you, she liked you, and if she didn’t… you didn’t get baskets.'"

Anyway, the article makes me want to take a night-time drive down the Taconic, look at the stars, and listen to the night-time sounds that no doubt helps lend the area its ghostly renown.

Why Do College Students Drink?
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Before I started drinking, I always assumed there was some sort of complicated explanation for why people drank. Like, maybe they lived in a small town, and there was nothing else to do. Then I started drinking, and realized that people drink because it's fun. In fact, I've always sort of regretted not drinking in high school - I feel like alcohol would have made the whole experience more bearable.

Administrators and public health officials hardly ever acknowledge how much fun drinking is when delivering their grim reports and stern lectures on underage drinking. For instance, they might talk about the need for more alcohol-free on-campus activities, but never mention that some students are going to drink regardless of how many alcohol-free on-campus activities there are. Why is this? Because drinking is fun! And some nights you might think, "I'd really rather hang out and get drunk with my friends than go to the on-campus screening of 'Farwell, My Concubine.'" Of course, college being college, you can go to the movie sober, and then stay up until 4 a.m. drinking with your friends. Which is fun!

Over at Salon, Thomas Rogers interviews Thomas Vander Ven, an associate professor in the department of sociology at Ohio University, whose new book, "Getting Wasted," looks at what attracts college students to alcohol in the first place. Here's an excerpt:

"The history of alcohol research is the history of pathology. There's a lot of focus on addiction, and the ways in which alcohol destroys lives and destroys families, and in [the] college drinking world in particular, there are these long lists and inventories of all its harms. That's important because some bad things do happen, but what past researchers have missed is why it's fun. I asked that question of my informants, and I could tell it was the first time that anybody asked them that -- 'Did you have fun?' 'Yeah, of course I had fun.' OK, so, what was fun about it? What are the payoffs? And I think it's important to know because if people are serious about understanding this issue, and what's behind it and what to do about it, they need to understand what college kids are getting out of drinking."

Sounds about right. Sure, alcohol can be harmful, but its reputation as a social lubricant is well deserved. Some of my most memorable college experiences involve long nights of drinking. And, no, I have no regrets.

Three Exhibitions At the Fenimore
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

One of my goals this summer has been to get to Cooperstown to catch the Edward Hopper exhibit there.

In his blog Get Visual, David Brickman writes about three art exhibits at the Fenimore Art Museum: the aforementioned Edward Hopper exhibit, a small exhibit of photographs of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and a show titled "Prendergast to Pollock: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute." 

Natural Thrills
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

In this week's column at the DG, I write about the joys of body surfing, white water rafting, hiking and bobsledding. But mostly about body surfing, which is one of my favorite things ever. My thesis: Sometimes nature can be a little bit like an amuseument park. 

Here's an excerpt:

"When I was a kid, I loved amusement parks.

I loved roller coasters and Ferris wheels and bumper cars and that pirate ship that swings back and forth and sends you surging into the air at absurd angles.

I still like these things, but it’s been years since I’ve been to an amusement park.

At some point, I outgrew them, and although I still regard them as fun, despite the crowds and high prices, it never occurs to me to round up a group of friends and spend the day at an amusement park. For one thing, nobody except me would want to go, and even I don’t really want to go, because of the aforementioned crowds and high prices.

But I do enjoy a good thrill every now and again, and amusement parks are reliable and time-tested providers of thrills. A good ride makes me burst out laughing, while the surge of adrenalin accompanying its scary heights and hair-raising turns is strangely addictive."

Why Can't They Make a Good Action Movie Anymore?
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

Occasionally a good action movie gets made - the summer hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one such example. But as a whole the genre has gotten worse and worse, and I fear that someday I'll be asking the same sorts of questions about action movies that I currently ask about romantic comedies. Such as: Is it possible to make a good action movie?

Anyway, in a video essay over on Press Play, Matthias Stork explains how the action genre devolved into something he calls Chaos Cinema. He argues that while directors once strove to keep viewers oriented during action sequences, today's action films are hyperactive and overstuffed. He writes:

"Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits.  Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.

Even attentive spectators may have trouble finding their bearings in a film like this. Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion."

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz offers his take on the essay here, and Jim Emerson offers his take here. Here's an excerpt from Emerson's essay that I really like:

"It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment."

It Will Get Better
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

Last week my friend Adam Rust explained why housing prices are not going to go up at his blog Bank Talk. This week, he explains why they might go up after all.

The Freedom Riders at 50
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders - the civil rights activists who rode buses throughout the Jim Crow south in an effort to demonstrate that terminals, restaurants and other facilities serving buses remained segregated despite a Supreme Court ruling outlawing the doctrine of "separate but equal" in interstate bus travel.

Last night I finally got around to reading an interesting July New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin reflecting upon his experiences covering the civil rights movement, and riding with the Freedom Riders. The article is behind a paywall (though you can visit the abstract here), but it's worth a look; what makes it especially compelling is Trillin's vivid recall of details. We learn that reporters covering the non-violent protests and controversy over segregation referred to their work as the Seg Beat, and that incarcerated protestors singing freedom songs could make a jailhouse sound like a full church choir. If there's one criticism I have of the piece, it's that it belongs to that tired genre of white people explaining how the life-and-death struggles of black people affected them.

The Freedom Riders marked their 50th anniversary with commemorations in Chicago and Mississippi, though a handful of Freedom Riders declined to attend the Mississippi event. They said that the struggle for racial equality continues in Mississippi, and also accused the state of "stealing the legacy of the civil rights movement so they can profit from tourism."

The civil rights era might seem like ancient history, but its wounds are still raw. When I worked at the newspaper the Birmingham Post-Herald, I interviewed foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, as well as leaders; and I was part of a team of reporters that covered the aftermath of the guilty verdict in the trial of the man accused of planting the bomb that killed four little girls in a Birmingham church.

Decades later, reminders of the civil rights movement were everywhere. The first thing I saw when I entered the newsroom every morning was a photograph taken by Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston in 1961. The picture depicts Klansmen viciously beating Freedom Riders upon their arrival at the Birmingham Trailways station; moments after the picture was shot, Langston himself was beaten. You can see the photo over on the Birmingham View, which refers to it as "the picture that changed Birmingham."

And Birmingham has changed, as has the entire south. But it's still important to remember the Freedom Riders, their courage and conviction, and the sacrifices that they made. 

In this interview with On the Media (which isn't behind a paywall), Trillin talks a little bit about covering segregation in the south.



Songs I Like By Artists I Hate
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I list some of the songs I like by artists I hate. One favorite is Barry Manilow's "Copacabana (At the Copa)."

Research for the Apocalypse
Published on August 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

Curious about what to read to prepare for the coming economic apocalypse?

The website i09 has helpfully compiled a reading list "packed with novels about what happens to the world after total or partial economic collapse."

I haven't read any of these books, but they all look pretty good.

I'd also recommend "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, which seems to suggest that no amount of preparation can help stave off the terrible effects of societal collapse. It's unclear what causes the apocalypse in "The Road," so perhaps the end of the world isn't rooted in economics so much as technology or environmental disaster. Regardless, I think "The Road" is good preparation for the economic apocalypse, because it makes it clear just how bad things could get. Read it at your peril, though - it will make you horribly depressed and possibly give you nightmares.

New Instrumental Music
Published on August 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

I've been wishing Modest Mouse would release a new album, as the band's most recent album, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," was released in 2007. And I've been hearing a ton of Modest Mouse on the radio lately, which makes me think I'm not the only person who misses them.

Anyway, I've learned that Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock has a record label, called Glacial Pace Recordings, and that he's signed the instrumental duo Talkdemonic. Talkdemonic's new album, "Ruins," is due out on Oct. 4; click here to listen to the band's first single, "Revival."

Watching "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
Published on August 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one of the more pleasant cinematic surprises of the summer, a rousing, fast-paced simian action film. Some people have described it as a very good B movie, and I've been tempted to do it myself, but then decided that the label is a back-handed compliment - one that the film doesn't deserve. Because "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is A level entertainment all the way.

Also, I've seen some critics suggest that one of "Rise of the Planet of the Ape's" flaws is the fact that the most complex and well-defined character in the film is Caesar, the ape. They're right that Caesar is the film's most memorable and charismatic character, but they're wrong that this is a flaw. What makes the movie so good is that it inspires us to root for Caesar, even though it means rooting against our fellow humans and in effect cheering the end of civilization as we know it. 

Over at the DG, I elaborate on my thoughts about "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Also, artist and fellow Oberlin alum Josh MacPhee discusses the film in an interesting essay titled "What is Planet of the Apes in a World Without Black Power?" Click here to read it.

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