Monday, August 31, 2009


I had my first slasher dream last night, technically the wee hours of this morning.

What I remember is now vague—culpability (a small group of friends and I witness or perpetrate an outrage) and comeuppance (a pale-faced stalker tracks us down one by one and kills us in increasingly gruesome ways). At the end of the dream, the spectral slasher is closing in on me and my girlfriend.

Yes, in the dream I’m decidedly heterosexual—and at the end of the dream my girlfriend and I are huddled, in stark terror, in a sleeping car of a train—yes, Freudian, too.

But, no, I don’t remember being genuinely frightened in the dream—or sexually aroused. It played out like a movie, a movie I’m in, and nobody in the dream corresponded to people I know or have known in real life.

It was entirely a narrative dream—and the slayings were hideous and gory.

But here’s what I think of it—or at least the associations I made upon first awaking from the dream (which, unlike the dream narrative, still remain in memory)—and, right or wrong, they have nothing to do with sex.

When I woke up, my first thoughts were about capitalism and the death of social systems, a concern I have often thought about lately. That is, systems (or ideologies) seldom end decisively and all at once, but slowly collapse through a series of cataclysms (slashings), till ultimately a new system rises on the corpses of the old. Consider how long (and agonizing) the decline of European aristocracy was—or the concomitant collapse of slavery (though “wage slavery” is still alive, though teetering on a ledge of high rates of joblessness).

It may be that the radio impinged on my dream and its interpretation. I awoke to NPR commentators discussing the “present economic crisis,” which I have long associated with the gradual collapse of capitalism. And no doubt falling asleep right after watching AMC’s Mad Men last night played a part as well—arguably a series about the collapse of capitalism disguised as sixties nostalgia—just pay attention to the opening credits, for instance.

Nobody in the media (conservative or liberal) is inclined to use the word “collapse” to describe the current “crisis.” Every commentator has been careful to emphasize his conviction (or hope) that the current situation is “temporary”—and while prosperity, he may say, is not exactly right around the corner, there is a sweet (I think “naïve”) but absolute faith that capitalism (wealth based on investment rather than labor) will be resurgent … just as characters in slasher films hold out that they and perhaps one or two of their comrades will survive the inevitable.

It’s only natural to view oneself as a sole survivor, perhaps.

On the other hand, I’m equally confident that capitalism is disappearing … slowly, but surely. Some indefinite (pale) specter has haunted it for the past 50 years or so—and increasingly, as an economic system, it has relied heavily on outpourings of government aid (“corporate welfare”), as phony as trickle-down economics and a Hollywood happy ending—inevitably (in actual slasher films) the survival of the plucky virgin with a strong work ethic.

Anxiety over this possibility can be seen on the political right in the panic over Obama’s supposed “socialism” and on the left in the dismay over the degeneration of social welfare, whose wagon has been hitched (in America and other Western democracies) on investment and insurance—private medicine, educational and charitable grants and funding, commercial mass media, the primacy of sellable technology over “pure” science, war profiteering, and marriage (weddings alone are an $86 billion industry, not even including the costs of honeymoons or new household items).

I seem to recall that castration was one of the torments my dream-slasher inflicted on his victims before he tore them utterly apart. Though seldom addressed forthrightly, much American political propaganda hinges on fears of emasculation—no doubt one reason (though probably not the only one) for irrational Hillary-hate. Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that the last great pharmaceutical “breakthroughs” have pertained not to polio, not typhoid, not cancer, not AIDS, but erectile dysfunction. (And, yes, I’m aware that the dream may have a more personal—“Freudian”—interpretation—fear of loss of my own virility as old age creeps on—an undeniable fact of my present stage of life—though, as I stated, my first associations, post dream, were socioeconomic, not psychosexual.)

So who’s to say that several decades now of doomed camp counselors, cheerleaders, vacationers, honeymooners, new homeowners, and even embezzlers (Psycho) have pertained (in highly abstruse codes—like dreams) to the post-WW2 changes in American capitalism—corresponding, perhaps, to the upsurge of distrust in corporations, also well documented in mainstream movies for the past 50 years?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Beefcake: Caleb Halstead

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Believe

Some of the things I believe I know better than to believe. I know, I’m a big self-contradiction. I am well past the point of believing something just because that was the way I was brought up. At my age I have brought up myself for decades. Still, in the long haul, there are beliefs that I am still attached to, and even though they fail the test of logic, clear observation, or the scientific method, they still seem right to me. I can’t help it … not yet.

I do not believe in God or gods anymore. I do not believe in an afterlife. I do not believe that capitalism is the sanest approach to assigning value to life’s necessities or luxuries, human life, and work. I do not despise these beliefs. I have simply found that I have no use for them. Besides, nothing in my heart misses them now that they are gone.

I believe that things are pretty much as they appear to be, not necessarily at first or second glance, but as they appear under careful observation, over time, with attention to often overlooked details.

I believe that things will work themselves out until they no longer work out, with little regard to planning or effort. Not to say that planning and effort are altogether useless, but let’s say rather that their powers to effect desired results have been overestimated. I tend to “consider the lilies, how they grow,” and believe that worrying never added an inch to anyone’s height or a day to anyone’s life. I believe that last week’s desired results all too often become this week’s heartaches … or pain in the ass.

I believe that many things are more important than being right. I would rather be dead wrong every day of my life than to live without joy, adventure, lust, freedom, or courage. These things have everything to do with each other and nothing to do with righteousness.

I believe that the great lesson of life is to learn to help and to receive help with a modicum of grace, humility, and good humor. I believe in generosity. I believe in exuberance. I believe when we give we should give prodigiously—not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing. I do not believe in calculated charity, and I do not believe that charity is just good business. I believe we should not keep tabs on such things at all—we should forgive those who owe us, as we would hope to be forgiven by those we owe. (As I have said elsewhere, the Sermon on the Mount is, on the whole, the one vestige of Christianity I still cling to, especially since Christianity today has so little use for it.)

I believe in friendship. I believe in beauty. I believe in the senses. I believe in the ways that animals and artists keep a constant eye out on the world … while the gods apparently sleep. I believe in basic human decency, too.

What you believe has little to do with what you can know or prove. A belief is something you need to get along. Not everything that you can believe ought to be believed, of course. I’m all for abandoning washed-up beliefs. I believe there is a time to throw out every belief that no longer props you up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted, 1932-2009

This morning a colleague asked me, jokingly, whether I thought Ted Kennedy was in Purgatory now, negotiating his way into Heaven.

“Probably,” I replied. “And no doubt he’s moving across the aisle to gain some bipartisan support in Hell.”

Kennedy was the last of the great old liberals from the sixties—men of influence who combined New England staunchness and moral authority with a rascal’s love of booze and pussy. Clinton adopted some of the style, but braked on the content. Obama has dry-cleaned and polished the style and taken it to a whole new level—and, in the process, achieved politically what Kennedy never even got close to (the Presidency, namely), but it remains to be seen whether Obama can or has the will to make comparable strides on the content of Kennedy’s classic American liberal ideals.

Kennedy was an eloquent and reliable ally in the fight for civil rights for all—blacks, women, disabled, gays, immigrants—whose great mission, universal health care, is once again on the table up in Washington—and once again being hammered by special interests with bottomless pockets, and by fearmongers and their all-too-willing herd who seem to need fear and histrionics the way junkies need smack.

He was the center of cruel personal speculations—many of them justified—and he became a reliable punchline on late-night TV. His political savvy could look downright oily from a distance—but colleagues spoke of his humility and character even while he was still alive—and that’s something, at least. He certainly was able to “nudge” along improvements in the American healthcare system, such as funding for AIDS research and care, even while failing to make the sweeping reforms that he promised … and that are needed still.

He could work with Republicans and conservative Democrats without losing his liberal credentials—or, depending on your point of view, the stench of socialism. Many a Republican won elections by relying, at least in part, on the herd’s intense conniptions at the mere mention of Ted Kennedy’s name. And he was the Kennedy even fellow liberals felt safe in publicly disrespecting.

Rest in peace, old man. We may never see you or your brothers’ likes again. Still we can find a little comfort in the hopes stirred by your chosen successor, President Obama, and in the fortitude and quick wit of your fellow Massachusetts statesman, Barney Frank—quite obviously, the heirs apparent now to the right wing’s ineluctable and bottomless hatred, if perhaps not to your fortitude and political longevity.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, August 22, 2009

These Books Made Me an Atheist!

The Holy Bible—read attentively, this one will do the trick all by itself …

The Devils of Loudon (Aldous Huxley)—on religious hysteria, which, by all the symptoms, I suffered from to age 20

Satan in Goray (Isaac Bashevis Singer)—puts a nice big question mark next to the concept of messianism and end-times prophesies

The Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels)—offers much valuable and impartial information on the early years of the Christian religions (before orthodoxy)

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)—despite being a work of immense if idiosyncratic faith, “The Grand Inquisitor” segment offers the finest critique of faith (and its manipulators) I have ever read

On the Nature of Things (Lucretius)—a long poem, older than the New Testament, about atomism and the Epicurean world view, exploring the nature of passions and desires (including religious ones)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)—a primer on nonsense, and it’s always a very good idea to recognize nonsense for what it is

The End of Faith (Sam Harris)—the best thing I’ve read lately that directly tackles the ideas of theism (especially monotheism) … especially effective because Harris is a concise and cheerful arguer ... if I had not already lost my religion, this book would have helped me do it

Eros and Civilization (Herbert Marcuse)—love and life are the answer! only not when they are mere masks for repression, fear, and viciousness

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (John Bunyan)—a sincere testament of faith and atonement that, in spite of itself, naively expresses, in convincing detail, the sickness and madness that underlie them both

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Fascist Are You?

Today “fascism” is a catchall form of political insult. The word has lost nearly all its meaning since World War Two—simply a term the political left flings at the political right, and, more recently, vice versa.

However, the word once meant and, for many, still does mean something specific—a nationalistic confidence in the rightness of purity and power, a disdain for the impure and weak, and a raging sense that the way things are now is a personal affront—and, more broadly, an affront to one’s whole identity group, whatever it is—often “true” or “real” Americans (or whatever nationality we’re talking about)

Still, the term has acquired enough ambiguity that the label is now iffy at best. But I’m reasonably certain that an answer of “yes” to ALL the following questions pretty much means you really are a fascist. Sorry.

What a high percentage of “yes” responses means, I’m not as certain—but the more yeses, I suspect, the more likely you are inching your way towards a fascist mindset.

1. Are continuous growth and expansion key aspects of your concept of success?
2. Are unity and team loyalty more important than self-criticism and open debate?
3. Are you inspired by slogans that reiterate and reinforce your worldview?
4. Can violence and revenge serve the interests of true justice?
5. Does the most effective political course lie somewhere outside the traditional political divisions of “left” and “right”?
6. Does war strengthen a society?
7. Has the idea of freedom and liberty for all been carried too far?
8. Has whatever identity group you belong to suffered irreparable insult and injury?
9. Have communities and the idea of “community” become hopelessly corrupted by foreign and otherwise unsavory influences?
10. Is passionate nationalism better than international cooperation?
11. Is it better to have one strong leader than a strong representative body of legislators?
12. Is it inappropriate to criticize those who have authority over you?
13. Is it more important to take quick, decisive action than to conduct thorough research and follow jointly agreed-upon procedures?
14. Should strong and moral nations overpower weak or flawed nations for their own good?
15. Is pacifism a threat to the strength of a nation and its people?
16. Is patriotism a spiritual quality?
17. Is purity more important than diversity?
18. Is the truest form of national identity based on common ancestry and traditions?
19. Should citizens arm themselves in preparation to fight the encroachment of foreign and otherwise unsavory influences?
20. Should leaders be more charismatic and inspirational than rational and pragmatic?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Notes on Chris Messina

Chris Messina, 35, has one of those faces that, depending on the angle I’m looking at it, is sensitive, arrogant, insouciant, intense, doltish, intellectual, sexy, nerdy, manly, boyish, comic, doomed, rowdy, sissified, or a combination of any or all of the above at once.

Messina first caught my eye in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which he played Vicky’s dull, dependable, bourgeois fiancé. Even in that role, which he nailed, I could sense there was something more to this guy than the usual good-looking but colorless type of actor usually cast in such roles.

Then I saw him this summer in Away We Go as a distraught though outwardly perfect husband. His screen presence seemed a bit different in this film, though he again was playing a clueless character being put upon in a tragicomic way. It was then that I realized that part of Messina’s attraction for me is that he epitomizes the kind of person I would like to kick the shit out of from time to time—but in the nicest possible way … honest.

Apparently, his right eye manages to convey the smartass side of him while the left eye signals aggressiveness and smoldering intensity. His mouth cues an array of conflicting emotions in me—sexy enough to be kissed, cocky enough to be busted up.

I’ve noticed a large number of actors now on screen who, like Messina, manage to trigger all kinds of conflicting responses, even in repose. (Mark Ruffalo and Paul Schneider are two others who spring to mind.) The result is that the actors manage to convey both appropriate and inappropriate affects at the same time—which most definitely adds to the complexity of whatever scene they’re playing, but it’s hard for me to gauge just how much of their performance is great acting and how much of it is the inherent ambivalence of their facial structure.

Currently Messina can be seen in Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’d like to … Meryl and Amy are always fantastic, in anything, and now I’m curious just how much I’m going to want to muss up Messina this time.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fuck Whole Foods

Yesterday I spent $7.34 for green beans at Whole Foods. That alone should fill me with guilt. And it did. Still, I bought the expensive beans in garlic and olive oil because I needed something to dress up the lasagna (a fairly low-brow creation of mine) I was serving to Dave and Tim in celebration of Dave’s birthday. (Dave’s birthday is next weekend; however, they’re going to France on that day.)

As if $7.34 for green beans is not enough to kick myself over—what with people still starving in the world … and, closer to home, having not paid my American Express bill this month, there is this editorial in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, in which John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, attacks the current effort to reform health care from a conservative libertarian stance. He even has the nerve to name his position “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare,” compelled to extend product branding even to his own thought processes.

He states that “health” is not a guaranteed “right” in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution:

“Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?”

And guess what? Mackey sees no “intrinsic ethical right” to food or shelter either. “Empathetic” as he is, in the usual muted compassionate-conservative fashion, somehow he sees no connection between health, food, and shelter and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He might also be interested to know that the nation’s founding documents are similarly mum on the free market and capitalism in general—though almost certainly he recognizes—and ignores—that fact.

He then boasts that at Whole Foods he offers a “high-deductible health-insurance plan,” in which employees are responsible for the first $2,500 of their annual health-care costs (which strikes me as considerably more than most people pay for health care in a given year anyway). He says, “This creates incentives to spend the first $2,500 more carefully.” No shit. Fewer checkups, refusing emergency care, buying $7.34 green beans instead of blood pressure meds can cut health-care costs significantly!

(For the record, and by comparison, my Blue Cross plan has a $300-$600 deductible.)

Offsetting this, Whole Foods pays “up to” $1,800 to employees’ Personal Wellness Accounts—which I guess means that the highest paid employees would have to pay no more than $700 towards the deductible. But apparently only the highest paid employees—that tricky phrase “up to,” which promises only “absolutely no more than.”

He further calls, in the interest of getting the government’s hands off our health and well being (leave that to the empathetic “professionals” at Whole Foods and UnitedHealth), for the repeal of “government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover.” Right now various states require insurance companies to cover adopted children, contraceptives, autism treatments, mammograms, eye exams, and so on. Without these pesky restrictions, Mackey argues, costs could be lowered by “billions of dollars.”

“What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying,” he says. What I imagine this means is that I would be able to look over some sort of menu of diseases, disabilities, and injuries and decide for myself which of these I’m most likely to suffer—checking off cancer and automobile accident, but leaving blank diabetes and victim of violent crime—sort of like a Lucky Lotto card. If my numbers come up, I’m covered; if I suffer a mishap not on my prescribed “preferences,” I guess I’m shit out of luck.

Underlying all of this, as I said, is the idea that health, food, and shelter is the individual’s responsibility—not the government’s. Of course, this is mostly true. But there are precedents for the government protecting its citizens from the abuses of health-care providers and food suppliers—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was founded to protect citizens from contaminated foods and the wildly fictitious claims of sellers of patent medicines, laws were passed to protect “free and willing volunteers” from being duped into participation in unethical human experimentation, and the right to sue for malpractice (now regrettably turned into a money game—largely by the legal and insurance professions) is a fundamental protection of citizens from flagrant quackery and negligence.

I would add that, in addition to the precedents, most Americans, unlike Mackey, do see health, food, and shelter as fundamental aspects of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and therefore rights protected under the Constitution.

At the moment I don’t intend to boycott Whole Foods—though the economy seems to be effectively keeping me out of its aisles anyway—largely because I don’t imagine that Kroger, Food Lion, Target, or, for that matter, the vendors at my local farmers' market are any more “empathetic” than Whole Foods. But Mackey’s self-righteous and self-aggrandizing screed seriously pisses me off, so “Fuck John Mackey,” I say, and “Fuck Whole Foods.”

Sunday Beefcake

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Viral Reality

We live in a viral reality. It’s almost as if somebody decided the word “virtual” has too many letters.

What is a viral reality? A viral reality is a world where what passes for knowledge does not require support in facts and logic—or even in an authority. All that is needed is faith in whatever is widely disseminated on the channels of communication to which individuals are routinely exposed.

So, in a viral world, it may make sense to believe that the White House will force Congress and the American people to approve of death panels to decimate the elderly and infirm—even though nothing of the sort has actually been proposed, and those who assert that this is in fact the President’s scheme are unable to provide evidence—any evidence, much less sufficient evidence to support the claim.

In a viral world, the mere possibility that Barack Obama was born outside the United States and later fabricated a birth certificate to appear that he was born on American soil suggests that the assertion is probably true—no, wait, CERTAINLY true … even OBVIOUS … without a doubt—if only one has the faith to believe it.

It’s possible that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq in 2003—and that possibility alone, in the absence of supporting evidence, at the time or later, is enough. Unlike probability, possibility carries no burden of proof—“possibility,” in fact, dares the doubters to submit evidence to the contrary. “You cannot prove that mermaids do NOT exist; therefore, they MUST exist …”

… in a viral world.

In a viral world, the old saying “let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” is the measure of all truth. In a viral world, simply because it has been run up the flagpole, a good many people WILL almost certainly salute … and the media will be there to film them saluting … and in the interest of “fairness and balance” (mere words today, mere words), the media will not point out the obvious—that not everything on flagpoles is worthy of our allegiance.

In a viral world, the old saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” becomes “where there’s smoke, there are mirrors.” In fact, who needs smoke? Simply say the word “smoke”—and hundreds and thousands will swear on a stack of their seldom read, but ardently believed bibles that there is positively a fire.

In a viral world, fame—which is something less than “familiarity,” we should frequently remind ourselves—is better than character. Critics of Sarah Palin err repeatedly when they laugh her off—pointing out the obvious inconsistencies between her image—good wife, good mother, independent tell-it-like-it-is thinker, enemy to phonies and big oil alike—and her message. Her “message” is no longer what she says, what she does, or even what she said and did in the past.

In fact, to her followers, the mere fact that so many smart people criticize her message or her character strongly suggests that there must be something to it.

In a viral world, it only matters that the “message” is insidious … and impervious to close scrutiny—not that scrutiny matters in a viral world—after all, scrutiny is difficult, it takes time, and it often disappoints us to see clearly that what we so devotedly hope and expect to be true is not true in reality.

But, then, reality belongs to another time and place. Who cares about reality anymore? Reality is old school. Everything that matters anymore is viral. And the thing about a virus is that it is ubiquitous, invisible to light, and quick to replicate.

It is infectious—like the catchy jingle you just can’t shake out of your head all day; it doesn’t have to prove anything.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Incurious Minds Don’t Give a Shit

A friend just wrote me to say that her article for The Chronicle of Higher Education had been rejected with a form letter. It was a good article; I read it. In it she addresses the crisis of students entering colleges today who not only don’t know anything (no historical context, pathetic math levels, no second language—with hardly a firm grasp on just the one) but also have apparently never learned how to focus, process new information, and commit to learning what they don’t already know (or think they know).

In my experience as an instructor, most students cannot phrase a question even to ask for help. When they try to ask questions about particular points made in lectures or their readings, it becomes clear that many have not even established some grounds upon which to build more complicated forms of understanding … so many rely on day-before “review sessions” to get them through tests that purportedly evaluate what knowledge and skills they have acquired piece by piece throughout the course of study, theoretically over months.

What is worse, I thought when I first read my friend’s article, is the failure of thinking is now apparent in all age groups, so it’s hard to blame the “younger generation” for the collapse of civil discourse and the lack of will to acquire knowledge and understanding—or (the big temptation now) to blame the lousy public schools—many of which are indeed lousy because nobody wants to raise the tax monies to make them better. We are, it seems to me, a culturally exhausted culture—a “pseudo-culture,” operating on blind trust in technology, God, role models, and dumb luck, with emphasis on dumb luck.

The old tabloid motto “inquiring minds want to know” is just no longer true. There are few inquiring minds left. It’s a sad, sad day when public discourse and common sense fall below the lowbrow expectations of the National Enquirer.

As a blogger, I sometimes get confronted by people who take issue with something I’ve said. I’m fine with that … I invite it, as both a blogger and a teacher, not to mention as a citizen of a free democracy. Most (even some who strike a sort of intellectual pose) simply state that my ideas are foolish or absurd, without even demonstrating that they understood the ideas I was struggling to convey or even that they bothered much to pay attention to the words I used.

More often than not, they simply peg me as a “liberal,” a “socialist,” an “Obama-supporter,” an “Obama critic,” or a “collectivist” of some sort and then proceed to just make shit up, based on what they would generally imagine such a person would have to say on this or that issue. The gross misrepresentation of my idea then is followed by appeals to the vaguer and vaguer wisdom of “Founding Fathers” (hardly the homogenous core everybody today imagines them to have been), the ubiquitous Ron Paul (and I kinda “like” Ron Paul—but clearly not enough for those who “really like” him), and unthinking boilerplate cant like “nanny state,” “bleeding hearts,” “raise taxes (invariably bad),” “redistribution of wealth,” and “our children (invariably good).” And this is on my lucky days when I’m not being called a cocksucking faggot.

It’s irresistible to blame the electronic media for this turn of events. Really, the correlation between television-viewing, game-playing, and headphone-wearing, on the one hand, and the “new imbecility,” on the other, is fairly persuasive, though perhaps insufficient to “prove” cause and effect. Historian and attorney Daniel J. Boorstin made an early case for this argument in 1962, in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Culture critic Neil Postman made a stab at making the case in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Six years ago, Curtis White took on aspects of this argument in the book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. I’m sure you can probably think of six or seven other people who have made, with varying degrees of success, similar arguments.

It does appear that television (and its offshoots—including the impact it’s had on older communication forms like books, newspapers, and classroom instruction) has produced a mindset disinclined to pay attention and impatient with mulling things over. We Americans have come to expect everything to be “fast-paced,” “personally involving,” “amusing,” and “fun”—everything: art, politics, grammar, personal salvation, social progress, weight loss, arithmetic, the periodic tables, etc. If it’s “boring,” it’s bad. Even worse, everything should be “fun for the whole family,” which effectively reduces the level of all discourse to, say, a second- or third-grade level—with never a hope or expectation of rising above that level, merely spreading one’s inexpertness as widely and thinly as possible.

We have taken the expression “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and run with it—so that everything is sugar—or high fructose corn syrup, or aspartame, or sucralose—and no medicine at all.

So we have Wikipedia (which I rather like, by the way, so don’t mistake my intent here as Wikipedia-bashing), which tells us everything we need to know about anything we need to know about, usually on a level appropriate for eight year olds. And poor gray-haired college professors are now expected to put on puppet shows, tell jokes, and promote small-group “discussions” on the novels of Henry James or astrophysics (90 percent of which involve the shrugging of shoulders and moving on to in-depth discussions of American Idol). In short, we do nothing nowadays to ask those who purportedly want to acquire some new kind of discipline to rise, however slightly, above the levels already attained when they started with the program.

To do otherwise is to seem to be “talking down” to people. It isn’t that at all, necessarily, but the charge is easy enough to make when we stubbornly want to cling to our ignorance, our prejudices, our received opinions, and our streamlined and color-coded versions of politics, science, and reality—when, in fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the problem is that we are disinclined to make an effort—not when there is television, which incessantly explains itself for us, then pulls in commentators to offer ever more (and often inexcusably reductive yet catchy) explanations, and whose laugh- and music-tracks tell us when something is funny, so we should laugh now, and when something is serious, solemn, or important—and we don’t really want to learn anything … we just want the assurance that we really are already okay as we are.

My friend, of course, said a lot of this more pithily—and with a clearer sense of the state of the teaching profession, perhaps. I told my friend that she should blog, like me. Sure, nobody (or hardly anybody) will read it, but at least she will have an editor who likes the way her mind works.

Blogs, I believe, are the depository of all sorts of half-baked and over-baked ideas that nobody has the time or inclination to mull over now, all of them stockpiled for the perfect age when people will have nothing better (or more entertaining) to do than to take these ideas seriously and give them their due.

Camerado Mio (Ripley, This Morning)

"As I lay with my head in your lap, Camerado,
The confession I made I resume—what I said to you in the open air I resume:
I know I am restless, and make others so;
I know my words are weapons, full of danger, full of death;
(Indeed I am myself the real soldier;
It is not he, there, with his bayonet, and not the red-striped artilleryman;)
For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them;
I am more resolute because all have denied me, than I could ever have been had all accepted me;
I heed not, and have never heeded, either experience, cautions, majorities, nor ridicule;
And the threat of what is call’d hell is little or nothing to me;
And the lure of what is call’d heaven is little or nothing to me;
...Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated."
--Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Haunted World of Dorothée Smith

In the 1992 documentary Visions of Light cinematographer William Fraker comments on how director Roman Polanski chose to shoot certain scenes in Rosemary's Baby—such as a scene in which we the audience eavesdrop on a telephone conversation—deliberately off kilter, with more than half of the figure hidden behind a partly open door, in order to evoke a paranoid sense of conspiracy and Mia Farrow’s sense of isolation and exclusion.

French photographer and videographer Dorothée Smith uses palettes stripped to the bone and oblique compositions for the same effect—deliberately clouding her subjects’ gender to render them mysterious and somehow protected from our intrusive gaze.

Her subjects pose in profile or with faces turned from the camera, further signifying their unavailability to us secondhand "voyeurs"—the opposite of commercial fashion photography’s invitation to look, own, and absorb its recumbent, dazed, and deadpan models.

The end result is the sense that these are photographs of another realm—where distinctions of person and sex belong only to the subjects themselves, and we, the onlookers, are mostly excluded, left straining to comprehend the mystery of their quiet allure.

These photographs come from Smith's 2008 series Dniepr, Spree, and Loon. You can find more of her work on her website here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Notes on Godric

After two fleeting appearances in flashbacks and last Sunday’s cliffhanger (one of three or four cliffhangers in that one episode), this Sunday on True Blood (the episode titled “Timebomb”—and no spoilers here, I promise) Godric made a more substantial showing. Fans of the series have been anticipating his appearance for a while—he’s the boy vampire king of Texas as well as the “maker” of Eric, the vampire sheriff of Louisiana.

Twenty-year-old Danish actor Allan Hyde plays the character somewhere between Shakespeare's Puck and Hitchcock's Norman Bates, with just a dash of Jesus tossed in, as well. (In an earlier episode this season, Jesus is called the "first vampire," by a character who's ostensibly a fundamentalist Christian!) Hyde stands about 5’7” with blue/green eyes and dark blond hair, apparently darkened to black for the show. His background in Scandinavian theater has largely been in English-language musicals like The Sound of Music—he speaks French and German, in addition to fluent English.

Last night I mentioned in passing that I thought he was pretty hot, and one of my friends watching with me just didn’t see it. Frankly, even I am not sure what the appeal is for me, since Hyde doesn’t fit my usual “type.” But he definitely has a certain allure.

Here’s what works for me, though—the combination of tribal tattoos and pale, cream-cheese complexion and of a slightly lisping soft-spokenness and the neck, shoulders, and triceps of a wrestler (the sports listed on his cv, however, are skiing and skateboarding).

The name “Godric” is Old English for “god-king,” which seems fitting for this almost all-powerful, yet capriciously compassionate vampire, who is, as he stated in last night’s episode, “older than your Jesus.” There’s more to be said about the possible significance of this—especially in light of his recent run-ins with anti-vampire Christians—but to go there would mean backing out on my promise of no spoilers. There’s more to be said, too, about his history with Eric, but so far all of that is mysterious to us viewers who have not read the books upon which it’s based.

I also don’t know how long to expect Godric to survive—the fatality rate has been steadily piling up for the past two or three episodes … but, again, no spoilers.

And now the reports are that Evan Rachel Wood is set to appear in three weeks as Sophie-Ann, the stark raving apeshit crazy lesbian vampire queen of Louisiana—so gentle bloodsucking Godric may be effectively eclipsed if not totally exterminated before the end of season two—still, I wouldn’t kick him out of my coffin.

Eight Miles Wide

My friend Tim passed this on to me. Enjoy! (It's kinda deep.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Beefcake

Friday, August 7, 2009

Five Reasons US Health Care Sucks

Generally, the work ethic in America is at low tide. Few American workers, on any level, care much about the quality of services and goods they provide—except as mandated by laws and regulations and strictly enforced in penalties. Most workers work for the paycheck alone—well, the paycheck and other perks of the job—not out of any sense of mission, calling, or personal satisfaction in work well done. As a rule, American workers feel no loyalty to either their employers or their clients and customers; further, few feel any loyalty towards their fellow workers.

The insurance industry has a suffocating grip on health care. Patients buy expensive insurance to receive access to health care (by the way, “access to health care” is not the same as “health care”—once access is achieved, there are further payments—often substantial—to be made on deductibles, co-pays, uncovered treatments, etc.), and physicians buy expensive insurance to protect themselves from malpractice suits. Even insurance companies themselves buy expensive insurance from fellow insurance companies. It’s a con—and hardly anything at all is really ensured by possessing insurance—except that everybody pays out mounds of money that winds up in the hands of very few.

Everything has to turn a profit. It’s not enough to provide needed services to the community and reap proportionate benefits that allow you, your friends, your family, and your employees to live at a reasonably high standard. Instead, influence is used to pass laws that benefit corporate interests (not true professionalism, not the public good)—often making legally mandatory certain medical practices and insurance coverage that ultimately benefit hardly anyone but the providers of these “services.” The “caregiver” (often a corporate entity, not an actual human being—another problem with the system) often uses its life-or-death advantage over the ill and the injured to charge gouging prices and to “recommend” unnecessary tests and treatments and follow-ups.

America is a litigious society. We think a lawsuit is the answer to all the deficiencies, inequities, and hardships of life. We cannot accept our own mortality, so that even when the very old or the very reckless among us dies—itself not so extraordinary an eventuality—we look for someone (individual or corporation) to take the blame. Even then, blame is not enough—and the only currently satisfactory recompense requires fistfuls upon fistfuls of cash, disproportionate to the injury, even disproportionate to the value the person had to his or her family, friends, and community in life. (By the way, I’m a firm believer in patients’ and families’ rights to sue for malpractice and neglect—but primarily as a safeguard to individuals’ rights to life and freedom from avoidable harm, not as the pure money game it has become.)

Essential services are outsourced. The compartmentalization of health care, on top of the specialization of the medical profession, has resulted in a disconnect among the various entities that provide “care” for the ill and the injured. Thus, nobody has responsibility for the quality of care given, apart from the recipients themselves. Granted, one should be ultimately responsible for one’s own health care—but the outsourcing of services so fragments the “care” and the “responsibility” that a patient seldom if ever actually meets anyone who takes any responsibility for its quality—thus, the ill and the injured bear the responsibility in its entirety (except where laws—often compromised by “professional” interests, i.e. lobbyists for the legal and medical professions—assign legal responsibility)—even worse, in America the health care (its costs and its Byzantine maze of bureaus and specialties) becomes itself an added burden for the ill and the injured to bear on top of their illnesses and injuries.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why You Wanna Trip on Me


For perhaps the fifth time since my last summer class in mid-June, I had a sleepless night last night.

Not insomnia, exactly. I suppose that, if I had needed to, I would have gone to sleep, if not at a “usual” hour—since even when I’m working (teaching) I have about a two-and-a-half-hour window for going to bed, anytime between 9:30 p.m. and midnight typically—then at least at a fairly reasonable hour, determined by when I usually wake, to my alarm clock, set at 5:30 a.m.

But the thing is, for most of the days I have had off for the past month and a half, I have not needed to get up at any particular hour. Though I still wake up at the alarm at 5:30, I can stay in bed as late as I like, or even go back to sleep (though going back to sleep is something I rarely do). Most mornings I follow my dog Ripley’s cues and maintain a half-wake, half-sleep state—getting up to pee or nibble, daydreaming, wandering the boundaries of my territory aimlessly, concentrating on the intake of air and then its exhalation.

Not “insomnia,” because insomnia is a “chronic” “inability.” Staying awake is not something I do all the time—and, even then, it is more or less a choice not to sleep—that is, I have no reason to sleep if I’m not inclined to do so—and I say “more or less a choice” because to my way of thinking the lack of an inclination is not exactly a “choice”—like my “choice” not to get married and my “choice” not to invest in real estate.

My big event yesterday was to transfer water and sewage service to my name—for which I took two trips to Durham City Hall, two, because on my first trip, I forgot my lease—for future historians, on my second trip, with the lease in hand, I found out that the address on the lease I had signed is incorrect, so my landlady had to be phoned to verify by occupancy of 318 Clark. I also bought a small birthday present for my friend Dave, whose birthday I will be celebrating with him and his boyfriend early because on his actual birthday they will be leaving for the South of France (approximately the same weekend I will be reading students’ diagnostic essays on—I don’t know—what motto they chose to live their lives by and why, perhaps).

Last night I was not inclined to sleep, even after such a jam-packed day. Instead, I read some short stories by Dennis Cooper, scratched behind Ripley’s ears … a lot, answered some e-mail … at length … from people I don’t even really know except via the Internet (not “pen pals,” but “keypad pals”), and then, quite late, telephoned two guys in Wisconsin I had arranged to interview for one of my other blogs, then, in the wee hours, preceded to write up the interview, fictionalizing wide swaths of dialogue to make them more grammatical and pithy and me more interesting and witty. Then, that much accomplished and diligently fed into Blogger—but endlessly (to this very hour) continuing to nip and tuck the prose and find more precise and colorful words—I proceeded to listen to a long, drawn-out thunder shower in the Sensurround the two windows and low ceiling in the bedroom afford me—ears are widely undervalued as technologically astounding “sound systems.”

When I awoke to someone on NPR droning about the Sotomayor confirmation (which I shut off without even taking the time to register many political thoughts—some political thoughts slipping into my consciousness, inevitably), I got up, put food and water out for my dog, took the dog out to piss and shit on the front lawn, decided I was not inclined to eat breakfast (dependable oatmeal, almost always), enjoyed padding barefoot around the newly occupied residence some more, picking up (with my fingers) tiny fragments of packing material that the broom had missed yesterday, and then spent several minutes in my “empty” room (its wood floors and plaster walls empty of anything but a 3x5 rug with a floral design, which I could sit on, but did not). Then I watched Ripley sleep and breathe. Then I ate an apple. Then I reread the interview I wrote, making miniscule changes of pitch and emphasis—for a piece almost no one but me, the interviewees, and perhaps a hundred other people will ever read—and invited the two interviewees to become my MySpace friends. Then I set two eggs in cold water, brought them to a rapid boil, and then turned off the heat. Then I wrote another long message to another virtual friend.

For about thirty minutes I imagined a man I had met perhaps twelve times without clothes on—well, you should know, he was wearing clothes when I met him—I am painted into a grammatical corner here—then fitted into a white skintight Lycra wrestling singlet—then in his usual crisp pastel shirt and prescription eyewear. I imagined him desperately trying to pin my shoulders to the floor and repeatedly failing, with maximum body contact. and loud heaving expressions of exasperation, more at himself, his failure, than at me per se. This, needless to say, was the least stoical part of my morning.

Right now I feel as refreshed as if I had had my full eight hours of sleep. I have no plans until tomorrow evening. I have no inclination to prepare myself for the fall semester, which begins in two weeks, not caring this minute to raise either my expectations for student achievement or my expertise on minutiae that, however much they entertain me, will be lost on most of the students I can reasonably expect to attend any of my classes. I hold no expectations or hopes (or worries or fears) over whether I will sleep tonight, then.

I am, as I write this last sentence, preparing to eat the boiled eggs, which should be cool to the touch by now—with big gobs of Marzetti’s Light Honey Dijon Dressing, for lunch.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Todd Schorr

This 2008 painting is called Ape Worship. Check out Todd Schorr’s website for more transcendent apeshit. I was introduced to his work in a recent issue of Dazed & Confused (June 2009). Schorr, 55, has been painting in oils since age 9. His work suggests Hindu deity paintings by way of Hollywood, Disneyland, el Día de los Muertos, Mad Magazine, and Mattel.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New Digs

I've been away. Did you miss me much?

I moved out of the apartment complex I've been in for the past 11 years on Friday. (I've lived there for 11 years, which is longer than I've lived anywhere, ever, so there must have been some things I liked about it, but the last few years, under new management, did not inspire loyalty ... for one, my longevity there was basically just getting me higher rent payments for the same floor design as people paying $60-$70 less per month, and they were at least getting a freshly painted and carpeted apartment.)

I'm now at 318 Clark, the less trendy section of the trendier part of Durham. It's a small two-bedroom duplex, built in the 1950s (when I, too, was built), smaller even than my one-bedroom apartment at the complex. The bathroom is about a quarter of the size of the bathroom I had at the complex, a regrettable result of downsizing. My current rent is $70 less than my monthly rent at the complex, though.

I'm trying to save one of the bedrooms as an "empty space" for when I'm feeling especially "zen" ... or absurd. It's the sort of space I've always dreamed of having someday, so we'll see how much I enjoy it in reality. At least it's someplace where I'm not in danger of breaking anything. The long hallway, however, I've crammed with shelves of books, hundreds and hundreds of books (and DVDs).

I've exhausted myself unpacking over the weekend, so now I feel like I'm recovering from major surgery. Still, I like the new place so far. Three nights here so far ...

The snapshots were taken with my iPhone.


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