life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


a personal note

courtesy of Jeff |

Many people have inquired lately as to what exactly it is I'm doing with my life now that I've graduated college. Many of you who read this blog know me personally, so for those of you, and any others who have some sort of twisted interest not in my prose, but in the actual details of my personal life, allow me to illuminate. I'll warn you, though. If you don't know me, this won't even be the slightest bit interesting, and even if you do, that still may very likely be the case.

Anyway, Sarah has now begun her senior year and will graduate in May with a BA in history. She's still working at RISE, with people with disabilities, and is quite well. Meanwhile, my job at the university (PR Office, Utah State Magazine) will blessedly continue throughout the school year. I may still be searching for more hours elsewhere, however, and I'm also now a freelance writer and editor through That's been fun. Anyway...

I took the GRE on Thursday, and man, does it feel good to have that behind me. Fortunately, I did well--which doesn't guarantee anything, but my scores won't close any doors either. So that's good.

The GRE, for outsiders, is the Graduate Record Exam. For greater understanding of this test's nature, I have constructed the following analogy question.

1. GRE : graduate school

A. MCAT : medical school
B. GMAT : business school
C. SAT or ACT : college
D. political litmus test : good standing with Utah "intellectuals"
E. LSAT : law school

If you guessed the secret sixth option, which is "all of the above," you're right. So by taking the GRE, I am hoping to be allowed entry into grad school. But in what field? Ah, yes. I graduated with an English degree, and for a long time, assumed I would continue with an MA and then a PhD in literature. My course deviated about six months ago, though, when I finally realized once and for all that I won't be academically fulfilled in this life unless I instead opt for an

MA in Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Now, that's "studies," mind you. Not language. And then maybe back to Comparative Lit for my PhD, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. In a way, this Russian MA allows me to keep as many doors open as possible (thereby further procrastinating precise career decisions). More importantly, though, it affords me the opportunity to work for a few years doing exciting things--possibly for the government--before settling down and writing and teaching about things for the rest of my life.

I love it. I think I can do some good as a diplomat, or at least some sort of glorified US-Russian PR agent. Besides, there's just nothing more fascinating to me than Russian/Soviet anything. Plus, it's probably my best chance of getting into a great grad school. I have a long list I'm still considering, including the following. In the interest of confidence, I'll name them here in alphabetical order.


Any suggestions? I'll be applying this winter. Obviously, some schools are more attractive than others, for a wide variety of reasons. There are also other great schools out there, but most of them don't offer this sort of program. Anyway, I just thought you'd like to know. If you aren't even acquainted with my long personal history with Russia, (which for some reason I never write about here), I'll save it for another time and say this:

I can't believe you're still reading. Go outside.


the "look at me" generation

courtesy of Jeff |

Sarah and I attended the Sun Valley Writers' Conference this weekend with my family. For those who haven't heard of this, it's one of the world's elite writers' conferences, where mortals like me sit around and quaff in the brilliance of geniuses talking about their specialties. Ironically, it's those mortals that I wish to speak about in this post, but not before putting in a plug for the conference, and some of the fantastic talks we heard there. You don't have to read the list if you don't care.

--"Writing About Wrongs" with Philip Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review, staff writer for the New Yorker, and author of We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families.
--"The Ideals of Medicine, Unchanged Since Antiquity" with Dr. Abraham Verghese. A heartfelt and scientific call for better bedside manner and patient-physician relationships. I'm not into medicine, but this was one of the best anythings I've ever heard.
--"Can Good Writing Redeem Bad Faith? Fiction and Historical Trauma" with Nam Le, winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize and author of The Boat.
--"A Talk and Reading by Ian McEwan" Absolutely incredible talk and reading by possibly the greatest living writer in the world, who's suddenly somehow friends with my family. Leading us to...
--"WASPs in Literature, in America, and in my Family" with Tad Friend of the New Yorker.
--"The Hemingses of Monticello: Beyond Tom and Sally" with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of a new book on that subject.

Also talks by Roy Blount, Jr., Jan Morris, and Vernon Jordan, and I could have seen this year's Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin had my priorities not been out of wack.

Anyway, whether or not you're into writing and literature, it's fun just to be surrounded by such brilliance. I could go on forever about the things we learned and experienced. I sure owe my family a ton for helping to provide such wonderful experiences like this for me. But anyway, back to the audience.

I've heard this generation of mine called the "look at me" generation, and what with Facebook status, YouTube, and especially Twitter, you can see where that comes from. In a way, I think it's kind of a shame, and I hope we as a society eventually outgrow the sentiment that everything we have to say deserves to be made public. (Nam Le discussed this phenomenon as well.) But in another way, I have a blog. So I guess it works out for everyone.

It just became sort of tiresome, honestly, to be around large audiences for two days. And I don't mean the crowds. I mean this: Quite frequently, when an expert in his/her field was up on stage calling down rays of glorious wisdom upon us, various members of the audience would do their best to ensure that ample attention was instead turned upon themselves, at least among the few people nearby. Most often, this attention was attained through a cacophony of asides about the audience members' own literary conquests: "Ah yes, of course--Somerset Maugham. Brilliant."

But what got me more than that were the political clappers. Allow me to explain. A political clapper is one who absolutely must make his/her personal political views known to the remainder of the crowd, at whatever the cost to dignity and decency. It's become so that in some venues, one can't even mention certain people or issues without eliciting claps or boos before the sentence is even over. Not long ago on TV, I heard a comedian mention something about our previous president having ruined the nation, and the audience exploded into raucous applause. Were they glad that such an event took place? Is it so important that our petty partisanship be made known that we're willing to applaud a tragedy?

Anyway, I guess we all do it. We all love attention, and that's why we all have blogs. I don't know how or when or why this trend took off. All I know is that if you're reading this, you should tell all of your friends to read it too, and tell everyone they know. These distinct opinions, and no one else's, might save your life, or at least your soul.


why I'm wearing glasses

courtesy of Jeff |

It's not because I want to look smarter, though many have said that I do. In fact, I think it does just the opposite. It's called giant papillary conjunctivitis, which is a fancy way of saying that for the past five years, I haven't changed out my contacts frequently enough. The "giant" refers to the papillary, by the way. Not the conjunctivitis. Anyway, I wear some glasses for two weeks and take some drops and then I'm fine, especially fine considering I've saved hundreds of dollars by not changing my contacts very frequently. A small price to pay.

I bring this up simply because I've always been concerned about how I look--more concerned than I care to admit, in fact. It's not so much as how I look physically, though, as how I'm perceived by others. I constantly wonder what categories I fall into in other peoples' perceptions. We all profile others to some degree, which practice has its uses, but sometimes I fear the effects.

Just tonight, I ran into Marla, an old friend, at the grocery store, and this subject was called into my mind once more. She and I used to share long discussions on the topic of personal stereotyping and how people consciously choose to categorize themselves and others. She mentioned tonight about how tired she is of people liking "indie" bands, movies, etc. just for appearances--a sentiment I've always shared. The thing is, Marla, like me, is a great appreciator of a fair amount of indie-type things. She just loathes being pigeonholed, stereotyped, and confused with those, well, posers.

My own personal history with stereotype paranoia is rich, much of it having been inherited from my dad. For as long as I can remember, he's been on a crusade to make people around him think. His role as persistent devil's advocate is one that frustrated me at times growing up, but in hindsight has taught me a great deal. There are no stock characters in life, and there's always a minority report, so to speak. If I spoke up in fervent support of a cause, he'd attack. If I attacked, he'd defend. It was never malevolent, and it was never to make me change my mind--only to ensure that I was, in fact, using it.

It's a lesson that has sunk deep. Easy-on labels for people (granola, victim, hero, Republican) undermine the complexity that individuals inherently possess, and what's worse, they cause us to shop around for labels to affix on ourselves. Then we start making decisions such as "I can't like Rocky IV because I'm supposed to be indie," or "I have to believe in the death penalty because I'm conservative." Worse yet is the further consolidation of labels into ready-made packages such as "indie/liberal/rebellious" and "Christian/mainstream/conservative/sheep". Choice in music somehow leads to choice in politics (as if there were only two), and soon you're so adamant about your adopted views, you can hardly see.

The thing is, even while I spurn these labels, I still find myself thinking about them, and I often fall into the terrible trap of doing just the opposite of the behavior I hate. That is to say, I make conscious decisions about myself and go out of my way in order to AVOID labels. This is just as despicable. I'm still allowing people's perceptions to guide my own decisions, rather than simply doing what I want.

In Mere Christianity, the brilliant C.S. Lewis was speaking of totalitarianism vs. individualism when he said the following, though it seems that the same could be applied to indie vs. mainstream and liberal vs. conservative, among other dichotomies:

"I feel a strong desire to tell you--and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me--which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs--pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one."

I like this. And whether or not you ascribe this to the devil, you have to admit it makes sense. It's why extremists are rarely right. And so this: I like Van Halen AND Radiohead. I'm opposed to abortion in most cases and the death penalty in all. And I'm wearing glasses because my giant papillaries are conjuncted, and for no other reason.

Does that answer your question?


I bought a boat

courtesy of Jeff |

Well, we bought a boat. I never wanted to be one of those guys--you know, one of those guys that spends so much time talking about his boat, polishing it up, leaving it in the driveway even though there's room in the garage, always saying "hope it clears up by the weekend, so we can take her out on the lake." The truth is, many boat owners are jerks. They'd have you believe that nothing in your pathetically landlocked plans could possibly measure up to spending a day on the water.

It turns out they're right. But I digress.

Our dear friends Rob and Vienna (whose apartment we had toilet papered less than a week before) suggested on Tuesday that we go buy some inner tubes and float the canal up in Logan Canyon. This is a fairly common pastime for students here, but for some reason, in four years, I had never gone. Neither had Sarah, nor our friends. So we got in our swimsuits and went shopping for watercraft, which is evidently a little like grocery shopping when you're hungry. Inner tubes were $11 each, so $22 per couple. But this majestic vessel of inflatable plastic,

complete with oars and seating for two, rang up at only $25. Ridiculous. Rob and I each grabbed one up immediately.

It didn't take long to convince our wives it was a good idea. Once we shoved off down the narrow canal, snaking through the mountains toward the sunset, the general consensus was that the boats had paid for themselves within the hour. Also, they double as air mattresses. With that and the exercise ball we bought last month, we now have living room seating for up to seven.

Rob and Vienna christened their boat Steamboat Willie, despite the marked lack of reliance on steam. Sarah and I had a harder time deciding on a name for ours. I suggested the Andrea Doria, the C-word, the Edmund Fitzgerald, and then, the Gordon Lightfoot. Vienna threw in the Minnow. The names seemed like fine choices, until we realized that each of those boats is only famous for having sunk, with the exception of the Gordon Lightfoot, which never existed.

That maiden voyage down the canal was fraught with poor oarsmanship and some inadvertent 360's, but our trusty vessel steered us safely down the canal. When we reached the end of our journey and returned to land, however, we were left at the mouth of the canyon without car keys. While Rob and I were preparing to hitchhike for the first time in our lives back to the other car up the canyon, a kindly gentleman named Jose Chavez noticed our plight from nearby and offered us a ride there. Having no other way to thank this dear stranger, we elected to name our boat the Jose Chavez in his honor.

The Jose Chavez and Steamboat Willie have since enjoyed the serene Hyrum Reservoir and another trip down the canal, yesterday. Disaster struck as Steamboat Willie ran aground on some sharp rocks halfway down the canal and sprung a leak, but after collecting ourselves and our belongings in the freezing rapids, Vienna boarded with us, and Rob gallantly rode the half-deflated boat the remainder of the way down on his own. It was quite the adventure, the likes of which I haven't had all summer.

And now look. I've gone on and just talked and talked and talked about my boat like some suck who's trying to show off his lavish possessions. Well, let me assure you--we're not wealthy. Remember how I mentioned the boat and the exercise ball as living room seating, and you laughed? Yeah. That was serious.