Friday, March 30, 2007

Juxtaposition Friday

...and Editing-For-Clarity Saturday.

Interesting drive home today. During my inexcusably long commute, I caught a couple of pieces on the radio about the latest lesser evil of the Military Commisions Act. I fear the death of irony as much as anything.

From NPR:

Hicks, who had complained of abuse in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, agrees as part of the deal that he has "never been illegally treated by a person or persons while in the custody of the U.S. government" ...Hicks' lawyers said their client was severely depressed and anxious to find a way to leave Guantanamo, where he lives by himself in a small, maximum-security cell. Observers...have suggested he pleaded guilty only to escape the isolated military prison.
Within five minutes of the first segment, and with no intentional irony, NPR reported this:
[A]nother statement from one of the captured Royal Marines was broadcast on Iranian TV. Royal Marine Nathan Summerson apologized for entering Iranian waters "without permission." British Prime Minister Tony Blair promptly denounced the treatment of the prisoners, who were captured by Iranian forces in the northern Persian Gulf last Friday.
A while back, our buddy IOZ pointed out that the most redeeming thing about the Nazis was their fashion sense. I get that. In a battle to teh bottom of the international relations morality scale, we're left with what exactly is better about America, and at least as far as bellicosity is concerned, it's a difference of degree and not kind. We dress our own evil up in nicer clothes. We don't shout "death to Iran" at football games (yet). You can get better food. We all have better toys. We drink. I personally think our national mythology is the superior one, but then I'm not religious...

There are real differences, of course, between the U.S. and Iran. Women are doing OK here, and you can bet I wouldn't be posting anything like this in the Islamic Republic. The two reports I mentioned, however, presented almost back-to-back, are in many ways equivalent in my eyes: forced confessions, detention, cultural bias as judgement. We're working real hard on making a matter of who has the more appealing uniforms.

Well, I hope this doesn't mean (more) war in any case. I'm not too optimistic.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fucking Karma

Late last night, in the space of time it took to walk across the hallway from my bathroom to my bedroom, something happened. There was no discernable event--no popping, no audible snap, no sudden twists and turns or tensions. I wasn't even moving very fast. Just the same, I found a new sensation as I entered one door that hadn't existed when I'd left the previous one.

It started mildly enough. "That's odd," I said, "my neck suddenly feels tight." And it was: it was tough to sleep, to get comfortable. Every toss and turn felt like a railroad spike being driven into my vertebrae. As of this afternoon, I'm getting on a first-name basis with this demon* squatting on the side of my cervix and stretching its kraken-like tentacles from my back left molars to the center of my back.

Karma, you say? Is justice coming out in the cosmic wash, like some metaphysical first law of thermodynamics reminding me of the moral impossibility of a good deed going unpunished? Consider--

cosmic fairness (I deserved this):

  • this bothers me most at work, especially when I sit and type (i.e., goof off)
  • yesterday, I took a personal day to party with my in-laws
  • and installed plumbing for them, which I got right the first try (clearly tempting fate)
  • drank too much
  • stayed up late playing music (with my own father, see below)
  • planned on skipping my morning workout anyway

cosmic unfairness (but, but...):
  • it was really nice of me to buy and install some porcelain for them
  • requesting that everyone in their family take a day off of work wasn't so cool, and I did it anyway, on short notice
  • I taught my step-nephew-in-law a thing or two about home repair (including questions not to ask clients regarding tolerances for level and so forth)
  • in an unlikely temptation of the odds, my father dropped by on a surprise visit (suitcase and guitar in hand) on the one day of the year no one happened to be home. Found the poor bastard asleep in his car in my driveway. (This is part of the reason I stayed up late.)

Well, metaphysical balances are pretty hard to figure out, especially when they're so easily barnumed up. I think I'm personally paying the wages of sin for my workplace laziness. As for Dad and the in-laws, they're outside the control volume, but I think my father must have fucked something up recently, and my in-laws are about due.

But yes, this is an apology for sucking today and quite likely for the rest of the week.

*Owwhatthefuck, if you were wondering

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Activities and Idiots

The turning point took about six months longer than usual. I think that has to count as something of a success. My plan was to blog about it then, sitting in the steaming clamor, but a string of missed practices--snowstorms, construction--has ruined my chances to kill time scribe insightful comments amid the shouds and splashes and uninteresting parental banter. She's only been swimming sporadically this month, and, by the consent of all involved, we've opted out of the insipid bonding rituals. Two weeks ago, we dodged what feels like the last one.

It's a well known fact that if children lack structured extracurricular activities, their skulls wither up to little husks until the clown liquefies their gray matter to the soggy ccardboard consistency of a McShake. It's understood that just booting their asses outside doesn't build quite the character that it used to (and judging by my parents' generation and mine, there might be something to this) but absent the halcyon days of child labor, I have to do my penance as child event enabler. When the whistle blows on Friday, I hightail it from my office to my wife's place of employment (this affords me an extra twenty minutes of labor, more than Junior could earn in a week, except I'm salaried), perform the kiddie switcheroo, and proceed another 45 minutes to the pool.

Though it may sound like the logical solution, my daughter does not swim at the same pool as myself. That would lack quite the number of organizational hurdles. I mean, it was good enough for her last summer, when she enjoyed the sorts of activities that normal children enjoy in pools, which is to say suffering an hour of instruction follwed by an afternoon of soggily tearing the place apart for the rest of the afternoon. But you see, that wouldn't be training for anything. Moreover, it would leave little outlet for the trainers, or rather, the motivators.

Maybe there's been some day you were lucky enough to bag work on a weekday--mild illness, mid-day dental appointment, Tuesday, whatever--and maybe you thought, "Gee, this'd be a great time to get something done," and you hiked your minivan to the supermarket and clanged your squeaky-wheeled wire cart through the teeming parking lot, thinking "wow, I thought most people worked during the day." Maybe you elbowed your way to the checkout past some sourpuss of a woman who paused yakking into her cell phone just long enough to eyeball you menacingly as you gingerly placed the plastic divider on the conveyer behind your Cheetos and bloody mary mix. You hurried out of the store in confusion and embarrassment, with a renewed vision of workplace productivity. Lucky you: you just got winged.

On one level, I know a family community is important. On another level, about 80% of the people in that community really irritate me. Probably I should have moved to a smarter town, and if that only means bonding around higher-class kiddie activities, then at least the conversations would be theoretically more interesting. Ooh, a lawn tractor Bob? That's interesting. (In that smarter town I imagine it's portfolios and affairs--so maybe just as bad.) Since I trek twenty miles to swim practice, a dropoff is infeasible, so I sit up there and watch the kids do their laps, while the little one pulls at my elbow. I look at the other "sports parents." Somehow, I'm always younger than any of them, but I don't think that's really teh source of the dissimilarity. You have some people reflecting my bored and empty stare, sure, but most of these people know each other. Most of them like it here.

My daughter's been swimming for a year. She's good at it, but she is not a competitive kid, and we've been keeping her out of meets. This is for her protection, but also our sanity. She'd been in wrestling before (not particularly good, but very enthusiastic), and her turning point in that sport came after losing five times in succession at a meet and crying on the way home. From our point of view, it was a day-long hell of smelly pubescent kids and cramped noise amid child-sized bleacers for the purpose of about five minutes of watching my little girl compete, forced to channel an antagonism she didn't enjoy. She didn't want to go back to practice after that, but Mom and Dad insisted she keep her commitment for the season--character, you understand. Plus, we'd already paid for it.

At the end of wrestling season, there were, of course, awards at which teh organizers all thanked themselves for a job well done. I will give them credit for their effort, which I do respect, but there's only so much self-appreciation I can stand. Hint: I don't care about your ski trip; I already know your kid had the best season of anyone, or that your troop is just super; I don't care who donated the baskets and I don't want to win them; it's nice to mention the organizers, but you know, not everyone needs to utter a few words, especially when none of you are any good at it. There's that urge to take a kid's activity and make it ceremonial and make them blatherfests quite out of proportion to the significance (to most of us) of the activity itself... kind of like the meets themselves, actually. There's something magical about the way amateur bloviaters can fill up an evening. If you're ever looking for a fine synecdoche of political rhetoric, may I suggest you attend a sports award ceremony for eight-year-olds? Same buffoonery, less polish.

Back at swim practice, there are a few active parents bustling around us bored-looking ones. They're planning something. Last time, it was pre-registration for an extra meet, because otherwise, there'd be four whole weeks gone past without one. It's the parents who want this. They're bubbly with excitement at the prospect of hours of waiting and shouted conversation above the deafening splashes. Two weeks ago, there was a big spaghetti dinner planned so the tykes could carb up before swimming the next day at the meet. My daughter's nine. She doesn't carb up. But it's the beginning of the end, I can feel it.

There is, of course, parental guilt involved in all of this. Shouldn't I be squeezing some life lessons from this, preparing her for a life of toiling for limited merit? Shouldn't I, uh, be devoting more?

Well, maybe when she's ten.

Keifus [when I coached soccer for her, my aim was to make sure everyone got a chance to play.]

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Foodie Central III: Review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Grade: B
Pollan, if he wanted to impress me, started this one from a deficit. By the time I got to page five, I was already prepared to dismiss his major theses: I didn't think "we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine our dinner menu;" I was (and remain) dubious about evolutionary biological justifications for diet; and what's more, Pollan has already annoyed me once with his shallow approach to food science.

I'll give him his best success first--the food source detective bit was pretty good. It turns out I appreciated greatly his explorations down the industrial food chain. I mean, I knew it had a lot of corn in it, but I wasn't quite cognizant that it had that much corn in it, didn't really grasp the pure foundational basis that a single plant culture had on the agrigultural economy. Not only does it feed cattle and become flakes, but it's the number one sweetener, thickener, and all-around plant component in foods. Pollan does an excellent job of presenting this at a macro level.* Corn overproduction is subsidized: the result is low prices (encouraging more yield), and cheap commodity corn for the industrial users. The excess pushes for new markets, and the latest is ethanol for auto fuel. It's hell on the growers (the biology of hybrids being that they produce plantable seeds in small yield and with productivity improvements tied into expensive new technology), but great for the segments of the economy that use the commodity. Even growing and burning ethanol might be a reasonable approach if we weren't pumping oil into the field to get it.

Pollan moves on to consider organic farming (these days meaning without pesticide and with limited external nitrogen sources) as well as some more sustainable grass-based farming models. The farming practices he highlights at the Polyface farm in the Shenendoah valley are, to be honest, ecologically brilliant, utilizing animal and plant symbiosis carefully, and recognizing seasonal cycles, to create a sustainable food-producing five hundred acres, even if it takes a great deal of attention. But when he starts talking grass, Pollan shows the first hints of the evolutionary romanticizing that he'll struggle with at book length. Is the agrarian pastoral the real ideal of nature? That depends a lot on where you are. Western Virginia** is one thing. New England is another. The Amazon (grass-fed, at the expense of the trees) another still.

One reason that corn has made it so big in this society--in addition to the energy density--is that it's easily storable and transportable. Do we have enough space for an arable 50 acres per person in this country? Probably not, and there's a logic at this population excess centralize people and to maximize output of farms. Now it could be more community based, and it damn well should be much more sustainable. What prevents this? Subsidies of centralized agriculture, of highways, and cheap oil. Policies matter.

I've developed over the years an allergy to science-critical non-scientists. There's a fine line between questioning motives and means, of questioning philosophy, but in order to question results, to doubt the process itself, some sufficient minimum of understanding is necessary.*** Local farming and biological congruence are perfectly good heuristics, but Pollan is constantly tempted to treat them as dogma. "Science" is his frequent enemy, those nasty chemical engineers. Like any politician or miracle-believer, however, he'll throw his deepest rhetorical support behind scientific studies that support his views. He'll gladly pick and choose those lucky few early ecological types that struck it with prescience while criticizing every chemist alive for the state of the art in 1945. It's bloody annoying. (The saints at Polyface, I'll add, are still practicing empiricism.)

One symptom of that sort of writing is a heavy reliance of psychological generalizations and treating them as empirical fact, but except for some prosaic countryside meanderings, Pollan succeeds pretty well at navigating the psychological territory (with some exceptions: his clueless surprise that hunting could be a visceral was annoying). The last third of the book is devoted to exploring the natural and modern relationship between humans and nature, from which we must unavoidably consume. He avoids the traps of anthropomorphosis of animals, and paints a reasonable-sounding ethical dodge for eating animals as part of a certain evolutionary symbiosis. That's evolutionary anthropology at its most dubious (or maybe at its most basic), but I found myself accepting it.


* As an aside, I'll try to remember to keep an eye for more information about the Ever-Normal Granary plan: it seems a reasonable, sustainable, hedge against market fluctuations, but I'm not sure it would work without adjustment against large-scale macroeconomic trends.
** I lived in the DC area for awhile, so I can call it that.
*** For example, don't say things like "a form of butane" when describing the horrors of t-butyl hydroquinone. Within pages, he's extolling polyquinones as glorious antioxidants, but simpler ones, hydroquinone say, are nasty. (I think alkylated phenols are a lot worse, but you know, the point is that these distinctions matter.)

Genre: ,

Blogging FM Radio

Yesterday afternoon, a late-season snowstorm hit New England (I shoveled out about a foot this morning). I left work a little early--when it started to look like it was sticking--but it still took me about an hour to make the trip. Unfortunately, this coincided witn NPR's spring fund drive. (Those drives are oxymoronic: if I paid for the service, I'd expect not to have to listen to their hectoring.) Anyway, that led me to an extra-long session of my twice-yearly excursion through the higher FM bands. Since there's nothing wiser than scribbling minor life observations as dense highway traffic fishtails around you, here's what I got

  • Giving a radio station a first name is to curse it with terminal suckiness. I pictured Frank Effem to be some stoopbacked alcoholic slob waiting out his mother's demise in their dingy Worcester apartment. Every night, Frank dons his mid-eighties vintage clothing and sneaks out of his room and hits unsuccessfully on the fortysomething barflies. His brother, Mike Effem, is a fat, uncoordinated, shaggy-haired doofus who can be found in the underpopulated rock bars, dancing enthusiastically to the same ten tired songs humming along on the house PA, jamming wildly on his air guitar and making devil-horns signs, while the regulars quietly sip beers and ignore him.

  • The River, The Wave, The Rock: these are just as ridiculous, but instead of anthropomorphosis, they go with tactile feeeelings. On the plus side, by moving away from the period and style motifs (hip-hop, classic rock, metal, easy listening) that I'm used to, they've also added half a dozen new songs to the mix tape, and flicking randomly through the airwaves is more likely than it used to be to yield something I may actually want to listen to. At least if I don't make a habit of it.

  • Rock bands used to have simple names. Really just barely enough to encapsulate an object or thought: Pink Floyd, Poison, Queen, Zeppelin, Rush, Metallica (though not all were created equal in talent!). On the way home, I listened to a piece of crap by a band called Killswitch Engaged. What the fuck is that? Way too much to think about, just to name them. In my day, it would have just been Killswitch.

  • Speaking of Queen, I remember how big androgyny was in the day, but I was completely oblivious to the queer part of it. Were they all gay, and if they weren't, why'd they agree to a name like Queen? Was it weird for Freddie to have to sing "I've loved a million women" or "Fat Bottom Girls" (presumably for marketability)? Why didn't this clue me in?

  • Speaking of Pink Floyd, listening to the opening riff of "Money," it occurred to me that the sounds they sampled are all either obsolete or nearly obsolete. Paper reciepts, the chugga-chugga of the paper feed, a register actually going ka-ching. Why not just get the hand-cranked adding machines going, grandpa? (Dark Side of the Moon is as old as I am.)

  • Numbers in a band's name are a pretty good suckometer. U-2: pretty good. Three doors down: tolerable. Matchbox twenty: ugh. Blink 182: head for the hills.

  • Choir effects can be cheap drama, when a song is already thin. I like U-2's "Red Hill Mining Town" pretty well, but the oooh-oohs haven't aged well. On the other hand, using actual choirs is as silly as it is cool. A string section should never be found within a mile of an electric guitar. (After all, what sound does that whining guitar replace?)

  • I have an inexplicable fondness for the sleazy guitar virtuosity of the 80s hair bands. The popular metal that replaced it seems to have lost the musical showiness, but kept its laser focus on the 14-year-old boy demographic. Possibly, I'm just getting old.

  • On the other hand, the pop radio music today--if the crap they play in the gym and on American Idol is any indication--sounds totally indistinguishable from anything I might have heard in 1982 or so. Plus ca change, and all that crap.
Here's hoping the pledge drive ends by Monday. Anything but the morning DJ's!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Foodie Central II: Review of The United States of Arugula by David Kamp

Grade: B+
So when I was a child in the eighties, entering my teenage years or nearly so, I'd go every once in a while with my friend's family to a Polish Deli in New Britain, CT. They had all the coolest-looking cold cuts, stuff you couldn't buy in the regular supermarket, the assorted jars of preserved oddities that decorate any ethnic store, and some horrible, chalky-tasting eastern European candy. My friend's mother, in that time-honored immigrant fashion, loved nothing more than to cram food into me when I visited, so I tasted most of the stuff. The bread she bought stunk though, and if you're in those parts and you want good bread--fluffy authentic-tasting Italian stuff, with a fabulous thick chewy crust--it has to come from a certain bakery just off of I-84, still in operation today and delivering in small batches to the surrounding towns. (It makes such great toast.) I still can't get Asian ingredients in the normal markets, even here in the People's Republic, and every couple of months, when the jones strikes, we bundle up the family and storm the nearest Indian shop, a couple towns away. I love to pore over all of the unusual knobby vegetables.

In The United States of Arugula (he really should have thought of a better title), David Kamp covers the culinary awakenings in the U.S. over the past 75 years or so. It's a good popular history, but please do take the point above people have been eating wonderful traditional fare for as long as there have been immigrants. Kamp doesn't ignore this perspective, but even before he skims the nineteenth century, he counterbalances the food movement against the most ridiculous point of American culinary history, at the height of the marketing boom for awful, awful processed foods. And he's got a point: no amount of ignored immigrant communities can excuse the chemical horrors of Wonder Bread, Velveeta, and Spam. Though the U.S., late in its history, does get some credit for developing homegrown artistic cuisine,* Kamp's is less a history of the existence of good food, and more a history of its entry into popular (which is to say, marketed) culture. Or maybe it's just a history of culinary publications.

If you think about it, the colonials and frontiersman were unlikely epicureans, whether dour Puritanical sorts or rugged individualists, and with a mostly English cultural heritage, food was, without a plantation and a slave economy at least, an unenjoyed duty. We poor Yankees especially suffered through long winters of salted meat and withered root cellar fare, even if we still managed to invent chowda** somewhere along the way. Kamp breezes through a hundred fifty years of early food history, nodding briefly at Fannie Farmer, Gilded Age gentleman's clubs, Delmonico's, and W. K. Kellogg before taking a grand anticipatory gasp at the 1939 World's Fair, where (then-modern) French cooking was finally introduced with ceremony to the clueless American masses.

From there, The U.S. of A. grows into an entertaining history of the culinary movement, a series of miniature biographies basically, of seminal kitchens, restaurants, and writers. There are quite a lot of people in there, and too many footnotes, but Kamp's got a snappy style (he could almost be writing a good blog), an odd focus on sexuality (or maybe not, food is a sensualist medium too), and a refreshing optimism about our whole foodie culture. His basic point is that we're lucky to have all this good sensibility and good product available, catching up to western Europe after centuries of overcooked meat and potatoes, and if most of the country still eats the enriched, bastardized, processed schlock, then even that is more gastronomically informed, and there is, thank god, a viable alternative for people who care.

There are a couple of interesting trends that Kamp observes over the twentieth century. One is that, despite the fact that a number of women were influential in the movement, American conceptions needed to veer away from the female kitchen and get man-ified for epicureanism to take off as a cultural force. Another gradual trend that Kamp describes is a sense of quality that moved from (French) technique to (local, fresh, seasonal) ingredients.

Which isn't to say we didn't steal that idea from the Europeans too--pretty much every figure profiled in this book had a gastronomical awakening during a trip to France--but, though it kills me, you do have to credit those California boomers for stressing locally produced fresh ingredients (which, of course, is an easy pedestal to preach from where it's summer eleven months out of the year), and I think the seventies-vintage Golden Staters also deserve some credit for popularizing authentic American cuisine too, grown out of idealistic hippie enthusiasm, even though you'd think that the moldering ghosts of Battle Creek must have been casting some karmic shadows in that direction too.

[As an aside, I've been going on recently about the foodie-ism that I grew up with. My mom always called her cooking "gourmet," which I never really understood, as it wasn't really anything for technique. But man, it was always the best ingredients served at their most delicious. I had no idea--and I don't even know if Mom sees it this way--that the Keifus homestead was riding on a bigger natural foods movement. It's always annoying to discover you were part of a crowd. I think we just preferred stuff that tasted good.]

According to Kamp, we continued to steal classics from rustics throughout the seventies and eighties, as well as more urbane fare from France and, a little later, Japan, mixing and matching over the later years with wild and delicious abandon as chefs became celebrity cool. What's the future? Since the world doesn't have too many more peasant cultures to exploit (maybe east African food is coming up next), and since the days of terrapin and caviar (and Chilean sea bass and probably stuff like cod too) are behind us too, I fear, frankly, that it's going to be back to the lab (and callin' it haute--I think this may actually be the "past"), and an explosion of offal, and, depending on how things shake down with the oil and the topsoil in the next century, maybe it'll be anything we can get our hands on: fresh food by necessity.

*though he focuses on California as the origin of a gourmet movement, it's also unfair to assert that there were no good home-grown "peasant" food traditions that developed in the States, whether that's New England seafoods, Louisiana Creole, southern soul food, barbecue, or whatever.
**Say it, Frenchie!

Genre: ,

Friday, March 09, 2007

Bedtime Reading: Two Books for Children Reviewed


Oh, crap.

"Daddy, can I use the computer?"

"Not right now, sweetie. You need to do your homework. And I'm using it right this minute anyway."



"Daddy, did you write your book report on The Wee Free Men yet?


"You said that you write a book report on every book you read."

Me and my big mouth.

"So did you write the report for The Wee Free Men? Daddy?"

"Um, yeah, about that. I was waiting until we finish the other one, then I thought I'd review them together. And don't you have homework to do?"

"Ohhhh Kayyyy...."

"Crivens, my wee hag?"


I dodged the bullet, but only temporarily. Now that Westley's within a page of his miracle cure, I can feel the pressure coming on again. I guess there's nothing for it but to keep my promises.

Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men is almost perfectly designed to read to my little girl. Granted, she's not quite the introspective misfit that is the main character, nor is she quite so practical-minded, nor so cool and logical in the face of adversity, but she still finds a lot of herself in a book about a brainy nine-year-old witch out to rescue her pesky younger sibling from nasty fairies. (Technically, I am reading these to both of my girls, but the little one draws and sings and scampers and chatters incessantly as I try to do so. Anything but listen.)

Tiffany, the young witch, has stumbled into a clan of Nac Mac Feegle, monstrously strong little blue men who drink and fight and steal and otherwise run around like a crew of deranged smurfs. With Scottish accents. Oh man, is it ever fun to read hollerin' and (PG-rated) cursin' and carryin' on in a Scottish accent. These little creatures are pictsies--emphatically not pixies--a characteristically ridiculous Pratchett-esque pun (and not one the kids got). Tiffany's still a bit young for it, but she needs to establish her role as the local wisdom, and guardian of the little blue psychos.

Terry Pratchett reads well as a children's author, probably better than he reads as a writer for adults. If you've come across anything by this guy, then you've already got a good handle on the motif. Dumb puns extended to the point of meaning something. Serious (and occasionally profound) thoughts stashed amid the rampant (and occasionally humorous) silliness. At a grown up level, it doesn't really succeed enough at either humor or gravity, and it gets old quick (best in small doses), but it's great for young people. The plot ain't much to speak of: while coursing through fairyland to find her brother, Tiffany must uncover her inner strengths. The fairy business was, for kids, a little confusing in parts, consisting of a number of intentional dream sequences and fakeouts and goofy existentialism. Pratchett's general Discworld mileu is represented too, and with little significance or introduction to the new reader, it's not much of a boon (but probably working fine as a gateway drug--my daughter can't wait to read the next one).

Also, Pratchett does a good job of drawing a main character whose independent thought processes are just beginning to take off. Tiffany must choose love and choose to accept the burdens of character--the author is honest about showing the doubts that would rattle about the head of a girl with responsibility. It was a pleasure to see my daughter's reaction to these crises of confidence, and to see the satisfaction of their resolution in her expressive little face. In addition to personal and community responisbility, Pratchett throws some thoughts around on the relationships between governance and authority, compassion and defiance, that are honest and realistically complex. It's healthy stuff for young minds to begin considering.

In order to get that kind of stuff from William Goldman's The Princess Bride, you have to already understand satire. Or else you must bother to read the frame story. When I first read this book, oh, ten or fifteen years ago, I remember noting that, although it was quite possibly the most faithful movie adaptation ever made (except for that thing with Inigo, but still), it indulged a totally different vehicle to tell it. What I'd forgotten was that the background story was the entertaining part. It was a lot more amusing and interesting than even the abridged "Morgenstern" version of the story itself. I started reading the text as Goldman wrote it:

"Daddy, this is boring. Where's the princess?"

"Aw, c'mon sweetie, it's the author talking to us. See? He's talking about his teacher here."

"Daddy, it's boring."

"Okay, fine, have it your way. You know what he's saying in all these sections? He's saying it's fine to go ahead and read only the good parts. He's saying we can skip this stuff."



Even though she didn't get into the meta story, my daughter did get a kick out of the humor, appreciating (to my approval) all of the running gags pretty well. She bought the love between Westley and Buttercup (missing Goldman's occasional sarcasm on the matter), caught the deviousness of the villains, and liked Inigo and Fezzik well enough. When Westley got caught and strapped into the machine, she whined for him in wide-eyed horror, but even at nine, she's been around the block enough to realize that The Princess Bride is basically an amusing theme park ride of a story, with the resolution never in doubt. It's one for which it's appropriate to pretend to be scared and enjoy the ups and down, but lacking any real sense of irony (and there's no hurry for that, frankly) then she's not getting much else out of it but a smile.

I enjoyed this one more than she did.

Genre: , ,

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Maybe They'll Call It "Meatwad's Law"

I don't, for the record, support legislation by anecdote. The title refers to the unfortunate American habit of naming laws, as though conjuring the image of some precious youngster tragically departed could add enough gravity to justify circumventing the usual legal process. It's a symptom of the same disease that causes us to try minors as adults, or to establish murky legal categories to indefinitely detain suspicious Arabs. It's the false belief that our current times are significant enough to abandon those pesky legal protections.

On the off chance that the local follies haven't reached a national audience, the city of Boston has fallen victim to two "guerrilla marketing" campaigns in 2007. One, advertising for the terrorists at the Cartoon Network, confused local authorities into thinking Lite BriteTM displays were bombs. (I mean, they didn't even have red ticking numbers. Those terrorists are nothing if not crafty.) Another recent campaign by Dr. Pepper led scavenger hunters into protected historic monuments. The first brought out the full pressure of the authorities: bomb squads and sirens and guys in uniforms getting their faces blotted with powder for the cameras. The second merely induced some carefully directed public outrage.

Rather than admit that the reaction was overheated, expensive, and retarded, the city of Boston called a hearing yesterday to best prevent these perpetrators from terrorizing [sic] us again. Quoth the Globe:

In the aftermath of two recent guerrilla marketing stunts that ran afoul of local authorities, members of the City Council said today they would consider forcing all corporate marketers to obtain city licenses before they can push products.

The proposal’s authors, Maureen E. Feeney and Stephen J. Murphy, said new measures are needed because fines and regulations on the books do little to deter massive corporations seeking publicity through unconventional marketing campaigns.

Because, you know, existing laws just weren't good enough, and it's assumed in all cases that if the guys in uniforms are excited, then someone else is responsible.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"You can work all you want to, Jay...

"...but I'm not going to pay you."

My grandfather, dead nearly seven years now. Angry, bigoted, fair, loving, talented, alcoholic, childish, paternal. Self-taught professional engineer, building contractor, jazz pianist. He was the only person in the family who had a library that looked like it had once been used, the only person I knew as a kid who repaired small electronics. He did this not with the zeal not of a hobbyist, but with the loving devotion of a skinflint, and it was not that he was cheap, exactly, but he was careful about where the dollars went. He was the guy who'd peruse Consumer Reports for a month before purchasing an appliance, make the decision to buy a piece of crap anyway, and then keep it running indefinitely. He was the guy that tuned his car perfectly and then drove it at twenty miles an hour, leather gloves on his hands and the most unstylish cap imaginable slung jauntily across his brow.

I must have been 18 that summer, living at home between college sessions. My grandfather hired me on the weekends to cut grass, trim hedges, install (but not finish) drywall, you name it. He did this out of both charity and a sense of grandfatherly character-building. Even though he was starting to get on in years, he still had more energy for pure labor than I did, and I don't think he really needed teenagers to work for him. I did it because I felt obligated--both to my parents and to the old man himself. I had a weekday job, but it was understood that if Mom and Dad were paying the tuition, I'd spend the summers scaring up whatever cash I could to help out. He paid six or seven bucks an hour. It was a matter to pride to offer something competitive with whatever I might be earning on the outside with my limited skill set.

When Jay pulled his econo-styled vehicle into the driveway, I was poised with pickaxe over my head, unflatteringly shirtless, knocking chunks out of granddad's concrete retaining wall.

"Jesus K, what the hell are you doing?"

"What the fuck does it look like I'm doing?"

"Are you almost done?"

It was, I'll add, something of a perfect July afternoon. In my mind's eye, I can see the soft blades of the old man's perfect lawn right there on my left, gigantic maples swaying in the slight breeze and casting mottled shade across the lawn and the wall and the black driveway a level below. Free of the tree, the slanting rays held promises of the sort I could still read in those days.

I was not anywhere near done.

"I've got to finish breaking off all this crumbling stuff, and then get down just a little deeper than that."

"You got another pickaxe?"

My wife doesn't really understand why Jay and I haven't drifted further apart over the years. This sort of thing is a big part of it. Gamely, he picked up a hammer and started swinging. We were at it a good half hour before my grandfather stormed out with those words, famous now in our memories. It was startling at the time, but with twice the years under our belts, we joke about them. (For my grandfather's part, I think he really enjoyed shouting them out.)

I painted three houses in my youth, for pretty much the same reasons. One was the home of my dad's boss, who was shaping the place up (on the cheap) to sell. Another was, along with a couple of my friends, the summer cabin of Dad's work buddy. We spent the weekend on some forgotten pond somewhere in New Hampshire, minors, armed with employer-provided paint and beer and a free place to crash. It should have been the best house-painting experience ever (in truth, we sort of failed to seize the moment), but it paled next to the caretaking of my grandfather's house.

It must have been the year after the wall, though possibly it was the same year. I try to pinpoint the moment by the succession of junk heaps my younger brother was driving. Since I'd by then done the painting gig a couple of times before, Granddad hired me to paint his house while he went on vacation with his wife, $500 for the whole thing. It was more than generous in his mind, considering the quality of the help he was getting. He was probably right.

I had only a couple of weeks to get the project done, so I subcontracted Jay and my brother as helpers, offering them a cut. $500 dollars seemed a little parsimonious to us budding entrepreneurs, so we compensated the income by shamelessly raiding the old man's liquor closet. My parents had a liquor cabinet, but my grandfather had a fully stocked armoir. He bought gin and vermouth in bulk, at whatever discount he could find, and though he could keep track of every cent he spent, the booze itself had a habit of disappearing by its own accord. (Hey, he was retired.) It took a lot of balls, but the incursion wasn't really very risky.

Ladders and gin mix about as well as you might imagine. Jay and I still debate just who put the end of one through the kitchen window, but on the plus side, keeping those muscles loose probably saved my friend's life when the footing gave, and the ladder slid two stories to the pavement, with Jay perched at the top.

Here's where he interrupts. "Dude, tell 'em about the car!" It's one of those stories that requires this sort of excited interjection at points. (I'm doing my best here.)

My brother wasn't much into the "work" part of the project, and, annoyed with constantly seeing him through the windows slouching in front of the TV, Jay and I deemed it his job to run to the store for tonic and limes, and to keep the pitchers full. My brother failed miserably at even that, and, it was determined, required a lesson in responsibility and consequences.

He drove a sputtering little wreck of a Nissan, my brother did, and we two older kids determined (picture the drunken sagely nods as we discussed this) that it needed a paint job. Some flowers here maybe, yeah, a lot of flowers, that's just the sort of class we're looking for. A peace sign spanning the hood would be perfect. Oh, and let's write 'Mystery Machine' on the side. Oh yeah, now that's nice!

I know my brother cursed us for evil bastards, but I didn't hear it, laughing as hard as I was. Frantically hosing and scrubbing his shitbox down was the closest thing he did to work over the course of the whole two weeks. Thank god for latex paint. The gutter on the street flowed hazy green all the way down the hill. Drunk on power (and hung over on gin), I took my brother's indiscretion out of his salary.*

"Only two kinds of people drink straight gin..."

My grandfather again, fast forwarded a couple of years, at a party for my college graduation (if I remember correctly). By then, he was actually starting to look a little frail. He probably shrank an inch in height since he castigated Jay for working. More noticeably his discretion had shrunk, but that might have been his diluted gin talking (it had come within a few inches of a vermouth bottle that may have even been open). When he visited my parents for things like this, he often took his dinner martini in a little suitcase, guaranteeing he got 'em how he liked 'em, or maybe it was to keep from getting cut off.

One of the kinds of people who drink straight gin, according to my grandfather, is Englishmen. It's interesting to get to know someone as an adult after seeing them your entire life from a child's eyes. The other type, Bowdlerizing a little here, is African-Americans. This is another story that's humorous in recollection, but that's only because of the jaw-dropping shock value. It's not something he'd be likely to say sober, and not in front of the kids, even of the nearly adult variety. Any racism in my family was carefully hidden from the young generations (usually), and in my little pocket of the clan, I got a pretty strong and constant dose of judging people on their internal worth, which I value to this day. I wouldn't guess till I was older how this was a rebellion of sorts on my mother's part. I knew he hated lawyers and doctors and unions and FDR, but somehow I grew up without reading the racial code words in my granddad's speech. I couldn't get over the brazenness of using that word in broad daylight. (Jesus, the man played fucking jazz. I wish I could go back and ask him about his influences.)

My grandfather was a great proclaimer of things, and enjoyed the center of attention, the head of the table, where he could profess the way things ought to be, and pontificate on how they ought to be done. He was a Lebowski sort of Republican: though he did pull off some amazing feats of will and accomplishment in his life, he didn't exactly start in the gutter. It was all pretty tough on his children, growing up under that opinionated sort of authority. Most of them abandoned their northeastern roots at an early opportunity. He was great to the grandkids though, endless affection and an easy way with the young children even if the transition to adulthood often stressed that familial bond. (I know that his oldest grandchild, my talented and unaccomplished cousin, disappointed him--I'd have never guessed that he'd outlive our grandfather by such a small number of years. I'm researching Seattle flights for a final get-together and send-off for the summer. It's what's pulling out all the reminiscences now.)

Though he was the other family member that stuck around for the brunt of the later years, I don't think the old man ever got through to my cousin very much. Not enough that he'd turn down a free meal anyway, but my cousin liked to spend time with family too, and even in the worst moments, he always kept his oddball composure. With only one foot anchored in that side of the tribe, I had my some survival tools of my own as well. My mother's family are not ones for witty repartee, but they're not humorless either, and evidently with too little silliness in their lives, my father runs through these people like a whirlwind. It's fun to watch. I got some of my dad's wit, that straightfaced unseriousness (but unfortunately, little of his ability to make people feel comfortable enough to laugh), and it's been enough to carry me through.

My dad called his father-in-law "the chief." I think he did it because it carried an insincere brand of respect, but in later years, my grandfather assumed an uncanny resemblance to Ed Platt's version of the character. (But then so do a lot of old men.) Or maybe it was one of my father's many subtle protest moves: do you think he was good enough to marry the chief's daughter? Under no circumstances would my father call the man anything as affectionate as "Dad." You could have easily painted my grandfather as the old bastard father-in-law in Bachelor Party (played by George Grizzard, I didn't find a good photo), but I like him even better as the lamented Ted Knight , certainly on the golf course. And I know if that hat did come with a free bowl of soup, the old man would have taken it. And complained about the soup.

As part of the cast that still lived nearby, we visited my grandparents often when I was a child, a lot of dinner parties. (Most of the other regulars disappeared over time, dying or moving.) They had a nice dining room and a great screened-in porch, and they loved to entertain. Those memories are mostly fond, and the best picture I can conjure has my grandparents standing in front of their house waving as we drove away.

But there were moments, even then. One time when I was young, I remember I called my brother a nigger at their table.

"What did you just say?" (My mom, about four octaves higher than usual.)

Confused, I whispered the offending word. I had no idea what it meant.

"Where did you learn that?" (Two octaves now, and dropping.)

I learned it on the playground. Some asshole kid had called me it that afternoon, and then knocked me over. I tried to explain.

"Don't ever use that word. It was... it means very hurtful things." She explained without explaining.

There was a rumble from the head of the table. "Well, actually..." A couple of martinis in, and a rant was taking shape, a little calling of it as it was seen. It was going to be a ripper. I had no concept of the momentum at that age, but even I could sense that something in the room was off, like the pressure drop before a thunderstorm. There was still light oustside, and suddenly the swings looked like a good place for me and my brother to play. Or so we were encouraged. And so we went. The voices inside grew louder than usual, but the two boys had already forgotten their own argument.

About twenty minutes later, my father came out to join us, quietly and almost formally.

"Hey Keifus, mind if I sit here?"

"Daddy? Is everything OK?"

"I'll be all right."

He sat there for a while, staring in the general direction of the sunset. I looked at him too, also quiet. It couldn't have been very long that we sat out there, and we went in together soon enough, once the voices from within quieted to their normal level.

But I've got the clearest image of my father sitting on the swing in the dusk, swaying a hair boozily himself, staring, uncharacteristically pensive. His hair is full, beard red, and he's thin. In the picture, he's the same age as I am now.

* In the interest of full disclosure, my brother doesn't agree with all of these details.