Tuesday, July 27, 2010


When I was a kid, I often imagined that I'd end up living in New Hampshire. There is no particularly good reason for this, and it probably had a lot to do with the fact that by the time of my seventh birthday, I'd only ever stayed overnight in two different states. I guess if I take my net migration up till now, then I have made it halfway there.

Although I only get rare occasions to visit, I have always liked northern New England. It has the right mix of civilization and population, the former of which retains scraps of the notions of self-sufficiency and sometimes overeducated cleverness that makes us homers think we're better than everyone, and the latter is suitably low for my comfort. That emptiness isn't the intolerable openness you might find in other rural localities, but is decently surrounded by old hills and endless trees, interspersed with the occasional farm. I'm most familiar with the Litchfield Hills in western Connecticut, as well as the wooded mountains of the Massachusetts Berkshires (which are the lower part of the Green Mountain range). Proceeding north, the major difference in the landscape is the scale length. The trees are just a hair more sparse up there; and the hills are more spread out and significantly larger. The southern mountains are scrappy rolling affairs, but up in the vert monts, they spread out into majestic peaks, between which roads more calmly wind. Vermont also lacks the industrial towns that are nestled into every one of the Connecticut foothills, suddenly visible around every turn of the highway.

Around the time of American independence, the state spunkily carved out an identity from New York and New Hampshire (and earlier, from Quebec--if we want to go back even further, Vermont appears to have been caught between Iroquois and Algonquin power centers as well). I get a kick out of the comparison. New Hampshire's license plates command us to live free or die, features a self-important conservative rag as the state paper, and even today it attracts these "free state" chuckleheads hoping to turn it into a market utopia. (With hardly any people, libertarianism has a chance of working there if anywhere, although with all that money in that little section near the coast, a tax-free environment where the right to property gets equal billing with life and liberty is going to work out better for some than others. As usual.) Although it had a mind to eventually integrate, Vermont is one of the handful of states that was originally a separate republic. The Green Mountain boys were the ones that actually lived under their neighbor's motto, keeping the Brits down and backing its the New Somethings the hell off. The Vermont constitution is the first new world political document to outlaw slavery, and it didn't limit the vote to property-owners. When it comes to living free, New Hampshire is a fucking poseur.

The original Vermont constitution also provided for public education, and has generally been ahead of the curve (by U.S. standards) for public health care. Also: Bernie Sanders. I don't know if Vermonters feel the government is intrusive--nothing feels very obtrusive in Vermont except maybe tourists in ski season. (My wife came across a brochure advertising that "what happens in Vermont stays in Vermont...although nothing really happens.") Here progressivism, and what with the various farm cooperatives, something maybe approaching mutualism stands a chance as well, also thanks to having hardly any people. Competing notions of freedom.

Thanks to college students I knew, occasional skiing trips when I was that age, and Phish, I think of Vermonters as hippie-ish, and generally easygoing. [Actually, the green mountain state has at least two free state/secessionist/teaparty movements, at least one of which is pushing batshit territory.] Certainly Burlington is like that, with more hemp stores and breweries per population than I've seen anywhere else. I haven't quite worked out the connection, but these kids somehow have to turn into the outdoorsy enflanneled geezers that populate the Vermont of my imagination, but even on last weekend's trip, I saw few people over 40. Maybe they hole up and become recluses when their knees give out, eventually snowboard into a tree (to the extreme!), get beaten to death with lacrosse sticks, or eaten by bears. Vermont has a growing foodie culture, excellent cheese, and, importantly, a fine local beer tradition. The college breakfast joint we stopped at had over five excellent beers on tap, which seems mandatory for about anywhere I breezed by in the state. I should also add that of the New England states, Vermont has the least ridiculous accent, approaching the dialectical perfection of Connecticut English speakers.

For the first six months of its independence, Vermont was called New Connecticut. I like that. I'm more seriously entertaining the idea of changing where I'm from. Since the dump I live in now was so cheap, there's some actual cash flow now that we've entered dual income world. Doubling our mortgage still keeps us under McMansion territory, and the market right now favors picking another one up. Here's the theory: buy now (actually a year from now), and use the upstate place as a vacation home, just in driving distance, for the next ten years. When the kids are done with high school, we'll make it a permanent residence, or, if we change our mind, we can sell it, confident that the housing market will rebound in the longer term. (Or if the whole world goes to hell by then, it's a place where there's a chance to fall back on some hard-lived self-sufficiency.) The goal is to make the fastest possible living exit from the rat race. Flaws in the plan include paying for the kids' college educations (yup, one of the awesome things about overpriced education is extorting parents to stay on the goddamn hamster wheel even longer), and the interim possibility of lost jobs and an extra home we can't sell. What are the odds?

Pound for pound, two states worth of Berkshires are prettier than the Vermont range, but except for the aforementioned difference of characteristic dimensions, the main distinction is that a whole lot more of the northern state is like that. Growing up in Connecticut, I didn't get to live in the beautiful hills. There's a north/south industrial line that runs up the state I landed just opposite. A town west, and there were the rich (dominant now) and the farmers (fewer), and the foothills begin rising up with more earnestness. I've only just now realized that the crappy burg in which I currently reside is at the same point relative to the Massachusetts urban divide. I'll complain about the terrible compromise with any provocation at all. I'd like to live west in either state, or in a quality urban center--anything but in-between--but those settings not only fail to let me off the wheel, I'd need to run a lot harder to not get there.

Do I really need to head north? It's not that southern New England lacks codgers, it's just that you have to inherit the land, or somehow get rich working. Mom and Dad blew it in the first department, and I'm in the wrong field for the second. I fantasize about moving to a low-stress job instead of early retirement (community college professor? follow my wife into clinical lab benchwork?). I mean, I think well on outdoor activities and I like the trees, but only a small commute stops me from being more enthusiastic about that stuff here. I'd like a goat and a few chickens if I had room, but I'm incompetent at growing things. I'd consider taking up hunting and fishing with enough outdoor space, but that's really not my religion. By looks, I am sufficiently hirsute to pass for a hippie or (before too long) a codger, so I'm covered there, and if I'm happy whiling away my weekends cooking, tinkering, reading, blogging, hacking talentlessly on my mando, and being an irritating know-it-all, could I really do it for decades on end? Part of me worries that the answer is no, and the rest worries that it's yes. I fear an easy (or difficult) seasonal drift from the wood stove to summer porch, and eventually dying of existence. Maybe there are worse ways to go. Or maybe that's the way we all go, whatever we pretend.

[some edits]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Five More Thoughts, Ahoy-ahoy Ed.

ahoy, ahoy
I drafted an outline of this post, and I found myself wondering: what the hell is it with me and telephones? I hate talking on them--for the usual reasons (hi bright) and more--and maybe that's what chafes my inner Andy Rooney. Dwelling three generations behind the technology curve--I am just starting to enjoy the web access feature of my corporate Blackberry--makes all this moaning about the voice features rather quaint, but I tell myself some of the issues are universal, even if they're befuddled among cliches that were boring back when they were confined to my grandfather's latest theory on the remote control. I'm not complaining about the tangled wires, but man, I'm getting down there. Oh wait, I am whining about the wires. I mean, I'm supposed to be a technologist of some kind. I can only conclude that fogeyhood is finally setting in.

1. First, let's address the getting old part.
This summer marks my tenth wedding anniversary, and I've been looking at some of the old photos. They're animated with a youthful sheen that depresses me to realize I've lost. I've been living in the same place for over 80% of that decade, and still somehow employed at the same hated job. The milestones just crept up on me, and like many an incipient geezer, I'm scratching my gray-kissed head as to how it happened so quickly. This last span of years was a vastly different experience from all the ones before. It used to be that the life markers flew by at a yearly pace, if not faster (grades, birthdays I was excited about, a new place to live every single goddamn year for a decade), with a reliable quadrennial shift to a completely new setting. It's a little disappointing to think how much all that was scripted for me, but even when I was allegedly allowed off the treadmill, the piped-in scenery kept rolling along into grad school, then kids, postdoc, job. Lately, however, the video's been on a loop (or maybe they just ran out of billboards?). Without going through any conveniently-placed "phases of my life" wickets, I discover that life has passed by just the same. I meet the new kids here, and it's weird to realize that I don't have anything in common with them, even though we're both in our First Real Job.

Of course I'd prefer to remain young, or at least stay youthful. Impermanence may be a part of early life, even though the idea has been abused by the relentless marketing of a standard package of experience, but I think society exploits our fear of settling down to a similar and maybe more detrimental degree. I have mixed feelings about the value of our connection with place and community, but there is certainly a quiet beauty in permanence, and even if we prefer to wander, there is a wisdom to be found in remembering our fundamental connection to the solid earth. You shouldn't have to grow roots, even if it can be good for you, but it shouldn't be excluded from the narrative of our culture, and this endless succession of expensive hydroponic strip-mall communities isn't really the answer to a question that matters. Eight years is a good stretch. Few jobs are so stable these days, and I'm especially surprised that mine has been. In my more radical moments, I suspect that normalizing our sense of impermanence and insecurity serves our elite class well, relaxing the oblige of our various nobles. Someone get out the folk guitar, I need a new ringtone.

2. Make-work pay?
Confusing issues generally arise on Saturdays. Although the mail still comes, every other official agency or call center is as reliably closed on the weekend as a Puritan state liquor store or a local bank. Last Saturday, I got a government check in the mail, which would have been more warmly received if I knew why the hell I was getting it. There was no explanatory letter that came along too. After having to scrounge up a $2000 payment, nickel and diming for every nonexistent deduction, I'm not really convinced at the moment on the mathematical precision of the bureaucratic process. It would have been nice to just exempt the sum at the beginning.

When Monday came, I called the IRS. There was a time when you could defeat a phone tree by pressing zero, but these information systems only get more byzantine as customers learn them. (For questions about your refund, press seven, to get your full tax history, press C, to repeat this message, press π, for other questions please digitize your ZIP code, and calculate the first root to the spherical Bessel function of that order, followed by the pound sign.) It's like those rebate programs where the seller wants to give the illusion of a discount without actually offering the savings, and so you mail in highly specific proofs of purchase, under highly complicated rules, and in the off chance you manage to get everything right, they will just forget to send the damn thing anyway. The provider of the phone tree answer system would similarly like to appear helpful without the difficulty of actually supplying you with useful specific information. Like a troubleshooting guide for the latest gizmo, it is designed to toss out the laughably obvious questions, and prevent any other ones from being answered at all. As the customer gets wiser, the tree gets more complicated, with more dead ends and tempting signs to see the fabulous egress. I like the bit where I call it an arms race, but of course that's stolen from the Hitchhiker's Guide.

It took three climbs up the phone tree, and then 45 minutes hold time to get my question answered (they were helpful when finally cornered), wherein I discovered that it was from president Obama's Making Work Pay program (part of ARRA). On the paper filing form, it's listed on line 63 as: "Making work pay and government retiree credits. Attach Schedule M." I see why I missed it--I'd say it was another rebate scam, buried under language like that, but they fixed it for me. They want to get 'em out.

Belatedly, I'm remembering the marketing campaign. It was to reduce witholding and free up the cash over time. (Since my witholding is predictably fucked up year to year as the nature of our second income constantly changes--my wife hasn't been so stranded by stasis as me--I was thinking uh-oh.) And this is what prompts Obama's refrain for cutting taxes on family incomes under $250,000 from every campaign stop. I take it as the same bullshit vote-grabbing buyoff that Bush used a couple of times, that ought to highlight how much the usually considered adjustments in tax rates don't affect people's standard of living (especially if you withhold it), that is, not people working and making less than $250k a year, but somehow never actually imparts that lesson. The Bush PR team was better in promoting the thing though, or the press was more behind it. Whatever.

3. But it says "universal" right there in the name
When various computer manufacturers came together to create a standard for periferal devices, it made consumer life a little better. I have to admit, a discussion of data transfer protocols makes my eyes glaze faster than a discussion of taxes, and when it comes down to the finer details, I care about as much as I do about the workings under the hood of my car. I want to know how to fix some basic problems, confident that I can perform proper maintenance should it come to that, and I'm still turned on by the general principles, but what I really want is for the thing to work. (This isn't the case with all technical things, but when I'm so far from the realm of discovery to talk the benefits of competing industry standards, I can't really pretend to get too worked up anymore. Computer electronics, like cars, also make the mistake of marketing such distinctions, which aren't deeply meaningful to anyone who is not designing around the things, reducing systems to technobabble. Does a 30 mH degaussing magnet affect demultiplex rates faster than a 50 kBd sampling chirper? Who the fuck knows?)

So look, it's a universal connector, with a device standard that is remarkably convenient. So why do they make my life so annoying for the connection on the other end? The cell phone has a different plug than the camera than the mp3 player than the portable drive. In the tangle in the box (see, I do get this pathetic) the cords all look the same, and since they all have a different small end, I take turns nearsightedly jamming the that side into my sensitive electronic device like a particularly slow child figuring out one of those shape puzzles. And if I lose the wrong one, there will be no pictures to share with my friends and family. Also, what's up with these remote controls? If I aim it at the tv, then nothing happens, but when...

4. Why I need to plug that in.
When the battery on my Blackberry gets low, it politely tells me that there is not enough power for radio use. I feel that this is essentially taunting me, as it has enough power to show the picture of me kissing my beautiful wife on our wedding day, to play the worst version of Breakout ever, or, you know, to inform me that the battery is too low for a call, but not enough to actually make the call. This is merely insulting, and therefore an enormous step from the outright hurtful technologies employed by the primitive cell phones that the rest of my family still uses.

One of the most irritating ideas ever is the beep warning for a low cell phone battery. It has the unpleaBEEP!t property of disBEEP!rging high-decible tonesBEEP!n your ear when you're speaking, which only pales in annoyance to the battery's tendency to fail at night. It's like an alarm clock going off in aBEEP!er room. You start drifting back to sleep, anBEEP!ere it is again. It's not yours (or you hope it's not), and you knoBEEP!hat everyone else in the house is waiting for someone else to get upBEEP!d either plug the thing in or pitch it off the nearest cliff. Now which one is the riBEEP! wire? Shut up alreadBEEP!

5. A sufficiently backwards magic is indistinguishable from CGI
M. Night Shyamalan has been dead to me for at least three movies now, two of which I didn't bother to watch. The Sixth Sense was clever, but if there was any gilt left on his lily, this last flick has got to be enough to shake it off, and then light it on fire and stamp it into paste.

It would be a stretch to say I watch the cartoon, but it's on a lot, and for kids' programming I admit I've seen worse. Its best success is in working kung fu along with elemental magic, going so far as to imagine forms, styles, and (unevenly) mysticism that blend in well with the different magical families. They sketch in some nice backgrounds, and have attractively drawn people with recognizable individuality and a good sense of kinesthetics. A whole cartoon series leaves room for a ton of pointless crap, and the entire arc appears to have been truncated and revised as it went along, but just the same, it's passable, the people and world are not so uninteresting that you couldn't glean a worthwhile quantity of metal from the inevitable heap of dirty ore. (Point of reference: when I was a college-age layabout, I programmed my own VCR--some jokes are too low even for me--to record Gargoyles and The Tick every week. The former was, similarly, a lot better than it had to be, and the latter I still think is entertaining. Adults write it all of course, and I'm sure there's got to be some artistic urge here and there, even when they're prostituting themselves for a buck.) It doesn't hurt my feelings that the cartoon was Americanized anime, and even though it was strange that the one white family among a group of vaguely Inuit people ended up the heroes in the live action version, by and large he didn't eschew the vaguely non-Caucasian hues that the cartoon mostly preferred. These things weren't the problem.

It's not in M. Night's favor that we have a whole string of beloved fantasy fare turned into films since he first came on the scene as an auteur director. Lord of the Rings had its flaws with respect to fidelity, but it caught enough of the spirit of the books to make a body comfortable to nitpick a handful of the details. No one really complained about the Harry Potter flicks. [edit: so far as I knew!] The two Narnia movies caught every bit of the vision and the beauty of the children's stories, while toning down those aspects that would bore the crap out of an adult audience. And I admit the kids these days are spoiled with semi-serious filmmaking. I remember that Krull came out when I was ten, and I thought it was amazing. But compare the filmed Telmarines from Prince Caspian (I believe rundeep quoted "straight out of Velasquez," which was spot on) with M. Night's Fire Nation troops, which started out as fairly compelling animation. The principle difference wasn't the source material, it was direction with a sense of pacing and drama, and (much as I love Aasif Mandvi and all) acting that could be coaxed to, you know, sell the essentially goofball stuff going on on the green screens behind them. Instead, the lines were read with the heft of a late George Lucas script. Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo. Shyamalan copied the pivotal scenes from the cartoon almost exactly, but still managed to somehow strip the whole thing of dramatic power. It needed a cleaner exposition, some banter, some reason to care about the characters in any of the events that followed, and a better connection between those events. I really wanted to like it, but even my nine-year-old had complaints.

[Okay, partial credit: the kid who played Aang actually turned in a good performance, and the couple of scenes meant to evoke his innocence produced the movie's only charm. The shipboard settings looked cool, the Tai Chi moves were decent, and some of the scenic shots, borrowed note for note from the original animation, captured the beauty or majesty they were aiming for.]

Well, at least we were able to leave with fart jokes. Air- water- and earth-bending all correspond neatly to amusing bodily functions. We're still working on fire-bending. Spicy food? We'll think of something.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Book Review: Ulysses, by James Joyce

Well, that took a while. Ulysses (maybe you've heard of this one) is really a special kind of challenge: the plot isn't terribly complicated, and the characters and their motivations are not indecipherable. It's not the kind of puzzle novel that obscures plot points amid selective omissions. It's got its share of jokes and analogies that probably require the better part of a bachelor's in liberal arts to get behind. I didn't get as many as I'd have liked--I realized, for example, that I was missing a lot of Stephen Dedalus's classical philosophical motif on his long walk on the beach--but I don't think they're unassailable. The real challenge is just the reading, it's the form, the structure, the confounding sense of flow. I've frequently been thinking of it as a long-form experiment with the language, which isn't wrong, but which is a little unfair. Ulysses does what novels generally try to do, even if takes the long way around. It explores and reveals some insight about the human condition using plot, character, setting, and the tools of language. What Joyce is doing is looking closer at the English's relationship to the other things. It's one of those books with a high entry fee--it's a lot to ask to decipher structure, theme and plot all at once--but I think it's actually easy to enjoy, provided you can get used to it and don't mind the length.

I guess the briefest of summaries is in order: 18 sequential chapters of novella length, each varying the frame in one way or another. Sometimes Joyce is getting in his characters' heads in a narrative that reads a little closer to the loopy curlicues of actual thought than the usual exposition-and-dialogue. Other times, he takes on some formal analogies here and there (headlines, a stage play, an oral defense). Some are chapter-long thematic vehicles, and there are a few episodes of unreliable, flawed narration, connected to the story or omniscient. A real hodgepodge of style, but it's connected, and you can get the authorial voice in all of them. I realize (based on reading part of the introduction) that each section is informally titled based on episodes from The Odyssey, but not familiar with the critical convention, I gave them nicknames of my own. (I try to avoid certain background reading before I get going with a review, because I usually find someone who has already did a better job of saying what I'm thinking. This'll probably be the worst case.) Although there are a number of throwaways to Homer's epic, I imagine it's "Ulysses" mostly for the general thematic case, a story that is meant to be some canonical representation of a bunch of stuff that happens in the wandering between a departure and a return. (Although having only read it once, I'm awfully hesitant to tell you what's not in there.) The narrative styles seemed intermittent to me, possibly selected for what might best illustrate a plot or thematic point, but if there was an overarching method to choosing the modes of expository madness, I missed it.

The most painful chapter? I found "Maternity" (ch 14) dreadful to get through, most frustratingly, because it's where the plot really begins to coalesce. It starts as a nearly unintelligible drumbeat of connected words, resolving to more sensible, but still difficult, prose, possibly meant to evoke the confusion of the exit which finally sends Stephen and Leopold Bloom on a parallel journey. For all the female points of view Joyce daringly got into in other chapters, here among Bloom, Stephen, and the medical students, for all of their clever contrasts about procreation, we never did quite hear what the ladies might have thought about it. Buck and the gang are never more annoying than in this chapter, and what actually bothered me most was that I just didn't understand the nature of the place--why did the ward have a bar in it? My favorite chapter ("The Tales of Brave Ulysses," Ch 12) was a more normal bar where a loquacious bigoted drunk recounts Bloom's visit, getting seamlessly interrupted by some other brain which goes off on silly, purple tangents. Bloom isn't represented as a potent soul here and his climactic rejoinder isn't impressive. The chapter balances the sympathy of the presumed listener and the distaste of the reader, and both voices of the narrators are, for their personal or intellectual failings, droll as hell, with even more smiles in the contrast. This is the chapter you most hear the brogue.

A great deal needs to be said about the audible element. It took me to Ch 11 (lamely, "Music") to finally realize that Joyce is doing more than offering a few occasional teasers on music, but he's often structuring his prose that way. It's not lyrical in the sense I'd usually mean it: although you'll find the occasional alliteration, repetition or rhyme, and the words are certainly chosen for aesthetic effect, it's not words to a song (well, usually--a short sample of lyrics are in fact how the chapter opens). Joyce is instead trying to make the language itself do the the things that music does. There are recurring rhythms and patterns that go along with episodes and characters. Right down to the syntax, he's trying to work harmonies, sometimes letting a sequence of thought or words trail up while another drifts down, like a dominant closing in on the tonic, or, you know, declining to close (hi switters). Maybe you'd say it's unrhymed poetry, but I think I'd rather call it prose music. Now, it's got to be hard to make literature do this on so fundamental a level, or at least it was tougher to read than a stage play. Do you really need prose to copy something that sound is already successful at conveying, that is, are there more reasons to read this than some experimental satisfaction? Well, there's more to Ulysses than that obviously, and Joyce eventually gets a payoff or two for his themes, which is probably a lot clearer on a second read.

The word I'm looking for up there by the way, is leitmotif, which, like I said, isn't exactly unfamiliar in other media. Stephen's theme music, the rhythm of his streams of consciousness, is scholarly and complicated, and is most likely to incorporate these language tricks I just described. I have him as played by a string quartet, an adagio on the beach, an allegro in the library (musical terms suit his Italian scholarship), possibly a march-timed interlude in the maternity ward. Bloom, on the other hand, is simpler than Stephen, he's a complex man too, but more linear, something just a hair odd in the gait and the tonality but still speech-like. A little uptight, and a little pervy. I don't doubt for an instant that Joyce had him as klezmer. (Although when I got bored of his section, I found that singing the lines to the melody of Blackbird usually worked.) Molly Bloom needs a Spanish guitar, slowly accelerating and upping the pitch to build to an offscreen climax (yes). These difference sound trite to describe, although I think I'm right about how they're intended, but they are executed very carefully. We get a treat when Joyce finally contrasts a pair of them in chapter 13 ("Voyeur"). On the beach, Gerty MacDowell's inner voice is (disappointingly) immature and most closely resembles the streams of consciousness you'll more commonly find in literature, and halfway in, as always without warning, we're back Bloom's agreeable up-tempo to learn about the other side of the skirt-peeping. What I most appreciated about this technique is that it built a real feeling of the differentness of the various characters, highlighted them as individuals, very separate in their own minds. It's different than the usual tools of character-building, in which the author identifies a few traits as a skeleton, then fleshes them out as needed. You can put traits on Joyce's characters too, but they're more emergent, the result of an accretion of representations by themselves and by others. Which is more realistic?

It's hard to read words as allegorical musical notes, but these various styles tapped other veins too. The visible is the other modality we can't avoid, thanks to Stephen. Chapter 15 ("Hookey") is a lengthy sequence of the shifting perceptions and thought excursions we got used to in the musical chapters, now written as if they are externalized and viewed, with elaborate props, costumes, gimmicks and stage cues inserted by the narrator. Joyce's go-to analogy was theater or vaudeville (or some fusion thereof--Stephen's friends always caper around in a gaggle, but here every bit player is a member of knowing extras, like a multipurpose chorus or a portable peanut gallery), but these absurd stretches of sight gags are very accessible to, um, a student of modern visual media. Imagine the visit to Dublin's night town as a cartoon and it loses its weirdness quickly. I get from chapter 10 ("Tales of Springfield") a similar feeling, this one closely resembling the kaleidoscopic visuals that John Dos Passos made a lot of hay with a few years later. And there's a hell of a cultural difference between 1904 (the setting) and 1920 (published) to account for this sort of perceptual thing, following along the rapid development and meteoric popularity of film. In those intervening years, the roving camera eye became a staple of the Western experience.

As the novel progresses, the frequency of leitmotifs declines and we get a number of formally structured chapters before it goes out on Molly's big solo. Although the narrators could get verbose, these more obviously engineered chapters were easier to digest, a straight story under the avoidable modifiers and cliches appropriate to the style of the mystery lecturers, or the mandates of the framing. Jesus, in a similar context did I write that "there's a fine line between cleverness and excusing yourself for bad writing, between showing your authorial hand and distancing your readers from your characters"? Well, it's the execution, right, and I think one reason that these skits go on so long is that Joyce wants to show beyond doubt who's in control of the language here; he tosses off a profundity now and again to let us know he's in on the ideas as well. We're not going to forget that it's good writing and not a hobble on some literary crutches.

So, how serious is Ulysses? The thing is full of humor really (a lot more ironic smiles than gut laughs), and a lot of the "important" subject matter gets subsumed under the imperfect characters and faulty narration modes. I don't think the characters are particularly deep, not in the sense of a direct and profound analysis, or of the sterling character traits with which novels usually present people, and Bloom, our main dude, nearly falls under the weight of stereotypes when it comes to the littler descriptions. Stephen is complex in an intellectually facile way, but he comes off as unfocused (understandable: he lost his mother and got sucked back to Dublin; he's broke and too proud or too decent to go home to a family that is also broke; his friends are assholes), and as a wounded idealist. We don't forget that he's young. Mind you, I have gotten this vibe from Shakespeare too (although in his case, he had defining adjectives run through his characters like pillars). 300 years of literature later, and I don't believe Joyce is exactly trying to sell us shallow characters either, more, maybe, on the idea that a lot of human depth in literature is illusory, that our actual nature doesn't map as well to storytelling as we pretend. Joyce is without doubt taking the novel representation very seriously indeed.

I should be in bed, but there's one last thing I want to say here. I think the reason Ulysses is liked because it has a good heart. It's got jokes, jerks, pontification, losers, fuckups and oddballs, life, youth, age, and death, satisfaction, disappointment, marriage, sex, food, drink, beauty, music. It's about the things we care about, and it may take a while, but eventually you find that you care about the people in there too. A lot of the story is a variously one-sided and unflattering portrait of Leopold and Molly's marriage, which is unfaithful in action and constantly disregarding or misrepresented in thought. But the funny thing is that the Blooms are always thinking about one another. They're in mutual orbit, and in their way, they do connect as the primary people in one another's lives. It's strange, but really quite genuine and sweet. After a long journey home, I found myself touched at the end.

[Some edits.]

[Update: I'm a fan of these sorts of synesthetic cross-media explorations in general, which is probably why so much of the review glommed onto that area. I happened to catch Ratatouille last night, and to blabber again what I loved about it, it did a great job expressing on film how food tastes, and in the sequence where the food critic was converted, the expression of the emotional connection we have with food crossed over into brilliance.

It's an activity we do all the time, right? We talking animals are always finding ourselves explaining how things feel or how things went down. It's central to our experience, and in one sense, it's what literature basically is. Joyce really broke some molds in finding and then using different representational modes in writing. A little higher-level (probably) than using jazz and fireworks to show how flavors feel, although I think future art historians will look kindly on the Pixar efforts too. Film, stage, music, and fuck it, even lectures (and maybe cuisine too) are interesting media in that they've always struggled with the reverse of what telling normally does. They take a story, and must then convert it to display and sounds. Always a challenge, and it can obviously be hard to do well, judging by the endless reels of crap out there. All the failures to make a decent movie out of a good book. But even there, we've assimilated some fairly complex things to teh point where we take them for granted. Imagine the work that goes into a good movie score, for example. I think when it hits, it can be a higher level of craft than we usually give it credit for. Much as I like words and all.]

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Dope, Smoking


I like to think of myself as resistant to marketing, but I just couldn't take it any more. All of these loudmouth food personalities (now there's a job) hawking piles of stringy brisket, pulling apart ribs, slurping up pulled pork, with the sauce dribbling down there chin. Look, it's another barbecue competition in Texas (dry rub) or Tennessee (look at that sauce), with a parade of prunefaces dourly judging what, by all appearances, is a tower of animal sacrifice enticing enough for even the most observant vegan to cast aside his sacred vows and convert to the profane church of the flaming hog. It's only dirty if you're doing it right.

There were few saving graces in the strip mall paradise of Northern Virginia I was unfortunate enough to relocate to at the beginning of the aughts. Here's one: right off I-95 if you happen to be driving through. I can't tell you if it compares to infernally tempting meats of the deep south, but it sure as hell was the best thing around. It was stupid to ask how they made it taste so good. Having a family tradition helps, but at a minimum you need one of these things, or these, or, if you sell your soul completely, maybe one of these. It may also work if you're the kind of person who has ready access to a junked home oil tank and brazing tools. The point being, you, you little suburban pissant you, can't possibly do it right. I think that's why it makes such compelling tv.


But a decade of this kind of pressure, and we finally bought a home smoker last month. A $60 Brinkmann charcoal smoker, looks like a little capsule, or a footless R2-D2, or--and I think this is the real inspiration--a half-size prettified version of your standard 55-gallon industrial drum. They stocked a ceramic version too, which cost an order of magnitude more, and with the various doodads and the heft of it, looked like a Flintstones submersible robot. I imagine they perform the same function, if you ever actually use it, but are mainly decorations for your McMansion and I am not that far gone. For the price of the little Brinkmann, I figure if I get one good meal out of it, it will make up for its costs in comparable restaurant fare, factoring in wood (there's some oak and possibly some not-yet-rotten cherry in the woodpile, but not much mesquite around these parts), and the gas to get to Cambridge. Casual observation finds it is indeed cheaply made with the ill-fitting top an actual problem even before I dropped it off the porch, but still functional, main failures being the lack of any means to adjust the airflow (and hence, the temperature) and a badly conceived thermometer. I can't believe it would have cost any more to put some damn numbers on it, and let me judge for myself what temperature is "ideal."

Right, so week by week, I've been running experiments with smoked meats. The first was a rack of ribs and a beer can chicken, done at the same time. Hickory smoke, which was, approximately a thigh-sized log, broken up into chunks, and a couple big handfuls of these compressed hickory pellets we've had around the house since forever. I lit the charcoal with lighter fluid only for this trial. (You can probably guess the result, dear reader, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.) The second week, it was a rib eye roast, smoked with three or four large chunks of woodpile oak. Third week, it was more ribs, with mesquite, properly soaked this time, and about three handfuls of chips in all.

This weekend it was hickory-smoked trout. For reasons I'll describe below, here is the fish recipe:

- three whole trout (about 10 inches), gutted.
- 2 lemons
- fresh marjoram (I have bales of this stuff growing around the house, and have little idea what to do with it, other than a nice garnish and decoration once it blooms. It's like oregano--would that the oregano did so well--subtracted of flavor. I figured it wouldn't mess up the fish.)
- fresh thyme
- fresh parsely
- fresh-ground black pepper
- pickling salt (no iodine, which I understand can get you off flavors)

Add 25 Tablespoons salt (12.5 oz in your measuring cup) to 10 cups of water, and add one and a half sliced-up lemon for the brine. Soak the fish in there for about half an hour. In the fish's cavity, I put a generous sprig or bunch of each herb, two half-slices of lemon, and a nice twist of pepper. I smoked it over hickory for 1 hr 15 minutes (three smallish chunks, soaked in water while I got all the charcoal going and fish prepped). The four pounds of charcoal or so that I put in there wouldn't have gotten me any further.
I tried to smoke some corn on the cob (July 4th is early enough, turns out), but you need more than fifteen minutes to do this. It was pretty great on the regular ole grill in any case.


I had visions of these weekly experiments conducted joyously, an attempt to perfect something that was already awesome. I'll tell you though, it's possible to just have too damn much smoke. The hickory ribs were so strong with the stuff that they were nearly inedible. The chicken wasn't bad when you took the skin off, but it dried out even with the beer can. And yes, I managed to leave some beer in it. It was shitty beer. (Oddly, the meats were pretty good once they mellowed in the fridge for a couple of days. This step is not going to get adopted as part of the procedure, however.) The mesquite ribs achieved a good level of smoke flavor, but I didn't keep the damn things on there long enough, and they were unpleasantly tough. Going back on for a couple more hours did the trick, but my wife doesn't give me a second chance on that sort of thing, and so although the experiment earns a valuable data point, it still gets marked as a failure.

As for the rib eye roast, keep in mind that this is a boneless prime rib. Would you cook one of those over a campfire? And oak smoke, as any New England camper knows, is a nasty, acrid, almost chemical sensation when you get a faceful of it, and on a fine cut of meat, it's not much different. You could eat the stuff if you don't like throwing your money away (I made sandwiches for as long as I could stand it), but there's a reason they usually smoke brisket and ribs instead. What the hell was I thinking?

The little bullet smoker is designed to approximate the industrial versions, but I don't think you can really make up for the basic problem of volume ratios. In the small guy, you've got just as much smoke choked up all in a tiny cavity, really close to the wood. It's the slow heat, and it's steady application of a low-concentration flavoring in the big cookers that's so wonderful--the goal isn't to toxify it. Number one lesson has been that it's very easy to choke your meat to death in a white cloud. (And I also wonder how much Food Network barbecue I really want to eat after all. The green pill has me questioning gluttonous gospel. I repent!) Getting the balance right has got to be harder in that small and direct space, or at least it took me some trial and error to get it even to "pretty good." I didn't have too many more chances to whiff on this, but then on Sunday I did the trout...

For starters, it looked great. A whole fish makes a good presentation, and the skin and the stuffed center kept it deliciously moist till the end. The flavor came on strongest with salt and lemon and fish, and the herbs and smoke filled out the rest of it deliciously. I think the strong flavor of the trout helped calm down all the other intense elements, and I got a wonderful balance. A citrusy savignon blanc (or the local equivalent) makes a nice pair, and, after some consideration, a pitcher of mojitos (the marjoram only bows before the mint) did the trick too. Here's a plate, with some recovered garnishes, and the last scrap of early corn pulled from my complaining daughter's hands. (I gave it back after the photo.)


Smoking dopes can be good to you, at least after a few attempts. That trout was so tasty that I'm seriously considering taking up fishing.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Is that a pistol in your pocket?

Guns: they're written into the Constitution from a time when a citizen militia was an essential tool of national defense, and today, enough people love the things to keep the second amendment free of any narrow-minded application (or amendment to a modern context) of that clause. Lobbying organizations dismiss gun violence with similar weasel-word qualifiers as A2. It ain't the guns, dude (they rarely discharge themselves), it's, like, the use of guns that's dangerous. I'm not a fan of the rhetorical technique, or the need for it, but I also don't quite go all the way down the hole of calling for a complete ban, in spite of everything. Maybe to shut the NRA up, we could ban people with guns, but the problem with this is that we'd still rely on other people with guns to uphold it. With this week's Supreme Court ruling to strike down a Chicago law against pistols, perhaps it's a good time to make a highly sought-after statement of my own principles on gun rights. (Readers--Smutty and that other one--might recognize this post as consisting of about 50% recycled material.)

Look, I admit I don't care about the things very much. First-hand experience leaves me agnostic. Shooting some .22 rifles in boy scout camp was fun, and playing with ersatz guns (from pea shooters to squirt guns to bows and arrows) has always been a blast. I'm not entirely sure, but I may not have even held one since I was twelve. Sometimes I tell people they make me uncomfortable, but it's not true (about the guns), I say that just so they'll leave me alone. There are a couple firearms floating around the immediate family, and when they eventually pass into my hands, they'll go out of their hidey-holes into similar ones accessible by me, as heirlooms and to have just in case the umbrella of civilization retracts. That's my model for responsible gun ownership.

Moving out a degree, my second-hand experiences with guns range from awkward to horrific. My notion of being prepared falls short of others', for example. It was one of my great-grandfather's generation who kept a loaded pistol under the pillow in case the colored folk ever had need for an uprising, which wasn't the phrasing he used. (It was another time, I tell myself, and it was a kooky scary thing even then, but my god, that's horrible. He's not from the named side of the family for whom I hold out hope of a genetic line.) I knew a good number of gun aficionados growing up, most of whom were not particularly annoying about it, not most of the time, or who just kept 'em for hunting, but I also know enthusiasts close enough to their aggression to make me discomfited to think what's under their bed. When I was a kid, two of the boys from my scout troop were playing with a parent's handgun, and I got to go to a funeral for one of my peers, one dead and half a dozen seriously fucked up. (I'll tell you, I often find it eye-opening to look at events from my past with a broader adult understanding of things.) One of my college buds tells a story of some guy who threatened him at a party by jamming a pistol in his mouth. Hilarious stuff. And do ask Cindy about the recent death of her young friend. If I'm just weighing anecdotal evidence, this ends up a lot heavier than the any number of successful counter-threats where potential harassment was thwarted, which, I'll add, I suspect are usually about as apocryphal as all those conversational triumphs people tell you about on the internets (of the 'and that shut him up' variety).

And for my carrying friends, here's the problem with the social contract you advocate: if you require me to be comfortable with your preferred habit of gun-totin', demanding that I trust your judgment and discretion with a deadly weapon you insist on carrying among people who know you, then you're the one who has a problem. Namely, that you're a dick. Not just that big slick rod you're waving around, but you are a penis, in the colloquial sense. And hunters? You're dicks too. In principle, hunting wild animals is a respectable thing: I think it makes you an honest meat-eater; it's more humane than an automated feed lot; self-sufficiency is a salutary endeavor; it's got to taste good, or at least taste real. But if the idea of hunting is okay, then hunters are still dicks, they still demand to be in the gravitational center of a universe that alleges to be mutually consenting. I have to watch out for them in other words. Hunting season has made it harder for me to enjoy the woods going on thirty-something years now. Any wild-ish sanctuary is despoiled when you have to watch out for wretched coffee- (or maybe Budweiser-) breathed chuckleheads dressed in orange raincoats. And look, if you push for a rigorous, universal course of gun safety, so that anyone with a piece takes it as seriously as you take yourself, then you're furthermore an insufferable dick, even if you're right on your own terms. (Insufferable people are often narrowly correct.) This wonderful world where a society remains polite because we're all busy threatening one another? That's one of the sorriest utopias anyone has yet imagined.

(And yes, I think drivers are basically dicks too, but we can make a better case for the unfortunate necessity of piloting a car in the modern world.)

The thing with guns is that there are legitimate civilian uses for them, that don't even always involve killing people. They really are fun to shoot, and as gunpowder-fueled clockworks, they're outstanding little machines. Keep 'em in your cabinet, and impress your friends; take 'em to the range. Maybe someone out there still has to protect themselves from bears and wolves, I don't know. The problem is that the politically important uses of them are all hypothetical. The militia clause got out-dated by a standing army, but individual-minded folks often take the position that a means to resist the state itself is a good thing, even though actually resisting the state is near-impossible. So let's please count among the insufferable penii the Usenet-vintage internet libertarians. We're not going to keep our overlords in check with our guns, not without enormous violent upheaval, and that hardly ever goes disastrously wrong, right Mr. Robespierre? Consent of the governed is a fine political theory, but violent withdrawal of your consent is a self-inflicted sentence of martyrdom. Keeping yourself apart from the local state-like powers--such as the cops or the mob--isn't going to do you much better (but note below), but maybe after the apocalypse, you'll be glad of the guns to keep out the roving bands of mutants, or prevent the bandit sheriffs from running over your moonshine still. It's just paradoxical in the current American context: so long as the federal power infrastructure holds up, and to the extent it effectively circumscribes the local entities under it, the federally-honored right doesn't do much for you in its potential to confront it. Their guns are bigger, and everyone loves the winner that everyone already loves.

And that's why so much advocacy revolves around fantasy crime scenarios. Not so much real crime scenarios, although there may be some anecdotal for that sort of thing (much of it of the type mentioned above; I believe the statistical evidence has been long since shot down, so to speak). To be fair, if people legally holding their tools are annoying, then illegal gunslingers are much worse. It's just that I don't voluntarily associate with them very often. People feel threatened by crime a lot more than they feel threatened by the government, and given that making the armed boogeymen magically disappear is unlikely (especially when you need them around to blame stuff on), then a natural impulse is to become intimidating enough so that you're left alone. But it's a hypothetical defense, most of the time. Guns can't be brought to bear in a timely enough way to arrest most encounters in an otherwise civil environment (ask those poor Seattle cops, or all the soldiers at Fort Hood). Not without that special American movie fantasy of a society full of hair triggers, which, as I've mentioned, is only a paradise for dicks.

It may be what the Constitution says, but it's still a shame that this Chicago ruling reminds us that state and local regulations are subordinate to the second amendment. In more rural areas, you've got more legitimate uses for firearms, and I don't know if the stats bear out fewer gun deaths per capita in the less densely populated parts of the country, but I am sure the entire number of deaths is much lower. (It's funny how where there's lots of actual crime, like in Chicago, that's where guns are more likely to be controlled.) A troubling idea though, is that more traditionally rural areas, with more local independence and a more historical love for shootin' arns, correlate with those places once supportive of justice against hypothetical crimes committed by an unarmed classes of citizens. Gun rights for the protected members, maybe, such as my great-great-uncle considered himself. (A little closer to the perfectly isolated village, and the libertarian position looks less crazy, but then I don't think that's who has, um, called the shots among conservative gun proponents from those parts.) If we bear down hard on the Constitutional position that everyone should have a gun, then we'd have to manufacture some other paradigm under which to incarcerate the dusky-hued. A war on something would be our usual style. Sounds absolutely crazy in this country, I know, but it scares me to think it could actually happen.