Response Post 1: Overheard Everywhere, via Erika

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I went into my weekly perusal of last week’s blog posts knowing that I wanted to write a response post. I also knew the task of choosing who to respond to was going to be a hard one; everyone’s posts, as pointed out in class, have been, in a word, awesome. It is one of my favorite parts of the week to sit down and read them (I usually spend the first hour of my Thursday workday doing so…shh, don’t tell).

This past week, it was Erika‘s post on the quote community that spurned thoughts about my own borderline — I’m just gonna say it — completely abnormal obsession with quotes and words. Erika, you’ve inspired me! I henceforth pledge to be more organized about how I manage my collection of thoughts. Because up to this point, my efforts to this end have resembled an episode of Hoarders.

Given that I work in the editorial department of a publishing house, maybe my affinity for words can be perceived as something less than the rabid geekiness that it actually is. And I don’t just mean words in books. I means words in magazines, words on billboards, words on clothing labels, words standing alone, words strung together into nonsensical haikus, and — best of all — words that form thoughts that I use to understand and define my life.

For much of high school, I attended a school for the arts (read: I was in good weird company), and in one of my theater classes, we were encouraged to write all over the walls of the classroom so that by the end of the year, our thoughts, lines, and things we had overheard would be staring back at us. On any given day, you could have walked in and seen a student reading a set of lines off the wall over and over again with a variety of inflections and intonations and think that you had mistakenly walked into a revival of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The room was painted over at the end of the year, and part of the intrigue of the whole thing was that you knew that eight years of thoughts existed underneath your own, but you would never know what those thoughts had been. Had someone else quoted George Costanza? How many classes had had the nerve to leave Shakespeare out of the mix? Did the frequency of swear words increase over time? Is there a paint remover in existence that is gentle enough to answer these questions? The only one of these questions I can answer is the last, and I suppose that’s the point.

Regardless, I think that it was this classroom that conditioned me to covet the concept of haphazardly recorded thought. I was already enamored of language. I first became interested in theater not because of any desire to stand in front of hundreds of people and be blinded by 500 degree lightbulbs, but because I loved to read. And truly good plays and films are created by a bunch of bibliophiles, people who first and foremost loved a good story marching across a white page. As an only child whose mother was an English Literature teacher and whose house held more books than it did shelves to hold them, a good chunk of my childhood was spent entertaining myself by pressing my fingers to pages. Ironically, prior to the wall-writing class in high school, I lived in fear of physically maligning books. If my mother caught me so much as thinking about dog-earing a page from a book, even if it came from the library and not our own shelves, I was given the evil eye. And to write in a book? Such an unimaginable act was beyond my comprehension. Upon finding words written in the margin of library books, my mind jumped to what unimaginable tortures my mother would have in store for such depraved rubes.

Flash forward to the present. Ever since I was encouraged not only to mark favorite passages in pen, but use them as wallpaper, I have formulated a shorthand quote denotation system that would make John Dewey turn over in his grave. If you were to ask me to hand you my copy of any of our books for class, you would likely gasp at what lies inside. Underlining, a variety of symbols that strongly resemble emoticons, dots, arrangements of dots, letters, brackets, and emphatic exclamations all riddle the pages of almost any book I have purchased within the past six years.

The system has evolved (or, more accurately, devolved) since I first created it. It began with feather-light underlining in pencil in Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, my favorite book of all time. I was re-reading it my freshman year of college, and kept coming across lines that were like emotional sucker-punches in their creativity. And I guess it hit me that if I could highlight my copy of Waiting for Godot for class (largely to keep from falling asleep while reading it), it would probably be acceptable to the Gods of Literature if I did a bit of carbonite pencil underlining. But oh, what a slippery slope it was.

Underlining in pencil turned into underlining in pen, which turned into writing a lower-case “w” next to words I didn’t know, which was supplemented by uppercase “Ws” for words I did know, reminding me to somehow work them into my own writing or a casual conversation about what was in the dining hall teriyaki sauce (whatever it was was so obviously piquant). This turned into drawing lines down the sides of entire paragraphs to signify their brilliance, question marks to indicate an author who obviously had no idea what the heck he was trying to say (so how could I be expected to?), “Qs” for quotes to be written down in some tasteful compendium at an undetermined later date (riiiiiiight), “Ps” for interesting phrases, exclamation marks for blatant truisms, and most recently, “WTFs” for, well, you know… To loan someone a book quickly because a very personal undertaking not unlike handing someone a diary of my most intimate thoughts.

And it didn’t end there. My fascination with the thoughts and words of others extends to music, to film, to climbing on the train every morning. Too self-conscious to bring a pen and paper to the movies, I would overhear a good quote five minutes into a film and spend the remaining two hours not paying attention to the plot, but repeating the line over and over to myself in the hopes that I would remember it by the time I got back to the nonjudgemental environs of my dorm room.

The advent of iTunes and music that spanned beyond the bleak Top 100 rotation of radio stations meant that my quote/thought recording system had to be expanded even further to encompass all of the songs that could populate my playlist if only I could figure out what they were. By sophomore year, my Facebook page was receiving as much traffic on Thursday nights at 10:05 pm as the rest of the week combined. The posts? “Kate, what was that song that was playing in the background on Grey’s tonight when Meredith punctured the dude’s heart with her fingernail and his internal cavity was becoming engorged with puss? Man, that song SPOKE to me…” And I always had the answer, because next to my computer were two hundred sheets of paper folded into various powers of two, lined every which a way with my scribblings of song lyrics. The TV had to be on Volume level 99 to ensure I could hear the lines and either write them down or Google them in real time. And that was just the music! These random sheets also contained such pearls of wisdom as:

“I think all anyone really wants in life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.” – Liz Lemon

Which, in rushed Kate shorthand probably would have originally been documented as,

“I thnk all ne1 rlly wants n lif is 2 sit in ☮ & eat a snwch.” – LL

I had hundreds of these depressingly origami-ed sheets “organized” in the immediate vicinity of my desk. This complex filing system involved me shoving all the sheets into folders or the giant tupperware box under my bed along with concert ticket stubs and random ephemera from memorable occasions (the “VW” pried from the hood of my totaled car [not my fault!], a Wonder Woman Halloween costume, my hurricane preparedness kit…). I had gone from a borderline-acceptable pencil graffitiing of Toni Morrison to full-scale, anti-intellectual maxim collecting in less than four years. And the internet was officially encouraging my bad habits.

And then something wonderful happened. Something that, at the very least, promised my return to the manageable tip-of-the-iceberg of my quote collecting (my emoticon-ish book scribbles). I got a Blackberry. And the best feature on this blessed piece of techno-wonder is that it can hold a nearly unlimited umber of LISTS. Lists! Of QUOTES!

Using my Blackberry, I’ve made Overheard in New York look like a slipshod excuse for a compendium of random thoughts. I have a “Daily Overheard” list for unclassifiable things I hear (“I’ve MET your dad. He has high cholesterol and a tattoo on his forehead. But he LOOKS healthy.” – Bankers on lunch break, Starbucks Wisconsin Avenue, September 13th, 2010). I have an “Only in DC” list (“By the way, it won’t be the first time I’ve lost a deal because my guy ended up in jail.” — Starbucks, Union Station, August 13th, 2010). I have a “People Who Are Smarter Than Me” list (“Every time I take off my sunglasses it’s like going from being blind to being…not blind.” — Outside Dupont Starbucks, September 2nd, 2010). Apparently I also need a “Starbucks” list. Then there’s my book quotes list, my lyrics list for things I overhear and want to Google later, and, perhaps most importantly, my film quotes list. I no longer have to worry about forgetting a particularly good line — I can just stick my hands inside my purse and type it into my list without setting off the blatant Nerd Homing Device that a paper and pencil brought into a megaplex would be.

Erika opened my eyes to something, though. As nice as it is to be able to leave a movie with my quotes safe in my Blackberry, as many Ingrid Michaelson concerts as I have enjoyed because of my initial ability to Google an obscure lyric, I miss the days when the collective thoughts of a cross-section of mankind lived in rubber-band bound bushels under my bed. Not because I like owning an archive of cumbersome paper junk, but because I don’t think there is anything quite like documenting a thought with a pen or reading something that I can relate to from a page made from a murdered tree. And though I literally have no room in my apartment to resuscitate my initial system, I think I am going to pull out that Moleskin notebook I bought at Barnes & Noble trying to be like the cool tortured writer kids in Greenwich Village whose coffee is as black as their nail polish (a look that somehow I don’t think would work for me. But I do like the tiny subway map on page three that allows me to look like, “Um, yeah I know how to get to Mosholu Parkway in the North Bronx. Don’t you?!”).

Erika also introduced me to some interesting quote portals I didn’t yet know of. My favorite has always been BrainyQuote and Goodreads, simply because between them, they seem to have the broadest selection and allow me to save and compile my favorites easily. But ultimately, Google is the Garden of Eden of quotes for someone like me, whose queries should often be expected to yield no results. To the brilliance of Google, there have only been a handful of times that I have not been able to find a song, quote, or source that I was looking for, even when armed only with information like, “song lyrics: garden gate…arms…waiting…gotta feel…”

John Battelle claims that the beauty of Google is that “it’s driven by the unimaginable complexity inherent in human language.” He’s right. It is the beauty and it is the wonder. Out of nearly infinite combinations of words and numbers and languages, that Google can give the name of an unrecorded song, retrieve an obscure film that flopped at Sundance in 1998 based on a line of four words, and know that when I type, “yellow gun metrics,” what I really mean is “Gold Guns Girls, song by the Canadian band Metric,” is pretty amazing. But not as amazing as the fact that half of all searches use only two or three words, two or three words that unlock the collective memory of human civilization.

You can probably guess what my answer to the “Should we fear Google?” question is going to be.

All this being what it is (a typically rambling post not really about anything in particular except how awesome Erika is for writing about quotes), the event that will ultimately mark my move from the Land of Rent to the Land of Own will be words. No, I’m not going to torture some poor editor with a book proposal about the tribulations of a Millennial with a U-Haul buying her first one-bedroom. But you better believe that any domicile of mine is going to have a room wallpapered with human thought, from the inspirational to the inane. And all of you are invited to come over and write on my walls.

  1. Awesome post!

  2. I just want to say that I think this entry and the last are fantastic. (I posted a link to #mppr850 regarding food carts in DC and SS.) I also love your layout.

  3. Love this post, and I’m very impressed by your coding! How did you ever remember your designations? I’d have forgotten within hours. Take a look at this when you get a chance, you’ll enjoy it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/movies/20lines.html.

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