Friday, December 29, 2006

Dancing the Makaya (Part 1)

Dancing the Makaya

[Part 1, edited (mostly) on 12/31]

To be honest, I always did it for the girls.

Sure, you had your body in motion sort of thing, the soaring arcs, the taut muscles, the balance--sometimes I think flying couldn't be better--but physical awareness alone would never have gotten me past the gauntlet in the hallway. If that was all I wanted, I could have been a wide receiver or a pole vaulter or something, all sprinting and timing for a moment of airborne grace. And hey, I get those guys too, and if the thrill of flight was all I was after, I would have been one of those. But I've got to tell you, the practices wouldn't be the same.

I don't run or jump unless it serves the rhythm. I don't grapple with sweaty fat men, but pull lithe young women to my body and fan their budding passions. I don't need the animal thirst for the kill, I take the fuller measure of life. I court the fire and whirl around it, feed it, evade it. I sail, I float, I howl. I am the gasp of excitement, not the wheeze of exhaustion The sigh of contentment and not the moan of defeat. I don't catch balls or kick them. Don't sprint, dodge, or hit. I dance.

There's a popular myth that most boys who dance are gay, and yeah, I suppose a lot of us are. I could see how it would be that level of distraction would be an occupational hazard, but on the other hand it's also my opinion that ten minutes with a girl like Makaya Simbi could straighten any guy out. Now there is a girl who can move, and even if you didn't notice her walking around school--you'd have to be blind not to see this girl, but I swear the football players don't--once you saw her move, then, well, turn-on doesn't start to describe it. When she dances, she doesn't just strut or sway, she smolders, sizzles. I've even seen her roar. When she heats up, the girl in her disappears. She's not grown to a mere woman either, like the instructors sometimes say when they want to lord their age over the younger students. Makaya becomes more than any of that. She drills right into something higher when she dances. Hips, shoulders, head, balanced, moving like on she's pulled on great and perfect strings, with perfect timing. It's more than great rhythm, that girl has inspiration.

And if you can move with her, well then that's the thing, isn't it? If you can dance with Makaya, then you can start to feel what it is to be a man. I have been practicing with her this month--we've got a freestyle jazz routine we're working on. Yesterday we were working on a lift sequence. I have to haul her up and balance her by her stiff wrists, and then let fly with all my strength. (You maybe think dancers are all legs, but there's a whole body experience involved, you've got to be perfectly strong everywhere, perfectly limber.) Makaya needs to hit the ground right on the downbeat--up, spin and throw and whoomf, right on the tonic of our bluesy little thing there. Other dancers may slam a landing, or bang it, but Makaya drifts down to the floor like a spark on to a pool of gasoline. Her feet touch and she explodes in movement, flashes a killer smile on the crowd for the two pickup notes, and then slinks at me for three beats, hips swaying like a charmed cobra as the blues start swinging into gear again. The look in her eye just then, you'd think she could eat me.

I don't care how many tackling dummies you can bowl over, or how many helmets you can stomp. You meatheads can keep your silly blonde cheerleaders.

Makaya and I have worked more and more over the last year. There's not anyone else here in our company who can keep up with her when she really gets the feeling, and it helps that we spent some time working on our own together as well, with old Ish. I'd practice with her a lot in any case--every guy in the company gets a good sampling of partners (like I said, it's why I'm here), but even though some the other boys can do the technical moves nearly as well, they're not so good at the freer and looser ballroom or jazz stuff. The stricter ballet or the tap productions work well for them, but when things get impassioned, improvisational, not a one of them can match Makaya when she's under the spell.

Let me tell you what I mean by that. Last year, Gary, one of our better guys, was chosen to dance a samba with Makaya for a ballroom exhibition. It was a big one for us, and the samba was the best part: big solo, live band, wonderful. Was I jealous? Maybe this time, maybe a little. I loved the way that Makaya would roll the word samba around her dark lips ("zamba"), like her mouth was dancing, and look at me like I belonged in the other half of it. So yeah, I wanted to be in Gary's place for that one. But dancing with Makaya is like a battle sometimes, and it's fun to have some of our other lovely young ladies try to keep up with me, too. I like to push the cuties to match my feet and my eyes, see if I can't bring something out in them. Sometimes I let them catch up with me, match me move for move, and it floats them up with a sort of sexy surprise that I love to see. Sometimes I don't let them, drop them short, which always makes them--the good ones anyway--try that much harder the next time. It's never bad to be paired with a woman, and as it turned out, I'd be with Makaya in most of the future numbers.

Against the CD, Gary and Makaya's practices went well enough. Over a month, they honed every step of a solid two-minute routine. But it's always different playing with a band. It's not just the mistakes--the missed notes or even a missed beat now and then--those are recoverable if you're a good dancer, but with young Ms. Simbi, you're talking about a different set of possibilities. You might get some joker in there who fancies himself a real musician. Might try to improvise.

Me, I love the samba rhythm. I love anything with a swing feel, and for a samba that's just the beginning of it. Before Gary and Makaya's showcase piece, there was a group number as an introduction. Right away, I could tell that they had a quality drummer for this band. He let nice, crisp pulse on one of the deeper toms--Bom be-bom be-Bom be-bom--nothing fancy, just the bare heartbeat of the whole pattern, but it was already infectious in the way that the tape had never been. You could feel the audience of TV-watching ballroom geeks getting into it from the first beat. The air seemed to crackle.

The boys and the girls--we poor extras of the crew--were on opposite sides of the stage, in the dark wings. As the drummer hit his opening groove, we strutted out toward one another, looking almost like chickens, with the down-stepping feet and bobbing heads. As we met in the middle of the floor, the snare started in, a strict sixteenth note pattern, but you could feel that the funky latin waterfall had kicked in, and with only a bar or two of that, the dude was in full swing. Someone else in the band started a tambourine in tinny electric syncopation. I swear I could smell ozone when the horns hit.

Our opening part wasn't that long, just enough to introduce the main couple. I was paired up against Wendy for it, a long, pale little thing, who looks taller than she is. Wendy has a shoulder shrug that can make me smile when I'm not dancing, and she's nice enough, but I can't ever see her growing past girlish. People will still be calling her cute when she's forty. Not my type. Just the same, this is a performance, and I carried her through our introductory twirls. The drums and the trumpets built to a quick crescendo and ended on a stomp, at which we dancers all froze in our different positions. Wendy's position was in my arms, never a bad thing.

During the pause, it's the job now of each couple to duck and run gracefully back to the wings, the ones in front first, revealing the back of the stage like an opening zipper. As this happened, the lights dimmed and the narrow spotlight opened onto Gary and Makaya in the back center. It's no wonder that Makaya was picked to lead this number. Even looking at her, you could tell she was perfect for it. You wouldn't even have to get past her eyes, but the rest of her was stunning in a shimmering red dress. The instructors, most of them, don't let us get into anything too revealing, thinking that it would be inappropriate (well, she's nearly eighteen, but you know, there are sometimes families at the show who come to see the younger kids in the group) but even the stodgiest dance outfit is designed to show off a body. In Makaya's case, you can see the femininity steaming from her, even as she's standing still. She owned that dress. I think Gary was paired against her only because he looked good almost as good in his clothes. He's got the same black-coffee skin as Makaya, and I have to admit, he looked damn good next to her in his sequined white. (Maybe the queer dancers are on to something after all.) I'm not as pale as Wendy, but I have to admit, I'd fade out in that outfit, under those lights.

The musical rest was just long enough to build tension, not so long that you'd forget the theme. Makaya and Gary were there looking at the crowd and as the drums hit a huge beat to reannounce themselves, they turned and stepped past one another with their straight backs and stiff necks, without losing arm contact.

Like the introduction, the piece started with pure percussion, and from the sides, I could see that the drummer's sidekick, the guy with the tambourine, was not really paying attention anymore, there's just the guy on the throne hammering on his middle pair of toms. He was looking at the dancers too. One interesting thing about the samba--the samba dance--is that it's got a "three feel" even though it's not strictly that, and the drummer was playing that three feel up a lot at first, matching his hands to the feet of the girl in red, and adding more to it by the second. The rhythm was so thick and layered, it started to sound like there were seven beats in there, 2-2-3, but it was so filled up with beats and thuds, that we were all too mesmerized to count. Like I said, these live guys sometimes have talent, and here was someone good enough to improvise something well beyond what we practiced.

Makaya didn't look uncomfortable with that. The end of each bar thinned to a little bada-bup that seemed to heat her up a little more with each repetition. Gary adapted to the beat well enough at first, and he was even copying Makaya's move on the little fill (the dance looked nothing like a samba at this point), but the drummer seemed to be out for him. Out of nowhere, he laid on the snare, a completely alien pattern except that Makaya's face lit up with anticipation right before the break, and as the drummer hit it, she threw out her arms and her crimson flew all around her like she was bursting in flames. Gary stood still. Poor bastard.

Makaya grabbed his white shirt and yanked him at her, threw him past her, as the music crescendoed again. The horns again lit in for a final beat, and there was a silence once more. Gary scraped his ass from the floor, and the formal samba started again as if nothing had happened. Gary moved through it like a frightened robot. He hasn't danced with Makaya since. Can't even look at her anymore.

[to be contd.]


- part one of three or four
- Good call, rundeep. The rhythms are important to the story, and I spent a few hours listening to (and choosing) drum samples.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Immortal Folly IV: Review of Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee

Grade: A

Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's novel does more than complete this theme of men and animals and gods: it lays the concepts out, dissects them, discusses them at length, from half a dozen viewpoints, conventional and otherwise, as a nearly academic exercise.

Elizabeth Costello is a series of abbreviated formal lectures and less-formal followup discussions which take place around the aging Ms. Costello, the famous (fictional) writer. It's a pretty ballsy effort, at least if your goal is to sell books, to make a story about lecturing writers and blathering academics. It's brazenly self-aware and self-referential from page one. It commits the storytelling faux pas of using characters as nothing more than expository vehicles--the novel is less about people (some character details between chapters don't even mesh, probably to flag anyone who's paying too much attention to the "plot") than it is about a novelist's ideas of people, not to mention animals and gods, rattling the bars of their hypothetical cages. Without genius, it would be laughable to package something like this as a novel. But Coetzee fascinates. I hope he teaches a class somewhere. I wish I could take it.

The opening "lesson" in Elizabeth Costello discusses Realism as an ugly modern movement, condemning it, as the characters in the novel condemn very much, as anthropocentric. Elizabeth Costello's discussion on realism selects Kafka's talking ape, Red Peter (that's realism, really?), as a fulcrum for discussion, and it's a good enough launching point for the greater theme of the novel, asking from a scholarly perspecitve (which honestly enough is one with which I'm less familiar), the age-old: what's so great about these human beings anyway? Does the focus on human-style reasoning as a distinction from the beasts ultimately lead to the answers we want to hear (that dude, we rule because it's, you know, us)? What is wrong, the characters ask, with Red Peter's ape-ness, his animal being? Who are we to impose our reason on these creatures? Who are we to impose our brutality, our inhumanity as it were?

Coetzee explores our relationship to the gods as well, asking whether gods are superior reasoning beings (like Swift's Houyhnhnms) or superior aesthetic beings, like the Greek gods or as the ennobled savages the colonial powers of a hundred years ago found everywhere. Once, we communed with animals as gods in this second sort of worship, and echoed it among the later Christian poets and scholars, what with their burning tigers and all. The rejection of the hunt, the war with animals (as the titular character would say) is recent. Interestingly, Coetzee takes the notion of gods as superior compassionate beings, such as the tortured Christ, more lightly. I found this a strange take after he lampooned our clumsy empathy for the lesser beings. He's not, I should note, looking for a unified perspective so much as looking to showcase the argument.

I suppose one is not very likely to win a Nobel, especially if you're a middle-aged white guy, by effetely touring American and European traditions. (Coetzee wryly points out that Elizabeth Costello the character was helped a great deal by her Australian heritage.) Elizabeth Costello the novel spends a good amount of time in Africa in it's exploration of human exceptionalism. He takes the time to explore the oral tradition of the continent, and though he criticizes it a little, on the meta level the reader can see an unintentional tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman's conceit: it's not the reason, it's the telling of the stories. Who else can get inside the head of an African, a woman, a bat?

Only the storyteller.

Genre: ,

Friday, December 22, 2006

Masks of Gold and Stone (Merry Christmas)

Many of you here use this place as a mask, using that intemperate interface to peek out through orange and blue glasses at personalities represented by letters on a screen. All those characters dashed about, turning people into characters, and, in the brains of the reader, back into people again, at least some of the time.

Even though this place is particularly well-suited to masquerade--there's an infinitude of off-screen changing rooms--there is no shortage of masks in walking life. We show ourselves to our family one way, represent to friends, coworkers another. We show toothy visages to our enemies, and roll our bellies at people we trust, sometimes on faith. Some few show fiery masks of passion: dangerous items, apt to consume the wearer (I also fear they're lonely down beneath--as for me, I prefer to smolder), but most others see only the armor we put before ourselves to protect from the inevitable spears and pricks that people lurk to jam into any chink.

I find them all ill-fitting and cumbersome.

Of course we mask ourselves to ourselves as well, to varying degrees. I'd find it nice to be free to open them all to reveal just me, whatever the hell that is. Even if I think it makes a silly quasi-quantitative model, I know that Keifus, whoever he is, is in truth a multitude of faces, and even if these are, by definition, also false--bullshit upon bullshit upon nothingness--then at least they are form-fitting to whatever it is I might be. As someone who wishes he could write, I find it a satisfying exercise to go spelunking through the wrinkled avenues of my gray matter* for avatars. I'm not too afraid of my darker corners (more disappointed in them, actually), but many of the weaker ones I'd rather not see. For all this, however, there's a small ensemble of legitimate Keifuses with which I identify as me.

Even though this is by nature a place of masks, it's also a place where I let the essential ones shine with their most unfiltered light. So many of you don the things to even walk in the door. I find it a relief to shuck the fucking things off.

Letting me out is all about projecting my reactions on things--my opinions, my thoughts. It's not the same as revealing the facts of my life. I find these a burden too, truth be told. As a rule, I don't talk about my marriage here (partly because doing so is inherently unfair, partly because it's sneaky, partly because I consider it low class, and partly because I'd love my wife to be part of any hypothetical hugfest I'm finally allowed to attend), even if it consumes a great deal of my mental energy. But I'm dying to tell you that it's the heaviest mask I wear: asexual and orthogonal to the grain of my humor. Bulletproof. It weighs a goddamn ton. That you folks tend to find me decent is a total riot.

It's exactly the wrong time to complain about this of course. I'm in the middle of a seasonal lull in the long ice, a midwinter thaw that's as welcome as a desert oasis. But melting has a tendency to let out all those frozen-in flaws and impurities, all at once. (It's how, incidentally, you purify silicon ingots.) Hopefully this post will make those thoughts go away in time.

The masks I wear in front of my kids are closer to my internal selves. But to the tykes, I can't, of course, show all of the inner Keifuses, only the ones they are ready to understand. My work masks are me to an even smaller extent. That me is mostly about business and intellectual thought (although I don't think anyone's fooled by my preferred distractions). I decline to wear my business mask here unless it informs a more universal or relevant experience. I think that posturing my work knowledge only to impress (sorry, Geoff) is pretty unclassy too--there's a fine line. (But on the other hand, those guys in the Fray's explainer are getting checkmarks for showing off, so maybe I'm a fool. I'll live.)

I've got some close friends too that only see my masks. These are the guys I grew up with and I positively cherish their continued company. But there's no denying we grew apart--these fellows have a spark of the intellectual married with a spark of the eternal childish (otherwise we'd never likely have found one another in the first place), but their minds all took different paths than mine over the years. More closed, less honest. Sorry guys.

I've said it before: you jokers--you know who you are--even if those of you who're faking it, are the closest thing I've got to real friends. What you see here is the closest thing to Keifus that I'll admit to, even to myself.

I won't lie to you. My Christmas is going to be wonderful. It's the closest time of the year when I can let it out at home and still be approved of. There will be fabulous food, good wine, terrible family jug-band music, and just a good--no, a great--loving time had by all. It's the best week of the year by a long shot.

I don't know why I find so much in common with you people. I'm hopelessly mundane. I've never done hard drugs, don’t suffer from alcoholism (probably) or other addictions, don't smoke, never had a tumultuous relationship, am boringly straight, never had soul-scrubbing sex, I've figured little of it out, no light shines beatifically from my forehead, don't know the right things to say, have no deviant preferences (but could probably find some if I tried), never been homeless, have no debilitating maladies (except bad knees), no psychological afflictions, I may be melancholy but I'm not clinically anything, never fought in a war, never sacrificed myself for others (except in wimpy moderation for my family), never cheated on my wife, never been divorced, never committed rhetorical sins, had no close loved ones suffer (not that close), never lied in a substantive way, wasn't abused as a child, and, I'm happy to say, have abused no one other than by being my own pathetic self.

But just the same, you people are my brothers, and I love every crazy, fucked-up, lying one of you. Yup, even you. I'll be needing you for the other 51 weeks. Take care.

Merry Christmas.


*This phrase sounds familiar to me: will research to see if I accidentally cribbed it, I promise (Is it an A?)

Hey Pierce Penniless!

Do you realize you've locked everyone out of reading your blog? If that was not intentional, you may want to look into it. I mean, I'm not a regular at very many places, so if you're ducking out on purpose, I wish you'd, you know, acknowledge it to your faithful here.

12/23: Well shit, bro, if inexpertly flogging the ghost of ole Billy Yeats can't draw you out, then I fear I've lost you. Hope to see you back around soon. Also wanted to mention that I'm enjoying Elizabeth Costello--will post on it in the near future, though it may be a tough one to discuss in a handful of paragraphs.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Immortal Folly III: Review of The Night Watch by Sean Stewart

Grade: B+

So we walked out of the jungle and settled down as men. But the trees didn't let go of us so willingly. The Wild Wood, the forest primeval (to scatter my sources), held our primitive thoughts in its captive tendrils for centuries. Taming it has made us more than amimal-men, but what if the wood reasserted itself? (Well, it'll be pissed off, for starters.)

Sean Stewart has created a world in which the earth has woken up. Dormant for half a millenium, from (as he belabors) the sixteenth century until the end of the second world war, the old-world magic has returned. It was a horrible thing too: turning great men into terrible gods, stirring the dead, and transforming the lesser of us into ghostly deformed creatures that feed on fear. The awakening, in Stewart's universe, was slow at first and then climaxed in a Dream that, but for the efforts of a noble few, nearly wiped humanity off the map. Some communities survived the Dream intact, through guidance and grit, and The Night Watch looks at two of them, the south side of Edmonton, that made it through with stark denial, and Vancouver's Chinatown, which persisted with considerable more flair.

From this palette of earth powers and the living supernatural, a good writer can paint some gorgeous and haunting scenes, and this indeed is Stewart's strength. (He describes his own work as happening "at the confluence of Faulkner and Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Enid Nesbit, Joseph Conrad and Lloyd Alexander and Ursula Le Guin," which, neglecting Nesbit whom I've not read, isn't a bad description at all.) He's got a splendid eye for detail, whether it's detail of setting, detail of emotion, detail of character. And they're wonderfully rendered: his vignettes and snapshots range from frightening to fulfilling to poignant. The primitive forest of Vancouver, grown to near sentience, the magical depths of Chinatown (where's Jack Burton when you need him?), and the cold gods of the freezing prarie that demand sacrifice all seethe from the page.

My only wish is that he could have used more a little more expository detail. To turn all those scenes into a novel, you have to connect them somehow, generate some faith in the reader in the causality of events, that one thing leads to another, that there's a purpose to grouping them in such a fashion for display. You need to to have a consistent setting, too, and a few words as my second paragraph here (necessarily better written) would have gone far if applied near the beginning. Stewart's early info-dumps were, unfortunately, not terribly relevant, and I was damn confused on how the world fit together. Technology has advanced nearly to artificial intelligence, but fuel and other chemicals must be scrounged. How was that possible? The "barbarian" and many of the other magical threats were so unclear at first as to be non-alarming. They got told eventually, mostly, and by the end, I was tempted to re-read the first half to verify that I wasn't the problem. But it wasn't me: for all that beauty the individual plots never mesh quite well enough. A shame, but hardly a damning one.

A couple of non-thematic notes: he painted a relationship of a formerly married couple that I liked. Stewart often writes women that annoy me (relying overmuch on some Madonna/whore thing to complicate them past the point of likability). Here there was none of that: he made a woman that was tempestuous and difficult and still strong and feminine. He recognized how well paired such women are with solid man-types as unflappable bulwarks against their storms. He matched this pair believably enough, and made it a nice vehicle to display the culture clash. Another point that I enjoyed was the serendipitous pairing of this novel with Jitterbug Perfume. Future Edmonton is beet-eating town it seems, but it couldn't be more dispassionate. Meanwhile, the lusty residents of Chinatown loathe the things. Is it a nod? It's an amusing one if so.

Genre: , , >,

Reflections of an Aging Writer

It's not dead, not yet
maybe not even dying
but we play a dark game
with the pillow, don't we?
look, it's breathing again
our timing is perfect

I scribbled these walls myself
on dotted lines
how could I imagine that more ink
would possibly help?
this encircling fence
is already underwritten

The greatest horror by now
is to be taken seriously
please tell me it spoke to you
please, won't you like me?
so full of myself
it spills on the page

Another midlife windbag
the pages are full of my avatars
who can I blame
that I haven't lived?
always back to me
and my naïve paternal sentiment

But the door's over there
just past the wet floor
I painted
and if I leave footprints?
...I still care
it's not only my carpet after all

I guess I'll just wait
till it's dull and dry
how much longer can that be?


Probably needs more edits. (Thanks A--I didn't take your specific advice, but it helped.)

Autobiographical? Let's say I'm extrapolating. I'm neither a writer, nor particularly old (no doubt this is obvious), a little early for a midlife crisis yet.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hollandaise Morning

Omelette's hope is lost, forsaken
silken buttercup betrayed
a lonely memory of clouds

What fine divisions once entangled
endless texture in one whole
now whisked instead to curdled flocs
as these

Slimy yellow platelets floating
clotted in salty plasm
drifting on autumnal surface
like leaves

Emulsions form and are broken
fatty gobbets find their own
their segregated souls departed
like dreams


Okay, I know it's terrible poetry, but I had to drain it from my head.

Chemically speaking, emulsions are mixtures of insoluble liquids (usually water and an organic liquid--oil--of some kind) that are separated into very small domains. What makes emulsions different from your run-of-the-mill suspensions is that they're relatively stable thanks to the action of a surfactant, a chemical that has an affinity for both the oil and the water phases, and keeps them apart at a microscopic level. The result is a soft and pillowy "phase" that, depending on its composition, can sometimes be made to float forever between the pure oil and water regions of a mixture. Which is neat.

The structure of the emulsion microdomains is actually quite subtle and fascinating, ranging from isolated droplets, to columns, layers, and intricate spongelike extended structures. Here's a sylized phase diagram that I once put in a proposal, taken from somebody's review (H. T. Davis Coll. Surf. A, 91, 9, 1994).

When you separate an emulsion, it's called "breaking," which is an interesting choice of terms because you're not breaking the true phases (they are already broken up), but combining them into bigger chunks. You can probably make this a metaphor for human interaction: a bunch of us relating individually across a large network makes for a nice fluffy existence, but when we segregate ourselves (by religion, appearance, geography, whatever), the system goes all to shit.

Which happened in my kitchen this morning, a pitched battle. I like to cook, and I'm good at it, but I've never figured out emulsion sauces. I was, however, so buoyed by my success at making proper French omelettes last week that I just had to give it a go this morning. I added the butter too fast, and that creamy Hollandaise broke up into nasty, salty bits. Dammit.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Immortal Folly II: Review of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Grade: A

Adam and Eve frolicked free and easy in the garden, knowing God, but not knowing what he knew. "Eat this fruit," said Eve, "and we'll be animals no more." Gilgamesh took Enkidu aside, shaved his shaggy ass down and got him to the temple prostitute. When Enkidu was properly deflowered, Gilgamesh told him, "now you are a civilized man." It is a tale as old as tales. But the fertile crescent is only the beginning of civilization. We dropped down from the trees and started chattering at each other well before we settled down in cities. Neil Gaiman takes the conceit (and it's a conceit I dig) that humanity started somewhere in west Africa, and if anything sets us different from the animals it ain't the speaking, it's the telling of the stories.

Surely the oldest gods were animals and monsters. Anansi the spider is (though you no doubt have to take some liberties and change some names along the way) the oldest of the lot of them. At any rate, as the tricksy god of fiction, he's got some license to make the claim; his earliest stories rescued us from the savage and hairy jungle. In the more recent past, he came across the Atlantic Ocean on a slave boat, and whispered his stories into the ears of chained men and women on the Caribbean islands and in the American south. Modern times have diminished Anansi, like many gods, to folklore, and these days you can catch him whiling his time in southern Florida, fishing off bridges, charming women much too young for him, and otherwise having a good old time.

These anthropomorphised spirits were the subject of Gaiman's award-winning and popular novel American Gods (which had charm and character but misfired badly in terms of the divine mechanics and in terms of its American-ness), in which Anansi had a supporting role. Like any deity worth his name, the spider sprouts off a maladjusted demigod every now and again (tricksters don't make the best fathers), and Anansi Boys follows one of his rather mundane and indecisive sons. Fat Charlie (the old man could make a nickname stick) Nancy has just found out he has a brother, one who takes after their father much more than does Fat Charlie himself.

Gaiman has his moments, but he's not into prose gymnastics as a rule, and he's better at clever allusions than he is at deep uniting themes. (What I did miss from his other novels is the exquisite visual, or graphic, sense that Gaiman usually leaks into his stories. That felt attenuated here.) What he is damn skilled at is unwinding a good yarn, finding room for a light heart and for dark dread, pitting characters you love to like against villains you love to hate. Here, he doesn't attempt much mythological heavy lifting, but swings around just enough magic to lend a fairy-tale whimsy and just enough legendary heft to make it feel nontrivial. The result is a story appealing in much the same way as any of the Anansi fables you may remember reading as a child (or even hearing, if you've the proper ancestry), which is a lovely thing to encounter as an adult.


P.S. I will try to keep up with this for the next couple weeks, but it's likely I'll only be in and out. I have a ton of work piled up ('tis the silly season), and may even suffer the indignity of taking some of it home.

Genre: , , >,

Friday, December 08, 2006

Five More Thoughts

From social engineering to semantics, diction to diaspora, nothing is too frivolous for my pen. All items guaranteed to be of minimum weight and maximum interest, or your money back. Hell, you have an honest face, I'll give you double your money back if you don't like it.

1. Social Engineering: I don't know if anyone read so carefully, but any energy conscious types may have noticed in my last post, that Keifus and brood drove across the street from the convenience store to the remarkably dimwitted video vendors,* and maybe you found that point as irritating as I did. And it's even worse: both the convenience store and video dungeon are both within a handy walking distance from my home. Why the hell am I driving? Well, the answer is that a stroll entails an unnecessary flirtation with death. I have to walk along (and cross) the town's main artery, which is only about half-sidewalked, and the long straight road is well-suited to speed and pedestrian danger, especially with easily distracted children in tow. The workday congestion on that road is maddening (especially on the other side of town), and my little city government is battling the street residents to get it widened. If they do, I hope they add sidewalks.

No doubt, even with extra lanes, the main drag will get clogged with cars again in no time, especially if the Wal-Mart sprawl center wins its battle with the town board. Before I lived in central Massachusetts, I lived in Northern Virginia, home of the dreaded mixing bowl and other traffic horrors. They're widening that one too, but I'm confident that will also be inadequate to commuting demands. Even with the road expansion in full swing (possibly even done by now--I marvel at the non-corrupt efficiency of their road construction crews), residents in NOVA are still choosing the bus in increasing and record numbers. "You can't pave your way out of congestion," the segment quoted. I agree.

The use of public transport only becomes a viable alternative when the roads become sufficiently miserable to travel. If you make the roads bigger, then it just increases that equilibrium point. It takes more cars on the road to get people to take public transit. Interestingly enough, some of the nicer pockets of DC suburb I looked at had circuitous, labarynthine streets by design, which limited automotive traffic, and let the pedestrian and neighbors out into common spaces. Maybe the better solution (energy- and community-wise) is lower quality roads. Point for: Europe's urban areas are nice places to live. Point against: U.S. suburban cul-de-sac mazes may be better than living on the thoroughfares, but they still kind of suck.

2. Political Semantics: Maybe you've driven (or taken the bus) down the street and seen warnings about fugitive kidnappers. Thanks to the Amber alert program, it's now common to inform the public to help suspected criminals. There's no bigger blessing in politics than the death of a little girl or attractive young woman--poor Amber was kidnapped in Texas and horribly killed--and the practitioners of that foul art fall over themselves to cover their sausage-making under the banner of some poor traumatized kid. Newscasters fall over it too, because it's pure ratings. Even congress has been known to capitalize now and again. I mean, think of the chillllldrrrreennnnn. Melanie's law cracks down on drunk driving with children. Lizzie's law disallows spouse-murderers from visiting their children. Megan's law allows publication of sex offender identies and addresses on the internet. I'm not at all sure that all of these require a memorial to sell them, and those that do, needless to say, should have undergone some more honest debate. What bothers me, is that as a society we don't trust our existing mechanisms, and if somebody attractive suffers, our whoring legislative bodies fall over themselves to make new laws. It's legislation by anecdote, which isn't really the singular of data.

Earlier this year, a John Jay College student was abducted and brutally murdered (what the hell is wrong with people?) in New York City, allegedly by a bouncer at a club. In response, a new law is in the works that will require better training by bar security employees (okay...probably not a bad idea, and doesn't seem to terribly questionable viz a viz civil liberties). I'm watching the local newsie report this, and at the end of the segment, she looks into the camera with as much solemnity as she can muster, and intones that "the new law will be called Imette's Law." In what fucking bizarro world is that the most important part of the story? These people are beneath contempt.

3. Political Diction: So now you know one reason why I avoid the ridiculous preening pretension of television news. Usually, since I spend way too much driving anyway, I opt for the reasoned analysis of the radio. Here, the visuals are gracefully avoided, but like a blind musician, I still get hung up on the sounds instead of the sights. Even the staid NPR has no shortage of annoying speech patterns.

A particularly grating one has evolved when people talk about social engineering. When the positive value of something is meant to be universally accepted, commentators will draw out the important word and space it apart from the surrounding words with just a microsecond's worth of extra pause. It's particularly grating when people talk about school or healthcare like it's a bulk food item (we need more, we need better quality). In that context, you hear it in words like "drugs" and "teachers," but it's positively the worst in those words that are already are kind of stretched out. Commentaters pronounce "schooollll" or "weellll-ness" or "llearrrrn" like they're saying it around a delicious lozenge of wholesome scholastic goodness. (It's ten times worse if their accent already skews to a southern or western drawl.) I envision them pursing up their lips before and after they say these words, taking a moment to smack their tongue over the sheer savor of them. Christ, it's irritating. (Or maybe it's just me.)

4. Style, or Lack Thereof: Writing patterns are as likely to annoy me as speech patterns are, but mostly, I accept their idiosynchrasies as some form of individual expression. I sometimes worry about where my own voice may lie in that vast rhetorical stew though, because I've noticed I have a habit of adopting a measure of the style of the person I'm replying to, like some goofy mental resonance. Here in the greater fray-sphere, some of y'all get me more than others. IOZ is probably the worst, and he usually inspires a lot of big, angry words (which is fun). When I've been popping into daveto's blog recently, I feel his distinctive voice affecting me too, and I let my voice get a measure of his deceptive breeziness. switters gets me all jokey, and sometimes I cry a little on the inside. Pierce Penniless has been sparking sentiments of naturalism. Too many of the rest of you--you know who you are--are digging out poetic sentiments against my will.

Is Keifus real, or is he a little bit of all of you? Scary thought, innit?

(Don't worry, I'm me.)

5. Diaspora: (Do you notice I always work this self-absorbed crap in? This point was meant as a stand-in.*) So hey, check out those links right there. I've hated blogs for years, but now I have one, for various reasons I feel myself gradually pushed away from the old discussion forums. Just the same, I'm not sure the blog experience is the better one, it's just more rarefied. I've got more or less the same people reading, and more or less the same people I follow, though in each case that list has expanded a little.

One benefit of a single discussion group is that I can get myself off of it when the content dries up. It takes a critical number of mouseclicks of divergence for a post to fall beneath the horizon of my attention span. If it does, the slim hope it's been updated is enough to motivate my wrist to click back into the original site. Over there, the outgoing trail was short enough that I fell off the edge before long, but following all of these blogs now, there are enough clicks forward so that I can keep going at it all day, like a hamster on a wheel, stopping only after I get tired enough to absorb nothing.

Or more typically, well after I stop absorbing what I read.

That's it. Have a great weekend. Me, I'm going to punish myself and hold out till beer:45. Maybe buy a DVD.


* See, that post was originally going to be "thought 1," but it went on too long. But I had the segue all worked out, so....

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why I don't go out

So here's the plan last Saturday night: after nestling the kids snugly in their respective beds, I'd change up the routine a little, you know, grab a couple white Russians, and settle down and watch The Dude on DVD. My brother sent me some homemade kahlua last Christmas, and this would be a use that he'd approve. Moreover, it's the sort of night that suits my wife's absence (she hates "trashy" comedies) and my low level of disposable income just fine.

Of course any effort like this requires a chain of silly errands, and parental obligation says that I can't leave the little angels at home with a big bowl of food (like I can the cat) and two hats, four mittens, two coats, and two shoes--get back there you, shoes on outside, I mean it--four shoes later, we're out the door. Now I've got good kids, but the civility of their behavior during any excursion decreases exponentially with time and geometrically with the number of stops. As such, it's wise to keep the destinations to a minimum and make each one quick. Craftily, I save the video store till the end, bribing them for behavior with a promised rental of some godawful children's flick for themselves. The milk acquisition goes off without a single yowl, but even though the video store is only across the street from teh Kwik E Mart, I feel some tension growing in the car behind me.

In the video store, the kids tear off. Judging by their speed and volume, I can set my estimate my browsing window with atomic precision. I hasten to comedy. B, b, b... shit. Drama? As I look futilely in L, the twin terrors come racing back. Time to take drastic measures. I brave a discussion with the clerk:

"Do you have The Big Lebowski?"

"Huh?" Obviously, he's never heard of it.

Louder, "The Big Lebowski." (I hate, by the way, voicing my preferences to people I don't know.)


"Kids, you can't walk through there with that!"

"...have to ask my boss."

"Just a minute, girls. Garfield? Seriously, you want this? Okay, I guess, now hold on..."

"...says they don't have it. Never even came out on DVD."

See, here's the sort of doofus I am. I'd thought, without ever really considering it, that by now every movie that any human could conceivably want to watch had been digitally remastered and lovingly transcribed to DVD. Certainly this one would be likely to qualify. After all, several copies each of Big Fish, Big Momma's House, Big Daddy, and Big Fat Liar are there cluttering up the shelves, and surely those have about four decades of unrentedness between them.

"Um, so do you have it on VHS?"


"Kids, please don't do that."

"...don't rent VHS anymore."


"Kids! So what are all those, then?"

"You can buy the old tapes, but we don't rent 'em anymore."

So what are the odds, I ask myself, and turn to the wall of plastic. Things One and Two take the opportunity to dangle forlornly from each arm, and I spend about five chatty, remonstrative minutes gazing at the selection of justifiably forgotten eighties flicks.

"You guys ever hear of the alphabet?" I mutter.

"Daddyyyyy, let's goooooo."

Several "one seconds" later, I walk out of the store with a DVD rental of Clerks II. It was raunchy enough to curdle the milk I'd bought, and even though I often found myself acknowledging the humor on an intellectual level, you really just can't go back. I managed to stay up through about 7/8 of it, before the white Russians finished their bit Cold War espionage and sent me nodding off. I watched the final bits when my older daughter was at dance the next morning, hammering on "stop" like a Jeopardy! buzzer each time my younger one's distractions didn't hold up in the other room..

I think next Saturday night, it's back to blogging and stuff. Lesson learned.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Immortal Folly I: Review of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I didn't realize when I picked up Jitterbug Perfume that I was getting a contemporary fantasy (I grabbed it on the basis of author recognition, from a recommendation of sorts), although it certainly made it easier to generate some paired readings. It's got some of the familiar modern fantasy themes: the nature of immortality; a humanity that's both fleeting and indomitable; and the relationship of gods, men and belief. It also has a healthy and welcome dose of irreverent humor, plenty of sex, and it's drenched in the engineering and philosophy of scent. And vegetables.

The immortality story (taking my points in order) centers on the journey of Alobar, a medieval king who experiences an awakening of individuality on the eve of his own ritual sacrifice. In an era when life is cheap, fertility is quotidian and lewd, and death is a friend, he discovers an urge to fill the human experience to its most copious brim. He's ahead of his time, and, with a little divine nudge, he's ahead of ours too.

In flight from the locals he's betrayed, Alobar encounters the Greek god, Pan. Pan represents animal lust (eats, shoots, and leaves) and the most corporeal aspect of the god is his rank, gamy odor. The god, already old in the middle ages and dying from lack of followers, represents the old animal nature of man, the old-world philosophy of death. Alobar represents a new man, a complete bridge between the old ways and the new ones, free from death, and also quite nice-smelling. The death of the god at the man's feet, and Alobar's consumption of his gamy flesh is a sort of an anti-communion. He starts like Pan, but grows to be more, a complete human being, which is better than being a god.

In addition to Alobar's thread, there's plot moving along in modern times. Three parties are racing to independently develop a perfect scent, but the lack of a "base note," an elusive aroma component that should unite the fragrance, eludes them. Meanwhile, someone keeps depositing beets on their doorsteps.

Both the modern and ancient stories are filled with sex, but Robbins leaves the animal rutting behind with the gods, and manages to relish the life-affirming parts of the act (which, you know, is nice). The scent, taken as an enabler of higher thought (when he finally summarizes the uniting philosophy, it's more than a little silly), is a metaphor for this. This perfect aroma that the characters seek is the only thing that can cover Pan's Herculean B.O. problem.

Robbins has a lot of fun throwing around metaphors and playing with the language, and while the tone is overall humorous, he scores points for honesty in there too (and shows off some real erudition as well, however breezily). In all, half seriousness is a challenging undertaking. It's best to first establish yourself as either sincere or funny, or risk failing at both. Though Robbins is better at the humor, he tries to succeed at both, and rather than making it a doubly good book, it just makes it twice as long. The bigger problem with Jitterbug Perfume, however, was one of pacing. There was a lot of thematic development and character positioning, but the events of the plot just kind of happened at the end, no longer driven by very much dramatic tension. The revelation of the base note was anticlimactic, as was the philosophical info-dump, as were the denouements of the various love stories. Which isn't to say it's not a good read for the fun of it alone, but it kept me away from a higher grade.

I dithered a couple of days on this review. I had considered from the outset, and then even more after Maximo's comment in the previous post, describing the story ironically, reviewing it as a sexually repressed Bible-thumper type might review it (concluding, of course, that "Jitterbug Perfume stinks"). I don't know if I really served anything by going at it straight.