Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Newspaper Nostalgia

I love coming of age in the 21st century. After all, in what other era could someone young and unpublished so easily reach an audience for her writing? I understand that these years, like any, have their share of problems, and I'm happy to live at a time in which others have paved the way for my generation to take action in response to society's remaining injustices. And I'm beyond thrilled that we've managed to elect an African American president, even many months after the historic election.

But we are undeniably being utterly robbed of one aspect of life by the mere passing of time.

For as long as I can remember, the kitchen counter of the house I grew up in has been host to a pile of freshly printed newspapers. Sometimes the papers were creased in multiple places from being unfolded and refolded again, and usually stacked messily. But they always belonged to the present all the same. We got the Baltimore Sun every day, and the New York Times only on Sundays. And each morning over cereal and coffee, my parents would each read the news.

When I was very young, my parents' obsession with the news mystified me. Somehow adults always wanted to sit in the kitchen, the living room, or their beds, reading monotonous, black and white paragraphs about other adults . . . and then they would talk about what they read with each other, in big words that usually meant the same thing as shorter, prettier words anyway.
But all the same, I always thought that I would end up reading the news every day eventually: after all, I came from a long tradition of news readers.

Gradually, as I grew and became more knowledgeable and interested in world events, I began to read the front page of the Baltimore Sun between soccer practice and starting my homework. The paper was always in the kitchen waiting for me. And knowing that I could gain access to important events across the world just by skimming that front page made me feel grown up and smart.

I made the New York Times my home page on my laptop computer, and that has served me well in college, where no printed newspaper waits for me to wake up. And online news does have its perks. After all, when the internet is your primary source of news, you don't have to wait until tomorrow morning to read about what happened today, and you don't end up with a whole lot of paper cluttering up your living space.

But all the same, when I arrived home for spring break this year, I was shocked to discover that there was no newspaper in the kitchen, or anywhere else in the house for that matter. Not even one. I remember asking my mom casually where the newspaper was, and barely trusting my ears when she told me that we just don't subscribe to the Baltimore Sun anymore.


That was the only way to go, she explained, since the Baltimore Sun had cut out so much content, and fired so much staff, that it was no longer worth reading. It was a parody of what the Sun used to be, an embarrassment.

My reality was altered that day, if only slightly. And the worst part was knowing that I didn't understand why I cared so much.

I learned, after a bit of research, that the Baltimore Sun was not the only newspaper to be forced to downsize. Newspaper subscriptions across the country are declining rapidly. And it's not just because of the current economy: that only helps to speed up the process. Because the internet seems to serve every purpose that newspapers previously held as their own, newspapers are becoming something passe, like having milk delivered to houses in glass bottles every morning with the cream on top.

Somehow, it isn't the worries about what will happen to my online New York times, or what will happen to news reporting and analysis in every form that bothers me most. It's that idea that I will never be an adult who reads the newspaper over breakfast in the morning, or over with a cup of tea in the evening. Neither will anyone else in my generation. At least, not in the same way.

It's not ending quite so quickly. After all, New York Times still comes every Sunday, at least for now. And the world news is much better in it anyway. There is still something startlingly satisfying about reading news stories that can sit tangibly in my hands. The concept that learning about the rest of the world outside of a class doesn't necessarily mean staring at a bright screen with minimal head movement until my eyes go numb. And there's something about seeing a set of words printed on touchable paper, that tells us that they were really written like nothing else can.

And anyway, if coffee spills on a newspaper, one day's news gets ruined, not an entire impossibly expensive piece of electronics.

It's often said that it becomes easier to see the value in something when it's going away. So for now, if only for a short time, I will proudly call myself a person who reads the newspaper.


Thanks everyone for all the great feedback! Please keep it up, and have a happy 4th of July!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Self Discovery Made Easy

When I logged onto facebook this afternoon, I had five new notifications. And four of them were about online personality quizzes.

"What U.S. state do you belong in?: 23 of your friends completed the quiz. Click here to compare results!"

Twelve of my facebook friends had taken the "More Accurate Harry Potter Sorting Hat Quiz," ten had taken "What Drug are You Most Like," and a grand 77 had taken "What Decade Fits Your Personality Best?" But only three of my friends had taken, "What Plastic Army Man Are You?" I wonder why not more. . . And yes, I admit to answering five to fifteen questions per quiz to find out the answers to all of the above, and many more too.

Each of these quizzes has one subject in common: the person who takes the quiz. In fact, the answer of a good online quiz usually has the word "you," in it at least five times.

And our obsession with quizzes that tell us about ourselves doesn't stop with the internet. In fact, it was a much earlier invention. According to the all knowing Wikipedia, an early personality test was created during World War II by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers to help women decide which wartime jobs best fit their personalities. Their basic questionnaire was later developed into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, first published in 1962, and still very popular today.

I for one, have become proud to be an INFP, my personality type according to the Myers-Briggs test, simply because it's description defines me so simply and with such eerie accuracy. After all, the fact that I love trying to understand how people think was never an answer for any of the questions that the test asked, and yet the test . . . guessed it somehow, from nothing but my set of answers. And how do they know that I don't like conflict? That I'm creative? An idealist? I don't understand the science behind their classification, and as a result, I'm a bit amazed and delighted. And besides, I thoroughly enjoy thinking about myself.

So is egotism all that's behind the personality test phenomenon? It's definitely a piece of it. In the way that egotism plays a role in love, or in pursuing success in any career path.

But it certainly can't be all. Because there has to be a functional side to all of this, if it was first invented to help people choose jobs.

An acquaintance told me that every person attending her office retreat was given a Myers-Briggs personality test to complete. After the tests were rightly filed and each member of this particular office was sorted into one of the sixteen personality types, they participated in a number of exercises.

For example, people with similar personality types were grouped together and told to plan a party as a group. Once all of the parties were planned and explained to the retreat, everyone present learned that while some people may see a party as a small dinner gathering of close friends, others would prefer a crowded week long cruise with loud music blasting the entire time. The purpose of these exercises? To teach the participants that different people understand things in different ways, and that better understanding our own personalities and the personalities of others can actually help us learn to get effectively work together, despite our differences.

Whether always functional or not, the story of a quest for self discovery is told again and again in every form of literature, and in scripted tv show. Basically, every character, or real person, who changes over the course of his or her own story goes on that journey in one way or another.

So do personality tests just simplify this quest? Is its draw really the fact that rather than spending a lifetime searching for ourselves we can just click a few times on a computer mouse, look at the screen, and exclaim, "Ah! There I am!!"?

Yes. And of course, also no. People change over time, and every person is too unique to be exactly the same as every other person in one of sixteen, or even a thousand personality types. But when we wonder why we get along with some people better than with others, wonder if there's anyone out there who experiences life similarly to how we experience it, or just want to have some fun being self centered for a bit, the value of personality tests is undeniable.

Now excuse me, while I go find out which Sailor Scout my personality most resembles. . .


Thanks for reading. I'd like to remind everyone that nothing could make me more delighted than you letting me know that you're reading my blog. Whoever you are. So please, if you're reading this, either comment, or become a follower.

And have a nice Monday :)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Reeling in a Turtle

On one particularly hot and sticky work day last week, I experienced for the first time taking a group of ten campers to the pond to go fishing. I had never actually been on any fishing expeditions myself, as I don't come from a family that fishes. But I had been told that I'd only need to be present for safety reasons. And so, I ended up spending an hour of my day out by the pond in the midday blazing sunlight.

Of course, being a forever environmentally conscious camp, we always take the hooks out of the fish and let them swim free: no exceptions. Never mind that the fish are released into the man made pond for the sole purpose of being caught.

We fished from the deck that stretched over the deepest part of the pond. Campers would catch fish after fish, and one by one, sometimes with my help, they would pull the hooks from the fishes' mouths, and drop them back into the water, where some of the fish probably swam back up to look for more food and were re-caught. Sometimes a hook wouldn't come out. On those occasions, we would cut the line and set the fish free, sporting its strange new piercing. If thousands of years from now, someone does an archeological excavation of the site where the pond is today, they'll probably find hundreds of small fishing hooks, long after all of the fish that wore them are gone.

And so the routine went. I had learned it from others, and I would probably explain it to the next counselor who asked what leading fishing involved. And then, one camper, a small boy who brought his expensive fishing rod and tackle from home caught a turtle. And not a small, cute turtle either. It was about a foot in diameter, a geometrical pattern carved into its shell in a faint shade of orange on dark brown.

The boy called me over for help, and I saw it there, legs thrashing about in the gray and brown water, creating small waves. Its head stretched upward with the pull of the fishing line, and then retreated back into its shell, the fishing line following, straining, until the turtle's head was pulled back out, its neck stretched unnaturally.

It hit me, after a few moments of staring, that I was responsible for handling this, and that regardless of rumors that the turtles in this pond were in fact snapping turtles, I wanted this turtle to live. Quite strongly in fact.

"Stop trying to reel it in," I instructed, struggling to keep my voice calm.


I snatched the fishing rod from the hands of the boy, assuring the campers who had now gathered in an audience around me that the turtle would be all right. And then I pulled the turtle by the fishing line to the part of the pond where I could get closest to the water, reached my hand as close to the turtle as I could will myself to go, and cut the line. As the turtle disappeared into the water's darkness, campers asked me if it was dead.

"He's fine," I told them confidently, "the hook will just stay there, like it does in the fish."

The strangest part of walking away was just how close I felt to crying.

It occurred to me, as I told my campers that they should go back to fishing and stop worrying, that maybe when the fish flopped about, gasping for air, they suffered as much as the turtle did. That maybe we should worry.

Don't get me wrong. I eat meat. And the activism that feels the most meaningful to me is for human rights, not for the rights of fish. But I do wonder if our fascination with nature is inevitably nearly as dangerous as our tendency to ignore it. I wonder if I pulled the turtle too quickly into water from which I could release it, and by doing so caused further injury. . . I wonder if what I did may have actually killed it. I wonder if fishing teaches children that hurting something can be fun, as long as we can argue away all moral problems in our minds. As we tell ourselves that the hooks don't really hurt the fish, and that fish have no memory, so they cannot be traumatized by the experience of being deprived of water for minutes at a time.

Maybe we should stop fishing, hunting should be outlawed, and we should consider all animals injured in the name of fun victims of human cruelty. And for the sake of everything living, we need to put a stop to global warming.

Or maybe the opposite is true. Because every time a person steps on a patch of grass, tiny plants die. Nearly invisible insects are flattened, and their worlds go dark. And frankly, the last thing that the moss growing on the trunk of a tree needs, is a great big hug. It is a part of our existence that we alter nature, so perhaps we should instead embrace it, fish as much as we damn well please, and eat the fish too.

Either way, we have an impact, and just by waking up each morning we change the world around us, just as it changes us. I do believe that whichever way we choose to understand nature, we each must recognize that it exists in every aspect of our lives, and that in most cases, we cause the damage that we later try to correct.

And yes, I hope that that turtle is still swimming around in the pond tonight, thick leathery skin around the fishing hook healing and all pain long gone.


I've been reminded to let you know that my fabulous sister is partly responsible for coming up with the title of my blog.

Oh, and for folks who work at camp with me, I mean to tell a story here, not give a complete factual rendition of events :)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Celebrating Michael Jackson Day

Today was most obviously a national holiday. A holiday filled to the brim with music.

On the cover of the rapidly going downhill Baltimore sun, was Michael Jackson, pre-total redo of appearance, shouting expressively into a microphone. The article went on to describe the life of Michael Jackson in full, multiple page glory, focusing on the highlights of his pop music career, and celebrating his contributions to our culture. Multiply this by every local newspaper in every city, and nearly every television station.

The explosion of appreciation of Jackson's work did not stop with the media. I work at a summer camp, and remembering the pop legend seemed to be at the top of every other staff member's agenda. Hits like Billy Jean, ABC, and Thriller blared from every set of speakers around camp. The teacher of the art class that I assist with tried to teach the moonwalk to campers as they entered the classroom. And I felt proud to already possess the knowledge that Michael Jackson was indeed the small one in the Jackson Five.

But just days ago, didn't we laugh at this man whose memory we now revere? Didn't we, old and young, shake our heads and crack joke, ruthlessly perhaps, about how weird, crazy, and perhaps criminally creepy he had become, how far he had fallen? Wasn't he accused of, and tried for child molestation? And didn't it not really matter to us that he was acquitted of those charges? Wasn't he featured in an Eminem music video, jumping on a bed with little boys, with his nose falling off? We carry these memories in the pits of our stomachs, brewing, wondering whether it makes us cruel.

This afternoon, a fellow counselor quietly mentioned the bizarreness of Jackson's late appearance to me, and I announced, almost triumphantly, that he resembled Lord Voldemort. The words felt ugly on my tongue, yet somehow, they relieved a bit of the tension in my chest.

"Still too early to say that?" my co-worker asked.

"Yeah," I agreed.

Whenever someone attacked any part of Jackson's history today, someone else stepped in to defend him. I wish that people were so loyal after everyone's death. . . But then, they are in most cases, aren't they? I wish that people we so loyal to each other before anyone has to die.

I believe that when Michael Jackson died, a basic instinct was set into motion in all of us. Our disdain for the strangeness of what Jackson has become, was overwhealmed by the need we all felt to save the man who had created the songs we sing along to, the dance moves we cannot even hope to replicate. Or at least, we wanted to save his memory.

Last night, immediately after Jackson's death, when I checked the New York Times online front page, the Times featured a story similar to that on the front page of the Baltimore Sun, celebrating Jackson's life, and mourning his death. I had no doubt at the time, as the shock of the news filled me, that this was the appropriate way to handle the event. But tonight, as my own doubt settles into all of my being, the Times website instead features an article examining the facts of Jackson's death, and whether misuse of drugs or medications was involved.

Eventually, we'll try to understand the full picture of Michael Jackson's life, as we attempt to after the death of any person who in any way touches our lives. We'll acknowlege his great accomplishments, the reality of how his life fell appart, and the fact that he was not entirely free of blame for what he became. For the first time, now that he is dead, we will perhaps see him as truly human. As for me, I feel right now that I'd rather just hold onto today's feeling of awe at a life full of brilliant accomplishment. I'd like to believe that these feelings make us better people, and that each of us has the ability to see the positive each other where we deserve it, and when the occasion calls for such understanding. Maybe it's still too early for the rest.


Thanks for reading everyone, and please comment and/or follow. Because you know it makes me oh so happy to know that you're reading this blog.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Last Night I Decided to Write a Blog . . .

Almost a month and a half ago, I finished my first year of college, and came back to my home of nineteen years. The weather wasn’t always hot yet, local strawberries were not yet ripe, and as far as I was concerned, I much preferred to remain at school, sitting out on the vast lawn known as Morgan field, talking for hours with the people who over one short year, I had come to know as my friends. But instead I found myself in my parents' house, with a lot of quiet, and no job for the next month.

I planned to write.

I have always had a fantasy . . . no, a dream, an ambition, of making it as a novelist, and now that a month of free time sat idly at my disposal, I thought, well, if I’m ever going to start writing the next great American novel, I might as well do it before my summer job starts. I had neither the willpower, nor the inspiration. Near the start of the four weeks, I opened a blank Microsoft word document almost daily and stared the screen, thinking of the characters that I used to write about before going away to college, and trying to remember what their faces looked like, and how they felt when it rained vs. snowed. I would usually stop trying to write after only a paragraph or so, feeling a lazy kind of tired, and I bit sick to my stomach. And then my summer job began. I haven’t tried to write even once in the past two weeks.

But last night, after watching a few hours of the sort of TV that’s just entertaining enough to fluidly and efficiently numb the brain, I found myself thinking about the writing dilemma again. They were casual thoughts; not enough to really dwell on. But I thought enough about that side of my identity to want to look through some of my old writing, from my high school years. I read through a few stories, and, to simplify a complicated set of feelings, I wasn’t sure if I still felt like the person who had written them. And then I realized . . . I truly had changed during this year, and to really write now, and to feel satisfied by the process of writing, I needed to find my voice.

This blog, According to Em is a tool in my quest to find my voice, and to develop and change it, when necessary. In case you’re wondering, Em is the first syllable of my name, my initials, and also the word me, backwards. I want to say what’s on my mind, and hopefully provoke thought and the creation of new ideas, in my own mind, and in the minds of anyone who reads the posts.

If you have read this far in my first post, then many thanks, and please comment, since nothing will give me more joy than knowing that this blog that I decided to start is being read and reacted to, whatever that reaction. Bye for now, and look for more to come soon.