Monday, November 27, 2006

Five (minus two) More Thoughts - Social Justice Ed.

(A "five thoughts" feature that I sporadically generate. I only had three this time.)

1. Killing people, that is, looking them in the eye and murdering them (ignoring for the sake of discussion the usual realpolitikal weaseling of the biblical shalt nots), is a bad thing. Most of us grade the badness on a curve based on the level of malice committed, as probably we should. For example, if you commit murder in a spontaneous rage, it's less bad than if you spend a month contemplating it, and less bad than if you torture somebody over the course of days (again ignoring...). You can consider the cumulative evil as, roughly, the area under the violence-time curve.

(Parenthetically, the resistance to this evil is a good definition of toughness. In materials science, toughness is the area under the stress-strain curve. It measures how much ill treatment can be absorbed before failure, how much overall. Although it's cumulative, it also varies with the rate of abuse.)

Here's the thing though, we happily let people fall off the bottom edge of the evil scale. The bullying boss, the browbeating wife, the inconsiderate smoker, each of these people is likely to commit more stress over a longer period of time than someone who puts a knife through someone's heart. And even if the end result is the same--death through a broken spirit or through lung cancer--only the murder that peaks high in violence is a serious crime. Although it's no doubt unworkable from a criminal justice standpoint, it would be interesting (and better?) if our notions of social acceptance were wired differently. The victims of these long-simmering traumas are also tougher, of course, than people usually give them credit for. Our animal selves are not wired to love the people who willingly take shit every day of their lives. Paradoxically, they only attain social status when they resist their slow oppression with sudden violence.

It's the rate we respect.

2. For reasons I myself don't fully grasp, I try to keep content on this blog full of my more "writerly" stuff (um, usually), while the fluffier or more irrelevant gets shipped elsewhere. (I am reconsidering this model, maybe dumping it all here.) One thing I do that seems appropriate in that more literary motif is regular book reviews of whatever I'm reading. If you have a StatCounterTM tool, one thing it can do is keep track of what search queries caused people to land on your blog. For a low-traffic site like mine, book reviews are a magnet for new arrivals, and it gives me a warm fuzzy in those rare instance when they go on to look at pages other than the one they landed on.

Not that they ususally do, mind you. I'm pretty sure it's been a common source of ill-researched book reports. (There are the .edu domains for one thing, and when someone googles "book report of XXX," I take that as sort of a hint.) I don't know what to make of this, really. I'm probably less sanctimonious about plagiarism than a lot of people, but on the other hand, even I can see how wrongness accrues as an area-under-the-curve thing. It's not as though any of these hapless schmucks is going to pass for me (in the unlikely event they'd want to) but I'm enough of a prick that I'd be happy if I knew a way to encode some bombs to alert a wary teacher that some kid is skating by on my material. Any ideas?

Popular book report queries, if you were wondering, are Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut. I wish I'd tried harder on those reviews. Maybe brilliant writing would have been enough to out the sneaky little bastards.

3. Plagiarists aren't a big deal but I actively hate spammers, and if they are not as bad as murderers, they still deserve a special place in hell. Just the same, they are quirky enough to provide me with amusement from time to time. It's tough to imagine that any sane email reader would answer an intimate letter from Melinda, especially when he's sitting on a boxful of identical ones from Raul, Julio, Ingrid, Courtney, Alice, Davey, Mustafa, Clementine, Axl, Stimpy, and Masumi and all of these old and unremembered friends are suspiciously eager to sell their stores of Viagra and Ambien at discount rates. Penny stocks aren't much better--you'd have to be stunningly naïve to conclude that the landslide of insider information from people you've never heard of constitutes some kind of clever tip.

Sure, you'll land some suckers with those techniques--stunning naivete being all too abundant--but smart spammers, should they exist, need to capitalize on subjects to which people spend lifetimes conditioning themselves in gullibility. The stock market is not a bad stab at this, I admit, but the real suckers are religious. If J. Random Idiot got 114 emails telling them that Jesus Christ (or Mohammed or Krishna) asked--no commanded--them to donate a dollar or to buy into Avalanche Pharmaceuticals (AVP, now trading at $1.98/share--last chance!), then that would really strike to the cultivated heart of their unreason. You just know that otherwise functioning members of society would be squirming themselves into knots about donating. Because what if God really does want me to do it?

So send $1.25 to Keifus at the address below or risk eternal damnation. Ganesh commands you!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

No sappy thankful crap here, even though I feel gratitude for the many things in life (all those things I'm not pissed about). I'm going to visit my parents for a few days, out in the woods of the pre-internet. I already know I haven't been a good electronic citizen this week, doing little more than peeking about and sniping here and there. On top of that, for the next few days I'll be blissfully incommunicado with all y'all. But before I duck out to participate in the mysteries of the indulgent gods, I want to say this to all my fans (or, as it may be, "fans"):

Jesus, for the love of God, don't stop reading my blog!!

Thanks. Have a great weekend.


Postapocalyptic Highway III: Review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Grade: A

The atomic post-apocalypse, as a warning or as a story unto itself, originated roughly in September, 1945 and has been flogged so mercilessly since that time, it's become a field of cliché so barren of fruit that authors tread there at their peril. So here's Cormac McCarthy stumbling from general acclaim into the genre ghetto to explore those time-hardened paths. I admit to a certain skepticism about his effort, and his opening page, a gimmicky affair of stripped-down prose style, deficient of quotation marks and apostrophes but rich in fragmented sentences and filthy with verbed and adjectived nouns, supported my prejudice.* It took a couple of paragraphs to break down my cynical defenses, but by the time I got to "read me a story Papa," I couldn't pull away. This may be the best story of its kind that I've read.

McCarthy introduces us to an unnamed pair of protagonists, a man and his son, who are struggling to survive in a world gone empty. Their existence consists of struggling to find the last scraps of food on a murdered earth, as they make their way south, in the blind hope that maybe, somewhere, something isn't dead. The language, as I've noted, is spare. The conversations are minimal. There is background only as needed--the characters know no more about the fall of society than we do, and there's no one to really ask. The man and the son have each other and no more. The love there is so fierce in the face of cataclysm, and communicated in so few words ("read me a story") that reading about it feels like being struck. To the characters, this reason to live is no blessing.

The world that McCarthy presents is so depleted of life that it is hard for the reader to accept, but it's drilled in so remorselessly and constantly that it will get into your brain. There is nothing alive on that earth, no green, no color, no sun, no insects, no birds. It's filled with forests of dead, black trees and gray grass, drifting ash muddied with sterile rain, and unrotted human corpses. All that survives is the tiny handful of people who have been resourceful enough to sift through the sparse dregs at the very bottom. (Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was left wondering if the earth was so thoroughly poisoned to kill even the bugs, how it was that a rag-tag bunch of men were still breathing. So did the characters, no doubt.) Of those few that remain, most are beyond desperation. In a landscape where death is meaningless, McCarthy still finds some punch in human-scale terrors, showing tragedy as the father and his child would see it: in a furtive breathless glimpse, or with a horrified adult regret. Quickly, he pulls away from these scenes, as though he wants to show them as little as his characters want to see them, and races always back to the fragile pillar of love he's established between the man and the boy. The technique leaves a mark that is that much more indelible in its dreadfulness.

The two hold on, as they can, to the fire of human dignity. A book like this is almost purely character and setting, but still, there's a theme, an extra level of meaning, that emerges thin as hope, that turns this from a good book to maybe a great one. (If you're worried about spoilers, now would be the time to stop reading...) The man sickens over the course of their journey, both physically and morally. He's forced to make hard compromises to protect his family, and they are not always easy or pretty. The boy is more able to afford a sort of idealism--he'd help the more innocent people they encounter--and this, in contrast to his father, grows from naivete to something approaching holiness. It's a subtle transition--everything in this story is subtle relative to the obvious and gripping expressions of death and love--of the rewarded diligence sort.

McCarthy is also interested in the redeeming power of words. One of the smaller horrors amid the great ones is the death of language, and the man makes the boy speak and write during their few respites from starvation and flight. Late in the novel, sensing his own impermanence, the man finds he has no more capacity for stories, and tells the boy it's time to make his own, which he does to his father's satisfaction. Holding the flame indeed, and passing it here. The book also plays at least one other narrative trick, and it's a damn subtle light to be seen amid the ashes of the world. There is one paragraph in the middle of the story--right in the scene where the boy acquires his own conscience--in the first person, recollecting the boy's experiences. Surely, surely this ties into the ending.

Next up will be something uplifting, believe me.

* I actually think the opening riff was a mistake, though a minor one. It's a dream that's confusing in the context of the rest of the book.

Genre: ,

Monday, November 20, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway II: Review of Celestis by Paul Park

I can't help but feel I've let my faithful readers down with that last review. Here is a better novel on a similar theme, souped up from the archives.

Grade: B+
Paul Park takes humanity on a much longer trip, out beyond the solar system to our last and only outpost. We accompany a linguist, who made the voyage of many years to study the aboriginal life found there, the only other intelligent species known. There are actually two indiginous races on the planet--the more common variety is roughly humanoid, with soft, protean features, a biological slave race which is treated by the humans as such with little reservation. The master species (the linguist, Simon, is particularly interested in how the master and slave communicate) has been all but wiped out as a nuisance, and as a competitor for the people's place as biological superior. Over time, with biological imperative (and often with convincing surgery), the slaves have adapted themselves to the human presence. The planetary colony is less a masturbatory science fantasy than it is an excuse to make an earthlike (twentieth century American) society in a place far from home. It is, of course, a vehicle to examine us, and, like any attempt worth the effort, it's centered on an engaging story.

The beginning of the novel has the protagonist slouching his way through the colonial theme park of a settlement while the author coyly hints at mankind's current state of affairs ("how long ago doesn't matter"). Park escapes cliché by putting us into a credible day-to-day, giving us a feel for Simon's misanthropic distraction and for Katherine's (the female protagonist's) genuine desire to be a Real Girl. It seems to coalesce toward some anti-slavery mediocrity. The two protagonists, each of them outsiders in their own community, find each other, but what will they learn? It takes a few chapters for Park to establish this question, and then, to answer it, he chucks any convention aside.

What follows is an impressive piece of work. In captivity, Katherine's medical treatments wear off, and obeying her biological impulses, she and her lover flee along the rocky path to the dark and native portions of the planet. As they get deeper in, Katherine loses grip on humanity and rediscovers the ghosts of her ancestors. Amid the gripping drama of a chase, a disturbing unraveling occurs. The reader is taken on an expert and gradual shift of viewpoint from human to alien, from our own blundering language of ideals and dreams, to something subtle, complex, and doomed. Man, meanwhile, diminishes in stature over the course of the trek. It's gradually revealed what happened to earth (nothing special, we merely ate it bare), and how our last empty effort is inflicting the same fate on a species that was, but for us, successful. Simon, our most sympathetic human, can't do better than project his own blind insecurities and clumsy hopes as he too wrecks the place. It's bleak, and pierces mankind's high motives right through to our black, broken heart. It's an allegory as unflinching as it is damning.

Park takes too long--half the book--to prepare for this journey, too much time to set up our expectations. But he knocks them down with such brilliant passion, it's worth holding out. Just don't expect to be uplifted.

Genre: ,

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway I: Review of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Grade: C-

There are books that try nobly and fail. There are books that are clawed painstakingly out of the brains of lesser authors for megabucks and unreasonable popularity. And then there's the phone-it-in crap that skilled wordsmiths produce by the yard and foist on their unsupecting fans. Unlike some present-day authors you can probably name, it's my understanding that Zelazny badly needed the money.

Damnation Alley is bad. It sucked so much that I was pissed off to have to evaluate the one or two pockets of attempted good writing. (The film based on this book--released in the same year as Star Wars and starring Hannibal and that dude from Airwolf--was in turn such a black hole of cheesy craptasm that Zelazny asked that his name be removed from the credits. I can only imagine.) A generation after the apocolypse, and the earth's weather system is a clever mess, with massive tornadoes sucking debris into the upper atmosphere, contaminating the sky, raining detritus and making flight impossible (these are some of the well-described parts, by the way, a whole seven paragraphs worth). The interior of the American continent is a radioactive hellhole, but the last Hell's Angel, one eponymous Hell Tanner is sent across by land with a plague antidote for the surviving people of Boston.

Zelazny particularly could have done a lot with that setting. He's an essential pulp writer who could achieve moments of genius. (Others may see him as a brilliant writer slogging in the sf pulps, but I disagree. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, This Mortal Mountain, and the rest of his ghetto-acclaimed work are dry and dull to my ear. He was at his best when he mixed his high attempts with a rollicking pulp sensibility. Lord of Light, in parts, was amazing. Jack of Shadows was silly, but total fun throughout.) Damnation Alley, however, failed horribly in the execution. Hell Tanner crosses the continent. He drives around some bats and brakes for a snake. Shoots a big spider. Gets rained on. Smokes. Meets some people. The dialogue is ridicuolous; the characters I didn't care about; the action is uninvolved; and if the setting was a good thought, it was lame when ultimately traversed. Here is a master at the bottom of his craft. Go read Lord of Light instead.

Note: this is, in fact, a setup for another novel on a similar theme. Not far in, but the pairing is going in exactly the opposite direction I'd intended.

Genre: ,

Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Grade: B+

It's impossible to pan this one. Whatever Prisoner of Trebekistan may lack in literary gewgaws, it succeeds in enjoyment, good nature, wit, and, at times, depth. It feels like Harris is less writing for a general audience than having a close conversation with you. His humor is self-deprecating but endlessly positive (which is maybe what you need to see the life lessons in a television game show) and applied to writing, it quickly lends a sense of intimacy. It's a well-honed stage skill, in fact--Harris did standup for years--that is translated well to the page. Here is a genius at making strangers feel comfortable around him, and is it any wonder he constantly finds the good in people? I've no reason to assume that he's cynical about wielding this power, but beneath the disarming modesty, I hope it's something that Mr. Harris realizes and appreciates.

As you may have guessed, Prisoner of Trebekistan is an account of roughly ten years of the author's life as he competed on television quiz shows. The Jeopardy! challenges make a fine outline for the broader personal growth that he experienced in this time, and he's pretty good at giving the play-by-play highlights of important games. From these dramatic anchors, he launches off to discuss his study program and how it took over his life, amateur cognitive science (applied and theoretical), and the unplanned events that surround this or any effort. Without saying so explicitly, he paints his early hunger for information as something to fill the missing parts in his life (family injustices, deficiencies in his own character), and as he grows into this, and grows into his various relationships, the thirst for facts becomes a thirst for context, and, you can feel peace of mind within the man's grasp. It's very Siddhartha. And it's a nice thing to be able to share.

Purposefully, Harris frequently injects some Eastern-flavored philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Everything is connected he intones with mock solemnity. He goes on about this, pointing out how the brain remembers individual facts and concepts, connects with unfathomable complexity, and weights them based on the intensity of the experience. He extemporizes on people's habitual thought patterns, mnemonic techniques, and on the universality of human experience. (Incidentally, I think this is why I like fiction so much. I have a lot of memories tied up in plot points or stirring settings or dramatic characters, and beneath all that prose, there's always an insight on that intertextual human universe. Maybe if I'm even on a quiz show...) The best trick that Harris uses in this book is demonstrating the connectiveness of these concepts by springing them at various points in his narrative. An enjoyable read overall.

(Disclosure 1: I read Bob Harris's blog on occasion. He was so enthralled with having written this book, I felt obligated to buy it.)

(Disclosure 2: I took the Jeopardy! test when it was offered on line, six months or so ago. They never called me back.)

Genre: ,

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Alone Now

I broke my palms on the shattered rocks
and puzzled to watch them bleed.

I plunged my face into the chilling tide
and struggled to pull in breath.

I bloated my gorge with salt water
to see the visions on the edge of the dark.

I torched the bridges that drifted past me
and my skin crackled in the blaze.

I bloodied your line and threw it back
and my heart stopped beating.

I flailed my limbs against the current
and my body flagged and sank.

I buoyed myself to the surface
and watched the alien shore recede.



  • This was written for the Wikifray poetry slam intended to be about the failure of redemption, and coincidentally about "the shucking off of things that have turned bad." (It seems that either failure is often self-inflicted.)
  • I've edited some lines (and fixed the link).

  • Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    The Best Kick in All of Football

    The best kick in all of football was made by Adam Vinatieri of the Patriots in early 2002, in a snowstorm, from a wicked 45 yards to tie the game in the final seconds against the Oakland Raiders in the quarterfinals of the postseason tournament. Fittingly, it was to be the last game ever played in the old Foxboro Stadium, casting off whatever remaining ghosts of inept management--and play--that may still have lingered in the old building. Routinely, NFL announcers laud Bob Kraft, the owner of the team, for only minimally extorting the locals for stadium infrastructure. The old prick charmed ludicrous offers from the city of Hartford so that he could use them to get lesser concessions in the next state up. I dodged one tax bullet in Connecticut only to end up supporting the team in Massachusetts a few years later. Do I still love them? Do you have to ask?

    I am a football fan only by nurture. The same qualities that make it remarkably well-suited for television advertising breaks made it a pretty good fit for Sunday afternoons in college, which is to say that the sparse action left most of my attention available for conversation and alcohol, with occasional interruptions for cheering. Furthermore, it felt good to pose as a foil to my buddy the annoying Giants fan, and latching on to the hometown heroes was easy a transition as could be. Too bad the Pats were a 2-14 team in those days, but futile contrarianism suited me too, and when, ten years later, they became worth rooting for, my groundless superiority complex could still hold against the fairweather fans. If my friend back then had been an irritating Yankees poseur, things would have probably been different. I never would have seen that kick for one thing.

    You can probably find some geriatric gridiron purist who can cite some sped up black-and-white film of Lefty Pinwhistle--who not only kicked, but also played fullback and defensive end, back when the teams had 11-man rosters and wore only bulky sweaters for padding--kicked a then-record-breaking twenty-seven yarder with a to win the Bowl (as it was simply called in those days) with a shattered patella. It's easier to find a more recent general-purpose Brady-hater (but if you find anyone who admits being an Oakland fan, let me know) who will tell you that the Patriots miracle come-from-behind just wasn't all that. We Pats fans mumble something noncommital when the phrase, "tuck rule" is mentioned. It's never good to rest your hopes on a recalled decision, but oh hell, what a kick anyway. I know there were crowds there, but the snow swirling and the yellow goalposts are all I can see in the mental picture, contrasted against the lights and the indigo sky behind them. I know there were players on the field, but I can only see Adam, with his jersey matching the sky, hunkering down over a diminutive Ken Walter and the ball, the two alone on the expanse of white field, shoveled hash marks rapidly filling back in. The bar was hushed around me too in anticipation. 45 yards in the wind and snow. No fucking way could he pull this off.

    If you dump enough snow on anything, it will turn into a lithograph. The fresh blanket of snow damps sounds, covers the defects in the landscape, and absorbs smells. Even your most tired post-industrial suburb looks newly born when it's under that mat. The snowcover also diffuses any available light, and when the crystals are still filling the air at night, it never really gets dark. The snow blows and floats around in tiny sparkles, and everything you can see is illuminated from everywhere and nowhere. It's silent music. It's romance.

    It had been another tough year for these New England fans doing time in D.C., where the Redskins infect every billboard and newscast. 'Skins lovers are like the Yankees fans of the middle Atlantic, but unlike the Yankees, the overpriced Redskins sucked gloriously in the 2001 season. The Schadenfreude could only take us so far, however, we still got tired of watching them. We didn't get north until the season was ending, losing a month with my parents as we eased into the next phase of our lives. Mom and Dad hate the sport though, and even worse, no one could drive on a night like that. But defiant and bored, my wife and I crunched our boots out into the magic, hearing nothing but our own voices, smelling nothing but clean snow and the scarves moistened by our breath. Who knew if the bar would be open, and who cared? To be out in a night like that was to remember you were alive. We ran down the two miles of hill, skidded, threw snowballs, held mittened hands, giggled like kids.

    I grew up in a small town. It's center is still a wall of storefronts and crappy apartments broken up by a surfeit of gas, booze, pizza, and church. Trudging down the deserted main street, there's one place with it's lights on, an air of festivity leaking out the door. Another Christmas card. I have no idea how anyone managed to get down there, but the local dive is hopping. My wife and I stand up some beers and after too many months, finally settle into some local football.

    "His arm was going forward, it's an incomplete pass!" I swear I shouted this as it happened, before even the idea of a fumble sunk in to the rest of the patrons, or instant replay ridiculously drew out the moment. The woman on the other side turned to inform me again that she doesn't normally watch much football, but that would be nice if I was right. I was, and suddenly, a win was possible. Several rapid and unlikely passes--the one-minute stuff that would soon become Tom Brady's trademark--and one miracle kick later, and the game was in overtime.

    The dark blue sky may have been possible because of the contrast of the game lights. I am pretty sure there actually were twenty-two players on the field, whatever my traitor memory may tell me, and that sense of isolation and of compressed time is probably some other defective trick of recall, which has templated the situation in the terms of too many bad movies and instant replays. I am sure that the bar got giddily quiet as the ball sailed through the air and the camera followed its arc. And I know I heard the cheer too. We cheered too. Awesome.

    The walk back was almost as nice as the trip down, reduced, a little, because we had something to actually talk about, and because we knew the night would end as soon as we got home. The snow had settled a little and removed some of the light from the air, wrapping up the experience, the night we saw the best kick in all of football.


    Monday, November 13, 2006


    I don't have the picture with me now, but I can see it well enough, the five of us standing there, smiling for the camera. It's an interesting exercise to trace the differences in our features and personalities and ascribe them to the different sibling and to the three different strains of alien DNA that came in and corrupted my grandfather's bloodline. From what's left over, you can almost pick out the old man's face.

    My brother and I were the youngest of the five, the new kids. (There is a younger set still, not yet in the club.) My cousin Bill (I could never call anyone over the age of 15 "Billy") was the oldest, about ten years my senior. His branch of the family is loaded with artistic and athletic talent, both on the common side and by chromosomal infusion. According to the official story (that I know, the one told by my mother), O. was an active and eager child, physically gifted, and a marvel in the visual arts. As he got older, he only kept up with the photography (or so I understand), and I certainly remember him towing some fraction of his equipment with him at all times.

    When I was young, I knew Bill mostly a remote source of hand-me-downs. I didn't see him much, and when I did, there was an element of mystery to him (and my other cousins too). In addition to being older, these guys had much more complicated family dynamics than my brother and I did, were naturally outgoing, and were much more cosmopolitan, having lived in Europe and in different interesting parts of the States. Bill eventually settled into the state college, however, (studying fine arts) and visited my grandparents from time to time. When he did, my mother would usually make a point to drop by as well.

    The first conversation I really recall having with him was at my granparents' basement during one of those visits. Ten years isn't a terribly big deal at my age now, but it matters a lot when you're twelve. He had a calculator watch (how cool was that at the time?) and I had a transformer toy. Bemusedly, he let me check out the thing on his wrist, and made some uninvolved conversation. His benevolent distraction made me feel even more like a little boy, but it would take me years to realize that this was how he was with everyone: distant, nice, soft-spoken, and wry. He was too naturally fit to express his laziness in slouches and sighs, managing to bob around at his full slender height. He'd often smirk inappropriately, as if at some private irony that you just knew would lose its meaning if you ever asked after it. When he was older, this helped make him fun to be around. Bill came back east regularaly, and I consequently knew him better than my other cousins, but he was hard to know well. We all are.

    It was nearly another decade before the five of us finally bonded, partying our way through a weeklong family reunion. (Good times.) We're all bright, are all stuck too much in our respective heads, we all have issues with achievement, we're all a little offbeat, and we all look like the family we are. As a group, we hit it off, and as the years followed, we'd relearn that connection as the occasion demanded with greater or lesser success, but we're not the sort of intimate group that writes or calls constantly, me least of all, and we are geographically scattered. The last time we all crowded in a place (and lined up in front of Bill's ubiquitous "snapshot camera" for that picture) was one of the better ones. Bill had gone through the breakup of a long relationship. His distance seemed a little more serious than usual, and for once, it seemed he'd rather cross it.

    Last night, my mother gave me the official synopsis of the two and a half years since the photo. He'd been sinking from life, struggling with honest-to-god depression. He had been drinking too much and eating too little. I would get hints of these things in conversation, but its hard to assess the gravity of anything at this remove. "Depressed" has a broad spectrum, ranging from contextual to pathological. According to Mom, he'd lately been on the upswing, working out again, and was in the process of turning himself around. He was planning to come back to Connecticut, she said. He'd gained weight.

    I suppose we're most likely to be struck at a crossroads.

    He died sometime last week in his apartment, alone. It is not known precisely when this happened, and it was several days before he was found. Did he not show up for work? Not answer his phone? Who found him? What was the cause? I have no idea.

    Believe it or not, this is the hardest part for me to wrap my mind around. (It is also the only part that seems real.) I like to think he passed with that inscrutable smile on his face--the one which you couldn't tell if had a tiny corner of life knowledge that was impossible to share or if he was just a little silly (or both)--but I can't bring myself to believe it. I picture him alone in there with the distant look, but not the smile, and it is breaking my heart.

    You can't reduce a life to an official summary version, by the way, or you shouldn't. Depression and redemtpion--there's so much more to a man's life than that simple fucking story. And I'm not doing him any better by throwing a bunch of adjectives at the guy. But if you're reading, do me a favor and synthesize them to the extent needed for a mental photograph. Picture for a moment this person who was easygoing to a fault, goofy, talented, and likable, and know that he existed. A man who, like most of us, had trouble finding the point of it all or maybe staying on it, but deserved to much as anyone.

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Mike the Barber

    I just broke off a five-year relationship. It wasn't a valued relationship, although services were provided and pleasantries exchanged, but as these things go, some measure of loyalty has accreted over time with familiar intertia.

    When I first came to Massachusetts, I chose to patronize Mike for no other reason than his proximity to my place of employment. It wouldn't really be correct to call Mike a barber, recalling, as it does, gruff men with buzzing shears and worn-through formica, and newspapers and coffee. Mike is more of a stylist, and he ran his own place. I watched a couple of Mike's halfhearted business adventures come and go. He'd rearranged the place a couple of times, and tried to support a manicurist for a short time. He never really seemed into it.

    Mike has a lisp and a Greek accent, middle aged with dark, full hair and the slouch of a healthy man who does nothing physical. He smells of hair product and the cigarette he smoked an hour ago in the back room. I'd have guessed he's a gay man (the lisp), and maybe he is, but he's got grown children and a brother-in-law with whom he's resigned enough to drop the business for a week and drive to wherever. I'd have said "happy enough", but Mike doesn't ever really look happy. He's amused on rare occasions, but most of the time he trudges around just a hair cowed, just a hair desultory. "How's the family?" he'd drawl without enthusiasm, remembering, without details, that I have young children. "How's work?"

    I usually came in during lunch--what I'd think would be peak hours--but I never saw very many patrons in Mike's shop. One time, a fat, loudmouthed woman bowled the man over about her trip to Greece, flirting with him, at which Mike looked profoundly uncomfortable. She left him a suggestive thank-you card, which he uncomfortably asked me to read for him as her car crunched away in the driveway. Maybe he can read Greek.

    Mike always did a terrible job cutting my hair, but you can probably guess how much that bothers me. I came back every month, and left the poor bastard a tip, as I did the last time. "I've moved," Mike told me on the phone as I arranged my appointment. (He wasn't comfortable with a walk-in.) It wasn't really any further from work, but as I walked in, it was apparent Mike had a new partner as well. He must be the sort of guy that draws heavy obnoxious blondes, because he looked more broken than ever. I asked him about the move, and he glanced at the sow by the door before he answered that "the place was too big for just me." I asked if many clients had followed him here. "Not many," he softly replied, after looking at the scowling heifer by the register. Nervously, he handled my fourteen bucks plus tip. "I- I'm not so good at the new machine."

    "Should I ask for you when I come back?"

    "Okay...but only on Fridays and Saturdays now."

    "I'll try to remember. Thanks."

    "Okay," he mumbled.

    I held out for about twice as long as usual, but couldn't bring myself to go back. Even if I could prop my eyes open to the shame, Mike made it damn inconvenient with the whole Friday-only thing.

    So yesterday, I went to the commercial place. "We cater to men," the owner (yet another tubby and annoying blonde) bubbled at me. "TVs at every chair. We shampoo after we cut. A neck massage with every visit."

    A massage, you say.

    "I love cutting wavy hair," my young hairdresser told me.

    "Really? What the hell do you do with it?"

    "For you, just some gel."

    I made the obligatory remarks about hairline recession here. It's not as bad as I whine about. "Do what you think works," I said.

    I took off the coke bottles as she did her magic, but afterwards, I must say that I liked the shampoo. I'd forgotten how pleasant it is to have some nubile, delicate-fingered girl massage your scalp. And then the vibrator on my back. Yowza. I didn't want to go back to work.

    She was right about the gel, too. I walked out with the best haircut I've had in a decade. When I got home, my wife noticed, and if that wasn't out of character enough, I think she was a little turned on.

    I hope Mike does well, but I think the poor fella's on his way out. I can't help but feel somewhat responsible.

    Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    Going Greek II: Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

    Soldier of Sidon is, like the two previous Soldier books, the story of a warrior cast into events of larger significance than himself. It's another first-person diary, and much more so than Pressfield's effort, Wolfe's narrator and his world ache with integrity from the get-go. He reports his story from the perspective of a simple man, using simple language. He observes the right things. Two short chapters into Sidon, and Gene Wolfe has managed to calmly grab the sense of place and of character that Steven Pressfield struggled to achieve in an entire novel. Wolfe makes it look easy. I am sure it is not.

    The narrator's name is Latro, also called Lucius or Lewqys, meaning, with a wink, "wolf." It's more than vanity; the wolf also refers to the Roman wolf, describing Latro's place of origin (it feels strange to realize that the Republic was developing on its own contemporaneously with the famous Persian wars on the neighboring penninsula). Latro also takes the aspect (complete with club and euraus, that cobra headband in all the glyphs) of the Egyptian wolf-god Ap-uat during his time in that land. Ap-uat is the god of soldiers. Nice.

    Latro, it should be said, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He is the victim of a head wound, an old one by the time of Sidon, that has impaired his long-term memory.** He can learn languages, and has retained his soldier's skills. He can remember a scene or two from his youth, but all of his yesterdays are lost. The diary is to help keep track of his life, to explain in the morning who all these strangers are. His snap judgements about supporting characters (whom he frequently re-introduces, or equally frequently fails to recognize) offer an insight into their growth. It's a narrative balancing act--the reader can't be bored by the retelling it takes to make the memory scroll convincing. It's also challenging to follow at times, not unintentionally, but the story is there.

    And a lot of story is there. A man who can't remember is a natural dupe of the gods, and they don't leave poor Latro alone. In Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete (the original volumes), Latro was caught in the divine squabbles that hung over the Persian wars, the plot of which the assidious reader was left to decipher. Latro walked among the famous as well as the holy, and it helped to have Herodotus handy to help understand where he was and what he was doing. (I did not and I was lost.) Soldier of Sidon manages to turn up some old friends, but leaves the great battles behind, traveling south through Egypt instead to encounter a whole new Pantheon. Without the weight of history (and without the translated place-names, a cool feature of the earlier books that is neglected here, presumably because Latro knows the language less well), the story was a little easier to get my brain around.

    But don't worry, it's a good story.


    P.S. Reader beware. Wolfe evidently intends to conclude this one in another novel.

    * Anachronism watch: there's one lousy passage, late in the book, in which Latro rides "stirrup-to-stirrup" with another soldier. Say it ain't so, Gene! The stirrup didn't come into common military use until the first couple of centuries AD in China, after which it gradually migrated west. It transformed heavy cavalry and made the more famous medeival versions of horse-fighting (jousting and whatnot) possible, making it possible to fight on horseback with far less skill. Stirrups may have been around for a while before, however (as a mounting aid probably) and some of the unofficial histories I've read ascribed it's use to the Assyrians as early as 800 or even 1000 BC. Could a fifth century BC Persian soldier have fit his horse with stirrups (the Persians did ride)? Just barely possible, and it's not like they were tilting lances while standing on them.

    ** Earlier, I'd written short-term memory was limited. No, that worked fine, but Latro lost the ability to put any of those in the long-term bank. I'd read awhile back (I think in a foreword to the other Soldier books) that Wolfe had chanced across some medical article describing this rare trauma. In some of his other novels, he created another suspect narrator with an allegedly perfect memory. Quite likely he was researching the subject. Latro makes a nice counterpoint to that other protagonist (and is far more likable).

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    An Appealing Local Model

    [Response to Slate's Green Food article, now triple-posted, but it's a little closer to readability each time.]

    Picture this: instead of suburban sprawl, there are residential clusters that surround the manufacturing or other business centers. Here, in and around these centers, people actually live, and the countryside beyond them is spread with farms small and large. It's kind of like the New England of 1950, but without the factory pollution, back before the highway program and the green revolution took off and pushed Joe Sixpack out into the boonies.

    We'd be better off if more food were bought and produced locally. It tastes a hell of a lot better when it doesn't ship from South America. If oil weren't so cheap, and transportation infrastructure so heavily subsidized, shipping costs for foreign-produced agricultural products would drive up their prices, and the prices of local products may actually rise enough under this cushion to allow local farms enough profit to support themselves.

    Even neglecting subsidized highway infrastructure, the costs of living near business centers are still damned expensive. I am not sure that housing projects have been a good solution to that, historically. Commuting still works out better in the cost analysis, so we pave over grampa's farm and build a McMansion or twenty on it.

    The local model also works better in California than it does in Connecticut, where you can't grow stuff for six months out of the year. Who misses the days of starving to death if you didn't make enough jerky to last the winter or if the potatoes rotted in the cellar? (Exaggerating. Maybe.)

    It's interesting to observe how we've engineered our landscape. It seems inevitable that industry will tend to concentrate in infertile areas, and occupy as little area as possible. Agricutlure, meanwhile, tends to require more area, opening up green space, though it can be compressed with the addition of energy. A geographic and demographic balance will be met based on the costs of moving produce from one place to another, the cost of land, fertility, and on the required area needed to produce food. Social engineering efforts will cause these factors to be weighted differently. Would we be better off if we subsidized community infrastructure instead of transportation infrastructure? If we didn't subsidize (petroleum-intensive) centralized farming? If we facilitated oil use less? If we did nothing at all?

    Tough to say. But I love the local model.

    Saturday, November 04, 2006

    Going Greek I: Review of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

    A friend of mine, the one who could afford it, read Gates of Fire and it inspired him to visit Greece. A fellow blogger, about the best slinger of invective I know, lumped the genre as Sparta without the queer. And they're both right. The stand at Thermopylae is about as gripping as military history gets. It's a battle in which men stood up against a vastly superior enemy by sheer force of will and discipline and brains, and defended their continent at the expense of absolutely everything. On the other hand, you get the feeling that Pressfield is cherry-picking his history for twentieth century (© 1998) notions of nobility, using a twentieth century moral calculus. Which calculus is still pretty sketchy. Was Sparta right to coerce her neighboring city-states into alliance against the Persian threat? It seems to leave aside a lot of nagging moral question, and Pressfield, somewhat lazily, lets the circumstances justify his ethics. (In his less-good sequel Tides of War, the rights and wrongs are presented with a double helping of ambiguity. There was a lot less nobility to be found in the Peloponnesian War I guess.) In the present-day war environment, it feels a bit irresponsible to rush to embrace all that pathos, but what the hell, I enjoy watching football too.

    When I settle into a story like this, the first thing the author must do is charm my tin ear for anachronism. That's not usually hard, but Pressfield plays it close. As mentioned above, half the book is neck-deep in the Spartan agoge and the narrator relates no hint of homosexuality. (Maybe he wouldn't have bothered? The modern taboos are what make me notice the absence.) Some really modern concepts sneak in too (trajectory equations, central nervous systems), but these are rare enough to be written off as mistakes. He confidently throws around enough steel to make me suspect everything I thought I knew about metallurgical history.

    On the other hand, he offers up a good translation kludge to cover many of his inconsistencies, which is something I always appreciate. The narrator's story is ostensibly being interpreted for the Persian king in the final weeks of the invasion, and he (the teller) convincingly stumbles on words and concepts that lack a direct translation, which is a convenient way to communicate Classical ideas to the modern English reader. It also allows for some wiggle room for the language, so even though everyone knows that knights and squires are medeival creatures, it's a good shorthand for the relationsip between the Spartan Peers and their proteges. But translating context like this has its pitfalls, and Pressfield manages to drop a few bombs as well. Pikes and especially lances connote medieval cavalry (or anti-cavalry) tactics and are not good synonyms for spears. It fails as a comparison because we're already comfortable with what "spears" are. And while I'm sure you can repair any fabric this way, nicknaming weapons "darning needles" conjures up images of a socks-and-sandals fashion 2500 years before it hit the boomers.

    The battle at Thermopylae is a story that tells itself almost in a sentence. Pressfield fills up four hundred pages with characters that will find their nobility on the battlefield as they face slaughter back-to-back. You've read it before: the defective kids make good, the noble captains die with dignity, the assholes find compassion and respect. It's compelling enough, but it seems to be missing a little something. Is it too reverent? The prose a little too purple? The story too standard? The narrator is driven by a vision of Apollo--I wish a little more had been made of that. Give me something beyond the drama. Drop in some nugget to churn up my thought juices just a bit little more.

    Gates of Fire came close to pleasing me, but in the end, the hordes of negativity broke though the pass. I respect the effort.


    (I've meant to keep a Greek theme, but I just got Soldier of Sidon in from Amazon, and it looks like Wolfe has taken a detour from Herodotus to meander up the Egyptian Nile. It'll have to do.)