mesmerizing mise en scène
Some people are more socially savvy then others. No doubt about it. When it comes to casual, ostensibly fun situations, like a work holiday party or a kegger, some people are able to work a room of friends, acquaintances, and unknown folks with deft aplomb. Others simply are not as self-assured or able. Interest plays a part in this. Perhaps I don’t want to attend a colleague’s cocktail party because I suspect the evening will be filled with awkward chit chat about work and the weather, and I get enough of that at the office. Conversely, perhaps I do want to attend a colleague’s cocktail party because I suspect that jib jab about work and the weather is always more interesting than the same talk at the office when it’s soaked in booze. It’s not my intention in this post to try to place myself on the continuum of social adeptness. EMP’s fair readers know well enough towards which pole I tend to gravitate. Rather, I’d like to submit an observation about an almost instinctual, or more precisely reflexive, fallback of mine that I observed about myself at a recent holiday get-together for folks in my office building. My building houses the faculty of four humanities departments: English, Women’s Studies, Media and Society, and Religious Studies. It’s a friendly bunch on the whole, with no shortage of gifted scholars, skilled teachers, and unique personalities. The world of academia is filled with people of all stripes when it comes to social abilities. Just like any “population,” there are easy-goers, ego maniacs, cut-ups, patronizers, dourly types, curmudgeons, friendly types, competitors, shy types, and so on.
I arrived late to the party (which was boozeless, by the way). Many folks had already split or were jacketing up in preparation to leave. As I sidled up to the fruitcake and cheese, begrudgingly I allowed myself to be roped into a conversation about the Epimenides paradox. Before fully entering the conversation, for the fourth time in two minutes I reread the bottles of sparkling apple cider and grape juice to make sure that I wasn’t somehow missing the wine at the spread–this non-alcoholic fare was in what looked like wine bottles, after all; they even had corks! Anyway, the conversation progressed until it couldn’t be sustained anymore. When the four or five of us who had been chatting were suddenly looking at each other, wondering what to say next, I pointed to a guy who happened to be wearing a crown and said that “he reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine dated the mattress Wiz.” And I half-laughed, half-sighed, “nobody beats him.” Quickly someone blurted, “I don’t have a TV.” Another said, “When I hear ‘the Wiz’ I don’t think of Seinfeld, I think of Nipsey Russell’s masterful portrayal of the Tin Man.” Another person said something like, “Oh, Seinfeld, which episode? I thought Elaine dated that big guy with the funny name.” I nodded, smiling at everyone, eventually turning to the person who remarked about Elaine’s paramour and mumbled “David Puddy.” The conversation quickly changed to something else, and the Seinfeld digression couldn’t have lasted more than a minute. No harm, no foul. But on reflection, I realized that in my “regular” (or old) social circles the Seinfeld reference I had lobbed to my work compatriots the other night would have been quickly snatched from the air, knocked back with lines from the episode — “I’m the Wiz, I’m the Wiz, and nobody beats me.” — and punctuated with some spin off lines and scenes from other episodes that the Wiz brings to mind — the Assman, “The Ukraine is Weak,” “The Jerkstore called and they’re running out of you!” “No soup for you,” and on and on and on.
And so, somewhere amid my reflections on the topics of conversation at the party, especially my contributions to them, I began to wonder to what extent the culture of everyday life that Seinfeld seems to capture–comedic and otherwise–is a marker of my sociability, a social yardstick that I naturally fall back upon in situations, almost unconsciously, to gauge the potential commonalities of perspective and fleets of fancy that I might or might not share with the company I’m keeping. I might call it the Seinfeld Social Hypothesis.
So, in my office at work I have a framed picture of the iconic Velvet Underground “Uptight” poster. There’s a young guy, 22 perhaps, who works in the office and he reminds me of myself at that age: the only thing that matters is music, which he consumes like food. He’s always talking to me about this band or that band he just saw, most of whom I know nothing about. But the kid has an excellent grasp of musical history, so he certainly is not confined to the present. Last week, we both happened to find ourselves outside on a smoke break when he approached me and said, “Hey…you hear about Moe Tucker?” I had heard nothing of note regarding VU’s drummer for some time and, fearing she had passed, breathlessly gasped, “No. What?” He casually replied, “She’s a Tea Partier. The video went viral on You Tube.”
I professed strong reservations and countered that the name Maureen Tucker is rather common and questioned whether THE Maureen Tucker was the one in the video. Much of VU’s outlook could be categorized as Libertarian, but even that is a stretch. It’s more nihlist than anything else. However, upon observing the offending clip (and seeing her Wikipedia page now includes this information http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maureen_Tucker) I’m somewhat at a loss for words. The news clip of Tucker at the rally is linked above. I had to watch it three times — it sure looks like her, but it just doesn’t make sense to me. Wonder what Lou thinks of this. Anyway, Moe comes into the story a little after the 2:30 mark.
bowdlerize, [v. trans.] : To expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate (OED).
The institution that employs me likes to post pictures and stories on its website that demonstrate any number of things: the beauty of its campus; its efforts at outreach with and in the local community; student achievements; sports events; concerts; public lectures; faculty research; and so on. Someone in the communications department heard that I did some work over the summer in Europe, and so I was recently asked to write a few words about my research and submit a few photos that they could use for alumni outreach and advertising. Sure, I complied. Coincidentally (or not), in most of the decent photos from the trip that included me in them I had a drink in my hand. (Really, really, it was a work trip.) So I sent in a blurb and a few snaps. Some time later, I got an email saying a “story” about me and my research has been posted on the institution’s website. It’s nice and all. But upon close inspection of the photo that accompanies the story, it’s obvious that someone in the communications department photoshopped the image. See for yourself. The original photo is on the left, and the photo they published online is on the right. Can you tell what they did? Check out what’s in the glass!
As I’ve tried to understand why they might have made this change to the photo, the most reasonable answers I can adduce have to do with an effort not to promote, in any way, the consumption of alcohol in an environment that annually suffers from alcohol saturation among a population that often cannot handle alcohol saturation. Maybe there’s a better explanation. Perhaps insurance is involved somehow. But c’mon, if you’re going to bowdlerize beer into “water,” then at least take the sudsy head off the beer!
This all made me think about how college aged men and women today might be different than they were when I was in college lo so many years ago. Would a beer have been erased from the hand of one of my professors when I was in college? Honestly, I don’t know. But there might be something to the comparison in terms of maturity levels for twentysomethings today and twentysomethings in the past. Last week the NY Times ran an article, “What is it about 20-somethings?,” that speaks to some of the possible differences. While the tone of the article is perhaps overly judgmental, it’s an interesting read on the effects of the economy on “growing up” (insert Springsteen melody here).
Postscript: The Dirty Deeds-style eye bars were added by photoshop fuhrer, Herr Louis Frederick. Thanks!
I am in the midst of writing a paper for a conference. As usual, there are good days and bad days of writing. On a good day of writing there are countless starts and stops, fits of frustration, and very rarely the seemingly shining moment of brilliance. On a bad day I usually just sit a lot, frustration mounting, typing very little. Even on a good day much of what comes out of me typically ends up on the cutting room floor after a second read through. As I imagine my audience and their reactions to my claims and ideas, I can’t help but think that there must be a better way of saying what I want to say, a more clever and creative way to argue — of course there is, but can I capture it? Because I already know a number of the people who will likely be in the audience for my presentation, it’s tough not to imagine them and their reactions, but it’s probably best to press on without them in mind. I’d write faster, I bet, and probably enjoy this process a lot more as well. But that’s another story for another day. For a number of years it’s been my standard practice to prepare for public talks aloud, preferably with someone to listen to me. Increasingly over the years, I’ve found that fewer and fewer people are available to sit with me while I read through initial drafts. It’s dull, I know, and it’s rather time consuming, and there’s not a lot to show for the effort put in. My dog, however, is always available. On any given day she’ll sit (and sleep) before me as I read. So this morning, when I needed an ear, I turned to her. Of course, she doesn’t usually give me reactions like a crowd of experts and know-it-alls (read: academics) invariably do. But this morning she did, and the pictures above bear them out. As I read her physiognomy, she was mildly intrigued by what I was saying at the start, then found the material around page two highly soporific and, by the conclusion, she was outraged by my findings. I have seen this response arc before in folks who’ve attended my talks. The Q & A is always a joy in such company. Should such a scenario unfold again, I’ll have to open with something light and non-confrontational (which is usually the last place I think to go in such situations), like “[ahem, ahem] Tough crowd.” Perhaps one of Peashoot’s dear readers could help me with this. When opening the floor to what is often, though not always, a critique of one’s own ideas, WWHYD?*
*What Would Henny Youngman Do?