Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Series of Open Letters to My Neighbors

Dear People With The Pergola For Ghosts,

I don't know what possessed you to turn a clawfoot tub into a planter...for grass. I don't know what pushed you from one or two well placed barn stars to wallpapering your random garage shed with them. I don't know how you decided on that exact shade of lavender for the mysterious outdoor sink you have. I don't know why you use gravel where most people would opt for mulch. (Maybe it's just because our neighbor across the street is not on hand to encourage you to steal our other neighbor's mulch because he still hates their ten year old house that they did not personally build.) I don't know how one comes to own a sculpture made out of gardening implements, and I really don't know what that weird long, short building is all about.

What I DO know is that we need to hang out, because at some point you decided to build a patio (fine), put a pergola over it (okay), hang chandeliers from it (um), put a series of indoorsy-looking furniture under it (huh?), top said furniture with a selection of definitely indoor-intended vases, knickknacks and pillows (what in the sam hill), and frame the whole thing with a bunch of filmy curtains that prompted our friends whose parents live near you to refer to the whole affair as "the living room for ghosts" in an agitated tone.

Call me!



Dear People With The Busy Lawn Decoration Schedule,

I'll admit, after last year's display with the magenta carnival-prize stuffed child-sized gorilla draped in Christmas lights, and the Halloween display featuring faux gravestones saying things like "McCain's Dreams," I did not see the six foot illuminated decorative cross coming. Bravo.



Dear Trailer People,

I commend you for consistently making your totally normal and non-mobile ranch house in Holden look like the sketchy kind of mobile home via the skillful deployment of select lighted decorations. I am kind of sad that a For Sale sign has materialized in front of your house. I hope you plan to leave some kind of manual for the new owners.



Dear People With The Lighted Deer Whose Heads Move JUST Slowly Enough That I Get Startled And Think There Are Live Animals On The Loose Like Maybe That Bear That Was Sighted A Couple Streets Over Before Realizing That They're Just Really Creepy Lighted Deer And Then Wondering If They Are Actually Moving Or If I Am Just Hallucinating, Which Leads Me To Stand In The Driveway Staring Intently At Your Stupid Lighted Deer Just Long Enough To Concern The Other Neighbors And Create The Possibility That I Will Make An Appearance In The Police Blotter Section Of The Landmark,

Fuck you guys.



Saturday, November 29, 2008

This Is Your Brain On Academia

For Terrorism In The Modern World this semester, each student chose a terrorist group to follow throughout the semester. Over the course of the class, we have turned in five short briefs on various aspects of the group (history, funding, organization, etc.), and for a final paper will mash all of these together, provide a threat assessment, and then have what will doubtless be a totally horrifying exit interview with the professor. I totally fucking love this. I picked a group called al-Jihad, also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad (or a million other things), which has been subsumed into Al Qaeda, though unlike many other groups that Al Qaeda has basically eaten, al-Jihad has retained a good amount of autonomy and its members take up six of the nine seats on Al Qaeda's leadership council. Because of this, I've kind of been writing about both al-Jihad qua al-Jihad and also about it in its current role as a part of Al Qaeda.

I have a ton of large final papers to hand in, so I decided on Wednesday to get out in front of them, and started writing my threat assessment. I began with the idea that al-Jihad members might return to their roots with some good ole fashioned political assassination, then moved on to one of two major ideas that I think might fit Al Qaeda's modus operandi and historical tradition. I described a scenario in which the group carried out a coordinated bombing attack in mutiple cities. I wrote for a while and did some statistics tinkering to back it all up, and then put the project aside to focus on downshifting for the holiday.

Well, don't I turn on my TV on Thanksgiving morning post-workout and see that the goddamn Deccan Mujahideen stole my fucking idea and carried out a coordinated bombing attack in Mumbai and the surrounding areas. I would like to note however that MY idea focused on specific cities because of a particular distinguishing characteristic, and that these choices make my plan SUPERIOR to that which the Deccan Mujahideen RIFF RAFF came up with. And in other news, Deccan Mujahideen, you fucks, I KNOW you're an Al Qaeda offshoot, okay? I KNOW! I am on to your tricks. All up in India's shit, right near Pakistan, using Al Qaeda techniques, coming like a bolt out of the clear blue sky...YOU ARE AL QAEDA.

Now, I realize that I've kind of reached a new height of weirdness, having actually reached the point where I am squabbling over credit for ideas with a terrorism group, but I just would like the record to be crystal goddamn clear, regardless of how much I like being right.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cannonball Read #12: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I think that a writer has truly succeeded when they have made you believe that there is magic in the world. It doesn't have to be the illusionist type of magic or the kind done by grizzled witches over cauldrons. There is so much magic in the world...the magic of the written word, the magic of flowers blooming despite my best efforts, the magic of running into your old friend in a city miles away from where you first met, the magic of looking just like your grandmother. When a writer has truly arrived when they can tap in to any one of these strains of everyday magic, and remind you to believe in and hope for them.

Sometimes, though, it's about everyday magic AND actual incantations-and-ghosties magic, and Neil Gaiman is an expert in spinning tales abut this particular variety. The Graveyard Book is no exception, following his previous works about the magical worlds whizzing along underneath our ordinary lives. This is a children's book, which makes it exactly 0% less awesome for adult readers, but makes me personally 100% sure that Neil Gaiman is exactly the kind of uncle you would want for your child...someone who will challenge them to think about right and wrong in new ways and understand that they will have to apply it in their lives. So many kids get this weird idea that the difference between good and evil is mostly academic, and I think it's largely because they're frequently told about it rather than learning it through experience and consideration. The Graveyard Book affords the reader no such luxury; you MUST consider how and why good and evil work.

More than the lessons available within its covers, The Graveyard Book works within this incredibly rich world that blends our visible, known world with an unseen universe of ghosts and ghouls and most of all, houses the people who live between both parts. The story follows the young life of Nobody Owens, a boy who came to the graveyard after his family was brutally murdered by a mysterious man named Jack. The small boy winds up in the care of two ghosts, and really of the whole graveyard. His guardians believe that the man Jack is still looking for Nobody in the outside world, and to protect him, they insist that he grow up inside the graveyard, being taught by the ghosts and what his protector, Silas, brings in. Nobody makes several forays into the world beyond the graveyard gates, and each one ends poorly, even as it reveals a little more of the mystery of Nobody's identity and pursuers.

To explain more would be to wreck a brilliantly rendered ending, and I'm certainly not going to be the one to do that. This, though, is the story you read your smart eight year old to make them a lifelong reader. The beautiful illustrations in the book from Dave McKean are just enough to make that transition from picture-heavy books into chapter books, and in their own right are simply gorgeous. It's really a treat for the reader when an illustrator and author find such amazing synchronicity, and it's clear that Gaiman and McKean have something truly special, and have been cultivating it throughout their long relationship; regular Gaiman readers will doubtless recognize the name and corresponding work from the Sandman series.

The first Gaiman book I read was Neverwhere (another fabulous gift of awesome from the book club), and I immediately yelled at the book clubbers for keeping Gaiman from me all this time, then ran out and got my hands on everything I could of his. This book would prompt the same reaction from me, and should in everyone...Gaiman is flawless as always.

320 pages

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


So over on Pajiba, they frequently link to an excellent individual who runs a blog called Mighty God King, and every time I hit one of those links, it is hysterically funny and great, and I think "why don't I read more of this blog?" Well, I finally got my ass in gear and while it's worth your time merely for the funny, it also pulled a hardcore one-two punch on the election.

First- funniest election "coverage" this side of the Daily Show special. (NB: Everyone was on Alex Castellanos' nuts that night, eh? MGK refers to him as the "GOP Official Hispanic Guy Alex Castellanos" and Jack texted me around 7:30 that night with the early winner for Funniest Goddamn Text Message Of The Evening with "I want to strangle alex castellanos with his guido mustache.")

Followed closely by one of the best discussions of race, American politics, the state of the world and the general tao of Obama I have read to date.

I have been trying to keep my excitement about this election limited to the actual non-partisan awesomeness that surrounded it, or, failing that, under wraps completely, as I seem to have a lot of conservative friends all of a sudden, but I just thought these two things were really fab and worth mentioning. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cannonball Read #11: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

When confronted with an eight hour flight from Italy and an exhausted reading supply, I picked up Susannah Clarke's ponderous tome of historical fiction, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had seen it before, and had started dancing a ginga around it much like the one I'm currently doing with a stunning new binding of War & Peace that came out last year, but the bricklike heft of it and the exclusive availablity in hardcover held me back. In the Roman airport though, I saw a paperback edition for a pretty reasonable twelve or thirteen Euro, so I picked it up and dug in. It took significant effort to fully engage in the book, not because it wasn't great, because it was, but rather because I personally have some difficulty with adjusting to thinking in a whole other world (this is why I have a hard time getting enthused about science fiction). The work was well worth it - Clarke created an intricate, beautiful story rich in detail and set in 1808, where competing magicians fall in and out of each others' lives. The writing has a great older feel...kind of like Thackeray with a very light modern filter over it?

My aunt, who is a retired librarian and reader's aide, was also on the trip, and asked what I thought of Strange and Norrell. I told her much of what I've already said above, and added that oh, my freaking God, were the footnotes driving me up a wall. There are a lot of goddamn footnotes in that bastard, and the thing is, some are brief and to the point, and some are pages long (No, for real. There was one that was three pages long, in that tiny footnote text). My aunt mentioned that Clarke had gotten her start in short stories, and indeed, it seemed that as she wrote, she came up with smaller side stories that she just wanted to include, so she threw them into footnotes. They're good short stories, they're just...really long footnotes, which means you run into the Footnote Problem, that being the question of whether to stop and read them as they come, or to carry on and only read them in the moment if the narrative doesn't make sense without them. (I usually opt for the latter.) I made a mental note to check out the short stories later, and then went back to school and forgot about pretty much everything not written down on a Post It Note and kept somewhere visible.

So, imagine my surprise when one of the Book Club members from across the pond had selected the very same short story collection for this round of mailings! This is a chain letter-y kind of book club; each person selects a book that they like, and they are assigned a person they pass books along to. Each month, we mail the book we have on to our assigned people, and we get to read a whole bunch of cool books. I received Grace Adieu about a month ago and promptly lost it for about three weeks in my heap of BookMooch books I've been stocking up on for this project. You may have noticed that I've had Nabokov's Pale Fire as the Book In Progress since 'Nam...that one and this book have taken on a certain weird Bermuda Trianglar vibe. I just cannot seem to buckle down to read them. When I finally did sit down with this one, I punched it out in a day, so I suppose I should just sack up and lock myself in a room with Pale Fire (two shall shall leave).

In any case, I really enjoyed these eight short stories, and I think it's in large part due to the kinds of books that my grandmother and parents read to me when I was a kid and the similarities between Clarke's end product and my personal approach to writing. When I was younger, I got the standard fare, but my family also was in to reading stuff like The Princess and Curdie, which is a fairy tale in the style of those older, trippier, scarier fairy tales from before Disney got to them and sanitized the shit out of them. Fairies are not innately good, they're not servile to human beings, they're not your friends...they have their own society and laws, and are not to be trifled with. Clarke just completely loses herself in this world, and it makes for truly exceptional reading. She has managed to create an incredibly dense, detailed world for her characters to inhabit, and the payoff is huge. It makes it very easy to get into the time and place of her books and stay there, which as I mentioned, I frequently have trouble with. She also has a terrific grasp of the historical mode of speech that she employs. I find that a lot of writers who aim for older dialects wind up sounding very forced, and that the tone often clashes with some of the more modern thoughts and concepts in the story itself, but Clarke is so down in it that it fires on all cylinders. It's a skill not to be scoffed at, because that shit is no walk in the park.

I also love the feeling of these stories...they are so light and easy, and yet still have a solid, grounding core. Much of my creative writing begins with one moment or brief episode that I like the feel of, and then I can pull that feeling out to tell a whole story. This means writing with a lot of aesthetic notation, and a conciousness of how the story's environment works, and Clarke's stories carry a lot of the same feeling. My favorite of all of them was called "Mrs. Mabb," wherein a woman's sweetheart is...kidnapped? Spirited away? Waylaid? by a mysterious woman named Mrs. Mabb. As the woman tries to get to him, she is constantly attacked and confused by strange phenomenae, all of which have a strange connection to the natural world. I can't really explain more than that without spoiling the (excellent) ending, but the real kicker for me was the lush vibe of the story as Clarke detailed the English countryside and the natural elements of the story. The descriptions conjured such wonderful images as I read, and when I finished, I felt like I'd just gone for a walk outside in the spring.

Definitely recommended, as is Strange & Norrell if you have the time and dedication to the project. Neil Gaiman fans will also be excited to see his stamp on the work - one of the stories ("The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse") is set in Gaiman's world of Stardust, and he is a clear influence on Ms. Clarke throughout. Also of note are the stunning illustrations of Charles Vess', who of course was a Gaiman collaborator as well. His illustrations are found throughout the book, especially as fronticepieces for each story, and have this lovely art deco feel to them, with trailing banners and intricate detail. They actually remind me very strongly of W.W. Denslow's illustrations in a copy of The Wizard of Oz I had when I was a kid.

235 pages

Lost In Translation

I am not very good at Italian. That being said, I do make a stab at it every now and then in a social context, and success comes and goes. However, sometimes even my success gets rained on by that bastion of bastardization, FreeTranslation.

Here's an email I wrote:
Il semestre e quasi sopra e cio significa c'e lo tempo per uscire con gli amici! NESSUNE SCUSE, usciamo per il gin. O il vino. O il coca-cola. C'e il usciamo che significa!

Guardiamo le sue prossimo poche settimane e parlarmi quando voi avete un notte libera per uscire e divertirsi con noi. Scusarsi mi italiano cattivo...sono buonissimo per sarcasmo e giochi di bevere! ANDIAMO AVANTI!!

And what I intended for it to say (which it roughly does):
The semester is almost over and that means it's time for going out with friends! NO EXCUSES, we are going out for gin! Or wine. Or a Coke. It's the going out that matters!

Look at the next few weeks and tell me when you have a free night for going out and having fun with us. Excuse my bad Italian...I'm better for sarcasm and drinking games! WE GO FORWARD! [NB: I just like saying "avanti" with wanton enthusiasm.]

But lo, what miracles FreeTranslation creates!
The half-year and almost above and ioc means us and the time to go out with the friends! NO EXCUSES, we go out for the gin. Or the wine. Or the cocaine-cola. Us and the we go out that it means!

We look at little his neighbor weeks and to speak me when you have a free night to go out and to amuse itself with those. To excuse itself me bad Italian. ..sono good for % and games of bevere! We GO AHEAD!!

I'm now fairly sure that irresponsible use of FreeTranslation lead to at least a handful of international wars. It CERTAINLY explains the Italian government. This is why you need to not write your papers with FreeTranslation, ever, people.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cannonball Read #10: A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs

I love Augusten Burroughs.

The first of his books that I read was - like everyone else's first - Running With Scissors, and while it's an insane, unique story, what makes it so good is not the story but the manner in which it's presented. Burroughs' writing is crisp and clear and perfectly conveys not only the facts of the case but the feeling of it all...the claustrophobic Stockholm Syndrome of his time in the care of his mother's deranged "psychiatrist," the unnerving paranoia of his family life that made the psychiatrist's home seem like an upgrade, the feeling of the vibrant personalities around him that taught him and got him through it. Long ago, I read A Child Called It, which is an alarming account of one of the worst cases of child abuse on record, and while it was horrifying in a "my God, that HAPPENED" way, it lacked some of the immediacy of Scissors, because the latter showed how a wide variety of types of people could devolve into madness, and it showed how organic it was, how natural, how easy.

Within a month of reading Scissors, I read Sellevision, Dry, and Magical Thinking, discovered that Burroughs occasionally popped up on NPR, and then when Possible Side Effects came out, I bought it the day it hit shelves and had it read by the time I went to bed. I was totally thrilled to hear about Wolf at the Table, expecting more Augusten-y goodness, and in a creepy, voyeuristic way, probably anticipating more stories about the guy's fucked up formative years. I mean come his Dad could possibly be the one stable figure in the joint and still merit a book?

Maybe my anticipation stole my own juice, but I am left sadly uninspired by this outing. The writing is still good, of course - I find that it is almost always inspiration that leaves writers, and not talent - but the story just isn't as engaging as I expected. It's fucked up, yeah...his Dad, like seemingly everyone else in his young life, is seriously deranged and a menace to just about everyone. But something about the tone of it all seemed like Burroughs was grasping for evidence that his Dad was super extra horribly bad, and not that the actual horror of an unhinged parent was coming through the writing organically. In his other books, Burroughs mentions that he tends toward the melodramatic, but this is the first book in which I felt he really came off that way. And the thing that is so weird is that the shit his Dad pulled throughout his childhood is horrible and is worthy of note and is a study in the kind of insidious child abuse that doesn't tend to get noticed until it's too late, so it's not like the story isn't worth telling or that he's making it all up. It just comes off strangely, and there's even a section of the book that works as an accidental metaphor for the whole exercise...
To my own ear I sounded like a toddler proudly proclaiming, Today I made a pee. And I made poo. And then I walked outside. And then I found a rock. And then the rock was round and so I kept it. And then I found another rock. Only this one was flat and so I kept it, too. And then tomorrow I am going to paint a horse with real paint and paper and everything! And it sickened me, but I could not stop and had to come back for more.

Maybe that's just where Burroughs is at this point - mired in his past for the moment, unable to do anything but regurgitate his daily goings on and how he got there. The thing is that the writing is still so good. It's not that he has lost his touch, just that he's in a holding pattern.

There may also be an element of societal counterbalance at work. With the Internet, any number of pop psychological TV shows and the vogue for memoirists, it seems like we as a culture are stuck in this constant battle of oneupmanship. My childhood was more fucked up than yours was. My parents were shittier than yours were. I had less food. I had less money. I had a harder time. Feel sorrier for me. The reverse of all this is a certain attitude of disdain for those who cannot bear up through all this and become better, stronger, faster as adults. To a certain extent, I feel like we're at a point where if your shitty parent stopped short of testing out the popular methods of the Marquis de Sade and Vlad the Impaler on you, people respond with more with an attitude of "so what's the big deal? Sack up, ho" than one of sympathy. I wonder if some of this thinking has colored my reaction to this book. Like I said, it's beautifully written, very evocative, yet I feel like it's missing a certain extremism that would make the story stand out amongst the sea of woeful tales. I don't know. I think a lot of that very culture that engenders this attitude is dumb as hell, so I respond negatively to that, too, but maybe it's kind of leached into my worldview in spite of me.

This is worth reading, but only after you've treated yourself to the much better earlier works of Augusten Burroughs. He is a wonderful writing, and his books are truly affecting, for better and worse.

242 pages

That's Not The Assignment.

I'm going to hit you with the latest round of great professor comments now, before I start losing all my hair and freaking out over finals...hooray for learning! I think!

"You guys remember the uh...'rock star' Prince? There are just no words for people like that. Well, I guess he thought there were no words for him, because he wanted to stop using words for himself, he wanted to start using a symbol? Remember that? *pause* There should be capital punishment for people like that."

"Think of verbs as a strawberry banana milkshake."

"I know that in this country you make brownies with marijuana."

"I know what you're paper, the exit he insane? That's not the right question. I MIGHT be insane, but that's not the point."

"If you know your stuff, it'll be a breeze. If you don't, it'll be a nightmare. From which you'll never recover."

"I don't have a charm button."

"I mean, Schwarzenegger, when he was at his buffitudinest, didn't look like that."

"Nothing good comes of snow, and post-exam angst...and sledding. *pause* Have you guys read Ethan Frome? Are you getting my references here?"

"Descartes says 'yes', Newton says, 'no way, dude.'"

[Prof's phone rings while I am reading a passage aloud] "Oh my god, that's so embarassing. *pause* My sister's probably having her baby. Continue."

I am going to be so weirdly sad when this semester is over.

Friday, November 21, 2008

1600 Pennsylvania

Bill Bryson talked about DC in his book The Lost Continent, explaining how you walk through the city thinking it's fine and all, but then you bump into some building that houses, say, the World Bank, and you get a somewhat startling reminder of how enormously important the city and the organizations in it are. I totally agree. I remember being several months into my internship and walking out of the front of the building to find the National Symphony Orchestra rehearsing on the Capitol lawn, and just having the whole enormity of DC hitting me at once. I sat for a while listening to the NSO, then turned around and just stared at the Capitol, thinking nothing but " there." While I'd always had an affinity for the city, it was that moment that I fell completely, stupidly, irresponsibly in love with it.

Bryson's commentary gets right to the heart of it all, but misses one small, important cannot escape America in DC, either. Around every corner, there is some small piece of history, be it a street named for an obscure patriot or a hidden memorial. We all know about the big ones...the Lincoln, the Washington, Vietnam, WWII, Korea, the Jefferson...but it's the small quiet ones that always floored me. The Jefferson is my favorite major memorial, and I used to go to study and relax there, but I also adored the World War I Memorial down on the Mall. When I worked at the Department of Commerce, I used to walk down to this one for lunch. It's practically hidden, but I think it's somehow so eloquent - simple, classic, beautiful - and I can't really think of any better way to remember all those who gave their lives to us all in their stand against the darkest forms of human evil. The World War II Memorial is spectacular, for sure, but to me, this one is exactly as history must inform us all. We cannot let our struggles dominate our worldview but instead remember their lessons and allow them to teach us how to move forward and remind us that we must always be vigilant.

For me, DC will always be a city for all of us Americans...the immigrants, the people born in Pennsylvania, the people born in Los Angeles, the people who don't know how they wound up where they are...there is room there for everyone. One of my favorite memories of downtown DC is walking through the display of state trees after the Pageant of Peace with my friends, looking at all the trees and talking about the ornaments and chatting with people so casually about their respective state trees and why they were there and what they were doing and what the holiday and the city and the country meant to them. I've walked through that display many times, sometimes That's why, when I saw this fantastic display of 1600 Pensylvania Avenues on Ironic Sans via 24 Free Dinners, I just about lost my shit, because it shows so well the insane disparity between types of people and neighborhoods and life in America. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the President's's also smaller than you expect, visible from a completely ordinary sidewalk that people walk on to get to work and the Metro and the museums. As it turns out, it's also a whole lot of totally ordinary American homes and business. Check it out.

West Mifflin, PA
Terre Haute, IN
Savannah, GA
Prospect Park, PA
Oreland, PA
Los Angeles, CA
Glendora, CA
Des Moines, IA (Doesn't this one just make you want to move in? So pretty!)
Dallas, TX
Croydon, PA
Colton, CA
Brooklyn, NY
Bremerton, WA (where C is from!)

Baltimore, MD

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"I Want To Blame You, Then Kill You."

Dear Drivers of Worcester,

I realize I left the city for Holden but as a Worcester Consortium student with parents still in residence in Worcester, I DEMAND that I receive my portion of whatever drugs they are handing out at the DMV, because seriously people, what. The. Fuck.

Yeah, guy who pulled a full, illegal, pointless u-turn at a major lighted intersection for no immediately apparent reason at TWO GODDAMN MILES AN HOUR, proceeded to nearly take the back end off a mail truck, and then somehow - and I say somehow because despite watching this happen I STILL do not know how the fuck you accomplished it - managed to steal someone's parking space WHILE THEY WERE PARKING IN IT? Fuck you, guy. Fuck you long, hard, and pointlessly. Also, when I honk at you, do NOT act like you have no idea what I could possibly be irritated by, because there is no way you do not realize the consummate douchiness of your driving skills.

Moreover, you two jackasses who decided to engage in some kind of tag team match with my car while I was at the game by parking about six inches off my front AND rear bumpers can catch fire and die horribly. Dude on my front bumper, YOU were parked illegally and also I think obstructing an entire lane of traffic. Jank-ass Corolla behind me, I'd just like to note that there were about THREE GODDAMN MILES OF OPEN SPACE behind you, so I'm going to assume you just have some kind of mental defect that keeps you from parking like a normal human. But I really want to know...are you just really fucking bad at parking? Do you not understand how it works? Are you a fucking moron? To paraphrase a very smart man..."when I see that, I want to blame you, then key the everloving shit out of your car."

And WHILE WE'RE ON THE TOPIC, Worcester Parking Police, you people are why atheism happens. If I parked even HALF as poorly as these motherfuckers, my car wouldn't even be COOL by the time you ticketed me, and yet these dipshits park like blind people piloting oil tankers and they blissfully sail through life without fear of parking fines.

Listen to me, people...share the crack rocks they're doling out in Drivers' Ed and start driving and parking like civilised human beings, or I am going to ram you with my vehicle.



Monday, November 17, 2008

Cannonball Read #9: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

There have been many attempts in both film and literature to explore the normal lives of superheroes, and honestly, there's only really been one that seemed realistic to me. Crazy, right? Realism and superheroes, not really a pairing you'd think to look for, but I feel like there's certainly plenty to work with there. What do you do when you spend half your life as one person, and half as another? If you have x-ray vision...does that turn off? Can you have a martini if you have super strength, or do you just snap glass stems all the damn time?

Most of the time, it seems like the tendency is to paint superheroes as very regular people, like they're really just these totally mundane people, and the humor comes from how damn boring they are when they take off the cape. That just rings false to me. There are two components not being addressed here; first, the psychological effects of superherodom, and secondly, the physiological effects. If your job has become - for whatever reason - smashing people around, you're going to have some feelings about that. What would those feelings be like? Plus, think about the states that some of us wind up in as we age, even with just average activity. Imagine the stresses on superhero bodies - if I can jack up my knees with just some sporatic running, what the hell happens to someone who's lifting freight trains?

The film I felt came closest to portraying the real-life superhero existance was The Incredibles, which...seriously you guys, if you have not seen it, you need to get your ass out and get on it. It's just wonderful to look out, and it's so damn smart. I guarantee that you will just love the hell out of it. Soon I Will Be Invincible comes close, but I think might just be trying to cover too much ground in what could easily be two separate books if expanded in either direction. The story splits between two main characters, who each narrate their respective chapters. The first character is a supervillan, Doctor Impossible, and the second is a human/robot hybrid named Fatale. Like The Impossibles, Grossman dispenses with any attempts to pretend superpowered people can simply set aside their powers to lead bland lives. The characters that populate the story have lived out their lives in headlines and in front of the public...they are known and regulated and studied.

Fatale is joining a resurrected superhero team called the New Champions (guess what the old version of the team was called) on the eve of Doctor Impossible's most recent escape from prison. She's struggled to fit in, for the obvious reasons, and so too has Doctor Impossible. Had their struggles been slightly more similar, the comparison would have been a lot more compelling, but as it is, it falls short of its potential. Instead, it can be used as a commentary on the nature vs. nurture debate, which is less interesting and not as well suited to the characters and story. That's kind of the story of this comes close to executing some cool social commentary, but winds up not quite getting there.

That all being said, it's a very enjoyable read, and Grossman has created some really fun characters. It's always interesting to see someone screw around with aged tropes and stereotypes, and the author here does have a real knack for it. The flaws of these superheroes aren't overwrought, nor are they too minor to really make you question the nature of superherodom. Grossman strikes a great balance here in showing some FAIRLY human characters who are motivated by wide variety of reasons towards the same end. While I wish Grossman had split the book into two parts (or two books) and unpacked Doctor Impossible and Fatale a little more, this is certainly worth your time and will get you thinking about how you view the people you work with and the people all around us; what makes us us? What makes us do what we do?

310 pages

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Addendum: Reading Habits

A while back, I wrote a Guide to Encountering a Reader. I am testing the effect of books on the populace boss gave me some books basically as a thank you for not a.) leaving or b.) hiding in the supply closet and refusing to come out when basically the whole department was out, unexpectedly, at once. For the better part of two months. Things are good now. So okay, she gave me these books (yes, she is awesome), all of which I am excited about. I have them on my desk today, and unfortunately, said desk is the reception desk, so there is a lot of traffic. As a result of this experiment, I have several addenda to the original guide.

1. Stop touching my shit. It is not your book. If you would like to look at it, a simple "do you mind?" will suffice. I realize I am more anal retentive than most but seriously, it's my shit, leave it alone, or I'm going to go to your desk and rifle through your purse.

2. I cannot say this enough...there is no place in my heart for Janet Evanovich nor any other dreckpeddlers of her kind. The writing is shit, the stories are at best fucking stupid and at worst an affront to every positive -ism ever, from feminism to humanism, and they are all the same. Why in the blue fuck would I want to read the SAME STUPID ASS STORY NINETEEN TIMES? I would not.

3. To this end, please learn to identify how books are typically grouped. I mentioned this previously and it still stands true. If you are confronted with a pile of books from Augusten Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman, just swallow whatever romance-novel-oriented lunacy you were about to get all over me and go the hell away.

4. Let's just all agree to not criticize anyone's reading choices before actually reading the book in question, shall we? You know how I know Danielle Steel reads like People Magazine for remedial high schoolers? Because I have read it. Do not look at the "scary" picture on the cover of a book and say "Ooh, A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER! I don't know if I want to read THAT! Why would you read THAT?" Because I am allergic to stupid and I read books like that to innoculate myself against contagious people like you, is why. The literary benefit and mind expansion potential that books provide...that's just gravy.

5. If you are the creepy guy at work and I am eating lunch with a book beside me, try to refrain from coming over in complete silence, hovering over the book, and then making a weird comment. For real now. If you're the creepy hoverer in GENERAL, just do the planet a favor and cut it the fuck out. You are alarming me, all observers, and probably any small children in the vicinity. It is not socially acceptable.

6. I realize that we're reached a point as a society where people don't read "hard" books, which apparently now means "anything over 150 pages, in small text, that isn't about Harry Potter or vampires," but I really don't think it's asking so much for me to expect you to make the mental leap from the presence of "hard books" to my having bought them because I like them or want to own them for some reason. I really don't. Why has this been an issue throughout the whole fucking day?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Connaitrez-vous Jonathan Lee Riches?

Every now and then, the global gene pool churns out a human being so divinely nutty that you can't help but marvel at them. I hope, with all the teensy little quarks in the atoms of the molecules of the tissues of my heart, that you have heard about one such individual...Mr. Jonathan Lee Riches, Chief Executive Officer of Being Nuttier Than Squirrel Shit.

Mr. Riches is a guest of the State of South Carolina (wire fraud, in case you're wondering), and he wiles away his time by filing some of the most spectacularly demented lawsuits the legal world has ever seen. At this juncture, I would like to thank Wikipedia, which thanked me for using it to figure out what prison this dude was in by informing me that he has filed over one thousand lawsuits since January of 2006. MAGIC.

Like any great artist, his works' quality waxes and wanes, but here's a sampling of the best of the best.
  • There was that time he tried to get in on the Hamdan decision because Donald Rumsfeld was torturing him.
  • He also decided to sue Perez Hilton into shutting down his website, because it was endangering his life...just how it presents a hazard is kind of in the eye of the beholder. He also says that he and Perez dated and he committed a somewhat thrilling array of crimes for Perez's sake.
  • Then he sued Barry Bonds and Bud Selig for violating...most of the Constitution. There was something about selling drugs to nuns. He was doing business as "The White Suge Knight" at the time. Saddam Hussein was also involved. If you only read one of these filings, make it this one.
  • Did we mention the time that Steve Jobs hired OJ Simpson as a hitman, and aimed missiles at Riches' brain?
  • One way you may have heard of Riches before is via his lawsuit against Michael Vick, in which he demanded 63 billion gold-and-silver-backed dollars for the theft of dogs that were later sold on Ebay. Yeah.
I bring all of these to you to celebrate the filing of one of Riches' newest works, in which he claims GORDON GEKKO as an, I'm sorry, he actually lists himself as "d/b/a Gordon Gekko" which is a.) hysterical, b.) remarkably self aware, given the volume of completely frivilous lawsuits he's brought to the world, and c.) fucking GREAT. Did I mention that the particularl business that Riches is DOING as Gekko is suing a variety of people connected with World of Warcraft for making him commit crimes as a result of having to fight "cybermonsterrivalhackergangs"? I enjoy this so much that I would like to move that the US declare November 3rd Jonathan Lee Riches Day, to be celebrated nationwide through the filing of the most deranged lawsuits the general public can concoct.

Thanks to Above the Law, Quizlaw and the Smoking Gun for monitoring Riches' various suits and presenting them in handy formats.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Special Edition

For those of you interested in politics, if you are not reading the Newsweek Special Edition, you are missing out.

Newsweek Special Edition

Basically, campaign people tell Newsweek a lot of junk on the condition that Newsweek wait until after the election to print it. It's always fascinating, and frequently horrifying. I tend to be of two minds on the ethics of holding the types of information involved with the Special Edition back. On the one's competition. Secrecy is an essential component of government, politics and certainly of campaigning, and it should be. That being said, some of this stuff should probably have been brought into the light ahead of time, and not just the items that are ostensibly "bad," but also those that are "good." Do I really need Newsweek to tell me that Sarah Palin was hard to manage, pretty ignorant, and not a great candidate? Not really. Do I need Newsweek to tell me that Bill Clinton was a drag on the HRC campaign who complicated shit? Not really. But I can't help but feel that we as a political community would be able to choose our candidates in a much more intellectual way if the revelations about the good, and the upstandingness about these men were allowed to see the light of day.

The Special Edition is full of revelations about Obama's character and reason, but more importantly (to my mind, anyway), about the reason and character of John McCain. He resisted much of the dirty politicking that went on, and that really impresses me. I don't know that this is that revelatory for me, since I've been complaining for a while that the McCain campaign had been showing me a very un-John-McCain-like McCain, but it's nice to see proof of that. Let's be real about this...there's nothing in the Special Edition that makes me wish I'd changed my vote. I voted for Obama because I had serious reservations about John McCain's ability to end this particular war, to handle effective domestic policy and to face a modern world against jihadism that will be with us for a very long time. I've talked about my concern regarding the particular military experience that McCain has (i.e. that experience required for successful Presidential command is different from that required for successful on-ground operations), and moreover, I doubt McCain's ability to adapt enough to successfully fight the new enemy, which is ununiformed, disparate, extremely fluid, and almost completely impossible to fight through conventional military tactics. Nothing in the Special Edition makes me think that this is incorrect, but the behind the scenes view is fascinating. I highly recommend it.

PS - New blog format, and thanks to Celia for tipping me off to the Cutest Blog on the Block people, even though their blog title makes me want to start puking and never stop. Like, no like, ambivalence?

The Reidar Tree

When my Mom was right out of college, she went and spent some time in Norway. She stayed for at least part of the time with a sweet couple named Borghild and Reidar, who later would come to visit us in Worcester. Reidar was an oil painter, and at one point he went down to Indian Lake to paint the giant willow tree that hung over the water. This turned out to be an exciting adventure for all of us, since he befriended a posse of small boys while he was there, and when they caught a fish, they gave it to him to take home, so we're all home thinking "boy, it's almost 5, maybe we should go round up Reidar," when here he comes up the front walk with a twitching plastic grocery bag, yelling "Fiske! Fiske!" I still don't know how that fish survived the 10 minute walk home from the lake, but we put it in the clawfoot tub for a couple days and tried to feed it flaked fish food from my brother's fish tank before realizing this plan couldn't be more flawed if we tried and returned Fiske to the Lake from whence he came.

So that was exciting, but while Reidar was down there painting, he made these very small paint test patches on a tree, and they have been there for actual years. He and Borghild came to visit when I was 8 or so, so we're talking a good 17 years that -holy crap, 17 years??? Urgh. - these paint samples have stayed on that tree.

Well, Worcester has been infested with Asian Longhorned Beetles, which are evil little bastards...they burrow deep into hardwood trees (you know, like the kind half of New England is made of?), and live, propogate, etc. there. Unfortunately, this means that the City of Worcester is going to have to chop down a lot of trees, and it looks like they have started over by Indian Lake. Now, there were two new heinous houses built on an adjoining lot recently, so maybe this is yet another offense to what was once a totally nice sweep of grass by a lake, but the location of the removed trees doesn't make sense for that. They did not chop down the Reidar Tree yet but it looks like they will get to it in time.

Yesterday I drove past the lake on my way to run some errands and saw the trees that had been chopped down, and promptly turned around and went to take pictures of the tree on my cell phone. They didn't really come was overcast and the marks are small, but it got me to thinking about what a bummer it is going to be to have all these trees chopped down. There are the obvious "Trees Are Good" kinds of considerations...they make CO2, they provide shade, their roots prevent erosion, etc., etc., etc., forever and ever amen, but more than that, it will really be a shame to lose the Reidar tree and the trees that people got proposed to under and the ones that got climbed in childhoods. Until then, though, the Reidar Tree is still hanging in there.

Professorial Excellence, Part Deux!

I wrote a while back about some of the excellent comments from professors this semester, and I have a second update for you...a couple of them have been on a roll this middle section of the term, so enjoy!

"We use sound to communicate, even if its not in words. One time I was camping and saw a moose arond my campsite. So I used sound to communicate 'human here, go away.' I think what he was doing was looking for a mate, but I wasn't interested."

"The Jews are here! They exist! They live on Salisbury Street!" This was comparing Judaic tradition to other religions.

"The difference between [the poems we read while studying Egypt and the ones we're reading now, from the medieval period] really shows the change in attitudes towards women. I mean, today there's Snoop Dogg, and I don't understand him...he spends all his time with this posse of whores, but he has all these TV shows. I don't know, maybe he relates to you guys."

"So you're saying [Aristotle is] wrong?"..."Uhh, yeah, I guess."..."Yeah, he is. But who cares? It's still extremely cool."

Prof: "I'm an awful drawer, so you'll have to excuse me."
Student: "That's a pretty good circle."
Prof: "Thank you! *pause* No it's not, it's awful."

"It's a fantastic argument, I love the argument. Maybe I'll write a paper on it and get famous."

"When in Rome, do as the Romans...when in America, shower once a day."

"Ehhhh....blah blah blah Pakistan failed state blah blah blah."

"No, [these sunglasses] actually cost much less than you would think. So much less that in fact my mother in law accused me of stealing from the poor."

"So this guy is there, lapping up his blood and yelling about Allah...of course, this is not a good getaway plan."

"...the kinder, gentler Germany, not the kind that is gonna cook you in an oven."

"My daughters are getting old enough that they want to hear about you guys, but they say 'tell us about the bad ones, Daddy, the ones who have to go into time out'...I say, 'ah, we call that Political Issues.'"

"Look, this is not a cheerocracy. I'm a cheertator, okay?" Oh yes my Terrorism prof did quote "Bring It On" and that is why he is the BEST.

"When I see the passive voice, I want to blame you, then kill you."

"I felt like [the results on Questions 2 and 3] sent very inconsistent the dogs, but let the kids get high."

Student: "[Mom who works at city hall and saw a lot of confused people on election day] was telling me one guy came in and said he really just wanted to vote on Question 2, but he would 'give the other ones a shot.'"
Professor: "I woulda just given that guy a drug test right there. Yeah, don't roll the ballot, okay?"

Student 1: "Well, I have a suicide bombing group..."
Prof: "Wait...what?"
Student 2: "He does that on weekends."
Prof: "I was going to say...that's not the assignment."


Of all the many hopes I have for this incoming Administration, the most desperate, driving hope I have is for a new understanding of what it means to be a liberal.

I've spent a lot of time this cycle bitching to myself and others about how I hope this serves as a realignment election, during which the wheat can be separated from the chaff. Quite simply, I hope that both major parties, but especially the Democrats, can shake out the crazier groups that have latched onto their fringe, and get back to a real understanding of the body politic. I believe I might have gotten my wish, though so soon after the election, it's hard to definitively say. The Republicans are not dumb. The Republican Revolution of 1992 was so simple and brilliant that it got someone who presents as poorly as George W. Bush into office...twice. Like him or not, you have to concede that he is a problematic public figure, and I would argue not even the strongest candidate available to the Republican Party. The Gingrich-led Revolution involved a lot of angling and set up, but most importantly, it drew a line in the sand...if you are a Republican, this is your stump speech and this is your primary concern. Sure, take care of your special interests and your constituency, but if you want access to our support, this is your line. Coherent policy - there are kids in grade school who could come up with this, but the efficacy with which the Republicans organized the endeavor and enforced it is really to be marvelled at. It's kept them competitive and in power ever since.

The Democrats on the other hand, have been...gross. It's really surprising, since Clinton was such a thrilling political figure in general and managed to gather such enormous public support, that the Republicans would be so effective in uniting while the Democrats would spend their time acting like that one kind of dumb kid on a Little League team, spinning around in right field and looking at the sky. Of course, Gingrich's charisma and power are not to be scoffed at, either, but Clinton galvanized the party in a way it hadn't been in years as well. Basically since the Clinton impeachment trials, the Democrats, lead by the DNC, have devolved into a morasse of disparate, squabbling interest groups, without any kind of coherent main line or solid directorship. This is the obvious pratfall of billing yourself as the party of the people - it's easy for the ideal of acceptance to wind up leaving the back door to all kinds of extremist input, and it's easy for the ideal of pacifism to wind up in complete spinelessness. The past eight-plus years have been so disappointing, particularly for me personally, as the Clinton Administration - so full of energy and optimism - was the dawn of my political conciousness.

I hear on Limbaugh and Reagan and O'Reilly and all the other right-wing media folks, and I hear what they say about liberals...that we want to take your money away, that we want to take your guns away, that we want to let illegal aliens in to steal American jobs, that we want to create a welfare state, that we are afraid to go to war, that we want to turn America into a nanny state. I hear all that shit and I relate to none of it. I watched the election results with my friend Jack, and he at one point said something to the effect of "the average modern liberal isn't a minority on's a 25 year old white kid in a city who works and pays rent."

If there is anything that this election cycle has taught us, it must be that we have to take media reporting with a grain of salt. I spent half the cycle waiting for someone to say Obama ate babies or McCain shot orphans in the face...and this wasn't even something I expected from the candidates, I expected CNN or Fox to drop that shit in there. Neither McCain nor Obama are either as wholly good or as wholly bad as the media made them out to be. The same applies to general political leanings...neither liberals nor conservatives are as good or as evil as the media make them out to be. Hopefully, we can extrapolate what we learned about this particular cycle and the realignment to include the larger picture of how conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats actually are.

I am a liberal. I do not strongly identify with the DNC's current incarnation. There is not nearly enough asskicking going on and the leadership is out of touch with both their base and the public at large, though I can certainly understand how they got to this point, over the years of opening the doors to whatever nutbar was interested in waltzing in. I think that as a society we owe it to ourselves to establish a baseline of care for the commonwealth, and to preserve it. This doesn't mean that Social Security should pay for your second home in means it should make sure you don't wind up homeless and starved to death. It doesn't mean we should sustain a welfare system that lets you hang around indefinitely; it means the government can help you get a job and get your shit back in order, then your ass leaves the program. I believe in the Second Amendment but that sensible gun control needs to get figured out and then get enforced. We need to make sure kids can learn and people can go to the hospital before their intestines are leaping out of their throat. I think we have an immigration procedure for a reason and while it does need to be improved, you can go through it or else be prepared to get your alien ass booted out. I believe that you exhaust - truly exhaust - all diplomatic channels in international policy, then use war as an option of last resort...then drop the warhammer. None of this nancing around and deploying too few troops with inadequate equipment. I know that we need to restore our international image, because like it or not, like them or not, xenophobia is no longer an option. We can't pretend the world isn't at our doorstep and in our homes anymore, and if we can't get respect from the international community, our ability to continue to compete in global commerce will go down the tubes fast.

We're a capitalist society and I actually think that's pretty awesome...competition drives exploration and that equation is why America is consistently amazing at developing new technologies and products. If we make sure that everyone is beginning from a basic level of human existance, and that they have access to health care and education and other basic human services, we will be healthy, smart, and prepared enough to compete with the rest of the world. The dynamics have changed, and we need to keep up and get back to kicking ass.

We have to seek each other out. We have to God, people, we have GOT to talk. We need to drop this business of being politically correct and being afraid of each other. We have to actually talk about what actually makes us different so we can stop arguing about teritary, bullshit nothingness and get on with solving the problems we have. We need to scrap the programs that perpetuate racism, sexism, ageism and all the other -isms that are currently occupying our public policy, and work on creating a dialogue that helps us identify real problems and work towards solving them. I believe that Obama will show the world what the modern liberal is, and I believe that he will encourage this dialogue and restore the independent spirit that America was based on...I think that's what I am most excited about, even more so than any policy he has discussed. I didn't really feel this way until after he won the election, but man...I LOVED it when he said, right in his first damn speech as President-elect, that we have WORK to do, and that people need to be ready to step up. Let's get some of that personal responsibility back, people.

Let's get to work.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cannonball Read #8: A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire

This was my election night reading...I went to the Coop before meeting round of friends number one, and after spending some time liberally distributing puddles of drool throughout the store, I picked up A Lion Among Men, the third book in the Wicked series that began with the titular book and proceeded through Son of a Witch, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West's "son." (Side note: Every time I go to the Coop, I revisit several conclusions. First, there's probably no way I'll be able to read everything in the world, and I can't afford to waltz into the Coop and say "I'll take one of everything, please," but the best solution is probably to find some kind of job where I can do nothing but read. Secondly, I desperately wish Hogwarts was real, but the Coop is close enough. Third, I should not enter bookstores unsupervised, especially if they look like Hogwarts.)

For those not familiar, Gregory Maguire takes classic fairytales and revisits them, often from the ostensible bad guys' point of view...Wicked was the Wicked Witch of the West's backstory and point of view on the Wizard of Oz stories, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was Cinderella from one of the stepsisters' side of things, Mirror, Mirror was the behind the scenes story of Snow White. I still have yet to be disappointed in any of his books. When I was a kid, my parents and grandmother had these great old copies of the original Oz books; most people have read or seen The Wizard of Oz, but I don't think many people realize there were a lot of books featuring L. Frank Baum's Oz, and all of them are brilliantly colored, incredibly creative stories. My favorite was Rinkitink of Oz, and I'd just like to note here that I owe my parents and grandparents big time for exposing me to all kinds of weird stuff that was probably way above my maturity level but that made me work to get it. Maguire's writing really hearkens back to Baum's style, and every story he produces demonstrates this amazingly deep knowledge of the stories he tackles. Moreover, Maguire writes the way I wish I could get away with writing for people today. Not only is his work devoid of the niggling grammatical errors that frequently pop up in modern literature and make me crazy, but the writing demands that you think on a higher level, so that when he employs the true usage of "awesome," it feels natural and the meaning is crystal clear. It's stunning, and I hope to see much much more from him.

This particular effort shows us the Cowardly Lion himself, whose name is Brrr, on a mission to find out information about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch. While superficially it's about his reporting and search for information, it wouldn't be a Maguire book if it didn't tackle significantly heavier themes. As is the case throughout the series, the question of fate is constantly in play, and it is in this book that it's most directly tackled. The Lion has come to talk with a character from the previous books, a maunt named Yackle, whose previous appearances have shown her to be intrically involved in the life of Elphaba. While there is much said about the fate of Elphaba, Brrr's own history comes into play as a similarly telling statement on the subject. Maguire has handled the fact that some animals talk and some do not in Baum's original work to make a statement on prejudice and to discuss what really makes someone or something worthy of respect and care. In Wicked, signifcant time is spent discussing how all animals are forced to ride in caged, segregated cars on trains, etc., and in this book, we see for the first time how one of the Animals (capitalization is used to denote sentience) came to develop speech and a higher mental operation. It's fascinating, and the depth of Maguire's story is remarkable as always.
I believe that the best books are the ones that show us how we are. I reread A Clockwork Orange recently, and thought of this idea then, too...the most chilling thing for me in that book is not just the violence, not just the calm rationale that Alex uses to describe and defend his actions, but how the supposed good guys unwittingly use much of the same horrible tactics to combat what they see as dangerous, but without thinking about it or making a logical case for it. Maguire's books are beautiful stories, yes, but eventually there comes a point where a faint echo rings back of something in your life or society at large, and the book just opens up in front of you, and you begin reading it in a whole new light. That's what makes these books so excellent, and that's what makes great books, period.
309 pages

Wednesday, November 5, 2008