Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chocolate In My Peanut Butter

Something about the mashup fad has always bugged me a little. For those unfamiliar (hi, Mom!), a mashup is defined as a created work that is constructed of elements from other works, often of diametric genres, typically to comic effect, e.g. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I suspect my unease with the concept is based on the general feeling that mashups are created by smug hipsters thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so ironic if …?” Most of them seem to be thought up by the same guys who brought back porn mustaches.

But the other day, I saw something that changed my entire mashup mood: “Mama Said Knock You Out” set to the backing instrumentation of “Come On Eileen,” complete with sepia video clips of LL Cool J looking ominous interspersed with Dexy’s Midnight Runners looking … well, slightly threatening. To good fashion sense, at least.

It was then that I realized that one’s connection to a mashup is really only as strong as one’s inclination toward the sources. I have no interest in Jane Austen nor in the undead, so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies never appealed to me. But ‘80s electronic pop and ‘90s hip-pop combined? Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis called, and they want me to give their love of that genre back.

Most of the other mashups I’ve fallen for lately haven’t been quite so intentional, but they may as well have been custom-made for me. When Aaron Sorkin not only appeared on 30 Rock but had a pediconference with Tina Fey in a nerded-out West Wing homage, while also subtly acknowledging his own failed 30 Rock-esque effort? Well, I’m glad no one took a picture of the stupid grin on my face. And the other night, I was innocently watching the newest episode of American Pickers when Mike started talking about House Hunters International. I think I actually shorted out a synapse.

I guess these aren’t technically mashups so much as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-style combinations of awesomeness. Like when Neil Patrick Harris appeared on Sesame Street as The Shoe Fairy (bless you, PBS, you and your quiet, government-funded subversion). Or when The Office’s Angela Kinsey was on Andrew Dan-Jumbo’s short-lived TLC vehicle, Take Home Handyman. Wait, no, that was the other kind of mashup. The kind usually involving one-to-two trains.

The awareness of these perfect, unexpected combinations has put me on the lookout for more. It’s not as simple as a guest appearance or an out-of-character professional gambit. Something like George Clooney showing up as Cam’s bitter ex-lover on Modern Family wouldn’t count; that would just be great television. No, it really takes a deeper combination of elements. And ideally, elements exactly suited to me. I’m not really one for exuberance, but pairing up two things I love can make me downright giddy. So consider yourselves warned. If you happen to hear a squeal coming from my general direction, it’s safe to assume that Prince has released an album of Dylan covers, or they’re filming the Felicity reunion in Stars Hollow, or Jon Hamm is getting his Rookwood pottery appraised on Antiques Roadshow. By Oprah.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


If you’ve been anywhere near my Facebook page recently, you’ll have noticed a distinctly advertisanal air. I’ve spent the last week hyping up my new “business,” an online jewelry shop featuring my own hand-made pieces. The business part is in air bunnies because, frankly, I don’t really have any expectations about sales. I’d had a few people ask where my work was sold, so I decided to go ahead and make a place for it, but really, my main goal was just to have somewhere to share what I make. Even introverts have an inner show-off, you know.

As I mentioned in my initial kick-off post, I started making jewelry about six months ago. It would be more charming and mystical if I said I just fell into it, or was mysteriously drawn to it, but the truth is, I went on a very methodical quest to find a hobby. Both my time and financial resources were limited, so I sought a diversion that would be relaxing and sustainable. Dozens of ideas were floated and rejected as being too expensive, too time-consuming, too artsy, too crafty, too unwieldy, or just too messy.

When the idea of jewelry-making crossed my mind, it seemed perfect in multiple ways. The supplies were small, portable, and most importantly, dry. The tools required to get started were minimal. I could try it out without making a big financial commitment. Plus, it fulfilled an actual need. I love accessories but rarely buy them for myself, and a large number of the pieces I acquired through my lifetime had recently been stolen during a break-in. There was no way to replace my late grandmother’s necklaces or my high school class ring, but being able to design and create my own jewelry seemed the next best thing as far as adding personal value to what I wear.

With all that in mind, my expectations were still fairly low. I’ve tried a lot of different art forms, from painting to pottery, and always end up feeling like my vision and my production are never going to meet. An enthusiastic foray into crochet devolved into an acrimonious break-up with the entire realm of textile arts.

But without knowing it in advance, I managed to pick a creative outlet that’s exactly suited to my paralyzingly-perfectionistic tendencies. I can choose to follow an existing design, but there are no intricately coded patterns in cryptic abbreviations. It’s very hard to go “wrong” on a piece, but if I do, undoing/redoing is a fairly quick, easy process. Not having to worry about messing up or wasting time does a lot to free my creative impulses. Deciding I don’t like something and taking it apart is usually painless. Knowing it’s easy to go back always makes it much easier for me to go forward.

This whole thing is still pretty new to me – not just the craft, but having a hobby in general. The mere idea of setting aside time to do something for pure enjoyment has been out of my mental repertoire for about seven and a half years now. I’m certainly no expert jewelry-maker, either. I’m getting the hang of it, though, and for maybe the first time in my life, I’m not daunted by what I don’t know. While I still feel very much like a beginner, the wealth of unabsorbed knowledge out there is motivating instead of discouraging. At the risk of sounding like the hippie-crafter-nerd I'm quickly becoming, it took a lot of effort to find this path, and now I can’t wait to see where it leads.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drawl I Ever Wanted

The ol’ Memphisotan is on spring break this week (actually, I’m working on another project; more on that later), so in lieu of a regular column, I’d like to provide an addendum to an earlier post. I’ve gotten so much feedback about the phrase “be careful” from Southerners who never realized it was a regionalism that I thought I’d post a few more expressions that are unique to the South. So here we go, y’all …

South: Have a picture made
North: Have a picture taken

South: Put your stuff up
North: Put your stuff away

South: Made a good grade
North: Got a good grade

South: Took up (homework, a test, papers, etc.)
North: Picked up

In every case, I tend to find the Southern way more charming and appealing, even if not necessarily better (Up? How many things actually need to go “up?”), and have adopted them as I comfortably can. Any other idiom-syncrasies I’m missing?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Born to Be Brave

I am late to the Lady Gaga party. Or the Lady Gaga surreal, 24-hour, glitter-bombed extravaganza, as it were. When I began my 5k training last fall, I needed something upbeat and motivating to run to, meaning something entirely unlike anything on my mandolin-heavy iPod playlist. I created a Pandora station on my fancy phone, combining ‘80s pop with contemporary dance music: Go-Gos meets Gaga. Whenever I turned it on, the first song was almost inevitably Lady Gaga, and it was perfect to get me going. It was slick, fast, and surprisingly funny.

One of the things I appreciate about Lady Gaga, as a performer, is that she hasn’t waited around to ironically morph into a gay icon. She just went right out there and grabbed that baton out of Madonna’s gnarled hands. So although our running time together didn’t turn me into a huge fan, it was easy enough for me to recognize the singer when a recent radio flip brought me to “Born This Way.” Who else would be chanting, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen?” Fondly remembering our glory days last October, I kept the radio tuned into the song, and I found myself grinning. The lyrics are a celebration of differences, a call to pride for anyone who feels judged or dismissed because of who they are. Honestly, it gave me goosebumps. Not so much because it was a great song – although it is pretty catchy – but because I could imagine millions of teenagers hearing those words and feeling like maybe it wasn’t always going to be so hard to be themselves. And that maybe, someday, it would even be awesome.

Because my all-Americana radio station recently betrayed me by going to conservative talk, I went ahead and programmed a Top 40 station into its place. About one out of every four times I go past it, Pink’s new single, “Raise Your Glass,” is playing (the other three times it’s poor edited Cee-Lo). Although it’s to a slightly different audience, the song is like “Born This Way” in its mission to bring the outsiders in. If “Born This Way” is directed to the glee club, “Raise Your Glass” speaks to the art room rogues. The point, however, is the same. Embrace what makes you different. Don’t let judgment break you. Take “freak” as a compliment.

What strikes me most about these songs is that they’re so popular. There have always been anthems for the lost or disenfranchised, but they tended to be so empathetic as to just make things worse (see: Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” entire oeuvre of R.E.M.). No one was dancing to them at prom. In my day, the kids on the edges found music on the edges – Violent Femmes on one side, Metallica on the other. What I find so fascinating and encouraging about this trend (because yes, there are even more, but I have to draw the line at getting philosophical about Katy Perry) is that it’s so mainstream. A kid in Willmar, Minnesota who has never in his life heard the word “transgendered” spoken out loud can hear it sung on American Top 40. And if that’s too broad to attract the true outcasts, my hope is that the message of the music is drilling itself into the kids in the middle. They’re silly songs, party songs, practically disco songs, but when so many teenagers (and younger) are still struggling to survive the pain and isolation they feel every day, what’s the harm in throwing them a party?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

History Repeats the Old Conceits

In the course of writing last week’s post, I did a quick bit of research to determine exactly how long my ancestors had been in Minnesota. With only the name of my great-grandfather*, I stumbled into a cache of family history I had no idea existed. I was able trace my father’s family in a straight line to 19th century Norway and 16th century England. I discovered that my earliest American ancestor arrived as a 16-year-old indentured servant in some new-fangled town called Boston. There’s a very strong chance that he planted a tree on his first colonial property that became one of the dominant symbols of the American Revolution.

As someone who has always felt completely Midwestern, I was amazed to discover that my family had spent two hundred years in the Boston area, and stunned to realize that the ancestor who took my branch of the family tree out of New England was, it strongly appears, an early Mormon pioneer. His son and grandson (my grreat and grrreat-grandfathers) made their way to Witoka, Minnesota in the 1850s, about the same time my grreat-grandmother’s family traveled from Telemarken, Norway, built a home in a four-family town in Pope County, MN, and then skedaddled for a few years until the “Indian trouble” (aka the Sioux Uprising) settled down. Bert, a descendent of the first colonists, and Anna, a Norwegian immigrant, got married on July 4, 1876, our country’s 100th birthday. Isn’t that the most American thing you’ve ever heard?

Let me be clear, I didn’t actually compile all this research. It was just sitting out there on the Internet, waiting for my Googling eyes. Trying to find other branches of my family brought up absolutely nada, so I suspect the only reason I was able to get these details is because grrrrrrrrreat-grandpa Jared was of some interest to historians. The trail ends at my great-grandfather, and doesn’t include any information about his wife, who died shortly before my birth and nearly became my namesake. But still, I feel lucky to have this one thread tied between me and six-hundred years of genetics. Much luckier than, say, anyone who’s spent the last week listening to me recount tales of my family’s historic adventures.

In all this information, however, are lots of little mysteries. One of the most intriguing to me is whether or not my grreat-grandfather, the aforementioned Bert, was with his Union regiment as they battled in Oxford and Tupelo, MS. He was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee (not to be confused with the confederate Army of Tennessee) during the correct time, but records show that he also spent an unspecified three months recovering from typhoid at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Memphis was a Union-occupied city at the time, and a major port, so I’d imagine that a regiment coming through the area would have stopped here before moving deeper into Mississippi. Right? Maybe?

It’s an idea built on many tenuous suppositions, but I can’t help but be drawn to the possibility that one of my own was walking these same downtown streets or the halls of the Hunt-Phelan home. It was obviously an atypical time in the city’s history, but I wonder how it would have touched him, a young blacksmith who, like me, spent his entire upbringing around the Great Lakes. I’ve always felt like something of an explorer here, the first one to send back reports to my people in the north. In knowing that at least one ancestor may have preceded me, I feel a new connection to my past, as well as to the place I now call home.

* Hereafter, number of greats will be indicated by Rs, e.g. great-great-grandfather = grreat-grandfather