Thursday, May 31, 2012

Obsessing over my New Obsession

Summer is here, fellow neurotics, and it's time once again to find ourselves a new obsession. I think I've settled on exercise for the time-being, which I define as "the rigorous exertion of muscles, skeleton, torso and girth sufficient to induce abundant perspiration and rapid heart beat" and necessitating membership within a quasi-posh, semi-expensive, local fitness center so as to subject my upper body to arduous weight-training of some sort for a time duration meant to exceed 90 days." A milestone put off for so long is now something to strive for relentlessly and petulantly - carping over every small detail. Toning, bulking, sculpting, transforming - all of these verbs have suddenly become relevant to me along with: reps, abs, sets, glutes,  deltoids, triceps, bench press, curls, clean towels, etc. etc. Of course, by throwing oneself into a new preoccupation such as this, one does run the risk of giving up other, older obsessions such as: coffee, acoustic guitars, breakfast cereal, trail mix, Paul Klee paintings, the Beatles, Henri Matisse paintings, Simon and Garfunkel, Pierre Bonnard paintings, James Taylor, Henry James, comfortable t-shirts, Chekhov short stories, detective dramas and mini-series, 19th century prose, polo shirts, Homer's Odyssey,  dress shirts, sports highlights from the 1980s, basketball, basketball sneakers, the color red, comfortable leather chairs, tuned pianos, mowing the lawn, hair-care for middle-aged people, and the list goes on!

Six-Year Old is Youngest Spelling Bee Contestant

"Lori Anne Madison is already in the record books, and this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee hasn't even begun. That's because the 6-year-old from Virginia is the youngest person ever to qualify for the competition.
"She's like a teenager in a 6-year-old body," says her mother, Sorina Madison. "Her brain, she understands things way ahead of her age."
No one is expecting Madison to win the competition, where she will be competing against kids more than twice her age. But when she correctly spelled the word "vaquero" to win a regional qualifying contest in March, she became one of the 278 exceptional children who will vie for the national spelling title.
And it turns out Madison's elite skills extend beyond spelling: She recently won major awards in both swimming and math. In fact, she's so talented that when her parents tried to enroll her in a private school for the gifted, they were told that Madison was "just way too smart to accommodate."
"Once she started reading, that's when people started looking strange at us, in libraries, everywhere," Sorina Madison said. She's actually fluently reading at 2, and at 2 ½ she was reading chapter books."
However, The Associated Press notes that the one thing Madison hasn't been enjoying is all of the media attention.
"I want to go back to being a kid and playing with my friends," she said. And as a condition of her interview with the news organization, she made them tag along while she searched for specimens in a local Virginia river.
"I sort of didn't like it. I asked for no interviews, but the media seems to be disobeying me, and that's why we're looking for snails and water slugs right now."
When Madison gets older, she'll still face stiff competition for winning the National Spelling Bee. On Tuesday, NPR reported that 9 of the past 13 winners have been Indian-American, which one expert called "almost a statistical impossibility," as Indian-Americans represent less than 1 percent of the population." - Yahoo News

Monday, May 28, 2012

It Might Scare the Horses...

Before you go through with that "wild and crazy" scheme of yours, to "go out on a limb" and "let loose" like a loon, "in the fast lane" where "the normal rules don't apply" this holiday season, "getting loud, getting reckless," "throwing punches left and right," "cat-calling to all sentient beings within ear-shot" and "letting the chips fall where they may," while you slog on with your insatiable, unoriginal drunken revelries, just remember that.................. it might scare the horses. Yes the horses, those poor easily-befuddled creatures. Or - if you prefer, the bunny-rabbits. It might scare the rabbits also. And the earthworms. And the sheep. And the spotted owls. The spotted owls are getting nervous because of you. Are you feeling guilty yet? What is this?  - you ask. Some pathetic "shout out" from a priggish misanthropic claustrophobe to the vast ocean of vital, vigorous, uninhibited humanity? Yes, in part. Or is this a heartfelt "open letter tweet" from a representative of the "squares" of the world to the irrepressible "cool kids" and "risk-takers" who keep the nocturnal economies churning by collectively agreeing to "unwind" night after night on a somewhat regular basis? Is this some cryptic, antiquarian, 19th-century, tea-sipping appeal to "animal welfare" as a means of putting a check upon our more bacchanalian tendencies at the very moment when warm weather appetites are on the brink of "having their way" with us? Yes. Exactly. I am (indeed) trying to find that perfectly Pavlovian tag-line of moral turpitude that will freeze the most unreflective hedonist fresh in his or her tracks... "So why can't I just stick with the tried and true bromide: "Don't drink and drive." I mean, sure, that works up to a point, and if Paul McCartney is out there providing the public service announcement, I have no problem with that, but I want to go even further you see - not because I want to tell other people how to live their lives (although in a perfect world that would be nice...) It's more about wanting people to police themselves, wipe their own nose, tuck their own shirt in, tie their own shoes, comb their hair, walk in a straight line by themselves, restrain their own vile bodily urges to mayhem, violence, destruction of property and fly-by-night amorous entanglements, if you catch my drift. Oh, maybe I should offer something a little less subtle like: "Don't do that, you will regret it, if not tomorrow, then soon and for the rest of your life!" or "As district rep for the divinely-sanctioned objective moral code that all of us secretly do in fact or should all agree upon, I highly advise you to reconsider what you are about to do because it A.) it will not serve your long-terms interests as a human being possessed of reason, memory and the capacity for regret B.) it will not serve the public interest  or the common good (in case you happen to be a communitarian) and C.) and most importantly of all - it will annoy the heck out of me - the innocent third-party bystander who has to witness yet again another instance of needless public debauchery as I run to my car in panic.... And while we're on the subject of "cool kids" vs. "squares" - i.e. "beautiful people" vs. "also-rans" - let me just say that although the "squares" usually get a bad rap for their uptight, shy and retiring "avoidance behaviors," there's more to the story than just that. Oh botheration - don't get me started...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Endless Summer

That "endless summer" feeling is upon us, folks, and the summer has barely begun... What makes us feel like we've suddenly got all that extra time on our hands? Do we really? Is this some chronic delusion produced by the change of seasons? I don't know. I just don't know, but I keep staring at those waves and it makes me yearn for long stretches of time near the shore...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jon Baskin on Franzen's Fiction

"What is the philosophy that informs Franzen’s fiction—is there a vision of the good life in his novels? One might think, given the argument in “Farther Away,” that the answer could be found in the meaningfulness of “close loving relationships.” And it is true that Franzen’s novels are about relationships—between husbands and wives, parents and children, the individual and her country. Yet it may come as a surprise to discover how often, for Franzen’s characters, the “hazards” of living relationships prove insurmountable, or nearly so. The story Franzen tells most insistently is that of the man whose idealism about relationships is eroded and finally destroyed by his experience with them. His characters, having ventured out in hopes of companionship and success, return often to bitterness, despair, and (if they are lucky) some insight into the harsh hypocrisies of human conduct. The entire sphinx-like plot of The Twenty-Seventh City is contrived to bring its hero, Martin Probst—who begins as a satisfied family man and ends as a solitary loner, taking a highway out of St. Louis—to the epiphany that he lived in a world “he was only now realizing he didn’t like.” Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, presents a character whose solitude is overwhelmed more often by hatred than by love; even in what is supposed to be an optimistic ending, Louis Holland can only momentarily suppress his sense of alienation from an America where “piggishness and stupidity and injustice … were every day extending their hegemony.  Retraction from relationships, and then from society as a whole—for America itself is a character in Franzen’s fiction, with which his protagonists carry on a highly tumultuous relationship—is in fact the most characteristic movement in Franzen’s novels; the New York Review of Books’s Tim Parks has observed that “his stories invariably offer characters engaging in the American world, finding themselves tainted and debased by it, then … withdrawing from it.” Freedom is no exception. Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times has written of the novel’s “majestic sweep,” which “seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” yet the America portrayed in Freedom is unmistakably a corrupted one, whose contents Franzen catalogues with a cringe. Although the novel charts the Berglund family’s boomerang course from Midwestern suburb to east Coast metropolis and back again, its protagonists discover everywhere the same greed, superficiality and disregard for sound environmental policy. YouTube videos, BlackBerries and iPods lie strewn across the book’s landscape, monuments to American apathy and a once-vibrant culture reduced to “a trillion little bits of distracting noise.” At every turn, the story reinforces its chief protagonist Walter Berglund’s view that “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.”- from Jon Baskin, "Coming to Terms"

Friday, May 25, 2012

Stop the Bullies...

The following is an excerpt from a letter written by someone who has been and continues to be a target of bullying at her high school in Maine. Her testimonial begs the question of why this behavior can't be stopped.
"You wake up, sick to your stomach at the thought of coming to this place. You dread walking through the doors because you know it’ll be the same story, different day. Imagine faking illness’ and begging your parents to just let you stay home. You walk through the doors and your stomach drops, who knows who will be the first to say something. The last thing you want to do is go to your locker because all the people who terrorize you are standing around it. You pretend you didn’t do your homework and get the zero on it even though you worked so hard on it just so you don’t have to face these people. What about when you leave your headphones at home and have the actually listen to these girls yelling “Slut, bitch, whore, jesus freak, bible thumper” to you, and thats just those three minutes between each class.
How about when you know an answer in class and are so happy you finally get it but don’t want to raise your hand because of the murmurs of the girls who hate you and tear you down. You go to lunch and are forced for sit somewhere amongst these people, they stare, they laugh, they whisper. What happens when the whispers turn to chants? You hear these girls talk about your weight and the way you look so you leave lunch early to change yourself. You risk unhealthy behavior and harm yourself to form the expectations of these people. When these people make plans to beat you up and you even have to re-evaluate your route in school to avoid it. The most dangerous place you feel is at school. You know the bathroom stalls like the back of your hand because you leave each and every class to cry and let the feelings they caused, out. This place is just for education right? Its 2:05, the bell rings, finally time to go home and get away from all of this. You get home and your phone goes off. It hasn’t stopped.
To be honest, its just begun. You get tweets, chats, text messages and it all hurts. You ignore them, you defend yourself or delete them but they don’t go away. Not only has everyone already laughed at them but they’ve already cut you deep enough for you to remember it and for it to terrorize you. That night you get ready for bed even though the truth is you won’t be sleeping. Walking by the mirror is the worst part, you see yourself, the real you, the valued you. You take a second look and it’s the person they see. The ugly, worthless person. You lay in bed and just cry. You finally see what they see. No one sticks up for you. Your alone with your thoughts and the words they’ve imprinted on you. Now its become a control issue, you want to control the pain you feel, you look at your bare arms and pure body, you tell yourself you’re weak and cut. You feel better for what? 2 minutes?" from Victoria Pabst's Open Letter

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Teens Cursing??? - Naahhh...

Home » News » Students News » Teen Literature Heavy with Profanity

Teen Literature Heavy with Profanity

By RICK NAUERT PHD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on May 21, 2012

Teen Literature Heavy with ProfanityA new study finds that the authors of teen literature often portray their more foul-mouthed characters as rich, attractive and popular.
For many adults, the beauty of the popular movie Hunger Gamesis the absence of sex and profanity, a followup to the remarkable Harry Potter series. Nevertheless, these examples appear to be exceptions, not the rule.
In a study, Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne analyzed the use of profanity in 40 books on an adolescent bestsellers list.
Coyne discovered that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity. That translates to almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.
Coyne was intrigued not just by how much swearing happens in teen lit, but who was swearing: Those with higher social status, better looks and more money.
“From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne said.
Coyne’s study will be published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
While profanity in TV and movies has been studied extensively, this research is the first to examine it in the realm of books aimed at teens. Thirty-five of the 40 books – or 88 percent – contained at least one instance of profanity. One of them contained nearly 500.
That’s a far higher rate than what’s found in video games rated T (Teen), of which only 34 percent contain profanity. In a way, that’s comparing apples to oranges because books contain more words – also known as “opportunities to swear” in the academic literature.

Teacher Appreciation Day

Wow... People are actually taking time out of their day to do something nice for teachers. Thank you. Bless you. We will not forget your kindness!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pacific Coast Highway

For some of us aging Californians, even today, this remains a magical, mythical roadway - a path leading somewhere new and exciting. And from the photograph, it would appear that traffic is not a problem.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

John Gray: "Progress is an illusion..."

In Straw Dogs, a work of thoroughgoing iconoclasm, British philosopher Gray attacks the belief that humans are different from and superior to animals. Invoking pure Darwinism, he savages every perspective from which humans appear as anything more than a genetic accident that has produced a highly destructive species (homo rapiens)--a species that exterminates other species at a phenomenal rate as our swelling numbers despoil the global environment. Gray explains the human refusal to confront the darker realities of our nature largely as the result of how we have consoled ourselves with the myths of Christianity and its secular offspring, humanism and utopianism. Human vanity, he complains, has even converted science (which should teach us of our insignificant place in nature) into an ideology of progress. But neither hope for progress nor confidence in human morality passes muster with Gray, who envisions a future in which the human population finally contracts as a world politics that grows ever more predatory and brutal shatters all such illusions. As a work of ruthless rigor, this provocative book will force readers to reexamine their own convictions. Bryce Christensen - 

SCARY STUFF from a British pessimist!

Simon Critchley - Philosopher

The Faith of the Faithless (2012)
From the paradox of politics and religion in Rousseau to the political stakes of the return to St. Paul in the work of Heidegger, Taubes, Agamben and Badiou, via explorations of politics and original sin in the work of Carl Schmitt and John Gray, Critchley examines whether there can be a faith of the faithless, a belief for unbelievers. Expanding on his debate with Slavoj Žižek, Critchley concludes with a meditation on the question of violence and the limits of non-violence. The Faith of the Faithless - Experiments in Political Theology will be published by Verso in 2012.
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying (2010)
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying (Polity, 2010), a sort of anti-self-help book, is a series of conversations between Critchley and Carl Cederström from 2009 and 2010, originally based on Swedish television series. The conversations are intended to provide an overview and introduction to Critchley's life and work. They are based around a series topics: life, death, love, humour and authenticity. The volume also contains a discussion with Tom McCarthy.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

South: the Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton

"Although there have been a number of new books and reprints recently focusing on the Endurance expedition, this is the one book everyone should read, Sir Ernest Shackleton's own story of the tragedy he turned into a triumph. Shackleton fully covers the expedition from its inception, through the loss of the Endurance, the stranding of the men on desolate Elephant Island, the majestic small-boat journey in search of rescue to South Georgia, the many attempts to evacuate the men from Elephant Island, and the little-known story of the Ross Sea Party of the expedition, who established a base on the opposite side of the Antarctic continent to lay depots for the planned Antarctic crossing and in spite of horrible deprivation caused when their ship was swept out to sea in a storm, managed to complete all their work laying the groundwork for a trip that never happened. After rescuing his men on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to rescue this party as well, something pretty much ignored in most modern books about the expedition. Very much worth reading; also read "Heart of the Antarctic," Shackleton's book about his earlier expedition.' - from reader review by Susan Paxton

Friday, May 18, 2012

Oxen of the Sun

I can't help but wonder what the lesson of this episode is, given that Odysseus' men were starving when they were forced to eat the oxen belonging to the sun god, Helios Hyperion. To make matters worse, Odysseus failed to share with them some crucial information before landing on Thrinacia - namely, the prophecy given to him by Teiresias, the blind seer, that foretold their doom. One assumes that some of the men might have shown more restraint if they had known ahead of time that such sacrilege against the god was predicted in advance. As with the prior calamity involving Scylla and Charybdis, there are no easy solutions to certain, messy situations. Given the rift that has emerged between Odysseus and his crew, he has reason to be careful about the information he shares with them, lest by telling them all the bitter truth, he incite them to mutiny and parricide. They have learned the hard way, and perhaps hold this fact against him that Odysseus cannot always guarantee his crew's safety and well-being; his needs, desires, inclinations run contrary to theirs - even to the point of making their lives expendable.


In Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, Oceanos was that far-off region at the edge of the known earth - home of the Cimmerians - where Odysseus went to commune with the spirits of the dead. I imagine Oceanos as a portal of some sort to the underworld (Hades) where among the souls of the departed, Odysseus would encounter Elpenor (his hapless crew member), Teiresias, the blind Theban seer, Anticleia (his mother), Agamemnon (embittered and misogynistic over Clytemnestra's treachery), Achilles (sullenly nostalgic and bored out of his mind for all eternity) and more importantly Hercules - his role model. Theseus and Perithous were no shows.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Circe's Island

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus must rescue his crew from the the charms of the wily goddess and sorceress, Circe, who has turned his men into swine. After resisting Circe's "magic" (i.e. withstanding her powerful drugs, chewing the sacred moly that Hermes has provided, and avoiding the  fate of emasculation that might have befallen him) Odysseus finally capitulates to her charms, and ends up spending an entire year with her, languishing in her pleasure palace, enervated by rest and idleness until once again he is reminded of his prime directive to return home. Compared to his previous encounters with giants and cannibals (the Cyclops, the Laistrygonians) offering harrowing examples of savage inhospitality, this episode represents the opposite extreme of danger via seduction. A much needed respite, some would say, when compared with the earlier narrow escapes, but nevertheless, a form of refuge/languor which in retrospect seems like a waste of time. What to make of all this? Does not this visit to Circe's island remain for us modern readers a potent symbol... of human frailty (always choosing the easy path)... a lesson on sloth... complacency... addiction to the status quo? A warning against growing prosperous and stale? A parable about how time waits for no man; there is no stopping, no slowing down in life. Indeed. Perhaps. We all know about "endless summer," "extended holiday" and "being on sabbatical."  I can't help but wonder, nevertheless, about this constant temptation-to-vegetate and how prevalent (even all-pervasive) it is without our realizing it - under the guise of some productive "routine" or "outlet." What follows next may appear on first glance as an exercise in sheer hyperbole on my part or else I had a really bad day yesterday and I'm just venting, but tell me if at least part of it doesn't ring true or at least echo within the realm of plausibility...At such a time as now, when the old opinions, customs and traditions continue to fade, when the normal rules don't so much apply anymore and our somewhat open-ended, "anything goes," "let's-play-tennis-without-a-net" morality is slowly but surely unraveling the fabric of our common quilt... in this crazy mixed up 24/7 hall-of-mirrors (news-cycle that is) where up is down, left is right, the center cannot hold, the tragic is comical, the comical is tragical, where essentials are forgotten and trivia remembered, where publicity hounds are fawned over and the wise remain silent, where millions (of average folks and celebrities alike) are hyped-up or strung-out on some aspect of life (nothing unfamiliar here) depending on the season or else take medication as prescribed by their physician...where magic is sought for not only in pills, but in diets, in clothing, in homes, in vacations, in shopping channels, in food mags, in gold, in stocks, on Facebook, on cruise ships, through oracular pronouncements by trendy motivational speakers, in gadgetry, in flashy "online connections"; in such a world where "work," "labor" and especially "toil" have become passe - unless they bring with them big perks, where people keep pace with their relentless schedules by living vicariously through their children or else go in search of R&R in a demi-monde of their own making, (with emphasis here on the aforementioned artifice) then do restless, aimless, albeit exquisite pleasure-seeking and hedonism become the sine qua non, the  sole raison-d'etre of individuals who resist more austere, demanding, ascetic-minded quests, who conceive for themselves no higher, arduous elusive spiritual goals. In such a milieu, the mildest inconveniences are experienced as excruciating pains. Our collective sensitivity index evokes howls and shrieks of outrage as long as there remains some iota of difficulty that is not being dealt with, that is not shrinking, subsiding, fading from view. Even amid the ongoing shake-up (the lay-offs, the displacements, the downsizings) within the general economy, with people struggling to find work or maintain their old career paths, I discern an attitude of lethargy, torpor, fatiguedistraction, stupefaction mingled with levity in the general discourse (ruled over as it is by stand-up comedians) which I hence refer to as the "Circe's island" of culture. Here on this island, people stretch out, yawn, recline and whisper to themselves "oh what's the use....let just stay numb." The more serious and dire our situation becomes, the more desperately people cling to the glitter, the facade, the confetti of the circus tent. Okay. I'm done. Life goes on. Tomorrow is another day.

Time Capsule - May, 2012

"Duck" Dunn, famous bass guitar player, has died. Nicolas Sarkozy is out of office in France. Angela Merkel is on the ropes in Germany. Financial crisis continues in Spain and Greece. Analysts fear a panic "run" on Greek banks. Fighting continues in Syria. JPMorgan is being sued. Wall Street is still over 12,000 - amid all this. The President has publicly revealed his support for same-sex marriage. The 4th installment of Robert Caro's new biography on LBJ (The Passage of Power) is available (#1 on NYTimes bestseller list). 50 Shades of Grey is the #1 bestseller fiction. (Don't ask...) Rupert Murdoch's media empire is sinking faster than expected. Mark Zuckerberg just turned 28 (years old); his Facebook empire is now worth 100 billion in assets. (But is it a good investment or a passing fad? They're debating that on the financial pages.) The budget crisis in California continues to loom large. Governor Jerry Brown is forced to propose massive budget cuts. Celtics are in the second round of the play-offs against the Sixers. The Red Sox may be turning the corner - riding a 5-game win streak. There's a blazing forest fire still raging in Arizona. The John Edwards' trial is dragging on as well (do they have to publicize this train wreck?). The Oprah network is in trouble. Dr. Oz has a show. The (Marvel) Avengers film is setting records at the box office. How does that compare to Hunger Games? Will the Dark Knight be able to compete? Mad Men is still the talk of the town...Rush Limbaugh has lambasted his numerous critics while being inducted into the "Hall of Famous Missourians." (True story.) Levon Helm has also died - along with Vidal Sassoon, Maria Trejo, April Kauffman, Carl Beane, Maurice Sendak, Carlos Fuentes and Mike Wallace. There's a sniper in Mississippi who pulls people over driving what appears to be an "unmarked police car." The sandwich is celebrating its 250th birthday.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"The Vanity of Human Wishes"

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O'er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav'ring Man, betray'd by vent'rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach'rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.
How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice,
Rules the bold Hand, or prompts the suppliant Voice,
How Nations sink, by darling Schemes oppres'd,
When Vengeance listens to the Fool's Request.
Fate wings with ev'ry Wish th' afflictive Dart,
Each Gift of Nature, and each Grace of Art,
With fatal Heat impetuous Courage glows,
With fatal Sweetness Elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the Speaker's pow'rful Breath,
And restless Fire precipitates on Death..."

- from "The Vanity of Human Wishes" by Samuel Johnson


"In all the lands that stretch from Gades to the Ganges and the Morn, there are but few who can distinguish true blessings from their opposites, putting aside the mists of error. For when does Reason direct our desires or our fears? What project do we form so auspiciously that do not repent us of our effort and of the granted wish?     Whole households have been destroyed by the compliant Gods in answer to the masters' prayers; in camp and city alike we ask for things that will be our ruin. Many a man has met death from the rushing flood of his own eloquence; others from the strength and wondrous thews in which they have trusted. More still have been ruined by money too carefully amassed, and by fortunes that surpass all patrimonies by as much as the British whale exceeds the dolphin. It was for this that in the dire days Nero ordered Longinus  and the great gardens of the over-wealthy Seneca to be put under siege; for this was it that the noble Palace of the Laterani  was beset by an entire cohort; it is but seldom that soldiers find their way into a garret! Though you carry but few silver vessels with you in a night journey, you will be afraid of the sword and cudgel of a freebooter, you will tremble at the shadow of a reed shaking in the moonlight; but the empty-handed traveller will whistle in the robber's face." - from JuvenalSatire #10

Monday, May 14, 2012

Metroland by Julian Barnes

I've been wanting to sample a novel by Julian Barnes - and this one looks semi-promising despite the conflicted opinions of several readers online who give the book a qualified endorsement with various provisos and caveats.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Pain of Small Talk (Redux)

From an early age we are all taught the simple joys of social interaction, beginning with the most rudimentary exchanges.  Such "verbal niceties" make up the first step in learning how to venture out of our respective shells and begin exploring (one hopes) our enchanting social environment: Hello, how are you? I am fine, thanks. Do you like school? Yes, I like school, especially recess. I have a sister. I have a pet iguana. I can ride a bike. I'm not afraid of the dark. Is pizza your favorite food? Mine is ice cream. My favorite show is Sesame Street. Do you have any goldfish? etc. etc. And, as this pattern continues, presumably, we learn to associate fun and adventure with such glib, unself-conscious banterand gradually, so the theory goes, we become more at ease with these harmless little banal conversations that recur so frequently - minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, every time we turn around, it seems. Because it's normal to be chatty and to use our vocal cords to good effect, to observe, to opine, to share information with our peers. Ah, who is there so cold of heart as to not enjoy the sound of innocent, guileless jibber-jabber in hallways, on playgrounds, at shopping malls? So then, naturally, irrevocably, as day follows night, at some point during this gestation period of youth, we come to learn that this basic ritual of human correspondence known as small talk - this wonderful, bountiful, inescapable prelude to serious dialogue - is, in fact, the easiest thing on earth to master, the most direct way of establishing much-needed contact with persons of whatever social station who happen to be standing or loitering nearby. Any fool can make small talk and I use that word advisedly (see blog title). America runs on small talk because America is full of extroverts and the easiest thing for an extrovert to do is make small talk: Hi. Hello. Nice weather we're having. Don't you think? Supposed to rain next week.  Didya see that story in the paper about the missing cat caught in the storm pipe? Oh yeah, that was funny. Here it's only March and I can't wait for football season to begin again. Those dang Celtics are trading away their best players. Think this economy is gonna turn around? Don't know. Hope so. Well, I aim to find myself a good pancake eatery. Yep. That sounds good. Heh, heh, heh, that's a funny shirt you're wearing. Bought it at a yard sale. No way.  I swear. Is that one of them tye dye shirts? I believe it is. But for some of us, odd as it may sound, these very ordinary encounters are enough to produce excruciating levels of stress and discomfort - not to mention perspiration and momentary mental paralysis. We make a good faith effort to "jump in the pool" and sometimes we're in the shallow end....and sometimes we're not. Sometimes it's like floating, and sometimes it's more like keeping one's head above water or just treading water, counting, slowly, as the minutes pass, until one of our interlocutors lures us toward the deep end or else decides to splash water on us. And sometimes it's like gasping for breath and feeling the oxygen not being replenished in our lungs. (Not to exaggerate but, that is what it feels like.) And of course the "pool rules" are not prominently displayed anywhere - so now we have a problem.  The conversation hits a snag:  Hey, chief. What? What the haps? Why so serious, there, chief, what's wrong? Nothing...what are you...getting at? Just kiddin, but hey, you DO look uncomfortable, there dude... what gives? Gotta roll with the punches, chief. Are you saying... am face, my shoulders [awkward pause] they bother you? Relax, I'm just teasing, chief. Anyhow [yawn...stretch...looking around...] Think I'll be on my way now. See you later, worried guy.  It's hard to completely analyze what goes wrong in these simple conversations - I think it has a lot to do with the feeling of being scrutinized and summarily judged - albeit provisionally and superficially -  by another person acting without a search warrant. And if that's not weirdly problematic and insufferable enough, just add a few more high-energy sentient beings to the mix.  That's when the warning lights really start to go off in the brain, predicting danger, danger, danger. We introverts  - we agitated, "highly sensitive ones" - can almost smell the moment at which people come together for the dubious, open-ended,  scary purpose of "letting their hair down" in public - sharing unseemly laughs hitherto unshared, boasting of vices previously kept hidden, losing inhibitions recently sequestered in warehouses, fidgeting like frogs in a bucket, exchanging sordid tales of lust and gluttony, trading insults and put-downs that only add to the festivities, surreptitiously competing to out-do one another in swagger and bravado, making light, making merry, laughing and snorting and cavorting until the room begins to spin and I - must - seek - fresh - air - immediately. What is wrong with this picture.... that anyone (like me) should feel so forlorn and oppressed? Oh Lord, why do we (my fellow introverts and I)  feel so bent-out-of-shape in the middle of all this frivolity? Why does it unsettle us so very much when all sense of gravitas and sobriety is swept out of the room? A convention of stand-up comedians could boast of more stability than this. Because these situations are normal, right? People gathering and feeling "comfortable" with one another, talking about neither this nor that - nothing that you'd want recorded for posterity's sake...all that is well and good...and to be encouraged. So says the majority, so goes the way of the world. I get it....because people out there need to talk, to relax, to unwind, to regale, to laugh, to share, to tease, to reveal, to get wild, get crazy, go nuts, get jiggy as part of what they do.  And if the majority is happy with that, we'll you know what that means, my fellow "aberrant weeds," my fellow "third wheels," my fellow "biological errors." We become the de facto kill-joys, the nay-sayers, the party-poopers, petulantly pining away for a pity party. But supposing it was really quite unnerving and somewhat traumatic for a certain portion of the population - oh let's say 17% for starters  - to endure these common episodes. What if such experiences only served to disorient and confuse, to frazzle and to fluster, to place our nerve-endings on overload, to de-moralize and discourage those of us who are wired, at such moments, to look around (in desperation) for more serious, structured forms of philosophical conversation, which never seem to break out? What then? Oh, I could go on squawking about this incontrovertible issue for the next week and a half, but action, it seems is called for. Two choices remain for us - if any of this stuff happens to resonate with you: pity party in my room (5 minutes), be there, be square or else....we...could... start ...a... REVOLUTION!

Friday, May 11, 2012

...from Descartes' Meditation #4

Descartes has this famously weird ontological proof for the existence of God which sort of argues that the "idea" of perfection in our minds points to a separately subsisting Supreme Being. Be that as it may, the other very interesting aspect of this meditation has to do with humans who are self-consciously error-prone and tormented thus by that same idea of perfection, (autonomy, independence, invulnerability, freedom from fallibility) that we can never quite get out of our minds:  "And it is true that when I think only of God and direct my mind wholly to Him, I discover [in myself] no cause of error, or falsity; yet directly afterwards, when recurring to myself, experience shows me that I am nevertheless subject to an infinitude of errors, as to which, when we come to investigate them more closely, I notice that not only is there a real and positive idea of God or of a Being of supreme perfection present to my mind, but also, so to speak, a certain negative idea of nothing, that is, of that which is infinitely removed from any kind of perfection; and that I am in a sense something intermediate between God and nought, i.e. placed in such a manner between the supreme Being and non-being, that there is in truth nothing in me that can lead to error in so far as a sovereign Being has formed me; but that, as I in some degree participate likewise in nought or in non-being, i.e. in so far as I am not myself the supreme Being, and as I find myself subject to an infinitude of imperfections, I ought not to be astonished if I should fall into error."  - from Rene Descartes - Meditation #4 

The Sun is out in Maine.

Thou Shalt Not! (if that's okay with you...)

Call me an aging curmudgeon (I know I sound like one) prone to reactionary nostalgia for biblical-sounding imperatives, but wouldn't you agree that these days we aren't inclined to follow very many "thou shalt not" pronouncements, and even if we did, we wouldn't know what to do with them. They wouldn't inspire us to go about avoiding specific behaviors with any degree of seriousness. (Examples: Thou shalt not worship false gods! Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife! I can hear people yawning already. Not me - them!) It used to be that a society defined itself according to a somewhat rigid set of "do's and don'ts" with emphasis on the "sacred prohibitions."But if a person tries to say nowadays "Thou shalt not be inordinately snarky toward people whose articles you are reading online," or "Thou shalt not neglect hygiene or decorum when standing in a crowd," or even better "Thou shalt not share intimate details of thy private life or go in search of publicity, self-promotion or other vain immodesties for the so-called benefit of people who really don't seek to inquire into your business"  how many people would automatically nod in agreement? And so - (huge sigh) -  I'm trying to make a short list of any actions that we absolutely will not tolerate as a community of like-minded moral agents here in America. But it's hard. Let's see...what can we all agree upon? Well, for starters, even these days, thank goodness, you (#1) cannot go around killing people at random or (#2) assaulting people (against their will) or (#3) slandering them on the basis of skin color without serious repercussions. So that's three big restrictions on our freedom right there that I hope no one will quibble with. And it's also somewhat unacceptable (again, thank goodness!) to (#4) abuse or harm children without incurring public wrath and infamy...And while we're at it, you'd be strongly advised against (#5) major forms of theft, trespass or extortion against another person's livelihood (to couch this crime in broadest possible terms). Since I don't hear a chorus of temper-tantrums breaking out, let me go one step farther. Wouldn't it be really, really helpful, wouldn't the world be that much more pleasant and hospitable (!),  if people on various parts of the globe (specifically, men) could start  treating their spouses, sisters, friends, girl-friends, mothers, daughters, grandparents, complete strangers who happen to be women, etc. etc. with greater degrees of respect on a consistent basis? But - oh heck - we're still working on that one. That's just too much re-adjustment for some backward males to adapt to. It should be on the list though - eh - at #6 if not higher up. And women, be nice to the men in your midst. I'm sure you will...And let's see, I'd like to see something about honesty and fidelity as well. There would be room at the #7 slot, but given that people lie on average 27 times a day just to get by, and show spotty fidelity to friends/spouses as they go, that's another one that we just can't put on the list without people sort of rolling their eyes at us. So in place of that can we agree to avoid whatever gratuitous trashings of the environment we are tempted to commit - unless we happen to work for large oil and coal conglomerates? (They forced me to add a loophole.) There. I'm stuck at seven. What am I forgetting???  It would be nice to get to ten.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Gift We Didn't Ask For...

What I would tell the graduates this year: Fellow mortals and sensitive bipeds out there, grappling with the pains of existence and the current lousy job market, I come with more words of advice for you which may at first glance seem overly sober and lugubrious... please don't blame me, though, I'm just the messenger here. This isn't much - I know - but it's all I have on the spur of the moment (I'm not getting paid for this) and besides, it's a topic that I predict you'll keep coming back to in the days ahead: Whatever else you take away from this special moment, please remember as you go forth, today, mindful of various blessings and advantages you have received along the way, that attached to every one of us is some unwanted and unasked-for circumstance, some dreaded fateful condition, an obstacle, a hindrance, an albatross, a curse, a blight, a wretched hassle, a wound, a hurt - something that we're stuck with for the long haul, something that gets in our way, makes us upset, keeps us vulnerable, adds to our insecurity, gives us reason to feel cheated, to feel handicapped, goes against our most cherished agendas of survival, success and prosperity in life. It might just be an obvious physical blemish, a mental quirk, a flaw in temperament, a cognitive deficit in some obscure area,  a personality glitch (shyness, anyone?), a traumatic memory, a shift in fortune, a bad year, a lost decade, a troubled sibling or problematic parent, an extended dysfunctional family or inauspicious cultural climate (feeling like we were born in the wrong decade or century). We carry it around with us and it marks us for life; it grates upon our nerves because it's like some alien presence, an unexpected guest, an unwanted care-package, this random prosthetic to our otherwise normal physique, this fly in our daily soup that continuously spoils the feast - bringing us back to the lingering question of how things might have been - if only we had not been strapped with ITAnd the problem in a nutshell is very simple - what to do about "the gift that we didn't ask for" - to view it as a weird, unexpected blessing-in-disguise from the great beyond or to use it as our ongoing Exhibit A of "more sinned against than sinning." How many of us carry around this familiar rock, for years and years, never knowing quite what to do with it, where to put it, how to hide it, what to make of it, until IT drags us down several notches from where we expected to be; or else we run from it, pursuing alternative scenarios where such afflictions cannot exist (!), generating as we go oodles of new commotion and chaos around ourselves designed to overshadow IT, to deny that it's really there. So much of life is taken up with responding (somewhat negatively, I must add) to what we didn't choose and never in a million years would have requested voluntarily. But there you have it. Even at this very late date in human history, when it seems that we should finally have gotten all our wishes met, given that the weight of nature, tradition and large institutions has been lifted from our backs, even now, how absurdly difficult it remains to do away with these sources of discontent...troubles that we can't run away from... which has the effect of forcing us to question, to turn back upon ourselves, to inquire as to what kind of creatures we really are (aside from all the hype and self-promotion), what strange entities capable of intense frustration, regret and self-conscious misery. And so graduates, I end my little jeremiad by telling you in advance that, although there is no solution to this awful package, and that even pharmaceuticals, sensuality and rock-and-roll can't reverse the trend, nevertheless, the good news is, if there is any, that what seems like the biggest downer - the source of isolation, frustration, alienation, angst, sadness, resignation, despair and whatever else we go to the doctor to complain about, is for some lucky mortals out there, also a source of the most sublime healing power. Who knows how and who knows why, but  there are actually some who know how transform their hurt into advantage, their weakness into strength - these cherished few among us who keep us afloat,  keep us inspired by their example - not of ease but of hardship. We admire the people most whose lives we would ourselves never wish for.  So when you bump into one of these enlightened ones during your journey, be sure to ask them what their secret is - how they turned lead into gold - knowing that they share the same wounds as you - different in form and content surely - but the similar as to genus - that of the unasked-for gift.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Another Rainy Day

Another rainy day in the forecast. Squirming like a catawba worm. Looking up words in the dictionary. Impatience. Agitation. Disquietude. Boredom. Tedium. Monotony. Doldrums. Lassitude. Lethargy. Ennui. Fatigue. Yawning. Weltschmerz. Frustration. Petulance. Peevishness. Turbulence. Unrest. Irritability. Annoyance. Discontent. Vexation. Resentment. Insomnia. Jitters. Cabin Fever.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why did Jonathan Franzen Criticize Edith Wharton?

I'm somewhat baffled that Mr. Franzen chose to "go after" Edith Wharton in a recent New Yorker article. Any thoughts on that? Anyone?

Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

"What Franzen is getting at is the concept of being "islanded," the notion that — no matter what — we are on our own, all the time. This is among his fascinations; there's a reason his first essay collection was called "How to Be Alone." In that sense, all of it — from the kid in that car to the teenager wandering New York to the birder on Robinson Crusoe's island — is of a piece with David Foster Wallace and even Neil Armstrong: isolated dots of consciousness in a capricious universe, trying to find a point of real connection before time runs out. "The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking," Franzen acknowledges, but in the end, it is the counter-argument that lingers, even (or especially) when it leaves us exposed." - David L. Ulin (from a recent LA Times book review)

Vancouver B.C.

Behold the great northwest! The photograph says it all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Helicopter Parents and Today's Youth

"My own view remains predictably twisty, fraught, and disloyal. Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an "adult" life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning. The process will be different for every person. I have my own inspirational cast of characters in this regard, a set of willful, heroic self-orphaners, past and present, whom I continue to revere: Mozart, the musical child prodigy who successfully rebelled against his insanely grasping and narcissistic father (Leopold Moz art), who for years shopped him around the courts of Europe as a sort of family cash cow; Sigmund Freud, who, by way of unflinching self-analysis, discovered that it was possible to love and hate something or someone at one and the same time (mothers and fathers included) and that such painfully "mixed emotion" was also inescapably human; Virginia Woolf, who in spite of childhood loss, mental illness, and an acute sense of the sex-prejudice she saw everywhere around her, not only forged a life as a great modernist writer, but made her life an incorrigibly honest and vulnerable one.
In a journal entry from 1928 collected in A Writer's Diary, Woolf wrote the following (long after his death) about her brilliant, troubled, well-meaning, tyrannical, depressive, enormously distinguished father—Sir Leslie Stephen, model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and one of the great English "men of letters" of the 19th century:
Father's birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one had known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable...
The sentimental pathology of the American middle-class family—not to mention the mind-warping digitalization of everyday life—usually militates against such ruthless candor. But what the Life of the Orphan teaches—has taught me at least—is that it is indeed the self-conscious abrogation of one's inheritance, the "making strange" of received ideas, the cultivation of a willingness to defy, debunk, or just plain old disappoint one's parents, that is the absolute precondition, now more than ever, for intellectual and emotional freedom."
- Terry Castle, from Don't Pick Up: Why Kids Need to Separate from their Parents (in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education)


Seattle is one of those cities that really tugs at one's imagination - there in the Pacific Northwest at the edge of the continent, beckoning for strangers and new arrivals like my Irish grandfather, who settled there as a dispatcher for the fire department. Memories of lush greenery, dense foliage, intense trees, leaves, ferns, hilly streets, urban fish markets, marvelous skyscrapers, harbor views,  ferry boats, and yes, rain. Don't get me started on Vancouver, B.C. I love that place too...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Oh Botheration...

"Oh botheration...don't you be moral." - Sydney Carton to Mr. Stryver

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Elderly Couple

I once had a dream about a strange encounter, a dream, mind you, lest anyone get the wrong idea... I was traversing the idyllic college campus at the hour when a strange elderly couple happened to be occupying the benches on a quiet trapezoidal enclave near the quad, the old woman, covered in dignified wraps, knitting a scarf somewhat watchfully, while the old man, her spouse, dressed in suit and tie with a derby hat, was absent-mindedly fingering an old pocket watch as if counting figures in his head. As I strode past them half-oblivious to their banal postures,  contemplating my morning routine in obvious silence, trying to sail swiftly by,  through the evaporating mist, the old woman casually fixed her glare upon me and spoke, as if for the first time ever: "You are a MOST brazen young man, to walk past without paying due deference to YOUR LORD." - "Excuse me?"  I sputtered, lurching to a halt, looking around for the object of my supposed worship.  She continued: "You come to this place, you wander to these coordinates, to this very corridor,  this garden inlet, you behold us sitting here before you and you simply walk past us without bowing down in thanks and gratitude to HIM who is your ETERNAL BENEFACTOR!  He who beckons to you, who provides for you, who blesses you, who makes possible for you every good thing and fair outcome!" "Look lady," I ventured, grasping for innocuous remarks to help diffuse the situation. "I... don't... believe... we've met before, but I hope you have a great day. Really. It looks like we've got a nice one on tap, if those clouds stay where they are." But at this point her knitting falls from her hands as she becomes even more indignant, rebuking me in turn: "Such paltry small talk is unacceptable. Have ye not even one brief word of thanks to HIM, for this inimitable gift that HE bestows upon thee, this ongoing banquet, this memorable journey, this joyful drama that  HE and HE ALONE has made possible and continues to lay at your incorrigible feet?" Pausing again...  HIM? I say to myself snarkily. This old geezer sitting right here! The old man looks up smiling at me in a feeble, absent-minded way.  "Are you serious about your husband?" I offer. And she: "Quite serious. How could I not be serious. Is this not simple enough for you? Is this not accessible enough?" What?  I mumbled to myself: "Thanks a lot...there... old man for this universe you've given us... which may be in need of a tune-up soon...heh heh heh..."  "Stop!" she interrupts. "Say it to HIM. Kneel before thy LORD and tell it to HIM. And lose the sarcasm now!" By now I'm feeling strangely defensive, and, somewhat disoriented from being caught up in this surreal scene, I find myself crouching down, addressing the old man: "It's....uhm.... quite a universe you've got here. Many good things to be grateful[looking around]... birds, trees, flowers, clouds, comfortable benches, traffic signals, fresh coffee - so many amazing perks. Thank you sir....I have no immediate complaints off the top of my head - speaking for myself that is. Ha. Ha." But even then, the old lady is not mollified. "Quite a universe - humph? Is that all you can say to HIM who gives unceasingly that thou mayest live abundantly, that thou mayest flourish and prosper and learn continuously from the intricate labyrinth which even now you continue to de-value? You store up WRATH for yourself on the day of judgment!" The old man looking down at the bench feeling for splinters, seemingly humbled by the spectacle of it all, looks up at me ever so briefly as if to say: "This universe is okay then, it's not so imperfect as people seem to think? You like it well enough then - eh?" But instead of responding to these unsaid remarks I continued my dialogue with the old woman: "I beg your pardon, madam," I say, holding my temper in check for the moment "but you seem to be talking as if this gentleman, your spouse, were some sort of god or something?"" And she: " Some sort of god? Some mere random deity sent to visit you, you ingrate, you spoiled child! You impudent, wicked cretin, you insubstantial ball of clay, you dust-ridden miscreant! You small-time petty blasphemer. Puer aeternus! We simplify for your benefit. We make things tangible and accessible to you, and still you walk past us indifferent to this sublime moment of revelation! You have a most feeble memory, young man. Is this not what you yourself had once asked for during a moment of excruciating pain???" She had succeeded by now at embarrassing me. Was this some strange payback for a request I had made (in my turbulent adolescence, no doubt) to garner a direct visitation from the Almighty? (A doubting Thomas, I've been called that before, but this was ridiculous.) "I meant to say," (trying again, playing along with her premise), "that I am honored to be part of such an amazingly complicated and always-interesting universe." But at this point my inner skeptic was getting the better of me. "May I point out, however, that along with such feelings of awe and wonder, one cannot help but be stricken at times with other more ambivalent emotions, a cosmic vertigo if you like; such gratitude as we can muster is leavened with dread, angst, trepidation, bewilderment, and not a small amount of frustration, even anger at having to undergo various unasked-for pain and difficulty... It is in our nature, my good lady, to imagine how things might have been other than they in fact are...We dream, do we not, of other possible worlds, new and improved and without all the chaos...I mean we humans can't take responsibility for everything that goes wrong in this world - can we?" The woman sat silent, stone-faced. "By the way," I continue, "does your husband want to say anything in reply to my remarks?" "HE is not one for small talk. I speak for him as a rule; yet being a woman, I am quite used to being overlooked, ignored, de-valued, not to mention nay-sayed, but I am his voice, nevertheless. We work as one unit. My words typically fall by the wayside although they have upon them the divine stamp of approval, have no doubt.  "But you do understand what I'm getting at - don't you? People want to be grateful - but they do have issues. And they seldom get the direct feedback that they crave - aside from the incoherent ravings of eccentrics and would-be prophets. They don't hear back from you guys; they don't feel your presence." The woman picks up her knitting and shoots me another piercing glare. "And look you now. What is happening at this very moment? We ARE having this marvelous conversation, but you take it as an affront, an attack, an accusation, a hassle, a nuisance, a let-down, a distraction from your normal empty chatter, your wretched daily routine. So be it. And will you go away satisfied even if I should tell you all of the answers you ever longed to hear? It is not in your nature to be satisfied with anything that the divine wisdom might impart to you..." At this point, stunned by the weird circus atmosphere that I find myself at a loss for words. "Divine wisdom," I mumble to myself. Is that what this is???  "As I've said," her voice growing soft, "I am used to being slighted, disparaged, rejected, but mark my words, your perception is warped, that's why you fail to bow down and give thanks." I walk on (or wake up, rather) intending that my skeptical lawyer, Phil, should hear about this...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Television, Our Comforter

Television is now (and perhaps always was and will be) something more than just a humble babysitter, more than a plasticine friend, more than a stationary butler, more than a virtual family or a miniature menagerie, more than a strange substitute ersatz community, more than the instant cure for whatever or elusive promise of an endless club-med vacation, more than a ready-made dream-factory, even more (some would say) than a universe within a universe, the bizaro-world, mirror-image reversal of our own. Our constant comforter, it is thus, which is more than all these other descriptors combined. After having watched countless hours on the tube it finally hits me, that along with the screen itself, something else is there as well: an aura of sorts, like a person, a ghost, a shadow, a presence sent to comfort us. And what a strange subterranean message it is that this comforter brings, in new and subtle forms, with every waking show, every commercial, every news broadcast, public service announcement, weather report, cartoon, cop show, sit-com, mini-series or info-mercial. It's a weird positive sensation, a mood sent out, a gesture transmuted, a cryptic unspoken message beneath the blather and hum that tells you, tells me that everything's going to be okay, that everything is already fine (or at least, not too too bad), that what you're witnessing ladies and gentlemen at home is completely normal and shall remain normal, notwithstanding the news of the weird, the train wrecks, the car crashes, the wild animals, the natural disasters, the dysfunctional relationships, the yelling, the screaming, the broken hearts, the expletives deleted, the crowds cheering, candidates debating, the bombs exploding, the laugh-tracks, the soundbytes, the jewelry for sale, despite it ALL, the world is still turning apace... so relax, sit back and enjoy the show. The chaos is being dealt with, is being framed, stamped, indexed, numbered, packaged, programmed for your consumption, for your digestion, for your benefit, for your THAT you can handle it - eh? But I'm worried. I'm worried. There is something disturbing about - STOP. About the- STOP. When I see all the- STOP. Because we can't just- STOP. The comforter has spoken: relax, sit back, enjoy the show, and please, whatever else you may do, just keep on watching...We're dealing with the situation so you don't have to. Ahhhhhhhhh. ....And when television leaves the living room and becomes attached to you wherever you go, on your phone, your lap-top, in your car, following you around everywhere, not letting you rest because you need that comfort zone, because you need the warm reassurance of the mysterious comforter,  has it not become at that point something more than mere television? But here's when it- STOP. You see, I worry that - STOP. Because this can't be healthy-STOP. So I keep watching...

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tobacco Road - Rage

Reading the reviews for Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (first published in 1932) I was struck by how many current readers were put off by the subject matter - i.e. poor white farmers in Georgia during the Depression. Many readers on gave the novel only one star (*) while others recognized how the author was trying to paint a tragic portrait of a somewhat neglected class in American society. Caldwell was, if nothing else, relentlessly honest in his depiction of brutish, impulsive, desperate victims of hard times who often behaved erratically and irrationally to their own detriment.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Billed as one of the first detective novels, this mystery about a missing/stolen diamond would be worth reading - just for the sake of sampling the narrative of the dutiful butler, Gabriel Betteridge, the always-entertaining narrator of Part 1.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel with great staying power. Aside from the hypnotic pulse of the narrative itself, we might be tempted to think of it as primarily a "plot-driven" novel, full of twists and turns, populated by a slew of memorable characters to be sure, individuals for the most part either broadly sketched or overshadowed by events. But among these personages,  the emotional centerpiece of the story remains the eminently plausible, tirelessly vindictive, relentless "settler of scores," the one and only: Madame Defarge.