Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, and Why You Should Read About Him

Did the devil make the world while god was sleeping?
Someone said you'll never get a wish from a bone.
Another wrong good-bye and a hundred sailors,
That deep blue sky is my home.

She left in the fall, that's her picture on the wall,
She always had that little drop of poison...
"Little Drop of Poison," Tom Waits

This has been a slow week, so I thought I'd do some talking about what I'm reading: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

I want to start by talking about a few reasons to read the Sherlock Holmes stories:
Genuine Mystery. Sherlock Holmes stories are full of surprising questions, begging for answers. (Why did an old lady get a box with two ears in it in the mail? Who would pay a man to sit and write out words from the dictionary just because he had red hair, and why?) The stories are great at presenting you with a problem and getting you to want to know the answer. Almost every story has, fairly early on, an engaging, thorny question. It defies you to explain it. It draws you in.

A Great Friendship. Holmes and Watson are very different men, but they have a wonderful chemistry together. Holmes has his cunning intellect and zeal for solving puzzles; Watson has a passion for action and a love of investigating and describing people's motives and character. The stories are about Holmes and his accomplishments, certainly, but more than that, they are about two men who do great things together, who sharpen each other. The stories are about a team, they are about a pair of world-class friends. And more fruitful and joyous friendships are rarely to be found, in literature or out of it.

Gateway to a Cool World. There's so much cool Sherlock Holmes material out there. If you read the original stories, all of it begins to make more sense. Plus, it's all more fun if you know all the references.


Having said that, here are some stray thoughts on Sherlock Holmes.

First off, let's talk about the joys of reading Arthur Conan Doyle's wonderful, 19th- and early 20th-century writing, full of things that you just could not write anymore:
"Very sorry to knock you up, Watson," said he, "but it's the common lot this morning. Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."

"The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had framed himself in the aperture."

"[He is] so far down Queer Street that he may never find his way back again."
I think a great deal is often said about words in language becoming less offensive (or, if you like, offensive words becoming more widely heard and accepted). A great many things one might have never heard on television a generation ago are there in full force in this day. The process of words becoming less offensive in content is called amelioration in linguistics, and there are lots of examples of words that used to be devastating insults that are not considered so today: think of "Yankee" or "Quaker," for example.

But I think we rarely think about the opposite process, which is called pejoration, and in a way that's the process that's going on here. We see three terms used by Doyle which, in his own day, had essentially neutral meanings. Today, however, all three read as sexual--either as euphemisms or standard descriptions of sexual activity--and thus taboo in polite conversation. This is probably not pejoration in the usual sense--just because something is sexual does not mean it is bad--but it is a pretty common kind of semantic change. I wonder whether our society has, through an obsession with sex, developed a lot more of these sexualizing semantic changes than usual, or if it simply seems so because most people are unacquainted with euphemisms and sex talk from previous generations.


Now let's talk about some themes across the Holmes stories. These are by no means the main themes of the stories; they are just some things that stuck out to me as I read.

Marriage is usually terrible.
Marriage as the source of life's problems is huge in Sherlock Holmes stories. In many cases, an unhappy marriage (usually compromised by some third party) is the reason for a crime: a man kills his wife and sends her ear to her sister for turning the wife against him. A woman kills herself and frames the woman who holds her husband's affections. A man murders his wife and her lover and tells everyone they ran away with all his money.

At least as often as this, if not more often, there are unhappy or simply failed marriages on the sides of the action, causing extra problems, complications, and mysteries for Holmes and Watson.
  • In one story, a woman helps the criminal--unknowingly assisting him in killing someone!--because she is married to someone who won't divorce her, and the criminal offers to help her get a divorce.
  • Another time, a man beats and locks up his wife for trying to keep him from commit a crime.
  • There's a case where a man tries to woo a young woman, who refuses him--even though she likes him--because she is secretly married to the man who is pretending to be her brother.
  • All of those examples are from one story. None of them is the central crime around which the mystery revolves.
Other fine examples of marriage causing problems in these stories:
  • An uncle tries to murder his niece because he's worried she'll marry and deprive him of his living allowance.
  • A man's wife dies and he covers it up to keep from going bankrupt because of the loss of her estate.
  • A woman falls in love with someone who regularly murders or abandons his wives, and her family tries desperately to stop her from marrying him.
Marriage as a source of trouble is all over the place in the world of Sherlock Holmes. The kinds of trouble seem to fall into two categories: (1) being married to someone you don't want to be married to (...even dead people, sometimes) and (2) wanting to marry someone but being prevented by others. Sometimes, both cases apply, as in the aforementioned case of the woman who was prevented from being married to someone because she was already married to someone else that she didn't like very well.

You can tell some people's character just from their face. I don't mean that Sherlock Holmes can do this; Sherlock Holmes can tell all he needs to know about you from your shoes, for Pete's sake. No, this is the narrator, Dr. Watson's issue. Not every story does it happen, but quite often we will be introduced to a character, and Watson will just know exactly what kind of person they are. This often happens with women Watson meets, but here's a good male counterexample:
"He was certainly a remarkably handsome man. His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there–a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible. He was ill-advised to train his moustache away from it, for it was Nature’s danger-signal, set as a warning to his victims."
That's right, Watson can tell you're a murderer just from your mouth. This only seems to apply when it won't help him solve a case, e.g., in the above case, it's pretty clear that that guy was a dirtbag from page one of the story.

Latinas are feisty. I don't know why, exactly, but a lot of the non-Europeans in these stories seem to be Latin American women. And Doyle is not afraid to describe them as having really quick tempers, strong passions, and generally heightened emotions because of the continent they come from. These women include:
  • A Brazilian who frames someone for murder in a jealous rage.
  • A Peruvian who locks herself in her room and refuses to explain to her husband that she is not a vampire.
  • A Costa Rican who pretends to be her husband's sister and is a total babe but is constantly warning the guy she's supposed to be seducing to leave the countryside before it's too late! But she's too emotional and sentimentally attached to just, you know, explain that her husband is a murderer.
They're a warm-blooded bunch, those Latinas!


I'll leave that as is for now. These stories really are great, as I said. (Don't take any of the above as reasons to stay away: finding and thinking about authorial quirks like these is a great reason in itself to look into a body of work.) Please read them. If you already have read some and want more, or just want other things to read, here are two places to look:

The mysterious death of the world's leading authority on the work of Arthur Conan Doyle (really fascinating journalism).

A guide to where to start with Sherlock Holmes material, including which of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories to look at first.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Story Lab Experience

In inclement weather the people are fey,
Three thousand years' stories as the night slips away,
Remembering Fingal feels not far away,
The giant will rise with the moon.

The wind's in the north, there'll be new moon tonight,
And we have no Circle to dance in her sight,
Light a torch, bring a bottle, and build the fire bright,
The giant will rise with the moon.
—"Giant," Stan Rogers

This week I had the great opportunity to participate in Story Lab Chicago, which is a monthly storytelling event here in the city that I love. It's something I found out about in August; I went to one, saw six people telling their stories (several of whom had never done anything of the kind before), had a great time, and signed up to do it myself. Before I tell you about what it was like to tell my story, I want to share some lessons I learned in the process.

When you sign up to do Story Lab, you write your story, and then you bring it to a little workshop with the guy in charge of the event and the other storytellers. You share your stories and give each other feedback. Here is some advice I was given at that session.

Specificity is Great: If the people have names, if the places have succinct but accurate descriptions, that's good--just about any chance to be specific rather than general makes a story better.

Kill Your Babies*: Often, the things you most love about the story you're telling are just getting in the way of clarity and effectiveness. If something doesn't directly serve the point of the story, it's in the way. Kill it.

No "Lord of the Rings" Endings: Remember the last Lord of the Rings movie, and how it faded to black at the end around four or five times? Confusing, right? When you're telling a story, it can be tempting to make multiple little stopping points at the end, where you try to add another meaning to the story, explain another idea, communicate another facet. Don't. End it once and keep the ending.

Make sure any threads left for picking up later actually get picked up: This is self-explanatory. It can be tempting to leave little "but I'll come back to that"s in your story, but only do it if you can actually come back to them.

Keep only the best detail: For me, at least, writing/storytelling with lots of detail makes things more fun; the key is to not let it bog things down. Too much detail throughout a story can make it drag and can cause people to get confused or lost. Save details for moments that need to be especially vivid.

* * *

Story Lab itself was amazing. I had more than a dozen friends show up, many after only having been invited at the last minute, which was a really cool feeling. I knew I could count on them to enjoy the story and support me (read: laugh at my jokes).

In addition to that, the performance space (which is this really cool back room of a pub on the north side of Chicago, complete with fireplaces, couches, wooden tables and chairs, and a generally cozy atmosphere) was full to bursting--fuller than I've seen at any Story Lab before. If I had to guess, I'd say well over 50 people, possibly 75.

I had a few other great things going for me even before I stood up on stage: (1) the stories told before me were lots of fun, all of them, so the crowd was in a good mood (2) the Story Lab crowd is known for being welcoming, accepting, and game for just about anything (3) I was dressed as fly as I could get away with, which always ups my confidence level (no joke, in college I would put on a suit to take final exams) and (4) I was up just after intermission, so people were all refreshed and ready for more when I stood up.

When it came time for me to do my thing, I stood up, put my story--all typed out and neat--on the music stand in front of me, and got talking. I'm a fairly animated story teller: I use lots of gestures, tone variations, and dramatic pauses when I'm telling a story, and this story was no exception. The story starts with a dramatic cliff-hanger: the disappearance of everyone in the story but myself and one other. Once I got everyone's attention with that, I kept it by being my usual animated, fun self.

The audience really seemed to understand and enjoy what I had to say. I wrote a three-page story, and I took about three times longer than I did in my rehearsal by myself just getting through page one. I had to stop for people to laugh at things I didn't write to be funny. As a friend pointed out afterwards, it wasn't even primarily people who knew me who got it, or who started laughing first--it was everybody! Needless to say, this was all extremely flattering. I might have drawn things out a little with some extra-enthusiastic line readings, some off-the-cuff additions, just to see what I could get away with. For the most part, I got away with them pretty completely.

In short, Story Lab is great, but it was particularly great for me. I was extremely honored that people listened so closely to what I had to say and that they enjoyed it as much as they did. I can't wait to do some more sometime soon!

*I did not make this phrasing up.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Movie Star, or Maybe the King of Pop

See, it's not about races, just places, faces
Where your blood comes from is where your space is
I've seen the bright get duller
I'm not going to spend my life being a color.
LTB, on Michael Jackson's "Black or White"

This week, a friend from work held an open mic at her apartment for friends and acquaintances. It's something that she and her roommate do every month. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical that it could be any good, or that anyone was going to be there. And I was wrong. On both counts. These two people are really, really put together, at least when it comes to this show. They invite tons of people, have great performers, and provide a great time in every way. (Things I have seen: tap dance, poetry, improv comedy, surprisingly effective monologues, original music.) When I first went, I was blown away. So I signed up to perform, and brought along my friends' band to play a few songs. It's the kind of thing that makes me happy I live in a city, and at least moderately sure I never want to live anywhere else.

Below is the story I read at the open mic. Enjoy.

* * *               

That morning, I was going to Pilsen. In preparation, I put on my typical outfit for a day out on the town: a tie, a collared shirt, an argyle sweater vest, a thick professorial-looking jacket, slacks, and of course, my trusty brown fedora hat.
At the time, I lived in Hyde Park, and didn’t own a car. Now, there are two ways to get to Pilsen from Hyde Park on the CTA. One is to take the 55 bus to the Red Line, the Red Line downtown to the Pink Line, and the Pink Line into Pilsen.
This is the roundabout way.
The other way to get to Pilsen from Hyde Park is to take the 55 bus to Ashland and Garfield and the Ashland bus up a couple dozen blocks to Pilsen.
This is the way through Englewood.*

In selecting my route for the day, an internal dialogue sprang up between two of my sub-personalities; I’ll call them Ordinary James and Liberal White Guilt James.

Ordinary James: So I guess I’m going to take the Red Line to the Pink Line. I like trains better than buses, and I’m not that familiar with Englewood. I might have a hard time navigating over there. 
Liberal White Guilt James: Let’s be real here. The roundabout way is racist. The only really good reason to take that way is to avoid Englewood, i.e., black people. If you take it, you have to admit you’re kind of a racist. 
Ordinary James: What? No, that’s ridiculous. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a racist. 
Liberal White Guilt James: So, what, you’re not afraid of black people? 
Ordinary James: Of course not! Some of my best friends are black! 
Liberal White Guilt James: I rest my case.

So it was that I ended up taking the way through Englewood.

Upon my arrival at Ashland and Garfield, I noticed that Englewood looked empty, almost eerily desolate. It is a quiet place, I said to myself, with no one on the corners, hardly any shops or other public activity in view. I was comforted by this. I left the 55 bus, crossed the street, and waited a few minutes for the Ashland bus.

Was that so bad? said Liberal White Guilt James, congratulating himself on his astounding dearth of racist sentiment.

Later in the day, I returned to the corner of Ashland and Garfield on my way home to Hyde Park. Stepping off the Ashland bus, I immediately realize that my previous characterization of Englewood was in error. Sure, Englewood is empty, when you step off a bus at 8 in the morning on a Saturday. Saturday afternoon is different. On Saturday afternoon, it is a hodgepodge, a milieu, a veritable sea of humanity. A sea I’m about to have to wade into.

As soon as I leave the bus, heads on all corners swivel violently. Who is this guy? What is going to happen to him? And most importantly: why is he dressed like Indiana Jones?

As I cross the street and round a corner to get to my bus, a man gesticulates at me, bidding me closer:

"Hey, man. C’mere. I—I wanna talk to you."

No thank you, I think, too anxious to say anything out loud to anybody, especially creepy dudes gesticulating on corners. I keep walking. Liberal White Guilt James’ cocky self is nowhere in evidence.

I reach the bus stop, which is populated by a dozen or so people, all of whom apparently have nothing more interesting to do than to wonder what I am doing there. No one has a magazine so interesting or a conversation so engrossing or even a daydream so captivating that they need to pay more attention to it than to me. After a moment, the following commentary is issued:

"Dude look like he step out of a book."

It’s true. I do. I nod inwardly and accept this accurate if overly candid assessment of my appearance. Who but a character in a book would dress willingly as I have today?

"Dude look like Matt Damon."

Matt Damon? Do I? Could I ever look as cool as Matt Damon? That guy is great. Maybe I should come to Englewood more often.

"Heh, Matt Damon gonna get robbed."

This last is greeted by chuckles from some and a sudden feeling of unadulterated dread by me. I do look like Matt Damon, and Matt Damon gonna get robbed.

I shuffle as far from the main group as I can while still remaining at the bus stop. I don’t want to be mistaken for a Matt Damon who is not getting on the bus. A man dressed completely in camouflage clothing approaches me and starts advising me on the subject of Michael Jackson, perhaps making the link between the King of Pop and myself because of our shared fondness for fedora hats.

Remember Michael Jackson, is the substance of his advice. You should remember that guy. He was great.

It is my studied opinion that this man was trying to make me feel less worried about getting robbed while looking like Matt Damon, which to his credit, he did, but only because I got more worried about having to discuss my uncharitable feelings about Michael Jackson with a devout fan. He looked touchy.

After a few minutes of being reminded of how great Michael Jackson was, I see a bus pulling in a few blocks away. According to the sign at the stop, no buses besides the 55 come to the stop, so I’m reasonably sure this bus is a 55 bus, which is the bus that I desperately want it to be. I’m right. I board the bus, and, what’s this? No one boards with me. Nobody. Were they all just sitting there, waiting for something to happen? Not a soul at that bus stop was waiting for the bus, no one but me, Matt Damon, Michael Jackson, Liberal White Guilt personified in a tie, an argyle sweater vest, and a fedora.

*Note: for non-Chicagoans, Englewood is a historically black and low-income neighborhood on the South side of the city. For Chicagoans: yeah, I know Ashland and Garfield is technically Back of the Yards, and not Englewood. I went with common usage here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on the New Year

I got a brand new walk,
I got a brand new smile,
Since I met you, baby,
I got a brand new style.
"A Brand New Me," Dusty Springfield

I know that it’s true,
It’s gonna be a good year,
Out of the darkness,
And into the fire.
"In the New Year," The Walkmen

On the year that's gone:
2011, like any year, is hard to hold in your head all that well. As periods of time determined by the movements of heavenly bodies go, it's pretty long. That caveat aside, though, I wanted to share a few personal highlights.

1. Starting the year well: I entered 2011 at my friend's house in Minnesota. In 2010, he got married overseas, and he wanted to have a wedding celebration for his stateside friends and family. I took a Megabus up from Chicago, saw Minneapolis/St. Paul, ate good food, had good conversation, met good people, and built a bonfire on a frozen pond in a back yard. And then it was 2011, and the world was full of the promise of good things yet to come.
2. Romance & attendant lessons: A month or so later, I entered into a fruitful romantic relationship with a brilliant, beautiful young woman. We learned a lot about each other, and at least a little bit about ourselves. Though our relationship did not last out the year, my fond memories of it certainly have.
3. City Year concludes: My time in this AmeriCorps program lasted almost two years, and I finished my service in June with a wonderful, productive, healthy team in a great school. I remain proud of their efforts and accomplishments.
4. New place, same friends: I overcame my traditional hatred of moving just long enough to hunt through several score of apartments and finally, finally happen upon a friend vacating her wonderful three bedroom in Wicker Park/Bucktown. I'm very happy to be here now that all that is over. And I kept my roommates, which is great.
5. New jobs, new city: I didn't leave Chicago, but the change of neighborhood and occupation has resulted in a flurry of activity, exploring and enjoying the city as I never have before, accompanied by friends or striking out on my own, often with surprising results.

2011 was certainly a good time for me personally. The world as a whole, I'll admit, has me a bit concerned. It's a strange time to be an American: NDAA, SOPA, corporate personhood, the Occupy movement, and other matters have caught my attention, and I wonder where we are headed and whether there's anything I can really do to affect the situation. I feel more civically aware and less civically empowered than ever before.

On the year to come:
I'm not typically big into making New Year's resolutions, and neither are most folks I know. My friends and relatives don't tend to take the practice seriously, either not making any at all, or making ones that don't matter much one way or the other. The idea is this: people don't really change much, and if they do, it's not 'cause they said they would do something on a specific holiday. No one keeps New Year's resolutions past January, they seem to say. By and large, they're right.

That said, if there's some big change you've been wanting to make in your life, I think it's extraordinarily helpful if you have a date to commemorate, celebrate, and announce the change. Which is to say, my tendency to refrain from the practice aside, I'm in favor of such things.

Also, I'm going to make some. I've got two this year. Writing this blog is one. That was spur of the moment: I haven't been planning on writing a blog for a period of time, I was just told I ought to and thought it'd be healthy and fun. The other is this: I've decided to become a vegetarian.

And that's something I've been meaning to do for a while. I've long been aware of the relative benefits of meatlessness for health, finances, and the globe, and I haven't been able to come up with a particularly compelling reason why I should be eating meat. That's...about all there is to it. I have nothing more profound than that to say. I'm a vegetarian now, for the foreseeable future at least. Likely, I'll have more to say on it when I've done it for more than a couple days.