High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Digressively Resplendent: An Evening with Sarah Vowell

So, Sarah Vowell was in Gary, IN, yesterday. No, I don't know where one can send cards, flowers, and other tokens of condolence, but I wish I did. Buckle up, this could get sappy.

I popped over to the Borders in Highland after my second class to obtain as many of her books as the store had. This turned out to be many, and I was gleeful right up until the point that I realized that my Bad Badtz-Maru wallet had done its second disappearing act of the week and remained in the car after I and my worldly goods had gone into the store. Fortunately, (a) he was just in my freakin' sweet skull bag, and (b) I wasn't trying to look for him while driving 65 mph.

I headed back to campus and settled outside the auditorium, hoping to get some work done. Unfortunately, I got caught up in the mad race to finish up and submit some things before my laptop battery died. While I was involved with this, two youngsters walked by discussing the poster for the event:

Youngster 1: She writes about history in this really . . .
Youngster 2: Who cares? She's VIOLET.

Yeah, that boded.

With little fanfare, the auditorium was opened, and I made my way to the front row. Once again, I was intent on working, but fortunately my bud K showed up to save me from myself. I updated him on my nefarious plans in my creepy, hoarse whisper (and shortly thereafter hoped that said whisper was inaudible to all but him, as it turned out that my department chair was sitting two rows behind me—not that I was particularly talking trash about anyone or anything, but Ranty McRantstein always makes an appearance when two escapees from Castle Demented reunite after a long hiatus).

For a long while, the auditorium remained pretty empty. In the back of my mind, I started to worry that our Cletus-the-Slack-Jawed-Yokel-ness would be immediately evident. I mean, its revelation is inevitable, but it's more fun for the whole family when you can lull the person into a false sense of security first. Happily, though, it was mostly full by the time she and her handler arrived.

Because my august institution of employment is basically a Cow-Town Puppet Show, the event was held in our largest auditorium. It doesn't so much have a stage as a 3-foot-high platform (in fact, I think the stage in one of my classrooms is higher. I WIN! I WIN! I DON'T LOSE! I WIN!) with no wing space. This meant that after Vowell completed her sound check at the request of the undergraduate AV minion, she had nowhere to go but to a chair at the side of the stage, in full view of the audience.

One of the organizers of the conference (I'm sorry to say that I don't know who she was) then took the stage incorporated both Vowell and meta-Vowell excerpts into her introduction. My personal favorite was this from the San Francisco Chronicle's review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot:
And yet all her cuteness is really just a shiny distraction from what's really at work: a writer of fierce observational powers who wears her intelligence and wit as comfortably as an old pair of pajamas.

For most of the introduction, Vowell had been sitting with her eyes closed, face impassive, and head tipped back against the wall. At "pajamas," the faintest frown wrinkled her forehead, and she shook her head slightly, whether in disbelief, amusement, or resignation, I couldn't say.

She started with a reading from Assasination Vacation. I'm pretty sure from the chosen passage that she's either been stalking me or has some kind of precognitive telepathy: She was attending a performance of 1776 at Ford's Theater as part of her research on Lincoln. Likening going to this theater for the play to going to Hooters for the food, she'd been intending to scope out The Box but good during Act I, visit the basement museum, then high-tail it out of there after intermission. (Bad Culture!Whore, no biscuit; we do not even leave 20th-century Czech opera early!)

But like the good, well-rounded nerd she is, Vowell gets sucked into it. All of it: the actors (The Big Lebowski among them), the music, the lyrics, the snappy insults. After an uplifting visit to the museum's macabrely comprehensive display of objects involved in the assassination, she settles down for Act II in full awareness that the merest drop of disdain on her part is nine-tenths irony. Act II, she notes, is about equivalent to Apocalypse Now in its gay-romp quotient. The witty, genteel insults turn ugly as the Founding Fathers face the issue of slavery. And that's a party with no innocents, only more and less guilty.

Turning again to Lincoln, she writes of walking back to her hotel, her transient paranoia about being mugged and being posthumously revealed as a giant, Jimmy-Carter-keychain-bearing nerd during the course of the investigation. She writes about the hideousness of the Washington monument, the post-9/11 defensive planters surrounding government buildings, and—heartbreakingly—about the beauty of the Lincoln memorial.

As she reflects the text of the Second Inaugural Address (it appears on the north wall of the memorial, complete with a "chisel-o"; this cracks me up), she totally fangirls Lincoln. She alternates between shrewd appreciation of his skill as a fellow writer and awe of his legacy, lacing the homage with painful, racist snippets from Booth's writings. I've just picked up my (shiny, preccciiiioooous, signed) copy of Assassination Vacation , and I'm tearing up all over again as I skim the section she read. How, in my exhausted state yesterday, I kept from bawling at hearing her read this live, I do not know.

Perhaps she sensed Impending Crying Woman in Monkey Shoes in the Front Row, because she moved on to a much lighter section on Charles Guiteau and his sojourn at the Oneida Community. I assure you that there is nothing not funny about Sarah Vowell talking about Male Continence, the Criticism Circle, and her teapot. But nestled in the bosom of ejaculation-themed hilarity, one finds a touching thumbs up to the crazy free-love utopians for flipping the bird at the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Brigade and being safe harbor for the freaks like us.

Leaving Assassination Vacation behind, she turned her attention away from those with the hubris to think they should be President and those with even more hubris who sought to disabuse them of this notion at gunpoint. Saying that she thought of herself as a "small person, leading a small life," she read from an essay that, I gather, she'd written for a benefit for 826NYC in August of this year. She spurns flamboyant adventurers, Kit Carson and Charles Fremont, calling Charles Preuss the landsman to each and every one of us: the real people with real jobs that we love to hate; the oxymoronic, elite workhorses with a surfeit of skills in one job-related arena and a comprehensive lack of knowledge about or aptitude for others; the huddled masses whose First Official Act as a Real Archaeologist was to nail themselves in the shin with double-sided rake. Ok, so that last one was just me, eh? Moving on.

From the benefit blog entry to which I linked above, I gather that Eric Bogosian read the Preuss parts that night. I wouldn't have missed Vowell's rendition for the world. At every turn, she looked up from the page, held for the briefest eye contact with the audience, and delivered the lines in a tone justthismuch more deadpan than her usual. Priceless.

I think that she'd begun the reading with some anxiety, and she'd warmed up throughout. (For the record, friend K read her as looking seriously pissed at the start.) After finishing her excerpts from the Preuss essay, she seemed a bit flummoxed as she riffled through some papers. This may, in part, have resulted from the fact that the person who introduced her had already read from the essay she'd intended to end with, a guest column from the NYT (please forgive the misspelling of deficit in the title there). You'll be happy to know that I refrained from shouting "SING IT, MY SISTER!" or sharing any of my inappropriate stage-managerial thoughts on throwing confetti, having overweight tenors climb flimsy set pieces, etc., when she confessed: "I see a Times Square billboard promoting a musical that has its audience 'dancing in the aisles' and I can't help but think, 'That is a fire hazard'." I also was also able to maintain my calm (having no voice helps; I'm not too proud to admit that laryngitis totally saved my bacon and my dignity) and did not call shennanigans on her devotion to Buffy when she uttered the words: "How much worse can it get?" when talking about this column.

She seemed anxious to curtail the applause (which did seem likely to go on for a while), but not so anxious to open the Q&A ("I guess . . . if you had questions . . . I'd try to answer them?"). Again, I have to assume precognitive abilities, because the first question was about landing the role of Violet in The Incredibles. She confessed that when Brad Bird contacted her about it, she agreed to the meeting only so she could see the Pixar offices.

Hoist on her own nosy petard, though, she found everyone "Suspiciously smart and funny and kind," and wound up desperate to take the job. And even though Violet remained bald almost until the movie came out (the producer would visit the geeks in "the cave" every few weeks and insist that it was time for the hair, but the geeks would heave a sigh, inform him that the hair was "still theoretical" as they turned back to their equations and other accoutrements of their dark art), she never regretted her involvement. She did point out, however, that it was somewhat rough going to have people know her best for something that isn't her life's work, even while noting that not having to talk people into liking your work certainly doesn't suck.

The next question was about her feelings on Rumsfeld's "resignation." She seemed somewhat nonplussed by the question, and her answer was that she was basically nonplussed, but her overriding thought after "Really? You're giving him the shove?" was that neither it nor anything else would bring back the tens of thousands of dead.

Someone then asked about her approach to history research. She somewhat sheepishly admitted that she works from intuition a lot of the time, but it usually pays off when combined with dogged persistence in the face of tedium. For example, she said she'd read through all four of volumes of Garfield's journals and only netted two sentences from it. In contrast, while working on her current book, Puritan Nation, she'd developed a strong but baseless pro-Boston, anti-Plymouth prejudice for which she found validation when she realized that Plymouth was all about smug righteousness, whereas Boston was founded on a healthy dose of second thoughts and uncertainty. (Also, her crush on John Winthrop is pretty cute.)

She also noted something that clicked with regard to my very strong reaction to the piece on Lincoln: She's not a historian, but a writer who enjoys choosing subjects who are as unlike her as possible. The balance of those identities gives her the freedom to be a single voice, to be silly, to be tender and maudlin and outraged, and, most importantly, to hone in on the smut in Puritan pæans to the Almighty. It's the creamy center of postmodernism to be able to pour out unqualified admiration for and awe of Lincoln without having to contextualize the love out of it. It's the theory-free chocolate in your peanut butter to consider that Booth actually attended the second inaugural (and later remarked how easily he might have killed Lincoln then and there) and to demand of him: "How dare you? How dare you hear those words and think of killing the man who wrote them."

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally on the board Psychadelic Electric Kool-Aid Satanic Postmodern Bus. It's well past time that the losers beat up the victors and seized from them the pen of history and a healthy chunk of back-lunch money. And I hope that academics never tire of the cacophony of voices considering how long we've unconscionably silenced so many. But sometimes it's a relief to just point at a jackass has been with a gun and yell: "You STUPID SHIT!"

Finally, someone asked the advice-to-writers question, which is required by law. She couldn't think of much advice she'd been given and was loath to dispense any, especially as she just kind of came over all writery one morning. She did say that she thought her experience had, by coincidence, ended up being an ideal proving ground. She'd started by churning out reviews and other material for weekly papers. The pace was dictated by the fact that they paid so poorly. This ended up forcing her to produce and publish at high volume, which enabled her to establish her voice. When she then signed on with This American Life, she was in an ideal position to benefit from a strong editor (Ira Glass). Glass would tell her that something needed saying at a particular point, and she could acknowledge the gap in the story, realize that "she" wouldn't say that, and make the addition her own. In summary, she gave the standard, dispiriting, "It's hard work" answer.

As K and I made our way out to the book-signing line, I confessed that I had five books and that I might be in the tough position of deciding who I loved best if she was limiting how many things she'd sign. He anxiously seized upon the opportunity to act as my beard for two of the books because he wanted to ask her how she got tricked into coming there. I presented her with my three books and asked how obnoxious I could be. She looked confused and I asked how many things she would sign.

SV: You do know I get paid every time someone buys these, right?
Me: Yes, but that doesn't make you beholden to sign every blessed one.
SV: True.

She signed all three, asking each time, "Are you X?" The jig was up when K presented his two and gestured to me. As she personalized those, he popped the question:

SV: Ah, not tricked, good sir: Paid.
K: Surely they can't be paying you enough to come here . . .
SV: You'd be surprised.

K and I stuck around for food and to do some catching up. We also had what was, perhaps the geekiest conversation in the entire world.

K: . . . And I said, "Why is Donna Troy—why is Wonder Girl—bald, when she is supposed to have a full head of lush, beautiful brunette hair?"
Me: "This reminds me that I was talking about Lynda Carter in my Cultural class today, and no one knew who she was!!."
K: And the immigrant experience relates to Lynda Carter . . . how?
Me: I'm getting there. So Christina Aguilera was at this awards ceremony . . .

A highly satisfactory evening and well worth the additional days of plague with which I'm sure I'll have to live now.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

In her book, Sarah Vowell refers to a number of specimens on display here at The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

We invite her fans to see the national treasures in person!

Among the most popular anatomical specimens and historical artifacts on display are those related to President Abraham Lincoln. These include the bullet that ended his life, the probe used to locate the bullet, a blood-stained shirt cuff from the museum surgeon who attended the autopsy, and bone fragments and hair from Lincoln's skull. The collection also includes a pencil drawing of the deathbed scene made by the museum's medical illustrator immediately after the removal of Lincoln's body from the house in which he died. Casts of Lincoln's face and hands that were made by Leonard Volks when Lincoln finished his presidential campaign in 1860 are also on display.

We're open every day but Dec. 25 and admission and parking are free.

Steven Solomon
Public Affairs Officer
National Museum of Health and Medicine,
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
6900 Georgia Avenue at Elder Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20307

6:39 AM  

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