Friday, November 30, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Fashion and Media Ed.)

Television, music, marketing, and Christmas, baby. It's all here.

1. Keep in mind, this is coming from a "before"...
Watching television with my wife is a difficult proposition. For some reason, she doesn't share my taste for my sarcasm and immaturity and isn't keen on encouraged those things in my personality. (I tell her art imitates life, not the other way around, but it gets me nowhere.) Meanwhile, I grow antsy at her predilection for clean humor and the goings on of the disapproval network. It makes for a tough compromise when we're together, but our individual schedules permit some private indulgences. She watches daytime Dr. Phil before her classes, say, and when she's working, I catch reruns of off-color animation, rent overrated (if sometimes disturbingly realistic ) comedies, dig up some odd film I'm willing to risk not liking, or you know, just turn the fucking thing off. We can find some common ground when the special effects are cool, when she discovers the humor for herself, or during those few programming selections where we can both get off on our own separate planes.

One of these oddities is What Not to Wear, featured on the Learning Channel, watched when there's positively nothing else to agree on. If you haven't seen it, it centers on two experts (on television, style can only be mastered by vicious gay men or the harpies that orbit them) that every week humiliate some poor fashion-impaired boob on national television, at the behest of so-called friends, and then make him or her over into something presentable. I like the show for more reasons that Schadenfreude: it supports my romantic worldview that the world is teeming with people who don't know they are attractive. (I imprinted on John Hughes movies. Bite me.) I'm pretty sure my wife likes to judge the judges' style choices, because those are the only conversation points she bothers to respond to.

In the show, the loathed Stacy and Clinton take people who are cute but weird, make them symbolically throw away all their dorky clothes, dress them up, cut their hair, and put too much makeup on them. Voila! Mainstreamed geek. Once the formerly bad dressers begin to conform, the two hags officially pretend to like them. Their friends welcome them back. Strangers no longer avert their eyes or cross themselves in fear when they walk by, and the pets relax. The viewers take home the message that they should be just like everyone else if they want to get by--it's valuable education for the kiddies.

But the show is marketing a lie. Sure, some of those specimens needed a no-spandex intervention, but what's really holding most of us slobs back is the absence of five grand to spend on a new wardrobe every six months. Damn you, Learning Channel, I didn't want that lesson rubbed in my face again.

2. 'Cuz there ain't nothing wrong with MY fashion sense!
This Halloween I presented myself as a nerd for the kids. I got some fat green suspenders to hold up my baggy pants, buttoned my non-matching shirt wrong, put tape on my glasses, and got a helicopter beanie out of the bin. I was (cough) very convincing.

I have symbolically thrown away most of the dorky clothes I outgrew (outshrunk) a year or two ago, but I kept the denim, because you know, you really gotta have a couple pair. When I put the beanie away, I kept out the suspenders, and started wearing them with my big-boy jeans on weekends, enjoying the fact that they now stay up. Suspenders are a secret the fashionistas are keeping from you. They feel really great. Your pants stay snugly up with no pressure but a comfortable tug on the shoulders. Your boys are cupped gently by your garments, and there's no adjusting when you get up from a chair or anything like that.

But who the hell wears suspenders in real life? Firemen, creepy talk show hosts, fat yokels, hockey players, Depression-era gangsters, immigrant farmers, dock workers...and Keifus? (I imagine myself most like the last one, by the way.) I actually wore the things out in public last Saturday, but Stacy and Clinton must have gotten under my skin, because I self-consciously kept my coat on the whole time and tucked my arms down like I was in an old deodorant ad. My dear wife, who'd told me that very morning that she approved of my masculine trouser-hoists, was too embarrassed to look me in the shoulders. It's not that they look bad even, but going for comfort over convention is not how it's done in society. Too bad.

Next weekend, I see no choice but to go back to sweatpants.

3. Just the same, I prefer my suspenders to be optional
Sometimes television is best enjoyed with the sound off. The gym monitors, in addition to exposing me to Fox news in a relatively painless way, have also reminded me of the continued existence of VH1. Evidently they're off of the constant reality programming model and back to showing lame videos again, at least in the morning.

Like the rest of the known world, I came across Feist's video for 1,2,3,4 on those iPod ads. It's an unusual sort of chain there--art exploiting marketing exploiting art--but hey, if someone can get paid these days for being creative, then I'm all for it. The video is an amazing piece of shooting. I haven't managed to catch it from the very beginning, so I can't tell you if the whole thing is a single shot, but I assume it is. I imagine some of the camera tricks (rotating and stuff) were done in the editing, but whatever: here's a big routine doing all kinds of tricks of perspective as the people move in relation to one another and the music. I think what makes it really compelling is the way the dancers, and the dance too, all look so amateur, how everyone looks like they're having genuine fun, but are pulling off a group choreography that suggests rigid professionalism and vision. It's a neat contrast, and the video moves along like a playful narrative. It's a nice change from the usual frantic thrusting whose mission seems to be to make me tired of sex.

That channel seems to be promoting a new crop of non-starlets in storytelling videos lately. I would have guessed that their unremarkable looks suggested actual musical talent, but then I happened to see Feist perform on Saturday Night Live, and I had to put the sound off halfway through. Oddly enough, three (three!) banjos didn't make her sound any better.

4. Bingo!
Marketing can imitate art, but it can be inspired by anything. Marketing can even inform marketing, and there's even a huge market for marketing. We need marketing people to market the idea that everything is marketing, and only a marketing dude can convince you that marketing is a lie (ears smoking yet?) and market the right story to get your brand on the market. If you want to learn marketing, there are endless marketers that market marketing to marks.

This is how the internet is finally going to become self-aware, by the way, trying to sell itself to itself.

I came across this while trying to see if I could follow Digg citizens to something new and interesting to read. I stuck around a little longer than I normally might have because the catchphrase, "a resource for young entrepreneurs to learn valuable lessons and advice from Internet business gurus," would have been funny if it was intended ironically (you know, give us money and learn a valuable lesson), but sadly it's not. It's just the usual jumble of aphorisms and nonsense charts and effective habits scraped from many decades of literature from the paper office. All it needed was some Microsoft clip art to complete the bathos.

Diggers seem to like lists. Some of them are amusing reads and great finds, but crap like this seems to quietly fill up the mass of the blogosphere like dark matter. If you look you start noticing all the feel-good business and life "attitude" advice peddled at the geek too young to remember 1999, the last moment in history when you could bullshit your way into financial success by writing the word "internet" in crayon on a paper napkin, and wave it at a venture capitalist. When I stumbled across this guy a year ago, I remember trying for an hour to figure out what exactly he was selling (he's selling selling), and if he had more advanced cred than his spooky, egglike dome. In full disclosure, during yesterday's review of Seth's Blog, it looked less about nothing than it did in that first bizarre encounter, but he still looks like the sort of guy who'd ask you to draw a box on the floor and then point you outside it for inspiration.

But evidently he's been on TV, so fuck it, I'm sold. Now all I have to worry about is what exactly it is I'm going to market. What, you expect us to actually play these things?

[Yes, I know it's a necessary evil.]

5. "Dear C-, good luck with that list. Your friend, Santa"
And when is the ascendancy of marketing more apparent than the holidays? The card my daughter (6) wrote to her savior (I swear I don't encourage these things) begins with "Dear Santa, I want..." It's filled with the most charming sort of little-girl avarice, and she makes an emotional plea at the end with "I love you! Santa!" The closing address, however, from "your friend C-," really gives the game away. She's no member of Santa's inner circle. She's a pretender, all too aware of how good she's been.

A lot of portent depends off of those closing clauses. If the letter-writer must add such a thing, the onus is hung from his or her shoulders to define the relationship with the addressee, and that's a lot of responsibility. Email correspondence is so weird that way, and really throws a writer back into those old uncomfortable forms. Thank god I get to avoid the lie of "dear" in the heading, but the lie of "sincerely" dangles at the end of the missive like an unattributed participle. Professional colleagues get a "regards" before my name, but when I've known them for a while, the elevation to "best regards" looms heavily. And horrors if those regards are not returned! Yeah, we had a beer in the airport that one time, but no Keifus, you're not regarded best. Sorry.

One of my three official friends has signed his Christmas cards "love" for years. Here's a guy I've known since we were my daughter's age, and we have at times reached that fraternal ideal and have declared as much out loud in all sincerity, but stammering a "love" at the end of a letter is another matter. It recalls uncomfortable youthful sexual pressures. In that regard, I'm warming up to "take care" when I want to express honest affection, but not romantic interest. At the same time, I find that I'm mellowing out on "love" anyway. It works fine again between families, and I've been taking broader notions of the sentiment in any case. So I sign to my in-laws with love, and fuck it, on all of my other Christmas cards too. Even if I don't write to Santa (whom I don't even particularly like), I'm still a woefully sentimental grownup.

At rare times, I go advice columnist and sign off a letter with a Tom Swifty. Others times I'll end with a non-sequitur ("con queso" is a favorite that I try not to overuse), giggling only to myself. I envy entertainers that get to use a signoff phrase for their goodbyes, and I've tried to cultivate the practice of using my unmodified name, or better, my initial, as a generic take-it-how-you-want-to closing. It means everything and nothing, or whatever you need. Sincerely.



Thursday, November 29, 2007

Room for So Many

Peter pushed opened the door of his cabin to low sunshine and a gentle autum breeze. Honking bird calls sounded overhead, some northern species of geese or ducks passing through, from and to where he wasn't exactly sure, but that they flew by here, now, seemed right. The great vee formation spread across the length of his extended hand. There must be hundreds in this flock alone, he thought, and he could probably expect to see hundreds more flocks going by in the course of the day. He should remember to check the pond this evening--geese could be eaten. The thought made him briefly uneasy, but on examination, he could feel no urgency. He was not particularly hungry.

First things first, in any case. He slid his bare feet into his boots, and walked around the woodpile, just a few paces downwind of the cabin, to relieve himself. There was a privy a few yards yet beyond, just by the edge of the trees, but he preferred not to use it when the weather was warm. He hiked down his drawers and leaned a forearm against his favorite tree, emptying himself as freely as nature intended. The piss steamed on the leaves, and the scent of it spiced the spongy fern-and-fungus aroma of the earth in that spot. He pushed against the tree with his hand, enjoying the rough solidity of the trunk, the warmth of sun on his back, the soft pressure of his left hand cupped around his bare cock. Ahead of him, the forest rustled. First the hillside, he thought, and then he could work his way around down to the pond, he thought, make the most of the day, get a little provision on the way. Rather than dig into his stores, he gathered some dry kindling from below the trees.

There was nothing, Peter decided, like a morning fire. Smoky smells filled the single room, combining with leather, sweat, and old cooked things, odors that struck him as uniquely, and fundamentally, human. The thought satisfied him. Tentative flames licked the blackened stones of the tiny hearth, caressed the blackened bottom of the kettle suspended from its iron hook. It was wise to gather whatever he found on his daily walks, and dried mint and rose hips from another excursion had been crushed together in a small wooden bowl some time before. He poked the small flame, and placed his hand on of the side of the vessel to gauge its warmth.

He spread some few items onto his pallet: the tin canteen that fit into its own cup, split like an ass-crack, whatever stamped figures on the bottom long-since scratched away; his fur cap, which he might need on the way back; his long knife; his leather sack for game and his pocketed woven one for forage (he should be able to fill the bulk of it with tree nuts), the two of which were still tied end-to-end and front-to-front with the cord he'd sling over his shoulder; his small emergency kit, mostly tinder and matches; and, of course, his rifle. The gun, he thought, even with its worn stock and old scratched barrel looked incongruous, far too precise in shape and sterile in smell, but he didn't dwell on it. He fished a few rounds from the rough trough near his pallet and pocketed them. With care, there could probably be enough to last a lifetime. It was difficult to judge.

A lifetime... There was something else he needed. Yes. He reached under the straw and pulled out the paper envelope. He ran his hand against the edge of it, smooth from many such caresses. It was yellowed and creased, but it was more important than any other thing in the cabin, even the matches and the gun. He wondered if he could read what was inside if he opened it, not that he was about to. Carefully, without folding it, he slid the letter into the inside pocket of his jacket. On the outside of the envelope was printed, "FATHER." The smell of herbs began to flood the small space.


Peter shoved his way along the brushy game trail, eyes flitting from the ground to the space ahead of him. Deer had come down the run recently, probably just this morning. He'd seen pellets stacked up among the laurel, still moist, and prints, little paired elipses, strayed onto the softer patches of the earth on the sides of the beaten ground and ornamented the route through the bushes. They'd be mating, he realized, and he giggled to think he might catch a pair in the act. Everywhere around him were the chitters of woodland animals: mice and innumerable squirrels, scritching insects, and the raucous singsong of local birds who came to feast on the bugs while they lasted. Some visitors stopped by to gorge as well, just passing through like the geese. He watched a great flock of swallows infest a giant maple, and, as he crunched past, rise and wheel around before settling down again. He could see unidentifiable migrants fill up the sky through breaks in the trees. He loved the sound of them.

There could be big animals in the woods too, but Peter liked playfully stalking the deer too much to feel threatened. It didn't feel right they should be here this morning, and anyway, he was going somewhere. At one point, he did catch sight of a fox's tail, and saw it's angular, ghostly face bob a moment before it turned and faded into the bushes behind, no doubt after some smaller animal. A wolf or a cat may attack a fox, he thought, or a bear. He himself could shoot any of them, but even following the deer, he didn't worry much. There were always far fewer predators than prey, and they needed more space, and they had far less class. Many of the bigger animals announced themselves when they moved into an area, howling at night or dropping spoor, and, thinking of woodsmoke and his two tiny buildings, he was much the same. There was room for only so many at at time.

His favorite place was a small and sparse cedar grove, on a south-facing hillside. At this time of year, the sun angled between the small trees and filled the stand with warmth in the afternoon. Grass still sprouted in the expanses between the trunks--possibly an old fire had cleared it in the years before Peter had arrived--and he appreciated the spacing of things, the wood smell, the soft places to lay, the green maples further down, embossed in places with red and gold. There was something about a warm glade that fit perfectly in his mind. Or in which his mind perfectly fit. He removed his bags, placed his leather jacket on the moss at the base of one of the thinner trees, and propped his head against the trunk. The sun painted the backs of his closed eyelids red, and tickled the exposed skin of his hands and face, snugly warmed his clothes. There was a word for this early autumn heat, but he could not place it. He loosened his shirt, and gave in to the sounds and smells of the clearing, and the sky opened up behind his eyes.

He started awake to a sudden chill, but smiled to see it was just the sun ducking behind a solitary, pristine cloud. He frowned as he tried to catch his fleeting dream, but could not, and his hand patted the chest of his jacket. He should, he realized, have a pipe. Actually he should have two pipes. There was hemp growing down by the pond, he thought, which he could pull up and dry in his cabin while he slowly carved out a briar. In the meantime, he'd look for a bone for a flute. Had there been an old deer kill, maybe? He furrowed his brow trying to remember.

As if in answer, he heard a crow call, and then some of its friends angrily respond. He stood up and squinted around to locate the source, a black knot in the grass a few stone's throws away. One angry bird, or a succession of them, jumped out from the cawing throng at intervals, and dove back in. Peter suspected there was meat, but he couldn't smell it from where he was standing. He was surprised he hadn't heard them before, and hoped that whatever it was that had their attention hadn't occurred while he was asleep. Lurking about upwind may not be in his best interest, and it was getting cooler in any case.

He gathered his things and snuck a southeasterly arc across the wind and down the hill, keeping his eyes on the noisy black birds as long as he could. They swarmed as if to intentionally block his view, and, it seemed, cawed at him to stay away. It was impossible to tell what they were teeming over, and as they trailed off out of his sight, one came loose from the murder, and sillhouetted itself briefly against the sun. Peter's hands gripped the rifle hard.

He should return in several days to see if there were signs of a carcass. Maybe he'd get a flute out of the experience, but if a bear had invaded his territory, it seemed unlikely they could coexist peacefully: one of them would have to die. The moral calculus made Peter uncomfortable, but he realized as well that bears could be eaten, and that their greasy fur was warm, and their skin could be used too. He grabbed his hat from his leather bag. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, brother.


Peter's route to the pond came up around the soft end, where the water stretched out with swampy fingers toward the fitful stream that fed it. He skirted the wetlands along a rim of stony rubble a couple feet above. The pond occuped a space where two hills met. The stream may have been bigger once, for at points it carved some a hefty chink out of its rock bed, or maybe it was just very old. Some other trick of geology had piled up a rocky dam at the other end, near where the hemp grew, and the stream seeped lazily over it on its way to the valley proper.

It wasn't pleasant like the hillside, but it had an earthy sort of sincerity. Below the hill and under the trees it got darker earlier. The trees here loomed over the swampy expanse to reach at the latest available rays of sun. They were taller, both because moisture was close and the sun was far, and the shadows they cast were deep and moist and coolly scented with rotting leaves. There was little undergrowth, and his walking was easy amid the stones. Some ambitious crickets offered an occasional counterpoint to his footfalls.

As he came around, he saw the geese before he heard them, paddling on the far side of the water, where they paddled about, ducking occasionally into the water to gobble at who knew what. Listening carefully, he could pick out an occasional honk. He'd need to hurry if he wanted to get home before nightfall. He quick-stepped along the bowl, making his way out of the shadows and into the waning day that still touched the other side. Just ahead, he could see the gray granite expanse of of the dam, and from here it looked it opened to a precipice. Closer, he could see that the big slab was tumbled up against a mix of other giant stones, all cluttered into the mouth of the small ravine, and the drop to the lower stream was only half again as tall as Peter himself. Water seeped over the top of it, and oozed down the hillside out of sight.

He squinted at the oblivious birds, but he still wasn't close enough to shoot well. He crouched down and duck-walked over the slipppery rock, and then jogged another fifty yards on the other side to get in range. He sat on a muddy hillock, and set the rifle on his knees.

What did a goose feel? He lifted the gun, and put one of the creatures between the sights. It was black and gray, he noticed, with a spot of algae on its back. As Peter noticed it, so did the bird, and twisted its back to nibble it away. Did one thing always have to die for another? There were nuts everywhere, still plants, and he wasn't hungry. Wouldn't he be hungry in... Did the land dream? Geese were food. He tried to steady his aim, but his hands were shaking, and his eyes, he realized were clouding, so he wiped them. The goose swam toward him, as though curious. Suddenly livid, Peter grabbed his gun, and fired into the air. "Go away, dammit!" His own voice sounded strange to him, and much too loud. The goose turned its whole body to point an eye at Peter, and honked questioningly.

Peter turned and ran the way he came. A crow cawed behind him, and the geese, the flock of them, flapped and shouted at it. He raced over the rock dam--eyes already ahead toward the swamp and mind already halfway to the cabin--and his feet slid beneath him. There was sky, then trees, then rocks, then darkness.


Peter awoke for the third time that day. The air was sharper now, and gloomier, and his shoulders were shuddering with cold, but he couldn't feel where his legs were when he tried to move them. He looked about him with growing dread. The lower half of his body was soaked in slimy water, but the angle of his legs told him they weren't numb from the cold. His bags had gone flying, and hickory nuts in their green casings bobbed comically in the green water by his knees. The rifle had landed near his head. He pushed his body up, hoping to free himself from the stream anyway, but his waist would not support him.

The sun was setting he realized, and the wind was picking up. It carried an unwholesome stink on it too: grease and game and shit. It had been a bear after all. On cue, he heard the creature blundering about in the pond somewhere above, hassling the birds maybe, but if they were still up there he couldn't hear them now. He reached about him and found the gun, slid the bolt to eject the spent casing. He pawed at his jacket for a new round, and felt a crinkle instead. Wrong pocket. The bear roared somewhere above him.

Peter's hands trembled as he pulled out the envelope. If the tremors were from hypothermia, shock, or some unseen blood loss, he couldn't tell. Didn't care. The sun was nearly set, but reading the letter now seemed very important to him. He tore the end off with his teeth, breathing short gasps. The paper inside was flimsy and disintegrating at the edges, but the writing on it, in the same large, blocky letters as on the front of the envelope, was legible.


The words practically shouted at him. The bear roared once more, now just out of sight. He could hear the crows bickering again too.

Peter threw the gun as far as he could from him, and looked out to the last moments of day, the ancient crack of the ravine turning one more time away from the sun. There was hot breath behind him, but he didn't turn. How big was the world, he wondered. How much could it hold?

"Yes," he said aloud.


"Is he..."

"Completely painless," the doctor said. Some flashing lights traced across the room, announcing themselves for a moment in red and blue over the dim fluorescents. The window kept out most of the traffic noise and fumes. "Completely at ease and completely consensual." Well, almost completely consensual, but the final response would be the one that mattered on the transcript. How much value could permission have under the circumstances anyway? It's not like they didn't sign the forms. "Thank you for choosing Mercy Hospital." He put on his best concerned expression, and shook the woman's hand. Unsure what to do with the child, he bent and patted her cheek.

The little girl did not break his gaze. She was in a pink dress, flimsy but spotless, with hard little pink plastic shoes. She clutched her stuffed bear without crying, staring expectantly at him. He groped backwards for the door handle. "It was a better place," he told her. "You're, um, a lucky girl." He shouldered his way out of the room. The child didn't utter a word, but followed him with big, hopeful eyes.

The rest of his patients went much closer to the usual script. He remembered his own father telling him that doctors had once spent more time healing--some still did, he supposed--back in the old days of "quantity of life". There were worse ways to earn a ration than getting into palliatives, and worse things even to depend on the platefuls of brown gruel that got piped out of the hospital cafetria. He longed for a smoke afterwards to clear the taste. He strode through the lobby and elbowed his way onto the ancient sidewalk, into the electric glare of the late evening. He assumed a nook against the pockmarked concrete and hunched his back against the throng to light up.

The kid was lucky. For the voluntary cases, it was a guaranteed lifetime of rations for survivors, even some basic care. And she might be one of the last in the world to get that. There would be a law in no time, he was sure of it. But that kid had "volunteer" written all over her, he thought, even if she didn't screw up her benefits by reproducing. Dreamers and loners weren't fit for the world. She'd be back in five or six years, painted and filthy by then, as one of his innumerable teenage clients.

It wasn't the sort of thought to linger, but as he sucked in the last of his greasy cigarette, he could still feel the child's gaze on him. It was the bear, he decided, that was getting to him. What was she doing with one of those things? There was no space for bears on this planet, they just took up space and ate up rations. The last of them had been consumed a generation ago. He flicked his butt. Fuck 'em anyway. If they were alive they'd be fucking food right now. He lit up another smoke, and tried not to imagine shiny button eyes judging him over a pink arm.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review of The Great Democracies by Winston Churchill

This one is for Urquhart, he of the extraneous Us and proxy dominator of the German Empire (um, maybe still). It's easy to fit him into the Victorian world of Punch magazine and heady diplomacy. Whatever kind of conservative Urquhart may be, I imagine (quite unfairly) that it involves formal dress, horses, and drinks with gentlemen in private clubs as much any specific political philosophy. I (also unfairly) picture an aged, bald Churchill jovially composing these histories in such a setting, dictating around a cigar and between the evening's many highballs, a team of secretaries furiously copy-editing and eliding the more caustic quips. I can see Urquhart jawing brilliantly with that guy in front of the fireplace, over cards.

The Great Democracies is the last volume of Churchill's longer A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and I didn't read the other three. It covers the period between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the death of Queen Victoria, focusing on British and American history mostly, gliding over (like everyone else) Canada and Oceania, and covering the affairs of the other peoples in Europe, Africa, and Asia so far as Churchill saw it affecting the goings-on of those treasured progeny of the British Empire.

It's well known that he had done time as a war correspondent and as a fighting man, and evidently esteemed himself highly as a writer and a historian. And he does have some strengths. Churchill ably puts realistic human faces on the historical actors of those hundred years. Even though they're pumped up large, the style is like modern reporting, and over the space of a century or two, these great men come off less like mysterious primitives in powdered wigs than they do twentieth-century humanized celebrities. Churchill carries on the narrative of their doings in a conversational tone that makes for a comfortable read, almost as if he's storytelling. Their State founders on uncertain international and domestic seas, to which those leaders respond well or badly, and the waters must be navigated with aggression or avoidance as circumstances dictate. He paints pictures of men who rise or fail to the occasions, and there may be great movements among the masses, but it is the prerogative of the leaders to ignore or respect them. It's not a world without principles (he harps against Protectionism some, for a sort of Democracy, for honoring commitments, although he dances carefully through ideas of monarchy and colonialism), but there are no slices of life of the little guy in this history. If he avoids the small theaters of human experience, he did have a fine sense of large-scale drama, however, and this book is really a gripping read.

Like many authors of American histories (and commentary), Churchill sees his own country as having attained the closest thing yet to a perfect system, and the past is interpreted in the context of where we have arrived. I can't much agree with that take. Modern politics looks like so much more of the same--making contemporary parallels when reading history is damn near unavoidable. Churchill opens up in the Britain in 1815 or so, where after the defeat of Napoleon, the British parliament wrestled with a half-century of moribund two-party politics and defective kings. He takes us in sections through the various evolutions of the Tory and Whig governments, which differed mainly in their effectiveness within the system, their justifications for foreign intervention, and the extent to which they included Radical (closer to classic Liberalism of Burke than any Socialist philosophy). On American shores the dynamic looks familiar too. Churchill outlines the then-new demographics of the antebellum U.S.A., with free-spirited and democratic rubes from the west against notheastern con artists and patricians, the still-familiar strawmen that are nearly as ugly and as banal as the nasty old English class categories. He treats American radicals a lot more contemptuously than the British variety, and while American Reconstruction was rotten, I don't think I can get behind the author's universal views on the horrors of weakening the executive.

U.S. history from this period is actually a good half of the book, and it's interesting to see it told from the English perspective. Churchill isn't shy, for example, at pointing out the flagrant land-greed of the nineteenth-century states (even as he's cautious about discussing British colonialism), which at points made Canada uneasy and Mexico bereft. The U.S. Civil war looms large through that century, and as Churchill's preferred perspective is a military one, there are great exciting swaths of text describing maneuvers, strategy, and execution. His version is not overly susceptible to Lincoln hagiography: although the take-charge moves are presented as necessary, the cause (both with respect to slavery and preserving the union) just, and his altruism commendable, he blames the mess of Union political pressures, to which Lincoln often caved, for extending the war.

If Churchill is comfortable with politics as a gentlemen's club, he positively loves generals, and his respect for Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is deep. Americans tend to forget that there was a lot of other military action going on in the world in those decades, and it's particularly interesting to compare Churchill's laudatory treatment of Jackson and Lee to that of Otto von Bismarck, whom he respected but obviously deplored. Even as Churchill complains about failure to trust the generals, and tries to find a unified version of British imperialism, he criticizes German realpolitik as without honor. We, of course, do it for the right reasons. Always the diplomat, eh?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Velvet Jones Ed.)

"Are you a female high school dropout, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five?...Are you tired of lying around in bed all day with nothing to do? Well. you never need get up again, because in six short weeks I can train you to be high paying ho...Just think-fifteen hundred dollars a week, without even leading the comfort of your own bedroom.. Sound too good to be true? Just send for my new book... "--The Velvet Jones School of Technology (Saturday Night Live)

1. The stupidest shit I've heard all week.
You know, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I really do. I was coming home late enough last night to catch Marketplace on NPR, only to hear an administration whore selling me eternal prosperity. "Believe it or not," David Frum tells us, "the proven oil reserves of the United States today are virtually identical to what they were in 1973." On his blog, he was good enough to correct that he actually misremembered 1930, because hey, this is serious.

Frum, for the record, isn't talking about the same proven oil reserves, because, you, know, that would defy one of the most obvious laws of physics. No, we have different proven reserves now, and to prove them, we keep moving out into the Gulf of Mexico, to Alaska, and assorted other deep dangerous spots. But geography keeps spreading out indefinitely, just ask the six and a half billion of us, where exactly now? Those oil resevoirs discovered by Jed Clampett were depleted decades ago. The rate of oil production, if it hasn't peaked, is likely close to peaking, and the consumption of oil sure hasn't declined. But don't worry, Dave is confident those clever engineers will think of something.

But just for fun, let's look at 1973 1930, and try to imagine oil demand back then, compared to now. There was not yet a mechanized world war that butchered a generation, not yet a highway system, not yet an industrialized China, and you could still pull crude out of Texas. The fact that petroleum is pushing $100 per barrel right now should tell a (cough) economic pragmatist something about the indefinitude of the black goo. This guy's job was to sell policy, everyone. We live with it every day.

2. If you think pimpin' ain't easy, try being a ho.
It never ceases to annoy me to hear noodlehead pundits talk about "highly educated professionals." That phrase is code for lawyers and managers and dentists (and pundits), but there are a bunch of professionals that fall through the craze. These are the same guys (lookin' at you Friedman) that cry out for more science and engineering education to help us think our way out of a half century's worth of shortsighted economic policy. I have some sympathy with their wish, partly because I like the idea of a society that measures success in understanding how things work better than one that measures it in the ability to network, and we do have some technical challenges looming, but it's not like it's an employee's paradise out there for budding techies. Professional engineers and scientists-- those that don't want to manage--have pretty serious foreign pressures, whether from the underpaid EB1 or H-1B types working their way through American companies and graduate schools (more power to 'em, I say), or the outsourcing of every type of technical industry to Asia (even the spiffy new ones). Considering the training and the technological expertise society allegedly requires, the pimps seem to be the ones getting all the money. And as professionals, there sure as shit ain't no overtime for scientists. So I make a point to take a little of mine from the man. Doing this.

How would you spend eternity?
"For well over forty years, he had been refining what he thought of as the Perfect Day. Thirty years ago he got it right, and he'd pretty much stuck to it since then. Up at the crack of ten, dress and down to the saloon for breakfast, a double prarie oyster: two raw eggs in a double shot of bourbon. Thus fortified, he strolled three blocks to the barbershop for a hot towel and a shave...Noon would find him standing at the bar, drinking slowly, getting the right edge for siesta. When he woke up at five, lunch of pig's knuckles and pickled eggs...After dinner began the important work of the day: serious poker with the other regulars..." --from The Golden Globe by John Varley.

Granted, I probably wouldn't use my Perfect Day getting loaded and hustling rubes, but doing technical work only to the extent it inspires me sounds like it would be pretty sweet. It's all about the balance after all.

3. Life on the government teat
I'm disheartened about my career. The way this game works is that I have to sell some proposal to a funding agency (i.e., the government), and it has to be so damn attractive that they can't help but give us the money to do it. Anyone who's written a proposal knows the extent to which they're science fiction, often much more about fantastic hopes than what you actually believe. So it goes.

In the world of current events, the government's editorial minions are getting a lot of shit these days (see #1), but it's hard to say how much responsibility they bear for expressing dumb opinons, even when they're paid to. Yes, you had your Friedmans and your Sullivans and two dozen other people arguing badly and unseriously for war. Is it their fault they won the argument, or is it ours for falling for it? Here's a comment I read recently, by someone named kia, regarding everyone's favorite glibertarian cutie. It really hit me where I live.

"I find something particularly grating about McArdle. I think it's a quality that Jonah Goldberg also has: the ability to be knowingly and serenely bogus...I must assume that the people who feed them do not care about their utter lack of credibility. The people McArdle and Goldberg work for do not need these tools to have credibility. They do not need credibility themselves; they've got power....[S]hredding the pretensions of their paid mouthpieces is service to truth."

In other words, a lot of these tools write specious opinion because hey, it's a living. If you can actually be sincere that's great, but it's not really necessary if you want to pay the bills. Maybe they should write science proposals.

I call myself a technical whore because I frequently find myself learning on the fly some field that I have no background in, but I'm a "scientist" and if you need an expert in X, then I'm your man. I do my best, and to be fair, we do usually sell a team with talented subcontractors, but I still find myself in the uncomfortable situation of pretending to depth when I'm really dabbling. It takes some effort to silence my conscienceso that I can tell my audience exactly what it wants to hear.

4. You write pretty well...for a scientist
Maybe that mile-wide, inch-deep background would be good for science reporting. I half-promised Mike some more of that sort of thing for quiblit. I want to do a piece on cellular automata, which is cool shit that I don't do, and a piece on thermoacoustics, which is cool shit that I do do. The second one should be easy, because I have a robust supply of reports and presentations to cover the glossy aspects of it. If it's already understandable enough to get the suits to nod their heads, then all I have left to worry about is making it interesting.

Some of the pioneering work in that field is done at Los Alamos National Lab, on the government dime, and they've published a textbook on the subject that is pretty approachable. I keep meaning to really go through it in detail, but they paint a great picture in the early pages all by themselves, amazingly without any help from me. This is not uncommon (especially the no help from me part). Scientists spend a lot of time communicating--the internet was staked out by nerds, after all. Being successful at this means that you're constantly selling, pitching, and explaining. To other geeks, to your clueless bosses, to investors, to funding agencies. Eventually even the antisocial eggheads get decent at it. I've said before that I get away with being a slackass because I write better than my peers, but the truth is, everybody in this field has to be a part-time writer.

5. FIVE thoughts? I'm happy when I just have one.
Writers, like scientists (even technical whores), tend to specialize. They develop a voice or two that they're good at, work up some common themes, and their fans value it until it gets old (at which point we either criticize them for changing and selling out or criticize them for staying the same and boring us). Too often, you can see people get set in their ways, get tenure, and eventually stop learning. Brain-eater is something that can happen to aging novelists, those guys who can't repeat the brilliant successes of their younger days. (Bloat, though it may not seem like it, is a similar disease. It's taking too long to say the thing we all got the first time.) Bloggers and other opinion geeks burn out too, and another reason I feel an occasional pang when I mock the Brookses and the Broders is that they write like they're operating at about a thousand columns past immolation.

I'm pretty well convinced that most of us only have so much material, although the capacity varies widely between individuals. Some people--some of the people here even--seem to have more viewpoints and stories than they can dispense in a lifetime, and you simply impress the hell out of me. For the rest of us earnest hacks, it's probably better to have a settle on a system than to rely on the world-moving insights that are floating inside your head. Daily anecdotes can keep the wheels turning, following the news, or writing book reviews. I guess one important trick is to keep new information feeding in, to observe well, and keep fishing thoughts back out. It also seems wise to keep picking off the crusty ones before they block up the works. Unlike oil, brainpower is sustainable, at least for a while.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review of Sandbag Shuffle by Kevin Marc Fournier

If I were picking a book to review for Mr. Fournier (who can be found here), it would surely be some garishly-bound long-forgotten penny dreadful that I scrounged from some used book purgatory. I'd find merits to enjoy, and I'd bear the faults with the loving bemusement I'd normally reserve for an eccentric uncle. That's what I would do, but Kevin had to go and write a novel of his own. The bastard.

Sandbag Shuffle is deep and thoughtful examination of health care of two neighboring countries. The voyage of Andrew and Owen from the Dickensian horrors of an orphanage on the south side of the US/Canada border into the civilized northern landscapes, whose progressive institutions give handicapped Owen the real mobility and the figurative inner strength he needs to save Winnipeg from the Red River flood of 1997. It's a deep, brilliant metaphor for...

Ah, I can't do that. The absence of that sort of highblown pretense is exactly what makes this book a keeper. I remember the young adult books of my day, of the S. E. Hinton or M. E. Kerr vintage (initials-only must have been the key to authenticity in those days), that tried to get it real by introducing some heavy urban grit and some over-the-top drama that'd take a young person to forgive for its ham-handedness. Even though Owen and Andrew are escapees from a group home, even though one of them is legless and both are quite capable of being devilish little pricks, Fournier avoids all of that high drama, and the two boys would no doubt flip a heartfelt finger at your sympathy, or take advantage of it. The characters don't suffer deep lessons, they don't hit bottom (although they skim it awhile), they don't find true love or any of that. Instead, we follow them around as they bicker and scheme and survive. This is the same guy that recommended Chekhov (below) and Colette (to come), and I can see some of that in there. It's not a voyage of self-discovery, but a presentation of characters that are fully realized from the start. Plotwise, you can say a bunch of stuff happens, but the point isn't unfolding a masterpiece of structure, it's taking a good ride with a couple of likable people.

The two of them are a lot like the boys I knew growing up: little ur-bastards, the good-parts combination of those little shits who were great friends (to the small degree you could break into the circle) and horrible influences. Owen and Andrew have no respect for authority, nor for charity, but they have each other, and if they're not trained for society, they're teeming with streetwise instincts and a feral charm that--and this is important--comes across in the writing. Their faults of knowledge are profound, and when they bicker over them, Fournier elevates it to comic art. He's got a good trick with breaking the fourth wall too, adressing the reader at times ("now you and I know..."), and shifting to the present where-are-they-now tense when it fits to do so.

Young Adult, I've been told, is hard to do well, and I imagine that it's got to be hard to avoid the condescension. I can offer my own opinion on that, but the ultimate of arbiter of something like this, of course, is my daughter, who I read it to. Must have been a trip for her. She got a whole lot of embarrassed cursing when I couldn't think of an on-the-fly edit (PG-13 gets you exactly one "fuck" and unlimited shits and damns so long as they stay appropriate). It's the sort of thing I'd have rather left for her own discovery because, hey, if there's a lesson here, it's how to be a good person while still giving authority the (dis)respect it deserves, and, like, I'm the alleged authority here. A recommended read, if you don't mind subjecting Junior to that level of suversion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nurture, Nature, and Eddie Murphy

"All right, gather up kids, it looks like one of the best movies of all time is on."

"Isn't Eddie Murphy in this, Daddy?"

"Yup, back when he was funny, thank Bowdler."

"Thank what?"

"Huh? Oh, nothing. It used to have some swear-words is all. I don't think it loses much."

"Where's Eddie Murphy? Who are those people?"

"He'll be here pretty soon. Now see he used to be poor, but those two old guys..."

"Who's that guy?"

"That's Dan Aykroyd. I think this was the only time he was funny. Now look, he used to be have Eddie Murphy's job, but those guys switched. They're trying to say..."

"He looks pretty gross."

"Yeah, well, he's had some hard times. That's kind of the point."

"Why is she dressed like that?"

"Um, well, she's not a real classy girl."

"What's a pimp? Daddy? What's a pimp?"

"Yes, well, see, they're those guys that dress all crazy like I was telling you before. They, um, are mean to girls though. They take all their money."

"He looks pretty sad."

"That's kind of what they're getting at. You take someone's money away, and look where it gets them. But he was pretty lucky in the first place, you know? And now he has to find out how everyone else lives."

"He's not a very nice Santa."

"Shush now, this is a funny part."

"Hey, there's Eddie Murphy!"

Thank god she didn't make it far enough to ask me explain their stock trading scheme.

That conversation Thing One's way of picking on me a little, giving back what she usually gets. My kids always follow the rules, but that's more because they prefer to be creative and could often give a rat's ass about the letter of the law (this according to their teachers, which makes me secretly, and excessively, proud). That's my little angel. Be a playful little pain in the ass.

Maybe it's wrong to call Trading Places one of the best ever--there are extraneous gags, and the closing sequences are oddly put together--but I've got to call it out as one the best-directed comedies. Even though it channels a piece of young Murphy's comic energy, it's much more a director's project than a star vehicle. The best jokes are elaborately constructed, set up with the care of a Rube Goldberg machine. There are half a dozen scenes where John Landis crescendos and concentrates the energy up to a single point, balances it on a pin, and uses the smallest possible change to send the momentum in a completely different direction. Maybe it's meant to capture the dynamics of floor trading. The false calm shattered by the opening bell and the huge shift when the crowd shifted from buy to sell, are very much examples of what makes this movie tick.

It's not just a matter of timing. Landis worked to make that big pivot in the smallest possible space too. There's one scene where Eddie Murphy is surrounded by (white) cops with guns, which were arranged to fill the whole of the shot except for the star's face, very small in the frame. The entire mood of the scene hinges on Murphy breaking a smile. Time to laugh, everyone.

He used space to paint wealth and poverty too, letting the two worlds emerge as characters of their own, shrinking the actors when the abstracts need to have their screen time. Even though the film's 25 years old, it's probably singularly responsible for my (positive) mental image of urban Philadelphia. I don't imagine using setting as character is terribly original, but Landis was clever enough to let it crack a joke or two as well. One of the better scenes, where the Dan Aykroyd character is fired, an executive pool of hundreds of harrumphing old men is dwarfed by an enormous wood-paneled boardroom, the embodiment of old money. It ends with the portraits of the founders looking down in silent disapproval from their bygone eras. Brilliantly timed.

I couldn't explain any of this to my children, who are still brainwashed to think that low-budget Nickelodeon's live action crap is the essence of comedy. Hell, I think they giggled at drunken Santa (the rain opening up when he steps off the bus, the gun going off after he fails to shoot himself, both brilliantly timed) only because they are so conditioned to laugh track cues that they did what I did. They didn't appreciate a damn bit of it in fact, but it was fun trying to get them to.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Kicking Ass and Taking Names

It's Friday evening as I draft this, and like I do most Fridays, I've got a beer cracked as I dig into my dull (ahem) hobbies.  I do enjoy a nice toot now and again, but I've got enough alcoholics in my family to respect the booze too, and tasty as those pints may be, the demons of dependency start scratching at the inside of my melon on Friday afternoon like insects as I consider my weekend vice.  (I try to give them their space.)  When I feel good, the beer feels celebratory.  When I'm down, it feels compensatory, and when I'm really down, it feels like exactly the sort of bludgeon I need to beat myself.  

Drowning sorrows is a cliché, and self abuse by negligence, eating, fucking, or reckless driving isn't far behind.  When we're moved to cry with too little provocation, the temptation is to give ourselves something to cry about, a sort of reverse rationalization, or maybe we fulfill all those remembered threats from our old man.  (Psychology is, like, complicated, and stuff.)  What makes sense is that you stop the damaging behavior, but we're rationalizing animals more than we are rational ones.  It's as if a sense of conscience is wired in, and if our feelings deviate from it, then the internal cricket acts to justify the feelings (rather than act to change them, which is harder).  Conscience is reactive as much as it is proactive.  

People have always known this.  Literature is full of tragic flaws, covertly incriminating tells (Freud did way more for writing than he did for science), and kryptonite.  Centuries of observation, or maybe rationalization, have shown heroes and evil masterminds who can't escape the seeds of destruction that they carry around.  In the early days of the internet, certain brands of geeks used to joke about what not to do as an Evil Overlord (use air ducts too small to crawl through, refrain from elaborate murders, don't take longer to enjoy the moment--the handbook is funny).  This view of conscience is not that of a rational actor, not a finger with a pointing hand, but as with the depressed drunk, some involuntary machine that generates behaviors to support a self-opinion. 

What fun to think we're being governed by Bond villains, the sort that can't help sowing hints of their critical weaknesses, and not the soulless calculating bastards they sometimes appear to be.  The U.S. Justice Department, in spite of declaring the opposite publicly, in spite of opposing Congressional rulings--in spite of the obvious issues of conscience--has issued secret opinions saying, in essence, that torture is cool so long as they do it.  "Secret opinions" is nearly an oxymoron.  Secret actions are one thing, and those have been committed and lied about from time immemorial, but justifying them secretly, in legal writing, is just weird.  Why keep them secret if you have a decent story to hold up to the (low) light of public scrutiny?  And moreover, given the obvious fear that your opinions are susceptible to sunshine, then why the fuck would you write them down?  The creepiest thing about the John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales Justice Department is the need for documentation.  Is it the villainous thrill that they're getting away with planned evil?  Is it a CYA effort by (or for) the lieutenants of power?  An ingrained bureaucratic impulse (our local brand of evil springs from the managerial class)?  The Bush adminstration has done this a lot.  Fixing on to the U.N. in 2003 to push toward Iraq was weird too.  It was so obviously incongruent with what those guys stood for, it's unclear why they even bothered.

In my less cynical moments, I'm almost heartened that they still have to clothe their otherwise naked ambition in acronyms and code, even if they're stupid and obvious ones (USA PATRIOT comes to mind, Clear Skies, compassionate conservatism).  The fact that it means the opposite of what it's called is an admission that the real thing is unpalatable.  To the masses, sure--we've always been awash in official sarcasm--but maybe to themselves too.  That confessional impulse, that ghost of a conscience, kicks our leaders down to the position of second-rate evil.  After all, although some famously did, not all belligerent societies have kicked ass and also taken names.  I'm not even sure records of oppression have even been the norm in history.   I prefer to think it's the pangs of morality talking, and that the reflexive honesty will lead to their undoing.  

Yeah, right.  I think I need a drink.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Review of Ward No. 6 and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

I don't like reviewing short story collections, because I never quite know how to do it. I've got a few in the (unposted) archive where I wrote a paragraph or two for each entry, and other attempts where I reviewed the collection itself. Neither approach really seems adequate. In the present case, I don't know why these particular stories were collected for "Barnes and Noble Classics," whether they are comprehensive or exemplary, but they do hold together pretty well, making the decision a little easier this time. And as long as I'm complaining, I'm not a big fan of reading translated works either, because I never can tell who to credit for the success (or the failure) of the language. This volume worked out fortuitiously well in this regard too. Constance Garnett translated my copy of Crime and Punishment as well as this book, as well as much of the Russian literature of her time, and my distaste for Dostoyevsky's arrogant blather doesn't seem to be her fault. Because Chekhov's fiction is great.

Any critique of Chekhov must begin by noting his penchant for honest, objective bits, short stories as literary photography. There's not much plot in most of 'em, but they still work as complete thoughts of context or of character. It's damned interesting as far as technique goes, because this accurate pen doesn't spend a lot of time inside the heads of the characters, not looking much through their eyes. He's no sensualist, but he describes a lot of what the senses perceive. He's not one for massaging circuitous internal motivations, but he describes clearly what characters think, much of which could be called complex. With all the present-day authors going for so many levels of cognitive masturbation, Chekhov's style is downright refreshing. It makes me want to read his plays.

I picked up this collection on Kevin Fournier's recommendation (who's next, as it happens), looking for something to illuminate the life and times of Russia--and Europe in general--at the turn of the century. I couldn't have found a better choice. If you're looking to, you can follow the arc as they move through time. You can see technology develop for one thing (there are no telephones in his earlier pieces, nor factories), but stylistically, he becomes more like himself over the twenty years or so of publications. His earlier pieces have more subjective points of view, and some look to have been chosen for their challenge, almost as if the author were showing off how unusually could he frame it. (The three-year-old "Grisha" was the most egregious, and also the best.) Still, I like his later, more subtle, vignettes. It's not a bad way to approach literature. A structured plot is probably teh biggest difference between literature and reality, and it's impressive to see the fiction succeed without it. I think I'd have been happier not knowing that was Chekhov's personal mission, but then most art contains a lot of hidden effort.

I grew up knowing Soviet Russia, and it's unusual to see the country as an open, cosmopolitan, religious place, as opposed to some cynical, soulless, wintry hellhole. Chekhov's Russia seemed very European in culture, a little more austere, a little more sparse. One thing that struck me was the nineteenth-century Russian's sense of spectacle. It's hard for me to imagine the church finery as a draw, as the foremost cultural touchstone in the provinces, and it's still a viable professional path in his stories. For all his objectivity, Chekhov has, I think like his two famous contemporaries, morality hanging heavily over him, and what ironies he constructs hinge on this mix of honesty and chaste, deep-rooted Christian ethics. When I read Tolstoy, I thought he read like an American novelist, and I got a little of that same sense from Chekhov too, daring honesty fighting Puritan restraint. It fits.

All of the short stories were very good, but my favorite ones went a little deeper than a photograph. The best stories retained a little bit of extra structure, either something resembling a plot resolution, or an obvious irony, or showcased the most entertaining conflict. The title story was great for that last bit, about a doctor's relationship with a man in his asylum. The Princess was the closest he came to preaching, but it's a wonderful rant. The conflicts in The Witch and The Dependents were hilarious and bittersweet. Rothschild's Fiddle is as close as he gets to a plot and a moral, but it's quite touching.