Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Blog's Year in 12 Handy Links

I enjoyed doing this last December, so here again is a retrospective of the blog's year in 12 links. (Not to be confused with the longer year-end post immediately below this one.) I kept this year's dozen on the lighter and briefer side of things. Enjoy, and Happy New Year:

In the year's very first post, I marveled at what, after 365 days, has to remain the stupidest self-shooting of 2008. In February, I found glee in discovering how people inadvertently happened upon my humble online abode. In March, I must have watched this video a hundred times. Pico Iyer blew my mind in April. A month later, I suggested you watch out for a true long shot in the Belmont Stakes. Da' Tara won it at 38-1. Of course, I didn't take my own advice at the betting window. In June, a friend of mine offered some great names for pet dogs. I hope at least a handful of you utilized his genius. Arriving at home in July, I was welcomed with Texas style. In August, I found and shared an entertaining conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming. A few weeks later, I found and shared some insane ads. In October, I tried to keep you all from panicking. The New Yorker made my entire month of November by visiting Prince at home. Earlier this month, I discovered the joy of the "goofs" listed on IMDB.

My favorite clip of the year was probably "Food Fight," of which I wrote in March: "Enjoy the below, if 'enjoy' is the right word for something that recreates the events of 9/11 with stacks of hamburgers and fleeing French fries. Normally, I'd find that kind of thing offensive, but the imagination on display here does a lot to overrule the complaint. The film actually ends up feeling profound." Here it is again:

2008: The Year That Was (Pretty Lame)

This was a better year inside my head than the previous two or three, but outside the old cranium I wasn’t thrilled with what I found. There were several reasons for my lukewarm reaction to cultural offerings -- most of them the culture’s fault, though not all of them. For instance, I was just a bit distracted by the presidential race, as you might remember from the almost daily novellas I was writing in support of Barack Obama’s candidacy. His election in November was obviously a highlight -- the highlight -- of the year for me.

But when I surfaced from MSNBC for air, there wasn’t much to shout about. I saw three movies (in the theater) that left strong impressions: Man On Wire, The Wrestler, and my pick for best of the year, Happy-Go-Lucky. In The Wrestler, which I saw last week, Mickey Rourke is every bit as good as the buzz says he is. The press has milked the hell out of the parallels between real-life Rourke and silver-screen Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and that does a disservice to the work. First of all, the parallels aren’t perfect. Randy is a pretty gentle, simple soul who easily elicits sympathy, whereas Rourke allegedly created a lot of his troubles by being a world-class jerk. Beyond that, though, Rourke deserves credit for a lot more than just showing up and having his bizarrely devolved face put on film. The way Randy carries himself, the way he tosses his long blond hair and adjusts his hearing aid, the way he grunts his way through moments both happy and crushing -- in short, the performance -- should have been written about more than the lazy parallels.

(One more brief but heartfelt note about The Wrestler before moving on: I don't know how or why Marisa Tomei dove into this exhibitionist phase of her career with such passion, but unless the psychological trigger was some terrible personal experience, I just couldn't be more thrilled.)

In the world of superheroes, Iron Man was a lot of fun, The Incredible Hulk was very good until, er, the Hulk showed up, and an alarming number of Americans convinced themselves that The Dark Knight was the most provocative work of philosophy since Being and Nothingness.

The first half of Wall-E was brilliant, a strange, mostly silent look at an apocalyptic future through the experience of a trash-compacting robot. The second half was a mess, culminating in two robots cutely cooing each other’s names far too often for my taste. (3,000 times? Something like that.) I love Pixar, and I liked Wall-E, but I don't agree with the many critics who called it the studio's best work. Elsewhere on the animated front, Kung Fu Panda was much less ambitious but more consistently pleasing.

On the reading shelves, I continued a strong pace, but as in the second half of 2007, I used my freedom from plowing through manuscripts for work to catch up on books from the past -- including the work of Wilfrid Sheed and Italo Svevo. In the world of 2008 publishing, the nearly unanimous praise for Joseph O'Neill's Netherland inspired me to read it eventually, and Daniel Menaker’s review of Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Julian Barnes was itself one of the best things I read this year, so I immediately ordered the book. At least three quirky books were published this year that I also hope to read before too long: The City’s End by Max Page, a beautifully illustrated book about the history of the destruction of New York City in films, literature, comic books, and even amusement-park rides; Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, a raved-about memoir by a 50-something professor about his lifelong compulsion to collect items like “cat-food labels, chain letters, skeleton keys, cereal boxes, chopstick wrappers, the ‘Place Stamp Here’ squares from the corners of envelopes"; and A Little History of the World, art historian E. H. Gombrich’s 300-page recounting of everything from prehistoric man to World War II (written 70 years ago, when Gombrich was in his 20s, and published in paperback for the first time this year).

It seems almost certain now that simple aging is part of the reason why my batch of favorite new music diminishes every year. Like anyone else settling into middle age (or at least middle 30’s, which is the same thing, rock-wise), I’m spending more time listening to other genres and finding older gems -- like the Red Garland Trio’s It’s a Blue World, which contains a great version of “This Can’t Be Love.”

In terms of new music, The Hold Steady unsurprisingly put out the year’s best, Stay Positive. Not many records are as haunting and mellow as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. ("Skinny Love" was my song of the year.) Sambassadeur’s Migration was released toward the end of 2007, but I discovered it this year, and I’d highly recommend it for fans of Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, among others. Hotel Lights, Tift Merritt, Jennifer O’Connor, Sun Kil Moon, Frightened Rabbit, and even those artful codgers in R.E.M. also released records worth owning.

On TV, I eventually gave in to the actorly charms and visual meticulousness of Mad Men, even while remaining annoyed at the show’s glaze of self-satisfaction for presenting a view of the ’50s that’s been essentially canonized for three decades. Women were subservient in the workplace! Men drank martinis at lunch . . . and scotch in the office! Meanwhile, the great 30 Rock seems to have recovered from its unproductive dependence on A-list guest stars (the episode at Liz’s high school reunion was terrific). The Wire (best. show. ever.) didn’t exactly squander its reputation, but it certainly went out on a fifth-season low note. And Friday Night Lights allegedly regained its best form, but I won’t know until the third season leaves the satellite-subscriber hinterlands and starts airing on NBC in 2009.

As blah as most things were this year, they were easy enough to ignore, which is more than I can say for the year’s worst cultural news, the suicide of David Foster Wallace. There’s little I can offer, on a meaningful emotional level, about someone I never met who chose to violently escape two decades of pain. But as a reader who loved him: Goddammit. The sadness of it will be sinking in for a while. (If you’d like a few more thousand words than that, see here.)

Wrapping this up, it occurs to me that I had at least three very good experiences at live events in New York -- I saw the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, which was rightly lauded by just about everybody, a night of animated films by Don Hertzfeldt that was good for dozens of laughs, and a one-man show by comedian Mike Birbiglia that was good for dozens more. So, in 2009, I'll continue to take advantage of the city, but without the political IV drip I'll need a little help from a revitalized culture. Here's hoping...

Friday, December 26, 2008


The Footloose-related post below (you read that right) got away from me a bit. It was supposed to be a brief mention of the film followed by this more general update:

Over the weekend, I'm going to post about my favorite things of 2008 (it will take a slightly different form from years past, as this year underwhelmed me, culture-wise), and I'm also going to post a fairly random condensation of the blog's year similar to this post from last December.

Then New Year's week will also be light around here (though probably not barren), and Monday, January 5, I'll get back to the usual pace.

You Can Fly If You'd Only Cut Loose

Oh hello, friends and readers and friendly readers. I hope you've all been enjoying the holidays. I spent the past 48 hours or so in New Jersey (down near Philly), and while all of the festive activities were lovely, the high point was probably a viewing, starting at around 11 p.m. Christmas night, of Footloose.


Like any sentient creature alive in 1984, I am quite familiar -- traumatically familiar -- with the movie's soundtrack (which knocked Thriller from the top of the Billboard charts and saw its own reign later ended by Huey Lewis and the News' Sports), but I had miraculously avoided ever watching the movie. I'm not sure I didn't know it better when it existed only in my head as a two-minute clip of Kevin Bacon (or rather, "Kevin Bacon," thoroughly transformed as some hyper-gymnastic body double) dancing through the shadows of a burned-out industrial space (or barn?), but, to borrow a phrase from my friend JF: sweet bippy. Is it the worst successful mainstream movie of all time? It has to be on a short list. As the two others I watched it with can attest, though, it is surpassingly strong Mystery Science Theater material, and we had a ball with it. I wish I could have an equally good time with it here, with all of you, but that might take two or three hours that I don't have.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Your 2008: Hirst v. Hughes

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by Sarah Douglas, an art journalist who blogs at The Appraisal.)
For me, one of the more entertaining moments of 2008 came in early September, when, a few days before artist Damien Hirst was to auction millions of dollars worth of his work at Sotheby's auction house in London, esteemed art critic Robert Hughes went on record vehemently denouncing Hirst's art as nothing more than "tacky commodities." He dismissed Hirst's famous shark in formaldehyde – an icon of early '90s Young British Art that British collector Charles Saatchi sold to American collector Steven Cohen a few years ago for a reported $8 million – as the "world's most overrated marine organism," and added that the piece "is a clever piece of marketing but as a piece of art it is absurd." This wouldn't have been so remarkable – lots of people have denounced Hirst – if Hirst hadn't publicly replied to Hughes' critique. The artist came into the ring swinging. Standing in front of his works at Sotheby's, Hirst called Hughes' take on the shark "Luddite," and added, "I wouldn't expect anything less from Robert Hughes. . . . He probably cried when Queen Victoria died."

In fact, their tiff may have been the liveliest bit of artist-critic sparring since Queen Victoria was alive. In 1878, painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler sued the great English critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin wrote of one of Whistler's paintings: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler went bankrupt pursuing his case, and although he won in court, he walked away with a single measly farthing in damages. Hirst, on the other hand, went on, a few days after responding to Hughes, to sell his work for some $200 million at Sotheby's.

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 3

The first four chapters of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

I’ve never read A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t particularly regret that. I read The Sun Also Rises and a bunch of Hemingway’s short stories back when I was a teenager. I’ve never felt a pressing need to explore much further, partly because his trademark style has been beaten to death by so many inferior writers, and partly because even Hemingway’s use of it bothers me over the course of hundreds of pages. The style is rightly referred to as stripped down, but that belies the sense of bombardment one feels when faced with page after page of a rhythm like this: “Now the fighting was in the next mountains beyond and was not a mile away. The town was very nice and our house was very fine.” And: “When I came back to the front we still lived in that town. There were many more guns in the country around and the spring had come.”

These are not bad sentences. In fact, the last of them features a jarring juxtaposition that’s all the more jarring for being plainspoken. Which is to say, it probably works exactly as Hemingway wanted it to work, and that’s no small feat for any sentence. Still, styles of writing can be said -- among other things -- to differ based on the type of thinking they want to convey or inspire, and Hemingway’s staccato prose makes me feel trapped in a kind of thinking that feels claustrophobic, too stripped down. That’s undoubtedly part of the point, but I can’t feel too bad about not being naturally drawn to it.

So, for this first installment of the Two Readers Project that involves reacting to a very small part of a larger whole (a larger whole I haven’t read), I’m tempted to just say, in my own terse fashion: “Yes. This is Ernest Hemingway.”

But it’s not that simple. As the book moves away from its descriptive start (the Italian front during World War I) and begins introducing characters and their dialogue, the bombardment lessens. In fact, Hemingway is terrific with dialogue. Take this scene, in which the narrator, Frederic, is speaking with Miss Barkley, a nurse whose boyfriend of eight years was killed in the Somme:
“It’s a silly front,” she said. “But it’s very beautiful. Are they going to have an offensive?”


“Then we’ll have to work. There’s no work now.”

“Have you done nursing long?”

“Since the end of ’fifteen. I started when he did. I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque.”

“This is the picturesque front,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “People can’t realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t all go on. He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Do you suppose it will always go on?”


“What’s to stop it?”

“It will crack somewhere.”

“We’ll crack. We’ll crack in France. They can’t go on doing things like the Somme and not crack.”

“They won’t crack here,” I said.

“You think not?”

“No. They did very well last summer.”

“They may crack,” she said. “Anybody may crack.”

“The Germans too.”

“No,” she said. “I think not.”
People of all sorts tend to speak to each other in non-literary bursts, which is what makes so much of dialogue in fiction cringe-worthy. Hemingway’s austerity serves him well in this regard. Reading the dialogue in the third and fourth chapters of Farewell -- including an entertaining and revealing passage in which a captain taunts a priest -- I was reminded of what I liked most about his work, and I felt like I should read the rest of this novel. Likely not anytime soon, but eventually.

(Read Tim's take here. The series will continue in the new year, and I'll post what we're reading next as soon as I know.)

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Your 2008: A Movie (And Its Music) Inspire Change

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by Miles Doyle, who blogs at Who Gives a Shit, It's Gone. The post explaining his blog's title is worth a read.)
By the end of the 2007, I was miserable: broke, beat down and broken-up. I hated my job and my crappy, yet incomprehensibly unaffordable, studio on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A close family friend had recently passed away, and I was down to about 150 pounds, the ideal weight for a member of a high school wrestling team, less so for a 28-year-old editor. I was in a bad way.

More troubling, however, was the fact that I didn't even realize how bad.

Until I saw Sean Penn's Into the Wild. I had read Jon Krakauer's book and enjoyed it, but, truth be told, I didn't really care for Chris McCandless, the 24-year-old who dropped out and eventually disappeared deep into the Alaskan wilderness. In Penn's hands, though, Chris's story came alive. Not his wanderlust. (The closest I've ever been to losing myself in the woods was when my 1995 Ford Taurus broke down in Warren County, New Jersey). His insatiable quest for a life worth living, as misguided as it was, really caught my attention.

"When you want something in life," Emile Hirsch, who plays Chris in the film, says at one point, "you just gotta reach out and grab it." Believe me, three months earlier, I would have skinned that line alive and hung it from my waist, like a beaver pelt. On this particular night, however, two days before the new year, Chris' words rattled my bones. It was as if someone, after watching me endure years of quiet desperation, had decided to intervene, whispering in my ear, "You're doing it all wrong, kiddo."

I knew it was time to shake things up.

As inspiring as the film was, it only stoked the initial embers. Eddie Vedder's accompanying soundtrack really lit a fire under my ass.

I've been a fan of the Pearl Jam front man since the first time I heard him sing live: Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994, a day or two before Kurt Cobain killed himself. On tour in support of the underrated Vs., the band aired their concert at Atlanta's Fox Theater over the radio. Before Vedder finished the first verse of "Release," that night's opening song, I was sold. Ever since, his voice has held a Jim Jones-like power over me. I usually do whatever it tells me to.

In "Rise," a two minute and thirty-six second mini-masterpiece, Vedder sorts through years of loss and pain and self-doubt before finding what he needs to finally get a move on: "Gonna rise up/Turning mistakes into gold." While in "Guaranteed," the closing track, he sings, "On bended knee is no way to be free/Lifting up an empty cup, I ask silently/All my destinations will accept the one that's me."

Like the film, the soundtrack, though far from perfect, carried me through the early months of 2008, when I gave up my apartment, quit my job, and went in search of a life worth living.

Economic Steel Cage Match

At Paper Cuts, Barry Gewen writes of "the downfall of Friedmanism," and advises: "When Milton Friedman’s stock is high, John Kenneth Galbraith’s is low, and vice versa. These past few months, as the federal government has injected billions of dollars into the economy, with many billions more to come, Friedman’s free-market ideas have taken a beating. My advice: buy Galbraith."

This (and the rest of his piece, and much of writing about economics these days) confuses and/or maddens me. First, his "vice versa" formulation right off the bat establishes the notion that such swings in ideological alignment are, at best, cyclical based on conditions.

And what marked the downfall of Friedmanism?
(It) came on the day Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke marched into the Oval Office and convinced President Bush that the financial crisis was so severe the government had no choice but to intervene, and in a massive way. Markets could not be allowed to clear, Friedman-style, without bringing the roof down on everyone’s head.
Does this remind you of anyone? Klein argues that conservatives use moments of shock to swoop down and install their Evil Programs. I don't buy that, as I've recently written. Nor do I buy that the current expansion of government into the economy is a) a brilliant dastardly plan by leftists or b) a necessarily permanent state of affairs. But reading pieces like the one written by Gewen, you'd think there was reason for triumphalism on the left at the moment.

I don't think it's a good idea to bail out the auto industry. Given the currently fragile state of the economy, it might be arguably useful to directly intervene in that way (and others), but that doesn't mean that the ideal situation is one in which the government props up failing businesses. The adverse consequences of that, as a long-term plan or guiding principle, should be evident. For the moment, we're trying to stop some bleeding. No one on the right should be crowing about a financial system that was increasingly built on imaginary money, a lack of useful regulation and oversight, and an excess of purely criminal behavior. But I don't think December 2008 is the time for Friedmanites or Galbraithians (?) to be getting too full of themselves. The free market isn't going anywhere, and the answers -- as usual -- will probably be found in moderation, not strict ideology on either side.

Two Hours From Hell? Sign Me Up.

A. O. Scott's review of the latest Will Smith vehicle, Seven Pounds, makes me want to see the movie. It includes this paragraph:
...I don’t see how any review could really spoil what may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made. I would tell you to go out and see it for yourself, but you might take that as a recommendation rather than a plea for corroboration. Did I really see what I thought I saw?
If the movie is really that bad -- and I don't doubt it -- it might be worth seeing. At the very least, it's often more fun to write about the terrible than the good, so I could report back and we could share some laughs.

A Gift Idea (For Me)

Maud Newton draws my attention to the new edition of the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, which includes usage notes from writers like Zadie Smith, Simon Winchester, and David Foster Wallace.

Needless to say, this is something I must own. The adults in my family have sensibly outlawed the buying of Christmas gifts for the past few years, but my birthday is in January, and we haven't de-gifted those anniversaries yet. So: Mom, Dad, sisters -- talk amongst yourselves...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Year in Oops

Regret the Error offers up "Crunks 2008: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections." Including retractions like this one:
An article published on July 20 stated that Chris Evert admitted in an interview to having an affair with Greg Norman while both were married to their previous partners, and the affair caused the demise of their marriages. That article was incorrect because Ms Evert did not make that admission. The Sunday Mail apologises to Ms Evert and Mr Norman for the error.
I found the roundup via Andrew Sullivan, who pointed to this absolute gem:
In the June 20 “Culturebox,” Jonah Weiner stated that Lil Wayne was the first hip-hop artist to fantasize about eating his competition. Other rappers have contemplated consuming their rivals.

Your 2008: Two Memorable Moments

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by Jake Williams -- a.k.a., my dad.)
I searched for my best of ‘08 among books read, movies seen, spontaneous news stories that struck a chord -- any source that exists beyond the narrow world of sports. But the search yielded nothing that compared with two surreal events that took place within that narrow world. I cannot separate them, so I have co-winners:

1) Some marketing guru thought it would be a good idea to play an NHL game outdoors on the very first day of 2008. I have no particular interest in hockey; I stumbled across the contest while channel surfing. The teams were Pittsburgh and Buffalo, playing in the stadium that serves as home to the football Bills. It was Buffalo-cold with a stiff wind blowing snow flurries across the ice. The players’ breath was clearly visible as they skated up and down the makeshift rink in front of a sellout crowd that was largely invisible due to their far remove from the ice. I stopped surfing. The game was well played and close all the way, and I knew that something special was going on. For a couple of hours, pro sports weren't about obscene salaries, showy egos, labor strikes, or drug abuse. Hockey was just a game being played by a bunch of kids on a frozen rink in the great outdoors, the way they played it when they were 14 or 15, before the money and the fame and the indoor arenas beckoned. They played with fire and abandon, and I have to believe that they were transported back in time, and that those lucky enough to see it were reminded why they were fans. I know I was.

2) I don't like all-star games, and have particular disdain for the peripheral events that accompany them. Slam dunk contests, rookie games, and home-run competitions are strictly TV time-fillers, and I avoid them without a passing thought. But this summer, I happened to be in a bar with a group of guys while the home-run contest played on a big screen. I had a mildly greater interest than usual, since it was part of the long farewell to Yankee Stadium, where I had seen my first baseball game and which housed many of my most treasured memories. Still, it was a home run contest. Who cared? Then Josh Hamilton came to the plate. Since I was in Dallas, interest picked up throughout the bar. During the first half of the season with the Texas Rangers, Hamilton had posted huge numbers and become a national symbol of both the dangers of drug abuse and the struggle needed to break the bond of addiction. Adding to the human interest was his choice of a 71-year-old former mentor to do the pitching for him. Then he began hitting, and everything seemed to take place in slow motion as he pounded ball after ball into the far reaches of the outfield seats. At one point, he hit 13 in a row, and after the camera followed the arc of the towering shots it would return to Hamilton as he stood watching. The beauty of the moment was that he seemed as mesmerized as the crowd at what he was doing. I couldn't help but think of Robert Redford in The Natural, with its supernatural overtones. Words don't do the scene justice. You had to see Hamilton's face. Here was a gifted individual who had been to hell and back and now stood at what must have seemed the center of the universe as the roar of the crowd washed over him. He will likely go on to accomplish great things on the diamond, but when he reflects back on his career, that summer night in Yankee Stadium may be the pinnacle.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Your 2008: Two Country(ish) Records

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of
my readers and friends to write about their favorite things
from this past year. The series continues here with
a post by Dan Carlson, who blogs at
Slowly Going Bald.)

Kasey Chambers has been making authentic, lyrically honest alt-country for years. She’s Australian, but her vocal twang and lovelorn sensibility have been outpacing her stateside competitors, and her latest album is the most recent evidence that she knows how to do country better than most. Teaming with husband Shane Nicholson, Chambers’ Rattlin’ Bones is a fantastic record, a stripped-down collection of songs that encompass everything from ballads (“Sweetest Waste of Time”) to classic songs in the Carter family tradition (“The House That Never Was”). It’s alternately sweet and sad, and Chambers’ voice beautifully blends with her husband on duets that will break your heart. If you’ve never heard of Chambers, or even if you don’t like country, this is the place to start.

Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life is everything you’d expect from a man fathered by Steve Earle and named after Townes van Zandt, which is to say, it’s a solid collection of story songs, alt-country, and old-school sounds that’s completely listenable. “The Good Life” has a Hank Williams swing to it, while “South Georgia Sugar Babe” has a bluesier stomp that would be right at home on one of the elder Earle’s records. Justin Townes Earle is determined to do right by his dad, his namesake, and his influences, and every song on the album can be pegged to one of those sources. However, the resulting record doesn’t feel fragmented; rather, it feels like a young musician — the kid is like 25 — exploring the music he loves and trying to figure out how to tie it all together.

Books & Bands

At The Telegraph, a consideration of literature-inspired band names, including this:
(William) Burroughs's novel Wild Boys meanwhile inspired the Duran Duran hit – though Le Bon and co's wild boys were less a guerrilla gang of murderous young homosexuals and more a bunch of prancing Brummie nerks.
(Via largehearted boy)


It's now been more than a month since the last entry in the list of my favorite albums. I'm not happy about that. I'm busy with other things right now, though, so I'm allowing my friends to carry the weight this week -- I'm popping in from time to time, but mostly it's their favorite things of 2008 that will dominate the next few days. Early next week, I'm going to post a few of my own wrap-up posts for the year.

As you were.


I won't be making it to Texas for any part of the holidays this year. This week's Wednesday song is Jimmie Dale Gilmore singing "Dallas." More specifically, Jimmie Dale Gilmore singing "Dallas" at an outdoor festival in Norway, with one sleeveless guitar player and a few fun shots of the crowd. You can watch David Byrne and 10,000 Maniacs covering the song here, around the 6:15 mark. Enjoy:

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Your 2008: Running With Strangers

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by TK, who maintains what I imagine is the world's most excellent running blog, Pigtails Flying.)

Sometime this spring, I was seized with the oddball desire to run an endurance relay, a 200+ mile event run in consecutive segments by teams of varying sizes (usually six or twelve runners). The whim had such a grip on me that before I knew it I was signed up as part of the 12-member New York City Running Chicks and a Few Dudes team to run the Green Mountain Relay the last weekend in June. This meant I'd just conscripted myself to forced socialization with 11 sweaty strangers in close, smelly quarters, with no sleep and no regular meals for over 24 hours straight.

Much of running’s appeal, for me, is that it's done alone. It's a self-reliant and self-motivated sport, with no conversation or cooperation required during racing or training. However, while you run your three legs of a relay by yourself, the rest of the time you're in the van, talking and (hopefully) joking with your teammates.

My misgivings were multitudinous; my worries proliferous. Would I let my teammates down by being too slow, dull, bossy, effusive? Would they be perky Mouseketeers I'd want to bludgeon with my bottle of Gatorade?

I am unable to compare the GMR to other relays, like the famous Reach the Beach Relay, where teams decorate their van and run in costume. I prefer the boutique feel of the GMR--there were only 50 teams, so we began to recognize similarly-paced teams at the exchanges. Not only is this race thoughtfully organized and lovingly staged by hippies, but it travels through some beautiful rolling Vermont countryside and farmland.

It's true: ultimately each runner is responsible for his or her own legs, and must churn through them no matter the elevation gain or loss, distance, weather conditions, or time of day or night. I ran with a headlamp at 2 a.m., but so did other teammates. I was spared the rain, but others got drenched, and we pulled one runner back into the van until the eye of the thunder and lightning storm passed over.

We started out mostly strangers, randomly determined to run along strange roads, to get from Jeffersonville to Bennington. There's something to it, this “team” thing. Something important happens when everyone brings their best to the show, when they trot next to you in flip flops to be sure you get your Gatorade, or stand next to you in the rain in a plastic bag to hold an umbrella over you at an exchange point, or turn to pointedly assure you that your effort has been recognized, and appreciated.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Your 2008: A Novel in 30 Days

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series continues here with a post by Mrs. White, who blogs at pretty to think so.)

Despite some serious low points (economic meltdown, anyone?) there was still plenty to love about 2008. It provided me with a monumental election, several solid albums, and a handful of treasured books. But 2008 will also go down as the year when I finally lost my mind and committed to achieve a goal I had once thought impossible: I wrote my first novel.

I imagined writing a novel as a task both overwhelming and painful, but there's always been something inside of me -- a masochistic persistence similar to what must drive marathon runners, mountaineers, and lifelong alcoholics -- that needed to give it a shot. So after toying with the idea for ages, I finally decided to stop thinking about it and just do it. At a friend's suggestion, I pledged to participate in National Novel Writing Month, the objective of which is not only to write a novel, but to do so in only thirty days. Such a tight time frame struck me as more than a little bizarre, but it was also the kind of rigid structure I knew I needed if I ever hoped to complete the job.

So, when November 1st arrived, I began. With no particular plot in mind, and armed with only a genre, a vague idea for a character, and all the stubbornness my mama gave me, I forced myself to develop the habit of writing at least 1,700 words of fiction each day. And come November 30th, I had done it. I had written the first draft of my first novel. My first poorly fleshed-out, embarrassingly bad novel. Yay!


And although I'm not sure my sad little story warrants further revision, what I learned from the experience is that I could do it. I'm living proof that as long as you're willing to put delusions of quality aside, writing a novel is an achievable goal. It's also surprisingly rewarding, impressive-sounding, easier than scaling a mountain, less vomit-educing than running a marathon, and far more socially acceptable than becoming an alcoholic. You all want to try it now, I'm sure.

AP Headline of the Day

Another Florida Man Accused of Sandwich Assault

Your 2008: A Sweet, Brave Friend

(For the third straight year, I've asked a few of my readers and friends to write about their favorite things from this past year. The series begins here with a post by my friend "Dezmond," who blogs at Gonna Need a Bigger Boat.)

My favorite thing this year was Toby. We adopted him at the Animal Defense League shelter at the beginning of the summer. They had picked him up at the city pound, and who knows where he came from before that. About three months and thousands of dollars in vet bills later, Toby died. It turned out that he had heartworms, kidney failure, a tick disease, and some sort of respiratory problem. I wasn’t working at the time, so I was able to spend a lot of time with him. Toby was something special: funny, sly, independent, loving, social. I’ve had many pets (currently, a dog and a cat), but I’ve never come across an animal or person with a sweeter nature. I don’t want to dwell on that long, horrible night when his kidneys finally failed and he died in the back yard, but I learned such a lesson during those hours from this little dog. He knew he was dying; he went off to die by himself, as animals will do when they know their time is up. He was clearly shutting down, but he still maintained a grace and calm that I’ll never forget. I was reminded of his effect on people when I recently took our dog Winston to the vet for a check-up. I had not been there since August, yet the vet tech immediately recognized me and started talking about Toby. How many sick animals come and go through that place? He went on about how great Toby was, and how everyone at the office still talks about him, and how upset they all were that despite all the treatments, he couldn’t pull through. This little dog had an immediate impact on people when they met him. My favorite thing about 2008 was having the privilege of knowing Toby for three months. --"Dezmond"

Monday, December 15, 2008


From The Broken Estate by James Wood:
The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously. He has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against atheism.


Wallace as a Young Philosopher and the Moon as Ad Space

In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, my friend JR wrote about David Foster Wallace's undergraduate thesis in philosophy, a document seen by very few. Wallace, the son of a notable philosopher, started, briefly, on the path to a more academic career, leaving Harvard's graduate program after a short time. Jay Garfield, who advised Wallace on his thesis at Amherst, said, "I knew him as a philosopher with a fiction hobby. I didn’t realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby."

The magazine also featured its annual Year in Ideas feature yesterday. One of my favorite entries was "moonvertising." Sometime this year, Rolling Rock beer claimed that it would be using lasers to project its logo onto the moon. This was a joke, but a Coca-Cola marketing exec earnestly pursued the idea not too long ago, and -- shockingly -- ran into some logistical problems:
According to Jim Garvin, the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, moonvertising is possible, if impractical for a number of reasons. While scientists have bounced lasers off the moon, they illuminated an area only about the size of a tennis court. “In order for an advertisement to be seen by people on earth,” Garvin says, “the laser light would need to cover an area about half the land size of Africa,” a challenge because the moon’s surface is dark and fairly nonreflective.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Two Readers Update

I stand corrected. For those who care, next week's installment of the Two Readers Project will not focus on an Alice Munro story, but on the first four chapters of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. My co-reader has recently moved, and Alice Munro is still packed away somewhere...

Chait v. Klein

A commenter pointed out how widely discredited Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine is, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I went back to read Jonathan Chait's takedown of the book in The New Republic, and if you're interested in the subject at all, I recommend reading the whole thing. Two passages stood out on rereading it. The first succinctly makes the point that best rebuts Klein's conspiratorial tone. Parenthetical additions are mine:
Klein repeatedly implies that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so. After all, (Milton) Friedman wanted to overhaul the New Orleans public education system (even before Hurricane Katrina) because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that vouchers would work better. If you thought your house was horribly designed, and a tornado flattened it, would you rebuild it exactly as before?

The notion that crises create fertile terrain for political change, far from being a ghoulish doctrine unique to free-market radicals, is a banal and ideologically universal fact. (Indeed, it began its dubious modern career in the orbit of Marxism, where it was known as "sharpening the contradictions.")
Then there's this, which is broader, meaner, and thus more fun:
(Klein's) cheerful insouciance in the face of such inconvenient facts points to an odd, slightly endearing quality of hers: she is conscientious enough to provide readers with facts that blow her thesis to smithereens, yet at the same time she is deluded enough not to notice the rubble of her thinking on the floor.

NYC, 1905

Patrick Appel, Andrew Sullivan's right-hand man at the Dish, links to this clip of film taken inside a New York City subway tunnel in 1905. He rightfully recommends skipping ahead to the five-minute mark. Until then, there is an initial thrill at just seeing such old footage, but then things get quite repetitive. Five minutes in, the train pulls into Grand Central, and you can see the people of the time bustling around the platform. The thrill -- for me, anyway -- returns.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Naomi, Quite Contrary

So, I read the profile of Naomi Klein in last week’s New Yorker, and ultimately it didn’t change my mind.

Her grandparents were Communists (and eventually disillusioned former Communists), and her parents are lefties, too, though not as affiliated. Her mother, Bonnie, admits that she had “pretty simplistic political ideas about dialogue” when she was younger, but in the next breath utters the very simplistic, “You know, an enemy is somebody whose stories you haven’t heard.”

I learned to like Klein through the biographical stretches of the profile. She rebelled against her parents when she was younger, and even after adopting their politics after two traumatic events in her teenage years, she was capable of being “discouraged about the state of the left.” To this day, she “distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories...” And she says, “Marches depress me. Going for a walk and chanting -- I get nothing out of it.” I can work with all of that.

But inevitably, the piece gets around to her actual beliefs and arguments, which I find illogical at best and paranoid at worst. Her latest book, The Shock Doctrine, argues that capitalism and freedom are not compatible, and that people will only accept true free-market policies when they are in a state of shock following a disaster. Even granting (generously) that Klein is talking mostly about a particularly unrestrained form of capitalism -- the Devil in her theology is Milton Friedman, the strident opponent of government regulation who died in 2006 -- she still ties herself in knots to make her argument.

On the magazine’s web site, there’s an audio interview with the writer of the profile, Larissa MacFarquhar, and at one point she’s asked if Klein is something of a conspiracy theorist. “Yes and no,” MacFarquhar answers.

Well, how “no,” you might wonder. Ready?
"She would never describe herself as a conspiracy theorist."
And how "so"?
“On the other hand, she does believe that there is a cabal of economists, who originated in Chicago, and who were trained by either Friedman himself or Friedman’s acolytes, and who went forth into the world . . . and became friendly with many unsavory politicians . . . and she believes they worked with these politicians to either take advantage of crises or precipitate crises in order ot enact these free-market reforms.”
I see.

Klein’s husband, the son of prominent Canadian Socialists, says, “Naomi is a pattern recognizer. Some people feel that she’s bent examples to fit her thesis. But her great strength is helping people recognize patterns in the world, because that’s the fundamental first step toward changing things.”

It’s also the fundamental first step toward full-blown paranoia, when the pattern takes precedence over the facts. And to me, Klein's lazy thinking (presumably necessary to cram the world's data into a snappy book-and-tour idea) is dangerous to her own cause. Unlike a conspiracy theorist who believes that three men on the surface of Jupiter control Earth through messages encoded on magazine subscription cards -- and who is thus only believed by his cousin Cletus, once he defines "encoded" for him -- Klein has a real platform. And in not dealing with the need for regulation of capitalism, or arguing for a combination of social safeguards and free-market theory -- in pitching everything at such a hysterical level -- she's probably turning some people toward the unthinking embrace of markets that rightfully worries her.

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AP Headline of the Day

Chilean Cardinal: Madonna Rouses 'Impure Thoughts'

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The "E" Stands for Eviscerate

If the Pulitzer committee is interested in awarding a 2008 prize for Best Sentence, I enthusiastically nominate the following:
Seven officers arrived and found as many as 40 people knocking over chairs and yelling in front of the restaurant's music stage, where a robotic singing chicken and the chain's namesake mouse perform.
This gem comes from an article in the Wall Street Journal about the frequency of violent fights breaking out at Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants. The article, by Anna Prior, might also feature several runners-up in the Sentence category. For instance:
Law-enforcement officials say alcohol, loud noise, thick crowds and the high emotions of children's birthday parties make the restaurants more prone to disputes than other family entertainment venues.
Yes, it seems that -- especially in the Midwest -- adults can’t enter a Chuck E. Cheese’s without the place turning into a blood-soaked phantasmagoria. In one Wisconsin restaurant alone, police have been called to break up 12 fights since January 2007. If every other restaurant in the chain had an identical rate of incident, that would mean 6,456 cops dispatched since the beginning of last year.

And look, I wish I could say these were harmless shoving matches between irritated parents, but it’s way further beyond Thunderdome than that. One detail from a melee in Toledo:
One woman removed the red rope that marks the entrance queue and handed it to another woman, who swung the metal clip attached to it at others involved in the incident.
Another brawl (italics ahead) involved 85 people who were gassed by police, only to spill out into the back parking lot and continue fighting.

So, how does the restaurant chain respond to becoming what can only be described as a Skeeball-bedecked breeding ground for anarchy? Well, first, at least some locations have stopped selling alcohol, which probably wasn’t the best idea in the first place. Some locations have also “added security guards who carry pistols.” Uh...

The chain has had several slogans over the years, including the original (and awesome) “In Pizza We Trust” and the oddly permission-granting “You Can Smile America.” But in recent years, there’s been a flurry of slogans that haven’t stuck, probably because they’re things like “It’s Cool, For Real,” “Uh-Huh!” and -- oh, how I hope Wikipedia has this wrong -- “Moms Like It Like That.”

I’ve got a new one for them to try: “Your Napkins Can Be Used As Tourniquets!”

I could write about this for days. Months. But then this would become the oddest niche blog around. So instead, I’ll just leave the committee with one more sentence to consider:
A Chuck E. Cheese's can take on some of the dynamics of the animal kingdom, where beasts rush to protect their young when they sense a threat.
(Via The Browser)

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Rosetta's Rain

This might be the strangest and best Wednesday clip yet. Watch it while you can, because I think another version was taken off YouTube recently. It's Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing "Didn't It Rain" at a Manchester train station in 1964. Her entrance is hysterically odd, but when she puts that guitar on, you can see she isn't fooling. Enjoy:


The Two Readers Project, Ch. 2

“Dealing” by Dave Hickey
From the collection Air Guitar

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

Dave Hickey is a widely interested cultural critic -- best known for his work about art -- whose collection of essays, Air Guitar, is an eclectic cult classic. By page 60, Hickey has sharply (and often hilariously) gazed at Flaubert, Las Vegas, some deeply personal biographical territory, and Liberace. Further along comes “Dealing,” the essay in question.

In 1967, Hickey writes, he was a grad student at the University of Texas, working on a dissertation about what, if anything, can be clearly said about “authorial intentions”:
My professors were helplessly and seductively circular on this subject. They would cite Freud to suggest D.H. Lawrence’s “latent homosexuality,” then cite Marx to infer his “class consciousness” -- then presume henceforth that the textual evidence they had discovered of Lawrence’s latent homosexuality and class consciousness somehow validated their faith in Freud and Marx -- and this just would not do.
One of my favorite things about Hickey is his mocking of the academy.

So, he leaves the “hothouse babble of graduate school,” borrows some money, and opens an art gallery in Austin. He’s 26 years old.

In later years, he is regularly asked questions about his time as a dealer, questions that, his tone makes clear, don’t strike him as all that pertinent:
How could I stand the degradation of selling objects to people who knew nothing about art? Didn’t I feel lonely and alienated out there amidst the pandemic schizophrenia of bourgeois culture? And what about my complicity in the hedonistic commodification of critical practice!?
And he provides a few answers, like, “...I can only assure you that everyone in this culture understands the freedom and permission of art’s mandate” and “Art is not a commodity. It has no intrinsic value or stable application. Corn is a commodity...” and and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. . . . (they) are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value.”

Last month, I saw an exhibition of Joan Mitchell, an abstract expressionist, in Chelsea. The paintings weren’t doing much for me on a visceral level, so I turned to a book of her work that the gallery was displaying on its front table. The book had an introductory essay by Hickey, and I thought he might enlighten me a little. Instead, the piece was riddled with the pompous obscurity for which his work often serves as an antidote. It’s not the first time he’s frustrated me by falling prey to the same traps he likes to warn about.

“Dealing” finds him in his more standard good-to-great form, but that’s not to say I nodded along through the whole thing. Toward the end, he discusses the nature of risk in the art world:
When the Museum of Modern Art acquires your work, for instance, it takes a larger risk than the Arts and Crafts Museum in Hometown, U.S.A., should it select your masterpiece for acquisition. When Leo Castelli decides to take you on as an artist, his risk is substantially greater than that of Bob’s Art and Framing in West Las Vegas, should they grant you an exhibition. So you want to show with Leo and sell to MOMA, because MOMA and Castelli, by virtue of their investment in your work, may, if they are spectacularly wrong, call the value of their entire endeavor into question.
I don’t really buy this. Or, I do, but it’s only half the picture. It leaves out the half where MOMA and Leo, after taking enough risks to build up a certain reputation, are, ipso facto, less likely to be considered spectacularly wrong. In this way, I’m not sure Hickey follows his own argument -- in short, that art is not corn -- to its full conclusion. Something from Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, about gallery owners’ social-driven abilities to make or break an artist, comes to mind, but my copy is in storage, so specific citation will have to wait for another time...

(Read Tim's take here. Next week, the series will continue with a short story by Alice Munro. The specific story hasn't been chosen yet, but I'll let you know as soon as it has.)

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Rod & Anton

I'm a big fan of innocent-until-proven-guilty, but for some reason I won't be surprised if the investigation of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich unearths his connection to a much more nefarious crime ring:

The Art of the Toss

I'm going to be picking a bone with Harper's in the next day or two, so I'll preemptively make up for it by pointing out that the December issue includes a strong piece by Mattathias Schwartz about The Golden Touch Craps team, a group that offers (expensive) two-day courses on "Golden Touch betting systems, Golden Touch visualization techniques, and, most important, the Golden Touch 'controlled throw,' a method of retaining influence over the dice after they leave the hand."

The author takes part in a course and unsurprisingly determines that this enterprise -- what's the politically correct term? -- lacks validity. But in colorfully describing the characters involved, and delving into some deeper gambling history, Schwartz makes it a fun ride.

The piece also includes these separate passages, which are great in context and might be even better out of context:
He dabbled in hypnosis and séances. He investigated a horse named Lady Wonder that could reportedly read minds and predict the outcomes of boxing matches.

"If you shoot at the sky long enough a duck will fly by, and then you will be a great duck hunter."


Rampage, Reborn

David Samuels has a piece in the new Atlantic about Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, a star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I'm only about halfway through it. Best part so far:
Jackson is glad to tell the story of how he was born again. During a two-week partying binge that followed a victory over the Brazilian fighter Ricardo Arona . . . Jackson woke up one night in the middle of a terrifying dream. The devil had his hands on his chest and was preparing to remove his soul. “He had some female spirits around him and he was saying ‘It’s okay,’” Jackson says, his eyes widening at the memory. “Then I heard this strong voice say, ‘Do you know this man?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘It’s not okay.’ And I woke up and grabbed my chest and made a noise that I’d never made before in my life.”

The fighter woke up gasping for air, and spent the next few weeks feeling increasingly frightened and alienated. Some time later, Jackson suffered another moment of chest-gripping terror that was triggered by a radio ad for a Universal Studios theme-park attraction after he had dropped his son D’Angelo off at preschool. “The first thing it said was ‘The curse of’ something—I can’t remember,” Jackson recalls. “And it says, ‘Your soul is mine.’” The voice weirdly echoed Jackson’s dream, and left the fighter feeling even more freaked out. “Later on, when I turned the radio back on, when I got used to being a Christian,” he remembers, “I said, ‘Oh, that’s a damn commercial for the Revenge of the Mummy ride.’”

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The line of the week comes from Pacific Standard: "It is rare and memorable when shuffle gets something right." . . . The expiration date on linking to pieces about the election is fast approaching, but here's Christopher Clausen on the historical use (and overuse) of "the most important election in history." . . . If the Cavs are serious about keeping LeBron James two years from now, they might want to consider drafting (or somehow trading for) Stephen Curry. . . . The Economist names its best books of the year. . . . And Anthony Lane, in one neat paragraph, sums up the 10 best films of the year, which just reminds me what a bad year it's been for film. . . . Timothy Egan vents, not for nothing, about the current state of the publishing industry: "Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rereading Revolution

With the imminent appearance of Revolutionary Road in theaters, critics are revisiting its source material, the classic 1961 novel by Richard Yates. Christopher Hitchens’ take in The Atlantic devolves into a somewhat confusing flurry of excerpts. James Wood stays more focused in The New Yorker. But both pieces share an important idea. As Hitchens puts it:
The achievement of . . . Revolutionary Road was to anatomize the ills and woes of suburbia while simultaneously satirizing those suburbanites and others who thought that they themselves were too good for the ’burbs.
Yates himself said the novel was meant to serve as “an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties,” but Wood notes that “the tale is subtler than the teller”:
In Revolutionary Road, mid-century American suburban man is so maddening because he is both a rank escapist and a conservative pragmatist: he has arrogated to himself twin rights that ought to be incompatible—to dream of escape (and have adulterous affairs, like Emma Bovary), while simultaneously dreaming of timid stability, like Charles Bovary.
In short, Frank Wheeler -- the novel’s protagonist -- is full of himself for no good reason. Bored by his mindless corporate work, he’s also incapable of doing anything much more interesting, and the stifling suburbs are just the handiest excuse for what is really a personal lack. Identifying with him too closely wouldn’t reflect very well on a reader. As Wood writes, “just as we quickly reach for our own preferred weapon of condemnation . . . we find the novel judging our own judgmentalism, qualifying our superiority.”

I think the movie is bound to fail, but I’ll give it a chance. The trailer makes excellent use of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” but I have a hard time believing that Hollywood will capture all the ironies. It's more likely to settle for an easy knock on ‘50s-era conservatism. It has Kate Winslet going for it, so we shall see. (Leonardo DiCaprio can be great, but he also still looks like he’s 12, making his Frank Wheeler appear, to me, more like a play-acting child than a conflicted adult.)

I shared a brief excerpt from the novel way back when.

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Angry Ticks & Backward Cows

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the IFC Center for “a night with” Don Hertzfeldt. (Photo at right courtesy of my lovely friend PF, who accompanied me into a den of mostly male nerd-dom.) The animator was on hand to take questions after a screening of several of his short films, including the premiere of his latest, “I am so proud of you.”

I’ve posted some of Hertzfeldt’s work before. The two shorts that lose the least viewed online are “Billy’s Balloon” and the classic “Rejected,” which has been viewed nearly 2.5 million times. Seeing even those simpler drawings on the big screen was a treat, but it’s Hertzfeldt’s recent and longer work that really shouldn’t be viewed in YouTube-quality. (You can order DVDs from his site.)

The 12-minute “The Meaning of Life” is hysterical and oddly moving, and features some stunning animation of deep space. “I am so proud of you” is the second short, after “Everything Will be OK" (17 minutes), in a planned trilogy about an everyman named Bill. The films use both illustration and photography, and in their alternately funny and poignant concern with memory, mortality, and boredom, they come off like a hand-drawn combination of Itchy & Scratchy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Office Space.

Around the time of the showing, Hertzfeldt was featured in this New York Times article about animated filmmakers. Worth a look.

After the screening, I bought a couple of DVDs, and asked Hertzfeldt a question. "That scene in Rejected, right after the giant rabbit shoots angry ticks out of his nipples," I said, "he marches toward those scared kids and makes this amazing sound. It's like an apocalyptic air-raid siren or something. You know what I'm talking about?" "Sure," he said, "That's the sound of a cow, slowed down about 50% and played backwards."


Moving In

To get the week's posting started: My friend Tim discovers the joys of home ownership.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Over the weekend, I'm going to read the long profile of Naomi Klein in The New Yorker. Perhaps we can share some thoughts about it next week. I won't tip my hand, but I do have a certain level of prejudice going into it. And this blog-wide forum I'm suggesting is distinct from the Two Readers Project, which will continue next week, when my co-participant is done moving into a new house.

Iceland's Woes

I know close to nothing about economics, but this piece about Iceland's current troubles -- which dwarf even ours -- is fascinating:
Above all, the nation's future is heavily mortgaged. Claims from Britain alone amount to half of what's left of its GDP. "It's like a neutron bomb that has wiped out all monetary assets but left the people intact," says Ólafur Isleifsson, a former IMF official who teaches at Reykjavík University's business school.
(Via The Browser)

A Hell of a Town

A classic New York anecdote from a friend of mine, who said I could share it anonymously:
Last night, (redacted) and I got into one of those Death of Publishing conversations that everyone seems to be having these days while we were standing on a street corner in the East Village. After about ten minutes of talk of downsizing and bad sales and disappearing midlist authors, a homeless guy in a cap and striped tights, who had been sitting next to us holding a sign asking for money, stood up and interrupted. "Did you know that the bestseller list is total bullshit?" he said calmly. "It's rigged. All it shows is how many books Barnes and Noble bought from the houses, not how many were sold. I swear to God." Then he turned and walked away.

"I'm just as God made me, sir."

Bad news from the world of entertainment: Actor Paul Benedict died earlier this week at the age of 70. Benedict had a solid career in theater as both an actor and director, but in the great American-based tradition of being best known for the wrong thing (see: "Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness as"), he’s probably most easily remembered as Bentley, the wacky, often pants-less neighbor on “The Jeffersons.”

An interesting tidbit from the L.A. Times obituary:
The accented speech that he used even offstage led many to assume that Benedict was British, but in fact he was born Sept. 17, 1938, in Silver City, N.M.
As my friend Brad said of Benedict’s passing, “I guess God needed to walk on someone’s back.” I couldn’t find any clips of the back-walking (Bentley often complained of spasms, and asked George Jefferson to stomp on him as a cure), but I did find his shining moment in This is Spinal Tap, in which he plays a hotel clerk who has fouled up the band's room request. I could try to come up with a number for how many times I've repeated the phrase "I'm just as God made me, sir," in everyday life, but then you'd know how incredibly irritating I can be in everyday life:

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Man Uses Candy Cane to Subdue Attacker With Knife

"Can you give it a second to get back from space?"

Sorry to be the Grumpy Old Man in the room, but I have a bone to pick with people. With society. A recent article in the Times about a way to test kids for specific athletic aptitudes included this quote from a 36-year-old mother:
"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it’s good to match them with the right activity . . . I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration."
Three thoughts: 1) Is the prevention of parental frustration really a paramount concern in raising kids? 2) Shouldn't kids be allowed to feel frustration, since life will presumably provide them with enough of it that learning to deal with it is a valuable skill? 3) Is it that difficult to figure out what sports your kid should be playing? And 3b) isn't it possible that most kids aren't going to genetically test for particularly high aptitude in any sport, but that they should be encouraged to get out and play something anyway?

This also reminded me, tangentially, of a clip of Louis C.K. that my mom showed me over the holiday. Until about the 1:30 mark, it's fairly standard griping, but it picks up from there:



GQ sat down with a few of the creators of The Wire. . . . Several pages of historical pics of Dallas. (Via Down in TX.) . . . Mrs. White gathers some hilarious shots of rock stars with their parents from the Life/Google archive. . . . I've gotten in trouble before for linking to news about global warming, because I guess any interest in the phenomenon and its possible causes/effects beyond the conventional wisdom is heresy. Well, for what it's worth. . . . A poetry-world hoax that I found amusing. (Via the addictive The Browser, the newest addition to the blogroll.) . . . For those of you wondering where the albums list went, I’ve just been stalled on writing a slightly longer post for #4. Should be up by the beginning of next week, with the top 3 to follow shortly thereafter.

The Legend of Runaway Characters

I wrote about the third volume of Paris Review interviews not too long ago. I just read this excerpt below from John Cheever. Even though my attempts at writing fiction have been limited, I've always felt that writers who speak about their characters in this way are full of it. I'm glad that Cheever agrees:
The legend that characters run away from their authors -- taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president -- implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd. Of course, any estimable exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness -- the surprising turns, the response to light and darkness -- of any living thing. But the idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

In Other Words

I'm not sure why this song has been in my head all week, but it has. So, for Wednesday, the Chairman doing "Fly Me to the Moon," complete with TV-special intro. Enjoy:


R2-D2: The Revenge

Last week, I glanced at a sub-headline on the New York Times site that made me laugh out loud. It was this:
Fighting robots may have benefits, but moral issues linger.
Yes, those pesky moral issues. If it weren't for them, we'd all have our own private fighting robots already! I also love how casually we can now refer to things that would have made someone's head explode a hundred years ago. Put it this way: I laughed at the text, but I didn't even think about reading the article. The article about fighting robots.

Well, yesterday I saw that Will Saletan had addressed the piece on his Slate blog, so I read both. The gist of the Times report is that a guy named Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech -- and I'd say the current holder of the top spot on the list Nerds You Shouldn't Bully -- is "designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army."

The case for such robots is, in part, that "they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness..."

Part of Saletan's not-entirely-negative response, which is worth reading in full:
But then comes the hitch: What happens when the grainy realities of war defy the simplicity of the robot's program? What happens when the hard part isn't restraining yourself from firing on civilians, but distinguishing them from enemy forces in the first place? That's where Arkin's dream bogs down. He admits it would be hard for robots to recognize physical changes that entail moral changes, such as an enemy fighter with a wound or a white flag. And that's basic stuff compared to the multiplying subtleties of modern counterinsurgency.
I fear we're putting the cart before the robot here, but that's never stopped the world from spinning before. As the Times article puts it, "the technology to make lethal autonomous robots is inexpensive and proliferating." In short, once we've secured all the world's loose nukes, we'll turn around just in time to see our major cities invaded by unstoppable, terrorist-trained robots. This is more proof for my theory, which is still in rough form and still has an unwieldy title: The World Is Going to Get More and More Dangerous and Crazier and Crazier and There's Not a Damn Thing We Can Do About It.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Gallery 21

Highway 82, Knox County, 2008 by Wyman Meinzer.

Meinzer's photos are featured in the latest issue of Texas Monthly,
and in a slideshow on the magazine's site.

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More Coverage of Covers

A quick sequel to the post below. Book Design Review is another arresting site, published by Joseph Sullivan. His favorite covers of 2008 can be found here. And for past years: 2007, 2006, 2005.

A clever one I hadn't seen before is this British design for Walter Benjamin's classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:

Penguin, which published the Benjamin, has a long tradition of great design.

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