Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hole like my head

Big bucks and an ivy leage education, for this?

There was an electricity outage in Hawaii, which provided the opportunity for one of our titans of journalism to produce the worst writing to appear in a prominent newspaper today (so far):

President-elect Barack Obama has yet to even assume power, but he suddenly lost it Friday night.

New york story

If you don't live here, I bet you'd be surprised by how often I meet people who work trivial jobs during regular business hours and practice their art the rest of the time. I can't tell you how many times during the course of a casual conversation that someone points me to their website to see their painting, writing, photography, music, or some other art. And people give me their music cd's all the time.

So I wasn't the least bit surprised when I asked a young woman I know if she had a business card and she handed me a music cd and said I could find her contact info there. But I was shocked, shocked I tell you, when I listened to the cd and it turned out to be great. Normally they're just okay.

So I encourage you to check it out here or here and maybe buy something (available at the web site or though ITunes) or at least steal a few songs and tell your friends. This is the type of work that should be encouraged.

Sucky bat shit, chuckling

Last night's family ordeal, I mean movie, was the new Batman pic, "The Dark Knight," which my daughter was given for Xmas. Let me tell you, and you can trust me on this, the Batman series is one dead series, at least creatively. Of course that doesn't mean they'll stop making them. I expect we'll see the 23rd installment, "Batman Belches" before too long and it will gross at least $300 million in today's dollars. Artistically though. Dead. Worse than dead. Putrid.

I knew that, but still, I was almost interested in seeing "The Dark Knight" for two reasons: Many people I respect speak well of Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker and a lot of right wing nutcases felt the movie supported their fucked up world view.

As for Ledger's performance, I'm sorry, but unless you are Caesar Romero, how hard can it be to play the Joker? Even the older, washed up Jack Nicholson managed it. You don't have to be a master thespian to pull off a character that wears scary makeup and acts like a total psychopath in every scene. No need for character development or growth. And this iteration didn't even require that the Joker tell jokes, so there was no comedic timing requirement either. I hope they cast Bill Murray in the next remake, but it will be a waste of his talent if they don't get better writers than they had on this one. Or maybe it was some kind of meta joke to have a jokeless Joker? Good concept, perhaps, but it failed in the execution. Failed miserably.

Still, the scenes with the Joker were the only interesting ones in the movie. Homicidal psychopaths wearing makeup are inherently entertaining for the human species. It's an evolutionary thing, I guess. And that explains why the only other remotely watchable Batman movie (that didn't star Adam West) is the other one with the Joker. If the Hollywood Honchos were really smart, they'd find a way to make the Joker a hero and give him his own movie franchise. It shouldn't be that difficult. Homicidal maniacs on insane killing sprees are socially acceptable in the right context. Slap a flag on his ass and send him to Mecca or the like. Blockbuster. Guaranteed.

The Batman character is, as usual, poorly written. They make yet another lazy attempt to portray him as a psychopath instead of a hero, but it comes off as lame as it is half-hearted. Only the real Batman, Adam West, was able to pull of that trick. Michael Keaton didn't do a bad job either. But the Batman in "The Dark Knight" could have been played by an animatronic robot and it wouldn't have mattered a whit. The writing was really that bad.

Why the winguts think the movie supports their idiotic worldview is a bit of a mystery. Yes, there's a scene where a vigilante tortures a defendant while the police watch, and I know that kind of thing turns them on even more than Sarah Palin with a shotgun, but there's also a plot point where people choose to die rather than kill a boatload of African-American criminals, which you'd think would get their liberal hatin dander up. Of course none of it makes any sense. In the end you just have to chalk it up to their penchant for incoherently grasping at imaginary straws cause that's all they got. No reason to expect otherwise.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Boy in the band (wagon)

Poor chuckling doesn't mean to be a contrarian. I'd like to agree with my imaginary internet friends on every issue. I really would. Especially when it comes to right wing scumbags like Rick Warren. Do you know the original meaning of the word "scumbag?" It's Prophylactic. Rubber. Condom. Scum, you see, is slang for sperm. The bag is the rubber. A scumbag, by definition, is a receptacle for jizzem. Is Rick Warren a receptacle for jizzem? I don't know. Seems like most right wing homo-hating preachers are, doesn't it?

Anyway, since I'm already so far off-topic, I'll share a joke from my college days. One of our journalism professors got caught and was arrested for masturbating in a men's room. After that, he was known as the professor emeritus of urinal jizzem. And you guessed it. He was a Republican.

What's any of that got to do with President-elect Obama appointing Rick Warren to say a few words of mumbo jumbo at his inauguration? Something, I'm sure. But the important thing is that poor chuckling, unlike nearly everybody else he respects, thinks that President-elect Obama made a wise choice. As far as I can tell, it's just me and Melissa Etheridge against the world on this issue.

And together, we are strong. I think we're already starting to reap the benefits of Obama's ploy of inclusion. Multiple lefty websites report that Warren is trying to weasel out of his anti-gay stances so he won't lose his high profile inauguration gig. Discriminatory directives have disappeared from his church's website. He's publicly backpedaling from his most hateful pronouncements.

And among my imaginary friends, these advances are reported as if they are bad things. No. Sorry friends. When homo-hating right wing leaders back off their idiotic views, that is a good thing. And if all it requires to achieve that self-interested enlightenment is a little symbolic inclusion, well, a little symbolic inclusion is a good thing too. Warrenseems to have gotten the message. Symbolism only goes so far. If his type wants to stay and play, they better play nice.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Literature with interruptions

All those words to say the same sad thing. That’s what these people are like, they’re never quite sure what they mean.

--Jose Saramago from "Death with Interruptions"

I’ve told this story elsewhere, you may have seen it. If so, don't worry, or stop reading. It’s apropos here for entirely different reasons. This time it's about literature, not religion.

One fateful day, I think it was sometime in the autumn of 1999, I randomly picked up two superficially related books that would lead, each in its own way, to a lot more reading over the years. The first was “The Jesus Legend” by George Albert Wells which would serve as my introduction to the study of first century Palestine and the historicity, or not, of the Jesus character in the Bible. The second book was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” a novel by soon-to-be Nobel Laureate for Literature Jose Saramago. The Wells book demonstrated that what so many people take for truth can be mostly fiction. The Saramago book demonstrated how much truth can be contained in a work that is unapologetically fiction. The Wells book led me off in one direction to read a lot more New Testament studies. The Saramago book took me down another path. Reading Jose Saramago.

This passage form “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” provides a good introduction to Saramago. You’ll immediately note his idiosyncratic style. Long run-on sentences, non-standard punctuation, particularly for dialogue. Quite a bit of rambling. Beautiful language on occasion.The rare flash of stunning insight into the human condition. The following scene takes place at the end of the time Jesus spent with Satan in the wilderness. God has just appeared.

"To hear you Lord is to Obey, but I have one more question. Stop asking Me questions. Please, Lord, I must. Very well then, speak. Can I save my sheep. So that's what's bothering you. Yes, that's all, may I. No. Why not. Because you must offer it in sacrifice to Me to seal our covenant. You mean this sheep. Yes. Let me choose another from the flock, I'll be right back. You heard Me, I want this one. But Lord, can't you see, its ear has been clipped. You are mistaken, take a good look, the ear is perfect. It isn't possible. I am the Lord, and with the Lord all things are possible. But this is my sheep. Again you are mistaken, the lamb was Mine and you took it from Me, now you will recompense Me with the sheep. Your will be done, for You rule the universe, and I am Your servant. Then offer this sheep in sacrifice, or there will be no covenant. Take pity on me, Lord, I stand here naked and have neither cleaver nor knife, said Jesus, hoping he might still be able to save the sheep's life, but God said, I would not be God if I were unable to solve this problem, here. No sooner had he finished speaking than a brand-new cleaver lay at Jesus' feet. Now quickly, said God, for I have work to do and cannot stay here chatting all day long. Grasping the cleaver by the handle, Jesus went to the sheep. It raised its head and hardly recognized him, never having seen him naked before, and as everyone knows, these animals do not have a strong sense of smell. Do you weep, God asked. The cleaver went up, took aim, and came down as swiftly as an executioner's ax or the guillotine, which has not yet been invented. The sheep did not even whimper. All one could hear was, Ah, as God gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. Jesus asked Him, May I go now. You may, and don't forget, from now on you are tied to Me in flesh and blood. How should I take my leave of You. It doesn't matter, for Me there is no front or back, but it's customary to back away from me, bowing as you go. Tell me, Lord. What a tiresome fellow you are, what's bothering you now. The shepherd who owns the flock, What shepherd, My master, What about him, Is he an angel or a demon, He's someone I know. But tell me, is he an angel or a demon. I've already told you, for God there is no front or back, good-bye for now. The column of smoke was gone, and the sheep too, all that remained were drops of blood, and they were trying to hide in the soil.

When Jesus returned, Pastor stared at him and asked, Where's the sheep, and he explained, I met God. I didn't ask you if you met God, I asked you if you found the sheep. I offered it in sacrifice. Whatever for. Because God was there and I had no choice. With the tip of his crook, Pastor drew a line on the ground, a furrow deep as a pit, insurmountable as a wall of fire, then told him, You've learned nothing, begone with you."

See what I mean? Great piece, eh? After “The Gospel” I started reading his other novels. He is most famous for “Blindness,” which is undoubtedly one of the most brutal books ever written. Why anyone would want to see, let alone, make, a movie based on that novel is a mystery. Then there was “All the Names,” “The Cave,” “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” “The Double” and “Seeing,” which is a sequel of sorts to “Blindness.” If I had to choose, I guess I'd say "Seeing" is his best. I'm not sure a lot of people would agree with me on that.

Much of Saramago’s work seems based on thought experiments. What if everyone suddenly became blind? What if they discovered the poor souls in Plato’s cave living below a modern apartment building? What if they held an election and no one showed up to vote? Maybe you can get away with it once, but after a few novels it starts to get a bit irritating. And the rambling can definitely be a put-off. I'd quote an irritating passage, they're not hard to find, but I figure I'm lucky if you've stayed with me this far. Saramago typically has one major idea whose plot progression could be easily managed in short story, yet he strings it out in sentences that span pages and paragraphs that become long chapters. I often question why I’m reading that shit. But then a passage comes along that just knocks me over. Or the story arrives at an emotional payoff that you don’t see coming but hits you like an oncoming tractor trailer. Reading Saramago, for me at least, is a love/hate kinda thing.

Anyway, his new novel, “Death with Interruptions” begins with one of those thought experiments. What if nobody died? Okay. Think about it. What if nobody died? People would still suffer, wouldn’t they? Suffer horribly, no? How would the government react? How would organized crime take advantage of it? Saramago’s novels are (or maybe they're not) typically strong on what you might (or might not) call “character development,” but most of “Death with Interruptions” has no characters at all. It's all about broad happenings. But slowly death (with a small d) is introduced as a character. After eight months or so she allows people to start dying again, but now she gives them a week’s notice with a violet-colored letter. Another thought experiment? What would happen if everyone received a warning from death?

From there Saramago finally gets to the heart of the story. One of the letters keeps being returned to sender. The appointed hour of one man’s death, an obscure cellist, inexplicably passes. death goes to investigate and make things right and restore the order of things. Before you know it death has become a compelling character. Here’s a good passage. death goes to see the cellist in concert:
“The orchestra has fallen silent. The cellist starts to play his solo as if he had been born for that alone. He doesn’t know the woman in the box has in her brand-new handbag a violet-colored letter addressed to him, he doesn’t know, how could he, and yet he plays as if he were bidding farewell to the world, as if he were at last saying everything that he had always kept unsaid, the truncated dreams, the frustrated yearnings, in short, life. The other musicians stare at him in amazement, the conductor with surprise and respect, the audience sighs, a shudder runs through them, and the veil of pity that clouded the sharp gaze of the eagle is now a veil of tears. The solo is over, the orchestra washed over the cello’s song like a great slow sea, gently submerging it, absorbing and amplifying that song as if to lead it into a place where music was transmuted into silence, into the merest shadow of a vibration that touched the skin like the final, inaudible murmur of a kettle drum on which a passing butterfly had momentarily alighted. the silken, malevolent flight of acherontia atropos fluttered quickly through death’s memory, but she brushed it away with a wave of her hand...”

Typical Saramago. Often frustrating. Sometimes brilliant. Well worth the effort.

Ed. note: Long time readers may note that I've quoted that same long passage from "The Gospel" and made a few similar points in much earlier posts. If so, I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. One, that passage is just so great, I can't think of any good reason you wouldn't want to read it many times (read it again, tell me I'm wrong) and two, I seem to have a few more readers than I did back then so a few people probably missed it.

Slushy day in brooklyn

Long way down, long way to go

The shit is piling up from all those chickens coming home to roost. Did anyone really think that replacing decent paying manufacturing jobs with low paying service jobs was an intelligent plan? Not to mention creating a monstrous, wealth sucking health providing business whose goal is not providing health care?

Lori Harris, 47, waited for the job fair to open... She is paying $95 a month toward $23,000 in student loan debt. She is living with her boyfriend, who is supporting her, not always cheerfully. She has no health insurance and cannot see a specialist for a torn rotator cuff and recently applied for food stamps.

“I tried to better myself,” she said, “and I’m getting nowhere.”

She was offered one job, as a medical technician dispensing pills to patients. The pay was $7.50 an hour.

“Forget it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is it worth going to college? Did I waste my time?’”

She wondered if her age explains the rejections. Or her Boston accent. Or the smell of her cigarette smoking.

“It’s getting really discouraging,” she said.

Unfortunately, things are going to get a helluva lot worse for the Ms. Harris's of this country. Americans' sense of exceptionalism and entitlement are largely responsible for allowing the government to get away with shipping so many good jobs overseas for a dime on the dollar. The better educated told themselves that it would be those other losers who will have to take the lower paying jobs. Most of those affected either couldn't bother to pay attention to current events, didn't have the education to understand them and/or let their attention diverted by stupid hateful Republican propaganda. Until they lose those fantasies, they'll find that there's still a long way to go to get to the bottom.

Americans will be slow on the uptake in realizing that they don't deserve squat in this world. Great wealth is bestowed on many through the lottery of birth and many others earn it through a combination of cleverness and hustle. But most people's chances come from intelligent public policy that encourages education and job opportunity. To get and maintain those kinds of intelligent public policies requires a modicum of educated self-interest from the masses. The type of person most likely to rise in both politics and big business is prone to corruption. To keep them in check requires constant vigilance. Otherwise, before you know it, everything for sale is manufactured abroad, you can't afford to see a doctor or purchase medicine, the only food you can afford makes you fat and sick, and the only job you can get pays little better than minimum wage. If that.

So in the longer term, the Ms. Harris's of this world, and I count myself among them, better start paying attention to politics, understand the economic forces that are fucking them over, then find their voices and make them heard. If we want high paying jobs, we've got to make it in the best interest of companies to provide them. Allowing them to profit by shipping them abroad will result in them being shipped abroad. Duh.

In the short term, she'd do well to quit smoking, certainly before job interviews, eat healthy, cancel the cable and study up on some history and current events.

And take that $7.50 an hour job until you can find something better. Cause if you don't, something much worse is coming along fast.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Look away, obvious solution ahead

Regular readers know that I do not believe the there is a legitimate two party system in the U.S. Granted, the nominal parties differ on social issues but when it comes to matters of cold hard cash, they all work for the same bosses. Hopefully, Obama will prove me wrong, but his appointments don't suggest that will happen anytime soon.

Anyway, two prominent news items support the observation that the only political party in the U.S. is the Business party. The first is government's insistence that workers at American companies take pay cuts. The second is the widespread lamentation that there is nothing we can do about out-of-control executive looting, errr compensation.

Both of these issues should be easy to understand and resolve, yet all across the political spectrum our leaders just throw up their hands and say that nothing can be done. Perhaps there is areal need for American workers to take pay cuts to put their salaries in line with foreign workers. If this is a valid principle, we should apply it across the board.

For example, American executives make far more money than their Japanese or European counterparts (whose companies, btw, have apparently been much better managed):"

On average, chief executives at Japanese companies with more than $10 billion in annual revenues are paid about $1.3 million a year, including bonuses and stock-option grants, according to Towers Perrin, a consulting firm, based on data gathered between 2004 and 2006. But chiefs in the U.S. are paid about $12 million, and chiefs in Europe are paid $6 million.

So why don't our leaders demand the same pay equivalence of executives as they do of workers? And perhaps we should look at bringing our Senators and Congress people's total compensation more in line with world averages.

Of course everyone throws up their hands and wails that there's nothing we can do about executive compensation. That's really not something the government can, or should legislate. And I agree. The government shouldn't legislate anyone's salaries (not even their own).

But the government can certainly influence executive pay and it's not a great mystery how. The fact that the obvious answer that has worked so well in the U.S. historically and continues to work well abroad even up to the present day is not even discussed in the congress or the media is yet another demonstration that we are a one party state.

What is this mysterious solution to this problem? It's right out there in plain site.

The progressive tax system, duh. Just tax the greedy motherfuckers back to earth. That's what we've done in the past. That's what they do abroad. I'll leave it to the experts to figure out the best levels, but something like 70 percent of any income or capital gains over $500,000, 90 percent on any income or capital gains over 2 million, and 99 percent on any income or captial gains over 100 million. Would that result in people not wanting to become rich? No, but it might result in people not willing to mismanage and loot companies in order to become richer than Croesus.

Something like that would go a long way to solving a lot of problems. Too bad there's no opposition party or independent media to put it on the table.