Friday, August 22, 2014

Alternate Sartoreality

Me and Dad on my wedding day

I can see a lot of life in you,
I can see a lot of bright in you,
And I think the dress looks nice on you,
I can see a lot of life in you.
—"That Dress Looks Nice On You," Sufjan Stevens

As a young Christian, I learned somewhere along the line that caring about your appearance was wrong. It even had a special name: vanity, a word that, in spite of all I have learned since, I have still not learned to associate with small handheld mirrors or combination sink-and-cabinets.

I say "learned," but I can't say that this was an idea anyone actually ever set out to teach me. It may have been implicit in some Sunday school lesson somewhere, or maybe one of those old Hanna-Barbera Bible cartoons.1 Maybe I just got it from reading Jesus' words about not worrying about what you should wear.

Anyway, it's not like I needed a religious reason not to care about what I looked like: it was not a focal point of interest for me much before college.2 I liked t-shirts from Target with weird slogans on them, old ratty jeans, and whatever else felt comfortable. My concern about dressing nice being a form of vanity was real, but it mostly served as a convenient excuse to ignore my parents' advice on personal appearance when the subject came up.

~   ~   ~

One of my best friends in college was a delightful young woman who lived on the same floor as I did in the dorm. We connected over shared interests and worldviews, but especially because we were both committed Christians at a university with a predominantly secular student body. One major item of difference between us was my friend's meticulous concern for her appearance: she dressed impeccably whenever she left the dorm, and clothing choices were a frequent though minor topic of conversation with her. So, naturally, I asked her about it one day.

She explained that dressing nice for her didn't feel like vanity—she wasn't seeking a sense of superiority over others, or prioritizing small details that did not matter instead of caring about weightier topics. Instead, she did it as a form of self-care: dressing well made her feel happy and confident, which were especially important for her at college, which she found to be an often intimidating, even depressing, place.

This made sense to me. Not right away, but eventually, and without much further persuasion on her part.

So I started doing it, too. I learned to dress myself well, and then did so when I needed to feel especially happy or confident. First day of class? Wear a nice shirt and some slacks. Going to a party full of people I don't know? Throw on a tie. Taking an exam I hadn't studied that well for? What the hey: put on a suit for that one. I dress pretty nice most of the time now, because it makes me feel happy and helps me get things done.

~   ~   ~

These days, I try to avoid buying something if I can find a way to make it myself, or do without. Not primarily because I value frugality (which is a deeply ingrained value for Anna in a way it probably will never quite be for me), but because participating in late-stage industrial capitalism usually feels slightly dirty to me.3 So when I had a mind to buy myself a nice, fitted shirt the other day, it occurred to me that I could make one instead, maybe.

I have a rack full of button-downs that have quietly gone unused or under-used since I realized that off-the-rack shirts don't fit my slender frame very well at all and started buying fitted shirts instead. A regular shirt from a department store is designed to be worn by men of varying builds, and I am decidedly at the narrow end of that variation, so I end up kind of swimming in all the extra fabric:

That red line is roughly where my actual body is inside this shirt
My wife owns a sewing machine and graciously offered to show me how to use it. I looked up how to alter men's shirts online, but I found all the sewing terminology confusing, so I decided to just wing it on the grounds that these shirts were expendable.

I began by checking my shirt to see how much I could afford to lose; the first one, a plain blue number, seemed like it could comfortably lose at least an inch on each side and in the arms. I turned the shirt inside out, and sewed a line about an inch from the side seam on each side, turned roughly 90 degrees once I got to the armpit, and drew a tapering line down the sleeves to the cuff:

As you can see, I ended up doing the sleeve twice after deciding to take a bit more
Anna taught me a trick for sewing in a straight line, which was to try to keep the fabric aligned with the edge of the metal plate on our sewing machine:

This is the "after" picture; I wisely opted not to try taking a photo during the actual sewing. 

Another trick is to just sew down one of the stripes in the shirt, if it has them:

And that was pretty much it. The results have been pretty positive. This is the blue shirt I started with:

Maybe slightly baggier than I'd like, but decent for a first try. Here's the shirt from earlier, before and after:

It's probably slightly too tight now, though that may be alleviated somewhat once I actually cut off the material I've sewn off from the rest, which is just sitting inside the shirt right now. Probably the best result is this one:

It's got a little bunchiness in the armpits, but otherwise it turned out great. All three are vast improvements over wearing baggy unfitted shirts, and they'll all probably go in the regular clothes rotation now that they actually fit me decently.

~   ~   ~ 

So if you're a slender dude with access to a sewing machine, and your shirts are baggier than you want them, I say give this a shot. Definitely start with shirts you don't care about, and get some advice on how to use a sewing machine if you don't already know. Good luck!

1. Note: I can't technically confirm this, but I'm willing to bet that these were at least a little bit racist? Last time I saw one I was probably just entering teenagerhood, so my critical thinking skills were still in their nascent stage. If memory serves, though, the main characters are two white people and their wacky brown friend of vague ethnicity, which sounds kinda wack.
2. Aside from really wanting a beard as soon as I could get one, of course, with unfortunate results:

That beard is composed of like 7 hairs 
3. Just to take one example: Amazon, so beloved by consumers of our generation for its convenience and low prices, achieves said convenience and prices in part by being terrible to its employees. Its business model also seems designed expressly to destroy other businesses. I'd say these are uncommon principles for running a company these days, but I'd be lying: those are the only principles in town right now. And they suck.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Starting Over

Beneficence, the unofficial mascot of my new school, Ball State. Source
And you of the tender years
   can't know the fears
   that your elders grew by.
—"Teach Your Children" Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

School starts on Monday. It'll be my first first day of school in five years.1

I say school, but what I really mean is class, and when I say class I do mean class rather than classes, because I'm only taking one this fall.

~   ~   ~

Since moving to Muncie, I've been looking ahead to Monday, August 18, with mixed feelings. It represents the end of an excellent summer vacation, spent with my new wife in a new home—a real, actual house, no less—but also the beginning of a new chapter in my life: graduate school.

Grad school is something I've long wanted to do, but the original plan was much different. After a semester of undergrad, I set my heart on the study of linguistics. I wanted to get a PhD and become a linguistics professor somewhere.

Maybe that was always a fantasy. Acquiring a PhD has always been a tough gig, and getting a tenure track position at a university little easier. What really convinced me it that it would be a waste of my time to try, though, was the Great Recession. However challenging it might have been to pursue my dream in the pre-2008 world, graduating in 2009 made getting into a PhD program look fiendishly difficult, as young people delayed entry into the job market by going to grad school in record numbers.

Perhaps "waste of time" is too strong a term. At any rate, I realized I was unwilling and maybe even unable to undergo the loss of time and energy, the uncertainty, and the hardship required to achieve that particular goal. I didn't want to move all over the country hunting jobs for the next several decades. I didn't want to compete in the cut-throat academic world for low pay. I didn't want to publish or perish. I wanted peace. And in the world of the post-2008 "economic recovery,"2 there seems to be very little peace to go around in academia.

So I looked for something else. I did two years in AmeriCorps, which would be a great program if it actually paid people a living wage for their service to the country (like, say, military service, or literally any other public-sector job). As it was, I lived on a small stipend and foodstamps and worked my butt off five or six days a week. Afterwards, I cobbled together a meager living from teaching test prep for a for-profit education company (shudder) and teaching some friends the basics of Biblical Hebrew, and then finally got a full-time job proofing resumes for fairly low pay (still better than my previous gigs, sigh).

Life in this economy hasn't been easy for most Americans. I don't think my story is particularly unique, but it is what it is.3

~   ~   ~

Meeting Anna, getting married, and moving to Muncie has given me a chance to hit the restart button, for which I'm grateful. I'm going back to school to get certified as an elementary school teacher. It will take at least two and a half years. Even though I'm a grad student, I'm basically just getting a BA in elementary education, so it will be entirely undergrad-level classes. I don't know how much fun it's going to be being almost a decade older than my classmates. Maybe no fun at all? 

I've always loved school, though. I love learning new things, and I love teaching other people things, so learning stuff with the express intent of using it to teach others seems like it's going to be fun. Or at least entertaining enough and worthwhile enough that I'll be able to bear the awkwardness that may come with being caught between grad and undergrad. 

And maybe it won't be fun; maybe I'll just do my time and move on to do the worthwhile work out in the field. I think education in America is in a seriously bad place, though I'm not of the opinion that it's ever been all that great. The way I see it, the root of our problems is this: America's poverty levels are too high, much too high for a rich country, and we have too many impoverished students in particular. Poor students need the most intervention (read: money) in order to succeed, but tend to get the worst resources because of how schools are funded and the ability of richer students to opt out of public education. Impoverished students are increasingly segregated into schools by themselves, to the detriment of their educational performance. (Also, speaking of segregation: racial segregation in schools is on its way back.) The result of all this is a system that adequately serves the needs of middle-class and wealthy kids, and throws poor ones under the bus. 


America's school troubles, in other words, can be summed up with that old chestnut, It's the economy, stupid

Troublingly, the "education reform" movement ignores this, and has been implementing misguided solutions like using standardized tests to determine which schools should get government funds (Surprise, kids, your whole education is now oriented around the ISATs!), as well as opening charter schools (Kids, your education is now being used to profit large corporations! Ain't that swell? Also your teachers get paid less here. And there's no evidence this school will do better on average at educating you than a traditional public school. We're much more likely to expel you to keep our numbers high, though!).

I hope to be able to do my part in building something better than what we have now. Failing that, I'll serve the kids I meet to the best of my ability for as long as I can. But first, I gotta get through grad school...with undergrads. 

~   ~   ~

If I'm not careful, I may end up at Bracken Library for the whole semester, where I often go to read books for fun. Source

Which brings me back to my opening remarks. I'm only taking one class this fall because I can't get in-state tuition rates till next year, and the difference is steep enough that it makes sense to wait till then to get started in earnest. I can't tell whether this first semester is going to be a challenge or not. I've enjoyed lots of free time this summer, but I'll start to feel guilty if I don't find something worthwhile to do with my extra time this fall. But what exactly that will be remains to be seen. I'm considering finding a job (top of the list: substitute teaching) or starting some kind of big personal project, or maybe just finding a bunch of on-campus activities to get involved in. 

Whatever it is, I recognize that it's an enormous blessing to have extra time to myself this fall, and that I would have a much bigger, more intense set of worries if not for Anna. So I'll end this post with a word of thanks to her, my beloved partner, support, and friend, for this gift: the chance to start something new.

1. Unless you're counting my AmeriCorps years working in schools, which did include "first day(s) of school" in a distinct sense.
2. In scare quotes because the gains from said recovery have overwhelmingly gone to the richest Americans while the rest of us climb over each other for the few remaining jobs at low wages. Wealth inequality is probably the economic problem of our time; possible solutions range from raising the minimum wage to creating a no-strings-attached minimum income for all Americans, with a job guarantee program lying somewhere in the middle. Sadly, thanks to the Reagan Revolution in the 80s and the Democrats' reaction to it, both major parties are apparently too far to the right to seriously propose any but the first and least radical option.
3. I do remember sitting out on a hot day in the park one summer not long after the economic downturn. It was a gross, humid day, and I had stripped down to a grody white undershirt, my body sweaty, my hair mussed. As fate would have it, a Japanese TV crew walked through the park just as I sat down, spotted me, and came over to interview me about, what else, the economy. It was pretty surreal. I told them that yes, the economy did indeed suck right now. I can only assume I looked perfect for the part of down-on-his-luck schmo, though whether that's an accurate description of me, a highly educated white male with a great middle-class social support system, is open for debate.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Manhattan, Isle of Joy

The city's bustle cannot destroy
The dreams of a girl and boy—
We'll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.
—"Manhattan," Ella Fitzgerald

Anna and I have been traveling a great deal this summer—a wedding in Ann Arbor, visiting friends and family in Indiana—but nothing in the way of what you might call vacation until this past weekend, when we flew out to New York to visit friends.

The friends in question were slightly nonplussed when they realized that our goal was not to ascend the Empire State Building, visit Ellis Island, or see a show on Broadway, but simply to spend time with them. We've both been to New York a couple times before (my last New York trip was the foundation on which was built several key college friendships that endure to this day), so we'd basically had the New York ExperienceTM already. We had no desire to, say, see Times Square or the Statue of Liberty while we were there, because we knew that those things would not actually be fun, the way anyone who has been to Navy Pier knows that Navy Pier is not actually going to be fun.1

Once we cleared the air on that matter, we were able to plan out a fun weekend together, doing stuff that we could all enjoy. We stayed in Upper Manhattan with two of my friends, Brinton and Matina, but also wanted to hang out with two of Anna's friends, Alicia and Alain.

~   ~   ~

Arriving late Friday night, Anna went off to bed while Brinton, Matina, and I schemed about the days to come. (Anna had worked since five that morning; I had, uh, not.) Brinton is from Minnesota and Matina is from Tajikistan, so we woke to a breakfast of mixed Minnesotan and Tajik fare, and then set out for a visit to a nearby art museum run by the Hispanic Society of America, where we saw Art.

Yeah, Art! Much of the Art was quite cool. I liked this Art the best.2

It was both fun and free, which is a great combination, plus it gave me a chance to tell the story of our first date, which is always a pleasure.3

Speaking of our first date, we next asked Brinton to bring us down to the main New York Public Library branch on 42nd street (a great research library recently rescued from a plan to turn it into a glorified internet cafe), where we took a picture that commemorated our first meeting, next to the lions at the Art Institute in Chicago:

There are people all around us in this picture.
I swear Manhattan is not a desolate wasteland.

We toured the inside of the library, which is quite lovely, including a wonderful exhibit called Why Children's Books Matter, which included dozens of old, rare, and beautiful illustrated books for children.

Alas, we didn't get to see the coolest bit, the reading room (pictured) because part of the ceiling fell off. Source

We then met up with Alicia and Alain and tooled around downtown Manhattan, stopping for 99-cent pizza slices and chilling out in Grand Central Station, where they patiently listen to me explain my leftist political views on education and the economy. They were both extremely gracious and quite fun to be around. So much so that they agreed to come with us and Brinton and Matina to the symphony at the Lincoln Center later that night.

The Lincoln Center is gorgeous, BTW. Source

I am a somewhat casual fan of classical music, so I often run into a problem when going to the symphony, which is that I can't pay attention for longer than about five minutes unless I already know the song well. If I do know the song, I can focus on the details of how it's being performed, which is a great pleasure for me as both a musician and a music listener. Somewhat unfortunately, then, I wasn't too familiar with either of the pieces being played that night, Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto and Haydn's "London" symphony, and I had a little trouble giving them my full attention. Though there are worse things than thinking about knotty political issues and the like while beautiful music plays in the background.

That said, the performances were excellent, and I really did enjoy them, apart from my wandering attention. Brinton thanked us for the opportunity to go, since he and Matina hadn't gone to the symphony since moving to Manhattan. It's a familiar feeling to me: not going out and seeing the great stuff in your city until someone comes to town who wants to see it. I was happy we'd given them reason to go.

~   ~   ~

The real adventure of our weekend came on Sunday. Brinton proposed we go see King Lear at Free Shakespeare in the Park that night, which suggestion I rejected out of hand because I know from talking to her that Anna does not like Shakespeare.4 Anna overturned this ruling, however, declaring her openness to Shakespeare performed live by professionals, as opposed to how she usually experiences it: read in class, seen in a movie, or performed in a high school auditorium.

Free Shakespeare in the Park was completely new to me, but it is evidently a robust and well-loved New York tradition, stretching back five decades and featuring a wide variety of well-known actors, including this year's John Lithgow and Annette Benning (not to mention Clarke Peters, seen below, who I had a hard time recognizing outside his role as The Wire's Lester Freamon). It takes place throughout the summer each year, and the performances are held in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

How did John Lithgow get so old? Source

Typtically, the intersection of Free and Popular features either Long Lines or Luck; Free Shakespeare features both, in that you can get tickets either by showing up at around 7 am and waiting in line till noon, or by entering a lottery. We opted for the certainty (and tedium) of the line, at which we arrived early enough to guarantee ourselves some tickets, but late enough that there were already hundreds of people ahead of us, the morning's rain not having done much to dissuade folks: 

The view forward from our spot in line.

I brought a book (China Mieville's The Scar, which is brilliant and a great deal of fun, by the by), sheltered it and myself under an umbrella, and took periodic walks around Central Park to keep myself spry. The line is so big, long-lasting, and well-known that an entire cottage industry of service to people waiting in it has sprung up, of people selling food, chairs, umbrellas, and the like to folks in the line, who aren't allowed to leave for more than 20 minutes. This also makes them a captive audience for, say, street musicians, or people advertising things, like a new Shakespeare app for iPhone.

Legs aching, feet sore, we finally got our tickets at 12:30, having suffered most recently through the musical stylings of a street saxophonist who arrived after the rain to work the line for tips. We went home, rested, ate, and left for Central Park again that evening.

As Anna knows well, live Shakespeare, done poorly, can be pretty heinous. His plays do not work on their own regardless of talent, and though this is true of many playwrights, it is perhaps especially true of Shakespeare. At any rate, his are the plays you're most likely to see performed badly, of anyone's in the English language.

But live Shakespeare done well is always a joy. In particular, I love it when actors and directors know their stuff well enough to make the meaning come through in spite of the age of the language. Watching King Lear that night was like this. Though I'd read the play before, seeing it staged brought a wealth of connections and resonances that I'd never noticed in reading (or, for that matter, in watching Ran, Akira Kurosawa's Japanese-language adaptation, which I love). Layered on top of my joy at seeing a great work of art performed well, was the pleasant, bewildered astonishment of seeing it performed by, um, really famous people, in Central Park, for free. Free Shakespeare in the Park is a fantastic, brilliant idea, and it is justly loved by the people of New York. The guy who created it sounds like he had a good head on his shoulders:
In the feature-length documentary Joe Papp in Five Acts, Papp, the founder of New York City’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, recounts what he hoped to achieve when he started producing outdoor performances on the Lower East Side in 1956. Until his death in 1991, Papp brought more theater to more people than any other producer in history. In his eyes, art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?”
“I believe that great art is for everyone — not just the rich or the middle class,” said Papp, who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn. “When I go into East Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant and see the kids who come to see our shows, I see nothing so clearly as myself.” (Source)
~   ~   ~

The only thing of note that happened on Monday was the violation of the familial book buying ban, which was laid down by Anna after we went on a book buying spree earlier this summer and she declared we couldn't buy any more books till we'd finished what we had. (Note that this ban had already been violated, in the buying of the ESV Reader's Bible that I reviewed last week, but I was given a pass because it was, after all, the Bible.)

The occasion for the violation of the ban was that we were in New York City, doggone it, and I really wanted to go to The Strand. The Strand is a famous and famously good bookstore in Manhattan, where one's options range from browsing the $1 used book cart outside to visiting the rare book room on the third floor. I wanted to go in order to, yes, buy books, but also simply for the experience, and especially the chance to forge a link with my last trip that I remember so fondly.


I ended up finding a couple of books by two of my favorite Jewish Bible scholars (Jacob Neusner's Invitation to the Talmud, a new find, and Jon D. Levenson's Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which I've wanted to read/own for almost a decade now). I also came across a whole shelf full of Aubrey-Maturin novels, a personal favorite series of mine, which I've been slowly attempting to acquire in its entirety for the last few years.5 I ended up buying two, which represented some very serious restraint on my part:

Behold, outlined in red, the transgression of the book buying ban
The remainder of Monday was spent resting, enjoying the remaining time with friends, and traveling back to Muncie. We arrived home pretty exhausted, but quite exhilarated at the fun we'd had. Having gone so far and had such fun, with such lovely people, felt deeply satisfying, not least because it is an accomplishment to go on a vacation this successful. At all events, it was a truly great first vacation for us both, I think, and I look forward to many more to come.

1. Zing, Navy Pier. Zing. Also, sorry if you're really into Navy Pier; I know it has a nice garden.
2. And now I've written Art so much that I'm experiencing semantic decay and Art sounds like a made-up nonsense word.
3. Short version: Anna and I met at the Art Institute of Chicago, where we walked around and looked at Art and Anna thought I was a humorless fuddy-duddy because I was being all serious and Arty. I later redeemed myself by taking her out for falafel, but it was a close call, there, folks.
4. Marriage, y'all. We like, talk and stuff.
5. The story of that is probably even more boring than the rest of this post, so it's going in a footnote. I saw Master and Commander: Far Side of the World when it came out in 2003. I was in high school; I liked it a lot. For Christmas that year, dad got me two of the books in the series, Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10). The trouble was, the books are written in early 19th-century period style; though the author lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, the books sound like they were written by Jane Austen's seafaring cousin. I had trouble reading at that level for pleasure in high school, so I put them aside. Fast forward to a couple years ago: I picked up the first book and found that, not only was I able to read it, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. I went to the library and burned through the first 18 of the 20-book series in a few months. Along the way, I decided that I had a marked preference for one of the printings of the books over the others, which feature a single large naval painting across the spines, matte covers, clear fonts, crisp off-white paper, and general loveliness all around. I find that I really loathe finishing series of things, and occasionally I've found myself refusing to do so; this was a case in point. Rather than read books 19 and 20 and be done with it, I resolved to wait until I'd acquired all the books, used when possible, in the printed edition that I liked best, and only then read them all from start to finish. As you can see in the picture above, I'm a little over a quarter of the way there; I'm not sure what I'll do with the three books that aren't the favored edition, especially given that two of them were gifts from my father.