So You Think You Can Dance

I hate reality television. I've been hating it for years. Pretty much anyone who has been around me as I've sat through an episode of The Biggest Loser or Top Chef or American Idol knows that I hate these shows. They've heard me ranting about and Big Brother and The Greatest Race. And don't even get me started on Jon and Kate Plus Eight. I hate these shows. I had pretty much made up my mind that this was a genre that simply had nothing to offer me except irritation and outrage. It's with that background in mind that I announce my latest guilty pleasure: Fox's So You Think You Can Dance.

I've been examining what it is about this show that I like so much, especially given how much I dislike other reality programs. There's an easy comparison to American Idol--the two competitions have a pretty similar format with auditions, judges, and eventual voting by the public--but there are differences and I think they highlight what it is I like about Dance.

The most obvious difference between the two shows is the nature of the competition--one is about singing and the other is about dance. For me, though, what makes me like one more than the other is the quality of the artists. Indeed, I have a hard time even calling most Idol contestants "artists." I know that's a terribly elitist thing to say and many of you will disagree--and, truly, if you love listening to that kind of music, that's great and that's what you should listen to. I just don't find anything interesting or innovative about the kind of music that Idol contestants and even winners produce--it's mostly sugary, overproduced, extremely commercial, and very, very safe. (And before you completely dismiss me as a snob, I should point out that there are many pop artists I like, across a variety of styles and time periods.) These singers usually have good technique, but little to no artistry. Meanwhile, the dancers that stand out on Dance, that catch both my attention and the judges', are the ones that bring more than just technique to their performances, and despite the fact that I've only seen three episodes so far--and all of them auditions--I've seen a lot of really interesting stuff on this show.

Moreover, the level of professionalism displayed by the people trying out for Dance seems to be far, far higher than what you see on Idol, especially in the audition period. By far the majority of the dancers are people that have obviously spent a lot of time training, practicing, and perfecting their craft, even the ones that end up not making the cut. What's more, the ones that are cut, while they're often upset about it, have also show a remarkably consistent grace in accepting the rejection. Now, this isn't to say that nobody on Idol is hard-working and gracious, nor that there aren't sloppy or arrogant people on Dance, but by and large I haven't seen anything like the level of self-important, entitled brattiness in the Dance auditions that are the trademark of the Idol auditions.

Finally, there are the shows themselves--Dance just isn't mean like Idol is. You know what I'm talking about. The entire audition period on Idol is pretty much a freak show with a couple of standouts thrown in just to give some continuity when the next phase starts. And so much of what people know and love about the show is the judges. Obviously, Simon Cowell's thing is being an asshole and then acting like he's doing people a favor, but even Paula has told people that they just shouldn't sing. (I didn't watch this last season of Idol, so I have no idea what the new fourth judge is like.)

Contrast that with the judges on Dance. Even when their criticisms are harsh, they're still mostly constructive. And even when the dancer is terrible, you never hear the judges discouraging them from continuing with it if that's what they love doing. And they really know what they're talking about, too--every one of the judges on Dance has been a dancer and choreographer, and it shows in the way they talk about the performances. What's more, they understand and appreciate a wide variety of styles--in three episodes I've seen Nigel speak intelligently about ballet, modern, jazz, tap, locking, and breaking. You just don't get that kind of breadth with Idol.

All of this adds up to me actually looking forward to the summer TV season for the first time in quite a while.

The Little Couple

The other day, while Juliette and I were watching the season premiere of Jon and Kate Plus Eight1, a commercial came on for a new TLC show called The Little Couple. Like most of what's on TLC these days, it's a reality show, this one centered on the life and relationship of Bill Klein and Jen Arnold, who are--as you might guess from the title--little people.

I've been somewhat conflicted about shows like this--TLC runs another reality show called Little People, Big World centered around a family of little people. On the one hand, shows like this give these people the opportunity to show the world how normal their lives are, but I still can't help feeling like these shows are exploitative. But, leaving that aside, what struck me about this new show was the reaction I had to learning about the woman's profession. She's a doctor. A neotatologist, to be more precise.

Now, my initial response was to think to myself, "Good for her, that's really great that she was able to accomplish that." Overcoming adversity and all that. But then I thought about it a little more and realized that that's actually a pretty patronizing attitude. I mean, why shouldn't this woman be a doctor? Just because she's small doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with her brain.

I think it's important to examine the latent prejudices we have. I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded, accepting, equitable sort of guy, but obviously there are still areas where I could stand to improve, and the only way I can do that is if I'm aware of my shortcomings.

1I actually hate that show, but that's a whole other rant.

Peanut Butter

For some inexplicable reason, the other day I found myself thinking about the 1994 season of MTV's The Real World--the one with Pedro and Puck. If you didn't watch that show, then this observation may not mean anything to you, but it occurred to me that if a person were going to pick his nose and then use the same finger to scoop up and eat some communal condiment, peanut butter may be among the more sanitary choices. Most or all of the peanut butter that actually touched the booger-y finger will have come up on the finger, and the high viscosity of the peanut butter means that there will have been very little opportunity for the germs to spread into the rest of the jar.

It's still gross, of course.

Perdido Street Station

By China MiƩville

If I had to come up with one word to describe my experience of reading this book it would be "dirty." And I don't mean that in the sense of "erotic" or "immoral" or "forbidden"--though perhaps I should mention that there are several scenes that could easily be described as perverse. But, no, I literally mean it as "covered in filth." China Miéville has created a setting--the city of New Crobuzon--that is squalid and grimy. His vision of urban life in this fantastic world is bleak and alienating. New Crobuzon is full of downtrodden poor, corrupt politicians, self-serving criminals, all grubbing in the muck of their environment. Reading Perdido Street Station I felt like I was crawling through sewage much of the time.

Nonetheless, it was compelling. Despite the setting and the prose that was, at times, overblown and almost cheesy, I had trouble putting this book down.

But perhaps I should back up a bit and explain the book some. I had a hard time getting my arms around Perdido Street Station at first--the entry is a little jarring and there weren't the usual genre pointers to help me get my bearings. To give you a little start there, Perdido Street Station is part horror and part fantasy, set in a world where magic mixes with steampunk technology. It's weird. Of course I mean "weird" in the way we normally use the word these days, but also in the older sense, the kind that invokes that eerie feeling you get where you know something is wrong, but can't quite figure out what. The story centers around a brilliant but sloppy scientist named Isaac, who, at the beginning of the book, is approached by a half-man, half-bird creature that has lost its wings and wants to fly again. About the first third to half of the book is spent showing you the city and its denizens, and setting up the action that explodes in the rest of the book. You meet Isaac's part-insect artist girlfriend, Lin, and several of his friends and associates--things move a little slowly, but everything steadily and kind of creepily builds before terror explodes into the plot about halfway through. The climax and the action leading to it is harrowing, and the eventual resolution is well done, even if it also leaves a taste like ashes in your mouth.

I think my problem with this book is its negativity, its darkness. Mind you, I'm not looking for sunshine and rainbows in my fiction--I loved Glen Cook's Black Company novels, for example--but Miéville's story is willfully, even oppressively dark, like he's throwing it in your face. Reading a bit about him, I learned that he's in Michael Moorcock's philosophical camp of fantasy writers, disdaining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien for comforting his readers instead of challenging them. Yet, for all that reading this book made me want to take a shower, I didn't find it challenging, exactly. It didn't present any new ideas or push me to see familiar things in new ways. Rather, it reminded me of a high school kid from the suburbs with piercings, painted nails, and all-black clothes, rebellious for rebellion's sake.

Still, don't get me wrong, it's a well-crafted story. It took a little while, but I did connect with the characters, and the bittersweet ending definitely affected me. I think I'd even say I liked it. This sounds like pretty thin praise, I suppose, but given how unpleasant the setting was, I think the fact that I'd say I liked it at all speaks to how good it was. If you like your fantasy dark, I'd say this book very well may be for you.

Started: 5/12/2009 | Finished: 5/22/2009

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Taking My Time

Jason had kind of a rough weekend. I'm not sure exactly why since it was a fun weekend. It could have been that all the extra stimulation had him feeling overtired--Saturday he played with a bunch of his friends in the morning and then got to visit a new house when we went to have dinner with our friends that evening. Or perhaps he's getting a new tooth. Maybe he was just in a bad mood. It's hard to say, but whatever the reason he was extra fussy, and it really started wearing on me after the first day.

There are a lot of times I find myself getting frustrated, even angry, or just feeling completely exhausted. Like I often do when I'm not enjoying my current situation, those times get me into a "wait it out" frame of mind, where I keep telling myself that it'll be over eventually. It's a pretty natural reaction, I think, and in some ways it's useful--it helps me keep going when I need to get through a tough spot. It's when you do it too much that it can be problematic.

I realized last night after Jason went to bed that one day I will put him down after holding him, carrying him, cuddling him, and that will be the last time I ever do it. I probably won't know it when it happens. In fact, it's likely that it'll seem so ordinary that I won't even be able to remember exactly the last time I do it. I thought about that for a while and this deep sense of sadness came over me, and it kind of surprised me because I didn't used to think that I'd be sentimental in that way. I obviously want him to grow up and I'm really curious to know what sort of man he'll be, but I'm also going to miss being able to rock him to sleep, to run my fingers through his hair as he rests his head against my shoulder, to feel him cling to me with his arms and legs as I carry him. So what I'm trying to do now is slow things down for myself and really savor the experience of taking care of my baby, because it really won't last very long.

Even in just the month or so since I last wrote, he's changed so much. He's been crawling now for about two months, so that's not exactly new, but lately he's been getting tantalizingly close to walking. He pulls himself to a stand easily now and has been standing freely more often and for longer durations. He's been feeding himself finger foods for a while now, but lately he's actually been getting good at getting it into his mouth. His babbling has seemed to be getting more purposeful, and in the past week or two we've been able to get him to imitate the sounds we make. I even think he's starting to use one of the signs we've been teaching him--it's hard to tell, though, if he's really signing or just playing with his own hands. Every day he gets a little more active, a little more inquisitive, a little more fun--he's just growing up so fast. I wonder what I'll remember about this time when I'm looking back on it from way down the road. But then, that's part of why I'm writing this, isn't it?