Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pus and the Pekinese: a bedtime story

“Daddy, can I stay up until Mommy gets home?”

“Now, Finn, you know I said that’s too late.”

“Please!”

“No. You know how you end up. You won’t get enough sleep and then you will be tired and cranky tomorrow. And you have preschool tomorrow so you know you really need your rest.”

“Ok. I guess.”

“Now go to sleep, Finn. I love you the mostest most.”

“I love you too, Daddy. … Daddy, can you at least tell me one more story? Please?”

“Ok. One more story but then you have to go to sleep.”

“I will I promise.”

“What story would you like? Another Dr. Seuss? Or Where the Wild Things Are? Or maybe The Wingdingdilly?”

“No. I don't want a story from one of my books.”

“No?”

“No. I want a forbidden story. I want a banned story. I want something mysterious.”

“Oh really? Forbidden, banned, and mysterious… Hmm…”

“Do you know any stories like that?”

“I might know a few.”

“Can you tell me one? Please please please?”

“I suppose I could. If you promise to go to sleep right after and not ask for another story or try to cheat your way into staying up until your mother comes home.”

“I’ll go to sleep I promise. You know how I need my rest.”

“I do indeed. Now, have I ever told you the story of Pus in Boots, the Gross Domestic Shorthair?”

“You mean Puss in Boots?”

“No. That is the version of the story that they printed in books. The clean version. The real story is of Pus in Boots. The only cat ever to have 13 lives.”

“13?”

“Yup. Now, where to begin …”

“The beginning?”

“No, Finn, that would be ridiculous. Pus in Boots lived such a long time. With 13 lives he was practically immortal. I don’t think any of the scholars even know when the beginning of his story was.”

“Really?”

“Really. Pus is a very special cat. You know, they say that he even went on adventures with Binns Cairo.”

The Binns Cairo?”

“The Binns Cairo.”

“Wow. Can you tell me that one? About Pus in Boots and Binns Cairo?”

“Maybe another night. I think I will start you off with the Tale of Pus and the Pekinese.”

“Oh ok.”

“You’ll like it. I promise. It’s forbidden and banned and mysterious. And it all begins one typical evening in the city when Pus is scrounging around Union Square …

… Though he was Lord of the Square, hell, Lord of all Lower Manhattan, Pus was growing tired of the City. Yes, he had all the rats and mice he could kill, pigeons aplenty to fill his belly, and all the scraps and human garbage to feast upon, but there was something missing in his life. And so, he resolved, at least for a time, to leave. Pus began by walking uptown, towards the Bronx, towards Westchester County, Upstate, even.”

“Upstate? That is a long way for a cat to walk. Where was he going?”

“He didn’t know where he was going, Finn, but he kept on walking. And if you walk long enough, you end up walking a long way…

… Pus met many friends along the way and slept anywhere he could. He slept in boxes and dumpsters, in trees and church basements, in bus shelters and once on top of a mailbox. He met three ferrets in Midtown arguing with each other and the world about Heidegger-“

“Ferrets? I love ferrets. Can we get a ferret, Daddy? Can we can we please?”

“I wish, Finn. But ferrets are illegal to keep as pets. And Mommy and Daddy don’t need to be breaking any more laws just because ferrets are awesome and you want to play with one.”

“Ok. I guess. If it's the law.”

“And Pus also met a hallucinating squirrel in Central Park who swore that he was sharing consciousness with at least a dozen humans, several felines in heat that let him crash for an evening or two, and one particularly nice older gentleman named Rupert Felix that could actually understand him. They had long and interesting conversations in the evenings in front of a roaring fire somewhere in Adirondack Park. But that is a story for another day. Because eventually, Pus just went back to walking.”

“Pus did a lot of walking.”

“He did. But that’s how he saw so many things and had so many adventures. You can’t have adventures staying in once place, Finn. And you know cats can't drive….

… One day Pus came to a palatial mansion; a castle, really.”

“A castle! Like with a moat and a drawbridge and a dragon and knights and ghosts?!?!”

“Not exactly. It was an American Castle. It didn’t have a moat or a drawbridge, just a fancy wrought iron gate and mile long drive way through manicured grounds that included a lake, a mystical forest, an English garden, a hedgerow maze, and three monstrous works of terrible modern art involving steel and glass and used tires. But there was a fancy pentagram summoning circle made out of solid gold built over the bones of all the men who had worked on the house like the architect and the contractor and the carpenter and the plumber and electician and all the laborers.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“That’s kinda spooky.”

“A little. Because, you see, the man who lived in this castle, Juilan Ix, was a dark wizard.”

“A real wizard?”

“Well, during the day he was CEO of the Cavendish Group but that was only during the day, he was really a necromancer. Especially at night. And when there was a full moon his magic powers were especially strong. And the necromancer’s familiar, was the most evil animal imaginable. A Pekinese. A damn, vile, frilly, yappy, spoiled Pekinese bitch named Duchess Natalie Millicent Veronica van Hoek.”

“I hate her already.”

“Me too. Anyway, it was a Tuesday when Pus slipped through the wrought iron gate, past the guards, and sauntered his way up to the castle. It was night and there was a full moon.”

“Oh no, the wizard!”

“Don’t worry, Finn. This story isn't called Pus Fights the Dark Wizard. It’s Pus and the Pekinese.”

“Are you sure the wizard doesn't hurt Pus?”

“I’m sure. Pus is a smart cat. He knows which humans to stay away from. And, you know, Pus has a little magic of his own.”

“He does?!”

“When he needs to. After all, he’s been alive for a long time. He lived with the Egyptian pharaohs for a while and learned all the secrets of the Egyptian Mysteries.”

“Oh ok. Then I guess I’m not worried.”

“Good. Because I wouldn't want you to be worried about Pus. He is the hero, after all….

… So Pus was wandering around the acres and acres that surrounded the castle, pausing to speak with the interesting animals in the forest and ignoring all the boring ones. There were deer and coyotes and voles and badgers and one surly wolverine. And the story he kept hearing was ‘Stay away from the Duchess Natalie Millicent Veronica van Hoek. She is pure evil.’”

“All the animals were afraid of the Pekinese?”

“A little. Or, at least, they didn’t want to cross her path. Especially if she was angry. And she was always angry when her master was performing his ritual magic, which he was tonight because of the moon.”

“Ooh. Is there going to be a fight?”

“Are you sure you haven’t heard this story already?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

“But how did you know about the fight?”

“It was a guess.”

“Oh, well if it was just a guess…”

“It was. It was.”

“Ok. Well, Pus, was a cat and everyone knows that cats are curious. And mischievous. And he was hungry. So he decided to head up to the castle to see if he could find some food to steal and eat. He figured that the animals were all exaggerating about the Pekinese and that they were more afraid of the necromancer who was known to sacrifice animals for his blood rituals. Pus, a master thief and the original source of the term cat burglar, snuck into the castle without trouble and made his way to the expansive kitchens where he ate three Alaskan King salmon flown in fresh daily, a brook trout and a rainbow trout from the lake behind the castle, and three and a half Mallomars because they were all that was left in the box. While eating his fourth Mallomar, the one he didn't get a chance to finish, the Pekinese pranced into the kitchen towards her 24-karat gold food dish. At first she didn’t see Pus and since he was quiet she didn’t hear him but Pus wanted to see why all the interesting animals in the mystical forest were so afraid of this little yappy dog, so he jumped from his vantage atop the kitchen island into the 24-karat gold food dish making a huge mess and such a clatter that the Pekinese nearly jumped out of her snobbish skin. There was a fight. The end.”

“The end? The end? How is that the end? What happened? Who won the fight? Was there lots of biting and scratching and yowling and kicking and running around a making a huge mess of the kitchen and the rest of the rooms of the castle? Did Pus win the fight? Did he hurt the Pekinese badly? Why is she so evil? Did he put her into the castle dungeon and lock her up and throw away the key to the wolverine in the mystical forest who took it back to his ancestral homeland in Canada?”

“Yes. And then Pus took a nap because he had such a full belly. And when he woke up he went back to walking.”

“And what next?”

“That is another story for another night, my Finn. Now you need to sleep before your mother gets home and gets upset with both of us for staying up so late telling stories.”

“Oh. Ok. Well. That was a good story and I guess it was forbidden and banned and mysterious. So thanks, Daddy.”

“Of course, Finn. Now sleep tight. And don’t let the zipperumpazoos bite.”

“Goodnight, Daddy. I love you.”

“I love you too, Finn.”

taking a bad idea and adding technology: hybrid books vs. transmedia storytelling

So last night I read this article in the NY Times and it got me thinking about hybrid books and how they are a terrible fucking idea. At least for the present. At least in the way they seem to be currently conceived. Especially since they could be the basis of a new transmedia storytelling.

Hybrid books are books with additional video or web content. Seems simple enough. And I will agree that instructional books and how-to books would clearly benefit from the inclusion of little video demos. Fair enough. But if the demo vid is on the internet and the book is in your hands, how does that make it a hybrid book? Doesn't that make it an instructional book and instructional videos that happen to be about the same thing? How is that new? Or news?

The fact is, technology is behind the times as far as this idea goes. Until I can get the whole deal - text, image, video, music - all seamlessly integrated in one device (and I do mean seamless) I don't see what the value is. Or what the development is. There have been videos on the internet tangentially related to other artistic works for years. Transmedia storytelling may be novel and not yet mainstream but it isn't new.

That said, hybrid novels are a terrible fucking idea. Just plain bad. The concept of a hybrid novel or short story or whatever, is that the text can be meaningfully supplemented by taking a break between chapters to watch a video on the internet. One assbag in the article goes so far as to say that “It really makes a story more real if you know what the characters look like.” Know what they look like? What the shit eating horse fuck is that? What kind of imaginationless fuck can't do that in his own goddamn mind? Hasn't one of the continual criticisms of adapting books to film been that reduction of every reader's unique idea of what a character looks and sounds like to one seemingly canonical claim? That somehow because it is in the film that is the way it is even if there are infinitely more ways of interpreting the text to suit the individuality of each reader? Are we so lazy and pathetic that we can't even wait for a film adaptation to tell us what a character looks and sounds like, now we need a Youtube quality video between chapter 3 and 4 to tell us we have been seeing the wrong guy in our head this whole time?

Now I completely understand the value of film, of short film, of any narrative in any form of media. What I don't get is why they need to be included in the book. Why can't there be unique stories told in unique ways that best fit each medium that build upon each other and inform each other but still manage to stand alone? Take a central story and then have a book, a graphic novel, a series of short films, multiple still images, and a soundtrack or two developed. That is some transmedia storytelling that I could get behind. That is a disruption of linearity that I could be interested in. But short videos on the web that you have to put down the book (even the ebook because your Kindle can't handle this shit) in order to access and that don't even move forward the plot half the time? Are we so worried that our kids aren't reading anymore?

Because really, to me, it seems to come down to two issue: 1. people aren't reading as much as they used to, 2. controlling the brand.

Yes, people are probably reading less that they used to and there are all kinds of studies some of which I have read and some that I have not that prove this and draw all manner of conclusions from it. I though, am of the camp that not all reading is good reading, that if kids are watching good films or good television, or playing well crafted video games, then who cares that they don't like reading the stale books that outdated English departments claim are "classics"? Reading good books is good. Reading bad books is a waste of time and brain cells. And putting videos into books isn't going to make them good and thus worth our time. Videos alone will not save the industry.

And the social networking ideas to allow for collaborative authorship that the article mentions - that is one of the most insulting things to a readers intelligence that a publisher could invent. "Hey kids, guess what? You know how you guys like doing things? Well we are going to let you pick the name of our main character's best friend's puppy!!!" If you are going to go for collaborative authorship that is not the way to go. First off, a collaborative original text just makes for a terrible book. Just look at any story that 20+ people try to write together with no one willing to concede their own great ideas on behalf of the work as a whole. So I understand why publishers think that letting the audience (not community) have a role in "collaborative" projects to "be incorporated into minor characters or subplots". But that is just patronizing. The road to collaboration lies with fan fic (not that I am the biggest fan) and with user generated responses across various media. If you want to involve your readers you can't treat them like second class citizens. At this point they won't be satisfied with minor roles and subplots, they have had too much control over telling the stories of their own lives to settle for scraps from the master's table.

And 2: control. Rare is the case when one individual is a talented enough artist that they can not only write a great novel, but they can pen the story boards for the video segments and direct and star in them, they can compose and perform the musical accompaniment, and so on. Rare is the case indeed. So an effective transmedia story, a work that encompasses text, and video, and sound and so on is likely going to be a collaborative project of many artists working together towards a coherent whole. If this were the case of these hybrid novels perhaps I would not hate them so. But as far as I can tell, it is a case where publishers have gained rights to a novel and they want to make sure that no one else (read: no user generated content) can put out the video segments or the music inspired by the novel. It's a preemptive strike. It is a matter of controlling the brand, the product, and the cash flow. I am opposed to this kind of control in all its forms. Now much user generated content is terrible. Not everyone who likes a particular book and feels compelled to comment and react in some form is equally artistic. But a publisher just looking to cash in on the kids and their Youtube fetish before the boat sinks isn't helping anyone either.

Ideally a work is kept open and open-ended. Published under a creative commons license, derivative works would be legal and a community would thrive around a work producing new story lines, video clips, paintings and digital images, music. Each giving rise to new and more creative output. Much of it might be terrible. But not all of it. And just because it is produced does not mean it has to be accepted as canon. These communities are self-regulating.

And if an author wants more control over canonical works in different media or wants to guarantee professional quality work (the author should be the one to decide not the publisher) then the author should collaborate with the artists able to translate his/her vision into new media. But again, each different media form should be able to stand on its own. No one wants to see a 90 sec video clip that doesn't make any sense on its own and has only the barest relationship to a book that they are reading. Put effort into the video. Make them more than supplemental or tangential or throwaways. Make the videos tell their own story in a way that the text cannot. The are innumerable things that a story on film can show that a story in text cannot (and vice versa). Use each medium to tell a portion of the whole story with overlap and interplay. But don't force video clips into a novel just because it might entice some readers away from the television for a few minutes. That isn't new or novel. That isn't creating a sustainable transmedia storytelling platform. That is just the last gasp of a failing system.

Monday, September 28, 2009

books, bookstores, reading groups, and writing ciricles: the future of the word

And at this point I do mean the "word" and not "writing." Writing is evolving, writing is more than the word and evolving past the word. Writing is the converge and divergence of text, of image, of moving image, animation, sound, and every other form of expression. Despite the evolution of writing, though, most of us are not ready or willing (will we ever be?) to give up books, books as text based objects, stories bound by the limitations of text and enhanced by those same limitations. Frankly, I don't see the reading public giving up text based books, even text based ebooks, for ebooks with a little bit of text, a lot of images and a couple movie clips. I don't see anything wrong with an ebook that is a combination of text, image, and movies and I would argue that it would be equally good art (at least in form if not in every instance of execution). But I don't see us giving up reading text any time soon. Just because the word is limiting does not mean that there is no value in it. People haven't stopped reading for the radio, television, or film projector. They won't stop now either. The written word, the work that remains primarily text based, that does not add (or enforce) a particular soundtrack, that does not include video clips will persist. More interesting is not the work that seeks to provide everything but rather the work that opens itself up to collaboration: a text that asks a reader to provide a soundtrack which then shared and commented upon by other readers, a text that asks readers to share their own short films that have been inspired by the original. The interesting book is not the book that provides everything but the book that opens the conversation, that allows every manner of interpretation, collaboration.

And then the question becomes how does the written word persist, and how we ( as readers, as writers) will interact with it. Because interaction is indeed the key.

I recently read, and then tweeted, two pieces (the first from The Institute for the Future of the Book and the second a comment from Vroman's Bookstore's blog) dealing with the future of the book in both the physical and digital and the nature of publishing as branding.

Both pieces are thought-provoking and you should read them. It would bring my rambling into focus, make sense of some of my digressions. The argument that I am borrowing from the first piece is that despite going digital, bookstores will hopefully not be replaced by online superstores like Amazon because as anyone who has ever spent hours wandering around a bookstore knows, the physical store is vastly superior for its browsing. Moreover, bookstores and attendant cafes are great places to connect over books, to extend the individual reading experience into a shared experience, to comment upon what has been read, to contribute to the greater distributed conversation that makes up the future of reading/writing. Indeed, as reading and writing become less isolated activities and more social activities the location of reading, writing, and the socialized life of reading and writing needs to evolve. I do not mean this to imply that writers will now all have to set up shop in their local bookstore and produce pages on demand for a voracious public looking on like kids at the zoo. Rather, the acceptance that a work is not finished once it is published and put out into the world but just beginning. That a work is established in its reading, its commentary, its influence, and the social interaction it inspires.

Reading and writing are interacting in different ways, those interactions are only going to grow to be a greater segment of the reading experience (some people will always read alone in the bedroom and speak of it to no one). There is not currently, however, a good space wherein these developing interactions can occur. The bookstore/cafe seems a good one to me. As long as there is internet to facilitate our increasingly hyperlinked lives where in casual conversation no definition can go undefined, no topic not subjected to a wikipedia search. Bookstores retain their capacity for browsing, their cafes keep the coffee and pastries (and would do well to add beer and wine), and they provide the space for book talks, author interactions, book group discussions, the ability for lay readers to contribute marginalia and errata to published works in a means that would get wide distribution (digitally, not a sharpie in the margins).

The point is that our reading and writing experiences are becoming more linked, more social, less bound to any specific meatspace location. But as our conversations become more distributed, asynchronous, and virtual it would be nice to have a space in the real world that could bring us together as bodies with similar interests. Because spending more time digitally linked does not mean (and should not devolve into) more time sitting alone in front of a computer.

As to the publishers becoming noted brands of their own:
The notion of book branding whether via publisher, editor, or author seems to come down to a trust issue. With only so much time/money to spend on books, readers are looking for what they like and recommendations from those they trust whether that be an author whose work they have previously read and enjoyed, imprint that is notable for publishing strong work and whose authors they consistently enjoy and would like to be introduced to more of, or book savvy friend who has great (read: similar) taste. Frankly, publisher branding is the the answer to solve the publishing crisis. But it could help for some imprints. Smaller ones, mostly, that have a cohesive thread across the brand whatever that may be (and it doesn't mean that they all look alike or need to look good on a shelf together, though it could). Author branding is clearly important, but publisher branding could help authors too. An author with an established brand can go it alone, but perhaps they are established but only within a small community. And so they look to the publishing brand that fits and they collaborate. Just because authors can brand themselves does not mean that a publisher can't do the same to everyone's mutual benefit.

Ultimately the project seems to be about connecting with readers, about reaching out to people as people and interacting with them. Saying, in a personal way (and not just something that sounds or seems personal but real person to person interaction with the customers/readers as equals) that this is what we represent, this is the product that we provide, and you can trust us to provide this product consistently. That does imply that staying small and personal is the better route. I hope it is. The faceless Culture Industry hasn't been good for anyone save the fatcats and the douchebags. But that personal interaction can come from the publisher, it can come from the author, it can come from the editor, it can come from your knowledgeable neighborhood bookseller, or it can come from your trusty friend who tells you to read all those books you've loved. Hopefully, it comes from some combination of those, or, with luck, all of them. That all publishing imprints will mean something to readers is likely a stretch. That some can come to mean a lot isn't and is something to be striven for.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

pardon the silence

Time.

I have finally given up trying to take naps during the day. There were a couple of days that spoiled me. Finn would take 3 hour naps in the morning and I could go back to bed and wake up before he did wondering why he wasn't crying. And there he would be, just lying in his crib quiet and content and smiling up at me. This week has been a much different story.

Not to blame him, the teething is hell on a kid, but he isn't napping well any more. This morning his nap was 45 mins instead of 3 hours. The kind of thing where I was more exhausted waking up from than when I went down. I'll stop tempting fate. I can manage without the nap. And being woken up like that just ruins my mood. Which I can do without.

Which brings up the point that I have noticed some by listening to people I don't respect talking about their children and glancing over a few baby books that don't offer the best advice (that being trial and error; the kid has a better chance of breaking you that you breaking him) : guilt. Apparently it is quiet common (normal?) for parents to feel guilty about, well basically, everything. Guilt about anger or frustration when the kid screams. Guilt about not being able to fix every problem. Guilt about not knowing the right thing to do even when there isn't a right thing to do. And that is a problem.

I think the issue stems from the fact that most people want to think of babies as babies first and then as people. That babies are by their very nature exempt from all social rules and thus should be treated as such, and should bring about only exceptional emotions. That is total bullshit. Babies are people first. They are social beings and part of society and thus elicit such emotion as any other member of society. When someone at work screams at you, your first reaction is one of anger or resentment or fear. You suppress that emotion because it is not conducive to keeping your job to scream back, to fight, or to run away crying. Just as you suppress anger at your screaming baby, frustration at your failed efforts to soothe said screaming baby, &c. Having and suppressing your anger is basic part of the social condition. There is the knowledge that the job is just a job, that the teething eventually must end in glorious teeth, and so on. There are appropriate outlets. But you rarely feel guilty about being angry with your boss or coworkers or rude clients. So why is it common to feel guilty about being angry with children? Why is it inappropriate to express (calmly) that you are, in fact, angry? (Clearly there is no point telling a baby that you are angry, that would be for older kids, but your partner, your friends, confidants, &c.) Why do we feel that we cannot have normal emotions about babies? That we must not only suppress the emotion but the very fact that we have experienced it as well?

And then there is the contrast, the new movement (mainly of mommy bloggers or that is the impression that I get) of reveling in these "dark" emotions. As if they were somehow illicit instead of commonplace and dull. Who cares that you once thought to put your kid's head through a wall? That's like saying "I once thought that I might like to take a car up past 150 mph on the Autobahn." I suppose it is once again the case of American's being out of touch with their bodies/thoughts/emotions/whatever. But frankly, when faced with the choice of the guilt or the guilty pleasure I choose neither.

I guess no one wants to realize that life is dull. Even life with a new baby. It's routine and repetition and boredom. And when the only break from the boredom and routine is violent screaming, you tend to prefer the tedium.

To wit: life at home with Finn is, in general, a rather simplistic routine. I haven't been writing so much about it because there isn't that much to say. I've learned his routine, he keeps me to it. I know when he needs to be eating, when he should be sleeping, which of his play areas he wants to be playing in and when he wants to be moved. When to lull him into quiescence with my dulcet baritone reading voice and when to rile him up with fart noises and Chewbacca impressions. He eats, he sleeps, and he plays on a relatively standardized schedule and aside from shitting/pissing himself along the way, that is about all he does. The issue is finding ways to fill the time. Or, now that he is teething, finding ways to keep him quiet and on schedule so that I can keep my normal sedate calm. And I have been trying to get back to writing. Serious writing.

Writing a novel while your kid is napping is not as easy as you'd think. Especially when he isn't napping well. I am getting a lot of research done and clarifying plot points and crafting the outlines of scenes. But given that I am meant to be on his schedule, there is no real time for me to get into the zone and bang out 5-10 pages of prose. You can't stay in the zone while a baby is screaming for you from the next room. I'm still working on how to figure that one out.

In case you are interested, the novel is provisionally titled:

Who is Dexter Burroughs?
a mediated noir.

P.S.: In case you ever wondered if you can change a baby on the toilet seat of a Manhattan cafe onesie, you can. It is awesome!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"64,928"; a pseudo-intellectual diversion tactic


it was never about stability over chaos
it was always, always, about control


Part the First: a gentleman walks

That one may stare out into the abyss is not, in fact, a given. Taken a face value, one would assume that every man/woman/child may, if they so choose, stare out into the emptiness of creation and contemplate silently on their existence, on the nature of meaning, and on the essence (if one may be so bold as to use a term so fraught with unstable connotation) of self-creation. One would assume. But to do so would be to deny the nature of man (man as animal, man as social creature, man as human creation) and to deny the oppressive power of media. Television is self-creation. Or perhaps that is a mystical reliance upon an outdated means of communication; means of production. The internet is self-creation. This is actually a much more complex statement that it first appears. Yes, one can, with Facebook profiles and their ilk, "create" a web-presence, a digital reflection if you will. But the general belief is that it is merely a refection, that meat space is real space; that reality is still bound to the body. The more pressing and intriguing take on the issue is that digital reflections are often more real that actual life performance. Perhaps it is the general denial that life (real life lived among the filthy, toiling masses) is performance, that perception not only marks reality and shades its details but that perception is reality (with all the baggage such a claim carries with it). As performance strays into the digital realm, as altered reality begins more and more to augment real space (think of life without a cell phone, &c) it become clearer (to those willing to stare into the abyss) that life in the digital is not only equally valid, but equally tainted and fraught with inherent human complication. We are a species bent on self-destruction equal to our efforts towards preservation and creation. It might be noted that it is not bio-engineers who most often seek to play god but warlords. The nature of the human debate is changing along with the nature of that which we may willingly term a "human" subject. As we become more and less human, post-human, trans-human, and humanoid let us not forget that the first step in this, as in any other successful journey, begins with a look out into the abyss.


Second Act: a gentleman talks

I find that the philosophical apparatus given over to your average dilettante is insufficient to my cause. That stated, I shall have to craft my own. Though the bricoleur has long been recognized as the natural state of the modern man, especially the modern man in existential crisis. Let us then continue in this vein so long as we are able...


The Coming of the Third: a gentleman knows


Blissful ignorance is the obvious (if unstated) objective of every "Good American". It is easier. It is safer. It is easier.


Episode IV: a gentleman flees

It is a long way yet to Verona. The Promised Land does not lie just over yonder poppy fields; this is not it, we are not there yet. There are miles to go before we sleep, sleep perchance to dream. Yea though I walk in shadow over the bones of forgotten children, I will not ignore your evil.


A Fifth of the Cheap Stuff: a gentleman dies

Writing the digital present: the future of feeds, digital texts, and human expression. Writing. No mere vulgar "captured speech", writing has come along way from the "origins" of human civilization. But writing now is becoming, in fact, a much more obvious process of becoming. It has long been recognized as an act of creation, and, at times, self-creation. But now writing is no longer the sole purvey of authors and scribes, the cultural elite, &c. There is much to be argued in the loss of the canon, the downfall of style, grammar, and precision. But the fact remains that the Unwashed Masses of the Greater Middle now have within their power digital writing. This is writing in the sense of creating and asserting history even as it seems to be nothing more than idle talk between tweens about movies. This is what gives rise to today's naysayers fears of the downfall of culture/civilization: it is not that the world has become stupider but rather that the stupid have become louder and impossible to ignore. This is a negative consequence of a more democratized writing (though corporate interests and the powers that be are doing everything they can to limit this and all other free expression lest they lose control of the market and the impulse to buy unnecessary goods) but it is not the end of anything. Though nothing really ever is the "end of anything"; not in any true or legitimate sense (a sense unbound by fear mongering and shameless self-interest). That the creative impetus of writing is bringing more and more "bodies" into the fold of self-creation in this increasing post-everything postpost world is naturally a good thing. The sea change comes, though, not as more and more people adopt what can be considered a hip trend, but when those who fail to adopt realize that their reality has finally become untenable (as increasingly evidenced by the globalizing world and the various oppositions to it - not only is the third world being exploited and forced into accepting a world view not their own, but the first world is finally realizing the negative impact of corporations unbound to national ties and subject only to their shareholders). Indeed, then the future comes not by converting the heathens to one monstrosity of a world order but rather allowing for the radical segmentation (unbound often though not always by physical/geographic distance) of humanity based on shared but unfixed affiliations that need not impose their will on anyone. A man can dream. A man can dream.



if you are at peace with the chaos they cannot yell loud enough to disturb you
but El Capitán can still steal your watch and wallet

Thursday, August 20, 2009

THEY HATE OUR FREEDOM!!!: raising a kid in the catastrofuck

"You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled fear to bring children into the world"
- Bob Dylan, "Masters of War"

***

There are certain changes brought on by being/becoming a parent. I was compelled to take a look at the world that I have brought this child into, to contemplate his future as well as my own. I have found the world wanting.

Since I am staying at home, I have more time to read, keep up with the news, follow the depressing political forums and think about life, the universe, and everything. Since becoming a father, those topics have trended more towards, if not political, civic and social engagement. I have long harbored tendencies that, when in moods most cynical and capitulating tend towards libertarianism and when in brighter and sunnier moods towards anarchism/anarcho-syndicalism. It really has only been fatherhood and increased opportunity to cogitate that has solidified a depressing need to engage the world on its own terms, for the disaster that it is, and endeavor to do something about it. Or at least clarify what exactly is wrong, why it is wrong, and how I will teach Finn the inherent wrongness of it all.

The issue, it seems, is three-fold: 1. Corporate interests hate our freedom 2. Our Government capitulates to whomever yells loudest (and money talks) & 3. the general public is so ill informed and overwhelmed by the propaganda machine that they are a. not acting in their own self-interest & b. barely aware of their own self-interests.

Let's see if I can tackle them one by one.

1. Corporate interests hate our freedom: This seems to me to be a reprehensible by relatively unavoidable fact of life in a psuedo-capitalism empire. Corporate interests are not, in fact, accountable to their customers. Well, that is a bit over the top. They are accountable to their customers but not primarily. Primarily they are accountable to their shareholders and the bottom line. This is why every car company in the world sells cars that don't last much past the 3-5 years on the warranty. It's not that human ingenuity has been so stumped by the internal combustion engine as to be incapable of making a longer lasting more fuel efficient model. It's that an automaker can't turn a profit if a person only buys one car their entire life. The thing is, corporations make no effort to deny that they are first and foremost responsible to their shareholders. So when they sell snake oil to John Q. Public, no one is surprised even if we are disappointed. Corporations want to keep us buying and so they offer us the unlimited choice of the post-industrial world: you can buy anything you could ever dream of. Or rather, you are not allowed to dream of anything that you can't buy. You are free to make any decision you want so long as you come with cash and leave with shit you don't need.

2. The government capitulates to whomever screams the loudest: This is a two-fold issue taking into account both the duped hayseeds yelling at the heath care town halls (and their like) and the paid lobbyists pretending to be duped hayseeds yelling at the heath care town halls. Corporate lobbies have a lot of pull in Washington because they can afford to. They can grease all the palms they need and buy and bribe votes on key issues. That is what a corporation and their lobbying arm should be doing, that is the most effective way for them to appease their shareholders. At least they are being honest about the fact that they are lying, cheating, heartless bastards. That the politicians are taken in by such offers, bribes, gifts, &c. is far more depressing. Big Business doesn't ever claim to be "of the people, by the people, for the people". Or maybe Lincoln was talking about someone else? The government is meant to be looking out for our best interests. It is established and maintained to ensure our freedoms not to subtly strip them from us for no better reason than campaign contributions.

3. the general public is so ill informed and overwhelmed by the propaganda machine that they are a. not acting in their own self-interest & b. barely aware of their own self-interests: This brings us back to the screamers at the town halls, the insulated bubbles that most of us live in, and the newest Great Disenfranchising Swindle. I don't know whether this is the case elsewhere, or perhaps just in "civilized" Western nations, but it is far too easy in America to live oblivious of the world. And by that I don't even mean oblivious of the current events in foreign countries (which it obviously includes). We are oblivious to the goings on in our own great nation. Most people care little about what is going on around them unless it will directly affect them or their family or the trifecta of American Values (despising the poor, fearing the minorities/foreigners, buying new things). And this is really the problem. It is the central flaw in the American character; a certain narrow-mindedness unrelated to the vaguely positive attributes represented by Adam Smith's "self-interest" or Ayn Rand's forgotten selfishness. Rather a blindness that is complicit in our own tragic downfall. If the general public were informed, were truly aware of what was going on and, more importantly, how that impacted their own lives and the lives of their peers we likely wouldn't have to worry about corporate interests influencing the government - there would be no way Congress would vote for anything against the public interest if the public were actually interested in what they were voting on. But people are stupid and lazy. We like what is easy, what comes naturally. We don't want to have to work hard (at least not outside of work, not when we are meant to be relaxing in front of the tv) and staying informed is hard work. Especially considering that the Main Stream Media is a big business that has no interest in seeing us that way.

Take health care, Fox News, and Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin is the figurehead for a Big Business conspiracy to disenfranchise her precious "real america". She provides the face and a couple of choice rants, Fox News writes the script and whips their viewers into a fury about whatever (immigration, health care, it doesn't even matter) and their viewers (angry, ill informed, and afraid that the world they live in doesn't look like the whitewashed world they "remember") go out and scream down whatever issue it is at the time regardless of the fact that most of them would benefit from universal heath care, higher taxes for the rich to provide for stronger social programs, better funding for education, &c. And it isn't like this is just a problem faced by conservatives, that all other voters are fully informed. Because they are equally limited, it is just that the "real america" is the most obviously having their fear exploited to serve interests counter to their own. Indeed, so long as citizens stay angry and ill-informed, corporate interests can exploit their fear and maintain the Big Business strangle hold on the government. It's our own damn fault.

So I am going to make sure Finn knows the score, keeps up on his reading, and becomes a right proud dissident. It seems the best I can do. That Gandhi line about "being the change you want to see in the world" seems to apply. The rest of you are responsible for yourselves. Because there is no one left to blame.

Yes, the government is working contrary to the interests of the many and should be held to a higher standard. And yes, corporations are fucked up and looking out only for their shareholders and the bottom line no matter how bad it is for consumers, the environment, the world at large, but if the people weren't so goddamn stupid and uninformed they wouldn't be able to get away with it. Maybe. If not, at least we would realize that they hate our freedom.

***

sic semper stultus

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

healthcareless

I have never been an overly political man. I like to stay fairly informed about the world at large - I read several news sources online and keep up with current events but I am not overly political. Mostly it's cynicism. Take a dive into politics and it's hard not to come out angry, bitter, disillusioned, and resentful. The system is well past broken on it's best days and these aren't really it's best days. There are some people that give hope (Lawrence Lessig and the Change Congress movement is a shining light) but for the most part I prefer to stay out of the fray entirely.

I figured it was time though that I finally weighed in on this heath care debate. The apartment was too hot last night and I wasn't able to sleep much and that led me to spend the dark hours working over the argument. It's something I normally do with story ideas but I was none so lucky last night. Now I am not overly informed about the intricacies of the 1,000+ pages of the actual bill (though it seems that that makes me more qualified to have an opinion on it) but the problem seems pretty simple to me. And when it came down to it, I just can't support this debate at all. There is nothing about it that is right from word one.

I don't understand what is so difficult for people. And this is likely because of my hated of halfway measures, but still. Either you support universal free health care or you don't care about other people. It is just that simple. Universal free health care or wanting poor people to die. Maybe the bill would be under less violent opposition if it were couched in such simple and plain language (but I doubt it). Now if you want the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly to be without health care - fine, admit it and resign from office. People are entitled to their bigoted opinions but they should not be able to claim to use them for the public good. (And to think that the opponents of this halfass bill think that they are arguing against euthanasia).

This is of course why I don't understand why the debate is worried about insurance (why would we want to inflict that mess on more people? It's bad enough as it is.), big pharmaceutical interests and their prescription price fixing, and SOCIALISM!!!!! as if caring were somehow antithetical to the American character. Now, the argument can be made that the free market (not that we have seen one of those in a long damn time, free means no regulation at all) does not care about poor or sick people and that it is completely within the character of Free Market Capitalism to deny health care or health insurance to anyone who cannot be trusted to make the corporate interests money. And if you want to take that line when denying sick people medicine or just pricing it out of their means, feel free. If you are comfortable letting people die, that will be on your conscience. But don't try to sound like the good guy looking out for the little guy when you do it. If a small businessman can't afford to provide his employees insurance then he's kind of a dick for hiring them at all. But if health care was free to anyone who walked into a hospital or clinic needing it, well that would solve the issue there.

The insurance issue really seems to be the thing that is clouding the debate. People are afraid of the specter of "Government Run Healthcare" and not having choice of their own doctor and being operated on by a Mad Russian with a Soviet nuke in his back pocket: "Natasha, vould you pleez pass ze scalpel." My way seems much simpler - medicine = free, hospitals = free, check-ups = free. You go to your doctor or any doctor and there are no bills or co-pays at the end.

So now we get to the point where everyone screams at me for being a useless idealist. As if I could reasonably expect the Average American to care about his Neighbor. That's only something that Christians are meant to do (and a couple of those other religions where you are meant to follow that golden rule or whatever). And of course, where does the money come from.

Well, I am no economist. Just a guy tired of the bullshit of modern living but here is a tentative plan:

1. revise tax law entirely: As it is, raising taxes just pisses people off and raising taxes on the rich just makes more creative accountants. Maybe a flat tax would help.

2. legalize everything: By that I mean prostitution, gambling, and all illicit drugs. Under strict control and heavy taxation there is no telling how much money will be made. Plus the amount saved by eliminating the need to police, prosecute, and imprison perpetrators of victimless crimes would be a godsend.

3. tax the offenders: Raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol and begin taxing fast food, junk food, soda, and all processed foods. These are the things that are making us sick (diabetes, heart disease, various cancers) and if we want to continue to enjoy them, we should begin defraying the cost of their consequences.

4. raise gas taxes until it hits $5/gallon: While not directly related to health care there is no way that all that pollution is good for anyone. Plus it would lead to lower carbon emissions, reduced dependence on oil (both foreign and domestic) and hopefully cause an increase in new technology and public transportation.

5. legalize gay marriage: It is somewhat surprising how much money it actually brings in, but clearly there is no downside to treating all people as equal. There was some important document that stipulated that equality as a first principle.

Now before all you criticize my excellent plan with all your mindless jibberjabber about how American's can't afford more taxes or how we will turn into Sweden or "dear god, there will be heathens and junkies run amok in our schools! Think of the children, think of the children!" maybe take a moment and think about it. The legalization issues can still be decried as immoral from every pulpit in every sanitized, liminal-free megachurch. But it is not the business of the government to legislate morality. What people choose to do to their own bodies is their business. It's the government's job to make sure that everyone else doesn't die from treatable disease. And as for what American can and cannot afford; like I said before, if you want to admit to yourself that it is too expensive to care about poor and sick people, you be the asshole.

Friday, August 7, 2009

on hospitality: work, service, life, and the collapse of everything

"The time is out of joint:--O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to bitch about it!--
"

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene V


***

So we have recently returned from the Great East Coast Road Trip. Which wasn't much of a road trip and really more of an effort to keep a 3 month old baby out of an airplane and its foul recirculated air. Anyway, on our first night we stayed at a chain motel booked on Hotels.com and had requested there be a crib in his room. Gina actually called the hotel (Days Inn West Broad, Richmond, VA) and spoke to someone who assured us that there would be a crib in our room. There was no crib.


We asked at the front desk when we arrived and she rudely informed us that there was nothing on her printout of our reservation and since she had only been in the hotel for a year, there was no way she could find where they kept the cribs. We headed up to the room to see if there was someway that we could jury-rig a bed from our luggage and those depressing hotel comforters. We eventually did. But first Gina got fed up with the prospect of having to and went back to the front desk to demand from the surly incompetent that she provide us with the crib we had ordered. After what I was informed were strong words and a competent manager on the phone it was discovered that this hotel did not, in fact, possess any cribs. Despite offering them to guests, allowing them to be reserved and counted upon, there were no cribs in the whole of the establishment and we were shit out of luck.


While Gina was downstairs finding all this out, I happened to notice that the trash had not be emptied since the last guest and, to cap off this absurd farce, there was a half finished bottle of Budweiser Select in the fridge. Needless to say I gave the hotel a bad review online, and we didn't stay there on the way back. [Note: the following night we stayed in a Days Inn in Port Wentworth, GA and it was far superior, so this is in no way a condemnation of the chain.]


Anyway, the whole experience got me thinking about hospitality, about service. About the hospitality and service industries and about the industrialization of hospitality and service. I have come to realize that we (the post-industrial West) have lost our sense of hospitality, the meaning of service. We have disassociated the act from its essence. I imagine that there are plenty of people who think of retiring to the country, opening a b&b and offering to the world their measure of genteel hospitality. But I highly doubt the majority of employees at chain hotels consider themselves innkeepers and I doubt that many who consider themselves innkeepers would want to locate their establishment across the street from the corporate headquarters of Altria [you know, that company that used to be Philip Morris].


Now, I am not going to discount the whole of the hospitality industry just because of one surly night manager, but it does raise some issues that I have been thinking about for a while. It isn't that people don't want to serve, don't want to offer hospitality, don't want to fill those jobs that exist to help others. It's that the positions have all become industrialized, sanitized, and sterilized in the worst possible ways. (And this from a man who questions the legitimacy of authenticity as a possibility in the postpost world.)


Everything has become a means to something else. There are no longer any ends. We work a job not for the job but for the paycheck, the paycheck for the rent on the apartment we keep because it is close to the schools or that coffee shop or its cheap, for the food that is completely divorced from the plants and animals that (might have) given rise to it. There are no longer any ends. A night manager at a chain hotel isn't an innkeeper, just a lady who found a job that pays that she can (almost) handle. And I don't really begrudge her for that. She wasn't the one who promised us the crib that didn't exist. She wasn't the one who turned innkeeping into the commodified disaster that it is. People take to the roads and airways, capitalism demands it whether for business or the pleasure of spending. People need places to stay. Those places need people to perform the menial tasks. Because someone who keeps an inn out of love doesn't want anything to do with this kind of hotel. And you can't really blame someone caught in the system for the ills of the system.


It's the "take pride in your work" nonsense left over from the protestant ethic that says "any work is good work" and "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well". I disagree. Why should a cog worry about how well the machine runs if the cog doesn't stand to benefit either way? I recently read The Hacker Ethic (hacker here used mainly as a stand-in for anyone running counter to the norm with a few nominal ties back to its computer roots) which makes the claim for doing what you love and that it has become more commonplace and more readily possible to get away with it. Personally I don't agree with the pride in your work nonsense. Not unless you really do love you job, are actually proud of what you do and the impact it has on the world. And I think that employers should recognize and accept that an employee can and will do a good job at whatever task they are assigned and performance is not necessarily related to whether or not one cares about what that task is. Pretending to love a job you hate is the worst kind of employee morale. What a god awful expectation. So it's not that I believe that beleaguered hotel night managers should have more pride in their work, should endeavor to offer the height of hospitality, but rather that people who are not prepared or willing or desiring to offer the height of hospitality shouldn't be hotel managers.


There is merit to the claim that some may raise that they do not hate (and in fact even like what they do, they enjoy their jobs, their homes, their lives and lifestyles) and that very well may be true. Some people are lucky. But there is a vast abyss between enjoying what you do and doing what you love. It's like that oh so catchy but oh so depressing Creedence lyric "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." Enjoying your life seems, in this case, to be making the best of a bad situation, adapting the ever adaptable human spirit to a condition imposed externally. The world got out of our control (if we ever really had any and I don't much think we did) and the dissociative power of capitalism ran away with everything. In the past, it was just work that was the commodity. The workers could rise up to take control of the means and modes of production. Marx had it easy. Nowadays life is a commodity. There is no use value left in anything, just exchange value. And it's goddamn depressing.

I suppose this also raises the point about what the American Dream has become, what the average person most desires from life. Given the profusion of celebrity magazines, celebrity tv shows, celebrity websites, celebrity gossip, celebrity impersonators, celebrity worship and the fact that people just want to be famous these days (who the fuck cares what for) it is no wonder that life has become the dreary means of accepting failure. If our dreams no longer contain "ends", if our deepest desires (what we would do if money were no object & if rejection were not on the table) are only to be recognized in public places and automatic entry into VIP rooms, no wonder everything else is falling apart. Does no one want to create anymore? Hell, does no one want to destroy even? No? Just to be and be famous? How mind-numbingly dull and insidious. I don't feel sorry for your misery, for your obvious failure, and less obvious failure to realize.


OK, so that is really the bleak "repent, sinners" forecast of the day's weather. And while I am no weatherman ...

It's not that there is no hope, there is. The Hacker Ethic and various other books are all about that hope. About that hope for normal people really being able to do what they love instead of having to pretend to love what they do. You can get out, opt out of the system and make a go at turning your life back to something with ends rather than just means. If you are lucky. Or have enough money, have exploited enough people, treated them as commodities for long enough to have amassed enough wealth to tell the world to fuck off. But it ain't easy even then. Opening up an inn or a restaurant or a coffee shop or a bar because you really love serving people that perfect cocktail, that amazing 3-course meal, that perfect cappuccino, that comforting experience of home away from home is no easy game. Ever. It has broken a great many people. But I suppose the options in the end become: choose one or the other and learn to live with your decision. Otherwise you are just another cog in an ever more boring machine that is long overdue for a tune up.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

and put to rout all that was not life

There is a certain secondary character to being a stay-at-home parent. One that I didn't want to accept and still hope not to entirely accede to. It is a matter of routines. I have mine. He has his. His always take precedence.

I haven't quite adapted to his routines. Haven't quite figured out how to make mine fit into the cracks, breaks, and pauses. Luckily, I'm used to this sort of thing. Sort of. I am, for the most part, a very lazy man. And a regular part of my vacation ritual is spending nearly the entirety of the first few days in front of a television while I sort myself out. The unfortunate part about this was that vacations were never long enough and I would end up spending most of them on the couch and by the time I got bored of tv and ready to get back to writing or painting or doing something productive it was time to get back to school or back to work or both. I have adopted this same practice again. Since Monday I have watched the whole of season one of Leverage on Netflix streaming plus a few other things. It was excellent. I do so enjoy a show with criminals as the antiheroes. [Like Hustle. "You can't cheat an honest man."]

Streaming tv is a surprisingly good means of adapting to an infant's routines. I can pause the show at will whenever he needs me, start it back up without losing much context, and not get in too deep that I would mind an interruption. In fact, I am hoping, that by the time I get tired of whatever shows I choose to watch next or the concept of a day of just television (it is already starting, I was restless enough to take the time to compose these thoughts) I will have figured out his routines, adapted myself to them, and will be able to get down to doing the things that make me who I am (writing, reading, painting, *watching tv and movies, and thinking about life, the universe and everything and then refracting it through a back story saturated with pop culture and putting it all it down here for your amusement and edification). Also, I'm going to try to start doing some part-time work-from-home gigs (so if any of you have anything interesting ...) to make some extra money, pay down those student loans.

It's weird (though I'm sure it's the first comment that every stay-at-home confessional makes) how the little things matter. In college, on vacation, I wouldn't think twice about going the better part of a week neither showering nor shaving. Staying in the same clothes because there was no one around to care or notice. So it isn't a personal desire for absolute cleanliness that drives me into the shower every day now while he naps. Or to do any of the other small things that I would have avoided or procrastinated on before. Maybe it's because it's a manageable escape. One of the few things I can do to have a moment to myself that seems like he can't interrupt though clearly he can. But at least I stay clean and springtime fresh and clad in something other than pajamas. The kid is slowly leading me towards more responsibility that I would have ever previously accepted. While still letting me act like a child and make fart noises to make him laugh. Perhaps he is already making me a better man. Maybe I just needed someone to hold my hand in order to get anything done. Though it doesn't hurt that he needs me to hold his hand too.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Precision of Language

Lois Lowry might not have sparked the idea in my head, might not have begun a lifelong desire for linguistic precision & clarity of intention, but she did give it name. It's just that the quote from The Giver is so much better than "You watch your phraseology".

Perhaps I should clarify. I am not a stickler for grammar per se (just look at how I place punctuation marks). This isn't a rant about how kids these days can't spell for shit even though the computer is meant to do it for them. This is a comment on writing on the web and the sustained difficulty of articulating with clarity. And a question as to how to resolve the issue, how to achieve some manner of easy understanding through our community writing as it is becoming such a large part of our lives.

The Internet, cell phones, &c have spawned several grapholects. The most prevalent and sustained being 1337, lolspeak, and TXT. They are not exclusive, fixed, or, really, even fully defined. They all had their origins and they have all extended beyond the initial conditions that made the meaningful and necessary.

Leet was used to avoid text filters that could not recognize the combination of letters, numbers, and symbols as meaningful text the way that a person could. Hence the need to constantly evolve and adapt. As it entered gaming culture and the mainstream it became even more convoluted as more and more people began to use individualized combinations to articulate words and phrases.

TXT developed out of the pay per character beginnings of SMS messaging and the difficulty of articulating that one is "laughing out loud" via a string of characters (especially when one wasn't physically laughing at all).

LOLspeak developed absurdly from the difficulty in translating the magnificently difficult grammar and syntax of Cat Language into English.

Combining all three with plain, old English written hastily by people who have relied on spell checks their entire lives and not given over to any editing and you have one of the main issues (at least with clarity of thought) of the Internet. Add in the difficulties inherent in a distributed conversation with multiple people via both realtime and various tape delays and the internet can become a quagmire of confusion & misunderstanding.

Now, personally, I have only really taken to the absurdity of lolspeak not joining the texting revolution soon enough to ever have a need to really abbreviate my thoughts and by the time I was writing on the web I had no real desire to be a n00b in any of the l337 forums. But that is precisely the issue, isn't it? The spectrum of grammar and style of writing on the internet runs the gamut from Victorian formalism to infant scribbling. We individually adopt various acronyms, unique spellings, verb conjugations, abbreviations, etc as our own and we infuse them into our writing. But there is no rule. There is no standard. And there really shouldn't be.

The standard should be that a missive is easily understood by all who will read it. This means that one writes differently on a personal Twitter feed than on a corporate blog. That the grammar and syntax are necessarily different for the audience. But that implies that one knows ones audience, or that one should accept and expect their capacity to understand (or fail to understand). Should the uninitiated really be the ones to which everyone else has to pander lest they do not fully grasp the meaning of the cryptic text? Or should there be an open acknowledgement that one must learn and conform to the rules of the digital space?

And then there is the issue of formatting. Even if there was some means of ensuring that everyone wrote in a grammar and style that was clear and precise the format of most forms of internet conversations make clarity, once again, difficult. The Microsyntax community is working on establishing a grammar that will be de rigueur for services like Twitter (and will likely spread out from there if it can really take hold). Hopefully it takes off. It might clear up some of the difficulties like so many failing to understand the meaning of "RT" and other various issues. One of my pet peeves is with comment streams. In a conversation with more than one individual a reply needs to be articulated specifically to the comment that it is replying to lest it lead to unnecessary confusion. Nesting comments is one means of solving the issue (though it often leads to digressions and points being lost in the shuffle). "@" conventions help, but are not universally adopted and not ideal. In a live conversation you usually don't have to name the person you are responding to before responding, it is implicit in tone, body language, &c. Ideally there would be some way to replicate the implicit nature of a response that doesn't involve naming each person before commenting to them. But if not, at least the convention should be universally adopted.

I guess my problem is that I have noticed sustained confusion throughout various platforms and I don't really have a good solution. Restricting the freedom of the internet to a specific dictionary, a newspeak of "one word to mean one thing", is a terrible idea. It is variety that gives digital writing its refreshing (and often infuriating) character. It's just that now that we as a society are writing much more than ever before I had hoped that we would be better at it.
***

"We will be judged by too many words. Our sin is poor editing and the failure to remain silent in the face of it all. There was laughter once. Now there are only the broken and post-ironic lulz. I would weep but the emoticon eludes me once again."

- Oscar Wilde

Monday, July 6, 2009

like a garden party but boring: The Sun Also Rises is a resounding disappointment

Never has the Lost Generation looked so boring as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Now, to be fair, that is likely because I wouldn't even acknowledge the majority of bumming around the Left Bank stories written by all those wine soaked expats as worth consideration and I haven't read many more notable works recently enough to remember clearly. But it is as if a bunch of ne'erdowell blue bloods, upset that they didnt get invited to Gatsby's, decided it would be a jolly good show to have an extremely well mannered romp about Europe. I say, there will be tennis and perhaps wine? Would you like another absinthe, señor, or are you too "tight"?

Give me Henry Miller. In his Paris at least they have the decency to fuck, to be proud of their drunken buffoonery, to get the syph or a dose of the clap, take their injection and keep on trucking. His Paris had spirit, and (dare I say it) some fucking balls. It seems it wasn't just Jake that had an "accident" in the Great War what left him impotent, but Hemingway's whole goddamn plot. (Oh, rot.) Did that intervening decade really matter that much? Did expats grow balls as Germany rattled their spears?

And don't tell me that is just ennui. Oh, they are too bored to fuck, too drunk on wine and those neutered bulls. Oh, the pressures of life after the War have rendered them unable to commit to the debauchery they have been accused of. "Oh me, oh life. Bring another bottle round, garcon. I am so dearly tired."

It's not ennui, its euphamism. Everything happens offstage and through implication. There is sexual tension aplenty (who isn't "falling in love"?) and some talk of death but (aside for couple glorious pages where the prose lights up as Hemingway describes a man being gored to death by an angry bull and the gentle gloss of bullfighting with those fancy swords) its just empty talk and play acting.

Maybe Hemingway felt the need to self-censor, that writing of that European decadence during Prohibition was enough and to write of sex and death uninhibited would be crossing an unspoken line. Given that the work was criticized for (inexplicably) being too explicit, too sexual, too licentious maybe the public wasn't ready for the truth (they weren't even ready for Tropic of Cancer in 1961). Or, maybe Hemingway and his "lost" friends were really that boring, well mannered, weepy, and pathetic. Honestly: crying after winning a fight?

5.5 out of 10

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sex, Death, & Confusion: Finding America in Lot 49

Through prescience on Pynchon’s part and a combination of stagnation and cyclical return on that of culture and society, The Crying of Lot 49 barely registers as a text composed some 33 years ago. Save a couple of dates and a few references to items such as typewriters, the work could be set in our present.

Which I suppose is part of the issue. Reading is always done in the present. The text, no matter how new or old, speculative or historical, is read within the context of the reader's present. I've not gone much into reader-response theory and don't much intend to here. I suppose the issue is, a text is intended, so far as intention matters, to be read both in its own time and outside of it. Writers hope to be read and they hope their works to last. That means that they hope their works stand up, at least in some way, to the ravages of time and social change. Perhaps that is what marks a classic and the criteria that the Canonizers seek when composing their Grand Lists.

But humanity still revolves around sex, death, and confusion. There are still bands with Beatles haircuts and fake British accents (or maybe it's that they have come round again). Shrinks, needing shrinks themselves, still break down trying to help us come to grips with life, the universe, and everything (and the meaning and meaninglessness of it all). Staring out into the vastness of humanity, of the universe, it's hard not to believe in or hope for some kind of conspiracy. Because at least with a conspiracy, there is someone in control. Someone behind the scenes pulling the strings means that the strings can be pulled, that there is meaning to this mad scramble. Plus, maybe some day we could be in on it. That our conspiracies are done with electronic signals and strong encryption instead of winos fishing letters out of WASTE bins doesn't do much to discount the import of the individuals search for meaning, for lasting importance.

I suppose much of that comes down to the myth of America. The Myth of America, unlike Old World myth making enterprises, does not seek to trace lineage, to prove purity, to discover origins. (So much of the conflict in America and throughout our history has been over issues of lineage, purity, and origins because they don't fit easily into our myths). The Myth of America is one of self-creation, of the bootstrapping lad that comes from nothing and makes his way in the world not by dint of blood and breeding but by True Grit. It is a story of escape and renewal. That, of course, has led to considerable backsliding, Nativist movements, racial prejudice, &c. After all, it is just the Myth, the stories we tell ourselves to assure our exceptionalism, to rationalize why our ancestors left wherever they left, to re-enfranchise a population that was always disenfranchised.

Oedipa Maas is heir to Inverarity's America. A sprawling landscape of meaningless pleasantries and identity crisis. All her men leave her, broken and full of false hope. Mucho loses the world as he discovers himself on LSD, Metzger runs off with a teenager to get married, Pierce dies, Driblette commits suicide, Hilarius goes insane. They are men without Origins, searching for meaning in a universe that means for them to create their own, set to the backdrop of a drug-addled pop song and a cookie-cutter landscape complete with real bones for your snorkeling pleasure.

We remain her broken children, hoping for some whispered promise of a blissful green, some new as yet unshattered dream of a pleasant if plastic tomorrow. But the crier never gets to 49. There is no answer, no certainty, no proof. We are left to wander. We are simply left. We Await Silent Tritero's Empire. Though most of us stopped believing long ago.

8 out of 10

Friday, June 26, 2009

Twilight of the Idolaters

It was 1989 and I proudly declared, as most of the rest of my kindergarten class did, that my favorite musician was Michael Jackson. I don't know that I could have named, hummed, or recognized a single one of his songs.

In the ensuing years I remedied that travesty but in a manner that has come to represent much of what my generation (that half generation of lost misfits between generation x and the iGeneration) does - ironic (and then post-ironic) false nostalgia. We are nostalgic for things we couldn't have fully appreciated - Thriller is older than I am. Fuck, we are nostalgic for things we couldn't have experienced - Studio 54, Woodstock, Ken Kesey's bus, the Left Bank in the 30s, whatever. We have come to love the music, the moments, the atmosphere, the culture, the styles in a "you had to be there" kind of way, even though we weren't. I blame the media.

Not the media in the sense of Mainstream Media, Network News, CNN, and FOX, but media in the sense of the Internet, cell phones, ipods, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Media in the McLuhan sense. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing or that we should go back to the "good old days" or that my son's generation is doomed to being somehow less than those that lived before television. I am not a Luddite and have no desire to give up my media, my laptop, my smart phone, my interwebs. What would the world be like without Wikipedia?

But that is the thing. We are mourning (or pretending to mourn because we all feel like we should even if we don't feel sad) and remembering (pretending to remember because the memories aren't really there and neither were we) Michael Jackson in a way that was impossible just last year. Google, Twitter, et al. are crashing and experiencing major delays as the world tries to establish its reality and its loss. Elvis didn't have this problem.

Which I think is my main issue. We can never feel about anyone the way that our parents/grandparents felt about Elvis. We as a whole, and as a society. Some people will be more affected by the death of Michael Jackson, but society won't be. Because there are so many niches now, so many possibilities. During Elvis' day, he was one of very few options. Especially in small towns that didn't have record stores let alone ipods. And that lack of mediation let (forced?) people feel more deeply. It wasn't that they felt more but that that they had less to care about, fewer options. And so they cared about what they had all the more. This has been the cornerstone of the anti-internet, anti-user-generated media firestorm.

But we are struck by the opposite. We have so many options, so many possibilities, that every choice is both deeply personal and inherently superficial. You can fill your ipod with Elvis or Michael Jackson or Nirvana or the White Stripes (or you could pick talentless hacks and fill your ipod with them) or all of them in cleverly constructed playlists that speak to every possible mood and moment. And for the younger generations, as every artist past and present just becomes another manifestation of their mood, their current status, the artist becomes less and less important as a person, as a cultural figure. Michael Jackson will be missed. Terribly. But he is the probably one of the last to be missed in such a public fashion. He is likely the last of the idols capable of making such a impact with his passing; having been able to make such an impact with his life and work. And even he will not have the impact that Elvis did. Sure his latter day indiscretions will be similarly glossed over by the enormity of his life and back catalog. But despite Michael crashing Twitter and making Google think they were undergoing a cyber attack, there are just too many options left for us to choose from. Today we choose to mourn. But soon enough we will choose a different status message and move on to the next new thing. Our ability as a culture, as a society, to idolize has diminished. There will still be idols. And tweens will still scream themselves hoarse over every new plastic act, but little else. There will still be major figures in music, but the ability to transcend genre, to reach out to the world, to be King, that is lost to us forever.

We can remember how Michael and his music affected our lives but for most of us it will soon devolve into a nostalgia for shows we never saw, feelings we wished we had felt, and moments that belonged to someone else and no amount of "Bad" ringtones or trying to remember the steps to "Thriller" will change that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

the work of others

Given the best of Panglossian rose-colored tinge, I move at a leisurely pace. I mean this specifically in terms of my consumption of art. (That art must be consumed, that is just another good like a liter a cola to be purchased instead of the higher order pleasures it purports is another issue for anther day.) I rarely read hardcover books beacause paperbacks are so much more affordable (even with the Strand giving 50% off review copies). I don't buy cds (does anyone anymore?) or albums when they drop (or know when they drop, or know which new bands to follow, see many shows, &c). And much the same with movies, galleries, the list goes on. It's not that I don't find good art eventually. I have been making a much more concerted effort since college to broaden my horizons and appreciate all of the various forms that my education up until then had been so sadly lacking. And in the years since then I have come to appreciate many classics, &c, &c. The real problem here is, in fact, the internet. Or the problem that I have is with my perception of the realities of the internet.

You see, a book is reviewed before I could ever access it without being selected as a reviewer by some publishing house (I wouldn't mind that at all if anyone out there is interested???) or winning that Goodreads lottery (but I am unsure as to who owns the text of the review in that case and I remain somewhat hesitant). Similarly with music, movies, etc. And reviews, comments, and commentary hit the interwebs immediately. Voices are raised in praise, opposition, and disenchantment well before I have a copy to peruse. Having the kid around has really only made my access to new art slower (not that I mind in the slightest). And the result of my never being on the crest of the wave is to get me to feeling like my reviews would be extraneous; just another JohnnyComeLately thinking he can outdo the professionals a couple years (months) after it would have made a difference. The immediacy of the internet implies that there is significant value in being "first" and even if you aren't "that guy", speed is mean to imply relavance. Failing that, you are just another shlub that isn't hep enough to play in the big kids' sandbox.

Perhaps that is the actual case. Perhaps not. Time is weird on the internet. But I need to spend more time writing anyway so I am going to get into more reviews, comments, and commentary. Mostly because I can. And maybe I'll find out that I have something to say about the work of others. I've got some ideas about collaboration and authorship kicking around so that might get me somewhere. Now all I have to do is pick a first review. Something meaningful and significant...

I'll get back to you on that.