Friday, February 26, 2010

Five More Thoughts: Tweet-Worthy Ed.

They didn't quite rise to the level of thoughts, but I kept the label. All I need to do is figure out how to drop about 10,000 characters, and these would be perfect for a Twitter account.

1. Hey, you're Tony Randall!
It didn't happen in my adult lifetime, and our nation has a fine history of masquerading propaganda as fact in the available publication vehicles, but within the living memory of a lot of us, there reside the stolid anchors of yesteryear, the talking haunts of a then-new visual medium, reporting world events and worldly understanding based on their honest best guesses of what was important, as a trail of cigarette smoke rose up beside them in beautiful black and white. The early teevee news is remembered fondly; it didn't cater to the average schlub sensibility as transparently as the news does now, and it'd take the advertising model a few years yet to turn audiences into products instead of consumers. It was certainly smarter and more serious than today, or so they say.

But eyes to the screen was the growing need, and most people blame the corresponding advertising psychology (speed! visuals! drama! only we can fulfill your inadequacy and need!) for the inevitable dumbing-down of the news medium. Not me, I blame the wise-cracking kid of the News family, the weather reporter. Okay, the pre-broadcast meteorological tease and the goofy handwaving and scienticousness that ends up consuming about 25% percent of the show was covered in How to Watch TV News, and it remains annoying. My problem--the one I link to the whole decline of the news industry--is that these little bastards are utterly unaccountable for their weather reports. I mean, it's the weather, and we all understand that prediction remains an inexact science even with impressive modern data and models. And we also understand there's a marketing incentive to hype every drop of precipitation that ever threatens the broadcast area. But since you failed to predict the generational New England blizzard again, and as usual, the roads got plowed and people eventually got to work, you'd think some humility might be in order. You're the same guy who brags when you predict the temperature within five degrees, and today, you're acting like have the Delphic wisdom of friggin Apollo himself, when you just blew it yesterday.

When Johnny Forecaster is caviling around like Mr. Short Term Memory every day, how can we expect the other newscasters to recall important details of last year? Well, we don't anymore. And it's his fault.

2. So I'm sure they'll summarize the last 50 years accurately
Tom Brokaw reports: Boomer$. All I've got to say is finally that age group will get some attention.

3. More nostalgia
Warm, dry escapes from drenching weather always make for pleasant memories. I don't love driving, but driving in the rain can be a kind of solace. The traffic noises die out behind the roar, and you're in a private island of warmth and color in a gray, cold world. I remember driving along with my Dad on a few occasions, watching big, fat raindrops splatter on the windshield of his '72 Blazer, flattening out to viscous wet rings, like liquid spaghettios spread along the glass. Whump go the wipers, plocka-plocka-plocka repeats the rain, making circles on the glass. The heat's on, and there's some urgency that I'll have to get out in this stuff again when we get wherever it is we're hurrying to. I've been watching rain fall on windshields ever since, watching the rings form.

And here's something: it doesn't wet the glass like it used to. It could be my faulty memory, but in the thirty-mumble years since that ride, the essential rain/windshield interaction has changed. I'm puttering home through yesterday's downpour, and huge drops splat and spread, but instantly bounce back to a drop, roll away. These are not the raindrops of my youth.

Obviously the difference has to be the windshield. Mine is more hydrophobic than the one on Dad's Blazer was, reluctant to let the water spread. I think I need a better history of car care products to really address the depth of this, but nowadays, silane-based surface treatments are pretty common, and I don't think they were in the 70s. If I never got around to doing it myself, it's a safe bet that my car was Rain-Xed on the dealer lot at some point. When I was a little kid, automotive wax products were certainly around, which would have similarly repelled water, but I don't know if any were appropriate for the windshield, and the fact that Dad's windows were hydrophilic suggests that he didn't use it there. A year of road filth would lower the surface energy of factory-fresh glass too, and Dad bothered to wash every now and then (as well as hand wax the rest of the car), and maybe that's all it is.

Regardless, progress is disconcerting this way. It erases the intimate moments of the past, sets them in no other medium than our fragile memory. This isn't always bad, but there are also times, when we're stranded warm and dry, that I want to look at the window and say to my daughter, "see the way the rain makes circles on the windshield like that? I remember driving with my father at your age..."

4. Conditioning
Massachusetts is currently trying to pass a texting-while-driving law. It's ridiculously specific set of behaviors to target, but on the other hand, I'd hate to leave a law against general motor assholery to the snap decision-making capacities of the cops.

Anyway, everytime the local NPR affiliate spurts out this legislative drivel, my instinct is always to reach for my Blackberry.

5. Boo-eee-EEEEP!
Any of you still have a landline? Here's what bugs me most about this service: if the technology is sufficiently advanced to inform me, following that 130-dB screech in my ear, that I failed to dial "1" before the number, then why is it incapable of going ahead and placing the goddamn call already? The cell phones have figured a way around this issue, and it's the same provider. So what if I can't push the buttons that well! Stop rubbing it in!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: A Stupid and Futile Gesture, by Josh Karp

First of all, my apologies for the light, even for me, level of posting lately. I had to go on another field trip for work, which included an attempted salvage of December's conference performance, demanding no shortage of analysis (much of it from me) of my flaws as a scientist and a speaker. The stress from this crap I think has been affecting me badly. As one antidote, I've been trying to minimize the time I spend staring at screens. It's been applied with limited success, but in terms of bug-eyes and headaches, the internets can be pretty ennervating. I also had a kid's party to plan and attend (roller skating! I have moves!). I'm as sick of looking at that guy's manjo as you are, but the truth is that I'm less inclined ponder the human condition when I'm feeling a bit off, or when I'm able to enjoy childish things. Either one makes the miserable collective reality we create seem that much more farcical.

The world needs satire, doesn't it? Something to offer a good clinical bleeding, to bite us where we forget we hurt, snap us out of shock or fatigue and let us know the wound is still there, needing attention? If it wasn't for the internet, I'd have lost hope on a cogent contemporary social critique; if it weren't for Colbert and, sometimes still, the Simpsons, I'd have given it in for the popular media too, which is otherwise even worse the closer you look. I don't believe that poison pens are missing from the world--I find them once and a while!--more that my parents' generation's acid vintage gradually got blandly subsumed into the mainstream, and with all the information today, what fraction that rises above pure juvenilia or sheer meanness, we don't yet have the benefit of hindsight to tell what has been the underground phenom. Or I don't anyway, even though I'm reading some of it now. The subtitle of the book is How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, and I guess what I'm getting at, circuitously, is that I have a fairly good idea of what Kenney and the magazine changed comedy into, I have an incomplete mosaic of what it changed from, but I missed the actual magazine in its heyday, and I rely on Josh Karp to tell me what it meant in its time. I'm left with the impression that it was to a too-long, humorless current Saturday Night Live sketch (or for that matter, the embarrassing walking corpse of the NL college humor franchise) much what every piece of crap slob comedy for the past thirty years has been to Animal House. I wish I knew for sure, though--I might well find I hate it.

Karp confirms my suspicion that the sitcom was the apotheosis of 1950s comedy writing, and the simmering reaction to that sort of spackled-over social conformity was concomitant with other cultural revolutions. (The lack of outlet was probably anomalous. Prewar humor, Karp notes, was more cutting and suggestive. The removal of class, race, and dirty politics from the national dialogue that Mom, Dad, and Doug Kenney heard in grade school was a tad premature.) Kenney's bit (or at least the bit that was focused on in the biography, and certainly mirrored in Animal House, which he co-wrote) was nostalgia for that past at war with a contemporary reality. There's some genuine love of the past, but it's trumped by the knowledge that, as much as the present, it's constructed from the purest bullshit. He understood that you had to know institutional dignity in order to mock it. It's clever in that he could take nostalgia and humor to soften the anarchic picture he was painting. Those fraternity kids were loathsome too, but they were also responding logically to their absurd times. Well, sort of.

The biographer places the tone of National Lampoon about halfway between the sophisticated humor of the prewar New Yorker essayists and short story writers (limited familiarity here), and the budding subversive satire of early MAD magazine (considerably more). It's the pure essence of "sophomoric," base ribaldry put forth by highly educated minds, not shy to put literary jokes amongst the farts, simultaneously knocking down pretension and lending gravitas to their own immaturity. It's egg-throwing at a deserving establishment by smart young white people with at least enough self-awareness to realize the position that lets them hurl in the first place. Possibly it includes the realization that you can't respect yourself either. Not exactly alien territory for me, but again I want to emphasize that any such judgement of National Lampoon magazine is necessarily the author's. Here's Karp discussing the early aesthetic vs. the downturn that eventually came due:

"[T]he [earlier] panels gave off a whiff of self-parody and mocking obsession with sex.[...] Distinguishing sexual material and exploitive sexual material is a tricky business, and [Sean] Kelly believed that they were crossing the line. [...] [T]here was a shift--as with the treatment of sexuality--from commenting on hatred, atrocity, and stupidity to making fun of its victims as well. It may have been splitting hairs, but there was a new sense of rage within the pages that lacked the righteous indignation, sophisitication, and wit that marked the first five years.
I prefer to believe I can judge that line too.

Doug Kenney seems to have been a good guy in the early years. Karp has him as straddling worlds of conformity and personal isolation, with conflicted feelings of self-wroth. He was a kid who grew up around class but not of it--more the outsider looking in or the actor playing a role. The guy who played Stork was good-looking and sharp, indiscriminate in the people he befriended, and used humor to relate to the world. I feel I've always known people like him--they're not the centers of attention, but are the foundations of the party. The sorts of people who could always manage to keep the attitudes small, and the punks lovable. For all the dichotomies that his biographer sees in there, it doesn't seem an unusual bunch of traits, although Kenney was also uncommonly bright. To hear Karp tell it, he eventually made it as everyone's friend in the ferocious personality battle at the magazine because he was smart enough to command respect in his own right. It lasted as long as he could stand it.

I liked reading how the publication developed from whole-minded but half-assed notions to something of a high-functioning bastion of brilliant disgruntlement. National Lampoon collected errant personalities like a magnet in a scrapyard, but put together the things somehow ran. For some reason, I found myself identifying with the burnouts and corporate misfits that managed to find a career there, more than the ambitious misantrhopes. Karp makes the point that there wasn't anywhere else to go for a comedy writer--it must have been like a haven, if you could take the hours, egos, and negligible pay.

Kenney burned out on the magazine after a couple years, and after a hiatus, survived as an emeritus writer. Thanks to shrewd early dealings with the publisher and the success of the movie, Kenney did hit it big, which didn't agree with his personality. He moved from recreational pot to cocaine abuse, and watched his world crumble, culminating in an untimely death. Arguments remain whether it was a suicide, but the inner conflict was tough on him, according to Karp. I don't read a lot of biography, but I'm still sensing some common literary themes here: youthful talent, meteoric rise, tragic fall. I'm not sure I trust the presentation, but one consolation for flaming out young in this way, is that you get to have a denoument. As an artist, Doug Kenney didn't have to suffer a slow descent into age and unfunniness like any number of his peers. As a human being of course, it's another loss.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Review: Beloved, by Toni Morrison

[Fuck it, I edited the post. Does that bother anyone? I can revert to the clumsier original if it does. I am upset by a comment obviously, but it was a fair one in the sense that an anecdote and a bunch of adjectives on my part are not sufficient to communicate my understanding of the novel. And I'm looking at it this way too: some sophomore is going to find this post sooner or later, and for the purposes of my self-respect, I'd like that turned-in copy to at least look like it was plagiarized.]

It's not like the shitty old cliché needs any more mileage, but the cover of a book really does offer a small basis for pre-judgment, at least in the sense that it tells me what the publisher thinks of this book, or what hints to content the company thinks will entice people to buy it. Books convey all kinds of suggestions like this. For a sufficiently famous or worthy work, you'll find a few pages packed with one-sentence blurbs, which are probably better thought of as recommendations from famous authors you "know" rather than reviews. (I like to write out my mental blather, but I'm not usually comfortable to go and tell people to read stuff--friends' recommendations are probably the biggest shapers of expectations for this sort of thing.) So with Beloved, I picked up the shiny red trade paperback, with the metallized cursive, which looks like it's meant to be somebody's "book of gold," deeply meaningful and touching. And of course, there's the Nobel prize. What Beloved is, however, is a ghost story, a haunting that's used as a vehicle to carry the unspeakable past into the present. Now, I often like a good haunting, especially when it's plotted with sensitivity to the deceased, and Beloved is, on one level, that sort of book, although it took me a few chapters to realize that, and I wasn't clear whether it was the marketing that governed my expectations. Anticipating one of the best novels of the twentieth century, I felt a bit let down to find just a great-in-parts one. Did the publishers affect me more than they usually do? Irritating if true.

I feel like such a Philistine, especially considering it's little things I kept bumping up against. I stumbled over missed metaphors (this annoyed me most--for example, when the hell is a cloudy sky white hot?) and I had a difficult time pinpointing the authorial voice, which drifted from dialect to a sort of generic third-person academic tone, and sporadically included repeated descriptors as you'd find in oral traditions (Baby Suggs, holy...), to streams of consciousness. I don't have any problem with any of the narrative styles on their own, I just wasn't sure they synthesized into a neat voice. As I mentioned, this novel is a ghost story, but even though we're introduced to the spirit on the first page, the tension is not the mystery of its origins, or rather, it's not the raw fact of them. It's not until the Beloved character returns a couple chapters later, fey and needy, that I began to worry what's going to happen to the living as much as what happened to them. Then, the novel got going for me.

[One issue may be just how much Beloved reminded me of Octavia Butler's novel, Kindred, published in the seventies. It would make a good paired reading. Both use a fantasy trick to bring the modern reader to face the troubling psychological depth of the slave past. I remember Butler's as the better novel, but it's been at least ten years since I read it, so who knows. And it may be that Butler was a science fiction writer, and I was anticipating such a mechanism. There's also a case to be made that it's an easier entry point for cracker douchebags like myself.]

What Morrison has done very well, however, is to get into the heads of her characters and bring the dehumanizing face of slavery to an intimate light. [Quoting myself a little now...] The human cost, physical and emotional, of slavery came through loud and clear in the novel. The way it broke up the most sacred and basic bonds that people cherish was wrenching to read. And it answered the question it set out to answer: how could a mother who loves her children kill them? You leave the book thinking, what choice did she have? I admit that the degrees and depth of the mothering instinct was less intuitive to me than a man's struggle for self-possession (I think Morrison did a hell of a job with the male characters) or a living daughter's inward retreat, but it couldn't be missed.

And to the author's credit, I think it's a very difficult place to transport the contemporary reader, especially one of the aforementioned cracker douchebag variety. The backstory is based on the then-famous trial of Margaret Garner, who, like the protagonist Sethe, allegedly killed her children to prevent them from being dragged back into that life. As the characters look back, Morrison shows us lynching and murder, as well as some abuses that were more probably inventive than the story needed (although clearly written as an attack on Sethe's very motherhood), as well as some masters that were improbably decent. (The author doesn't come as far as forgiveness for a damn one of them.) I thought the everyday mistreatment was more compelling than the elaborately staged events, the cases where people were respected or treated about as well as valued livestock, not hated by whitey, but as people, beneath even his notice.

Part of the evocative success comes, I think, from meeting Sethe, Baby, and Paul D when they are no longer slaves, living what would almost be a happy domestic life, were it not for the angry scars and ghosts (real and figurative) intruding unwillingly from the disturbing past. The characters, up till the time Paul D walks into Sethe's home, have been living numbly, loving guardedly, suffering the expectation that another tragedy is ready to explode around the corner. Even if it was a better life, freedom in postwar Cincinnati meant demeaning jobs, no protection of (or from) the law, and a hobbled human network, which in Sethe's case had further abandoned her. By novel's end, it's clear that the grudgingly restored human connections will take generations for healing.

Monday, February 01, 2010

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

I always knew that if I stayed in one place long enough, coolness would eventually catch up with me. I wonder if it's too late to actually learn to play the thing.

The instrument in the picture is called a banjolin (or a mandolin-banjo--why "manjo" didn't fly, I have no idea), and it was featured (okay, "present") at last night's Grammy awards.* It's evidently got your regular mandolin tuning and string set, as it has eight pegs and I recognized the chords. With the drum head and resonator, it's got to sound twice as obnoxious as your normal mando. The guy playing it is Butch Walker, an eclectic musical dude about whom I'll clearly have to learn more. Butch was just chopping along here, threw in a nice fill or two, made it easy to keep up.

Butch's manjo could have lots of meanings
[UPDATE: I found the photo with a google search, which ended up here. Will be happy to credit it properly if anyone happens to know.]

*For the record, the show was just background noise. My daughter was trying to stay up late enough to see AC/DC awarded. I only got up and looked for the spectacle of Stevie Nicks playing a duet with whatsername phenom Taylor Swift.