Saturday, October 23, 2010

The New Official Watha Blog

It's been a great ride here at Blogspot. Your sincere devotion to this blog really showed, and we are all extremely appreciative of the great comments and the turnout for our award winning programs.

We're shutting down the Watha Blog here in blogspot, but you can still get the great articles and event announcements you've come to expect from us over at our new official site:

If you're one of our RSS subscribers you can load up our new page from:
Again, thank you all so much for your participation here. We couldn't have gotten where we are today without you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Graphic Memoirs

Small, David. "Stitches: a memoir" W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London 2009, G.N. Catalog # 92 S6369

Bechdel, Alison. "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" Houghton Mifflin: Boston, New York, 2006, Catalog # GN 92 B3915

The genre of memoir has attracted much attention in the past few years with the success of the autobiographical reflections on youth in the work of Mary Karr in “The Lairs Club” and Kathryn Harrison with “The Kiss.” Their work has generated a fascination with the retelling of personal histories that rivals interest in the imagined world of fiction. Of course in many respects these genres are not too far apart in that they both use the imagination. One must add to this the recent spate of Graphic Memoirs, including, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and David Small’s “Stitches.” It takes a great skill in use of both memory and imagination to find the most effective way to image events of one’s life in metaphor and make analogies between one’s experience similar experiences. As sensory beings who discover life through taste, smell, and picture, we need very concrete forms to portray an emotion, or thought with precision. This can be done with just words but graphic memoirs have the advantage of being able to directly present images and figures to do this. But such representation can never be an exact transcript of experience in a photographic sense.

The author of graphic memoirs has an advantage in that he/she may use actual pictures of gestures, faces, expressions, and actions to tell the story of his or her life. However, more importantly, the author can present a literary comparison, mental image, or metaphor in a physical shape drawn by the hand. One example of this concreteness of expression in graphic memoir can be found in David Small’s “Stitches” when he describes his mother’s temperament that he endured as a child. She was angered by young David losing his shoes while exploring the upper floors of the Hospital where his father worked. Her “silent fury” is compared in the text to a “black tidal wave” and then that wave is pictured as a massive ocean wave topped with foam breaking against the picture of his mother glowering with rage. He then he pictures himself being drawn into the whirlpool left by the wave. The inappropriateness and injustice of his mother’s anger is conveyed with startling impact in the very simple drawings and the effect upon the child of that anger is shown in an even more dramatic way. David Small would often present a series of traumatic experiences such as a punishment through scalding by his grandmother with a mute series of stark images. In these simple sharp black and white drawings he shows his grandmother’s angered expression, the hot water pouring in the sink, and his fear afterwards lying shivering in bed. The series of terrifying moments are drawn in outline pictures that are very effective. There is no dialogue or commentary to soften the blow. These were some of the most moving scenes of the memoir. The reader is made to suffer the terrible events passively with no language as a cushion or barrier just as a child might experience these things.

Alison Bechdel uses the possibilities of graphic memoir to convey experiences through fantasy and literary analogy very effectively. She is able to literally redraw her parents as characters in a F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James novel to make an important comparison. She imagines her dad, the focus of her memoir, in his early relationship with her mother, as a young F Scott Fitzgerald in the army falling in love with Zelda. She shows this by morphing his image into that of Fitzgerald. She makes the unreality of their early romance clear by how it was shaped by his father’s fantasy life through visually quoting from his letter imaged with his handwriting. Bechdel also extends the methods of graphic memoir by representing the actual handwritten text of her father’s diary and integrating the diary into the frame of her young father sitting in his army bunk. This technique of layering using facsimile of diary, letter, and notes into the drawings of imagined scenes is her father’s youth. In this way, she adds multiple textures to the story she is telling. What one gets a full sense of memoir as a constructed artifact. The reader is able to observe all the elements that the author is playing with to allow one to get a full sense of how she is constructing and reconstructing his image. These two examples indicate that graphic memoirs are a new and startlingly effective literary form that can be used to convey the both immediacy of the moment and elaborate reflection on the meaning of one’s life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

As Much Chaos As We Can Stand

Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2010
242 pgs.

I have finally finished reading Clay Shirky's phenomenal new book Cognitive Surplus and I have been blown away by it from beginning to end. Shirky, a professor at NYU, explores how the default settings inherent in social media software are driving not only how we connect with each other, but about the kinds of massive projects that we can create if we spend even just a modicum of our free time (time usually spent watching television) contributing to them.

The depth of this book is difficult to summarize, but let me give it a shot.

Each of us has an amount of time, thanks to the labor struggles of the twentieth century, with which we can do what we will (our cognitive surplus, i.e. leftover brain time). With the advent of television we slowly became consumers of a passive media environment, so much so that many of us watched enough television that it could be considered equivalent to having a part time job. This wasn't because we necessarily wanted to be couch potatoes, but this was the environment we had. It was a default pattern, not necessarily a desired state of being.

With the introduction of the internet we began developing a different pattern of social behavior toward our media. From the creation of ASCII art as a humble little creative endeavor in early emails we have progressed to an era where we can create our own original videos and share them with the entire world. Beyond even that we have also grown to the point where massive, globally shared projects, like Wikipedia are made possible by the dedicated efforts of millions of people spending time creating content instead of being a passive receptacle of pre-packaged media.

What drives us to create and share things like lolcats, fan fiction and YouTube videos, or to participate in large scale protests or create alternative news reporting outlets?

Shirky's answer: we have the means and opportunity to do so, for free, and the software that has been designed to support these structures promotes an environment of creating and sharing. These things have always been going on, but the ability to share our personal creative works, or to participate in a mutually creative and supportive environment has just not been available at this scale ever before. We all know people who wrote fan stories of their favorite television show, or who went to conventions and shared their hobbies with each other. Social media allows us to not only find those people who share our interests, however bizarre they may be, but to engage in them with an unprecedented level of speed and freedom, thus nurturing subcultures to greater heights.

Beyond the level of subcultures we have begun to develop massive multi-user created systems that have a great deal of civic value. Projects like developing open source software like Linux or Apache, creating articles for Wikipedia or reporting news on Ushahidi have become invaluable resources to society. These works could not have been done without the ability to connect disparate people who have a shared ethic, vision and need via social media.

The long term view of how the internet is shaping our society has yet to be seen, and the examples he provides of similar revolutions in communications show that one can never really predict where we will be fifty or a hundred years from now. What Shirky does provide however is a bit of a roadmap outlining what factors lead to successful social media environments, and an excellent review of how far we've come in just a few short years.

This was one of the most engrossing reads I've had in quite a long time. Fun, informative, and a great amount of positive speculation about the internet. I strongly recommend it, not just for people who have internet wonkery as an interest, but for pretty much anyone who has a deep love for culture. The stories are thought provoking, funny, scary and over all brilliant.

Check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anyone can make a record now. Yeah, most of us have heard this sentiment banging around musical circles and the blogosphere, but not a lot of people know what this means. First, a very brief history is required.

Magnetic tape recording began in 1949, which could record only one performance, all on the same tape. Multi-tracking was largely developed by jazz guitarist/inventor Les Paul, but was still in its infancy in the sixties. In the mid-sixties the true potential of stacking many tracks on top of each other came into bloom.

In 1966, the Beatles holed up for nearly half a year at 3 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, City of Westminster, London, England and created what most music magazines (including Rolling Stone) call the best album of all time. In creating Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ recording team used huge tape recorders precariously daisy-chained together, making it possible to overlap sounds, add lush layers of instruments, and finally painstakingly splice together a masterpiece of unprecedented extravagance. From that point forward, multi-tracking was established as the industry standard for making records. Then along comes digital…

Fast-forwarding through the eighties, nineties and the last decade, we find ourselves in quite a different audio climate. Once digital recording became the industry standard in professional studios, it wasn’t long before any musician with a laptop and a microphone can make a record (I’m not talking about vinyl here. Not yet, anyway). Amazingly, we are not talking about a low-fidelity garage record—clear, high-quality digital audio workstations became available on the consumer level more than ten years ago. A company named Digidesign came out with a computer program called Pro Tools, which quickly became the most popular program on the market. Now everyone I know has (at least) a mini-studio capable of recording thirty-two or more audio tracks and mix them down to a CD-quality digital version. Finally I arrive at the point of this rant: should the new Watha T. Daniel Library be outfitted with a recording rig?

I run a modest recording studio, mostly to mix records of bands I like and my band, which I also kinda like. I recently upgraded to an Intel Mac and set aside my G4 and Digidesign Digi 001 interface for something newer. Now my old rig is just sitting, gathering dust and looking lonely. I’m not going to throw away my old machine. Nobody will want a system that still runs Pro Tools 6.4. I was thinking of creating a program at the new building in which we write, record, and mix a song—the whole process from start to finish—but I have doubts about whether I could get enough participants. What do I do?

Remarkably, despite the arsenal of audio tools available, very few artists have really achieved the level of clarity and perfect orchestration as Sgt. Pepper’s. However, the new generations of young, computer-savvy musicians may be ready to tackle the challenge. At the very least I know they have tons of ideas, and often no way to get them out there. This recording program might help kick-start the process.
What do you think?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hip Hop Hippie

Lang, Michael with Holly George-Warren. “The Road to Woodstock” Harper Collins: New York, 2009, 781.6607 L271
Tiber, Elliot with Tom Monte. “Taking Woodstock: a true story of a riot, a concert, and a life” Square One Publishers: Garden City, NY, 2007, 92 T5528

I was thinking about all the books and the film that have come out recently about the Woodstock Festival of 1969 among them “The Road to Woodstock” by Michael Lang, and the memoir and movie “Taking Woodstock” by Eliot Tiber. It has been a long time since that eventful weekend but interest in the event remains strong. One has to ask oneself why is there still such interest in a festival that represented excess, mud, and great music. It think the reason is that there was more too it than meets the eye. Woodstock was a staged event if you accept the term that was meant to express something of the vision of peace, harmony and opposition to a war that was behind the whole hippie and peace movements of the 60s. It was in a sense the culmination of the high craziness and idealism of that era.

The symbolism we remember: long hair, colorful clothes, and connection to nature, all pointed to a larger ideal that some developed of how things ought to be. Their idea was if we could resist certain negative trends in our technological and overly urbanized society. Like the Be-ins of the previous year in New York’s Sheep Meadow Park and the original Be-in in San Francisco this was a designed happening. The spontaneity came from the flood of up to a million people that actually came and the ordered chaos that ensued. But overall there was a message behind the madness. In some strange way the vision of harmony with others, closeness to nature, and the creation of a small utopian city became real at least for one weekend.

Today there are other creative movements among them the work of Hip Hop musicians, rappers, and oral poets. They are trying to shape the vision of another kind of utopia with their creativity and energy. Strange to say, in some ways they are attempting to do something similar what the hippies were doing. They are confronting society with its problems of crime, racial injustice, and inequality with the magic of words and rhythm. The styles of different, hip hop tries to be hard and edgy emphasizing the realness of the real while the hippies of Woodstock emphasized a softer image that was oriented toward a back to nature philosophy. Yet both movements try to confront the larger society with a message of how things could be. The stereotypes of hippies as sentimental and soft fall aside when you consider the Woodstock festival had a cultural and political ideal behind it. It was confrontational in its craziness. It was a search for three days of peace and brotherhood. At the same time hip hop isn’t all anger or the description of hard times in the city. It includes a flow of wild images and creativity with words that defies gravity. So one might combine the two terms and call a these purveyor of the utopian arts a hip hop hippie.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy and The Hero's Quest

Lewis, C.S. “The Magician’s Nephew, Book 1 Chronicles of Narnia,” Harper Collins: New York, 1955

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism,” Houghten Mifflin Company: Boston, 2004

Having enjoyed a good escape in reading the “Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis over the weekend, I began to consider about how fantasy literature provides something that no other genre gives to the reader: a second world of conflict and adventure. What fantasy literature offers is the opportunity to imaginatively enter into a second world that has its own structure and rules that one assumes when temporarily living in that world. The world of C. S. Lewis called Narnia is such a special world. It is a world created by Aslan, a lion/savior figure. It is governed by magical forces and where human intentions are manifested physically. Animals talk and any object can sprout like a plant. Time is totally different from time our world. Events occur at a different pace. Time is more like eternity and death does not seem to exist. To operate in this world one must learn to live according to the new rules. But the advantage of this world is that it can teach us things that lie closer to the core than what we learn from daily experience.

Why does C S Lewis create such a different world in his fiction? It may be: because this kind of a world responds to heroic endeavor much more readily than in our world of objective laws. The very nature of the heroic quest demands such a world to frame it. The heroic quest according to the poet W H Auden, involves a call to a task for the hero that only he/ she can fulfill because of his or her unique qualities and the actions of the quest have strong influence on the destiny of the world he or she lives in. This kind of thinking helps one consider one’s identity as a reader in another light. In the pre-scientific view of the physical world in the middle ages that included miracles and magic lent itself as a setting to stories of heroic deeds and great quests. Narnia functions in a similar way to create an appropriate setting for heroic action of Digory, Polly and other characters.

But with C S Lewis there is another secondary world that appeals to us: the supposed “real world” of Victorian England that he portrays in all its detail from ornate streetlamps to horse driven carriages. His characters come from that Victorian world at the beginning of his novel and return to it at the end of the action. The nostalgically manufactured Victorian world of Lewis is as mythical to us as the fantasy world of Narnia. The furniture and fashions of Victoriana are everywhere in the Narnia saga. They are saturated with affection and homeliness. Victorian London is also a consistent world with its own laws and established patterns of action. For the modern reader contemplating that Victorian world is also an escape and one that makes certain kinds of moral reflections more real. So we are living in CS Lewis’ fiction in a two layered universe both worlds are secondary worlds, fictions of escape and settings for action. The two worlds are both set up to help reflection on human possibilities.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Memories of Back Home

For our Great Coffee, Great Books book club selection this month we're reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. I began reading it yesterday and fell so deeply in love that I made it half way through the novel in an afternoon. Apart from the simple fact that reading letters is a quicker endeavor than reading a narrative story, the book struck a chord in me and I couldn't bear to put it down until I was falling fast asleep.

My family's lived here in America for nearly 400 years, and though they were English when they came here, we've not kept any ties to whatever distant family there may still be out there across the sea. But it's not the blood-connection to the English that's resonating with me. It's the story telling. The characters in Guernsey remind me so deeply of my family, and the way they tell a story; such that I want to hear every single detail. I want to hear how Elizabeth McKenna slapped Adelaide Addison across the face in the church, how they rendered pig fat into soap and how the ladies cried over it, and what a loving reunion it was when the children returned from the countryside and young Eli learned how to whittle animals, even though wood was a scarce commodity. It's the little stories of their lives that intrigue me.

But Guernsey isn't the only book that has caught me up like this. I fell in love with Lake Wobegone Days by Garrison Keillor when I was a teen. The quiet humor and the subtle pathos of the people living their lives out there in rural Minnesota was yet another tie to those stories my parents told me about their lives growing up in small towns in Ohio and Kentucky. That got me to start listening to the Prairie Home Companion on NPR and making an evening of a Saturday night with knitting, hot tea and colorful stories on the radio. Moments like that just warm my heart.

Other books that captured that spirit of down home storytelling with a sense of humor were Ferrol Sams book Run with the Horsemen about a boy growing up in rural Georgia. I read Horsemen around the same time as I read Wobegone, and they both tapped that same chord with me. Similarly, David Sedaris's short stories in Barrel Fever and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim about his wacky family in South Carolina, while more contemporary also have that same evocative flavor. Though sad in their own way, the movies Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias also have that resonance. I'll never forget moments like those.

There's something about knowing the lives of the people around you, and the sheer joy that comes from hearing those tales. It's the best part of calling my mother, just to find out what's been going on in town and who got hit by a tractor, who's having a baby, who got mad at who in church, what did my cousins down by the river do now. Though I've been gone from there nigh on fifteen years, to hear my mother tell me those stories, it's like being right back there again. Sitting on the front porch swing, drinking sweet tea, waiting for grandma to make Sunday dinner after church and being there with the whole family. That's where these books take me. Right there.