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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


I Heart NY

Although I'm in Manhattan, I find it amusingly appropriate that I'm currently listening to the Beastie Boys "No Sleep Til Brooklyn" on the local radio station.

Since I'm at a writers conference this week, I thought I'd try to run a couple of blog entries from New York, just to keep my students updated on why I'm ditching class. I'm sure a lot of my later comments will focus on writing, but today, all I did was get here, so I'm going to just toss out a few observations I scribbled in my little notebook at the airport or on the plane. Who knows: maybe I'll be so enamored of the city that I'll spend all my entries waxing romantic about New York. I am, after all, staying in a hotel on the corner of Times Square--you don't get much more New York than that (if I wind up in a background shot on MTV's TRL, I'll let everyone know).


I was in O'Hare, waiting on a delayed flight to La Guardia, and despite the Metallica blaring on my mp3 player, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation between two women nearby. Both were younger than me by at least a few years, but one had--I gathered--just finished her MBA. The MBA-woman was engaged in a long narrative about her ex-boyfriend and some other male friends; her friend nodded and only occasionally broke in with a "Really?" or a "Then what happened?" The interesting thing--the quirk that made me shut off my Metallica and start consciously eaves-dropping--was that despite the MBA-woman's allegedly advanced degree, and therefore despite her supposed level of higher education, she insisted on filling her monologue with the word "like," to the extent that "like" made up somewhere near 30% of her vocabulary. Stranger still, she was using it as a conscious replacement for dialogue tags, as in "So, I was like, 'You didn't even think about that did you?' and he was like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' and I was like, This guy is such an idiot." Which prompted me to wonder: At what point did we replace "said" or "thought" with "was like" in our everyday storytelling? In some ways it seems to signify a shift in narrative intensity or involvement--the words we speak no longer merely represent our dialogue or our thought processes but somehow embody them. Or, we cannot merely speak or think; we must exist in a physical state approximate to our speech and thoughts. Perhaps it's an added note of seriousness: Anyone can say something witty or interesting, but I was like the wit itself--I personified "interesting."


Flying into New York at night, I craned my neck to see the city lights from the plane window. I didn't expect much beyond a real-life version of all the Manhattan skyline fly-bys I've seen in countless movies and TV shows over the years. Really, New York in general is probably the most photographed city on Earth, at least in the popular media; I'd guess that the skyscraper landscape of lower Manhattan has been represented on film, either in real life or through movie magic, in every stage of its existence--somewhere we have seen a version of Manhattan for each year since it first sprang from the swampy forest and Native settlements of the island. (Several months ago, I read an article about a new book documenting, through archived photos and digital manipulation, what the island looked like before Europeans arrived to found New Amsterdam, so in theory, we now have all visual representations of this city that we could ever have.)

I was surprised, then, to discover how enchanting the skyline actually was. Perhaps it was because I first caught site of the Statue of Liberty, diminutive from that distance but remarkable and unconsciously symbolic despite its pop-culture commonality. But I think it was more than that "perfect" introduction to New York: The skyline itself truly is charming and unexpectedly warm, inviting even. To me, it looked a bit like a toy set, as though some giant child--probably a boy, at least in my mind--had built it from Legos and Lite-Brite boards.

Then, in the cab from the airport into the city, I found myself marveling at the reality of the city from street level: the apartments, first old brick and chain fences and bright, sweeping graffiti, then taller, newer, with New-York-modern furniture stark and clean in the bright open windows; the swarm of cabs and limos and dark Lexuses crowding down the highway and then through the city streets, beeping horns at every corner, every lane change, fighting each other with an almost passive comfort in the whole jumbled mess; then the brash digital billboards of Times Square, a lighted Coca-Cola sign thirty feet tall and a movie poster for Rambo the size of a building--the size, in fact, of the Pioneer Tower on our campus back in Wisconsin.

After I'd checked into my hotel, I walked down to the bowtie of streets that is Times Square and found--because it was easy and I was tired--an Olive Garden in which to grab a quick dinner and a beer. I sat at the bar and watched the TV there; the waitresses were engrossed in the Bravo marathon of Project Runway. The episode just ending as I settled in involved the team of designers constructing dresses entirely from materials they pilfered from the Hershey's chocolaterie on Times Square, and I turned in my seat to look out the window--there, across the corner from me, was the very same Hershey's store. I laughed. The crush of life here is intense, and I don't think I could ever live anywhere near this city, but as long as I'm here, I think I'm going to love New York.


Spider-Man becomes Single-Man?

This semester, as we study pop culture and critical interaction with a "text" (really, any medium), I'm making my students write a series of short, informal response essays. And I figured, what's good for the goose.... So, this is the "sample response" I've written for them, in all its shabby inglory:

Last fall, I read an article in The Journal of Popular Culture titled "'With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility': Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics." The latter half of the title is misleading; the article is less about the Cold War and more about the ways in which Stan Lee single-handedly revolutionized the comic book industry and forever changed our idea of the superhero. Not to get too into the article itself, my own favorite section of it dealt with Peter Parker and the invention of the teenage hero.

I wasn't as obsessive as the stereotypical "comic-book geek" (I was certainly no Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), but I read my share of comics in high school and college (I hung out with Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), and I still have my collection. Spidey was always a favorite of mine, for most of the same reasons this article points to: He was my age--a teenager/young adult--but he was a hero in an adult world and could handle adult villains easily; he was a geek in the world but secretly cool, shy and unsure around his love-interests but hip and sarcastically eloquent as his alter-ego; and, though he was super-strong and super-agile, he often relied on his wits and intelligence to defeat his enemies. Better still, he was troubled: He burdened himself with worries and responsibilities beyond the capacity of normal people and even beyond his own capacity sometimes. (We've long acknowledged a mental condition of involved self-sacrifice, wherein a person believes he or she is personally responsible for the salvation of the entire world; Buddhists call it bodhicitta, the compassionate desire to help all sentient beings; psychologists have long called it a "messiah complex"; but I wonder if we ought to start discussing, for my generation on down, the "Spider-Man Syndrome.")

Anyway, I started thinking about this article a week or so ago when I heard, much to my shock, that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker are splitting up. I caught the announcement on a brief news item on WPR, and for me, it was as earth-shaking as the death and resurrection of Superman, as surprising and intriguing as the assassination of Captain America. And I can't help wondering, now that Spidey (who is technically in his 40s but who ages slowly) and I are both older, leaving our youth and eying a not-so-distant middle-age, what the ramifications are going to be of Spidey's new "mid-life crisis."

I remember following the love affair of Peter and Mary Jane with the same zeal and personal investment with which my grandmother watched her soap operas. Mary Jane was my generation's ideal woman, for the comic book set anyway. She is smart, self-assured, outrageously sexy, just flirtatious enough.... We all wanted to marry Mary Jane. When I watch the second Spider-Man film (in my mind, the last, because film 3 was a rotten mess), I actually erupt in grinning tears—even now, after multiple viewings—every time Kirsten Dunst looks proud and glassy-eyed at Tobey McGuire and says her character's iconic love-phrase: "Go get `em, Tiger."

Strictly speaking, Peter and Mary Jane aren't breaking up or getting divorced. In a classic bout of comic-book silliness, they've lost their memories. Apparently, Peter's Aunt May was dying, and to save her life, Peter and Mary Jane jointly made a deal with the devil (okay, the comic-book character Mephisto, but it's the same thing), agreeing to erase their entire relationship. They haven't fallen out of love; they've just forgotten the last twenty-one years. So, Spider-Man is now a swinger in a multitude of ways, free now to engage in more dangerous, more exhilarating adventures, to take on greater responsibilities (though, really, what responsibility is greater than marriage?). And we readers, straight men and gay women alike, ought to be rejoicing: Mary Jane is available once more. But to be honest, I don't want her available. I prefer them both in love. As my heroic surrogate in super-literature, Peter Parker needs to stay with my ink-colored red-headed icon of sex and romance. Otherwise, I'm left with just another celebrity marriage gone awry, just another undoing of my carefully deluded adolescence.