Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Emancipation of Meme

Over on his blog, the delightful Douglas Wolk recently complained about the flood of “how-many-books-have-you-owned-type memes,” saying that he liked them in theory but found the questions “unthrilling.” Personally, I’d go a step further, and admit to being slightly creeped out at the notion of defining a person through their possessions (which is all some of these memes boil down to). Yes, it could be interesting to know what Writer X’s favorite novels are and why, but what does it matter how many DVDs he or she owns?

Anyway, Wolk posted a challenge, asking his readers to “make up ONE original question you think would be part of a really satisfying meme.” Those who did were obliged to answer the whole set of questions on their own blogs. So:

What is the oldest article of clothing still in active use in your wardrobe?

It’s tempting to get all rock critic-y and claim my 1979 Clash “Give ’Em Enough Rope” US Tour T-shirt — so old that it refers to “Epic records, cassettes and 8-track tapes” — but truth is, that shirt mainly sits in a drawer, keeping my Clash at Bond’s Casino shirt company. So it would have to be a camelhair cardigan vest I bought in 1981 and now wear without buttoning.

If you were to pass along to a child (offspring, godchild, favorite young person you hope to influence for the better) a lifelong passion for one thing, what would it be?

Practice. Spending hours on scales and arpeggios and etudes is nobody’s idea of fun, but it remains the best way to build technique — and with technique comes confidence and the ability to express what’s in your head. Of course, good technique will never outweigh good ideas, but what’s the use of ideas you can’t express? (The virtues of practice also apply to non-musical pursuits, from athletics to language skills to scholarship.)

What's the one website or periodical that you read which nobody would expect you to?

I subscribed to Car & Driver in the early ’80s, but lost interest ages ago. I loved Loaded back in the mid-’90s when it was laying the foundation for lads mags, but stopped looking at it before the decade was over. I’ve had spurts of reading Elle, Vogue and W over the years, but don’t currently. I have become appallingly predictable, I’m afraid — Cook’s Illustrated is the best I can do, and I doubt that would surprise anyone who knows me socially.

Does there ever come a point when [insert interviewee's occupation] becomes kind of arbitrary to you?

No. Interviewing is serious work, and while it’s always nice to turn a press session into something resembling a casual chat, the truth is you’re there to find out as much as you can about the person or their field. If that information begins to seem arbitrary, it’s time to look for another job.

What is one album/book/movie you have not heard/read/seen but which you really should to be doing what you do, and how do you work around that?

You mean apart from the books in my To Read pile? Obviously, it’s impossible to hear/read/see everything, but I can’t imagine a critic who would come across a gap in his or her knowledge, and not rush to fill that gap. (Well, OK, I can imagine some critics not caring enough to learn more, but they’re idiots.)

What superstitions do you follow or have you made up for yourself?

I prefer to eat Real Fruit Gummies in threes, but that’s more odd habit than superstition. Generally, I try to avoid magical thinking.

What happened the first time you danced?

Nothing. Well, the mother of the guys with whom I rode to the dance referred to my partner as “a long drink of water,” which changed my perception of her somewhat. But that was about it.

What was the first piece of art (book, song, film, painting, building, etc.) that changed your life? What happened? How do you regard that work now?

This is a tough one. I wish I had a pop music story here, such as describing how the first Sex Pistols singles changed my life, but that was hardly a first, as I had nearly finished university by that point. Likewise, I vividly remember hearing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on the radio for the first time. I was riding in a car with my father, and we were taking a short cut through the campus of Goucher college on bright fall afternoon. The song came on the radio, and it seemed to me as if time itself changed as I got lost in the interlocking rhythm of the overdubbed clavinet lines. But I was 16 then, so again, it’s no first.

That honor likely lies with a two-disc set of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s recordings of Wagner orchestral favorites I got for Christmas when I was in junior high. Some I already knew, but there was a drama and sense of narrative to his reading of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” that completely entranced my 13-year old self. Listening to music was never the same after that, and looking back, my only regret is that I’ve been spoiled for other Wagner recordings ever since. (But I’m hardly alone in that.)

If you could choose to understand one thing in much greater depth than the other, what would it be -- your roots or your current surroundings, and why?

My current surroundings, definitely. I’ve been in Toronto barely four years, and still have much to learn about it and Canada. And frankly, I feel in some ways more at home here than I do in Maryland, where I grew up — and that makes me even more curious about this city and country.

How do you like your eggs?

Poached, atop corned beef hash. Oddly, I have Richard Nixon to thank for that, in a round-about way. Many years ago, when I was in Los Angeles to interview the members of Van Halen, I was looking at a hotel breakfast menu and suddenly recalled that I’d read somewhere that corned beef hash with poached eggs was Nixon’s favorite breakfast. So I tried it, and well — the guy may have been wrong about Viet Nam and many other things, but he knew a good breakfast. Curiously, the best poached eggs I ever had (sans hash) were in Tokyo. Perfectly shaped and lusciously soft, they had gorgeous orange-yellow yolks and wonderfully vivid flavor.

The egg question was my contribution to Wolk’s list, and the thinking behind it was that there are many ways to have eggs, and as such a well-defined preference would likely say something about a person’s attitude and aesthetics.

I’ve since come up with some additional atypical questions. Feel free to give answers of your own, or to email them to your favorite blogger.

If you could have sex with the celebrity of your choice, would you tell your friends?

Which had more impact on modern America: The War Between the States, or the English Civil War?

When was the last time Berke Breathed was funny?

Should toilet paper rolls hang with the loose sheet over the front, or over the back? Have you ever changed the orientation of the paper in someone else’s washroom?

Do you like the taste of store-bought tomatoes?

Of the books in your house, how many have you never read? Of those, how many have you owned since college?

Beer or wine?

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