Monthly Archives: February 2007

a trip on the bricks

2/28/07

Social anthropologists would be fascinated to see what has unfolded here in Chapel Hill over the last few weeks: a UNC student posted on facebook.com that he was going to break up with his cheatin’ NC State girlfriend in the Pit on Valentine’s Day, and everyone in his extended network was invited to come. If you know what “extended network” means, you know it amounts to “everyone at Carolina,” and sure enough, more than 2,000 people showed up, along with the Loreleis (a cappella singing group, whose theme song I arranged in 1987, thanks) along with a bunch of guys with cameraphones.

The resulting brilliant, profanity-laced freakshow ended up as several clips on YouTube that have been watched, collectively, three-quarters of a million times. People who attended were alternately horrified and transfixed, and pretty soon national newspapers were carrying the story. It has since been calculated as the largest “flash mob” in American history.

By the time it went international, and “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition” started calling the two students, they had to come clean: it had been a scripted performance, concocted by Ryan Burke (the one performing the breakup) and his roommate Andy Jones. Andy knows Peter Kaufman, who directed him to Tessa and me for advice on what to do with his story, and we quickly said “write something great, and write something quick.”

We’ve called some editor friends, and I hope Andy’s excellent piece on the staged breakup – and subsequent psychological fallout – gets picked up by Salon or Slate in the next day or so. If they don’t, they’re missing a good one. Everyone… Forbes, Time, the Chicago Tribune, the Minnesota Chandler News-Dispatch, and even the Independent Online of South Africa have written stories, but the best one will come from the roommates themselves. NY Times Opinion Page, anyone?

Plenty of people have weighed in on the appropriateness of such an event, the apparent misogyny, the ethics of tricking the public, and the sheer nads to have pulled it off, so I’ll leave it to the commenters below for that. However, here’s a few things that struck me:

1) Man, the Pit sure has done its job for forty years. Where else could this have happened? How many times have you fallen in love there? How many Pit Preachers have you argued with? Where else would that suicide SUV driver have gone? How can an inverted ziggurat of boring red bricks be the nerve center of so many thousands of lives since 1967?

2) You’ve got to give Mindy Moorman credit for going along with it. Going to a rival school to get dumped by someone you’re not even dating and joking afterwards that she can’t run for Congress now? She gets an honorary induction into the Carolina family.

3) Forget the colossal news cycle – how amazing is a world where you can get two thousand college kids to show up to anything other than a basketball game? The power of a well-planned flash mob is truly stunning, and completely out of the purview of the Powers That Be. In my day, the Wild West was the Web, and our twentysomething job was to convince people to use it for everything. The next frontier is going to be the harnessing of this amazing social-network power, and they better find the best 22-year-olds they know – like Andy – to do it. Because if big corporations try it themselves, it’ll be obvious as a fart in a car. They’ll look like your Grandma trying to do The Hustle.

Congrats to Ryan, Andy and Mindy on a striking hand well played.

he travels best that knows when to return

2/27/07

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Lucy and Peter after class, Vance Hall, UNC

Almost without fail, Tessa and I have journeyed to Chapel Hill every year to teach one of Dr. Peter Kaufman’s classes at UNC. And without fail, it’s always a fantastic trip, getting to dip our toes in the undergraduate experience once more and meeting a cadre of cool kids. I use the word “kids” self-consciously, because every time I step onto campus, time stops and I am eighteen years old again, wondering what Jon, Chip and Bud are doing for dinner. In essence, I don’t feel that different from them, even though they were born in 1987 and I have a toddler who keeps yelling “Daddo has ears!”

This year’s classroom was a little more subdued, a little harder to entertain. I know it well, since that was usually my class. I remember taking Max Steele’s creative writing course at UNC and him telling us we’d been a really boring group. I recall agreeing with him, but it’s all about chemistry, right? The identical group took Doris Betts’ class the next semester, and we tore the place up with hilarity and hijinks.

Anyway, this year’s theme was Revenge and Forgiveness – which was perfect for Tessa’s film Five Wives. Conveniently enough, it was also perfect for their other assignment, which was reading my “Why I Hate Dook” articles from 1990 and 2007. Tessa elaborated on the finer points of media criticism and painted a complicated picture of her father’s racism, classism and attempts at showing true love.

I made jokes about Christian Laettner. I feel it was a well-rounded class.

Peter Kaufman remains an enigmatic, tortured, brilliant teacher with strains of unfettered pessimism and luminescent idealism. He’s recently had the best-selling book of his career (Incorrectly Political) yet opted to forgo a book tour in order to teach his classes. The hour of RELI 40 he taught on April 22, 1990 was the last formal education I ever had, and I couldn’t have gone out any better.

My wife and I, while very different people, are oddly nuanced, occasionally contradictory, bizarrely eclectic, mistrustful of organized religion but beholden to tradition, and quite sentimental. We were even unsure of our definition of marriage, and spent months trying to parse it out. Who else but Peter could have married us?

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August 9, 2003, 7pm – Columbia County, NY – about to rain eight inches

they lost our crib in CLT

2/26/07

The liminal needs lubrication.

For some reason, that phrase was running through my head all day as we flew from LAX to Charlotte, then on to Raleigh-Durham, facing insane security lines, frustrated passengers and our own throbbing lumbar pain crammed into row 31. In our extended family, we have defined the “liminal” as the place where two very different states of being meet.

It could be the murky area between dream life and wakefulness; the gloaming of sunset versus the night; or the ragged adolescence of pubescence and manhood. In less poetic forms, it is the following:

a) your sinuses (where the outside world meets the inside of your head)

b) your computer printer (where theoretical code meets actual paper and actual ink)

and, c) airports.

All three of these mundane liminals are painful in one way or another: your sinuses are fraught with notoriously bad engineering on the part of your Maker. Printers SUCK. And airports, where a colossal form of transportation (airplanes) meets another (buses, cars, etc) offer all kinds of chances for you to experience incredible discomfort.

Airports are also liminal in that it is cheating – it is YOU being in ANOTHER PLACE SO QUICKLY in a way not possible a hundred years ago. For this we’re all genuflecting in thanks, but these days the Pain in the Ass Quotient is so damned high that it questions your choice to travel at all.

And so, the liminal needs lubrication. In your sinuses, as well as all other body orifices where air meets the inside, it’s actual lubrication in the form of saline nasal spray, Blistex lip balm, or whatever you put on your arse.

For printers, it’s impeccable driving software and a solid USB connection. And in airports – as well as all travel – it’s money. The lubrication of a well-placed $20 bill can lop an hour off your misery stopwatch. Going first class (or business class) can turn your veal-fattening pen of a coach experience into a soul-divining retreat. All it takes is lots and lots and lots of money.

In travel, there is no “almost” – you’re either at your destination with comfort or you’re sleeping between two chairs on Concourse D. The question, as with your sinuses, as with your printer, as with anything that deals with the wildly fluctuating moods of the Liminal, is how well-lubricated you’ve become.

pit preacher spittle

2/22/07

We’re stoked over here in the Blake-Williams household, as we are flying to Chapel Hill on Monday to spend ten days in the town where we met, back in the year 1797. The trip is extended for a variety of reasons: we’re teaching a class on Wednesday, my brother-in-law is also teaching a class (and bringing Sam, kids!) and we’ve got excellent seats to watch us crush the living shite out of Dook.

As such, we have a few questions. First off, where is a decent place to watch the Georgia Tech game on Thursday night? I mean, besides Atlanta? I know where I would have watched it back when Clinton was president, but need the current cool place with a giant high-def TV and food. And if any Chapel Hillian blog readers want to join us, the more decibels the better.

The other question is for you parents: we’d like to find some activities for Lucy. Currently, she does a lot of fun stuff in LA like gym class, Spanish time, music class (where they beat the shit out of synthesizers) and whatever looks interesting. Are there any activities or classes you recommend, or Gymboree-esque events we can visit for a week? Anything in Chapel Hill or Durham would be awesome.

Hope to see many of you during our sojourn – I plan to party like it’s 1989, which means I’m going to Davis Library, sit on the second floor and try to get absolutely nothing accomplished.

serenity praiser

2/21/07

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An article that has been getting a lot of airtime in my household (and extended friends/family) is this one printed last week in New York Magazine. It’s truly worth reading, even for those of you who never click on anything lest you ruin your train of thought, but I’ll give you one of the theses: the act of praise might be damaging your kids. I’ll put it another way: never congratulate a kid for something he has no control over.

The article perfectly illustrates why so many of us were labeled as SMART! early on, and then proceeded to get shitty grades for fifteen years. It also accounts for several shame-spirals you may have experienced, and perhaps even a lifelong feeling that you were destined for something greater, but took a wrong turn.

Specifically, they tested kids who were told how intelligent they were, and then compared them to kids who were praised for how hard they worked. By and large, the so-called “hard-working” kids treated their brain like a muscle that could get bigger, and opted for more challenges. The so-called “intelligent” kids opted out, lest they disappoint. It was rather heartbreaking, especially if any of it rings true for you.

Why do humans find such value in things they can’t control? We look upon beautiful people as better people, as though they were “chosen,” imbued with secrets from their Creator that others can’t know. We give beautiful people such power; we make them our CEOs, we hold the door for them, we listen when they speak.

The same thing happens with money. Truly rich people are viewed with a kind of awe, trepidation. If you hang around them long enough, you notice rich people never pay for anything; they don’t have to, it’s on the house. You could argue that many millionaires are self-made, but it’s the opposite that we truly worship: the heirs of a fortune, the golden boy about to accept his inheritance, the blue bloods of Kennedys and Rockefellers.

Both beauty and money are almost entirely out of our control, and yet we cram them both with praise – it’s no wonder people who are gorgeous and wealthy do everything they can to keep both, through shady deals and surgery.

Tessa and I have a vague theory I call “eggs and butter,” which simply states that nobody really knows what’s good for you at any given time (“eggs will kill you!” “eggs keep you alive!” “use margarine!” “never use margarine, it’ll kill you!” etc.) The same might hold true for this NY Mag article, but there’s something about it that makes clear sense.

Today, I wore this T-shirt:

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…made by my favorite shirt guy on eBay. I have another shirt with an apple on it that Lucy loves, so I pointed to this apple, and asked Lucy what it was. She thought for a few seconds and then said “Computer!”

Several things ran through my head:

a) Sweet Jesus, I want to hug my daughter for being so goddamn brilliant!

b) Wait, how the hell did she know that?

c) Um, so “branding” works on a 22-month-old?

d) Take THAT, Bill Gates!

e) Must… not… call… her… “smart”…

And so Tessa and I just gushed and said, “That’s really good, sweetheart, it IS our computer!”

Maybe we’re child psychology dorks, but if we can keep the Lulubeans happy about things she can control, then maybe she won’t need half – or any – of the drugs I’m on.

the clenched fist never receives

2/20/07

Last night, Tessa and I attended a very swanky black-tie fundraising dinner for her very swanky prep high school. Included in the evening was the now-ubiquitous 10-minute video showing the school grounds, ageless teachers, and various other luminaries waxing romantic about their salad days in the wilds of Connecticut. Also present were pictures of fresh-faced prep school kids from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s all hugging each other and looking into the camera with the baited lust of youthful hope.

You’ve seen these pictures from pretty much any school (so I won’t find a random one and post it), but it’s always about 4-5 friends outside on a crisp fall day, smiling, awash in each others’ unending friendship. I’m always struck by this image, because in our prep school, my friends would never have allowed it to happen.

I’m not saying we were mean-spirited or anything; we just weren’t big “huggers” and besides, we didn’t look the part. I’d like to say we were gothic or of the freak/geek subset, but that wasn’t true either. We weren’t marginalized, certainly not hated, and none of us were particularly sullen. We were mostly guilty of Not Being Lacrosse Players.

Believe me, my school had tons of those happy pictures: cheerleaders, the tennis team, kids whose parents had divorced and married each others’ parents, even the Model U.N. Squad and the Debate Team. Lynn Barco and I spent three years in the darkroom with our hands steeped in stopbath, developing those negatives for the school paper. When the yearbook came out, their faces were there, but not ours.

I don’t know why I carry such shame from my high school years and early college: I was such a combination of Entitlement and Cluelessness, and I still shudder at some of the things I was thinking. I like to fancy myself a true wit, and then I remember some of the things I said in the mid-1980s and wonder how ANY of you stood by me. This is something I have to release – the Alcoholics Anonymous people do it right, as they do not forget their past, but never let it get in their way.

I wish I’d been Friend #3, left center, in those happy pictures, but it took several more years for that to happen. My high school clique had to get out of Norfolk, they had to sing in a cappella choirs, visit Amsterdam, come out to their parents, and let the long nights at William & Mary, UVA and Princeton do their work. For my own part, I had to go to Carolina.

Only then was I able to settle into a pile of like-minded souls and have the spirit – and the lack of paralyzing self-consciousness – to take the kind of picture that makes you want to dig into your pockets and actually give money to an idea. Sometimes your careless youth can only happen when you’re older.

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some cool kids including Benji, Kendall, Tracy, Jon, Kit, Vic, Toni, Chip, etc.

channels fred, ethel and lucy

2/19/07

This just in from the News That Will Seem Unbearably Quaint To Readers from the Year 2073™: satellite providers XM and Sirius have decided to merge. All four of you who have been reading since 2002 know how much I loved my very early adoption of XM Radio, and the company probably owes me about forty finder’s fees.

That said, XM and Sirius were like two unpopular kids in third grade who spent so much time fighting each other that they forgot about the bully. Sirius had Howard Stern, XM had Oprah; Sirius had all GM cars, and XM had me. Neither company made any money, and it always seemed like it was a matter of time before they both flickered off the dial like the midnight star-spangled-banner sign-offs of our early youth.

XM has kept me company for five years now, accompanied me on every road trip, and splashed the Taconic State Parkway with fabulous music. From 2002-2005, when all American news sources offered nothing but parroted talking points from our disastrous Administration, we listened to nothing but the BBC World Service. We caught Woody Durham on the ACC channel while driving through Wyoming. And my daily feast on XMU, Channel 43, has re-awoken cells of new music love that I’d thought long dead.

Sean listens to nothing but the Broadway Musical Theater Channel, but that’s because he likes backrubs and daisies.

Anyway, this is one merger that everyone should be psyched about: satellite radio lifts the shackles off your car stereo, and allows you to leave the iPod at home. It is a direct middle finger to Clear Channel and their lobotomized Top 40 playlists. There’s even a humor channel where you can say “fuck.”

I’ve been involved with companies that had great ideas before their time, and I suffered for it. I proposed schemes that had to wait ten years for the infrastructure to catch up. Websites make millions now from inklings a few of us were knocking around in 1996 – we became victims of a “can’t do that yet” culture, grew demoralized, and quit. Think about Ricochet, who blanketed a city with wireless internet in 1994, only to implode in 2001. Now over 200 American cities have municipal wireless.

I’m stoked to think that satellite radio was an idea whose time had come; few things are worse than falling in love with a technology run by people who can’t afford the french fries.

all worlds left to conquer

2/15/07

We just got home from watching “Children of Men,” and if you’ve seen the film, nothing could be better than getting this in your inbox:

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It’s Augustus Julian Alexander, born tonight to the most excellent (and frequent commenter) Deb and her husband Steve Alexander. Nine pounds, four ounces, and by all accounts a great delivery. How awesome is it to have three names, all conquerors and leaders of ancient Mediterranean empires?

It’s amazing how we sound with our full names…

Lucy Kent Blake-Williams: a law firm on Bank Street in London circa 1889

Tessa Ellen Valentine Blake: a shopping catalogue full of gorgeous pricey furniture

Christopher Clayton Chapman – bantamweight pugilist, winner of St. Louis WWI Vets Boxing Semifinal

Thornton McKendree Long, Junior – master distiller of ancient Glenkrochety single-malts, living in castle off Isle of Man

Linda Jean Worsley Riddle Williams – clue left by crazy aunt revealing hiding place of family treasure

And yours?

boys are dressed in best uptown

2/14/07

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1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18 and 21 months old (click for bigger)

Hi there Li’l Luly Lulubeans! I’m exactly one month late in doing this, my every-three-month missive to you (or your future self, I suppose) but it being Valentine’s Day, and you being half of my favorite two chicks in the world, I thought it only appropriate. You are now 21, erm, 22 months old, which is one of those ages I never understood before my child-rearin’ years. To those without kids, I say you’re in that Netherlands “between a year and a half” and “two.”

I’ll cut to the chase. You are a 2’8″ high pressure system. When you’re in the room, by god, everyone feels the pull of your magnetic north. You’re not a shrinking violet, you’re an exploding morning glory, and as goes your moods, so goes the house. Your happiness, which is at full mast 95% of the time, can clear bacteria and illuminate dark corners. Your Russian-novel sadness, which usually occurs in the minutes after you wake from your nap, turns the place into a delving submarine that has lost power. It’s truly impressive.

When you were born, and we were deep in the throes of just getting through the night – much like Sean and Jordana are now – there were two things I wished from you: lots of smooshy kisses and lots of conversation. Now you’re a generous purveyor of both.

’80s night Chez Blake-Williams!

Sometimes we’ll be looking at picture on the internet, or eating broccoli, and out of nowhere, you’ll fix your eyes on mine, and lunge forth with a wet kiss. It is truly an unedited moment, and it is so wonderful that I have completely forgotten that one time you screamed and barfed in my ear for ninety straight minutes when you were 3 weeks old.

Your conversation is amazing, especially since you’re providing it in Spanish as well. You remind me of those tapes we listened to in language class:

“My sweater is green. Mi camisa es verde.” (repeat ten times)

You have developed little crushes on words, particularly “probably,” “maybe” and bizarre uses of the conjunction “or”. When we went next door to see Uncle David, you got on the elevator and said, “I’m probably going to bring maybe toys or other toys.”

You have another tic that is fascinating: you ask us the question you want us to ask you, and then immediately answer it. You’ll march up to me in the living room and say, “you wanna look at pictures of foxes on computer? Okay!” and before I know it, we’re on a Google image search for foxes. Other examples:

“You wanna brush teeth, Lucy? Yeah!”

“¿You sit with Daddo y coma aguacate? Okay!”

The following words or phrases make you double over with laughter: lipstick, bizarre, chair buns, bamboo and BLEAHHHH! Obviously, they are all on heavy rotation.

You are very serious about your tasks, so serious that we have to be careful when we suggest something. Two weeks ago you found the little kiddie potty toilet we’d bought, and instantly ripped off your pants and diaper and sat on the thing for almost an hour trying to get some pee out. It got so frustrating for you (and side-splittingly hilarious for us) that we had to distract you with some new books and hide the potty, lest you blow a gasket. You still mention the potty every once in a while like an old enemy who will get his comeuppance yet.

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with Mommy and Rick Gradone (Uncle Ick)

Mostly we’re so happy to see you that your mom and I go straight to withdrawal symptoms pretty quickly. I was in Colorado this weekend, and every two hours I’d get that longing pang in my stomach, the feeling that I need to see my Lucybeans.

Already, I can’t imagine letting you out of my sight for more than a few days, but I know that’s the whole point of our existence. We are here to make sure you leave us, in about seventeen years, as happy as possible. I think far into the future, and assuming no major catastrophe and our luck holding, I am still going to miss the last half of your life. The best I can hope for is to see you turn forty-five or so, and then we will drop out of the picture. It’s an existential sadness too intense to contemplate, and yet so natural and beautiful.

As Morrissey sang, “Will the world end in the night time? I really don’t know. Will the world end in the daytime? I really don’t know… all I do know is we’re Here and it’s Now” … and here I am, still rocking you to sleep, singing “Little Buglet” and waiting for the little shudder in your feet that tells me you’ve finally drifted into dreams. They were right at the baby shower, my little love; the years go by so quick, but the days last forever.

– Daddo

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