Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Miracle of YouTube and Flash Mobs: God Bless Us, Every One

Office potlucks. Family gatherings. Dinners with friends you only see once or twice a year. During the holidays, we’re often thrown together with a variety of people, many of whom have different ideas, dreams and ways of looking at the world than we do.

The holidays are also a time to celebrate the best of what we have to offer as human beings. I think Frank Cross, Bill Murray's character in one of my all-time favorite holiday movies, "Scrooged," says it best: “It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night that we act a little nicer. We smile a little easier. We cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped that we would be.”

Earlier this month, I came across these two videos that I think embody the ways people are trying to be the people we always hoped we would be. Whether it is staying hip to the young folks and doing a flash mob for our grandchildren to giggle about later on YouTube or dancing our hearts out in tightly fitted red leotards, God bless us every one, and the ways we want to bring joy to the world.

Happy holidays! Here are some songs to help you deck your halls with boughs of holly.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Telling Time

I finally broke down and added Facebook's Timeline to my Facebook Profile last week. I like the billboard branding... or should I say, buzzwordishly, the personal branding possibilities ... of the larger-than-life cover photo. I’m enjoying the bigger, brighter compartmentalized sections that Facebook has created for all of us to review and admire about ourselves and our friends. What I’m struggling with is the tidy little bar on the right, the one beginning with “Now” and ending with when you were “Born.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like that easy swoosh of scrolling down years and remembering things that happened through what people shared on Facebook. That’s conveniently nostalgic and interesting. What I’m struggling with is the assumption that Facebook is where we should store and document every aspect of our lives, even before we were on Facebook--even before Facebook was invented. It indicates we should do some sort of exhaustive digital scrapbooking. It seems to presume that Facebook is not only taking over the Internet, but our personal pasts that happened before its invention and relentless inventory.

After exploring Timeline and all of its bells and whistles, I found myself wanting to remember the other ways we measure our lives by time. So I did what a lot of writers do ... I conducted an informal poll with my friends on Facebook:

Doing some writing and have a question for everyone: How do you measure and keep track of time? Perhaps a better way to put this would be: How do you know time is passing ... how do you measure your life by time? Would love to hear everyone's thoughts. Thanks.

One artist friend said he knew time was passing when he saw trees he had planted, and how much they had grown. He has a tiny studio that’s nestled in a meadow off a winding road in Western Maryland. A dedicated mom of two I know said she told time by “the increase of grey in my hair, the height of my children versus the height of the kitchen counter, and by the increasing discrepancy between the weight on my drivers license and my actual weight.”

“Now (telling time) is in the development of Samuel. Before him, I didn't really notice. Am I not still 28?” wondered one friend of mine who is a proud dad. “For about the last 8 months, I've measured time by the size of my belly,” said another friend, who is expecting her first child.

For the dedicated educators I know, the passage of time was marked by pop cultural references their students could no longer relate to and watching students go on to have kids and pursue graduate degrees. “Time passes? I thought I was living the same term over and over again,” one joked.

Books proved to be another source for keeping track of how years were passing by. “Rediscovering my notes from a book I've read some time ago and reading it again and discovering other things in it,” responded a professor friend. “Coffee spoons (literally),” said a poet I know, wryly citing T.S. Eliot and revealing her one-pot-a-day caffeine addiction. “People I have spooned with,” added my artist friend.

No matter how we spend time, measure it, mythologize it and reexamine it through digital documentation, the most unexplainably beautiful, memorable moments are perhaps best experienced when we’re living in the present, and reaching out and holding onto them with both hands. Stopping to notice and acknowledge them and realize they are not permanent.

Time has been transformed, and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration. - Khalil Gibran

NEW FEATURE: Starting today, I'm going to create a Spotify playlist for each new blog post. Here's the one for Telling Time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Reading Between the Lines in the Waiting Room

Tablets. They’re not just for first graders learning handwriting anymore, but for people who want to read on the go. With no heavy lifting required, but instead that sense of confidence that comes from having the world in your hands, in a slim electronic package.

I was in my doctor’s waiting room the other day and I noticed a woman who was calmly reading her Kindle, while the rest of us grumbled about our practitioner running late. So I started talking to her about it, as I’ve been thinking about getting my husband one for Christmas. Her name was Pat and as it turned out, she teaches writing to inmates at a nearby federal prison.

Pat told me she loved her Kindle. Her current reading selection, which she chose because Kindle recommended it: Darcie Chan’s mystery “The Mill River Recluse.” I asked her about the Nook, which is what my mother-in-law has and loves, and she told me people buy the Nook for the color. “But if you just read, you don’t need Nook’s color,” she told me.

Pat’s whole family had Kindles, and they all subscribed to each other’s digital reads online and shared and downloaded books together. Like me, her husband was a bookworm, and had a Kindle but missed the smell of books, she said, and finding out what people were reading by happenstance, like when he glanced at their book covers in subways. “You can see people are holding a Kindle, but you don’t see the title of whatever it is they’re reading,” she said.

A 30-something-year-old guy was sitting a few chairs down from us, and he chimed in: “I’m thinking about getting my daughter a Kindle.” We found out he was a plumber whose company had him drive two and half hours to Washington, D.C., and back every day. “They pay for my gas, though. ... and there’s not much local work in this area for the unions.” He told us how he and several other guys he knew were working around the clock to finish the plumbing for this elementary school that had burned down and was being rebuilt. “We want to get it done by Christmas,” he said. Like Pat, his girlfriend had a Kindle, he owned one, and now he wanted to make sure he got his daughter one. “She just loves to read,” he said.

I told them about how the first time I had seen a Kindle was when I was traveling to China for work and one of my colleagues showed me how his Kindle was wrapped in an medieval-looking leather binding. That leather cover made me think of Melissa Bank’s “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” whose heroine said hugging her non-committal boyfriend was like embracing the surrogate wire mothers in the rhesus-monkey experiments, “more like the idea of a hug than the real thing.”

But here we all were, killing time in the waiting room, the perfect opportunity to read, and all Pat had to do was pull out her Kindle and let the distractions and stresses of everyday life fade away as she lost herself in a great book. A popular mystery recommended by Kindle readers that she would probably eventually share with her daughter through a download. A story that might help shape an idea to pass along to her inmate pupils, who were struggling to find the words to rewrite their own stories.

However we choose to read these days, it makes me so happy to see people, young and old, love books, want to talk about books and want to see their kids and friends and loved ones read books. That rules. : )

Thursday, November 24, 2011


I like to slip out and go on a long run on Thanksgiving, to spend some time reflecting on the good things for which I am grateful. Today I was jogging past this little Thai restaurant right around the corner from my Mom’s house in Atlanta. On the sidewalk right outside their front door, there was a plate with several small portions of cilantro, tomatoes, diced onions and other foods. Two candles were anchored and burning on the plate, too, their tiny flames seemingly out of place in the bright, cloudless morning around them.

When I spotted that plate, carefully placed on the concrete and off to the side of pedestrian traffic, I thought about those fairy tales I read when I was a kid that always seemed to include families who left food on the edge of a forest for the spirits who lived there, to keep them happy. My mind also wandered to the idea of memorials, and whether someone was honoring a person who died and leaving a light behind for them so they were always remembered and their soul nourished. Maybe a restaurant employee was simply showing the world a small token of gratitude, with food, simplicity and warmth.

I hope that every day, not just today, we light a candle or two and enjoy a moment of gratitude for that place within all of us that’s persistently strong and full of hope, a place that’s been with us from the beginning. Maybe we’ve had several beginnings and started over a couple of times, or are just now coming to terms with truths that are changing how we understand ourselves and the world we live in.

In less complicated and universal terms, here are a few things that come to my mind, as I give thanks for what I have, what I know and what I hope for:

  • I’m thankful, not just today, but every day, for the good friends my husband and I have in our lives. When I talk about the people I care about, I always stumble over the distinction of friends and family, because our friends have been our family for a long time, particularly as we’ve moved farther and farther away from our hometowns over the years.
  • Feeling thankful for old-fashioned things that don’t require electricity, like knick-knacky junk and abandoned clothing in thrift stores that lend old-school irony to my home d├ęcor and the way I dress, handwritten thank-you notes, sour-smelling library books with crackly, plastic covers, and my hours-long culinary adventures in the kitchen, like caramelized onions and slow-cooked soups that make savoring a moment deliciously necessary. These tactile objects anchor me and open all my senses to what’s happening right in front of me; they're tried-and-true timeless experiences that keep me real and wide awake.
  • Equally thankful, though, for all things digital, because these places online where we chatter, post and share make creativity instantaneous and awesome. I love wandering through a city, snapping  a picture of something arresting and beautiful and uploading it immediately, so that thought, that idea, is safely stored away in my inventory of imagination. Making a video of my giggling niece and nephew that they can watch over and over again, once I’m on a plane and far away from them and we all need to remember how much fun we had during my last visit. And reading and learning from people everywhere, letting their ideas inform my own, so we’re all growing together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Generation X + Y = ... I don't know, you do the math

Generation Catalano all the way, baby!
The past few days have been packed with news stories obsessing over numbers. Our planet’s population reached seven billion people. Kim Kardashian’s marriage lasted 72 days. Today’s 11/1/11, which, according to the Huffington Post is a binary day, something that won’t come around again until January 1, 2100.

Everyone wants to categorize their time, somehow, some way. Clinging to a generational identity is one of the easiest ways to do this. Noreen Malone in New York Magazine, Doree Shafrir in Slate and The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse have all been talking ‘bout their generations--and others--as we add up our marriages' shelf lives, our place in the world’s population, the Haley’s Comet math of a day’s unique date. Indeed, our endless search for our personal and cultural chronology through claiming our generations has also dominated the media’s liveliest discussions over the past couple of days, as well.

Like lots of people who read that news story about the seven billionth baby, I plugged my birthday into the UN Population Fund’s calculator, to find out my place in time. I thought about sharing it on this blog post but then I remembered that on Facebook, I don’t reveal the year I was born for fear that it will somehow jeopardize the security of my online identity.

Ironically, my online identity is already at risk, I suppose, as it is suspended in a shape-shifting state of past, present and future ... a weird cultural/generational/puzzle-piece limbo of old high school friends, college folks, former and current colleagues, mentors, grandparents. Facebook has strung us all neatly together like beads on a necklace, hop scotching time and space and circumstance. Sometimes it seems so comfortably, chummily nostalgic, like too many of us are forgetting our transgressions and betrayals, reinventing relationships and rewriting histories. And it goes beyond social media stuff to the real-time world at large: there is no longer a golden age number for retirement in this uncertain economy, college grads are crashing out at their parents' houses for years on end, your 30s are your new 20s, particularly if you succumb to the bad luck of a "starter marriage."

I think tonight, I will simply hold on to the first thought I had when I realized today’s date was five ones, lined up together in a neat, numerical, symmetrical row: Do we get to make a wish? And dance it out to "What Is Love" by revisiting the "World Happiness Dance" episode on My So-Called Life, via YouTube.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Video killed the radio star ... Did Spotify kill the mixed tape?

There’s a cracked leather box of cassettes I just can’t seem to part with, a random artifact that’s traveled with me to several states over the years.

A chronicled soundtrack of failed relationships or boyfriends who just drifted aw
ay before I could make sense of what we were supposed to be, all smudged black or blue ink valentined in between those steady lines on those folded white paper edges. Side A or Side B. Maxell, JVC. Homemade and heartmade.

Listening to these old grey and black plastic pastimes can take me back to high school, when this guy stopped me mid-sentence
with a kiss in the middle of a crowded party on a balmy summer evening, a kiss the didn’t stop until we had eased ourselves away from everyone and found our own ledge on the front door step, behind the hedges, where we proceeded to make out with abandon. And other boyfriend stuff; driving around in cars, getting ready to go out to shows of bands we loved, writing really bad poetry in battered composition notebooks after we were over, always listening to that careful mishmash of just the right sentiments and genres, blended together. Indie rock, with some intelligent hip-hop mixed in, some Beastie Boys for smart-ass irony, some shoegazer rock. This music, in this order. An art, a science, an obsession we all shared, over the years, my fellow Gen Xers and I and the hipster youngsters who followed us and had cool older siblings who tutored them on the art of the mixed tape.

Those cassettes gave way to CDs, which
eventually were eclipsed by Napster and iTunes, with some streaming Internet radio stations for variety and discovery of new bands along the way. It got less and less tangible, and more mix-and-match instant gratification, buffet syle. Gone was that afternoon you spent carefully studying your music collection like an archaeologist, unearthing the perfect songs for what you wanted to say, an act that lingered with the CD, but eventually went the way of the dinosaurs as the world dissolved into all things digital. That commitment of couples sealing their fate with their own soundtrack, crafted just so, was gone and no longer needed. Or so it seemed.

Like the rest of the music geeks, I was over-the-moon excited about Spotify, when I first heard about it. I netted an invite from a friend soon after it was available in the States. And it was daunting at first. Any song, any album I could think of, suddenly available, to build and take apart in an endless series of mixes, whenever and wherever I had Internet access? Where were the Napster-like lawsuits? How was this possible? At first I was giddy, snatching songs left and right, patching them together in a crazy quilt of audio bliss that was too chaotic and greedy to be artful. Then one night, I went to the drawer where those old mixed tapes were, pulled them out, and proceeded to capture my ex-boyfriend mixes as much as I could. It felt close to right.

In September, just a few months after Spotify came to the U.S., I was riding on MARTA, my first trip back home to Atlanta in what felt like forever. Two teenagers took the
seat in front of me, their heads close together. The girl took out an iPod, her thumb skimming round the song lists in such a familiar way it was practically a reflex. She found what she was looking for and then took her headphones out and put one extension in her boyfriend’s ear. They leaned into each other, smiling, occasionally whispering, joined at the hip as much as the earbud. And it occurred to me that that heartfelt, electric moment of existing in song, together, was still very much alive and kicking. Not lost to all things digital, but suddenly mobile, happening in the moment in a way that mixed tapes could never be. Transitory, but still touching and very real.

Now I take my sweet time with Spotify and my playlists are a little more carefully woven together. I understand how those Millennials are milling around at shows, sharing
songs, seducing each other through music, same as I did years ago. And I fall in love with music all over again and course through my time and theirs, feeling their energy and youth and savoring my own, rescripted in a whole new way.