Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another new york moment

Perhaps my iconic New York moment took place one day on Houston street, near Katz’s deli. I was walking down the sidewalk and after a few minutes, I noticed that every car on the street was honking its horn. The “after a few minutes” is the key to that moment. A crowded city street, cars backed up, probably all the way across Manhattan, every one of them blowing its horn. It was very, very loud. Yet I am so acclimatized to the noise that 500 cars honking their horn only intrudes on my consciousness after a few minutes, and then only because of how long it’s gone on. The noise itself is unremarkable.

I was reminded of that on the bus the other day. If you’re ever in New York and are the type of person who likes to get away from the tourist traps and see the “real” city, I recommend a ride on the B35. It starts in a warehouse district well-seeded with strip clubs and porn shops, makes its way through Sunset Park, a major Hispanic neighborhood, catches the edge of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, cuts through a corner of Borough Park, an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then all the way down Church avenue through Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Polish, Mexican, Central American, Haitian, and West Indian neighborhoods all the way out to the mean streets of the East New York ghetto. Around the world in Brooklyn or It’s a Small World in Hell?

So my wife and I are on the B35 and after a few minutes I notice that people are screaming. In retrospect, I realize that the volume has been increasing for awhile. Then the F bomb explodes through the pop pop pop cadence of the Haitian Creole and the wild tonal swings of the English West Indian dialect and the Spanish (who knew that there were Spanish speaking Muslims in Brooklyn?) on the periphery and I realize that it’s gotten pretty damn loud in here.

The primary commotion is between two large black women, each with two kids. Apparently a woman from the English speaking West Indies sent her daughter up to pay the fare and leaned a stroller up against a seat to save it for her. Then, reportedly, the woman from Haiti came along, contemptuously pushed the stroller aside and sat down in the seat. A few insults were exchanged and the confrontation escalated quickly into a devastating war of words that left both sides badly shaken.

To get the full flavor, you have to imagine it in a West Indian accent.

Insults about speaking a foreign language.
Insults about English language accents.
Accusation that people like her are why white people look down on black people.

You are uneducated.
No, I have a bachelor’s degree. I am an artist.

No, you are uneducated, and you are no artist. You are too ugly to be an artist.

No, you are uneducated, I’ll show you my card, and I am an artist. And you are the ugly one.

No, you are the ugly one, and you are uneducated. I am enrolled at the university. You are so ugly.

No, you are so ugly, and you are uneducated, you are not enrolled at the university, show me your card. You are so ugly. And you are on welfare.

I’ll show you my card, and I don’t see your card. You don’t have no card. You are too ugly to be an artist. You are uneducated. And ugly.

No, You are ugly, and you are uneducated, and you are on welfare. You look link a monkey. Why aren’t you in the zoo, you ugly welfare monkey?

And so on.

In addition to being very, very sad on so many levels, the choice of words the women employed in this war were interesting for what they illustrated about their perspectives. Pretty much every insult concerned the ability to fit into the dominant American culture. What would white people think? The importance of having a college degree. The stigma of welfare. The implied stigma of being of recent African descent. The overall importance of appearances. Ugly was the weapon employed most often. Ugly was the word that cut the deepest. Both of these women were seriously overweight. Neither was what anyone would call good looking. From an American cultural perspective, they looked exactly the same. They were ugly.

So they smack each other in the face with this word, they whack each other on the head. But ugly is more than appearances. Ugly is the lack of education. Ugly is welfare. Ugly is Foreignness. Ugly is African. Ugly is un-American.

Of course I don’t believe these things. The ugly I see in this incident is the ugly of poverty in a land of obscene wealth, which is the root cause of all the other uglies.

The ugliest thing concerning the immediate human beings was the devastated look on the women’s faces. Neither won that battle. They both lost big time and were severely hurt.

But in long view, the ugliest thing was probably that the children were there to witness it. To hear their mother called ugly and uneducated in front of a bunch of strangers. And frankly, to watch their mothers act so ugly in such a public place. The look on the children’s faces was not ugly. They looked sheepish. They looked embarrassed. But the ramifications for their psyche? That’s got to be ugly.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Moooving Frienship

Professionalism worthy of the Post, on so many levels.

Monday, December 25, 2006

An ongoing struggle

Here are some fall photos from my Greenwood Cemetery project. I suspect I've mentioned before that I am involved in an ongoing struggle to photograph this cemetery. Although mostly forgotten by the tourist industry, Greenwood is one of the premier attractions in New York City. It is beautiful, quiet and historic. It contains a wealth of natural beauty and quite a bit of interesting art and sculpture.

Yet I have found it very difficult to photograph and have not seen particularly good work from anyone else. Its beauty is obvious to the human eye, but harder discern for the camera. Anyway, I am not there yet, but seem to be making progress.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sympathy for the conservative in us all

I’m a generally happy guy. I don’t remember ever getting pissed off about anything concerning Christmas. There were a lot of years when I didn’t give a shit one way or the other, but since having kids of my own I’ve always enjoyed it in a traditional way. Every Christmas Eve we have the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, etc., with a bottle of wine and a Port for a digestif in a good year, then the kids are allowed to open a present or two and we all watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Then Xmas morning we open the rest of the gifts, have a nice breakfast, and spend most of the day playing with the kids' new toys. This is, for the most part, as it was in my childhood. I’ve replaced church with the movie, but otherwise have maintained the tradition

But today I turn into a seething conservative-like maniac. My wife’s family never celebrated Christmas and she usually does well to tolerate my insistence on tradition. Can we have lobster instead of turkey for once? No. Do we have to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again? Yes. Can we open half the presents on Xmas Eve? No. And so on.

Anyway, this year her nephew invites us to a Christmas Eve party in Jersey. Being from a family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and young to boot, he apparently has no idea that people with kids don’t generally trudge off to Jersey on Christmas Eve to go to a party with a bunch of strangers. Beyond the mere fact of trashing my lifelong Xmas tradition, it would require us taking three trains and a bus. We would be lucky to get home by 1 am. I was shocked that she would even consider the idea. She was shocked that I would be disagreeable about the issue. Each was seriously disappointed with the other. You really would not believe how rare it is for us to have a disagreement of any magnitude. It was not a good way to start the day.

And while this internal discord is going on, the landlord is having work done on the eave outside my window. Three Mexicans are on the roof blasting Cumbias and operating power tools.

Then I go out to get the Turkey and the fixins. The supermarket is a horror show. It’s packed, taking 10 minutes to navigate any one of the narrow aisles. Everybody is in a nasty mood. I make the mistake of getting in line behind an Asian with a nearly empty shopping cart and predictably the rest of the family arrives with three more carts and cuts in front of me.

And it’s like 80 fucking degrees outside and sunny. There’s a Cadillac Escalade with ghetto hop going thumpa thumpa, niggah niggah. The Jews are bickering and the Muslims haggling over pirated DVD's on the sidewalk. Dueling eastern Europeans with cheap Casio’s are blasting horrible Christmas music on opposite sides of the street. People are speaking Polish, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Albanian, Arabic, Hindu, whatever the fuck they speak in Bangladesh and Pakistan and who knows what else. I feel the Edward Norton character in 25th Hour. I just want to cuss them all.

And more than that, I just want a traditional white Christmas. I want to be sitting in a lonely farmhouse on a hill, looking out a frosty window at snow covered hills, hearing the ring-a-ling of approaching sleigh bells in the distance. Or in a small town with carolers and Christmas lights and a fresh dusting of snow unmarred as yet by tire tracks. But no, it ain’t happening. It just ain’t.

Of course I realize that the problem is me and I pick up a liter of Kentucky straight medicine in the hope of changing my perspective. My kid’s sitting under the Christmas tree shaking every gift, constantly scheming to open a present or five before the traditional time and this is as irritating as the heat and the noise and the foreigners and I know that I am wrong. The kid shaking the presents, the excitement in his eyes, this is what our Christmas tradition is about. I forcibly unclinch my teeth and try to soak up some of his spirit. A couple shots of medicine and I’m almost there.

So I take him out to see Night at the Museum, the season’s Ben Stiller comedy. The sun is setting. Now the people, their different dress and language, the dueling eastern European keyboardists and their music are all beautiful. The Muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer and there is a crescent moon. It’s all so beautiful I would probably weep if I were a sissy.

And the movie wasn’t bad. We walked home through the old Irish neighborhood and looked at the elaborate Christmas decorations. The wife was happy again when we returned. A little more medicine and a nice meal and hear I sit, the holidays lookin good again.

So I got a little feel of what it's like to be a conservative. The tradition part is nice, but that's not the property of conservatives. It's the hate that separates them and it sucks. It really does.

So happy holidays, whoever you are.

It's a wonderful life in pottersville

"When we consider the character of any individual, we naturally view it under two different aspects; first, as it may affect his own happiness; and secondly, as it may affect that of other people."

-- Adam Smith, famous Free Market Philosopher

"Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."

-- Clarence, 2nd Class Angel in "It’s a Wonderful Life."

It’s the holiday season again. Millions of people will watch It’ a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

It's a life affirming movie with wonderful characters and a happy ending. There’s dancing and romancing. Good triumphs over evil. The little guy wins. It’s even got angels. In short, it has the kind of plot elements that appeal to the masses, but would normally make people like myself want to puke.

Yet "It’ a Wonderful Life" has somehow managed to transcend that angel sodden sugar plum plot synopsis and become an integral part of the holiday tradition, not just for those who believe in angels, but for others as well, including my own family.

Our eyes grow moist at crucial points throughout the movie. George saves his brother from drowning, saves the druggist from a tragic mistake, saves Uncle Billy from the mental institution, saves Violet Bick from becoming a drunken harlot, and ultimately saves Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. Tears flow freely when we learn that George Bailey, not Mr. Potter, is the richest man in town.

When the movie was released in 1946, few could have guessed that it would attain the status of timeless masterpiece. "It’s a Wonderful Life" was a box office flop and financial disaster that bankrupted its studio. Although nominated for several Academy Awards, it didn’t win in any category. It may seem strange to us now, but people felt that the movie was too political. And it is a very political movie. But with the passing of time and collective education, It's a Wonderful Life has become like This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. Rabble rousing art turned patriotic blather for the masses. Everybody knows the words, but their meaning has been lost in the ether.

George Bailey is a child in the years immediately following World War I. He’s a teenager in the Roaring Twenties, a young man during the Great Depression and a middle aged family man through the end of the Second World War. Those years span momentous eras in the history of the United States. From the general economic well-being of the war years through the record setting prosperity of the 1920’s to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, society was rocked by wild mood swings and extreme changes in fortune and financial well-being. Radically different philosophies were embraced to explain the times. Each new era seemed to prove false the philosophy of its predecessor.

It’s a Wonderful Life presents those philosophical arguments just beneath the surface. George Bailey’s struggle with Mr. Potter for the soul of Bedford Falls pits the individualistic moral universe of the Roaring Twenties against the community oriented struggles of the Great Depression and war years. The arguments pitting the good of the community vs. the greed of the individual are not only illustrated by the parallel lives of George Bailey and Mr. Potter, but also by the parallel universes of Bedford Falls and Pottersville.

In Bedford Falls, freshly fallen snow blankets the town square. Patriotic buntings deck the walls and buildings. Main Street is empty at night save for a few parked cars and some lonely tire tracks in the snow. The trees are bedecked with Christmas lights. Precocious little boys sled down a hill onto an icy pond. Little girls in ribbons and bows twirl on soda fountain stools. People treat each other with respect. The cops and the cab drivers are nice, happy people. Christmas wreaths and glowing candles in the windows of classic American homes appear warm and inviting.

In Pottersville, nothing is warm and inviting. Certainly not its Main street panorama of nightclubs and bars that serve "hard liquor to people who want to get drunk fast." Blinking lights and cold neon signs garishly advertise the Blue Moon, billiards and fights every Wednesday night, the Indian Club, cocktails, pawn brokers, dancing at the Midnight Club and gorgeous girls who will jitterbug for a dime a dance.

The same men who are warm, fun loving guys in Bedford Falls – Bert the cop Ernie the cab driver, Nick the bartender; are angry wrecks living in broken down shacks in Pottersville. Women like Mary and Mrs. Bailey who were safely ensconced in the warmth of family and friends in Bedford Falls are lonely, cold and afraid of strangers in Pottersville.

The message was clear in 1946. George Bailey’s community spirit resulted in a better society than Mr. Potter’s relentless pursuit of financial self-interest.

Judging by the box office, people didn’t want to hear it back in those days. But somehow in our own time, that message has much more resonance.

It’s a bit ironic, because, let’s face it, we’re living in Pottersville.

An aspiring Capra could easily put together a montage of images depicting a Pottersville-like panoply of strip clubs, porn shops, casinos, bars, cops, and mean drunks in any decent sized city in the USA. The necessary footage is all too easy to come by.

And the similarities between Pottersville then and USA now do not end with the nightlife. Like the 1920’s that Pottersville depicts, we live in a time of record setting prosperity and technological revolution which is creating, or at least further entrenching, a class of super wealthy and a government that exists to protect their interests.

Then, as now, the rich, and the minority of people who participate in the stock market are getting richer a lot faster than those who have to work for a living. In 1920’s Pottersville the wealthiest 1 percent' controlled a statistically inordinate amount of the nation’s wealth and that number was compounded daily by the inexorable march of interest. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans own more than 35 percent of the nation's wealth, and one half of the population has less than $1000 in net financial assets. The government of both eras exacerbates the disparity though regressive tax policies and loopholes for wealthy campaign contributor types, John D. Rockefeller has been reborn as Bill Gates.

Then, as now, a technological revolution has provided more jobs. Back then skilled labor gave way to assembly lines that have now become customer services and teleservices and shipping and handling. Working in a phone center in Tucson or an IT department in Manhattan is the 1990’s equivalent of working on the assembly line in the 1920’s. No serious education is required.

As wages for the majority stagnate or decline, consumer debt keeps setting new records. The mailbox is full of easy credit.

We know that the 1920’s ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. To the great surprise of conservatives everywhere, it turned out that things such as ever increasing income disparity and massive consumer debt that could not go on for ever didn't. One rich family could have thousands of times more assets than thousands of middle class families, but they didn’t buy a thousand times more washing machines. Not then, not now. Business fundamentals eventually brought stock valuations back in line with reality.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life deals with these grand issues, what sets it apart from other political message movies is its focus on the value of an individual life.

And paradoxically, that is the great lie at the heart of the movie - that the life of anyone like George Bailey would have any significant influence on the life of a city like Bedford Falls, much less the country.

Wars and recessions; boom times and depressions will come and go. Adam Smith’s "Invisible Hand" will continue to assure social results that are independent of individual intentions.

Ultimately, what separates people in It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t their interest in accumulating wealth but their attitude towards it. George's life long friend Sam Wainwright pursues wealth with the same single-minded intensity of Mr. Potter, but he wants his friends to get rich too, unlike Mr. Potter who tries to keep it all for himself.

Like the great majority of Americans, George Bailey never becomes inordinately wealthy. But, like most of us, he learns that the value of family and friends is more dear than the value of money.

George Bailey will be the richest man in town in any era. Although Pottersville may be just outside the door, that’s not an entirely bad thing. If one is so inclined, what’s so wrong with enjoying a jitterbug with a pretty girl in a gin joint from time to time? We can still be good people, even here in Pottersville.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Make your holiday complete

A quick programming note. On Christmas Eve, I will publish my annual review of It's a Wonderful Life. It's a holiday classic you won't want to miss.

A surge in obsequiousness

Has anyone else noticed how the media so readily adopted the latest Orwellian term coming out of the white house, to write "surge option" instead of "increase the number of troops?"

I know we've seen so much of that over the past six years, and perhaps I just wasn't paying attention, but I've never noticed it being so total so fast. The first few stories I read put "surge option" in quotation marks on the first reference, but since then that's all they use.

A glance at the British papers, on the other hand, shows that they only use "surge option" when quoting someone. Otherwise, they use the accurate words, "increase the number of troops."

Why, oh why, does no one call the press out on this? I havn't seen a single word of complaint in any of the major papers or intelligent blogs. I know, I know, the bullshit and lies fly so fast and furious, it's just overwhelming.

Unfortunately, they see that the "surge option" is so effective with bullshit and lies that they think it will work with armies and lives. Tehy'll get a surge all right. A surge in death and destruction.

Another day in hell

I climb 13 flights of stairs in the subways on my regular daily commute, six on the way to work, seven on the way back. On many days, due to the impeccable timing of the MTA, I have to sprint up four particularly steep flights if I don't want to miss a connecting train.

Overall, I consider this a good thing. I am old and fat and climbing the stairs is usually the best, and certainly the most consistent, intense cardiovascular excercise I get, so if I don't keel over, it is probably good for me.

Another little known fact about New York is that there are homeless people. Not very many, by west coast standards, or even D.C., but although ours are few, they often smell much worse than the more numerous homeless folk in other towns.

These two facets of life in the big cesspool came together for me today. After sprinting up four flights of stairs, grabbing the subway doors and using all my strength to keep them open until the conductor relented and let me in, I found myself huffing and puffing in one of the smelliest cars I've ever had the misfortune to ride in. The eau de homeless was so strong it was almost as bad at the far end of the car as it was next to the poor soul from which it emanated, who was right next to me when I entered. Gasping for breath after the sprint, I'm sure I inhaled several decades worth of eau de homeless before the train got to the next station. Then when I got off the train, I set my bag down in a puddle of piss.

Otherwise, things are swell with the holidays coming up and, lacking smelling salts, I'm waving a glass of rum under my nose to make it all better. Soon I won't be smellin a thing.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Not bad for a big budget action movie

I saw Apocalypto tonight. I’m not a big fan of big budget action movies, but as those things go it wasn’t bad. There was plenty of blood and action, some beautiful women and a few tits. The scenery was different and often striking, the costume and language interesting. A typical action movie. Mad Max on foot. A mostly mindless way to spend two and a half hours. Great art, however, it was not.

I’ll break from my usual practice of not giving away the plot because it is boilerplate big action movie. All is wonderful in the beginning. Bad things happen. A lot of people die bloody and spectacular deaths. The hero overcomes great obstacles and saves the girl. The end.

The opening scenes are based on Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. Indians live happily in a forest paradise. The women all are beautiful. The men stand straight and tall. Sexual hijinks ensue. Everyone is laughing and having a good time. Then some bad dudes from the city, led by a guy who’s Nagual name translates as “The Lord Humongous,” leads his men on a rape and killing spree and hauls the survivors off to the big bad city to be sold as slaves or slaughtered. Along the way they meet a creepy little girl who foretells the rest of the movie in cryptic sentences that all come to pass. Then the Deus ex machina goes into overdrive, a convenient solar eclipse allows the hero to escape the obsidian knife that is about to cut out his heart. Then he runs at full sprint for at least 24 hours after several days of beatings and privations then getting speared through the chest. Along the way, he outruns a jaguar, jumps off a waterfall, struggles his way out of quicksand, takes another blow to the head and an arrow through the chest, all the while getting stronger and killing his pursuers in the best horror movie fashion. The best part was where he cracks a bad guy's skull and the blood sprays out in a fine mist. The audience got a few chuckles from that one. Will he escape the bad guys? Will he save the girl? It’s a cliffhanger. Yep, a cliffhanger. That’s what it is.

Then at the end, when he has no where left to hide and no more chance to escape, Cortez shows up and distracts the warriors that are about to kill our hero. I kid you not. Fucking Cortez! There were quite a few chuckles in the audience about that as well.

As I said above, not a bad action movie but not great art by a midnight mile. The only element of any interest whatsoever is the depiction of the Aztecs. They are portrayed as a sick and brutal people. They cut out people’s hearts, cut off their heads and toss their heads and bodies down the temple steps. There are quite a few skulls around and piles of bodies are a common site.I don’t have a problem with that. In real life, the Aztecs were a sick and brutal people, pathologically so, unrivaled in all of history on that score. The were as bad as the movie depicted them on a good day and usually a helluva lot worse. But there were also a lot of beautiful things about their culture and little or none of that was displayed. Too bad.

The movie opens with a quotation about how great civilizations are only defeated when they rot from within. I guess that was a comment on the Aztecs and Cortez’s arrival, but it could have something to do with the political situation in Australia. I don’t know. I don’t follow those things. Or maybe it’s a reference to the Jews. Were there Jews in Mesoamerica? Did they bring down the Aztecs from within? I guess if you believe the Mormons, it’s possible.

Anyway, character development is not handled well. The dialogue telegraphs that the main character is supposed to overcome his fear, but he never seems that afraid in the beginning so when he overcomes it in the end, it’s not much of a change, if at all.

The direction and cinematography are average for big budget blockbusters. There are a few nice shots of the jungle, the Aztec city is marginally interesting. That’s about it. There’s a lot of running through the forest, but if you want to see how that’s handled by a master, check out Rashomon.

It would be nice to see a genuinely good movie about the Aztecs. If Hollywood ever asks me, I’ll recommend adopting the short story The Night Face Up by Julio Cortâzar. Or if you are really interested, read This Tree Grows in Hell by Ptomely Thomkins. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on any subject, fiction or non. Dr, Chuckling’s advice? Skip the movie. Read the books.

Update: Now that I'm reading reviews, I notice that every reviewer refers to the Mesoamericans depicted in the film as "Mayans." I don't know where this came from, presumably Gibson or his production company. I don't know if that's some kind of joke on the media, or what, but they are obviously based much more on the Aztecs than the Mayans. The temples, the ceremonies, and the bloody fact that the Spanish galleons arrive at the end leave no doubt.

Update II: Rex Reed in The NY Observer has a similar take, but phrases it much better.

A question of magnitude

Our insane right wing friends – the Rush Limbaughs, Richard Perles, John McCains, as well as the cowardly keyboarders are in extended two minute hate mode over the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's analysis of American policies in Iraq and its proposals to minimize the damage. Never mind that it is only bipartisan in the sense that it includes both Republicans and conservative Democrats who were stupid or cowardly enough to support the idiotic war when they had a chance to do something to stop it. Might as well just save words and call them morons, eh? And never mind that their proposals are equally insane, though certainly not as disasterous as Bush's "path to victory," which stripped of newspeak translates as " catastrophic downward spiral." What Iraqi army are they planning to train? There is no Iraqi army. Only factions.

In any case, our rightwing brethren, those who have been astoundingly wrong about everything, have a point. The ISG's report does not contain a plan for victory. If it is not, as they say, a plan to surrender, it is certainly a plan to retreat. If it is not an acknowledgment of defeat, it is an acknowledgement of inevitable defeat if we keep trying for victory.

The nutcase argument in favor of victory will resonate with a lot of Americans. After all, most people would agree that victory is good and that defeat is bad.

The problem, however, is not that we will be defeated when we withdraw from Iraq. The problem was that we were defeated when we invaded. All that's left to sort out is the magnitude of the defeat. And every day we stay, it just gets worse.

But the idea of not admitting defeat, of doing what's necessary to achieve victory could resonate beyond the right wing fringe. Everyone, even Bush, admits publicly that the present policies are not working, that changes will have to be made. I don't doubt that Bush is capable, if not likely, to advocate change by staying the course, but the only two logical alternatives are leaving or putting in more troops.

My guess is that we will put in more troops. Athough this is insane, it is the only thing that makes sense if one is still deluded enough to believe that there is any hope of victory. It is the "Lyndon Johnson" approach and will have a similar result. Many, many more dead and violent spillover into other countries before the inevitable denouement. And the inevitable denouement in this case is significantly worse than Lyndon Johnson's war. Dominos may not fall, but they will take a lot of damage.

Dr. Chuckling, however, has a can't fail plan for ultimate victory. It's called international rule of law and it's the only hope we have. Pretty much all educated people used to know this, but our right wing brethren and their joe sixpack and religious nutcase enablers were not among them. Unfortunately they gained power and fucked up everything for years to come, if not forever. But things can change. Blowback can happen and it doesn't just go from right to left.

But what to do in the short term? How to stop the troop increase that John McCain advocates? You'll see. Soon it won't just be McCain. It will be the entire right wing hate machine. Throwing more death at the problem is all that's left to them.

Dr. Chuckling has a short term plan as well. He recommends labeling the idea of increasing troops in Iraq as the "Lyndon Johnson strategy." Everyone with a platform should repeat it over and over again. The Lyndon Johnson strategy, the Lyndon Johnson strategy, the Lyndon Johnson strategy.... Didn't work then, won't work now.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A two-headed child or a headless calf?

I've been suffering through a period of brain death lately and have not written, or created by other means, much of anything. Fortunately, the big television died and there isn't much on anyway, so I've been passing the passing of my intelligence by reading. I read Brooklyn Follies by the bad man, Paul Auster, the children's book Holes, and several books of science fiction nonsense.

Now I'm bogged down in more challenging stuff: Blood Orchid by Charles Bowden, Tests of Time by William H. Gass, and Rios Profundos by José María Arguedas.

These books are not what you'd generally call page turners. The writing is so great that you stuck in sentences, or paragraphs, or perhaps on rare occasions, even pages, and they fill your head so full that it's difficult to keep reading. So I switch off to another book and the style is so radically different that it takes a several minutes to make sense of the words and I have to read again.

In any case, maybe when I'm smart again I'll tell you about it. I know there's a lot of demand for the ol Bowden/Gass/Arguedas review, but it will have to wait. In the meantime, though, I will share with you this paragraph from Rios Profundos, just because it's about words, and me like words.

The Quechua ending yllu is onomatopoeic. Yllu, in one form, means the music of tiny wings in flight, music created by the movement of light objects. This term is similar to another broader one –illa. Illa is the name used for a certain kind of light, also for monsters with birth defects caused by moonbeams. Illa is a two-headed child or a headless calf, or a giant pinnacle, all black and shining, with a surface crossed by a wide streak of white rock, of opaque light. An ear of corn with rows of kernels that cross or form whorls is also illa; illas are the mythical bulls that live at the bottom of solitary lakes, of highland ponds ringed with cattail reeds, where black ducks dwell. All illas bring good or bad luck, always to the nth degree. To touch an illa, and to either die or be resurrected, is possible.

Kinda makes me want to learn more Quechua.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Thinking the all too thinkable

I fear we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of major disaster in the last year. It’s understandable. September 11, the ongoing disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans, government services, massive election fraud and in everything else George W. Bush and his henchmen have touched provides us with a feeling that it can’t get any worse. But it can always get worse. It can, it can.

George W. Bush is perhaps the biggest loser in the history of the world and he has two more years to foster new disasters or ignore warnings that could have prevented them. We know something's coming, at least one miserable failure, but we don’t yet know what form it will take. So in order to get ahead of the game, I’m listing a few possibilities and their likelihoods.

Disasters can come in three categories: National Security, Natural and/or Political. Am I missing anything?

National Security Disasters

Possibility: Terrorist attack.
Likelihood: Almost assured. The fact that there has been no major terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 is Bush’s only positive accomplishment. It is highly unlikely that Bush will leave office with any positive accomplishments.

Possibility: War with Iran
Likelihood: Fair to High. Attacking Iran would be so mind numbingly stupid that the armed forces might refuse to follow orders. But unfortunately, fostering a breakdown in the constitutional authority of the president would constitute a horrendous failure by itself, so we can’t rule it out. Otherwise, we know they are actively planning for a war with Iran and there is a large right wing constituency for it. Bush may feel that defeating the Mullahs and bringing democracy to Iran would be the crowning achievement in his legacy and that he has nothing left to lose but the lives of millions and the future security and prosperity of the United States. Just kidding, I’m sure the lives of millions and any likely negative consequences will not enter into his equations, which are something along the lines of 5 - 3 + 12 = 48.

Possibility: War with North Korea
Likelihood: Low. North Korea has nuclear bombs. Bush is a sniveling coward. If they somehow managed to nuke D.C., he could get hurt. Not gonna risk it.

Possibility: War with some small, weak country
Likelihood: Very High. If Bush could find some small country like Grenada or Panama to defeat, he might feel he could go out a winner. If Castro dies, which seems likely, watch out.

Natural Disasters

Possibility: Giant asteroid strikes earth, wipes out all human life
Likelihood: Small. But, if there is a giant asteroid hurtling towards us, it is very likely that Bush is ignoring the warnings. Maybe he doesn’t believe in asteroids, maybe he just thinks the “scientists” are trying to cover their asses, or maybe he thinks God will bail him out (again). Unfortunately, we’ll never know because we’ll all be dead.

Possibility: Very Nasty Hurricane
Likelihood: Small. Of course there will be a couple more hurricane seasons, and there may even be a big one, but after Katrina, state governments are on the ball and would not be dependent on Bush or his appointees being the least bit competent.

Possibility: Earthquake
Likelihood: High. Earthquakes happen all the time. It’s been a long time since one has struck the United States. And since the Pacific coast states are probably prepared, I’d guess it will happen in the midwest or on the east coast. If that happens, Bush will go into hiding, curl up in a ball and suck his thumb before emerging to trumpet his manly and agressive response to the disaster.

Possibility:Tidal wave
Likelihood: Fair. Most likely coupled with previously mentioned Earthquake. "Scientists" will warn Bush's aids, but they will be too afraid to disturb him when he's curled up in his fetal position, and he would ignore them if they did.

Possibility: Volcanic Explosion
Likelihood: Not likely, but possible. I recently read that Yellowstone sits on top of a super volcano, the kind that erupts every half million years or so and causes mass extinctions, and that it’s overdue. If anyone has bad enough Karma to set it off, it would be Bush.

Political disasters

Possibility: Declares national emergency, refuses to give up presidency
Likelihood: Low. If he were popular, it would be a near certainty, but only the most idiotic 30 percent of voters, and 90 percent of the pundits (Richard Cohen would lead the liberal apologists), would support him if he tried to do something like that now.

Possibility: Pardons everyone who ever kissed his ass or wrote him a check
Likelihood: Certain.

Possibility: Gets caught having sex with gay prostitute in White House.
Likelihood:Fair. You just know that he is worse than Clinton in every way. Can he get away with it for two more years?

There are so many more possibilities. Help me out here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Miserable failure is too nice a term

Headline at the WaPo:

Marines Pessimistic on Anbar - Report says U.S. cannot defeat insurgency or counter al-Qaeda's fast growth in western Iraq.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dog bites man

Headline in the NY Times:

As Power Shifts in New Congress, Pork May Linger

Pigs may eat? Ya think?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Journey to the bottom of the well

I almost never read Charles Krauthammer, not because I disagree with him, but because he has a funny name. Kraut Hammer. What the fuck is that? The German Hammer? Does he prance around his house in tights chanting Kraut! Hammer!? Sorry for that image, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. (note to young writers, making fun of a person’s name is always a good way to build credibility in an opening paragraph!)

But seriously, I almost never read Krauthammer because he is a man of low moral standards and a tool for the worst elements of Conservatism. I would just say he is an evil moron, which would be accurate in the vernacular, but I don’t like to use the word evil because of its supernatural connotations and the question of whether or not he is a moron requires a nuanced argument. Does he believe his own twaddle or does he simply espouse it to further some Conservative cause? If he believes it, he is clearly a moron. But I would argue that he is a moron even if he has a very high IQ and cynically and effectively uses it to craft arguments with the express purpose of suckering the rubes. That’s still stupid to me.

Regardless, genuinely stupid or not, he is definitely a man whose political desires, if fulfilled, would lead to a lot of death, destruction, oppression, and other bad things for the world. And unlike most of these terribly wrongheaded (to give them the benefit of the doubt) people, he is mysteriously granted a national platform to peddle his destructive nonsense. And reading him normally makes me sick. Not physically sick, but existentially sick, not just for myself, but for the entire human race. Sick that such creeps lurk among us. Sick that all too often they prevail. And doubly sick that a newspaper with the reach and prestige of the Washington Post publishes such a sicko.

Nevertheless, this morning my stomach is steeled with mass quantities of turkey and dressing from the night before and he was writing about Borat, so I read what he had to say. Krauthammer’s columns are always instructive in a bad way or two and today’s column was no exception.

He notes that Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, went around the United States spouting anti-Jewish nonsense in order to expose the casual anti-Semetism, or indifference to anti-Semetism, of the American people, which Cohen maintains illustrates the path to the Holocaust.

Krauthammer’s argument is two-fold. One fold illustrates a tried-and-true propaganda technique, the other a logical fallacy.

Krauthammer does not dispute Cohen’s assertion that Americans are generally anti-Semetic beneath the surface or at best indifferent. He argues that we should instead focus on anti-Semites everywhere else in the world -- in Iran, Venezuela, France, and other members of the axis of evil too numerous to mention.

This is the “hey look, over there!!!” propaganda technique. It is employed when one is caught with one’s pants down and wants to focus attention elsewhere. In politics, the underlying argument when this technique is employed is always: focus your denunciations on places where you have no influence rather than here in the U.S., where you do.

The logical fallacy underlying the propaganda is that Krauthammer simultaneously argues that indifference paves the path to the Holocaust and that it doesn’t. He strenuously rails against anti-Semetic leaders and popular indifference to anti-Semetism in the rest of the world, but gently notes that “America is the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-Semitic country in the world” because notable American anti-Semites have helped Israel.

Basically what he’s saying is that anti-semetism is okay as long as the anti-Semites are Americans and they don’t act on it. Does he believe that crap? I doubt it, but Borat is making Conservatives look bad, so all good propagandists must denounce or distort its message and/or messenger.

Logically, it goes like this:

Harry Truman was an anti-Semite
Harry Truman helped Israel.
Therefore, America is the greatest country in the world and fuck those goddamned anti-semetic foreigners, kill, kill, kill!!!!!!!

Heckuva job, Charles.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I just finished Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. It was a very enjoyable read, only took me four days. And it was a happy book, truly a rare thing in literature.

Monday night I was part of a wonderful dinner with the children. I didn’t realize how great it was until it was almost over and I also realized how common those types of meals are for us. Long and leisurely, with lively, interesting conversation. We don’t have them every night, and maybe not even every week, but I’d say at least once every two weeks we have a well-prepared three course meal where the whole family sits around talking contentedly for at least an hour. It’s a wonderful thing, and rarely planned. The type of experience I know I shouldn’t take for granted. Some moments in life I need to savor. And I do, I do.

The only thing different about this particular meal was that my wife was not there. She has been out of the country for nearly six weeks taking care of her father as he lays dying. He has been in bad shape for a long time now, going in and out of comas. He has improved a little since she has been there though he will never fully recover, or even communicate. She said she saw them turn him over and the bed sores were so terrible her knees buckled and she almost fell. It appears that he will not die before she returns, which is unfortunate. She had expected him to die early in the six weeks. She thought she would both make the funeral arrangements and attend it, but such will not be the case. It’s very hot there and rains pretty much every day. She is not having a good time.

It’s odd that we haven’t missed her that much. I was traumatized when she left and spent the first few days drinking heavily in my room, letting the kids fend for themselves. But that got old fast and we settled back into our normal rhythm. I cook a well-balanced dinner pretty much every night and we have our leisurely meals. It’s not that we don’t like her, we do, but for some reason we don’t get upset when one of us is away. I guess that represents emotional security. We do care about each other. I was only bothered at first because I would have to pay the bills and manage the kids’ schedules. Not that I mind, but these are important things and I am just not good at them. But I’ve done okay. As long as she doesn’t extend her stay, our credit will probably not be ruined. And the kids have done fine. Aged seven and 14, they’re pretty much self-maintaining these days. They do their homework without prodding and get themselves ready for school.

I have been blessed with a great family, a fact which bothers those who know me from childhood no end. Given my behavior as a child, the fact that my children are abnormally well behaved is proof that there is no God. Many predicted that some day I would learn what it was like to put up with a brat like me. And in a perfect universe, that would have been my just desserts. But it is not a perfect world.

Last year in the United States, about 1.6 million children and teenagers — 280,000 of them under age 10 — were given at least two psychiatric drugs in combination, according to an analysis performed by Medco Health Solutions at the request of The New York Times. More than 500,000 were prescribed at least three psychiatric drugs. More than 160,000 got at least four medications together, the analysis found.

That, according to an article in this morning’s New York Times.
Fate Riske, 3, of Fond du Lac, Wis., takes two antipsychotics and a sleeping medicine to control what her mother, Elizabeth Klein-Riske, said were hours-long tantrums, a desire to watch the same movies repeatedly and an insistence on eating the meat, cheese and bread in her sandwiches separately.

That information just makes me sick. What child doesn’t want to watch the same movies repeatedly? What child doesn’t play with food? I don’t know about the tantrums. My educated guess from the information available would be “bad parenting,” but whatever the child was trying to communicate, it shouldn’t have been translated as “give me drugs, and lots of them.”

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I were growing up today, they would have put me on meds. I threw tantrums for as long as it was necessary to get what I wanted. I wouldn’t eat a sandwich without cutting off the crust! And I could give another hundred examples of genuine bad behavior. Stimulants, anti-depressants, anti-pyschotics, anti-convulsives -- I’m sure the would have thrown the pharmacy at me.

And I’m equally sure of the results. Just like the poor kids in the article, I would have been docile for awhile, then exhibited weird behavior when my body and brain got used to the dosages, then totally flipped out if they stopped the meds.
Joanne Johnson of Hillsborough, N.J., described a psychiatrist’s effort to wean her 17-year-old son, Brad, off of all five of his psychiatric medicines as “the biggest mistake of our lives.”

Brad, then 13, became suicidal and was hospitalized for weeks, Ms. Johnson said.

“He went into the hospital on five drugs and came out on five different ones, but he was unstable,” she said. “It took a little over two years to find the right match again.”

Brad is now taking lithium, an antipsychotic, an anticonvulsant, an antidepressant, a stimulant and a sleeping pill.

“He’ll probably be on these for the rest of his life,” Ms. Johnson said.

Of course I didn’t need a quack doctor to prescribe me all that crap. It was the seventies and I was, as they say, self-medicated as a teenager. At one time or another, I took all those classes of drugs. Various amphetamines, Valium, Quaaludes, Nembutal, Tuanol, I forget the name of the anti-convulsant that was popular, and everything else we could find in our parents’ medicine cabinets. All that along with weed and alcohol. I didn’t go over the cliff like so many others, but I could see the chasm. So I know from where I speak.

The conscious reason we (I had a lot of friends) drank and took drugs was because it was fun, but I now see that there were underlying psychological problems. Some of our parents were divorced, others alcoholic, many prescription drug-addled from some combination of diet pills and tranquilizers, all dysfunctional in one or many ways. Everyone was at least spanked and yelled at. Some beaten more severely. And we lived in a small town hell-hole with lots of small people in it. School was not challenging, to put it mildly.

Fortunately, I came out of all that okay. I never became a drug addict or an alcoholic. I went on to college and eventually became part of a healthy family. But that outcome was hardly assured. I could very easily have fucked up my life. A lot of people I know did. And nowadays, as the Times article illustrates, there are plenty of doctors who get paid lots of money to fuck up kids’ lives. I’m sure that if I been diagnosed as mentally ill at a young age and put on a drug regime like the poor kids described in the Times article, I’d be dead or a mess now. Most likely dead.

So of course when I had kids of my own I did not want them to go through any of that. I examined my own life, did quite a bit of research on brain development, and my wife and I came up with our own plan. First, and this should be obvious to everybody, we never hit them and tried very hard not to yell at them or humiliate them in any way. When they were babies, the kids got whatever they wanted. When they were hungry they were fed, when they wanted to be held, they were held, when they wanted attention, they got it, when they cried, they got sympathy. And on the flip side, if they weren’t hungry, they didn’t have to eat and if they weren’t sleepy, they didn’t have to go to bed. When they were babies, there was never any contention between us.

Then when the kids were very young and could understand words and reason, we had a few simple rules for which there were no exceptions. The most important rule was that, regarding things such as toys or candy, whining or crying would not get them what they wanted. Not once. Not ever. We did not get angry when they whined or cried. We did not yell at them or try to humiliate them in any way, much less hit them. In fact, we were sympathetic to their feelings, but we never, ever, rewarded whining or crying for material things. And for that, we were rewarded with children who did not whine and rarely cried.

And we educated them, I think fairly well, for whatever level they were at. We were never the neurotic super parents, but we spent a lot of time with the kids and talked to them a lot. That, it seems, is a better predictor of educational success than getting bent out of shape with the latest educational gadgets and tutoring. We’ve also lived in places with a lot of culture, things to do, and great natural beauty. I think place matters as well, at least if you use it. I’m sure it helps.

Up to this point at least, and I’m knocking wood, all this has worked very well. The kids are happy. They are nice. They do very well in school and, more importantly. love it, They have good friends who are happy as well. My daughter is fifteen and has never smoked, drank, or taken drugs. I don’t doubt that she will be exposed to sex, weed and alcohol in the next few years, but all signs point to her being able to make intelligent decisions. We’ll see, but at least she’s been happy till now. Not every 15-year-old can say that.

I don’t know if it’s some kind of genetic luck or our enlightened parenting, but I suspect it’s quite a bit more of the latter. My niece is an unfortunate example. She is at least as smart and talented as my daughter and has a lot of the same genes. But her parents divorced when she was six years old and to punish her mother, her father refused to see or speak to the child for many years. My sister remarried well and my niece grew up with all the material things a child could ever hope for. But they are not enlightened parents and the girl is horribly unhappy. She does poorly in school, fights constantly with her parents. Recently she began cutting her arms. She has been put on drug cocktails like the poor kids in the article and she keeps getting worse. She’s started drinking and smoking pot. Her boyfriend’s four years older than her. I have tried to help. I tell her these things can pass, that she has to get out of that town and go to college. That’s what I did. It was hard, but you can do it. Yes, uncle Chuck, she says in Eddie Haskell mode. That’s exactly what I’ll do. But more likely it will be Meth. Or pregnancy. Or both. I am helpless. It sucks.

Be that as it may, in a few hours we will have Thanksgiving dinner, my two children and I. My daughter has done some research and has a plan for preparing the turkey and dressing. My young son will set the table. We will have a nice long meal together, talk and enjoy each other’s company. Of this I am confident.

The future? Who knows? Global warming, a puff of Meth, car crashes, war, or crime. Life is fragile and so much can go wrong. As parents, we lose a little more control every day. Soon they will be on their own. But no matter what happens in the future, I am thankful for all that has come before. And I am thankful for today.

I hope you are too. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A mendoza line for the MSM

The Wapo’s Richard Cohen fesses up to being wrong in his initial support for both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. But after his initial error (someone else’s fault), he tells how he heroically realized that he would not want to fight in either one because his life was too valuable to be thrown away in a stupid, counterproductive war.

I guess that compared to other prominent columnists we should give him credit for admitting his mistakes, but why the fuck doesn’t he just shut up when he has been so horribly wrong about so many of the great issues of his time? Vanity and weakness, I guess, but someone needs to shut him up before he’s horribly wrong again. He’s no doubt already thinking about what a good idea it would be to bomb Iran. And he’s far from being the only one.

Just so there’s no misconception, I’m saying it's management’s job to shut these people up, or at least keep them off the editorial pages of the country’s most influential news outlets.

Why don’t major media such as the Washington Post and New York Times hold their columnists to any kind of standards regarding the quality of their opinions? If they were playing baseball, most of the highly paid pundits in the Post and the Times, as well as the vast television wasteland, would be batting well under .200. They have struck out on just about every major issue for the past twenty years, and then some.

Why is there no quality control beyond hair, makeup, and writing technique? Why no metrics, as we say in the corporate world, to track whether the opinions these people express turn out to be right or wrong?

The media need to hire an employee to chart the columnists’ analyses of issues and then when reality proves them right or wrong, compute their average. Then there would be something like baseball’s Mendoza line. The Mendoza line is a batting average so low that it gets you cut from the team. It means failure.

Perhaps they could call it Kagan or the Krauthammer line? No, only firing those who are wrong about everything all the time would be setting the bar too low. The Cohen line would work though. Anyone who is wrong as often as Cohen, or more, should not be playing in the major leagues.

When the craven rule

Yesterday brought another example of Muslims being arbitrarily removed from an airplane because at least one passenger was uncomfortable about their presence. They should remove the scared and ignorant fool who wrongly accuses people of plotting mass murder based on no evidence whatsoever rather than those who are wrongly accused. That’s a story I’d like to see in the news. More likely, the poor Imams will be put on the no fly list for being thrown off the flight.

A matter of perspective

The uproar over Fox’s attempt to exploit murder for profit in the case of O.J. Simpson is predictably unexceptional. First, we’re talking about a network that openly, and quite loudly, advocates murder and war crimes on a global scale and actively promotes those who kill and torture hundreds of thousands, probably millions before it’s all done (if ever), and profits from it handsomely, so it figures that they wouldn’t expect any outcry over promoting a solitary killer with only two victims to his credit.

And again it goes to show how we, as a species, lack perspective. Literally millions of people die in stupid wars or famines in Africa, or elsewhere, and we shrug. Yet when bad things happen to people we know – and we got to know poor Ron and Nicole – it is, for us, of paramount importance. And the greater the cultural distance, the less we care. African-Americans care little, if any, more about four million dead in the Congo than whites, but it’s different when someone they can relate to gets killed by a racist in Texas. And not a lot of tears were shed by white Americans when horrible war crimes were committed in Bosnia. We only became involved because the Europeans, who were so much closer, demanded it.

So Fox is exposed, which is a good thing, but I doubt anyone will make the connection between the wrong of profiting from O.J. and the wrong of profiting from the Coulters, Malkins, Hannity’s and O’Reilly’s who would kill millions. Two is a number to which we humans can relate. Numbers become increasingly fuzzy as we add more zeros.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Off to the races

“Schools Slow in Closing Gaps Between Races,” we are told by the New York Times. The article goes on to point out that white kids are improving their test scores faster than black and Hispanic kids. It also says that Asian kids are doing as well or better than whites. The article says nothing about how the Arab race is doing, or the Jewish race, or the Native American race, or any of the hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other races out there. Clearly, the article is racist.

Why does the New York Times continue to peddle this racist tripe?

It would be an exaggeration to say that science has abandoned the concept of race altogether, but I believe it is accurate to say that no one has come up with a definition that cannot be easily debunked. Yet the New York Times, as well as most the rest of the world, continues to attempt these ridiculous classifications.

For example, just using this article on test scores, what the fuck is the Hispanic race? There is no such thing. Even the census differentiates between Hispanics of African background vs. Hispanics of European background? But no mention is made of Hispanics of Native American background, which is the largest group, or Hispanics of Asian background, or Hispanics of Lebanese background, of which there are many.

Or the black race? Equatorial people from around the globe have as much melanin in their skin as most Africans. A person from southern India will have about the same skin color as a person from Ghana. A person from Ethiopia will have roughly the same amount of melanin as a person from Spain. Of course it’s not just skin color, but any other marker, or group of markers falls apart just as readily when scrutinized. The only racial classification that makes sense across the board is “human.”

...there is more genetic similarity between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans and between Europeans and Melanesians, inhabitants of islands northeast of Australia, than there is between Africans and Melanesians. Yet, sub-Saharan Africans and Melanesians share dark skin, hair texture and cranial-facial features, traits commonly used to classify people into races. According to Templeton, this example shows that "racial traits" are grossly incompatible with overall genetic differences between human populations.

"The pattern of overall genetic differences instead tells us that genetic lineages rapidly spread out to all of humanity, indicating that human populations have always had a degree of genetic contact with one another, and thus historically don't show any distinct evolutionary lineages within humanity," Templeton says. "Rather, all of humanity is a single long-term evolutionary lineage."

One cannot deny, however, that there is such a thing as ethnic groups or populations and that customs differ among groups and that these customs can, and do, affect education. One should certainly note that customs that affect education differ within ethnic groups as well. In fact, one can note all kinds of differences among people. One can go on and on and on noting differences among people. The supply of differences to note is endless.

What organizations such as the New York Times should be focusing on is the similarities rather than the differences. There are children who do extremely well on tests from all ethnic groups. What do they have in common?

Money, as we know, is color blind and the children of the wealthier members of any ethnic group generally do better than the less wealthy. So what should we do about that? Just give everyone a lot of money? No, we know that welfare without strings just doesn’t work and it’s often true that the more successful people are smarter, but still, closing the income gap among people who do work would help.

But just as in life, money in education is not everything. Intelligence has to count for at least something, doesn’t it? Not all humans are equally intelligent. The upper limit of our intelligence, we know, is inherited, but how close we come to reaching that limit is a result of how we are raised and individual choices we make. Thus, as any teacher will tell you, the quality of a child’s family life is a better predictor of success at school than anything that could remotely be classified as race. A recent study corroborated the obvious:

The principle is straightforward and has long been recognized in plants and other simpler organisms. In one famous example, often repeated by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, two genetically identical seeds of corn, planted in very different soil conditions, will grow to very different heights.

Some social psychologists and behavior geneticists have hypothesized that the same must hold true for the relationships linking human genes, socioeconomic status and IQ. Like corn in depleted soil, the thinking goes, minorities and the poor (two categories with so much overlap that researchers find it difficult to tease apart their effects) perform worse not because of their genes but because they are raised in an environment lacking in resources and poisoned by racist attitudes.

If the quality of family life is the most important factor in test scores and people from certain ethnic groups do better than others on tests, does that mean that some ethnic groups do a better job of raising their kids to take tests than others. That’s the obvious conclusion, isn’t it?

So wouldn’t it be cost effective to throw some money at an attempt to raise the child-rearing skills of parents? Yes, I’d say. In fact, I think raising the child-rearing skills of Americans, with the enhancement of our national IQ that would result, should be our number one national priority, the single best thing we could do to improve our national security.

The only caveat is that maximizing our children’s IQ and test taking ability should not be the only goal of our national campaign to dramatically increase parenting skills. Many people, for example, beat their children and although those kids may become quite smart and do well on tests, they are often damaged in other ways that are mirrored in the aggregate society. But more about that another time.

Update: The Daily Howler has a few things to say about the same Times article.

Update II: The British have the right idea.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

He did no harm to anyone

This article discusses movies about Beethoven and ponders why none have ever been made that approach the popularity of Amadeus.

Well, I neither know nor care anything about that, but I find it interesting that Beethoven's music has been used by characters in at least two of the more interesting films about violence to help put them in the mood for mayhem. Most famously, little Alex in A Clockwork Orange uses Beethoven's music to get up for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

And in a pivotal scene in Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a different violence obsessed Alex plays a haunting version of Fur Elise that serves as a surreally appropriate soundtrack for a killing spree.

So what is it about Ludwin Van that causes great filmakers to associate his music with violence? Beethoven looks like a maniac. There's some weirdness in his biography, particularly regarding his nephew Karl. Maybe there is something real there? Maybe that's the hook soemone needs to make a great Beethoven movie? Make him a psychotic killer, call it A Score for Violence and dig up Steve Railsback to play him.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Rabbit run, elephant shoot

For my next trick, not only will I pull a Rabbit out of my hat, but an Elephant as well. I will simultaneously review John Updike’s seminal novel Rabbit Run and Gus Van Sant’s elegiac film Elephant. It’s not a task I would choose for myself, but with the strong public demand, how can I demur?

Am I using my two dollar words properly?

sem•i•nal, adjective; (of a work, event, moment, or figure); 1. strongly influencing later developments. 2. relating to, or denoting, semen.

el•e•gi•ac, adjective; (esp. of a work of art) having a mournful quality.

Yep, Rabbit is seminal in both senses of the word and elegiacal as well. Elephant is definitely mournful. One could argue that it relates to semen. Whether it strongly influences any later developments, we’ll have to see. Smart money’s probably on “no.”

Anyway, John Updike is a Master of American Literature, a true giant, etc. etc. Almost every review of his work starts with something like “John Updike’s genius is...” And the Rabbit books are considered his greatest achievement.

That’s strong stuff, but not the only reason why I’ve resisted reading him for so long. It’s not just Updike. The other American Literary Giants of that era – Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, J.D. Salinger, et. al. were prominent on the bookshelf when I was a kid and I’ve not yet read those guys as an adult either. They are the authors my hipster parents and their hipster friends were reading, or pretending to read. The book jackets always promised sex. My copy of Rabbit, copyright 1960, 47th printing 1989, still promises sexual candor on the inside cover. I don’t know how many of those goddamned books I skimmed looking for the sex parts when I was a kid, but it was always disappointing. All fancy words and not much fucking. And when people did manage to fuck they were always sad about it. If you’re a horny teenager with a literary bent, my advice is to try Henry Miller. Stay far, far away from Updike and that crowd. But did my parents read Henry Miller? No, they read a bunch of depressed fucking north easterners like John Updike.

But I’m older now and no longer care about sex in literature. And I’ve certainly got nothing against depressing stories. Fancy words? Depends on how they’re used.

Updike is very good with words. He writes fantastic sentences and wonderful paragraphs. I’ll open the book at random, with no fear of failure, and transcribe one to show you what I mean:
She gets up and walks around the room with the baby on her shoulder patting to get the air up and the baby poor thing so floppy and limp keeps sliding and trying to dig its little boneless legs into her to hold tight and the nightie blown by the breeze keeps touching her calves the backs of her legs her ass as he called it. Makes you feel filthy they don’t even have decent names for parts of you.

See how smooth that is? I didn’t even notice the punctuation games when I read it the first time. Let’s do it again:
She swiftly pivots, swinging her backside to safety behind her. Her freckles dart sharp as pinpricks from her shocked face. Her leaping blood bleaches her skin, and her rigidly cold stare is so incongruous with the lazy condescending warmth he feels toward her, that he pushes his upper lip over his lower in a burlesque expression of penitence.

You get the idea. Almost every paragraph in the book is great. But for me, all of the fine wordsmithing did not make a good story. The symbolism is obvious. Rabbit is a dimwitted creature who likes to fuck and run. That pretty much sum it up. The rest is just fancy dressing.

Elephant, on the other hand, is a large, slow moving creature and very smart. The film is one of constant movement. If the camera is not moving, then the characters are. Usually both. There is movement in time as well. No great show is made of it, but the film often returns to a particular point in time when the camera is following a particular character. One scene in a hallway is filmed from the perspective of three different characters. Many other moments are replayed from the edge of a shot. The intersection of characters in time gives the viewer a bearing on when the climactic events will occur. It’s very well done. Like Updike’s punctuation games, you might not even notice it.

The elegiacal quality of the film, the languid movement of the camera and the characters suggests a European art film sensitivity while the inevitable denouement is all American guns and glory. Whether or not the movie has a point is for the viewer to decide. I can’t sum it up some smart ass sentence beginning with “the symbolism is obvious...” The symbolism is not obvious. The camera in Elephant shows not tells. We see a typical day in a typical, albeit gigantic, high school that goes typically wrong in typical American fashion. The story is nothing special. The beauty of the film is in the craft.

So it seems I’ve arrived at the paradox. I’ve described both Rabbit and Elephant as very well-crafted works of art with unexceptional stories, yet one gets praise, the other condemnation. Is it a matter of the times. I am an adult in the time of Elephant. I was a child in the time of Rabbit. Does that just make the story more powerful for me?

Or am I just shallow? Do I need the guns and the violence? Possibly, possibly.

But it’s also possible that Elephant actually told a very good story. I can’t exactly say what that story is, but the look on the boy’s face at the end of the movie, the look of bliss, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in a film. And that look had the whole story behind it. Without that story, that look would not have been possible.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Career opportunities

For the most part, Daniel Ortega’s win in the Nicaraguan presidential election is reported as a head-scratcher, if not a defeat for God, George W. Bush, mom, apple pie, and all things good and proper. It’s been a long time since I followed Nicaraguan politics, so all I know is what I’ve read in the newspapers these past few weeks preceding the election, which if history is any indication, which it usually is, means nothing, or worse than nothing, misinformation. But you never know, unless you are directly involved.

The unfortunate truth is that Nicaragua is a poor country with no significant natural resources and there will be widespread poverty no matter who governs it. The best they can hope for is basic political and economic freedom, health care, and education, which may not sound like much but are actually quite precious. The worst they can fear is the return of, if not further descent into, a brutal police state where those on top take what there is, leaving next to nothing for the great majority while jailing, torturing or killing anyone who complains about it. This worst case scenariois just about all they’ve known historically.

I spent a month in Nicaragua in early 1983. Back then, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan was creating and arming a terrorist organization that came to be known as the Contras. Our proxies were just beginning to carry out terrorist attacks while I was there. Although everyone knew the U.S. was behind these attacks, Ronald Reagan and his spokespeople regularly looked the camera in the eye and lied about it. I was there and I saw the evidence. There was no doubt.

To be at a place in history where you know the facts on the ground and can see a very convincing politician look you in the eye and lie about it is something everyone could benefit from. It’s an eye opening experience and it's available to everyone. All you have to do is study any controversial issue about which the government is taking controversial actions, especially abroad, but few of us take advantage of the opportunity. It’s one thing to generically “know” that the government lies all the time. It’s something else when you witness it first hand. It’s something else again when people’s lives are being ruined, if not extinguished because of these lies. And it’s really enlightening when you meet those people and see that they are not evil monsters, just every day people like you and me.

I did not meet Daniel Ortega, but I met his wife, the poet Rosario Murillo and quite a few other Sandinistas. I was very impressed with Rosario Murillo. She was a beautiful woman and very passionate about the arts. She was the type of woman you’d expect to be teaching a graduate writing seminar, not as the wife of some third world dictator. And although the reading meant nothing to me at the time, I got to attend one by the master short story writer Julio Cortázar and a reception afterwards where I met Thomas Borge and other higher level Sandanistas. Of course by “met,” I mean shake hands and briefly exchange pleasantries. We didn’t sit down and chat over beers or anything like that. I don’t know what kind of person Daniel Ortega and the other Sandanistas came to be, but the overwhelming majority of things I saw, heard, and studied at the time led me to believe that they were sincere at the time.

I also met some people who I’m sure would later go on to be Contras, if they weren’t already, and heard stories of violence and injustices committed by the Sandinistas. Landowners had their properties confiscated and often their former “employees,” now Sandinistas, took revenge for past wrongs. The Sandinista police and military apparently looked the other way while many of these type crimes were being committed. And they were particularly hated on the Caribbean coast where the English speaking people and the Indians had always been ignored by the government and liked it that way. They got vastly improved medical care, education, and electricity, but preferred the freedom they had known before. I find it easy to believe that Nicaragua was never a utopia of justice under the Sandinistas. I do believe, however, that it was a big improvement over the previous dictator and that their intentions were good. That was 1983.

But it appears that things went down hill. The U.S. followed the classic insurgent strategy of making the government to become ever more repressive. The Contras terrorized civilians and attacked isolated military targets forcing the government to devote more and more of its time and resources to security, and ultimately repression. That, along with economic pressures led to a decrease in standard of living as well as freedom for the Nicaraguan people and resulted in more opposition to Sandinista rule.

And I think that beyond the obvious, that kind of thing changes the people in charge. The Sandinista idealists were forced to make hard choices, to oppress and to kill, in order to hang on to power. As is not unusual in human affairs, they began to become the thing that they hated. This was our plan and it worked.

How it would have gone if the U.S. had let them try their experiment in Democracy is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

But it is important to note that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was a Democracy. The newspapers portray it as a dictatorship at the top of the stories, but if you read deep down they grudgingly admit that the Sandinistas were elected in fair elections and then peacefully turned over power when they lost. Again, whether these elections would have taken place without U.S. pressure is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

So it is not necessarily the end of Democracy now that Daniel Ortega and some remnant of the Sandinistas are back in power. Everything I read suggests that they have become totally corrupted by all of these years in politics. I suspect that is true, but it’s also true that you can’t believe what you read, particularly when you are in the U.S. (or anywhere else) reading about people the government perceives as their enemies.

I hope they can still be the people they wanted to be. I wish them well.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


I don't know why, but this song covered by Nina Gordon by way of TBogg strikes me as incredibly beautiful. It would be great if more of these-type songs could be put in proper perspective.

Lies and lying liars

Bartholomew, at Bartholomew's notes on religion references this Guardian article which reports that today's children stop believing in such things as elves and fairies around age six, whereas their parents (i.e. us) had continued to believe in such supernatural creatures until age 10. He says:

I was always more interested in the likelihood ghosts and aliens than in elves and goblins, but one wonders if the above findings do suggest a decline in childhood creativity and curiosity. If so, one wonders what that might mean for instilling either scientific curiosity or religious beliefs in older kids.

Personally, based on my own experience, I would guess that this is because many parents no longer lie to their children about the supernatural. And as far as I can tell, again based on my kids and their friends, it's not harming their creativity or capacity to feel awe for things much greater than themselves in the least. The natural universe is at least as interesting as any fable. And fables can be just as interesting and instructive when they are presented as such.

I vividly remember feeling like a fool when I found out there was no Santa Claus and feeling terrible resentment towards my parents for lying to me. I suspect that those kind of lies were directly responsible for the lack of trust in adults that I developed young and carried with me, often with unhealthy results, throughout my teen years. I mean, if they lied to me about ghosts, why the hell should I believe them about cigarettes?

My kids and their friends, on the other hand, seem to trust us much more than we ever trusted our parents and they enjoy the holidays just as much as we did when we believed in ghosts, goblins, Santa, and the Easter bunny. Perhaps that's because we don't tell them ridiculous lies. Yes, that might explain it. When dealing with children, honesty begets trust. Lies beget suspicion.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tower, no babel

Please note that these words about Babel grew out of conversations about Roy’s review of the same movie at Alicublog.

Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga is a big film. The stories it tells are big. Love, death, loneliness, alienation,human culture, communication, the lack thereof. The scenery is big as well. From the desert expanses of southern Morocco to the urban canyons of Tokyo at night. And it has big stars. Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett's beautiful faces fill the big screen. Literally. Babel is a big movie.

How to say it without contradiction? Babel is really a small film. A small film with a big budget. The big stars have their scenes, but much more of the movie is dominated by relative unknowns. The big world spanning issues and fabulous long shot scenery is dwarfed by small-scale human feelings and interactions, conscious and not, among the characters. The film is emotionally astute. The most important action takes place in the characters' bodies. Haunted eyes, tight lines around the mouth, the hunched shoulders of a naked girl.Babel is a small film.

The politics that are part of the movie's fabric are both big and small as well. The distant and powerful U.S. anti-terrorist campaign hovers like a big dark cloud over the events in Morocco while a woman lies bleeding to death in a claustrophobic room in a mud hut being tended to by a veterinarian and hashish smoking old woman in shadow. The big border fence between the U.S. and Mexico dominates both the vista and the people's lives. It dwarfs a small Mexican wedding and the small people who attend it. When the Mexicans and the U.S. border guards are in the same shot, the Mexicans are uncomfortably small in the presence of the intimidatingly big cops, even though they are relatively the same size physically.

The film is politically astute, but it is not a political film. Politics, like in real life, just get in the way.

But what is it about? If you haven't seen any of the movies by Arriaga and González Iñárritu, which along with Babel include Amores Perros and 21 Grams, I suggest you stop reading and go see one. I make a real effort in these reviews to not give away much, if anything, of the plot, but still, it's better to approach this kind of art with a clean mind.

Arriaga and González Iñárritu's collaborations all use the "butterfly in China" narrative device, which is based on the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China ultimately affects the weather in New York. Stories that seem to be unrelated turn out to be linked by random events, turning a series of small stories into one big one.

This narrative technique, by itself, practically begs one to search for meaning. Then you take into consideration that the title is "Babel;" and that the story takes place in different languages and far flung locations. I think you have to agree that the artists are throwing out a pretty big clue that the film is about communication, miscommunication, or lack of communication. At least something to do with communication.

And perhaps that superficial synopsis really was the basis for the movie. That would make sense. But still, the stories and the ways in which they are linked offer up a variety of possible meanings. I doubt that only one was intended. I suspect that Arriaga and González Iñárritu developed the screenplay with that kind of open interpretation in mind. Different people can come away with different meanings and multiple viewings could be rewarding – but granted, I might just be projecting.

Babel is a movie that invites you to project, to search for meaning, but I do not believe that it is limited by any particular message with a capital M. I think it would be disappointing to look for too much meaning. I suspect that the communication trope is just that. Some of the deeper meanings, I would guess, revolve around how people react to great misfortune in relation to their cultural circumstance. I also think there is an altruistic plot-line meant to demonstrate that people from diverse cultures feel the same emotions, particularly for their children.

And there is a message that diverse cultures, particularly two that are often portrayed badly in ours, are as human as we are, maybe more so. The Moroccans are nothing but kind to the Americans and are rewarded with “fuck you’s” and “they’ll slit our throats when the sun goes down.” The Mexicans welcome the American children with open arms, yet Mexican children stare through the bars of the immigration wagon. The only people who act badly are the adult Americans and they treat the people from the other cultures like shit. The embassy won’t let a Moroccan ambulance save the life of an American because of ridiculous terrorism fears. An immigration officer denies a large part of the Mexican woman’s existence. Brad Pitt won’t let her attend her son’s wedding. He’ll buy him a better one later.

Many reviewers have complained that Babel left them cold, that they felt no emotional connection to the characters and their travails. But for me, the film struck deep, particularly with its depiction of the fragility of human happiness. All it takes is one unhappy incident, one series of accidents, to turn our lives into living hells. I may feel a bit more of an emotional connection to the characters because I have spent a lot of time in both the Sahara (including southern Morocco) and on the Mexican side of the border. My experience with people in both of these places is that most of them are basically good and kind, just like anywhere, only different in the culture trappings, which are different indeed.

Compared to life in what we would call advanced westernized countries, they don't have so many consumer items and you don’t have to be a genius to discern that so many of them are one setback away from destitution. There is nothing approaching a social safety net and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law, of which there is no rule other than that of corruption and brutality. When you understand what you are seeing, it's hard not to feel for people who lose what little they have, especially when they are more victims of circumstance than any conscious action they may have taken.

So often when looking at other cultures, we lack that prism of meaning and are unable, through no fault of our own, to see what is right in front of our eyes. I used to write about NAFTA and went on several tours of Mexican border town slums with environmental activists. On my own, I noticed that every shack had two barrels out front, one red and one blue. I learned that one of these was for drinking water, the other for dishes and laundry. Then I was shown the market where the barrels were painted and sold. Then I was shown the chemical plant where those barrels, barrels that recently contained highly toxic chemicals, were illegally sold to the marketers. Then on the next tour through the slums, I saw the children drinking out of those barrels that recently contained toxic chemicals, and that was seeing something to which I had preveiously been blind. Arriaga and González Iñárritu open a window, at least a crack, that allows us to see some of these things that are hidden in plain sight.

But Babel is not a film about the economic and social differences between divergent cultures. If anything, it is about how an individual's happiness is so fragile. What really impresses me with the fragility of happiness aspect of the narrative is the way people in wealthy societies are portrayed through that prism of meaning. The Americans and Japanese are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of the Moroccan goatherds and up there with the more reality-based dreams of the Mexican nanny, yet their lives are portrayed as equally fragile. The consumerist trappings count for little more than nothing. Happiness is other people. Tragedy as well.

The happiness at a poor Mexican wedding is equal, if not greater than that available to the wealthiest people in the world. I have seen this with my own eyes. That million dollar view of the Tokyo skyline is worse than useless when it is the backdrop for the splattered blood and brains of a young girl’s dead mother.

In reading prominent reviews of Babel , it's not unusual to find the reviewer suggesting better ways the story could have been told. By far the worst suggestion was from the New Yorker (no less). Their critic suggested the movie should have been about how random events can result in serendipity. What the fuck kind of drugs is he taking, and why isn’t he sharing? I want to know.

But seriously, I think that the fact that so many people are commenting about how the story should have been told suggests that the film makers were in control of the their artistic vision. I don’t doubt that they needed Brad Pitt to get funding and perhaps Kate Blanchett lived so the movie could ultimately be made, but for the most part at least, I think the artists were in control. When that is the case, I think it best to accept that vision and critique it for what it is, not for what it is not.

So far I haven’t said anything about the visual aspects. Unlike most reviewers, I didn’t find it that great visually, at least not consistently, but perhaps that’s just because we’ve come to expect so much. Although there are many well-constructed scenes of incredible beauty and technical brilliance, I hated the extreme close-ups of Pitt and Blanchett in the early part of the movie. I don’t know if it was some kind of sick provocation or just photographic fascination with beautiful people, but either way it didn’t work for me. There is a Tokyo disco scene that ranks up there with anything and a drive through Tijuana was great and the rest of it was very well done, but that inconsistency was a bit jarring.

I’m not saying it’s the greatest movie in the world, or even that it’s a great movie (though it may well be), but it wasn’t boring while I was watching it and it’s worth talking about, and that’s saying a lot.