31 May 2011

Wages of Sin: GOP in 2012

Roger Ailes, longtime chairman of Fox News, has been getting a lot of attention lately, with a New York magazine profile and a Rolling Stone profile. This may have been inevitable: he's the in-control rich guy at the top of one of a major organization, and almost anyone in such a role is chief demon to one group or another. But there's a larger story here, in which Ailes plays only a role.

Ailes is conservative. His backstory is pretty clear about that: it's a story whose bullet points read "Nixon," "Reagan," and "Bush." But it's the last bullet point that has made him known and will ensure he is remembered: "Fox News." It's the organization that helped break the Republican Party.

From Rolling Stone:

Ailes then embarked on a purge of existing staffers at Fox News. ... “One of the problems we have to work on here together when we start this network is that most journalists are liberals,” Ailes told Moody. “And we’ve got to fight that.” Reporters understood that a right-wing bias was hard-wired into what they did from the start. “All outward appearances were that it was just like any other newsroom,” says a former anchor. “But you knew that the way to get ahead was to show your color – and that your color was red.”

Nowadays, Fox News is a powerhouse. It has pushed to the right, harder and harder, and along the way has become wildly profitable, with an $816 million profit last year. Suffering under the weight of the Bush years, the station rebounded with a series of dramatic hires. Along with Glenn Beck (the most prominent acquisition), Ailes brought in Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, John Bolton, and Mike Huckabee. Relentlessly, Fox promoted the Tea Party. And somewhere along the way, Fox News and Roger Ailes lost the thread of what they wanted.

See, the problem is that America is essentially centrist (by definition). Conservatives sometimes cite polls that list higher "conservative" self-identification when compared to "liberal" (like 37% to 22%, in this one) to argue that America is a "center-right nation." This is typically followed by explanations of the fairly even balance of the parties revolving around rampant corruption by Democrats and the bias of the media. But the plain fact is that conservatism is a clear-cut ideology, and liberalism is not. People are much more likely to identify with a set of principles like "lower taxes" and "bomb 'em" than they are to identify with the loose coalition of opposing interests that makes up the Democratic base. Still and for whatever reasons, America is pretty much half conservative and half liberal. Even the dark blue and dark red states typically only have an overbalance of five points or so.

So any political movement has to speak to most of the people. Their message has to extend beyond their base. The constant tidal effect, in both parties, is for candidates to be pulled right by the base and pulled left by the general electorate. And the two parties have their own national tidal effect - more commonly expressed as a pendulum - that goes back and forth.

With the loss in 2008 to Obama, the party base of the Republicans - as represented by Roger Ailes in person and Fox News as an organization - swung far right. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been a problem: the laws of politics would just assert themselves and ensure that since few such radical Republicans were elected by a generally moderate public, and they would be replaced by more moderate Republicans who could actually win.

But the system broke.

Witness Sarah Palin's recent bus trip to American heritage sites.

[S]he has the ability to draw crowds — and excitement — like no one else currently in the Republican presidential field. Wherever Palin goes, crowds flock. ...

Second, Palin revels in end-running — or ignoring altogether — the mainstream media. ... Instead of communicating via the media, Palin will use her massive Internet and social media presence to push her message out.

Palin is one of a long line of unaccountable Republicans, all promoted and hyped by Fox News under Roger Ailes. They are the leaders of the party. They are increasingly communicating directly with their base, bypassing traditional media that might challenge them or their policies.

Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, Cain, Bachmann, Paul, Romney... these are almost all of the GOP candidates for 2012. And if you notice, they're all either long out of elected office (five years or more by 2012) or they're Representatives from thoroughly safe districts. In other words, they can go as far right as they want to go, with no immediate consequences. Indeed, since winning an audience is about appealing to the base - rather than winning elections, which requires appealing to the center - these "candidates" are incentivized to go as far right as they can without seeming incompetent.

It's like there's only high tide in the Republican Party these days.

Things will eventually sort themselves out, of course. People like Palin won't reign forever, even though they get to pull in big crowds and big bucks without any risk thanks to their Fox podiums and paychecks. According to these profiles, moguls like Ailes are realizing their mistake, and the upper echelons of the GOP have always seemed to hold a quiet contempt for the hoi polloi. But until they sort themselves out, the GOP is in a broken mess. That's bad for them and it's bad for the country.

Wages of sin, Mr. Ailes.

29 May 2011

"The General Song Of Humanity", by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

On the coast of Chile where Neruda lived
    it's well known that
       seabirds often steal
                     letters out of mailboxes
                       which they would like to scan
                                for various reasons
Shall I enumerate the reasons?
        they are quite clear
                even given the silence of birds
                                   on the subject
          (except when they speak of it
                          among themselves
                          between cries)

First of all
they steal the letters because
      they sense that the General Song
             of the words of everyone
                     hidden in these letters
      must certainly bear the keys
             to the heart itself of humanity
                              which the birds themselves
                                   have never been able to fathom
               (in fact entertaining much doubt
      that there actually are
hearts in humans)
And then these birds have a further feeling
                 that their own general song
   might somehow be enriched
                           by these strange cries of humans
       (What a weird bird-brain idea
             that our twitterings might enlighten them)

    But when they stole away
                       with Neruda's own letters
               out of his mailbox at Isla Negra
          they were in fact stealing back their own Canto General
    which he had originally gathered
from them
  with their omnivorous & ecstatic
                                  sweeping vision

But now that Neruda is dead
      no more such letters are written
          and they must play it by ear again-
                the high great song
                                in the heart of our blood & silence

27 May 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Hard Times", "Under the Banner of Heaven", "The World Without Us", and "John Dies at the End".

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

Dickens had a happy childhood, until his father went to debtor's prison and little Charles had to work in a factory for some time, pasting labels on jars. It was miserable and difficult work that paid almost nothing, and although he was soon rescued from labor by an inheritance, it made a deep impression on him. The sudden whiplash of happiness to drudgery - and the reverse - will be intimately familiar to anyone who's read Dickens, of course. Hard Times is a good example.

The book tells the story of the Gradgrind family, whose patriarch is absolutely dedicated to Facts. Music, art, literature, and any other kind of entertainment is banned as frivolous, and the two children that are central to the book, Louisa and Tom, predictably grow into stifled young people and associate with their father's equally abhorrent friend Mr. Bounderby. The virtuous Stephen Blackpool, a laborer in Bounderby's factory, is held up as virtuous in stark contrast with the soulless proponents of Fact. The thumping great injustices of the book run their course and are partially mended by Dickens' usual sort of denouement, as the villains are sorted and the heroes recognized (if not rewarded).

The book is a perfect example of the wonderful readability of Dickens. He tells us a tale with which we are familiar, telegraphing each step before he takes it, and leaving us in no doubt about the way things will work out. Even the names are always perfectly representative, such as the harsh schoolteacher Mr. M'Choakumchild. His writing is measured and careful, with no great turns of phrase but only a quiet dedication to telling the story. The pacing is one of his greatest skills, as he scrupulously foreshadows, builds to a crescendo, and then cascades down revelations and resolutions.

Read this, and any other Dickens you can find.

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakaeur

This book, by the author of Into the Wild, is another marvelous work of long-form journalism. Less a story than a careful exploration of the violent roots of Mormonism and the resurgence of that violence in a pair of murderous fundamentalists, Under the Banner of Heaven will force virtually any reader to occasionally pause and let loose with a string of irritated profanities. Maybe it's when Krakaeur relates how Ron and Dan Lafferty killed a young woman and her baby. Maybe it's at the reading of the medieval backwardness of fundamentalist Mormon communities and their dedication to taking advantage of public largess. Or maybe it's at the sheer gullibility of people in the history of Mormonism. But at some point, you will put down this book and say something like, "Okay, seriously, what the hell?"

Too often, journalists like Krakaeur don't write good books. Writing short, snappy things is a very specific art, and sometimes the skills don't translate - the separate chapters might not seem to flow, or the larger themes get lost in smaller points. Krakaeur doesn't have that particular problem, but he does go a little overboard in his narrative dance: he goes back and forth among three plotlines, following the Lafferties on their road to murder, telling about the modern fundamentalist movement, and relating the history of Mormonism. It's interesting and shows us some parallels, but it gets out of hand and threatens to muddy the waters about halfway through the text.

Further, Krakaeur's habit of prefacing every chapter with one or two quotes is also a little too much, as my wife pointed out to me when she read this book ("Why can't authors write their own first two sentences?") They're important excerpts or quotes that work well with the material, and every writer knows the lure of setting the scene just a little bit more. But sometimes, if you can't fit the quote into the organic story you're telling, then you don't need it. Krakaeur's reliance starts to look like a crutch.

Despite its flaws, though, this book is very good, and inspires outrage - which is just what you want from outrageous stories. The Lafferties were murderers and madmen, and the deeply disturbing culture of fundamentalist Mormonism almost certainly spawned their madness and corralled the victims for the murder. Under the Banner of Heaven's tracery of links between Mormonism and astonishing historical excesses of violence needs to be read, if only to help understand a massively influential American group that takes pains to cloak their unpleasant history in ignorance.

I recommend this book; it is good, if not quite as well-written as Into the Wild.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman

You probably heard a little about this book. It started as an essay about what New York City might be like if people vanished, and then was expanded into this book, which covers the whole world and its fate after the disappearance of mankind. The book is being turned into a movie (or so I hear) and was ripped off by the ever-lowering-itself History Channel into a television show.

The essay was great, and I had been looking forward to reading this book for literally years. Boy, was I excited when I found it!

As it turns out, the rest of the book is just as good as the essay. Unfortunately, it's also almost the same as that essay: detailed, purple with extremities, and relentlessly repetitive.

The details are thorough and fascinating. Weisman spoke with all manner of experts, and as he details the fate of the Panama Canal or nuclear reactors or a Texas oil refinery, he reels off lists of interesting trivia with a fluid pen. In one segment on the aftermath of Chernobyl, the author recites the fate of species after species, digressing into brief mentions of interesting facts (the musk ox is invisible to radar because its coat is so efficient!) while never losing his central narrative. It was exactly this level of detail in the original essay that transmitted Weisman's joy with information into a story that grasps the reader.

Most of this information is about the human world and what we have done to the natural one around us - ironically, considering how people are now scrupulously missing. It's very interesting to consider what might happen to the world if all nuclear reactors were abandoned (as it turns out, about half would melt down, their centers puddling into thick masses of radioactive alloys of slag and metal). The reader is alternately struck with the precarious impermanence of our manufactured lives and with the enduring horror of our most persistent pollution. There are many such horrors. For just one: billions of plastic pellets surf the waters of the world, eternal and deadly - they do not decompose, only remain floating to choke creature after creature, and sometimes ground down into smaller particles until they're as fine as dust and can poison the tiniest creatures of all.

On the other hand, for all Weisman's assemblage of fascinating facts, he also has a tendency to anthropomorphize everything and use the most lurid phrasing possible. Water "seeks revenge." Weeds "erupt with vengeance." While this can be clever and evocative, like when Weisman describes a flock of confused birds circling high-tension lines with "guy wires become the blades of a giant bird blender," the unbroken parade of such purple phrasing begins to seem overwrought.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all, though, is the relentless repetition. It's one of the reasons the material worked perfectly in essay form but stumbles as a book. There's just... too much. By definition, there are no characters in this book - it's a speculative look at a world without any characters even left existing - and so there's nothing to tie things together or allow emotional investment. Even nonfiction needs a structure, and while there is an organization to the book as it follows different areas or topics in a post-human world, there's no spine to the pile of bony limbs. Just story after story, anecdote after anecdote, horror after horror.

Here is one such story - one of the more succinct ones:

The most stunning avicide of all, just a century ago, is still hard to fathom in its enormity. Like hearing astronomers explain the entire universe, its lesson gets lost because its subject, when it was alive, literally exceeded our horizons. The postmortem of the American passenger pigeon is so fertile with portents that just a brief glance warns— screams, in fact— that anything we consider limitless probably isn’t.

Long before we had poultry factories to mass-produce chicken breasts by the billion, nature did much the same for us in the form of the North American passenger pigeon. By anyone’s estimate, it was the most abundant bird on Earth. Its flocks, 300 miles long and numbering in the billions, spanned horizons fore and aft, actually darkening the sky. Hours could go by, and it was as though they hadn’t passed at all, because they kept coming. Larger, far more striking than the ignoble pigeons that soil our sidewalks and statuary, these were dusky blue, rose breasted, and apparently delicious.

They ate unimaginable quantities of acorns, beechnuts, and berries. One of the ways we slew them was by cutting their food supply, as we sheared forests from the eastern plains of the United States to plant our own food. The other was with shotguns, spraying lead pellets that could down dozens with a single blast. After 1850, with most of the heartland forest gone to farms, hunting passenger pigeons was even easier, as millions of them roosted together in the remaining trees. Boxcars stuffed with them arrived daily in New York and Boston. When it finally became apparent that their unthinkable numbers were actually dropping, a kind of madness drove hunters to slaughter them even faster while they were still there to kill. By 1900, it was over. A miserable few remained caged in a Cincinnati zoo, and by the time zookeepers realized what they had, nothing could be done. The last one died before their eyes in 1914.

It's sad and interesting and well-written. But now imagine a thousand others, laid out in front of you like the pavement to some grim road. It's just too long of a journey to comfortably walk.

This wasn't inevitable. In the essay, he gives a character in the form of New York City, and follows it as time wears on. He tells a story, of sorts. But while he seems to attempt something similar in the book, he instead tells a vast succession of stories with different characters - Chernobyl, floating plastic, art galleries. But in their multitudes, they stop becoming characters and instead become a crowd. The reader gets lost.

I do strongly recommend this book, but I also recommend reading it by the chapter, spaced out over time. If you read it all in one shot, you might find yourself missing mankind by the end, since at least some people would be something different.

John Dies at the End, David Wong

John Dies at the End is a book that is wholly invested with Internet culture. This is not to say that it's about anything even remotely technical; I'm not sure a computer ever even appears in the novel. But from the first page to the last, it is crammed with a love of the bizarre, penchant for meta-commentary, and self-aware puerility.

The novel is a horror story. In that respect, at least, it frequently succeeds. Wong creates numerous monsters and terrifying situations with a keen sense of the genre, and reading the book during a silent night became disquieting at times. He tells a story about a pair of friends who encounter the supernatural, and how they eventually get pulled into a life of fighting monsters and ghosts, all while making jokes about their penises.

“Every man is blessed with his gifts from the Lord. One of mine happens to be a penis large enough that, if it had a penis of its own, my penis’s penis would be larger than your penis.”

But on reaching the end of the book, Wong has a postscript and acknowledgments. He describes how the novel started off as a sort of blog, written in jags between two other jobs after getting a favorable response. And instantly, much about the book became clear to me, and I understood the reason for some things: the disjointed flow and sudden shifts in tone that betray the time-lag between writing sessions, the awkward and unsatisfying conclusion that could have been avoided with a clear plan, and the clever "twists" that I can easily imagine springing to mind after five hours at a daytime data-entry job.

Let's be frank: this book is badly written. Different subplots are crammed together thoughtlessly, with no sense of pacing or dramatic construction. The style is haphazard, with more attention paid to gimmicky tricks of phrasing than to the ordinary sentences that do the actual work of storytelling. Probably the only reason I enjoyed it was that I wasn't looking for anything serious (this is the lightest of light reading!) and I so clearly recognized the spirit of the Internet that lashed every word to the next.

Much of what I call this "Internet culture" comes from my own cohort, males who were growing up as the Internet was taking shape. I would put serious money on the proposition that David Wong is within two years of my age, in fact. It is a world that delights in the bizarre, is very aware of itself, and indulges in adolescent humor.

When I speak of the bizarre, I'm speaking of a particular kind of horror. It's not a monster that stalks the night or a malevolent ghost that haunts a house (or a possessed car or rabid dog or whatever) but rather minute descriptions of creatures that would seem almost goofy if their malevolence wasn't so prominent. One such monster, early in the book, is the "wig monster":

The finished creature seemed to be assembled from spare parts. It had a tail like a scorpion curling up off its back. It walked on seven—yes, seven—legs, each ending in one of those small, pink infantile hands. It had a head that was sort of an inverted heart shape, a bank of mismatched eyes in an arc over a hooked, black beak, like a parrot’s. On its head, no kidding, it had a tuft of neatly groomed blond hair that I swear on my mother’s grave was a wig, held on with a rubber band chinstrap.

What was strange about it, or rather, what was stranger about it was that the two sections of its body—the hindquarters and the abdomen—were not connected. There was a good two inches of space between them and when it turned sideways you could see right through the thing. But it moved in unison, as if they were connected by invisible tissue.

The little monster stood twitching there on the floor like a newborn calf, still dripping with urine.

John said, “Huh.”

The aesthetic sense that gives rise to a wig monster is the same one that is fascinated with giant earth-movers and babies with two heads or the like. It's the aesthetic sense, to give an example, of this Cracked.com article. They are both bizarre - maybe even scary - because they are so out of line with our expectations.

Oh, and did I mention that David Wong now writes for Cracked.com?

Anyway, I recommend this book if you have a few hours and aren't looking to be challenged even slightly. It's fun and sometimes funny and sometimes scary. Maybe take a look.

23 May 2011

"The Three Enemies," by Christina Rosetti

"Sweet, thou art pale."
"More pale to see,
Christ hung upon the cruel tree
And bore His Father's wrath for me."

"Sweet, thou art sad."
"Beneath a rod
More heavy, Christ for my sake trod
The winepress of the wrath of God."

"Sweet, thou art weary."
"Not so Christ:
Whose mighty love of me suffic'd
For Strength, Salvation, Eucharist."

"Sweet, thou art footsore."
"If I bleed,
His feet have bled; yea in my need
His Heart once bled for mine indeed."

"Sweet, thou art young."
"So He was young
Who for my sake in silence hung
Upon the Cross with Passion wrung."

"Look, thou art fair."
"He was more fair
Than men, Who deign'd for me to wear
A visage marr'd beyond compare."

"And thou hast riches."
"Daily bread:
All else is His: Who, living, dead,
For me lack'd where to lay His Head."

"And life is sweet."
"It was not so
To Him, Whose Cup did overflow
With mine unutterable woe."

"Thou drinkest deep."
"When Christ would sup
He drain'd the dregs from out my cup:
So how should I be lifted up?"

"Thou shalt win Glory."
"In the skies,
Lord Jesus, cover up mine eyes
Lest they should look on vanities."

"Thou shalt have Knowledge."
"Helpless dust!
In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust:
Answer Thou for me, Wise and Just."

"And Might."—
"Get thee behind me. Lord,
Who hast redeem'd and not abhorr'd
My soul, oh keep it by Thy Word."

22 May 2011

Time Was

Once upon a time, I got a job. It was a hell of a job.

My high school had mandatory requirements for volunteer work, increasing each year. They were pretty minimal - I think senior year was like 60 hours or something like that, something you could do in a couple of weekends - but they were still annoying. I think every single boy at the school independently came up with the snide observation that "mandatory volunteering" was an oxymoron.

I did several things to meet this requirement over the years. I fed the homeless, I taught Sunday school, and the like. But when I look back, I mostly remember working with children with developmental disabilities. Not for what it was, but for what it would become later.

One of the big organizations for this kind of work was headquartered right near my house, and so when I was growing up I was always aware of it. They had group homes around the area, and ran a day-care, and had a sort of small factory that did piece-work like assembling toys. I didn't know anything specific, but I did know it existed. I frequently had to go to the community center that held both it and the pool my brother practiced at; there I would wait for hours, gamboling around the concrete exterior that stank of chlorine, and I would see plaques and signs about the disabilities organization. Sometimes I would even see retarded people there, and they were subjects of much furtive staring and speculation. I had never met any retarded people, and they kind of freaked me out. Usually overweight, slack faces, thick glasses... they were very strange to me at the time.

But when the time came for volunteer work, my mother suggested that place. It was very convenient and might be interesting. I was kind of afraid, to tell the truth, but my shame of that drove me straight there.

As it happens, it wasn't a big deal. They put me in with the kindergarten, which had a mix of kids with disabilities and typical kids, and there wasn't a whole lot of difference between them except that some of the kids were better at putting away their own toys. There weren't any kids with profound retardation (the most extreme kind), since at that age they tended to require too much care. I showed up and played with the kids and fed them snacks for a couple of hours, and after their parents had picked them all up, I went home. No pressure, no difficulty. It was a little strange dealing with the some of the kids, who seemed to me to be unaware of anything or were indiscriminately angry or inappropriately happy. But they were still kids, and they were still fun for those couple of hours. It wasn't a big part of my life, and when my hours were done, so was I.

I went on to other things. Those things were sometimes normal and sometimes miserable: I graduated from high school. I went off to college. I failed, with a whimper and not a bang. I wept. I came back home. I was adrift.

I worked at a supermarket, Publix, for a while. I had worked as a bagger there before, so it was familiar. This time I worked at the deli counter, but after a few months I cut off a chunk of my ring finger on a deli slicer. I had been slicing bologna, and the injury was due pretty much entirely to my haste. I wasn't very attached to the job, and decided that it was a sign to leave.

I needed a job.

Naturally, I again sought out the familiar. I went back to the place I remembered playing with kids and enjoying it. I went back to work with people with disabilities, answering an advertisement in the paper with a very bare résumé in my hand.

My interviewers when I applied were a pair of pleasant-enough men: the manager of one of their group homes and the head of Human Resources. I can only imagine what they must have thought.

I was twenty years old, and looked younger. I was gawky and stooped, with my hair cropped close and my clothes ill-fitting. Since I had no relevant experience - little experience of any kind! - probably the only thing going for me was my clean-cut nature and a giddy smile. I must have seemed like a goofy, stick-figure child.

I was applying to be a Residential Training Instructor. It's a broad position that includes general housekeeping duties (cooking, cleaning, etc.) as well as some variable amount of vocational/education assistance. Depending on the sort of people at the home to which you went, you might be helping teach the alphabet or do physical therapy... or you might just watch a whole lot of television. It can be very demanding or very easy.

The particular home to which I was (unknowingly) applying, though, was an unusual one. It was only for dually-diagnosed individuals with both mental retardation and autism, and it was especially for people considered to be of "high-intensity." Brian, my prospective boss, had nurtured the idea into being with help from his supervisor, and the high-intensity group home had only been in action for a few months with six residents whose behavior was, well, "notable." It was a very difficult job, and as I interviewed, Brian must have been doubting I could handle it.

I was fortunate, though. The organization paid employees very little - only a dollar more than minimum wage, even though it could be a very hard position. There just wasn't the funding for anything more than the bare minimum pay. This low pay combined with the difficult work meant that there was very high turnover, since people left as soon as they could. The organization couldn't afford to be choosy. I got the job.

A few days later, I drove on up to the house. It wasn't really what I expected. I thought it would be some sort of clinic or institution, but instead it was a very pretty little suburban home nestled in to some scrub woods, and backed by a large yard and a thin creek. I wasn't even sure if I had the right place until I saw the huge passenger van parked outside, its grey panels dented. But even with that, it looked just way too... well, nice.

I parked and went to the front door. Knocked. One of the staff there opened the door and let me in. She was a skinny girl about my own age, another result of a shortage of applicants. She showed me around the house. Five bedrooms (one with two beds), a ragged old computer in a corner surrounded by two big aquariums, a living room with couches and chairs, a "sensory room" with games and a big inflatable blob, spacious kitchen, and wide porch with a swing.

And people.

I don't think I should talk too much about them. I promised confidentiality when I signed on to care for them, and they deserve to have that honored. So no names and few details. Suffice to say that it was a loud and rough house.

That first day, I sat gingerly on the couch, uneasy and unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. The other staffer had dinner going, and I wasn't trained to do much of anything else. I paged through some of the thick binders with diagnoses and histories, but it was just too much to absorb right then. Mostly I just tried not to feel weird. What was this going to be like? What was I supposed to do?

Maybe five minutes after I sat down (perched right on the edge of the cushion), there was a loud inarticulate cry from the other room. It was bizarre and entirely unlike anything else I had heard (I've still never heard its like). It was a full-throated whoop, expressing no information. It didn't sound scared, but it was enormously loud and alarming.


I leapt to my feet and raced into the other room. Was there a fight? Was there something wrong? Why wasn't the other staffer coming to help? Did I do something

It was just one of the residents, smiling and standing there placidly. I halted jerkily in my terrified sprint, looking around. Nobody else was there. Nothing was on fire. What the hell?

He looked at me and then off to the side, still smiling. Then he looked back at me. "Hoooooyeeeeeeaaaw!"

"What's going on?" I asked the other staffer. "Is he okay?"

She blinked at me for a moment before she understood. "Oh, ha! Yeah, he's fine. He does that all day. Every day."

As it would turn out, this was true. He did it all the time. About every minute or so, every moment he was awake and reasonably happy, he would let out a deafening whoop. Autistic people often take pleasure in pure sensation for its own sake, and this was one of his ways to do that. It was strange and new and wonderful. It also got a little old, I have to admit. We'd have to ask him to go outside in the weird way you ask a profoundly retarded adult to do something - half-suggestion, half-request, to respect their independence while also getting them to do it - but even in the backyard, the yelp would echo through the house every other minute. It drove the neighbors absolutely nuts. And he was only one of six.

The others were all different, but all equally "high-intensity." Violent or manipulative or completely unresponsive, and usually transferred from a different home where they had been having severe trouble. There was a "time-out" room in the house, a bare tiled room with a magnetically-locking door and a full impact-proof mirror - it was used when there was serious violence going on. It was used several times a week, or during the bad times as often as eight or nine times in a day.

It wasn't all bad. We'd watch movies together or clean up together, or play games or go outside, or any one of a dozen other things. It was seldom boring, and often different.

It wasn't until later I learned what I was doing, and learned to be comfortable. I got training in how to deal with someone who was angry and attacking, and exactly the way autism was diagnosed and works. And I learned more basic things, too: how to bathe someone, how to comfort someone.

I would go to other houses and meet dozens more people, ranging from near-typical to profoundly retarded. I would do puzzles with someone, over and over tumbling out the bright wooden pieces. I would spend hours pinning someone smeared with their own filth to the ground, trying to prevent them from biting me again. I would play tag in the backyard, racing around until I was gasping and they were still poking me in the ribs.

I learned how to lead and how to follow. And I like to think I found some compassion and some real courage in that job.

I'm not sure how much I know about life these days, or what I can do. But most things that I know about life and much of who I am, came from that job.

21 May 2011

"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

20 May 2011

Ben Stein is kind of a monster

There is an interesting layering of knowledge about actor/pundit/politico Ben Stein, which is probably because of his unusual career.

Almost everyone will know him - if not by name - from his famous roles in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and for his years-long association with Visine eyedrops. His droning repetition of "Bueller? Bueller?" is iconic.

A smaller number of people might also know about the game show Stein did for Comedy Central, Win Ben Stein's Money. The show, which was on the air for six years, had Ben Stein facing off against contestants in battles of knowledge. Stuck in Twenty-One-style isolation chambers, he would answer questions about history, science, and the arts. It showcased his immense store of facts: the bits of trivia he had on ready hand about obscure artists and hoary tales from history was very impressive.

If you are a certain kind of Christian, you might also know Stein from his movie Expelled. This movie alleged that proponents of "intelligent design" were being shut out unfairly from the academic debate. I was interviewed about the movie (I thought it was crap). You can read more about Expelled here, if you're so inclined.

But beyond his fame for his movie roles, his commercials, and his game show, there are some people who also know that Ben Stein writes political commentary still. He is a regular contributor to The American Spectator and Newsmax. Stein wrote speeches for Richard Nixon back in a former life, working from his background as a lawyer and economist, so you won't be surprised to hear that he's extremely conservative.

He is also reprehensible in his latest column about the accusations against IMF President (now resigned) Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was recently released on bail.

In his column, Stein makes a series of points about Strauss-Kahn. Some of them are disgusting.

First, let me mention that he's not entirely nauseating. A few of his points are on-target. He questions whether the former IMF chief was really a flight risk and points out that Strauss-Kahn had already surrendered his passport, so perhaps it was unnecessary to put him in Riker's rather than keep him under house arrest.

But he also goes way beyond those reasonable concerns into a level of massive and astonishing nonsense. He starts off with only some light idiocy:

1.) If he is such a womanizer and violent guy with women, why didn't he ever get charged until now? If he has a long history of sexual abuse, how can it have remained no more than gossip this long? France is a nation of vicious political rivalries. Why didn't his opponents get him years ago?

Well, in point of fact it seems like there have actually been some previous problems, like when he was accused of rape by a journalist and when he was investigated by the IMF for abusing his power during an affair with a subordinate (he was cleared of abuse, but admitted the affair).

But even if he had a squeaky-clean record, does it really beggar the imagination to dream up scenarios where an immensely wealthy and powerful man covers his tracks?

2.) In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes? Is it likely that just by chance this hotel maid found the only one in this category? Maybe Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty but if so, he is one of a kind, and criminals are not usually one of a kind

Tumblr user James Urbaniak found (rather easily) a long list of similar cases. But this is kind of an unreasonable demand. Ben Stein demands to know what other heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have been both charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes. That's an amazing short list of possible people. There are relatively few nonprofit international economic entities, and that small set of people is not likely to harbor many individuals who have been both charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes.

As it turns out, even that small subset of people does in fact have some similar cases. But Stein's logic is childish. He might as well change it to "can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities with hyphenated last names and a slight overbite that they manage with a plastic retainer on Wednesday and Saturday nights who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?"

In other words, if you make the pool of "similar" people small enough, you'll usually manage to exclude any bad company.

3.) The prosecutors say that Mr. Strauss-Kahn "forced" the complainant to have oral and other sex with him. How? Did he have a gun? Did he have a knife? He's a short fat old man. They were in a hotel with people passing by the room constantly, if it's anything like the many hotels I am in. How did he intimidate her in that situation? And if he was so intimidating, why did she immediately feel un-intimidated enough to alert the authorities as to her story?

Fuck you, Ben Stein.

Yeah, sorry. No real commentary on this one. Just read it and cringe.

6.) People accuse other people of crimes all of the time. What do we know about the complainant besides that she is a hotel maid? I love and admire hotel maids. They have incredibly hard jobs and they do them uncomplainingly. I am sure she is a fine woman. On the other hand, I have had hotel maids that were complete lunatics, stealing airline tickets from me, stealing money from me, throwing away important papers, stealing medications from me. How do we know that this woman's word was good enough to put Mr. Strauss-Kahn straight into a horrific jail? Putting a man in Riker's is serious business. Maybe more than a few minutes of investigation is merited before it's done.

He had a hotel maid who stole money, so that implicates all hotel maids. Their honesty is now under question.

This entire column is a travesty, a thick steaming morass of contemptible commentary left to rot before our eyes. I don't lightly throw this around, but it is misogynistic, in addition to be rather classist and almost devoid of any serious thought. Ben Stein is disgusting, and so is this column.

UPDATE: The Daily Show riffs on Stein.

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19 May 2011

"Eugene Onegin," Ch.7 I-III, by Alexander Pushkin (trans. Vladimir Nabokov)

Chased by the vernal beams,
down the surrounding hills the snows already
have run in turbid streams
onto the inundated fields.
With a serene smile, nature
greets through her sleep the morning of the year.
Bluing, the heavens shine.
The yet transparent woods
as if with down are greening.
The bee flies from her waxen cell
after the tribute of the field.
The dales grow dry and varicolored.
The herds are noisy, and the nightingale
has sung already in the hush of nights.

How sad your apparition is to me,
spring, spring, season of love!
What a dark stir there is
in my soul, in my blood!
With what oppressive tenderness
I revel in the whiff
of spring fanning my face
in the lap of the rural stillness!
Or is enjoyment strange to me,
and all that gladdens, animates,
all that exults and gleams,
casts spleen and languishment
upon a soul long dead
and all looks dark to it?

Or gladdened not by the return
of leaves that perished in the autumn,
a bitter loss we recollect,
harking to the new murmur of the woods;
or with reanimated nature we
compare in troubled thought
the withering of our years,
for which there is no renovation?
Perhaps there comes into our thoughts,
midst a poetic reverie,
some other ancient spring,
which sets our hearts aquiver
with the dream of a distant clime,
a marvelous night, a moon...

12 May 2011

The Runner

Pahkmen ran. It seemed like he had always been running: sprinting down alleys and up broadways, his sneakers so ragged that the soles slapped against the asphalt with every stride. Sometimes he would pause in a quiet corner, doubled over and leaning on his knees, and he would just try and breathe. He panted and shuddered.

He was being hunted.

If it hadn't been for the scraps of food he found, he probably would have simply died on his feet long ago. He'd find them and snatched them up, barely even pausing: a lump of stale bread, a tin of sardines, or a potato so slimy with mold that he had to scrape it down to nothing (once, only once, some luscious cherries! but never again). Pahkmen thought he might choke, trying to swallow a mouthful of dry crumbs or oily fish while gasping for air, but he couldn't stop. He could be sore, he could be thirsty, and he could be so tired that his run descended into a staggering jog, but he couldn't stop.

He didn't know when they'd first started chasing him. A handful of them, emerging from some secret base they'd established in the city. He couldn't even imagine what they were really like... he so seldom saw them, except for glimpses at the end of a street before he choked back his fear and lurched into a faster pace. He wasn't sure what he'd seen, really... monsters, horrible in their stature, floating above the ground on a thick mist of noxious gas. They seemed to be different colors, but they all had the same smooth horrible face. Enormous wide eyes, glassy with malevolent idiocy, and no mouth. He wasn't sure what they'd do if they caught him - it didn't seem like they could eat him. Could they even touch him? Would he melt from their presence, or freeze, or just drop dead on the spot? He didn't want to know.

So he ran. His life was almost unchanging, except...

There was a moment. He wasn't sure how long ago - hours? days? - when he'd found the orb. It was in a pile of rubbish, but he couldn't have missed it. He dropped into a loping gait as he neared it, then - impossible! - stopped to look.

It was strange, like the monsters - it had their same eerie horror to it. Coldly glistening, with an alien anger to its slick metallic surface like he could see in the loathsome gaze of the monsters: a hatred that sprang not from any desire or emotion, but only a wholly inimical repulsion. It was just like them, somehow.

Even the fascinating object and his all-consuming weariness couldn't stay his need to keep moving, though, and he tore his gaze away from the orb and straightened himself out to start off again. It would be even harder now. It was always harder.

But the monster. There was a monster, just now rounding the corner up ahead - he could see the rolling vapor on which it floated, and one horrifyingly red tentacle slid out around the edge of the building. A shriek built up inside Pahkman. It would catch him and it would touch him, and something would happen. Its hollow hatred would pull apart his soul.

Without even thinking, he had kicked apart the rubbish in which it sat - sodden lumps of paper and rotten greenstuff - and snatched up the orb to flee. In that instant he seemed to understand. He can't quite remember what he understood about what was going on - a fleeting knowledge of eternal struggle - but he will always remember the feeling of the orb. It was wrong here, and it knew it, and it hated him and this world and everything. He and it could not exist, and as he touched it, it dissolved in his fingers into a thick grey jelly. The jelly slipped from him to splatter on the asphalt, and he seemed to hear a groan of violation and horror.

Pahkmen looked up, and saw that the monster had stopped, halfway around the corner, and was shuddering. It had changed in color to a bright blue, and as it slid back out of sight, running from him - running from him! - it seemed to be in pain. He had hurt it. Touching that orb, destroying that orb with its connection with the monster... he had hurt it.

That was long ago, though. The respite had lasted mere moments, to his disappointment, and he had begun running again. Shoes flapping, lungs burning, and weary beyond belief.

Pahkmen runs, and maybe he will always run. But he remembers a moment of understanding and a few seconds of triumph. He remembers what it felt like. He remembers freedom from fear for just a little while. And he watches for more orbs.

08 May 2011

Weekly Book Review: Tarzan series, "Bossypants," "The Botany of Desire," Into the Wild," "A Million Little Pieces," "Interstellar Pig," "Infidel," and "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell."

Tarzan series: Tarzan of the Apes, Return of Tarzan, Son of Tarzan, Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I wrote last time about the other major Burroughs series, the Barsoom/John Carter series. This time, I will talk about the Tarzan series, which I also reread and which was also deeply influential on me as a boy.

Tarzan is the more popular character these days, having been adapted numerous times and holding a continuing cultural cachet. Everyone knows Tarzan and his story, even if it's just from the Disney animated adaptation: a guy is raised by apes and falls in love with a civilized girl. It's a great story and speaks to everyone, perhaps because it's so archetypical - Dionysian and Apollonian, Animus and Anima, etc.

Tarzan is the true son of the Lord Greystoke, who was abandoned in Africa along with his pregnant wife. When his parents die, Tarzan is adopted by an ape. Burroughs gives the apes (or "Mangani" in their tongue) and other animals of the forest a realistic-seeming and interesting society, which acknowledges what was known about the natural world at the time while still developing an animal language, culture, and rituals. As Tarzan grows (slowly compared to his ape-cousins!) he has fights with his stepfather and the leader of the ape-clan, and participates in the Dum-Dum, a savage pseudo-religious ritual of the apes. Tarzan is a man-animal, and he hunts and kills.

Eventually he meets Jane in the woods, and rescues her from repeated dangers. He has fantastic adventures, finding a fortune in gold in the lost city of Opar and working as a spy for France.  He becomes integrated into society, and lives on a manor estate in England and serves in the House of Lords. Jane won't live in the woods with him, you see.

The first two books are excellent, relating the above events with the snappy thrills of Burroughs at his best. And they end with a solid crescendo, with a fierce climax that is immensely satisfying.

After those two, however, there are still more than a dozen other Tarzan books. I don't know if it was a matter of money or just the lure of continuing a hit he'd loved, but Burroughs kept writing the man-ape. Tarzan's wife or son get kidnapped and he has to go rescue them. He loses his memory over and over again, and has to slowly remember his identity. There is a dire threat to someone from his past, and he has to go rescue them. And every time, it becomes necessary for him to discard his hat and coat and don his loincloth, diving into the jungle.

I don't think Tarzan taught me anything or made me aspire to anything, unlike my emulation of John Carter of Mars. Don't look for lessons (if anything, avoid them, since Tarzan can be an ass).  But they're rollicking good fun adventure stories, now badly tinged with the racism and sexism of the time. I recommend reading the first two books (Tarzan of the Apes and Return of Tarzan) and no further - those two are stories of high adventure that everyone can enjoy.

Bossypants, Tina Fey

Tina Fey is very smart and very funny, and sometimes she is a good writer. This book is a combination memoir/advice book, with the story of her life to date combined with some joking tips for women bosses. The former part of the book is very good - witty and light and honest - but it slumps badly near the end.

Fey recounts her childhood and describes her family with cleverness and a fondness that leaps off the page. Her father, in particular, receives a chapter of unstinting adulation that's delivered with enough humor so as to remain interesting. She had some rough spots - when she was in kindergarten a stranger slashed her face with a knife - but she bounced back from them and recounts them with good-natured self-deprecation. One example of her first day in school:

While my parents talked to the teacher, I was sent to a table to do coloring. I was introduced to a Greek boy named Alex whose mom was next in line to meet with the teacher. We colored together in silence. I was so used to being praised and encouraged that when I finished my drawing I held it up to show Alex, who immediately ripped it in half. I didn’t have the language to express my feelings then, but my thoughts were something like “Oh, it’s like that, motherfucker? Got it.” Mrs. Fey’s change-of-life baby had entered the real world.

It starts to go downhill as she approaches the current time and her position as a star (thanks to her Sarah Palin imitation and her television show 30 Rock). Maybe it's the loss of perspective from these things being too recent, or maybe she just ran out of good jokes, but the latter portion of the book becomes dull. Her fake advice thuds on the reader without the wry lightness of the story of her life, and we have to listen to her defensive explanation of making fun of Sarah Palin (she didn't think it would be such a big deal, she wasn't being mean, etc.)

It seems as though perhaps just not enough time has passed for Fey's bitterness about recent events to be tempered with the irony that makes the the first half of the book so hilarious. When she talks about breastfeeding, for example, she just seems angry:

I was defensive and grouchy whenever the topic came up. At a party with a friend who was successfully nursing her little boy, I watched her husband produce a bottle of pumped breast milk that was the size of a Big Gulp. It was more milk than I had produced in my whole seven weeks—I blame Entourage. As my friend’s husband fed the baby, he said offhandedly, “This stuff is liquid gold. You know it actually makes them smarter?” “Let’s set a date!” I screamed. “IQ test. Five years from today. My formula baby will crush your baby!” Thankfully, my mouth was so full of cake they could not understand me

Bossypants is certainly worth reading for the first half of the book alone, and the second half of it is really not so bad - except when compared with the hilarious first part. You should check it out, and I'll just hope that in ten years she issues a revised edition.

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan

I'm not sure Michael Pollan can go to the grocery store without coming home with another book about food. Following up the marvelous blockbuster The Omnivore's Dilemma, the pretty good In Defense of Food, and the mediocre Food Rules, he has released The Botany of Desire, an exploration of the reciprocal relationship between mankind's needs and four plants: the apple, the tulip, cannabis, the potato. Like his previous books, it's really a set of essays woven together afterward; the apple chapter is mostly the history of Johnny Appleseed, the tulip chapter is mostly about the Dutch tulip craze, and the potato chapter is mostly an exploration of Monsanto's genetic technology. Only the cannabis chapter (and to a lesser extent the potato) chapter is really fully on his ostensible topic: how plants change us as we change them. But this is a good book, and his method works.

Most of his conclusions are the same as he has reached before: industrialization of our food supply is at best a mixed blessing, and will continue to hurt us as it has before.  The more specific lessons can be summed up:

  • Much of what made the apple amazing has been lost in the all-smothering embrace of the Red Delicious.
  • Food isn't a pure commodity and trying to treat it like one leads to disaster.
  • Monsanto is evil (no news there).
  • The potato famine of Ireland was the first in a long series of monoculture-related accidents that have continued to the present day (just ask the banana).

It's informative, written with adequate skill and excellent research, and says things that need to be said.  And pleasantly enough, it's also very readable.  Check it out.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakaeur

In April of 1992, Christopher McCandless walked into the woods of Alaska. He never walked out.

McCandless had been on the road for two years since he graduated college, hitchhiking around the country under the name Alexander Supertramp. Disgusted with the modern world and embittered about his parents, he had been trying to find meaning in his life.

In some ways, he was a pretty standard suburban kid - he had serious issues with his family, he was convinced that all of society was corrupt and that he could find a better way, and he took the books that he loved into his heart wholesale. He indulged in big, sweeping gestures such as burning his few remaining dollars after donating the bulk of an inheritance to Oxfam. From accounts of those who knew him, he was equal parts pleasant and arrogant, clever and judgmental. He was a lot like many middle-class suburban teens.

But he was also extraordinary. McCandless launched himself into life with huge courage and dedication. He thought he saw a better way to live, and for better or worse, he tried to seize it. That's something that few people ever do.

Jon Krakaeur's book about McCandless provides a subtle and understanding portrait of the young man who died chasing a dream of happiness. The writing is measured and calm, but in its quietness there is sometimes a depth of feeling that can be seriously affecting. He doesn't make McCandless into a hero, but neither does he make him into a fool. We are given the story of a whole person, complex and raw. It is excellent.

There's a danger in romanticizing him. In a lot of ways, McCandless was a stupid kid. He knew almost nothing about wilderness survival, despite his plans to try to live off the land. He was unprepared in almost every way, having insufficient emergency food, a regional map of Alaska, or really even the barest necessary knowledge. He hurt his parents and sister terribly when he began tramping, simply disappearing. He was young and arrogant and stupid.

There's also a danger in rejecting what he stood for. He read Thoreau and Tolstoy and London, and had ideas and hopes. And he lunged for them with a full heart. It's not something to dismiss outright.

The book is very good, and you should read it. Think about how you feel about a stupid kid with a big dream - it's worth considering.

A Million Little Pieces, James Frey

I don't think I would have read this if it wasn't famous. That sounds low, but it's true. A Million Little Pieces was first famous as a deeply moving personal memoir of addiction and recovery, and then famous for being at least partially fabricated.

Before I address those issues, though, I want to talk about the book itself.

It's written in a fairly personal and self-conscious style, the sort of style that goes well with memoirs. The capitalization is idiosyncratic, with Important Words receiving the treatment (like "Criminal" or "Person"). Frey omitted certain elements of punctuation as well, a move that in this era unavoidably raises comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. The simple structure of the book, which follows a generally straightforward format of strings of statements, has been called an attempt to imitate Hemingway. This is possible, but unlikely - it might be more fair to say that Hemingway's terse tight writing was an inspiration here.

There are some good points to the writing. Some sections of the book read like real and raw testimony from someone who has been there, with a clear feeling of truth-telling running through the gut-wrenching details of an addict's descent and suffering. It's hard to tell where this verisimilitude comes from, since I'm certainly not one to judge the authenticity of an account of crack addiction, but a large part of it must derive from the humiliating thoroughness of some of the accounts.

Unfortunately, these moments of testimony become less and less common as the memoir continues. Frey's authorial voice - the man as a writer and not the man as an autobiographer - intrudes into the narrative, and the shift in tone is obvious and frustrating. Frey doesn't believe in Alcoholics Anonymous and has contempt for much of their ideology. Frey does believe in himself. These two agendas inform his intrusions. Here's an example, when Frey is in recovery and gets a copy of the AA Big Book.

I read the rest of the book, which is mostly about the Twelve Steps. There are chapters with titles like There Is a Solution, How It Works, Into Action, and Vision for You. It is all very simple. If you do what the book says, you will be cured. If you follow their righteous path, that path will lead you straight to redemption. If you join the club, you're the lucky winner of a lifelong supply of bullshit Meetings full of whining, complaining and blaming. Praise Be the Glory. I want to get down on my knees. Praise Be the Glory Hallelujah. Near the end, there is a section of testimonials. There is one by a Dentist, one by a European Drinker, one by a Salesman, one by an Educated Agnostic. They win all Alcoholic disasters, they all found God, they all started dancing the Twelve Step, they all got better. As with most testimonials like this that I've read or heard or been forced to endure, something about them strikes me as weak, hollow and empty. Though the people in them are no longer drinking and doing drugs, they're still living with the obsession. Though they have achieved sobriety, their lives are based on the avoidance, discussion and vilification of the chemicals they once needed and loved.

I'm not saying that his criticisms are not valid or reasonable, of course. There is a lot of complaint to be made about AA as the sole legitimated source of recovery in America. But in terms of the writing, these insertions are clumsy and off-putting. Yes, James Frey, we understand that you think AA is stupid... now we're just waiting patiently to return to your goddamn story.

But worse than these awkward intrusions is the self-promotion. It's an odd kind of self-promotion, but it is certainly all about his ego.

Frey mocks one character in the story for blatantly fabricating his misdeeds:

When he talks of amounts of drugs, Matty laughs and says he should have asked for more. Bobby then corrects himself and says that he actually did get more. When he talks of women, Ed tells him that four at a time isn't that a big deal and Bobby says the next time he had eight. He mentions crack and the amounts of it he claims to smoke and Ted asks him what it feels like, that he has always wanted to try it. Bobby says that it feels like really strong weed.

And this is an interesting bit, because as far as I can tell, Frey is doing the same thing. Regardless of whether or not he tells the truth about his exploits, Frey makes it seem like it is very important that we perceive that he is the Worst Person and yet he is also the Strongest Person.

There are multiple litanies of his wrongs. One sample, from when he takes a Personal Inventory:

Drank smoked got arrested doled out a beating or two took a beating or two cheated lied deceived used women slept with prostitutes took more money wasted more money my best friends were drugs and alcohol those who tried to stop me were told to fuck off and leave me alone. I made a Girl snort lines off my dick. She was a cocaine Addict and I traded drugs for her body. She let me do whatever I wanted and I did too much too often. Drugs and her body. I held a gun to a man's head. It was an unloaded gun but he didn't know it was unloaded. He was on his knees begging for his life. I did it for a drug Dealer who wanted to test me and I needed his trust because I needed his drugs. The man had stolen from the Dealer I pulled the trigger of the unloaded gun the man pissed in his pants and pissed on the floor. The Dealer rubbed his face in it and I watched.

The reason he needs us to know how bad he was and how addicted he was, I think, is because Frey also wants to up the drama of his recovery. He disdains AA and simply wills himself not to be addicted anymore. As he describes it, "Every time I want to drink or do drugs, I'm going to make the decision not to do them. I'll keep making that decision until it's no longer a decision, but a way of life."

This might be a way to fight addiction. From everything I have heard (and everything Frey says) it is also much harder than AA. I don't really know much about it, but I do know that Frey depicts it as being heroically difficult - thus, he must be a hero. Everyone he meets thinks he is extraordinary: the counselor at the recovery center tells him, "[Y]ou are the single most stubborn Person I ever met." I find that hard to believe, given that from what I know of recovery centers, there are a hell of a lot of people who steadfastly and unwaveringly refuse to follow advice in the same way that Frey does.

But this is what it seems to be about: Frey has to be the worst and then the best. We have to be astonished at the horrific depths of his descent, and then exalt in the dramatic reversal of his recovery. It's obvious and annoying.

The big deal about the book, of course, is that it is partially falsified. In a significant way, it is fiction masquerading as memoir.

The Smoking Gun broke the news in a huge way with its expose, A Million Little Lies. Almost all of the details about crimes that Frey committed, it seems, are magnificently exaggerated. This was a shock to Oprah, who had been promoting the book for a long time and thought it was an important work about addiction and a life of crime. But Frey never spent more than a few hours in jail, despite his claims of multiple stays. He was never "wanted in three states," as he asserts several times in his book (his characteristic grudging gloating is dragged out of him by other characters, of course). Virtually everything verifiable in the book has been wildly exaggerated, so we have to look with skepticism on the unverifiable claims. They conveniently glorify Frey at every turn, and he's lost the benefit of the doubt.

Some people have asked if this matters - is it important that he lied about these things, if it's still a good story? But it does matter.

A memoir is written from personal experience. When someone like Frey writes about the horrors of addiction and the difficulty of recovery, or about the depths of crime and shortcomings of the institutional system, their voice has a special validity and power because it is true.

This is particularly the case when we're talking about a story of addiction, and about someone's recovery. Imagine if Frey had claimed he had a different mental illness than drug addiction - let's say he had severe paranoid schizophrenia. And he tells a story of how he bucked the system of therapy and medication endorsed by the medical establishment, and just chose not to have schizophrenia. He faced his paranoia and made a choice every day, he might say, and willed it away. If it was a true story, then it means something. A schizophrenic might read that and go off his medication - It makes me dulled out all the time, and if he did it, I can do it.

I guess neither addicts or schizophrenics should be making those decisions based on memoirs like these, but they do. And other people do, because a memoir writer is speaking with the voice of experience and with the authority that comes from that experience.

It's a terrible trust to betray, especially just to sell a book that is so badly written that it would never have been published otherwise. Avoid this book.

Interstellar Pig, William Sleator

William Sleator was one of my wife's favorite authors when she was young, and this was one of her favorite books. After reading it, I can easily see why.

Interstellar Pig is about a boy who meets some aliens and plays some games of wits with them. The writing is of a low level, but of the pleasantly simple variety intended for children: it's clear and sufficient, with interesting - though suitably simple - allegories and imagery. There are plot twists, and while they're easy to see through, I can understand how fascinating and clever they must have been for a child. There's space travel, immortality, high-tech weapons, and a great deal of intrigue.

I would recommend this book to any child, and even to an adult who wants to pass a quiet and pleasant hour with something interesting and not too challenging.

Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

While I don't think I am exceptionally well-traveled, I do think I've seen a bit of the world and have heard about a lot more. But sometimes a book comes along like Infidel that introduces me to a whole world beyond what I had ever considered.

It's not that Ali grew up in some hidden country - I knew about Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands. And the facts of her life are not foreign to my knowledge; I was already aware of fundamentalist Islam, female genital mutilation, child abuse, arranged marriages, and civil war. But knowing of these places and knowing of these facts are different from hearing about them as part of a life.

Ali came to the attention of her new country of the Netherlands when she began to speak out against fundamentalist Islam's effects on the immigrant groups within Dutch borders. Having experienced what she felt to be the brutalizing aspects of a Muslim upbringing, she was moved to speak out against the good-natured efforts at tolerance that were permitting a whole generation to grow up in secluded subcultures. Catapulted into fame by her near-unique position as an eloquent and outspoken Dutch Muslim woman, she was tapped to be a member of their parliament.

While this made her famous in the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali only became world famous when she made a film about the dangers of Islam with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh - and he was murdered by a fanatic who shot him several times, cut his throat, and used a knife to pin on his chest a note threatening Ali. She went into hiding.

Translated from the Dutch, the book is moderately-well written, with its utilitarian economy well-suited for her tale of horror and triumph. When she describes how she would be tied up and beaten, or how she had her nose broken by an over-enthusiastic mullah, or the horrific practice of excision on young girls - maybe here her sparse detail helps protect the reader. As it is, it is terrible enough and I had to clench my jaw at some of the grim parts of the story.

Infidel is about Ali's life as the daughter of an opposition figure in Somalia, a position that along with the clan war forced her and her family to move when she was young from country to country, sometimes in comfort and sometimes in poverty. She was beaten regularly, when she disobeyed or when her proud and bitter mother was frustrated. She was mutilated and humiliated, treated like property at every turn. Still she found her way to education, doing well in schools and devouring books. It was those books and their vision of a larger world that would give her the vision and courage to escape when the time came and she was married off to a stranger. Fleeing to the Netherlands, she found a new free life in the West - although it didn't get much easier, as she found out when she started to speak her mind.

This is an excellent book. It raises uncomfortable questions about tolerance in our society; what level of oppression are we willing to countenance in the name of free exercise of religion? Both for its thought-provoking sentiments and the simple drama of Ali's life, you should read this.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max

Tucker Max is repellent, and a self-proclaimed asshole. This book, a collection of his stories of drunken carousing, are blisteringly misogynistic and disgusting. You can get a sampling for yourself on his website. I beg of you: do not give him money and buy this book.

The stories are not particularly funny - about the equivalent of the bragging of any number of people you may have known in college. Just think about the last time you heard someone start a long story with "this one time I was so drunk" and you will have about the gist of it. The sole redeeming feature is that he is not entirely incompetent at telling a story, only partially incompetent.

Here's a sample. I apologize in advance for the crude and shoddy content.

My personal favorite blowjob story happened with a girl I hooked up with only once. I met her in some city, out at some bar, on some night–I barely even remember what she looked like (thank you, Dollar Beer Night). I am pretty sure she was engaged, but it wasn’t to any of my friends, so I didn’t care.

The girl did a pretty decent job sucking me off, especially considering how much I drank, and I finished in her mouth. Like a pro, she kept her lips wrapped around my dick till it was dry, but when she came up, there was a strange look on her face. She contorted her expression a little, opened her mouth like she was going to vomit, which of course made me pull back quickly, then all of the sudden:


The girl belched like a drunken sailor–OFF OF MY COME!

I couldn’t stop laughing. Easily the proudest moment of my life.


It's worth noting, of course, that Tucker Max is not a very reliable narrator. For all the mild edginess of his stories, they have about as much truth to them as any braggadocios frat boy might spew. A fairly good example of his exaggeration exists, since a girl named Courtney A. slept with him and blogged about it ("He screws like he's jackhammering a sidewalk. I faked orgasm to get him to stop.") His account (expunged from his site but saved here) of a few of the same things, such as one conversation, is just a little different so as to flatter himself somewhat. I imagine that he gives the same sort of skew to all his stories - they have that ring about them, the huffing proud breath of the immature reprobate who needs to exaggerate his exploits.

Thanks to the mysterious whims of the internet, Tucker Max became famous about ten years ago, as people forwarded his site around to each other and yukked it up reading about how all women were whores. This prompted a book deal during the first flush of website-to-book cycles, and that spawned a movie. It tanked massively on a scale that doesn't happen much with modern movie releases, as it cost $7 million to make (not counting promotion) and it's earned about $1.5 million in the years since its release. An interesting website chronicles Tucker Max's expectations about the outcome ("I am guessing we open at 20-25 million, and North American gross will end up slightly over 100 million total. About the same as Juno, give or take.") and his commentary as the movie is approaching release ("Thank god for [director] Bob Gosse. Not only is he very good at all the things that come with being a director (dealing with actors, laying out shots, etc), but the man has infinite patience and calm."). Later, as the movie starts to crash, Tucker Max becomes more and more crass ("We had a director on the last one, and he just didn't - we thought he understood the vision, and we thought he got it, and it turns out he didn't...it seems like a little thing, but it makes a difference if you understand movies.") and desperate ("Of course I want it to hit as huge as possible theatrically, but there is zero doubt in my mind it will be huge on DVD.")

This is a bad book made into a bad screenplay made into a bad movie, all by a reprehensible person. Do not read it or watch it. It will waste your time.

03 May 2011

Literature Detective Action!

There's a lot of fun detective work in the study of literature. When you study modern texts, you have the opportunity to examine some of the people and places that inspired or are incorporated in the book, and when you study older texts, you can engage in some amazing CSI-style analysis to fill in the gaps left by slipshod copyists or the ravages of time. For example, today in class ran across a great little bit of detective work that has been done on the Beowulf manuscript.

Now, we really have one copy of Beowulf at this point, since the others have been lost or damaged over the centuries. It was probably written in the 7th or 8th centuries, about events that are set in the 5th century - that's a long time for anything. The main version we have, known as "Cotton Vitellius A.XV," was copied from an older original during the 10th century. It was in a fire and it's crumbled from age and it got even more messed up when it was rebound. It's a mess.

Making it even worse are the mistakes made by the copyists. We know there were two of them, both monks in a scriptorium devoted to copying such texts for posterity (for an interesting account of such a place worked, check out Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). They spent a lot of time on the text and were scrupulous in their attentions, but they still sometimes made errors.

In some cases, we'll probably never know what the original actually said, before the added mistakes. But at other times, clever thinking and hard work can discover what Beowulf must have been before the monks got to it.

Let's take a look at lines 306-308, from Chapter IV (when Beowulf has arrived at Hrothgar's hall for the first time).

Cotton Vitellius A.XV looks like this:

Yeah, it's not very pretty. They didn't break it up into lines, they didn't use our orthography, and their handwriting was very different. Cleaned up, it looks like this:

Guman onetton,
sigon ætsomne,oþþæt hy æltimbred,
geatolic ond goldfah,ongyton mihton;

A translation is, "The men hastened, advancing together until they were able to see the all-timbered [?], splendid and adorned with gold;".

Unfortunately, there's a problem (thus the question mark). "æltimbred" would seem to be an adjective, unknown but still easy to figure out. But there's nothing for it to modify - no noun where we might expect! The all-timbered what? And what does "all-timbered" even mean

As you probably guessed, there's a mistake. That "æl" should actually be "sæl" - another word for "hall," making it a "timbered hall" (which actually makes sense).  But we don't have to just guess!  There's a neat way we can be sure.

Beowulf has a very specific poetic meter, first discovered and classified by German scholar Eduard Sievers. Each line is composed of two halves, and their meter falls into one of five broad types (labeled among scholars as A-type, B-type, etc). The type is indicated by the stresses, like most poetry. So we can look at a line and break it up into stresses, and decide which type it is from that. The most important rule here is that alliteration is the dominant theme: the first stress in the second half will come on the major alliteration. Here's an example from the above selection:

geatolic ond goldfah, ongyton mihton

So returning to the problematic line, we can scan the first half...

sigon ætsomne, oþþæt hy æltimbred,

...but the second half has no alliteration, so the meter doesn't work! The only way it does work is if we change the word over to what we think it must have originally been...

sigon ætsomne, oþþæt hy sæl timbred,

So now we know that the whole thing must have been:

Guman onetton,
sigon ætsomne,oþþæt hy sæl timbred,
geatolic ond goldfah,ongyton mihton;

Or in Seamus Heaney's poetic rendition:

They marched in step,
hurrying on till the timbered hall
rose before them, radiant with gold.

Voila! We have used study and our minds to reach back more than a thousand years and undo the slip of a sleepy monk's pen! Amazing!