Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review of The Gospel According to the Simpsons by Mark I. Pinsky

Mindy reads the Gospel
I've had to look up the word "virago" at least five times. The "bright" part I get, but a virago is a horrid old monster, and when I think of Bright, I come up with (a) a person who is a far cleverer Simpsons fan than I am (I wasted a big part of my life quoting this show, but still all the good profiles in that old post were hers) and probably a cleverer person in general, (b) someone almost congenitally nice (at least in my experience--I missed all those smackdowns of the stupid that switters likes to talk about), and (c) possibly the most non-annoying believing person that I have ever met. She's got a wit that doesn't rely on vulgarity and insults (unlike some ignorant asshole book reviewers I know) which I recall hearing is a mid-western thing. Maybe she (also) figures that decency aura she has to be perplexing, but still, virago? I just can't see it.

(I liked the way this icon came out better, but thought the character might be hard to place.)


So with those tidbits of character, I actually sprung eleven bucks on the least likely book of this whole series so far, The Gospel According to the Simpsons. I've been exposed to a little of this sort of thing, as a young person still associated with a sort of liberal church. It was a little before the Simpsons came out, but there was other "cool" Christian literature we'd talk through in those days, looking for unceremonious expressions of faith to maybe stoke up the youth. They were something similar, but I don't remember if these books worked as badly as theological argument as Gospel does. In the opening sequence, Pinsky pretty well nails his case shut before he opens it. He brings up a scene from the series in which Homer Simpson throws up an intercessionary prayer:

"confirmation of the deal, he prays, will come in the form of 'absolutely no sign.' There is no sign." [God doesn't even mind if Homer eats the offering of cookies and milk himself] "Homer mutters the benediction, 'Thy will be done.'"
The ensuing discussion calls upon the Intelligent Design authority William Dembski (even barring what I think about ID, Dembski deserves ridicule for heading a chapter with 'Recognizing the Divine Finger' without irony), along with Biblical chapter and verse to overanalyze the theological argument, while committing the worst sin of all, completely failing to get the joke. (Hint: possibly something to do with the milk.) It's not all that bad, but it's a bad opener. Pinsky himself shows ample signs of equanimity, but he's far too credulous of his experts for my tastes. Reaching back to other religious "thinkers" like Jonah ('what should dismay liberals is that so many of today's pieties are constructs of the Left') Goldberg in the conclusion really doesn't do the cause any favors. The deep Godly content is already a stretch before the dimbulb scions of the moral majority get drug out to support it.

Pinsky commits a couple other notable failures in the getting-the-joke department. In a cartoon television series, God's occasional tendency to grant wishes through prayer doesn't actually affirm any real aspect of the universe's nature. I hate to remind the guy it's fiction, although it does fill the need for so many classic storytelling motifs. Likewise, the point about Ned Flanders, who gets a whole chapter to himself as the model Evangelical, is that he is indeed a nice man, but the joke very often is that his rigid Christianity can also make him inhuman (sometimes in a positive way, but hardly always). These tidbits grate, but on the whole, the middle part of this book is surprisingly readable and enjoyable. Or maybe not surprising: Pinsky basically runs down at length the favorable approaches the show has taken to religion, and the entire middle of it is more of a report than it is an argument, often summarizing entire episodes, pointing out the religious jokes that the writers threw in. They're still funny. Most of it has to do with a run-down on the mild-mannered Protestantism the family participates in, but there's the show's token Jewish entertainer, and the Hindu character gets a chapter, as did the one episode of Buddhism. (Oddly, Pinsky didn't mention Homer's native American vision quest brought on by a Guatemalan pepper.) As they get further from the Abrahamic faiths, the writers come off a little more shallow, and the parts they right or wrong was analyzed in a shallow way, but it was not unappreciated. I can't say I've read any interviews with the writers before, and Pinsky's discussion of their backgrounds and roles writing the show was the most interesting bit of original content.

But let's point out the obvious. Although there is faith depicted in the series, The Simpsons is not about religion. The writers of the show, to their credit, have complex enough viewpoints about Christianity and other religions to offer a spectrum of positions as they suit the story or, more importantly, the humor. Most people think about projection in psychological terms, extending ones viewpoint out onto others, but when I think of projection, I usually go back to my math classes, that is, representing a complex shape in less than its complete dimensions (a projection like a map, in other words), which necessarily loses information. The Simpsons has religious and other conservative elements, and is, in fact admirable about balancing their worth, but calling the show a religious experience is reducing it. What The Simpsons does have is damn good comedy writing, and after 15 years of watching the silly program, I thank Pinsky for reminding me of that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review of Mr. Pye by Mervyn Peake

Although it wasn't my first choice, I'm liking Michael Daunt (né Schadenfreude) as Mr. Pye. (This would have been my first choice, especially after thumbing through the index.) It's fun to picture the publisher of quiblit magazine as a moral shepherd, gently guiding a small flock to some ideal productive behavior that is liberated from our vices. There's good material at quiblit, excellent writers, a chance of an audience, and Mike does a great job of tying it all together. That our angel from heaven is as tempted by malicious glee as the rest of us makes the venture so much more delicious, but (mixing up my mythologies), surely in the celestial balance, his heart would be judged lighter than a little blue feather. Quiblit deserves its wings.


In the novel Mr. Pye, You can see a little bit of Gormenghast, Peake's (deservedly) more famous and more popular brainchild. There is some of the the castle's oppressive stone landscape reflected in the sea-carved features of the island setting, and both places are populated with a similar set of grotesques. Mr. Pye is more human-scaled though, and anchored to known geography. It's also a great deal shorter, and more thematically driven, as if the author had a different mission than letting the great, looming masonry create a mood. Oddly, I don't think this served him all that well: at his best, Mervyn Peake created brilliant edifices of prose that I always want to call "painterly", luridly colored, overly shadowed, heavily textured, and in which the details of visual composition are conceived to the point that their relevance surpasses the dynamical stuff of plot. A good deal of that was lost with Pye's softened setting and constrained scope, and while I usually support excision of superfluous detail, Peake sacrificed what he was best at.

The story takes place on Sark, a small island in the English Channel. Peake actually spent a good deal of his life there, as an artist before the war and later with his family, and his characters of the painter Thorpe and the titular Pye, the two aliens in the island society, are almost surely depictions of the author himself. It's a fascinating viewpoint, because each are loaded up with profound measures of love and contempt, as if they're two little vehicles of intense self-deprecation, executed with enough social intelligence to loathe the self-absorption as much as anything. Thorpe, a minor character, is merely a dope, easily swayed but impervious to conversion, a man with an occasional eye but who is lacking either sufficient motivation or sufficient talent to turn those visions into anything like an artistic truth. Mr. Pye is ostensibly a man of all the right kinds of conviction, an earnest seeker who is punished for the effort. (It would be an interesting exercise to contrast Peake's conception of himself the artist to Franz Kafka's. Both suffer for their genius, but Kafka goes for martyrdom, the art ultimately understood only by the artist, and Peake finds only derision in that pose.)

In the novel, Harold Pye comes to Sark to gently proselytize a vague message of goodness, a church of God the great omnipresent Pal, winning the locals over by wit, respect, and example. Pye is so self-possessed, so pure, so sweet, and so right that he begins to transform the moral landscape of the island. He's so good that his Pal gives him wings, which, on real people, isn't precisely a blessing. To get rid of the horrifying things, he abandons his evangelism to try to work them off with sin, the results of which have their own unsettling supernatural manifestation. He's a weird character, and it's hard to judge what the author is trying to communicate about him. Until he gets the growths, Mr. Pye reads like some allegorical figure, too simplified to really be connected to this world, and his human reaction, when it comes, doesn't feel fitting. With that normal response interjected, the reader is left questioning how the man got his fortune, how he embraced that honesty, and what he sacrificed for it. Except for this sudden earthly motiviation (and a couple of briefly glimpsed Peake-ish attributes, a penchant for nonsense verse and doodles) Pye remains more cherub than man until the end.

I want to tell you that Peake doesn't play his spiritual dichotomies well either. Pye's goodness is of an ecumenical sort, pushing at ideas of spiritual harmony, forgiveness, and emotional moderation, and those wings, they make more sense as divine irony than as a vehicle for character study. At the climax of Pye's evangelism, the author throws the putrefying corpse of a whale onto the shore, and this feels allegorical too--it feels like celestial sabotage--but still, the authorial voice is not ironic, doesn't feel like deadpan. The evil that Pye undertakes to remove his wings isn't the naturally opposite antisocial sort, but instead tends more biblical. In an effort to make his wings shink, the character engages in some petty vandalism, which is funny, and yes, he corrupts one comically deserving member, but other than that, he refrains from actually hurting anyone or from going after the obvious avenues of emotional abuse (or gratification). Instead, he's diverted to some silly off-camera Satanism, something suggestively involving goats.

I want to tell you that these things don't balance at all, but the book feels subtler and more powerful in hindsight than it felt while I was reading. As constructed, it works a lot better as a backhanded condemnation of God. It would explain the charitable positivist religiosity, which only resulted in the well-timed punishment by a capricious deity. It would explain the goofy nature of evil, and the (uncondemned) sexual characters that came closer to naturalism than the Great Pal ever did. Does the author hate Pye for his self-satisfied benevolence? I can tell you that I didn't connect to it that much, but there's not enough to him to really annoy either. And in context, Pye's good works produce good humanist consequences, which makes it tough to paint subtle irony onto what's written. The bad deeds that follow (pitching the old bat down the stairs, say) are as intentionally nasty as the prior events were wholesome, and they don't really come out as unintended consequence of good effort. While subtlety and humor had their places in the novel, they didn't enter in here, and I can't decide whether these explanations are my own clever revisionism or if they were intentional. For me to buy into the deeper meaning of Mr. Pye, I'd have to believe that the author meant it. I could be convinced of that, I think.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

View from the monkey tree #3,124,598

I found myself in a conversation about money this weekend with one of the Three Official Friends (there's nothing quite like a more successful person telling you it isn't important), which segued into a more general plaint about the top-heavy big-corporate bureaucracy he has to deal with. There's nothing like a marketing weasel complaining about corporate dross for that matter, but old friends talking here, and it's got to be a Herculean commitment to do what he does and keep his soul. In any case, they have a rotten chief to Indian ratio, and I tried to tell him it's not unique to the big boys. Everybody wants to manage other people and peddle the snake-oil, because the schmooze is what's ultimately remunerated.

I keep going back to this as I prep for tomorrow's presentation for high level customers. (I wonder if the big or the small bureaucracies are worse. There's nothing like working under the Napoleon complex of the small-time managerial set.) The truth is that I'm glad these guys are available to help me shovel the corporate lingo in a way that somehow satisfies the mutually exclusive demands of getting directly to the point and eliding every hint of technical information. Although I'm not sure why it takes quite so many of them. One would think that these trivial disputes in presentation style are still not so academic that they require a panel of four corporate elders to challenge the lone technical guy, especially considering I'm basically a bauble that can speak here, some token brain that can fake it long enough to lend this sales pitch credibility. These last couple of days have felt like a thesis defense that has leaked away anything to actually argue over, which, of course, stops no one from debating the quantity and depth of the bullet points--a lot of sage head-nodding about bottom-line this and what's-the-story-we're-communicating that. (There's nothing like Dilbert, or there was nothing like it ten years ago. Oxygen is good.) It's not that the technical component was all that great anyway (let me just say, thank god for competent subcontractors), because I'm not the sort of quality whore that they hire for a long slow romance, and because some portion of the fee has to go toward high-level communication too.

Anyway, this is all a complicated way of saying I'm still laying low, and it's taking a lot to keep my general pissiness in check anyway. Later in the week, I'll throw some book reviews up or something.

And if you've never heard the joke, it goes like this:

A corporation is like a tree full of monkeys. The CEO looks down from the top of the tree and sees nothing but smiling monkey faces, happily chattering swinging around from branch to branch. The board looks down and sees the same, middle management: nothing but smiling monkey faces all the way down. My bosses look down at me, and see my smiling monkey face. Looking up, I get a different view.

Be back soon.

UPDATE: Went swimmingly. Had my place in the American military-industrial machine highlighted and circled with a blue pen. Well, at least I've never made anything that enabled killing people. (And if I did, it probably didn't work.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dishonest Dissent (and Climate Change for Dummies)

Last December, a group of academics wrote an open letter to the United Nations, disputing the official findings of the International Panel for Climate Change. I nervously scanned it for alumni, and was disappointed to find one Howard C. Hayden, professor emeritus of physics from the University of Connecticut. Here he is again, a credentialed speaker classing up a legion of blowhards, think-tankers and non-scientists at the Heartland Institute. (Both of these were pointed out here). I should have at least heard his name before: he was winding up his professorial career at just about the same time I was underachieving my way through grad school at UConn, ten years or so ago. He worked in the field of atomic physics, and I assume that the lab in the basement with all the potential energy envelope functions taped to the wall was his. The physics building was adjacent to the one I worked in, and I walked by those posters almost every day.

Evidently, his contrarian hobby preceded his retirement. For some of the time he was professionally active, he ran a journal for a while dedicated to a dissent of general relativity. In and of itself, I wouldn't call this a bad thing. Stubbornness is a necessary part of any good researcher's constitution, and even the most cherished theories, especially the ones which are hard to verify experimentally, should be challenged regularly. Even if they don't result in a refutation of accepted belief, these exercises can still open up conceptual space (you'll need a good challenge to get through to people), and they can shore up any weak areas in the theory. One can defy convention and still be honest, and this is one reason that I find, say, Roger Penrose's unusual ideas about the intersection of AI and quantum mechanics to be worthy. On the other hand, one of the most annoying cultural developments in modern America has been to confuse contrarianism with truth, that is, to adopt all of the smug counterintuition without the inconvenience of actually having to be right about stuff (a tone which my inner Yankee correctly identifies as the oleaginous voice of Marketing). Any scientific opinion is ultimately judged on its utility. It really does have to match the available observations.

I made a point to watch An Inconvenient Truth before I read Howard Hayden's pamphlet, A Primer on CO2 and Climate. I don't fault Al Gore for bringing the message to the public, but I do think he made some errors of judgement in the presentation: his graphs had illegible axes for the most part, and he relied too much on projections (isn't ten feet enough?), single plot points ("today's" CO2), dramatic anecdotal evidence (Katrina and mosquito-borne disease), and false optimism. I furthermore found the whole Albert Agonistes business too goddamn self-indulgent by a mile, but I think he's on the right side of the debate, even if he's doing marketing too.

What separates Gore from Penrose from Hayden? One is where they fit in the hierarchy of political power. Hayden fashions himself a dissenter, but he's really arguing from a position of convenience, saying that nothing could possibly go wrong with our current consumption patterns. I think Al Gore also gets some thrill from defying convention as well, but the people who find his views useful aren't nearly so obvious or powerful (yes, he's stoking an electoral base, and yes, scientists are always greedy for funding, but to my knowledge, there is no Big Climate Science lobby pulling his strings), and conservation as a basic philosophical principal is certainly more defensible than a position that says we can return carbon to the atmosphere indefinitely, and without consequences. There are differences of style and credibility too. Unlike the charming Penrose, Hayden makes a habit of belittling his critics, and, also unlike the mathematician, he has published zero scientific research in the field in he most likes to moan about. For a guy who gets so much mileage dismissing Al Gore's non-scientific background (and others', inaccurately), Howard C. Hayden keeps some strange company on the lecture circuit, and while the position of scientists may tend toward some nuance vis a vis the IPCC's position, Hayden's presents a pile of skepticism that is more reactionary than it is rational. Hayden is a capable guy who's right about some things, who has been an interesting voice at times, but who is, by the available evidence, a professional dickhead.

His Primer is one of several micro-press publication he's put out on a similar theme. He also writes a monthly newsletter on energy, and milks organizations like Heartland for dodgy gravitas and speaking fees. It's about fifty pages long, fluffed with lots of figures, and it's not overly technical. The book is fashioned more as a refutation than as a coherent proposition, but I'm okay with the format. He opens it up with several reasonable-sounding questions (Is the earth warming? Is mankind responsible? Is it bad? Can we change it?) which are fair to ask, but they are light on the culpability. There's no question that we people have dug out and liberated some hundred or more gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, carbon that had been sitting out of the climate game for a few hundred million years before the industrial revolution rolled around. I prefer to ask: What consequences are reasonable to expect from doing that?

The early pages of his pamphlet focus on the famous CO2 data from the Mauna Loa observatory, shown here. He plots these data on an axis that starts from zero, trying to emphasize that this increase is negligible and warning the reader of the lies that statistics are capable of. But crying a lie is itself misleading: even counting for the viewpoint of the graph, we're still seeing a 15% increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration at the observatory.


To decide whether that is a significant increase as far as global climate is concerned, we have to consider how the absorption of energy by CO2 affects the heat balance of the earth. All objects emit energy as a function of their temperature, and hotter objects emit higher energy (shorter wavelength) radiation and more of it. The emission spectrum of the earth has a peak in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it varies from that of a black body (that is, an ideal emitter) in several ways. Where the atmosphere is transparent to infrared, the emission is dominated by the earth's surface, which is hotter than the atmosphere. Most infrared is absorbed by atmospheric gases, however, (mostly by water vapor) and is re-emitted above the earth (all matter will emit energy as a function of temperature), but not all of it goes into space, some goes back down. The effect is reduce the rate of heat rejection to space. The system gets a little bit hotter and therefore more emissive until it gets to the point where it eliminates energy as fast as it takes it in.** A good analogy is a radiation shield (the heat shield under your muffler is one), which, unlike one dumb point by Howard Hayden, is in my fundamental (okay, introductory) heat transfer text. Still, if you're not careful with your vocabulary, you can get into traps that cranky deniers will dance over like goblins on a grave. (Heat is radiated back from the atmosphere to the hotter surface, at least mathematically, but net heat transfer still preserves the second law of thermodynamics. Good absorbers also, by definition, are good emitters, and most of the energy emitted to space is done by the greenhouse gases, but it's still true that they "block" or shield it by radiating in all directions, including down; don't call it reflection.)

Hayden is right that there's not a big spectral band where CO2 can really play a role in the infrared. Only about 6% of the outgoing radiation is available to take part in this process (according to those hacks at NASA anyway). Most of the important radiative processes in the atmosphere involve water vapor, but at wavelengths from about 6 to 13 ?m, water is transparent, and that is where carbon dioxide absorption matters most. Here's a typical atmospheric absorption spectrum at infrared wavelengths (from astronomy sources, with no dog in this fight). Carbon dioxide has an absorption band in the middle of this spectral "window," nabbing about 40% of the radiant energy that has a wavelength near 12.5 ?m. Hayden makes a lot of noise about the saturation effect of CO2, harping that at some point, only so much light can be absorbed by the stuff, but the band 12.5 ?m is definitely not swamped. In fact, the exponential behavior of light absorption means that at low starting concentrations, the effect of increasing the amount of absorber is very pronounced, but at relatively high concentrations, when most of the radiation has been scavenged already, adding more material doesn't do anything extra. The transmission given in the figure is at known CO2 concentration (about 360 ppm, averaged roughly over MLO's sampling time), and it's easy to estimate what a 15% increase will get us, about 1-2% percent. A 30% increase would be about 5% more energy absorbed in that small portion of the spectrum.


At the poles, another 10% of incident solar radiation is reflected off the ice, and although this seems like another small number to work with, it also affects the surface temperature. When there is less ice, there is more solar absorption at the bare surface, increasing the surface temperature slightly, which melts the ice. Increasing temperature also causes enhances the CO2 level in the atmosphere, since the solubility of the stuff in the oceans goes down (and more carbon in the atmosphere causes the temperature to further increase, etc.). When I look at the CO2 and temperature data from ice cores, the salient feature I notice is that there are two relatively stable values near which the CO2 concentration (and temperature) variation is usually restricted. On the earth, at least for the past 400,000 years, it's a good hypothesis that the limiting values correspond to the limiting values of those adjustable parameters, that is, there is only so much ice to melt or freeze, and the effect of carbon in the atmosphere can only be so big. The reason it pushes toward the extreme values may well be that they're stable compared to intermediates. (I tap vague memories of control theory, and think it looks like a two-state oscillator, an often-cited system which can switch suddenly between two (or many) different periodic behaviors. Follow the link at the end, and tell me if you agree.) The in-between points of systems like this are generally unstable, and the tendency to jump between one extreme or another is due to a sensitivity of the system to its various parameters. Plausibly, the subtle orbital mechanics of the Milankovitch cycles can nudge the climate behavior to one limit or the other--it doesn't seem to be an exact match (which bugs climatologists), but the periodicity looks right.


The upper limit of this cycle is probably not due to optical saturation of the 12.5 ?m band, but it may be a case of running out of carbon to spread around the system. Hayden makes a really annoying point that CO2 levels in the Jurassic period were far higher than they are now, neglecting to mention that the temperatures were a whole lot higher then too. On a geological scale, the earth is now in a cold period, one of a few dips down from what has otherwise been a fairly steady average temperature through Deep Time. Atmospheric carbon, which is also at a low, influences this, and so does the position of the landmasses (continents at the poles to support glaciers matter), and, likely, the population and diversity of biota. (The relation between the CO2 level (high) and temperature (low) way back in the late Ordovician is interesting and the explanations are shaky. It's a much better response to climate change arguments than anything Hayden actually bothered to look up.) To the extent that maximum optical absorption by atmospheric CO2 can be taken to set the upper stable limit of earth's temperature, then we're still well short (ten average degrees) of it, and it'll take more than a few tens of percent concentration increase. I would be confident that we're only merely riding out a peak of the warming behavior that's been repeating for 400 kiloyears if it weren't for the fact that we've resurrected a good deal of carbon from previous geological eras and put it back into the climate system, and we will continue to do so until it's too hard to get. It's a pretty ballsy bet.

There are a number of sources and sinks for both carbon dioxide and energy that occur across the planet, and for sure, they vary with latitude and surface features. Pointing this out is not a refutation of climate models, but Hayden gives it a shot anyway. Correlation is certainly not the same as causation (and even Al Gore chose his words carefully there), but often in complicated systems, various parameters influence one another, and keeping track of them all to estimate where they balance out is not only the right way to defeat oversimplification, it's exactly what a climate model is. When you find yourself smugly pointing out the shortcomings of the simple explanations, and then complaining that the detailed explanations have too many parameters, then it's safe to say that you're just being an asshole. It's true that more adjustable parameters gives you more room to fake the results, but Jesus, they're putting in real data to the extent they can, and always using known physics. Picking on the vernacular and pointing out "many" minor errors in a popular field that generates hundreds of papers a year is pretty fucking annoying too. Not all of them make it into Science.

Near the end of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore hopefully suggested activities that might cut away at carbon emission: conservation, sequestration, renewable energy resources. (Oddly enough, he doesn't want to renege on the highway system or the other entitlements of the American dream.) And here I regrettably join company with Howard Hayden. I don't think we'll ever manage to replace the stuff, and barring scarcity or a dramatic reduction in the human population, the world will never curb its carbon emissions. Still, Hayden stoops to speciousness even to diss the more tenuous dreams. Maybe there's not an ideal storage mechanism for electricity right now ("no mechanism" is obviously untrue) but it's something that's within reasonable ambitions of engineering. I am not any more pro-hydrogen than he is, but that's one potential storage mechanism right there. It's not so much that Hayden is flat wrong, it's that his dissent to climate change is dishonest. You don't need to drop $13.95 and half an hour on a shitty pamphlet to realize that of course, but this time I felt obligated.

*Also writing outside my field, here. Although I am a minor author on a tiny paper out there about scrubbing aerosols from exhaust streams. I suppose that puts me one up on Hayden in terms of climatological cred.

**Presumably the flux of energy from the core to the surface is small, and presumably tidal effects and so forth don't amount to much (except maybe every 10,000 years or so).

Free Reading:

  1. Good description and historical review of climate change from those godless hippies at the American Institute of Physics.

  2. CO2 and temperature in geological time. Really interesting stuff.

  3. Do climate cycles over 4000,000 years look like the behavior of a double-well oscillator? Learn about them here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part III

It's been nice, in a way, to see the town so awake these past couple of weeks, responding to the presence of all these powerful strangers, but it's made for uneasy variations in the old routine, waking my mind up in ways that it's not really used to. Maybe one of these days I'll start to keep the same sort of cool that my wife manages. There is a woman who can make connections. On Friday, all three of us--Jane and I, with little Simon toddling along (he was an opinionated baby, and we named him after our favorite music critic)--over to Applebee's, which is something of a payday tradition. That place gave us the strangest run-in so far. Even at the entrance, you could tell something was off: there were these identical-looking guys in suits everywhere, and I had to push my way through them just to get over to the hostess and drop off our names.

Forcing my way back, I reported to the boss. "It looks like its going to be a wait, Hon. You want anything to drink for now?"

She shook her head, but since my teeth were already clenching, I decided to body surf my way over to the bar for an aperitif. I pushed my way through the clones, past some jokers setting up lights, and I squinted at the glare from those upside-down umbrellas. The very end of the bar had the only open space, and I wedged found myself there with my elbow between some cheesy decorations, a dusty football and a framed photo of a sunny family picnicking in Anywhereville, USA.

At Applebee's, I like to get a Yuengling or two, my weekly attempt at upscale beer-swilling. I drink 'em a little slower, and my wife doesn't give me as many funny looks as we get through our meal. I looked back over the crowd at her, and she was, to my surprise, looking right back at me, excited as hell.

I mouthed a brilliant response. "What?"

She waved her arms around, and made grimaces off to her left.

I smiled back and gave her a thumbs up.

She hitched her hands left again in an even more exaggerated fashion, almost pulling little Simon to the floor. I looked over, and under all the light--in the middle of the shoot I'd just bowled through--was this blonde woman in a pantsuit, looking right pissed off. I smiled dumbly at her and shrugged an idiot apology, and then looked back at my wife. Yeah, she looked familiar, I tried to say with my face, maybe she's on TV? I looked at the crew again to see if I could place her, and in her place was standing a long-haired hippie type (who reminded me of myself in college, before it all fell out) was looking at one of his colleagues. He pointed at me a couple times, turned and pointed to Jane and Simon, nodding so that his ponytail bobbed up and down. (Just you wait, pal.) I finally spotted Ms. Powersuit in that conferring as well, but she'd turned her back to me. She shook her head at some comment or other, and then nodded curtly. All at once, the three of them turned these steel gazes right at me. Ponytail whispered something to a guy behind him, and I could see, with growing apprehension, a ripple of gray twill moving through the crowd in two directions, one at my family, and the other straight at me. The last one, some unsmiling red-haired woman in a black business suit and wire glasses, who had until that moment been edging me into the wall-mounted Americana, turned her face right into my craw and said, "she wants you." I've never felt smaller. Weakly, I nodded.

The crew (I was thinking "press gang" by that point) somehow maneuvered me under the lights, which, I realized, were focused on a single table, which had chairs arranged on only one side of it. Jane and Simon were already sitting in two of them, she eager and he only a little bit terrified. Four plates were arranged in front of us, and as Red pushed me down into the chair, she said "eat some of it." I gave her a dumb look. "Don't worry, it's on the house," she said. Gingerly, I took a sip of my black and tan, thinking it would have to last.

"What's going on," I asked my wife.

"Can't you see the camera, Bob?"

"Holy shit."

Ponytail broke out of his endless conference and wormed his way over to the table. "Here's the deal," he said, "you need to act like your sharing some really interesting ideas with the candidate. Do you have family dinners?"

My wife interjected. "Is she--"

It got her a glare, shot her way over little round glasses. "She's going to sit and talk to you. Act like it's an fascinating family discussion." He looked at me and shook his head. "Okay, what I mean is, you can ask her a question if you like, but most of all, you need to look interested and engaged. You," he looked at me again, "just do your best to act like you're pretending to understand."

"I see..."


My wife: "She's going to--"

"Yes. Quiet now."

He jerked his chin at an assistant, and a short man scampered up with a little plush animal to entertain Simon. The boy grinned, and soon he was happily chattering with a stuffed donkey. Of all of them, this assistant seemed nice: I considered asking him for a refill, but instead took another tiny sip. I took a bite of the hamburger they provided, which under the lights, tasted like something you'd get at a truck stop at 3 AM. The fourth plate, salmon and vegetables, had been carefully half-eaten, with bites strategically taken here and there.

Just as I dribbled a little mayonnaise (hate the stuff) down onto my chin, yet another assistant swung by. This one smiled at Simon (who was enjoying himself by now, with all the attention), and whispered to my wife in collaboration before dotting her forehead with a compact a couple of times. She turned and looked at me more critically. After she wiped the white goop off of my face with a napkin, she held me under her gaze, shaking her head but holding her powder puff at bay. "Authentic," she muttered. Some of us are perfect the way we are.

The ponytail came bobbing back. "Now, now!"

The crowd of bodies parted, and the woman in the pantsuit walked down the breach, framed by glaring light. Jane stood up, beaming, and I followed. The woman looked at me first. "Hi, I'm Bob," I said, and shook her hand, which she returned gently, but with authority. She was lovely for her age, but this close, I got a good look at all the makeup caked into years of stress lines. Damn, if she didn't look familiar. I tried to not let my eyes wander from the cracks around her eyes. "Hillary Clinton," she said, the very edge of wryness getting into her voice. Finally the recognition dawned, and I sat down fast. My wife squirmed a little as she introduced herself, but before she could speak anymore, the director started waving his arms, and babbled something about a strict timeline.

Jane and Mrs. Clinton both took their spots. Evidently, we were done eating, but I held onto my half beer, wishing I had a few full ones. The red-haired assistant was at my shoulder again, a constant hum of instructions directed right into my ear. I got the gist--act interested--and began practicing the art immediately on my temporary advisor. Clinton was looking away from us, listening to the last-minute directions from the ponytail man, and my wife nervously was nodding her own guide, no doubt listening for real. When someone yelled "go," Mrs. Clinton turned toward us again, and became effusive. Suddenly, Jane, Simon and I were not just at the center of her attention, but were the entirety of it. This calmed my wife down a lot.

"Is this a popular place in town?" Clinton asked. "How are the gas prices?" She went on with inconsequential small talk like that for a couple minutes, and as she went on, she patted the air authoritatively with her hands, making the most inane comments and questions seem deeply edifying. As Jane responded, the candidate would tilt her face toward the lights like a benevolent gibbous moon, and she laughed expansively or chuckled thoughtfully at my wife's most trite conversation.

She turned to me, "How are jobs here, Bob?"

I can't tell you how I replied, but it didn't seem to matter. She listened graciously, and when I was done gibbering, she grew serious without losing her appearance of camaraderie. She could communicate with her employees, but she was definitely in charge, the Cee-Eee-Friggin-Oh. "We have to keep industry in Pennsylvania," she said, "we can't let Republican outsourcing and mismanagement cripple the most vital sections of the economy." She made a fist for emphasis. She was tough. She cared.

Something occurred to me. "Mrs. Clinton?"

Perhaps taken aback at my interruption, she raised her eyebrows and smiled to wait for the question. It was a surprisingly disarming expression.

I stammered. "D-d-d..."

Pure patience from her, and I took the last swallow from my glass. "I, um, was talking to some guys at work last week. D-didn't you v-vote for--"

Ponytail snapped something. "That'll do it," he shouted.

The warmth instantly melted from Clinton's face, and I noticed the spackled crow's feet once more. She stood up, and thanked the crew. "I think we can use this," she said. Jane and I were dumbstruck (Simon was babbling sweetly), and as she got up to review the footage, the lights already began clicking off. Until then, I hadn't really appreciated how hot they had been. I looked helplessly at my wife, who didn't notice me, eyes glued to the candidate.

The red-haired woman was coming to the table with some papers for us to sign, but Mrs. Clinton strode our way for a last moment before joining her escorts, and the assistant dove out of the powerful woman's way. Clinton turned her camera smile on a last time for Jane, thanked her, and politely shook her hand. She clucked Simon under the chin, and then turned to me. "Please vote for me next week," she said politely, but the gaze she nailed me with could have frozen the sun.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part II

I don't like to think of myself as a racist. I grew up without thinking ever about the subject, didn't need to, but the hateful crap that my in-laws shout about makes me feel guilty about all those times I ignorantly nodded along with someone's vague view of blacks and foreigners, always stealing someone's job or other. In college, I hung out with a few black guys, and didn't find them any more or less worthy than anybody else. Hell, one dude basically got me through P. Chem. But you know, that place was it's own expensive little world, and nowadays I hear my father-in-law's voice in a lot more white people, and it makes me uncomfortable. It's gotten to the point that when I do meet a black guy--pretty rare--I fall all over myself trying to treat him like a normal person, which you know, isn't normal at all. I don't like to think of myself as a racist, but I have to admit, that's kind of fucked up.

Anyway, it had to be this sort of thinking that got me talking to this Barry guy yesterday. Here he was standing outside of my lunch hangout, a gangly scarecrow of a man, talking to one guy with a camera, and another one with a handheld gizmo that he was taking notes on. I walked up to the door, and stumbled a little. There have been a lot of strangers around, but like I was saying, I didn't want this particular guy to think we aree all a bunch of backwards hicks over here. Like a moron, I hold the door open and asked if they're coming in for lunch.

It took Barry a second to really register what I was doing--the air felt heavy for a second there as his partners stared at me--but then he gathered himself and said, "sure, why not." Joining me at the counter, and after we introduced ourselves, he told me that he was visiting, doing some "politics work" he said, and maybe I could tell him a little bit about life around here.

"You want a beer," I asked?

"All right, Bob. Say, do you usually get a chance for a long lunch?" He was being diplomatic. No let's face it, he was being patronizing--he enunciated everything like a teacher trying to draw out a six-year-old, and when he wasn't speaking, he slowly rotated his head in a vaguely upward direction, to listen I guess, but seeing far, trying to fit the kindergartner's story into the scheme of his big grownup's world. But he had a smooth, deep voice, and to be honest, it's nice to have someone act like they give a damn for a change, even if they don't, and it did evaporate my nerves straight away.

I explained: "They give me Wednesdays off. Save's 'em a few bucks on benefits to keep me short of full time. I'm hired as a contractor, sort of."

He pursed his lips and nodded. "And what services do you contract, Bob?"

"Geology. I advise some different companies in the Westmoreland Group about mining operations." The guy with the Blackberry was taking notes. I was uncomfortable all over again.

Barry took the smallest sip from his glass. "This," he said, is really excellent beer," and then pushed it away, leaving it untouched for the rest of the conversation. (It's not excellent beer at all.) "Coal is a vital industry, you know. Domestic, plentiful, big donors, important lobby. I can see how skilled geologists are important to the industry. I believe Westmoreland is a member of the National Mining Association. Tell me, Bob, do you work with clean coal technologies?"

"Basically, my job is to keep track of runoff patterns that result from mining operations. Take some measurements and surveys, make some estimates, turn in a report every couple weeks. Clean? It's coal."

"And how does the runoff affect the local towns? The wildlife?"

"Most of the mass ends up in the back woods, really, so it doesn't get a lot of attention. And we try to keep existing waterways going, sort of. But there's a lot of shit--excuse me--that comes out of there."

The truth is, I hate my job. The towns don't go away, but there are valleys out there full of rubble, yellow streams running off of them that stink more or less, depending on how recently the mines dumped. I stopped looking at Barry and stared at my glass. The guy with the camera snapped my picture just at that moment. Thanks pal.

"Do you drive a lot, Bob?"

"You bet."

"How's gas prices?"

"Through the roof."

Barry, still holding that visionary stare, tapped his lips a couple of times. "Now Bob, you pay a lot for gas. The way I see it, we have a basic tradeoff here, wouldn't you say? We should clean up coal mining, and inspire the industry to abandon mountaintop projects." He was making connections. As Barry got animated, he started thumping his forefinger on the table with each point he made. "We should invest in clean coal technologies, technologies that require the industry to better study the runoff patterns and minimize environmental impact. We should look toward exploiting our fuel resources in a safe and friendly way! Wouldn't you agree?"

I nodded weakly, imagining how my bosses would buy this, but I had to admit that even if it didn't accomplish anything, they'd probably need me to take more measurements and file more paperwork. I nodded a little more certainly.

"What's more, if there were alternate technologies--and I'm not just talking coal here, Bob, not anymore, but wind and solar, and geothermal" he wiped his arm across the sky, "there would be jobs for not just geologists, but all kinds of technical people. Can you imagine it?"

I supposed I could. Barry talked about jobs for a good while, moved into the cost of housing, and religion, feeling out the corners of my life with Oscar-worthy empathy, and pontificating out a grand story every time enough concepts had gelled together to make one. As he got going, his stature seemed to expand, his chest inflated and an imaginary wind lifted his brow. Every now and then, he decorated the perforamnce with a passable regular-guy laugh, and most of these landed in the right place, but I wasn't really adding much to the conversation by the time I got to the bottom of my glass. I thought again about how ridiculous I must have looked trying to act casual when we walked in. At the end of it all, Barry God-blessed me (an expression which always makes me uncomfortable), and the guy with the handheld asked me to sign something. Barry marched straight-backed and loose-limbed out of the restaurant as if he were performing a stage exit. I could practically hear the brass section crescendo and then fade with the closing of the door.

I stuck around for awhile after he left, thinking it all out. When I finally did get home, my wife was pissed at me for being so late. I told her about the conversation. "Did you say 'Barry?'"


"Do you know who that was? Jesus Bob, you're probably going to end up in a political anecdote."

I don't really follow politics, and my wife knows this, but here was my rare spotlight. I did my best to grunt something confident but noncommittal.

"Well," she went on, "what do you imagine he'll do about all of those things?"

"Do? You know Hon, I think he's going to do pretty much the same old shit. But it sure sounds nicer coming out of his mouth."

She thought about this for a second or two. "Bob?"


"Let's not tell my Dad about this."

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Review of Slake's Limbo by Felice Holman

I'm Batman, chum
If the prolifertion of online opinion has had any result in the world at all, it has been to reduce the value of the written word. I don't mean to say that people are reading less, or even less thoroughly, or feeling weaker civic emotions, I mean that, giving a billion housebound geeks an unconstrained place where people might actually read their horrible manifestos, blogging has reduced the value of individual written words. In online travels, it's positively a delight to find the rare entity who has the power to say more with less. Daveto rarely over-stretches his points (and rarely understretches them, a nice contrast to the gang which speaks in hints as well), and he usually has an entertaining way of getting to them, a little bit like he's tossing out a casual thought, or better: revealing a bare thought without the forty pounds of prosaic folly or muddied rationalization that most of us use. It really drives some people (and mostly the right people) to frothing incoherence, which is one reason I like him. I also take it as a sincere posture, and I actually think he's among the most sincere of my various online acquaintances. Admittedly, this impression is enhanced by the fact that he's brought up daughters, evidently done it well, and he seems to be as bemused about it as I feel most of the time. So why is Slake's Limbo, a book I read to my girls, the choice for daveto? Because it's huge, that's why.


With that introduction, it's an odd thing to put Felice Holman's prose against daveto's. Slake's Limbo is positively turgid with written curlicues and unannounced asides and flashbacks, and utterly shameless about piling on the gusty pathos. "Aremis Slake," the protagonist's name, almost encapsualtes the whole aesthetic. It's an interesting fictional name, but you can feel how hard she tried to get just the right one, one with the precise literary heft, exactly the right combination of dirt and dignity. Slapped with that moniker, the poor boy is destined for verbose melodrama. Slake's Limbo is written for young people, and I don't want to imply that the language is challenging exactly, but the form is a far cry from the approved, formulaic "chapter books" they get assigned from school to beginning readers. It comes from a 1970s school of children's vérité, where edgy urban reality (that is actually pretty well over the top) is presented unflinchingly. The boy is brought up utterly neglected, malnourished, suffering the indignities of bullying by drunk eighth graders, of his retarded companion hit by a bus, and, as we quickly learn, hiding out in a New York subway for four months straight.

It can be tough to tell if my kids enjoy the books I read to them. I think they like the experience more than the books themselves, which is fine. My older girl's tells were a little clearer with this one though, and the source of enthusiasm was, best I can tell, a strong desire to "know what happens to poor Slake." (I offered her a guest spot on the blog if she feels like writing down what she liked or didn't like about it. Stay tuned for that.) It's similar to how she talks about the cats, and Slake as a little lost animal is an appropriate interpretation. His worldview, at 13 years old, is strikingly primitive (for example, he makes a futile stand against the passing seasons, trying to tie leaves onto the trees) he's described in animal terms (his fear is a bird), with animal companions (gee, is that rat significant of the boy?), alarmed by positive human attention, and he's got a burrowing creature's obsessive habits. He can evidently read without trouble though, and he sat through a few years of school and learned stuff. If his weirdness got the attention of his classmates, somehow his autism was invisible to any adult. I think Holman means us to read that Slake is severely stunted in terms of imagination and emotion, and his time in the subway is spent taking those baby steps toward becoming human. I think this is a strong point of entry for young enough readers, for whom that same sort of maturation is close to them.

With a limbo in the title, you can bet that (barring any Jamaican dancing) the metaphysical imagery is going to get laid on pretty thick. Thankfully Holman doesn't detail the spiritual journey explicitly, which is a blessing of sorts, because I didn't care to delve into the religious concepts. It's more Dante and Virgil (or Jonah, or Jesus, or you know, take your pick of mystical underground ordeals that end in ascension) than Adam and Eve (or whoever). Hammering out the time-honored fictional devices is a fine analysis for a term paper, but at the blunt level they're used in this story, I'm happy enough just making the acknowledgement. When the kids get to the point when they're deconstructing catharsis and rebirth and all the associated literary mumbo-jumbo, they can do worse than to remember Aremis Slake.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part I

I hoisted the pint glass up to my eyeball and scowled down the frothy sides. Time for another, I decided, and made a twirling motion with my hand. I knew that the gesture pissed Mabel off, but it always seems to get me another cup the fastest. Maybe she spits in it enthusiastically or something. I don't care. The days have been feeling so long lately.

I looked at the rows of hooch lined up like soldiers under the bar mirror. I have my system: when their labels become too blurry to read easily, that means it's time to get back to the family. The bottle of bitters is one of my favorites to stare at. Tall and tapered like the end of a trumpet, it has been there since I first hoisted a stool at the Homely Barrel, some twenty years ago. Now and then, some young novice might come in and order a mixed drink that Mabel has to look up in a book, but not even college kids find a reason to drink bitters. It's safe to say that anyone who comes to this place more than twice is an Iron City man like the rest of us. I squinted at the old bottle, and noticed that there were handprints drug across the dust on its surface. The cap was clean too, and a drop of liquid glistened at its edge. What the hell?

I sat up straight, thinking I'd had one too many. I looked frantically around, and noticed this older guy, swirling his glass around jovially, looking puzzled at the new MP3 jukebox here, at the stained wooden walls there, and then at me. I tried to look away, but it was too late, I was spotted.

"Say Mister, can I buy you one of those?"

Well, he couldn't be all bad. He had a round wispy head with a big elfin grin pasted on it. It was hard to tell if the smile was sincere. He bobbed jauntily as he covered the three paces to the bar, like he was enjoying the novelty of it all, like he was lost, but didn't care. "Whaddya got there, son," he said, but didn't look at me when he spoke, rather glanced all around, taking in what passed for ambience at the Barrel, or maybe he was checking to see if anyone was watching.

"Um, just a beer," I said.

"Just a beer!" He beamed at this announcement like he'd made an unexpectedly brilliant deduction. "Waitress, just a beer for me and my good friend here." And he patted me on the back and took up the stool next to me.

"So," he said, "nothing like a beer between friends, um…"

"Bob," I said.

"Just a beer, for me and my good man, Rob."

"What is that you're drinking? If you don't mind me asking."

"I asked for something old fashioned." He paused, and his eyes got dark. His voice became low and reedy. "It tastes like piss if you ask me, Ron. Piss. Do you know what piss tastes like? The things they made me do. I'd kill every last…" He trailed off into a confused, threatening mutter.


"…wouldn't give in to the bastards--"

We both stopped awkwardly. Desperate to change the subject, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. "What do you think of all the strangers in town, all the cameras and stuff?"

This perked him up. He lifted his head high and thrust out his jaw. I couldn't tell if the effect was more Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeve or Popeye elbowing his way across the deck. "My fellow Americans," he said, and winked at me.

"Yeah, it's an election I guess. Everybody's talking about it, but it's kind of hard to think about those things, with the wife and the kids to worry about, you know?"

"Yeah pal, you gotta pay attention to 'em. Or next thing you know, there's some hot young…"

"Well, it's not that. The gas prices and the health care are killing us, but we can't afford to move closer to work. Hell, I'm lucky that I got a decent job at all."

"Taxes, mate," he said solemnly. "The crisis government your investment housing money responsible subprime authority." He leered, and I noticed that the corner of his mouth was shiny. I hurriedly gulped at my beer. "I'm not really an expert on economics," he concluded. "Marry money, Tom, that's my advice, take the opportunities. Hire an accountant, and a lawyer." His laugh was as thin as his voice, and it didn't really seem to come very far out of his mouth, like most of it was directed inward. Hhnn, hhnnn, hhhhnnn.

I looked around, and twirled my hand desperately at Mabel.

"Heh, I don't know why they say you buy beer, more like renting it."


"You like Arabs, Jim?"


He glowered at me. "America's got to stand tall, wouldn't you say? Isn't that what you people say?" His moods, I was realizing, were unpredictable. His bitters and his Iron City were sitting at the bar, untouched.

"I don't really know any Ar--"

He was speaking through clenched teeth. "Look, it's military tradition Ben, and it's an American tradition. America needs to be strong, needs a strong leader, and sometimes we have to kill a lot of people. These are important times."

I was taken aback. I couldn't tell if he was talking to me or to himself.

"I want your solemn oath Fred, that you will go out and vote in the primary next Tuesday."

"Um, sure, okay."

"Put her there, my friend."

I rose (with gratitude, truth be told), but as I stretched out my hand, he cleverly dodged it and leaned into an embrace, his puffy cheek pressed right against my chest. Haltingly, I patted his back a couple of times.

As he walked out the door, I considered telling my wife about the encounter with the strange old man. Or maybe I'd just have another beer. Surreptitiously, I grabbed his, but left the tumbler full of yellow liquid. It was much too early, I could still clearly see the handprints on the bottle.