sleeping alone and starting out early

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Archive for the ‘beauty’ Category

when the internet implants childhood memories

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 1, 2010

Here’s my beautiful niece Morgan playing in her grandma’s backyard:

I spend an awful lot of time wondering what it’s going to be like for Morgan, growing up surrounded by a digital footprint that already includes more photos and videos of her than her mother and aunts had of their entire childhood. They say that our brains aren’t very good at knowing the difference between something that happened “in real life” and something that happened “in media.” I have some childhood “memories” that I know were implanted through family stories; but knowing I don’t actually remember these events doesn’t make the memories any less vivid.

And those memories–‘authentically’ remembered or not–make up the fabric of my identity, so that it doesn’t matter how the memories got there. I imagine the same will be true of Morgan, except to an exponentially greater extent, since huge chunks of her life will be indelibly imprinted on that greatest of collective memory tools, the internet.

Lord knows how differently she and other members of her generation will remember their childhood. For anyone over 30, the terrain of childhood feels fleeting, tough to pin down, and dependent on the memories of people who loved you and paid careful attention to what you were doing. For lots of people under 30, the memory of childhood will no longer be so intergenerationally woven. It will exist independent of family, friends, and collaborators in experience. It will even exist from a neutral, third-person perspective: the perspective of a detached observer (the camera) capturing a scene. When our memories feel like movies, when we feel like we’re watching ourselves experience something instead of being inside of the experience ourselves, how does that change how we see ourselves within the world?

I’m not necessarily worried; I’m just wondering.

People tell me to stop wondering about these sorts of things. A lot of the people who tell me this are parents of young children, and this probably means that my biggest mistake is in bringing this issue up all the time to people who just want to post videos of their kids to YouTube. And I’ll admit that I don’t want my sister to stop capturing my niece’s every milestone. Another phenomenon of the 21st century is increased mobility paired up with increasingly cheap and ubiquitous tools to keep in touch with the people whose lives have touched ours.

Posted in beauty, joy, Morgan DeGeer | Leave a Comment »

a poem by Khaled Mattawa

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 4, 2010

Khaled Mattawa

The trick is that you’re willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you’re doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you’re providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.

The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.

The rule is to make them feel they’ve come too late.
The trick is that you’re willing to make exceptions.

The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.

And when they say “too much,”
give them a plan.

And when they say “anger” or “rage” or “love,”
say “give me an example.”

The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.

The rule is you don’t care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Read this poem at

Posted in beauty, poetry | Leave a Comment »

Pink, "Funhouse"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 29, 2010

This is Pink’s video for her 2008 song “Funhouse,” from her studio album of the same name. Apparently, this album’s original title was “Heartbreak is a Motherfucker,” which would have made me so happy if it had stuck.

This is such an awesome video that it makes me want to light things on fire. I can’t help but point out my two favorite moments, both facial expressions, at  :43 and 2:40.


Posted in awesome, beauty, creativity, evil clowns, gender politics, music | Leave a Comment »

against ‘tolerance’

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 10, 2010

I want to share with you a beautiful piece of prose I encountered via Out Magazine. The essay, “Riding in Cars with Lesbians,”  by Helena Andrews, is the memoir of a woman who grew up with a pair of painfully abusive mothers. Though they mainly directed their abuse at each other, the scars crisscrossing the writer’s emotional terrain are evident everywhere you look. Here’s an excerpt:

A 99-cent store dry erase board saved my life. I’d never given the thing much thought before using it to slash manic slaps of marker onto our Frigidaire. The grown-ups were in the living room arguing during the commercials, trading insults to a soundtrack about sunglasses. Frances, we need to talk about this. My name is Geek, I put ’em on as a shocker. Do whatever you want, Vernell, leave me out of it. Man, I love these Blublockers. I hate you. Everything is clear. Keep your voice down. They block out the sun. Why? Helena knows what a bitch you are. Oh, yeah, I gotta get me some.

I also love this piece because it presents a clear-eyed picture of an abusive household that happens to be headed by a pair of lesbians, though really, the author treats the gay issue as a secondary thing. Sure, the teenaged daughter is embarrassed to have two mothers–but her embarrassment is depicted as on par with the range of things our parents can do to embarrass us. A trashy car, embarrassing wardrobe choices, the fact of a mother and a stepmother with no father in evidence–it’s all approximately equally embarrassing.

We need this sort of narrative.

We need people who can talk about members of the LGBTQ community in terms as human as those we’ve traditionally reserved for mainstream (straight) people. Gays are neither the vile, depraved and hellbound pedophiles that religious and far-right political groups would like you to believe; but neither are we the perfect angels who only have missionary sex at night with the doors locked and the lights out, who want nothing more than a house in the suburbs and our allotment of stock options and children, who pray to the Lord Our God each night before we go to sleep. Like most people in the world, most LGBTQ people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Sometimes we want to act up and act out; sometimes we want  to toss up our queerness like a flaming red mohawk:

And sometimes, like my friends Elaine and Nancy, we just want to get married:

And sometimes, as in Helena Andrews’ essay, we’re far less generous and kind than we wish we could be. Sometimes we can’t help but talk shit about our partners, even in front of children. Sometimes we’re mad enough that we can’t help but take a swing or two, even at the people we love.

It’s not okay to behave badly, but it’s okay to acknowledge that gays could be better or worse people, depending on the day or the circumstances. It’s okay to acknowledge that gays are decent people, beautiful people, sometimes heroic people, but mostly gays are just average people who are trying to live their lives as fully and kindly and with as much joy and love as they can.

I’m not a fan of the notion of “tolerance,” mainly because I believe it suggests that the people who are supposed to be “tolerated” must be proven to be acting “tolerably.” That’s not equality; that’s patronizing. That’s a power differential that favors the status quo. That’s charity, handed out to the trembling hand held up in supplication. That’s a stunted revolution that permits only the most limited type of dancing.

I prefer multiplicity, openness, dialogue. I prefer that we strike down the cultural narrative of gays as a monolithic group walking together in lockstep, especially since that narrative is not borne out by the truth of “gay culture.” I prefer–I propose–that we craft a new narrative, one that presents members of the LGBTQ community as exactly as diverse, as variable, as perfect and flawed, as everyone else in the world.

Posted in beauty, creativity, gay rights, gender politics, human rights, politics, social justice, writing | Leave a Comment »

ice cold hands taking hold of me: planning for the Supernatural season finale

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 7, 2010

Next Thursday, May 13, at 9:00 ET, the season finale of Supernatural will air. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. I’ve spent a lot of time pretending like I don’t care about Supernatural, just in case they find out and decide to cancel it on me as they like to do every time they learn about something I love.

But this is one of the best shows on broadcast television right now, and what thrills me most of all is thinking about how much this show has evolved. In the early days, it really was a show about a pair of ghost-hunting brothers who chased supernatural beings around. It didn’t even appear to be particularly courageous in those early days. The first time Dean Winchester died, back in season 2, he asked the reaper who had come to claim him what death was like. “Oh no,” she said. “No spoilers.” You figure, yeah, nobody wants to touch that one.

I shake my head and laugh in disbelief at 2006 me who thought Supernatural would take the safe road. Since then, we’ve seen heaven. We’ve seen hell. We’ve seen angels and demons and we’ve learned God’s backstory.

And you guys, this isn’t even the neatest thing about Supernatural.

The neatest thing is the evolution of the relationship between the Winchester brothers. They really did have hopes and plans for their lives, and everything got railroaded by a series of events that were out of their control. They hate each other for it, and they love each other desperately. And they squabble, and they nag, and they fight the hounds of hell to save each other, and they act as if they understand each other perfectly, even if they can’t see each other clearly. It’s beautiful and tragic and true to the dysfunction of life.

I wish I could embed an example here, but CW, the channel that airs Supernatural, has found a way to keep most clipes unembeddable. Instead, I’ll show you three clips that I can embed here: The promo that aired before ths season began, featuring Ralph Stanley’s song “O Death,” followed by the trailer for the season finale, also featuring Ralph Stanley’s song. Then the last clip is a music video that aired at the end of an episode this season. I’m including it because it makes me happy.

And here’s the music video.

Posted in awesome, beauty, creativity, fannish, television | 1 Comment »

event announcement: Noah Iliinsky and "beautiful visualization"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 24, 2010

If you live or work in the Bloomington, IN, area, please consider attending this upcoming conversation and workshop with information visualization expert Noah Iliinsky.

Special Event: “Practical Design of Complex Information: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti”

Please join us for a conversation and workshop with visualization expert Noah Iliinsky this Friday, March 26, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in room 1084 of the Wright Education building at Indiana University-Bloomington.

About the speaker: Noah Iliinsky works in interface and interaction design, all from a functional and user-centered perspective. Before becoming a designer he was a programmer for several years. He is the co-editor of Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts, recently released by O’Reilly Media, and a Senior Program Manager for User Interface for VMWare, a leading provider of virtualization software. You can see some of his work on his website at

If you are interested in attending the workshop and have an in-progress information visualization project you’d like to have discussed, please send it in advance of the event along with a brief (1 paragraph) description of the project to Joshua Danish at jdanish(at)

This event is open to all students, faculty, and staff and is hosted by the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University. For more information, contact Jenna McWilliams at jenmcwil(at)

Posted in awesome, beauty, creativity, joy | 1 Comment »

tubby fingers and serious cheeks

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 20, 2010

There’s a lot that makes me mad, but there’s one thing that makes me consistently happy: My niece Morgan, who’s seven months old. Below is a video of her eating her afternoon snack, which is Cheerios.

Posted in awesome, beauty, joy | Leave a Comment »

a poem John Ashbery wrote

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 11, 2010


Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

Lifted from Poetry Daily.

Posted in beauty, creativity, John Ashbery, joy, language, poetry, spring, writing | Leave a Comment »

the sleeping alone review of films: Avatar (3D)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 4, 2010

Originally posted at

summary: holy effing effety eff.

Avatar 3D: Holy effing effety eff. That is all.

Click here to find showtimes for Avatar at a theater near you.

Posted in awesome, beauty, movies | 2 Comments »

eppur si muove: a defense of Twitter

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 25, 2009

Recently, media scholar (and, full disclosure, my former boss) Henry Jenkins published a new post on his always-mind-blowing blog, Confessions of an Aca/Fan. This post focuses on the affordances and, in his view, the limitations of Twitter.

The post itself is the result of a Twitter exchange wherein one of Henry’s followers, @aramique, wrote: “you theorize on participatory models over spectatorial but i’ve noticed your whole twitter feed is monologue.” Ultimately, Henry responded with this: “yr questions get Twt’s strengths, limits. but answer won’t fit in character limits. Watch for blog post soon.” Then, in his blogpost, he begins with this:

I will admit that there is a certain irony about having to refer people to my blog for an exchange that started on Twitter but couldn’t really be played out within the character limits of that platform. But then, note that armique’s very first post had to be broken into two tweets just to convey the emotional nuances he needed. And that’s part of my point.

From the start, I’ve questioned whether Twitter was the right medium for me to do my work. I’ve always said that as a writer, I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter. I am scarcely blogging here by traditional standards given the average length of my posts. Yet I believe this blog has experimented with how academics might better interface with a broader public and how we can expand who has access to ideas that surface through our teaching and research.

Jenkins, who makes it clear that his blog is his primary focus for online communication and that Twitter is a space for him to both direct traffic to his blog and track who follows his links, and when, and how, argues that though Twitter has its value as a social media platform, it has resulted in some losses. His main concerns are linked to a core issue with the key feature of Twitter: its brevity. As it grows in popularity, he explains, deep, thoughtful commentary on his blogposts has decreased:

Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of “Awesome” or “Inspiring” or “Interesting.” So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.

“[I]n so far as people are using (Twitter) to take on functions once played on blogs,” he writes, “there is a serious loss to digital culture.”

I guess I’m approximately as serious about blogging as a medium as the next guy who posts tens of thousands of words each month, but I’m not sure I share Henry’s concern. There were, after all, those who worried that blogs would lead to the decline of serious and thoughtful intellectual conversation. But as Henry’s blog (and hundreds or thousands of others like it) demonstrates, blogs can in fact afford both a higher level of expression and a greater capacity for circulation of those ideas. The phenomenon of the blog also–and this was a key element of the initial concern about the decline and fall of civilization at the hands of the weblog–means anybody with internet access, basic typing skills, and a couple of ideas about anything at all can express, post and circulate them. Blogs even support cirulation of the most ignorant, repulsive claptrap a person can imagine. The onus is therefore on the consumer, and no longer the producer, to filter out the white noise in search of real music. The fear, real or imagined, was that the general public would not be able to filter intelligently and would therefore accept any nonsense they read online.

Actually, this fear is not a new one. The same anxiety was prevalent among educated elites when the universal literacy movement began to take hold. It was the same fear that gripped members of “high culture” when movies, then radio, then television, then YouTube became increasingly popular and available. See, that’s the peculiar feature of democratizing technologies: Elites no longer get to decide what’s culturally valuable and filter it out before it reaches the unwashed masses. Now we all get to decide, and that’s precisely what leads the privileged class–even members of this class who are pro-democracy–to react so strongly that they try to stamp it out.

It’s the same cry I hear from people who oppose Twitter: There’s so much meaningless noise. It’s leading to a decline in critical thinking. Jenkins writes that

there is an awful lot of relatively trivial and personal chatter intended to strengthen our social and emotional ties to other members of our community. The information value of someone telling me what s/he had for breakfast is relatively low and I tend to scan pretty quickly past these tweets in search of the links that are my primary interests. And if the signal to noise ration is too low, I start to ponder how much of a social gaff I would commit if i unsubscribed from someone’s account.

Twitter, for all its seeming triviality, is one of the most complex, nuanced social media environments I’ve ever participated in. It’s layered over with the kind of community expertise required for authentic, valued participation in a vast range of social networking sites, both online and offline. Add to that the fact that Twitter users bring to their engagement with the site any number of social motivations; multiply that by the nearly limitless number of possible subsets of Twitter followers the typical user might communicate with; and square that by the breathtaking creativity that the 140-character limit both supports and fosters.

This is what’s most difficult to explain to a new Twitter user, and what’s nearly intuitive for those who have internalized the tacit norms of the space: No tweet can be interpreted in isolation. No Twitter stream exists wholly independently of any other. Twitter’s depth exists precisely in the delicate intertwining of inanity with complexity. Yes, most of the time I skip over people’s breakfast tweets. But I don’t always skip over them. Much of the time I click on the links Henry posts. But I don’t always click on them.

Sure, Twitter is no substitute for a series of deep, thoughtful blogposts. But my sense is that the vast majority of Twitter users know this, and don’t bother trying to turn Twitter into a blog, or even a microblog–though it may seem like it on the surface.

And even if some users really are trying to do exactly that, it’s much easier to focus on Twitter’s constraints than on the deep, breathtaking creativity it affords. I follow lots of Twitter users who are very good at linking to interesting, useful websites; and I follow a smaller number of users who are very good at the more difficult work of leveraging the technology in infinitely creative ways.

I wanted to offer an example of this creativity, but it’s impossible to demonstrate outside of its context. You’d have to follow users’ hashtags, or see how they fit an idea into 140 characters, or read a surprising tweet exactly in context.

Here’s the closest I can come:

@jennamcjenna can someone link me to an article that tells me something completely mind-blowing? It doesn’t matter what topic.8:52 PM Jun 16th from web

@dizzyjosh: @jennamcjenna try

Related posts by other writers:

danah boyd: Twitter: “pointless babble” or peripheral awareness + social grooming?
Henry Jenkins: The Message of Twitter: “Here It Is” and “Here I Am”

Posted in beauty, blogging, creativity, danah boyd, Henry Jenkins, social revolution, Twitter | Leave a Comment »