The Voice(s)

My family and I are following both of American television’s current vocal competitions, The Voice and American Idol.

For years I was the only one among us who watched American Idol. I wasn’t always riveted by it, but since I hardly ever watched it live I could fast forward through the recordings of particularly abysmal performances. I figured it was my duty as a scholar of American popular culture to be familiar with the program.

I also watched (and watch) America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor, although I’m not sure I can sit through another full season of the latter. And I always adore The Sing-Off, which features a cappella groups singing their hearts out. I tend to wander off pitch without accompaniment so I take my hat off to the Sing-Off performers.

North Shore, my favorite group from the past season of The Sing-Off. Don't ask me why I resent old white guys in government and love them on TV, but I do.

Last summer while visiting my mother and me in Massachusetts my brother David, his wife Leigh, and their son Michael stumbled across an episode of America’s Got Talent on my DVR.

Suddenly my relatives became talent-show junkies. We spend a lot of time together watching the two current shows. Although David, Leigh, and Michael don’t believe in fast forwarding it’s fun to have company while viewing the programs and even more fun to have someone with whom I can discuss them.

Frankly, I’m torn about both competitions and what they mean for singers.

American Idol became a lot more fun last year with the addition of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges. Their wardrobes are entertaining, and their personalities, particularly Tyler’s, are engaging. He starts to make a comment that seems way, way off base—and then somehow goes on to demonstrate on-target knowledge of both human nature and the human voice.

As an older performer and listener, however, I’m put off by American Idol’s age limit. Its contestants range in age from 15 to 28. I understand the emphasis on youth in a way; after all, the program hopes to uncover new talent. Nevertheless, the nation offers plenty of covered-up talent in the 29-plus age group. And sometimes one longs for just a little more maturity than these contestants can show, in their voices and their attitudes!

As a singer I’m also frustrated by the ways in which Idol’s audience and judges seem to reward over-singing. It’s true that an idol needs to stand out in a crowd. Even so, sometimes a singer needs to let the words and the melody do their work. Too often these young performers can’t resist messing with both lyric and song–and receive applause for their misguided efforts.

The Voice should be more appealing to me than American Idol, and in many ways it is. Its opening premise—that the final contestants are chosen by the judges sight unseen, merely on the basis of their sound—is brilliant and allows the show to highlight singers with a diversity of backgrounds and appearances.

The Voice also lets its judges coach the singers. The judges/coaches come from a refreshing mixture of musical genres (Idol tends to focus in the main on pop music) and dole out more concrete advice than contestants receive on American Idol.

Nevertheless, this program, too, tends to reward over-singing–particularly in the battle rounds, the just concluded episodes in which the coaches eliminate half of their team members by having those members face off against each other, two by two, singing songs chosen by the judges.

The battle round is an interesting concept since it requires both cooperation (it is, after all, a duet) and competition (it is, after all, a fight). The latter facet of the round forces vocalists to pull out all the stops, which unfortunately sometimes does less than justice to the songs they are singing … and less than justice to their voices.

I hope that as the weeks go by the contestants on The Voice and American Idol buck this trend. The world needs less over-singing and more pure singing.

Meanwhile, my family and I will continue to watch and critique the programs. I only hope that my nephew Michael will suspend the critical eye and ear he has been honing when he comes to hear ME sing late next month. I want to continue to be one of his idols.

Still, I’m glad he’s learning to listen for things like pitch, emotion, and lyrics in music as well as rhythm (like much of his generation, he adores hip hop, which is nothing if not beat centered!). We all need to be aware of music in our lives … and to be encouraged to make it.

My next post will talk more about my own feelings about the nature of songs. Meanwhile, I’ll tune in tonight to see which Idol contestants continue on to the next round.

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Truth and Fact

Fact: I am not the Easter bunny. Truth: I might be.

I’m mulling over two clusters of information that have passed through my eyes and ears this week. One is a radio program; the other is a college sociology paper.

Both touch on a dilemma that has confronted humans, particularly writers, for centuries but seems to have intensified in the last century: the way in which truth and fact can sometimes diverge.

I was first presented with this dilemma formally when I was in journalism school. One of the most important goals of student journalists is the pursuit of objectivity. They are taught to gather the facts of a story and to relate them as accurately as possible. (The “gross factual error” is the bane of every journalism class and every newsroom.) Above all, they are taught that the journalist’s personal opinions and biases have no place in a news story.

Of course, even my journalism professors had lived in the human world long enough to admit that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity.

Relativity theory had proved that different people (or at any rate different worlds) can experience time and space, previously seen as absolute, in radically different ways. Quantum theory had proved that at the most basic level our universe is a matter of probability rather than fact—and that the act of observation can change, even define, the object being observed.

Nevertheless, we journalism students were taught to pursue objectivity as a goal and a standard, to get as close to it as we could.

Last week this priority was reiterated for journalists and consumers of journalism when the public-radio program This American Life spent an hour retracting one of its most popular episodes, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”

In January monologist Mike Daisey had appeared on the program with an excerpt from his popular one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In this story Daisey talked about his experiences interviewing to Apple-computer workers in China. He discussed maimed workers, child laborers, and unsafe conditions.

In the retraction This American Life staff members revealed that further fact checking had exposed much of the information Daisey had shared as either second hand or untrue. Daisey was interviewed on the air and came across as half apologetic and half defensive.

Speaking of his stage production about Apple, Daisey told host Ira Glass, “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.”

I believe that Daisey was wrong here. Theatrical truth is different from factual truth only when the theater piece involved is qualified in some way—that is, when it is presented as fiction, or when it is “inspired by a true story” but doesn’t purport to tell that true story.

In his stage performance and in his This American Life appearance he stated that he witnessed Apple’s appalling factory conditions himself. He didn’t witness them–not all of them. He shouldn’t have said that he did.

And yet …. I know what he meant about truth.

To further muddy the waters for me, a couple of days ago a childhood friend who now teaches sociology at the University of Georgia sent me a paper one of her students had written about food blogs and bloggers. My food blog was one of the student’s references.

The student wrote about the “social construction of memory” involved in food blogging and quoted another reference in describing the virtual world of food blogging as a “me-centered network.”

According to this paper, when I write my food blog (and, by extension, this blog) I am constructing and re-constructing my past and present, placing my own ego front and center.

This doesn’t sound entirely flattering. To some extent it is an accurate characterization of what I do when I write, however, although I should add that for me this style of writing long predated my blogs. It has characterized much of my feature journalism and definitely characterizes my Pudding Hollow Cookbook.

It is also to some extent an accurate characterization of what most of us do when we tell stories about our lives.

My doctoral dissertation focused on three celebrity couples from the 1950s, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson.

One of my main discoveries about the couples was that in the final analysis their lives didn’t exist as some kind of objective truth outside their television programs and their interviews to the press. Their lives shaped and reacted to those programs and those interviews.

On a personal level we’re all familiar with the ways in which stories we tell about ourselves and our families change and develop. Over time they become less and less about a moment in the past and more and more about family legend.

I spent last year writing a blog about my mother’s final illness. I tried hard not to lie about the way either of us reacted to things. Nevertheless, I also tried to stress our moments of strength and happiness.

Somehow or other by stressing those moments I made them longer and more frequent. Little by little, in life as in the blog, they managed to completely outshine the moments in which we were weak and unhappy.

In the end saying that my mother and I were strong and happy became the absolute truth.

Unlike Mike Daisey, I won’t tell readers I did something or heard something when I didn’t. Nevertheless, like him and like my old friend’s student I do believe that when I write I am to some extent constructing myself, my world, and the truth.

All I can do is promise to keep the facts as straight as I can—and never to lose my awareness of the oddly elastic cord that binds them to the truth.

P.S. As au audio illustration for this post, my friend Paul suggested I include this clip of the wonderful Jerry Orbach singing “Promises, Promises”……….

Food and Memory

Today I baked two small loaves of Irish soda bread.

I only make this treat about once a year. Let’s face it: a girl with my generous (some might say overgenerous) shape doesn’t need a lot of sweet breads in her life and in her tummy. I like to make soda bread around Saint Patrick’s Day, however.

Like the shamrock lights I throw on the window and on the piano, the hideous but fun green melamine plates I place on the table, the Irish and pseudo-Irish tunes I sing, and the Belleek bread plate I haul out of the China cabinet, it’s a tradition for me at this time of year. And I’m always careful to give away most of it!

My fingers cruised along the keyboard of my laptop to my food blog to look up the recipe. I know I should print out all my recipes, but then I’d just lose the printouts. (I lose things a LOT.) It’s very handy that the blog never gets lost.

I decided on my traditional soda-bread recipe. Over the years I have also posted one with whole-wheat flour and one with cheese, but this is my favorite.

At the bottom of the recipe I re-found a picture of my late mother Jan (a.k.a. Taffy). She is kneading soda bread. Among the commenters on this post was a Brazilian woman named Andrea who lives in Germany and writes a food blog in Portuguese for her family back home. (I have no idea how she found me!) “The recipe sounds great,” wrote Andrea, “and by the way, Jan is adorable.”

She had a point. Jan is wearing a little green hat and a big green apron. She is smiling despite the flour scattered about the table and the dough half-sticking to her hands. She looks as though she’s having a ball, and I have no doubt she was. She usually did.

My mother was the designated kneader and pie-crust roller in our family. I have learned to accomplish both of these tasks, but I’m never quite as good as she was.

Today’s loaves definitely look a tad rocky. Nevertheless, I like to think I was channeling her just a bit as I kneaded. Thinking of her as I inexpertly pushed and turned reminded me precisely why I decided to call my food blog In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens.

At its best, food doesn’t only taste good (a specialty of mine) and look good (not such a specialty of mine). It also connects us to other people. It connects us to people with whom and for whom we have cooked. It connects us to people who have shared their recipes and skills with us.

It even connects us to people with whom we have merely sat and chatted while chopping, stirring, or kneading in the kitchen. Thinking back over the years, I remember many conversations that took place during kitchen work, which tends to turn into kin work and friend work as well.

I remember being instructed by my grandmother on the proper way to wash dishes. She would be appalled at the way I generally wash them today, but she did teach me the correct procedure, and I can use it if I need to!

I remember the care with which she explained in what order—and in what water temperature—plates, silverware, glasses, and pans should be washed. She was channeling her own adopted mother as she spoke, I am sure.

I remember singing and laughing with my friend Faith as we waited for our penuche to reach the soft-ball stage at my summer home at Singing Brook Farm. It always seemed to take forever. Today when I make fudge it takes no time at all. We didn’t mind waiting, however. We had stories to tell and songs to sing.

I remember teaching my nephew Michael how to stir a soup when he was so little he had to stand on a stool to reach the stove. As he approaches his teenage years he is less likely to enjoy being in the kitchen so this memory is doubly precious. He was serious … and sweet … and VERY impressed with himself and me!

And I remember arguing and laughing with my mother as we kneaded bread.

Memories like these remind me that one way or another we’re always in our grandmothers’ kitchens. They make my soda bread sweeter … and my songs more celebratory.

What’s in a Name?

Having no name can make a girl a little wild.

This morning I received an email from my friend Kay, asking whether I had settled on a name for my kitten yet. “If not she will have a psychological problem,” Kay declared.

It’s true that it has taken me a long time to figure out what the little one’s name will be. My friend Peter always chooses his pets’ names before the animals arrive.

This strikes me as odd. It is what most people do with their children, however. In fact, people generally MUST choose children’s names in advance these days since post-natal hospital stays are dwindling and bureaucrats seem to feel that babies’ names must be on birth certificates before newborns go home.

I gather that at one point one could write “Baby Boy” or “Baby Girl” on a birth certificate. This is apparently no longer the case in most states.

And yet … what if the child’s name doesn’t work out? My birth name (which I won’t identify here) was replaced by Tinky a couple of weeks after I was born when my parents decided that I looked like a Tinky instead of a … whatever it was on the birth certificate.

In school I went back and forth between the original name and Tinky. At one point I even toyed with using the middle name on my birth certificate.

I knew I was in trouble when my undergraduate college, Mount Holyoke, an otherwise sterling institution, refused to give me a diploma with the name “Tinky” on it. The registrar argued that the person with my birth name could have a twin sister named Tinky who was appropriating her/my education.

Our compromise was to tack a name that sounded as though Tinky might have come from it—Katherine, my great-grandmother’s name—onto the front of the name on the diploma.

After that odd experience I just registered as Tinky in graduate school. Before I got my Ph.D., however, one of my professors remarked that Dr. Tinky sounded a bit like a weather girl … so the middle name “Dakota” was born. I am now sometimes known as Tinky Weisblat, sometimes known as Tinky “Dakota” Weisblat, and even occasionally known under the original name.

About 15 years ago when I complained that it was awkward not having Tinky on my driver’s license an obliging employee at the Registry of Motor Vehicles typed Tinky into my license file in front of the other name. (This definitely helped me cash checks since naturally my checking account is under the name Tinky.)

After 2011 this led to trouble when the name on my driver’s license didn’t agree with the name on my social-security card. Apparently, such discrepancies show up in the papers of suspected terrorists. I finally got all my identification lined up, but it was awkward to have the government think of Tinky as an alias.

If my parents had just waited a couple of weeks to finalize my name, I might have been saved all those complicated moments!

On the other hand, as Kay pointed out, parents can’t wait too long. I once knew a father and mother who gave their child a “holding” name and allowed her to change it to a name of her choice legally when she was 18. Let’s face it, 18 is a difficult and romantic age, and she chose something quite bizarre. (I can’t remember it, but I do recall that it was odd!)

Before we got the kitten my family and I thought her name might be Yoda. She has big ears, and she looked wise and thoughtful in the photographs we had seen.

She seldom looks or acts wise and thoughtful in person, however. A typical kitten, she is full of energy and always leaps before she looks. We decided to try out names as we got to know her.

Over the past couple of weeks the kitten has gone through several names. Social-networking technology gave me not only my own and my families’ ideas to consider but those of my Facebook friends … and in some cases THEIR Facebook friends.

Some names lasted for an hour. Some names lasted for a day.

The final (we think!) name came from Nancy Bischoff, a friend of my mother’s former business partner and chum Claire Roth. Nancy mentioned a movie about a cat named Rhubarb. This name appealed to me instantly.

Now that she has a name, Baby Rhubarb can rest.

Rhubarb works on a lot of levels, particularly when one attaches to it the nickname Ruby. (I know it should be Rhuby, but indulge me!)

I love rhubarb. I devoted a chapter to it in my Pudding Hollow Cookbook. And I have many rhubarb recipes on my food blog.

Like my little kitten, rhubarb is assertive (some would say aggressive) and colorful. Like her, too, it responds well to sweetening.

And Ruby … well, if I weren’t named Tinky (and I’m not planning to change my name again, I promise), I’d love to have a chorus-girl name like Roxie or Trixie or Ruby.

Like the heroines of the Gold Diggers movies, little Ruby and I like to think of ourselves as street smart yet adorable.

And when I remember that one of the ultimate movie stars, Barbara Stanwyck, was born with the name Ruby Stevens, I’m particularly glad to call my little one Ruby. May she grow up to be as glamorous and self-assured as that Hollywood icon.

I AM OLD!

The Roger Smith Hotel, site of the recent cookbook conference (courtesy of the hotel)

A roomful of people were perched on uncomfortable chairs waiting for our session to begin at the cookbook conference I recently attended. The young person next to me pointed to the words above, which I had just inscribed on my legal pad.

“Are you really old?” she asked.

I smiled wryly and gestured around the room. “Do you see anyone here older than I am?” I asked her.

It was a hard question to answer tactfully since we were surrounded by twenty-somethings (of whom she was one).

“You don’t look old,” she said.

“I feel old,” I replied.

I was to feel even older as the session got underway. It was called “Enhancing Content Both Online and Off.” The gist of it was that, hard as it is to put out a book, authors and publishers must do much more than just write and publish these days.

First, of all books should now be put out in e-book formats as well as print. This requirement is complicated by the fact that there is no single perfect e-book format. Each type of reader (the Kindle, the Nook, etc.) needs different coding. For cookbooks the formatting dilemma is further complicated by the fact that they often include illustrations that are hard to position in an e-book: when one makes print bigger in an e-reader, for example, that gesture throws off the page’s layout.

I was trying to figure out whether it made sense to try to master the technology to transform my Pudding Hollow Cookbook into the new digital formats when the panelists threw more information at me.

They argued that cookbook authors should create additional content that can be either available on publishers’ websites or linked to directly from little things (I forget the technical term!) inserted into the books. Apparently, smart phones—let me assure you my phone is NOT smart—can read these linky thing and connect immediately to the appropriate spot on the internet.

We writers need to star in videos that explain techniques and show off our personalities. We need to record podcasts explaining the background behind our work. And so forth.

Ay ay ay. Oy oy oy. Ouch ouch ouch.

It’s not clear how authors and publishers are supposed to come up with the time or money to enhance their content. (In fact, it’s not clear whether it’s the authors or the publishers who are supposed to finance the enhancing.) It’s just clear that we are in a whole new publishing environment.

Here’s the good news: I may be old, but I can learn. So I have purchased a small video camera. It was on sale since people aren’t really buying them anymore; I am told that most young folk use their phones as cameras. My phone is only a phone, however, so I procured the camera.

I will recruit young people to help me learn this technology. And I will enter the new age … slowly.

Don’t expect me to post videos right away. But expect them eventually.

The other good news was that I felt more normally aged, if that’s the right term (it does make me sound like a cheese), at the other sessions I attended at the cookbook conference.

At the more theoretical panels (the conference was divided between sessions about the present and future of the industry and sessions about the historiography and idea of cookbooks) I even skewed young.

So my professional life isn’t over. It is certainly changing, however.