Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Raw Economics

Brad came home from a business trip tonight--a short one, Deer Valley, UT for 3 days--and so while the kids tackled him and tied him up with robe ties and the three of them slammed each other into rugburn nirvana, I drove out to pick up sushi at the local joint.

This place is a solid place; a local, lowkey Valley place. Sarah Michelle Gellar used to frequent it back in her Buffy days. For years, getting in meant a wait; and though the wait has dwindled in the last couple of years (it's been eclipsed by Sushi Katsu-ya down the street) nevertheless it was always boisterous, a battalion of chefs in black regalia whittling slabs of fish into delicate swaths of color and texture.

Tonight, the battalion stood at attention as I walked in. Really. A long line of them behind the bar looked up expectantly when I whoosed open the door.

Three tables were occupied--a single diner at one and two forlorn couples. The place felt cavernous.

We've heard a lot about gas prices taking a bite out of spending money. It's true. But it's also a symbol, the extra expense that tipped the local sushi joint from informal dinner to luxury.

Perhaps people are driving the extra mile (literally) for prepared cali roll from TJs.

Like so many restaurants coping with skyrocketing costs, this former cash cow is trimming costs where it can. The texture of the tuna rolls was totally different. There must be some kind of filler. Some places have decreased portion size (an honesty I respect--I prefer high quality even if it means I eat less of it). My favorite coffee, Stumptown, has kept its prices steady but decreased the bag size from 1 lb to .75 lb. That's a 25% price increase.

Apparently sales for high-end lipsticks surge during economic downturns. People are looking for a little retail therapy, a little pick-me-up, that you can eek out over many days. Like lipstick and bags of coffee beans.

Sushi by definition doesn't last. It's ephemeral, a play for your eyes, nose, and mouth that asks you to take it right away. There's no tucking sushi into the fridge and making it last.

Which may be why the battalion's sushi knives weren't flashing tonight.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Transformative Reading Experience

My room was the coldest one in the house, exposed to east winds as the house clung to the lip of a valley in rainy rainy Oregon. It was winter, and it was a couple years before my parents bought the space heater that would warm the room into the high 50s.

So of course I was huddled under blankets, lying beneath the gold light of a lamp that took up most of the bedside table my dad had painted when we moved into the house ten years before.

I had just become friends with Debby, a junior and a year ahead of me, who took me to the biggest bookstore I’d ever seen—Powell’s, downtown. Powell’s takes up an entire city block. Then (as now) it was a haven of used books—the prices discreetly penciled into the upper left hand corner of the first page. It was many years before barcodes and computer searches. You found things alphabetically by section, and by serendipity. In my case I found Scott Fitzgerald because Debby took me there. Her father brought her to Powell’s every birthday and bought her a stack; she’d been reading Fitzgerald for a while now.

Me, it was my first time, and so I chose the first novel, This Side of Paradise.

Back home under the blankets, a whole world opened up to me. Amory Blaine is arrogant and explicitly self-making. He goes to Princeton, invents himself, imagines a type and grows to fit it. Fitzgerald makes it clear that beneath the posing and the slick lines with fast girls beats a heart and a moral conscience, even if Amory doesn’t always heed them. It’s the classic promise attractive men make to girls—if you get to know me better, you’ll see the vulnerability beneath the wicked smile.

It worked on me as it had worked on all of America back in 1920, when this novel became an overnight sensation, ushered in the Jazz Age, and catapulted Fitzgerald and his pretty wife Zelda to a precipitous and demanding fame from which they’d never recover.

Before I read Fitzgerald, I didn’t really think I’d go to college. I didn’t see the point. My mother had never gone, my dad had dropped out. I didn’t see how it could do anything for me.

But when it dawned on me that there were colleges far away from Boring, Oregon (really the name of my town), places where people made themselves up and then launched themselves into the big world, suddenly I got interested.

I stopped reading during math (too late, really, to make much difference—I’d missed years of instruction), but at least I started making grades.

I decided there and then, before I finished This Side of Paradise, that I was going to go “back east” for college. Which I did.

And although I did eventually come west again, for a doctoral program at UC Berkeley and then a teaching job at USC, that collegiate experience “back east” is what made me. It fulfilled a promise Scott Fitzgerald whispered to me beneath the blankets.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Whasa matter with Lady Smatter?

I'm thinking a lot right now about "pleasure" reading, and what constitutes reading itself. In my classes at USC, my students and I are exploring the reading practices and knowledge acquisition inculcated by old and new media. In this unit, we're attending to the differences between sustained reading of a book or magazine versus gathering information from the various resources available via search engines.

There are lots of people puzzling over these sorts of questions just now. Nicholas Carr's piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid" cogently frames the concerns shared by many who went to school before the internet was invented (hey--it was invented the year I got married).

[See Carr's terrific sources and notes for his article here.]

Carr and many others fret that online reading entails too much interruption, promotes skimming rather than focus, creates "pancake people" spread wide and thin. His opening paragraphs resonated with me: I, too, find myself skimming even relatively short blog posts that are just 500 words long.

Like this one.

Carr acknowledges that new technology which alters how (or whether) we read always sparks worry, and he quotes deft examples from Socrates' distrust of writing's supplementation for memory all the way through Guttenberg and TV.

One wonders whether this cultural moment--the Googlification of reading--is genuinely revolutionary or just another battle in the centuries-old culture wars.

When it comes to feeling secure in our knowledge, writers and readers have a long history of worrying that they don't know enough, that someone else always knows more, and that the cerebral smackdown is imminent. Any pose of mastery might expose us to mockery as frauds. How much reading is enough? In The Witlings, Franny Burney satirized a type of Bluestocking-literary-salon woman as "Lady Smatter." We've always snickered at people who cram for tests because crammed knowledge rarely survives the blue book. But is this incarnation of cultural anxiety about online reading qualitatively different? Is it just another nervous response to a new technology?

Has Google rendered us a nation, a world, of Lady Smatters?

I think the story's more complex than that.

The Googlification of reading has freed us into a more brutal meritocracy.

Will the smartest kids skim extraordinary amounts of information and read deeply where necessary and/or desired? Will average kids follow their whims and read semi-unconnected bits and bobs? Will the rest read only insofar as it is necessary to send text messages and mash buttons on game consoles?

Tune in as my students and I stretch through this intellectual yoga pose.