Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ethno-music...: Mixtapes: Jason Kohn's "Rabbi Shubert Sings"

Here's a lesson for mixtape makers: a title can go a long way toward capturing a theme. Or at the very least, helping you to remember where a mixtape is from and what it has on it. So when I look at this tape...

I instantly think of Midway Jewish Center, where I learned to fake prayers and got something of an ethical education through stories.
Example: The secretary at a dentist's office tells the two Jewish dentists that her husband is sick and they've run out of insurance money. One dentist cries and commiserates and gives her whatever small cash he has on hand. The other dentist looks at his watch, quickly dashes off a check for 10% of what he made that year, and heads for the door. 
Who acted more appropriately for the principles of tzedakah (which we loosely translate as "charity")? 
The guy with the check and no tears, because though we often talk tzedakah as charity, the real meaning is closer to "justice" or "fairness." In other words, helping other people isn't about feeling nice or having a big heart; it's doing the fair thing for our fellow humans. 
Though I still have no idea why they were dentists. 
"Rabbi Shubert Sings" was a mixtape gift from Jason Kohn, my fellow worker in the Hebrew mines at Midway; Rabbi Shubert was our teacher one year. I believe he might've been the one who made fun of my long hair? Can anyone corroborate that? I remember him saying, "Ben will celebrate getting 100 on this test by getting a haircut."

"Rabbi Shubert Sings" isn't just the name of the mixtape, but the theme for the sides:

Side A: Torah
  1. Silent Majority, "Arthur Trevor"
  2. Rocket from the Crypt, "Shucks"
  3. 108, "Scandal (Live)"
  4. Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "Noise Brigade"
  5. Downset, "Anger!"
  6. Promise Ring, "A Picture Postcard"
  7. Snuff, "Rivers of Babylon"
  8. Propagandhi, "The Only Good Fascist is a Very Dead Fascist"
  9. H2O, "5 Year Plan"
  10. Against All Authority, "Centerfold"
  11. Clockwise, "Keep it Together"
  12. Lifetime, "The Boy's No Good"
  13. Less Than Jake, "Dopeman (remix)"
  14. Metroschifter, "$39.00"
  15. Avail, "Bob's Crew"
  16. Pietasters, "Girl Take it Easy"
  17. Shift, "Picturesque

Side B: Haftorah
  1. Snapcase, "Zombie Prescription"
  2. Bouncing Souls, "Ballad of Johnny X"
  3. HiFi and the Roadburners, "Get Outta My Way"
  4. Chokehold, "Afraid of Life"
  5. Inside, "Liquify"
  6. Mr. T Experience, "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend"
  7. VOD, "Choke"
  8. Sleepasaurus, "She Already Has a Boyfriend"
  9. Lagwagon, "Sick"
  10. Scofflaws, "Paul Getty" / "PWBA"
  11. Indecision, "Reconsider"
  12. Enkindle, "Petose"
  13. J Church, "Ivy League College"
  14. Downset, "Sangre de mis Manos"
  15. Bonus Track!

I'm going to be honest: this mix has some amazing songs; and it probably was in the top 5 most played mixes in my car. And yet, I still don't remember what that "Bonus Track" is.

You'll notice also that Jason's sensibilities at this time, in high school, align pretty well with Mike Pace's: there's your hardcore, like Downset and Snapcase; your punk, like Less Than Jake; your ska and ska-inflected bands, like the Bosstones and Pietasters; and a bunch of more humorous bands, like the Mr. T Experience.

Also, Promise Ring's "A Picture Postcard" deserves to be remembered. At least, I remember walking down the hallway of my freshman dorm at Bard and hearing it come out of a room that I pretty quickly invited myself into. 

UPDATE: I have heard the Bonus Track--and transferred it to mp3 thanks to a USB-capable cassette player--and it is... 

LL Cool J with "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

Monday, December 29, 2014

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, season one

The short version response: I'm not sure I'll watch the second season.

I was one of the people who was pretty excited by Marvel's Agents of SHIELD before it showed and pretty underwhelmed by the first few episodes. So I've only gotten around to watching the first season now, after I heard some reports that it really shaped up with some Whedon-esque twists later.

Uh, well, I'm glad that some people like it.

Now, I really don't want to perform hate on a bit of popular culture because (a) it's not really worth it and (b) it's really hard to make anything, let alone make anything good.

So, what's the good lesson to take from this show? The big lesson is: don't hide your light under a bushel. Or, more concretely: if there's something that makes your work interesting, don't hide it under a long setup. As the discussants at Writing Excuses have said several times--even using Agents of SHIELD as an example!--if you're writing a revolutionary take on epic fantasy but only reveal the twist in the last chapter after writing the whole book as straightforward fantasy, you will have effectively (a) driven off the people who are interested in revolutionary takes and (b) disappointed the fans of straightforward fantasy who stayed with you.

In SHIELD's case, the big twist that really energized the show (somewhat) in the second half was the revelation that SHIELD was infiltrated by Hydra, which was tied into the second Captain America film. Even a hater like me can see some logic to holding off on that reveal, both logistical (the show needs to start with the regular season of shows, but the movie only comes out later); and artistic (the big betrayals will have more punch if we see everyone pretending to be good at first).

But, oh god, if you're making a show about, say, how a 1960s ad man is really sleazy, you don't do 10 episodes of normal ad life and then show him cheating on his wife in episode 11. You end episode one with that revelation.

Or, let's take Hitchcock's famous dictum: a bomb goes off at a table and blows up two guys--how surprising! That's good and sometimes good enough if all you want is a sudden, sharp surprise. But if you show the bomb and then show the two guys talking normally--suspense!

So, if I were doing a SHIELD show (which is unlikely on a hundred different levels, but go with me), I wouldn't burn 13 episodes of mostly blah adventures, building up pretty cliche characters and pretty cliche characters' relationships. Instead of having bland adventure guy and bland hacker girl build up a relationship only to reveal the secrets, I'd much rather show bland adventure guy's secrets from the get go. That way, viewers could spend the time realizing that bland adventure guy's blandness is a put-on.

I could point out some other issues (like that time that some guy gets magically killed over the phone, when the guy on the other end turns out not to be at all super-powered), but the second biggest lesson to take away here is be interesting. That's a little vague, but the show leaned heavily into some cliches, from "He's standing right behind me" to action-movie-style quips in the most inappropriate places.

Let's just all agree to write that on a card and put it over our computers: BE INTERESTING.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 258: Anonymous (A Kentucky Soldier), “Like a Sea of Blood” (#258)

Anonymous (A Kentucky Soldier), “Like a Sea of Blood” (published 1926) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

A first person account from the trenches--or rather the brestwork around New Orleans. (I don't know if that spelling is idiosyncratic or historical, since we write "breastwork" now.)

The battle of New Orleans is one part of the War of 1812 that gets wide play, possibly because it was such an American victory against long odds (the British had more men and lost a lot more); possibly because it led (eventually) to Andrew Jackson's presidency; or possibly because it's a classic example of looking back at history and thinking, "those dolts!"--which always makes us feel better today, never realizing that some future people will think we're pretty doltish ourselves--since the battle took place after the peace treaty. I've always liked that pirate Jean Lafitte took part in the defense.

(Though what if Andrew Jackson had been killed? Or merely failed to defend the city? What would a US be like without his presidency?)

This anonymous Kentucky soldier tells his experience of the battle, which wasn't much: there's a lot of shooting in the dark and some antics by American soldiers, each with their own idiosyncrasy. There's the death of one American that seems like friendly fire. There's the surrender of the British, which leads to the narrator helping a young man over the wall, giving him some water, and then being there when he dies, which is a curiously empathetic scene. I mean, and this has come up before in war reporting, how curious that one moment you can be firing at and killing people, and the next, feeling bad for a young man who dies.

Which is especially interesting considering the report ends with one British guy trying to escape and making rude gestures--and getting shot for them. So, yeah, not everyone is going to switch so quickly from firing to feeling bad for the people fired on.

Also, the "sea of blood" image isn't actually blood--it's the Britishers' red coats.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ethno-music.. etc.: The punk mixtapes, 1: Mike Pace's "Ben Blattburg Looks Just Like Jesus Christ"

The title for this mixtape probably only makes sense if you remember that I had shoulder-length hair in high school; and also a penchant for knocking over the tables of money-changers. In my memory, this is probably the first mixtape given to me by one of my friends who listened to punk / ska.

Back then, I was a bit of "musical orphan," which is the phrase I used even then to describe how I didn't really have a musical thing--no one band or type of music that I always liked. Which somehow translated into me being a target for musical evangelists. So I'm sure Mike Pace was joking when he wrote this--

--but there's an element of truth to that. What he wrote on side B, however--

--was just a joke about the band my brother had in high school, and which my friends often liked to joke about back then.

This mix is from high school (and, if memory serves, includes a clip of Mike Pace as DJ at the high school radio station). So what music was I being evangelized about back then?

  1. Minor Threat: I don't wanna hear it
  2. Minor Threat: Small man, big mouth
  3. Rocket from the Crypt: Sturdy wrists
  4. Screeching Weasel: I was a high school psychopath
  5. The Queers: Ben Weasel
  6. The Vandals: Summer Lovin'
  7. Rancid: Detroit
  8. Down by Law: 500 Miles
  9. Slayer: Dittohead
  10. SOD: Ballad of Jimi Hendrix
  11. Voodoo Glow Skulls: Insubordination
  12. Man or Astroman?: Destination Venus
  13. Bouncing Souls: Neurotic
  14. Downset: Holding Hands
  15. They Might Be Giants: Whirlpool
  16. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Someday I suppose
  17. Ice-T: Ed
  18. Beck: Fuckin' with my head
  19. Sloppy Seconds: It finally happened
  20. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Dogs and Chaplains
  21. Social Distortion: Makin' Believe
  22. Cracker: Can I take my gun to heaven?
  23. Rancid: Nihilism
  24. Rev. Horton Heat: Bullet
  25. Paul Simon: Crazy Love, Vol II
  26. Rocket from the Crypt: Ditch Digger
  27. Total Chaos: Babylon
  28. Operation Ivy: Knowledge
  29. MU330: Hoosier Love
  30. Mule: Charger
  31. Ween: Pumpin' 4 the man
  32. Silent Majority: Knewsong
  33. Propagandhi: Ska sucks
  34. Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Where'd you go?
  35. Down by Law: Sam
  36. Government Issue: I'm James Dean
  37. SOD: Diamonds & Rust
  38. SOD: Hey Gordy!
I loved my mixtapes a lot, but this first one doesn't hold up as well. Or rather, there are some songs and bands here that I would listen to at the drop of a record needle. Who doesn't like Paul Simon and the Reverend Horton Heat? At the same time, I'm not sure SOD ("Stormtroopers of Death") have come up in my memory any time in the last decade.

Also, how much do I love that a good friend in high school misspelled my last name? A LOT.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ethno-music...etc: They Might Be Giants (a 13th birthday present)

You can probably make out the title for this mix--"Happy 13th Birthday, Ben!" And you might be able to make out the little note at the bottom: "I love you! Sarah." Which tells you the context for this tape: my sister gave me a tape that she made from some albums she had. CDs, I'm guessing.

If you can't tell, what with the coloring and my quick snapshot of these liner notes, the original playlist was They Might Be Giants's album Flood on side A; and on side B, a collection of John Williams's soundtrack for Hook. (My mom loved Robin Williams, so I watched just about any movie with him.) Also, let's note those few tv themes at the end of side A, none of which were shows that really meant much to me. But thanks to the magic of the mix tape, I can't hear The Muppet Show theme without getting ready for Inspector Gadget.

This was a birthday present, but when I was young, tapes didn't grow on trees. And at some point, I realized that I kept listening to side A and fast-forwarding through side B; and somehow, I got access to They Might Be Giants's album Apollo 18. So, not being a sentimentalist (says the guy recording every tape he had kept with him for decades and decades), I taped over side B with They Might Be Giants.

Curiously, I don't listen to They Might Be Giants often these days, but I still get a little thrill in my heart when I think of them or see that they are playing a show nearby.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 257: Washington Irving, Christmas Eve (#257)

Washington Irving, "Christmas Eve" (1819) from Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches:

What is our current equivalent of the "sketch," an old form where people just wrote about things they observed? Is it the blog post, the Facebook status, or tweet, that simply records having seen some person? My friend Adrianne is a killer at this form, recording micro-transactions with just enough context and just enough isolation to give a whole glimpse of an imagined person.

Washington Irving takes a different tactic, recording at length his outsider impressions of an old English Christmas Eve. It's very much what you'd expect of his sketches (assuming you read his earlier "Christmas Dinner" sketch): the narrator arrives with a guide at the old Squire's house and just sponges up everything going on around him, from old English games, to the current love affairs blooming among the youngsters.

Again, there's something implicitly melancholy--or at least narrow--about the Squire's attempt to keep the world and history out of his house; in a way, the symbol for this might be both the squire and his bachelor relative, both of whom have frozen history at a certain point. For instance, the bachelor may be full of family history and genealogy, but he won't be contributing to that genealogy, even if he is still a bit of a flirt.

And so, even if Irving keeps the observations moving, and presents a world of cheer and song, I can't help remember that Rip Van Winkle's important skill is sleeping through history; and how much Anglophilia there is in Irving's work, as if all these sketches are an attempt at capturing a moment in history--and not letting time move on.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ethno-music0-historico-biography: My cassette collection! Cruisin' Classics, Vol III

I recently sold my car--my '96 Honda Accord, that I've had since '01. This was my first car and I really wanted to keep it forever. Largely because it had a tape player and I have a lot of tapes that are irreplaceable.

But, alas, the car wasn't going to make it around the world with me. (Note: I have no plans to go around the world via car. Yet.) So now I have nothing to play my tapes in. But I still got those tapes. And, yeah, I am definitely going to tell you about them. Starting with the tape that was probably in my possession the longest:

This tape is from a promotion at Shell. I think my family had several volumes of this--this is Vol. III, and it's clearly the best. Look at the playlist! (Or... song list? What did we call the list of songs on a cassette?)

If you can't make out the pictures, the songs are

  1. Chuck Berry -- Johnny B. Goode
  2. Jerry Lee Lewis -- Great Balls of Fire
  3. The Everly Brothers -- All I have to do is dream
  4. The Temptations -- My Girl
  5. Rick Nelson -- Travelin' Man
  6. Buddy Holly -- That'll Be the Day
  7. Fats Domino -- Blueberry Hill
  8. The Chiffons -- He's So Fine
  9. The Four Tops -- Reach Out I'll Be There
  10. The Beach Boys -- I Get Around

I've had this tape for so long, I can't even estimate how many times I've listened to it. Suffice to say, I can--and gladly will--bust out with the lyrics for "Johnny B. Goode" any time, night or day. ("Any time, night or day" is part of the Everly Bros. song.) Some of these songs are better for blasting with the windows down.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this coupon is still good.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 256: Mary S. Mallard, Union Looters (#256)

Mary S. Mallard, "Union Looters" (1864/1972) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Mary Mallard spent part of the last year of the Civil War at a plantation owned by her mother; and here's her memoir of the mostly awful Yankees who came and stole all their stuff. Which brings up some interesting stuff, like: jeez, but these women come off somewhat privileged. I mean, when a man comes in with a gun, Mary continues to argue with them; and continues to think that they have the right of history on their side.

Which is probably why my favorite parts are when she reports how the plantation servants (she never says "slaves") react to the Yankees coming and stealing all the white people's property. I mean, I easily can imagine that the freedmen really do complain to Mary--but I don't know that they really mean what they say.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Goals, tasks, milestones for 2015, part 1: Goals

Friends of mine in my online fiction critique group were talking the other day about goals and milestones for 2015. Actually, we were talking about goals, until one member made the distinction between things you are in charge of (like writing more) and things that you are not the sole arbiter of (like getting published), which is the distinction between self-set goals and other-influenced milestones. (Pretty great distinction, right? That's why I'm friends with these people.)

Another member made a further distinction: her ethos remained the same--become a better writer, be a good person, etc.--but the concrete steps that she could take would change over the years or be broken down into discrete tasks for that overarching goal. (If you're like me, and I hope you're not, you might make the further distinction between abstract goals and concrete tasks.)

So I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolutions, which I don't really do seriously, but enjoy the same way I enjoy throwing salt over my shoulder: I don't really believe, it's fun, and just in case...

In 2014, I didn't have resolutions so much as a spreadsheet to keep track of various goals and ideas. I will post-mortem that spreadsheet in 2015 and see what I did and didn't do. Teaser: I did not learn to draw.

But for now, I want to start sketching out those three lists for 2015: abstract goals that I set for myself; concrete tasks that I set for myself to reach those goals; and some milestones that depend on other people that I would like to work towards or see. Actually, today I'll probably just talk about


Goal: Be happy.
Feels somewhat silly to write, but honestly, I am someone who has a history of muddling through somehow.

Take, for instance, that time I lived in England for six months. They were not happy six months; and I eventually got into a survivable routine of work and coming home to dinner and watching TV with my girlfriend of the time. Nothing terrible, but I wasn't thriving. Now, I could've tried to make some drastic changes in order to break out. But instead, I largely took the safe route of routine. Which resulted in me being pretty even-keeled in a content to blah state for six months. Which brings us to goal two:

Goal: Be more open and adventurous.
Pretty self-explanatory. I sure can spend an evening quite comfortably watching TV or a movie. Ah, comfort.

But maybe if I push myself out of my comfort zone a little, I'll discover some thing I wouldn't otherwise have known about. Leading to increased happiness.

Goal: Give back.
I've been so really touched by all the mentorship and helping hands as I've changed careers; and the world is really a terrible place sometime, especially for women and minorities and, urgh, I just want to punch something some days.

So, I'd like to give back, both to pay back (or forward?) for the mentorship I had; and to help people who otherwise get slighted by the system. (And of course, as studies have shown, volunteering and gratitude are important to long-term happiness and health.)

Goal: Take care of yourself.
Especially while I was at MakerSquare, my self-care regime took a nose-dive: I hardly exercised, never meditated, and only once wrote morning pages. I can let some of that slide, but not all.

I think self care also leads into the next topic:

Goal: Be a better friend.
Maybe I haven't been a bad friend, exactly--though I did recently write a response to an email that was 11 months old. And here's the thing: I like being around people. I like being a friend. Being a friend makes me happy. (Which is why I associate it with self care.)

But sometimes it's easier to say no, to stay home with Netflix rather than go to a bar. And hey, that's a valid option sometimes. Maybe most of the time. But at the end of the day, there are going to be some times when being with friends makes me happier than watching Netflix.

Goal: Say no.
This is mostly directed at myself, since I have a tendency to be interested in everything and everyone and more more! It's a problem because then I don't have the time or energy to do everything as well as it deserves to be done.

Another way to put this would be Focus. Instead of doing a dozen projects--here's an app, here's two short stories, here's three screenplays, and four languages I want to learn!--just focus on what you can reasonably do. And do those well.

Goal: Embrace the pain.
Oh, that sounds way too serious for what I mean. Would it sound better if I used the developer term "pain point"? That is, when you're developing something, you'll find that some issues are particularly difficult. During my final projects, I definitely had some pain points as I tried to work through some issues. Amazingly--but more like unsurprisingly--my favorite moments in all of those were when I made some breakthrough on my pain points.

In other words: when you focus on a project, don't get put off if you run into difficulties.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 255: Annie Parker, Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman (#255)

Annie Parker, "Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman" (1853) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Really, I should tag every blog post with "race" and "class" and "gender" and probably a few other tags as well. For instance: "ability/disability" is an axis of normativity--the often invisible struggle to define what counts as normal, as Other--that I'm really only beginning to become aware of. I mean, we tend to label a story about black people as having to do with race in a way that we wouldn't label a story about white people. And yet, even if it's a story just about white people, there's lots of race involved.

(A: Remember, "white" is a relatively new construct for race, and in the old days, people used to talk about everything from "the Irish race" to "the Alpine race." B: New favorite exemplary quote, from Billy the Kid: talking about a boss named Tunstall, "who was the only man that treated me like I was decent and white." For more fun, Tunstall was Irish and the Lincoln Country War might have had to do with Irish/English immigrant hostility. Totally unrelated but still fun trivia: Billy the Kid was born in NYC.)

Anyway, enough about my general failings to correct my privileged position, let's move on to the story, which is all about privileges:

  • the privilege of the white male slave owner to make a mistress of a slave;
  • the relative privilege of the slave mistress compared to the other slaves;
    • a pretty common trope in slave literature, that of the slave who doesn't fit with the other slaves;
  • the privilege of the slave owner to sell away any inconvenient slave, as Mr. Lee does here with his slave son, Jerry, who looks so much like him;
  • the privileges of knowledge and ignorance: the narrator who knows all, Mr. Lee who knows--and hushes--all, the kind Northern mistress of the house who knows nothing because it would hurt her too much and no one wants to give the nice lady any pain.

It's also a super Southern Gothic story, about two slave siblings, separated by slavery, who decide to get married; and the narrator's attempts to prevent that incest without letting anyone know. And you know what the solution is to the hurt caused by slavery? Mr. Lee simply sells away the daughter that he kept. Remember: this is also his daughter that he's selling away.

What's really killer to me is the title, as an added layer of misery: this isn't an exceptional story about people selling away their family or what's stolen from people by slavery. This is simply some passages in the life of a slave woman. Check out that indefinite article: "a Slave Woman" could be any slave woman. It could be many slave women. This could be going on all the time, says this story, written in 1853.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Master (2012) and the haunted human face

How much of The Master--Paul Thomas Anderson's movie about an alcoholic seaman and the charismatic master of a Scientology-like cult--is made up of close-ups on faces?

There's a lot of very intense dialogue scenes that are all shot-reverse shot, either over the shoulder or from the POV of the interlocutors (so that, for instance, we're not looking over Joaquin's shoulder at Amy Adams, but staring directly at her, as he would be).

Even when we're not technically in a close-up, many of the shots are focused on faces, with settings and objects fuzzing out into the background. (The ur-shot of this film might be the sort of department store portrait photography that Joaquin's character falls into after the war: faces on a blank screen.)

It is, in a way, indicative of the type of movie this is, almost like a Philip Roth story: not a lot of incident, but a lot of character.

And there is a lot of character in these actors and their faces. (Another object lesson of the importance of casting.) Joaquin, with his high-waisted pants (the importance of costume!), moves almost as if he's been broken in half; and with his scarred lip, his face really is broken in half, with half of it smiling and laughing, never quite touching the other half. (The converse to the half is the double and there's certainly something double here between the Master and the Margarita-drinker. Also, for doubles/repeats, check out the Master's real name: Lancaster Dodd. So many ds, so many consonant/vowel/consonant collections!)

It's the kind of film that could survive a term paper. And it is enjoyable in its own way. (That way being "for those who like stories where not much happens.") But I'm not entirely surprised that it didn't do so well at the box office. Staring at Joaquin Phoenix's twisted face for two hours is not everyone's idea of fun.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 254: Bernard Malamud, The Mourners (#254)

Bernard Malamud, "The Mourners" (1955) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

The LoA headnote to this story talks about how Malamud wasn't just writing about Jews, but about the human experience--through Jews. And, look, Malamud even said as much, so that proves it, right?

Which feels a little odd as the intro to a story where one of the central interactions is one Jew asking another if he's a Jew or Hitler. See, Kessler is a horrible old man who started out as a horrible young man: he quarrels too much to hold a job (not such a problem with Social Security), is too dismissive to have any friendships with his neighbors, and, oh yeah, he abandoned and forgot his wife and children.

So when Kessler fights one more time with the janitor/super, the landlord Gruber decides to throw him out. Which, predictably, doesn't go quite as planned. Kessler refuses to move; and when he's thrown out physically, he doesn't move from the pile of his junk. (The LoA headnote makes a "Bartleby the Scrivener" comparison, understandably.) Eventually, his neighbors move him back in, and even Gruber is moved by some notion of something being mourned.

"Ah, Kessler! Ah, humanity!"

(Sorry for the "Bartleby" paraphrase, but it's a running joke since college to end long perorations with "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!")

The big split between this and "Bartleby"--besides the super-Jewish characters and setting--is how the narrative wanders between characters. So we see the world from Gruber's POV, where everything is a disaster waiting to happen: take the stairs and you'll break your neck; buy an apartment building and the front will fall off; fight with a tenant and you'll have a stroke.

Alternately, we see the world only a little from Kessler's POV, getting more info about him rather than through him; though we do get a glimpse of him at the end, a man who has already faced all the disasters of the world--and brought them on himself.

Which may be why his question to Gruber--"Are you Hitler or a Jew?”--is both sensible and ridiculous. To Kessler, all disaster comes from outside and is part of history, unavoidable. At the same time, all this started because Kessler is a mean old man, not exactly an innocent.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 253: Sheila Hibben, Eating American (#253) (Catching up)

Sheila Hibben, "Eating American" (1932) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

Sheila Hibben was both food consultant to the Roosevelt White House (before the First Lady and Hibben parted ways) and a restaurant/food writer for the New Yorker. She was also (the LoA headnote tells us) an early proponent of local cuisine.

In this essay, "local" means American regional. As she says (paraphrased), we get all het up about the extinction of the grizzly but not about that other American classic: South Carolina Hoppin' John. She also takes aim at food corporatization, or at least at one radio skit advertising a non-bake pie.

It's a lot of fun to read this short and vivid essay, since Hibben really doesn't pull any punches or sugar-coat her feelings that, as Americans, we need to celebrate our American food. What a tragedy it would be to lose dumplings, she says, since this country was founded on and fueled by them.

As for the final page, a recipe for codfish cooked over salt pork, I don't really know what to say.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 252: Philip Roth, You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings (#252) (Catching up)

Philip Roth, "You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" (1959) from Philip Roth: Novels & Stories 1959–1962:

Here's where I tell you, with a palpably false nonchalant air, that I took a class taught by Philip Roth at Bard College. The topic: the novels of Philip Roth. At that time, it offended my sense of literary propriety to let an author both write the books and then provide commentary on them; but damn if I would let that chance slip by.

(Or, as one friend who didn't get into the class asked, "Did you play the Jew card in your application essay?" Yes, yes, I did. I oughta get something for six-hours a week in Hebrew school.)

And this story is very Rothian. He's not what you'd call a plot-driven writer. Most of his books revolve around very little incident and very much character examination. So here, our first incident is a guy cheating on a personality quiz, a comedy chestnut I've used myself. See, our ex-con and attempted-straight arrow Alberto is so tightly wound about trying to go straight, that he'll lie to do it.

And this event is key because... well, OK, it's not really key: it puts the narrator and Albie together, they end up as friends, and then... well, it's not like anything really big happens because of that friendship. At one point, the real straight arrow narrator gets sent to the principal's office, where he's confronted with his permanent record, which leads to a small thematic climax with this one teacher who got fired because he was a Communist.

Right, so, not a lot happens plot-wise: three kids and one teacher meet and interact in a number of scenes. But thematically and character-wise, it's a rich stew of repeating images and some fun writing. For instance, the narrator--while a super-straight arrow--is friends with the two ex-juvies, who are pretty different from each other.
Where Albie was a hippopotamus, an ox, Duke was reptilian. Me? I don’t know; it is easy to spot the animal in one’s fellows
Which is a sentence that oughter be tweeted.

(I don't know why, but something about reading New Jersey/New York fiction makes me want to avoid saying "ought to" instead of "oughta" and "oughter.")

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 251: Bryan Curtis, Friday Night Tykes (#251) (Catching up)

Bryan Curtis, "Friday Night Tykes" (2013) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

I like to think of myself as an easy-going, live-and-let-live sort of person, but there are some substantial holes in that blanket statement. One of those holes is sports: I used to play and love soccer; I used to be a varsity fencer (foil); I loved playing ping pong at MakerSquare. (Check out my blog from then, which has a ping pong tag.)

And yet, reading Bryan Curtis's article about youth league football in Texas made my skin crawl. It's not that the youth league is committed to playing football, a sport that has a demonstrated negative effect on a statistically significant portion of pro athletes. (Although there is that.) It's not that the pretty conservative town/exurb of Allen raised taxes to build a large new stadium. (Although there is something there; would they have raised taxes to build something like a homeless or rape crisis shelter?)

It's really everything around the fetishization of football: the hero worship of little kids; the bleacher-parenting of adults pushing their kids--take this supplement, don't take no for an answer from the coach (or, presumably from anyone else); the toxic masculinity that makes parents upset to have a daughter (and then name her after a football coach).

See, here's the thing: I like competing in sports. I like pushing myself. I like playing in a team.

But when I'm not on the field, I get on with my life. Pushing kids into this world where this is the one thing that matters doesn't feel like the right way to build a sustainable society that values the right things.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 250: Edgar Allan Poe, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (#250) (Catching up)

Edgar Allan Poe, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (1845) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales:

And so, following 12 solid weeks of learning web development, where I fell off my schedule, here I am hoping to catch up with the last four weeks of LoA stories. Luckily, my first story, back on the horse, is my good friend Poe.

Which reminds me of a story about Kafka: we tend to think of Kafka as very existential and dark and brooding. As--dare I say it?--Kafkaesque. But back in his day, Kafka would sometimes read his work to friends and have them rolling on the floor.

Poe tends to get a somewhat similar treatment: he's a Halloween author, whose stories of mad killers get brushed off once a year. Or, for those in grad school, he's one of the canon, who is constantly commenting on the American condition.

And so, the LoA headnote informs us that this story--about a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics--might be "a satire on democracy, an invective against abolitionism, or a parody of writing by Dickens and Willis—or, as seems quite possible, all of these."

Yes, OK, sure. (Though let's be clear about that Abolition reading and its problems: the asylum here is in the South (of France), so check; but all the weirdness of the house's inhabitants is explained away--incorrectly, but plausibly--as having to do with their Southernness and oldness. It's less a satire on a failed slave revolution than it might be a comment about how underclass people tend to mimic the upperclass.)

I'm not saying that there's nothing to be read into here. Only that we shouldn't miss the layers of humor: not just that the lunatics run the asylum, but that the observer--even when this is pointed out to him--still thinks that they might have a point.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Falling behind and Interstellar

Hello, blog! It's been a little while since I've been able to attend to you in the manner that you deserve. Perhaps you've noticed that I've skipped the last few weeks of Library of America Story of the Week Read-Alongs; or the last few weeks of Shower Awkward Comics.

Rest assured that I have tabs open with all the missed Stories of the Week; and I have several Shower Awkward photos I just need to comickify. (They come pre-awkwardified.)

But since I've neglected you for so long--and why? Because of this blog and this portfolio site and all the github repos--I wanted to add a little substance here, in the form of a super short review of Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film about black holes and family.

("Black holes and family--aren't you being redundant there?" Oh, you wag.)

The main thing I want to say about Interstellar is that it's very long; and very blunt with its symbolism ("love and gravity are the only things that can travel through time"); and chock-a-block full of people explaining the science behind things--but it's also pretty entertaining throughout. So there were times when I sort of sighed over how much time we take to set up a scene, or chuckled at how blunt the movie was, or wondered if anyone around me cared about what a wormhole would look like in three-dimensional space.

Sidebar: "A circle in three dimensions is a sphere," explains one scientist, completely forgetting cylinders and cones. You know what else a sphere might look like in two dimensions? A point, if that sphere touches the plane at only one point. See Flatland.

And yet, for all those issues that would seem to sink it, the film remained engaging and interesting and often humane and frequently beautiful.

I also want to hold Christopher Nolan up as a director whose primary relationship focus tends to be non-romantic. Sure, there's some romance in Inception and the Batman trilogy and here; but the real focus tends to be on parent-child relation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tell me to listen--I need it, sometimes.

Huh, I didn't have a "feminism" tag before now. That seems odd. Or maybe not so odd: I guess I haven't really talked about feminism all that much; and when I have, it's probably been couched in historical terms.

But, that aside, I am very interested in feminism, particularly over the last few years where I've noticed something of a backlash. Not that you have to be all that perceptive to notice a backlash when you have GamerGate and last year's Hugo Awards nominee debacle and everything else in the world.

Like that video that went around recently of a woman walking in NYC and getting harassed. Not just that people felt free to talk to her (when, honestly, they wouldn't have felt the same freedom with a man), but the implicit and often explicit calls for this person's attention as a right.

That video, and all this recent backlash, has bothered me.

I've heard some people say that men need to do a better job policing other men. That if I'm bothered, I should speak up about it. That I should tell my friends who do these things that they shouldn't. But, by and large, my friends don't do those things.

But the other night, I was talking with some friends about what it was like to be a woman developer; and my one friend (girl) made some comment about what it was like to be a woman or what other men were like and my other friend (guy) made a "but is it really like that?" sort of comment. Not hostile or totally dismissive. But dismissive enough for me to notice. And when he finished questioning and she finished explaining, I commented to this friend that over the last year or two, I've learned that listening without dismissing can be very powerful.

I'm not telling you this long story to hold myself up to praise for this very minor example of telling a male friend how he was going down a bad road; rather, I'm bringing it up because I still need to hear from people about how I can be better about these issues. Because I love to talk--and argue from the position of Devil's Advocate--so much, I need to be told to listen sometimes.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Friendship and its discontents

Actually, I'm not going to talk too much about the discontents of friendship; but thanks to a first-year class at Bard College, I tend to love adding "and its discontents" to almost any noun in a title, the more abstract, the better. Try it, it's fun:
  • Education--and its discontents
  • Love--and its discontents
  • The Gift Economy--and its discontents
What I'm actually going to talk about here comes from a recent Judge John Hodgman podcast on friendship, where the dispute was over this one woman's very precise--and open--way to rank all levels of acquaintance, while reserving "friend" for those particular relationships that merit that honor. 

Which might sound silly (but then, I'll spend hours reading about the history of post-apocalyptic pen-and-paper roleplaying games, so "silly" is a relative term), but John Hodgman made some very cogent points about the abuse of "friend" both as a term and as a concept. 

To wit, with the intimate-seeming nature of online interactions ("John Hodgman told me what he's thinking! By tweeting his thoughts!") and the narcissistic loss of non-friend relationship markers ("It's not enough that I work with my colleagues, they also have to love me!"), we've impoverished and cramped our notions of potential relationships. In sum, "What's wrong with calling someone an acquaintance?"

He's got a point; but in fact, I'm mostly writing this blog post because I so liked Hodgman's principles of friendship that he tossed off and I wanted to write them out (as best as I could hear them). This probably deserves to be made into a video or a needlepoint pillow, so hopefully someone will find it:

John Hodgman's Principles of Friendship:
Try to be around people who make you genuinely feel happy and not anxious, or sad, or weird or whatever.
Gently disengage from people who make you feel bad and don't care at all about how you feel--and don't care about those people anymore.
Do more favors than you ask for--remember it always hurts to ask.
Let people know when you are genuinely thinking nice things about them. 
But be alert to the more frequent times when you are not thinking about anyone but yourself at all. 
And then remember that we're all like this, we're all mostly thinking about ourselves. 
So if someone lets you down--
--let them off the hook. 
You're letting plenty of people down all the time in small and big ways and it's just how it goes being an individual human being. 
Don't sit on the same side of the booth at a restaurant, even if you're lovers. 
Don't leave a lot of voicemails; please don't write long emails.
And be nice.
And that's all you need to do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 249: Seabury Quinn, The Curse of Everard Maundy (#249)

Seabury Quinn, "The Curse of Everard Maundy" (1927) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Not much to say about this: at first, I thought to crow over Halloween, when everyone else comes around to the idea that horror/fear is an important part of our emotional register. But this story, while it might have worked in 1927 in the pages of Weird Tales, feels a little flat in all the wrong ways.

For instance, I really like paranormal investigators; I really like the standard genius-and-ordinary team (Holmes and Watson); and I don't mind the "genius explaining" scene. But Quinn (who was a very popular writer of the time and whose stories I have run across before) doesn't really do much more with those characters. When the genius detective whips out a sword cane, I didn't feel any thrill. I felt "I was waiting for that to happen."

There are some things that set this story apart: for instance, the potshots at spiritualism; the two-three instances of same sex friendships/crush (the genius saves the ordinary from a nightmare, then gets into bed with him to watch out for more monsters); and the ending wherein the genius totally mutilates and hides a dead body. Which is at least something we never saw Holmes do.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Oh, well, about that blog...

Perhaps you've noticed that I've missed my usual Monday morning blogging?

What's that? You didn't notice? Oh, well...

That's probably because you've all been reading my coding- and programming-related blog over at Incremental Code.

I've been blogging there daily, at 9am every day, covering the previous day. And while it started with a pretty narrow focus on the code, it has grown to include some of my thoughts and feelings about code. And since code is pretty much all I do these days, I haven't got a heck of a lot to say here. I mean, it's not like I'm watching a lot of movies or going out to a lot of bars or etc.

But that doesn't mean I'm abandoning this blog. Soon--very alarmingly soon, in fact--I will be done with the 12 weeks of MakerSquare, the intensive boot camp. Then I will stop my insane and bizarre habit of blogging every day over there. (Perhaps I will be able to cut myself back to twice a week.) I also hope to go see some movies and start doing some other things that aren't coding.

(Though, let's be honest, coding is really interesting, so I'll probably be doing a heck of a lot of that. And talking about it, either here or there.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 248: Mark Twain, Playing Courier (#248)

Mark Twain, "Playing Courier" (1892) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

Let's talk about the word "lesser" as it pertains to writers' work. When I say a story is "lesser Hawthorne" or "lesser Lovecraft" or "lesser Poe" (which I would never say, since Poe is never lesser), I generally mean something like:

  1. this story isn't as stylistically or technically perfect as their other work; or 
  2. this story doesn't capture some theme that seems important to the core of the author's work; or
  3. this story doesn't add anything new to what we see elsewhere.
Now, if you squint, (2) and (3) can seem a little contradictory. Take, say, Lovecraft: if you think of his work as being irreducibly about cosmic nihilism (that's a core theme in his work) and then you read, oh, I don't know, let's say "The Cats of Ulthar," with its story of revenge against people who are mean to cats. Not so much cosmic nihilism in that story (unless you think that cats are avatars of cosmic nihilism, in which case, you are correct). In fact, you could say that "Cats" does add something new that we don't see often in Lovecraft: a sense of cosmic justice.

So, on one hand, it misses something core to Lovecraft; and on the other, it adds something that seems peripheral--but it's still added. Is "Cats of Ulthar" "lesser" or not?

Which brings me by a roundabout way to talking about Mark Twain's story of European misadventure, "Playing Courier." This story/anecdote is about a time when Twain tried to move his family along on their European travels and failed. It's apparently fictional, but you could've fooled me.

You couldn't have fooled me if you told me this was an important work of Twainiana. It's not that this is a badly written story. I mean, this is Twain: he is almost always in control of his technique, and if nothing else, his use of under- and over-statement can get a smile.

But there's just no there there to this story. The narrator bumbles around, failing to deal with train tickets, trunks, cabs, local authorities, and etc. And then there's some more bumbling around. Followed by a little more. Some of it is humorous, but ultimately... yeah, it feels like lesser Twain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 247: Sherwood Anderson, Mother (#247)

Sherwood Anderson, "Mother" (1917) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

By and large, I have loved the Sherwood Anderson stories presented by the Library of America:

"Mother" falls somewhere in that range. It's Sherwood Anderson, through and through: a mother with thwarted ambitions, who seems to live just for her son (shades of "The Egg"); not a lot of plot but a lot of feeling; a father marked by failure; small town romance, broken into tiny shards.

But I don't have a lot to say about it right now. It's not my favorite, but it's so Anderson-y that I have to assume some of my reaction has to do with me right now. (Right now, I'm immersed in an accelerated web development bootcamp--that I am also writing about.)

It doesn't help (me) that the headnote includes a paragraph about how Anderson felt about his mother, which really makes this story seem more autobiographical than anything else.

(Though the headnote also goes into how some people hate hate hated Anderson's work for being so squalid, which is a fascinating little time capsule. But it's not like they missed the point: his work does tend to be squalid and sad. It's just that squalid and sad is kind of our thing these days.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 246: Louisa May Alcott, Anna’s Whim (#246)

Louisa May Alcott, "Anna’s Whim" (1873) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

There's a rather standard story-trope where a woman says how much she wants to be treated as a man; then she is treated equally and discovers that it's terrible. Where's the chivalry? Where's the protection and worldliness of a man to shield her delicate sensibilities? Because, sure, women may be oppressed and limited, but at least there's someone to open the door for them, and isn't that the best?

Louisa May Alcott is too smart to fall into this trap--and so smart that she includes some notes of this expected story. Here, Anna has a crazy whim: what if women were treated equally? And, true to form, Anna finds a man who will treat her equally--an old friend named Frank, now all grown up--and it has all sorts of problems. Frank doesn't help her to row unless asked directly or spend too much time making sure she's entertained. Boy, that experience sure shows Anna that it's better to be in a gilded cage than free, right?

Not so fast there, legacy-of-patriarchy. Yes, Alcott does describe some of Anna's distaste for this situation at first. But then Anna goes on: she has trouble following the serious topics of the day because her education didn't prepare her for discussions of moral and political economy. Anna may react to other women negatively--as if they were all hunting for the same scarce resource (husband material)--but ultimately, she affirms what she says at the beginning, that there's a lot more to life than being someone's wife.

So many other writers would use this story as a means to punish the rebellious woman. Alcott takes the opportunity to write a realistic woman who comes into her own.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Games people play and/or make

Last week, in my coding/web development class, we not only had to make a Checkers game in Javascript, but for our first hackathon, many people went ahead and created computer games, including a computer version of Speed. Which I guess is kind of like Spit, which is what we played in the Blattberg house.

All of which led to a discussion of card games at the DevHouse, which led to a long night of Cards Against Humanity (with a little Egyptian Ratscrew on the side, for nostalgia's sake). And being as we're all web developers in training, it wasn't long before we started proposing alternate rules and hacks. So, for your edification and annoyance, I present, a few strange ideas/sub-ideas for Cards Against Humanity.

  1. Throw a random white card in with everyone's choices
    1. Give the Card Czar the black card if they guess the random white card
  2. Let anyone throw in two white cards, but cost them a point if neither of their cards are chosen.
  3. Play card-on-the-forehead-style, where the Card Czar doesn't get to see their card, but has to infer it from the option given.
  4. ...
Actually, I guess we didn't have too many ideas for hacks/add-ons to the game. Not so easy to come up with ideas when most of the game is focused on coming up with some ridiculous and awful materials.

Though I think my favorite combo of the night was when the players were asked "What is Batman's guilty pleasure?" and the winning answer was "Vigilante justice."

I just love the idea of Batman talking to people (while he beats them up, probably), saying, "Oh, don't tell anyone about this, it's sort of my guilty pleasure."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 245: Truman Capote, On Richard Avedon (#245)

Truman Capote, On Richard Avedon (1959) from Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism:

If you're here, then there's a chance you'll know I went through a pretty hard-core photography phase. (I mean, if you're here, you're probably me in the future, trying to remember something I wrote in the past.) I never wanted to be a photographer, but I brought my (film) camera around just about everywhere. I had three nice lenses and a fair bit of dark-room experience, long before photoshop made photography a less chemical-filled experience. I also had access and flipped through a bunch of books on the great photographers and I loved to look at Steichen, Munkasci, and Man Ray's works.

And yet, four pages on Richard Avedon, and I feel my mind start to wander. Don't get me wrong: there is something thrilling about the master, the perfectionist, and their on-going quest for the perfect work of art. But that thrilling something isn't always enough to catch and keep one's interest, especially when there's not all that much else there besides "This guy is good at his job."

I'd much rather look at some of Avedon's work.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Exercise on the cheap

I ran outside this weekend, voluntarily. I was neither running to the bus or running away from slavering hordes of zombies. (Why are the zombies slavering? Do their salivary glands still work?) I ran just for health reasons.

Let's edit that: Health and financial reasons. Back in San Angelo, I used to go to the gym in our apartment complex. It was cheap, convenient, and almost always included at least one working piece of equipment.

Here in Austin, I have not yet made the plunge and bought a new gym membership. There are some cheap-to-reasonable ways to get a gym membership here. (For one thing, the Rosewood Park near-ish to the DevHouse has a really... uh authentic exercise room. And it's only $15 a month, which is pretty cheap.) But there's nothing that's both cheap and convenient. In San Angelo, I would go to the gym almost every day because the gym was less than a five-minute walk from my apartment. Put another obstacle in front of going to the gym and chances of going drop precipitously.

But what if the gym weren't just near the house, but right outside? What if the whole world was your gym? Ugh, that's too much, let's shrink it down: what if you just ran around inside the cemetery very close to the house? That way you get to avoid the annoyance of other people driving/walking and you get the fun of looking at some old graves.

Of course, that said, I feel like I might need to get better sneakers if I'm going to start running with any frequency.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 244: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Ice Palace (#244)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Ice Palace" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

I have a secret love of Fitzgerald. No, not secret: late. I'm not generally a believer in the idea that literature classes ruin people for books (or vice versa); but I do remember reading and hating Great Gatsby in high school and only later on realizing what sort of game he's playing.

Which is why I'm pretty unreserved in my recommendation for people to read some Fitzgerald, such as the earlier LoA stories: "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (rom-com with a bitter end), "The Cut-Glass Bowl" (a beautiful transition from laughing at a character to feeling her pain), and (to a lesser extent), "Porcelain and Pink" (light comedy in a bathtub). I'd also recommend all those as a primer before getting to today's story, "The Ice Palace."

The LoA headnote makes a lot of Fitzgerald's biographical connections to this story: in the story, we follow a Southern belle with a certain not-so-Southern liveliness (so says the story) as she gets engaged to a Minnesotan, culminating in her disastrous trip to the snowy North. As a New Yorker and a Chicagoan transplanted to Texas, I feel her pain. I also feel her emotional tumult, feeling that the South is too sleepy and dead, but also knowing that it's dear to her.

(Or rather: as a friend of liberal Texans, I've heard much of their plight, both at home and in the rest of the country, where "Texan" is a byword for conservative.)

In his own life, Fitzgerald was a Northern boy (hey, Minnesota) who fell in love with a Southern belle named Zelda; and once he proved he could provide for them by writing (so the headnote says), they got married. Like the Minnesotan in the story, Fitzgerald got taken to a cemetery by a girl who had some poetic ideas about the dead.

But curiously, in the story--spoiler alert for a story that's almost a century old--the North-South alliance comes to tragic end, whereas the Scott and Zelda story... well, had a different tragic end. Except maybe "tragic" isn't the right word for this story: sure, the girl who wanted to move out of her small sleepy town ends up back there, doing the same things at the end that she was doing at the beginning, but at least she didn't marry the guy, who ends up being a little bit in the mold of Tom Buchanan from Gatsby: a little bit of a giant jerk. I mean, he takes this girl to the Ice Palace (fine) and to the ice maze (still fine) and then he runs, expecting her to keep up (oy vey). Seriously, it's such a drip move to make that I almost can't feel bad when the engagement falls apart.

Of course, that's just the straw that breaks the ice camel's back. Before we ever get to that point, we've seen some of the cultural difference between North and South--the unbridgeable gulf that Sally Carrol "couldn't ever make [him] understand." Or, as she puts it about growing up in the beautiful, glorious, fantastic shadow of the Civil War, "people have these dreams they fasten onto things, and I've always grown up with that dream. It was so easy because it was all dead and there weren't any disillusions comin' to me."

Easy dreams, man--they'll get you every time.

Bonus points for the literature professor who speaks of the Minnesotans growing "Ibsenesque."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Roundup: blogging elsewhere, hard to get into books, code as brain-colonizer, a weak September movie list

Today, a roundup of smaller topics, for reasons that number 3 will explain.

1) While I'm in the MakerSquare course in Austin, I am trying to blog daily (for now) over at Incremental Code. Writing daily is... perhaps not the smartest thing to do, time-wise; but I'm limiting myself to 15 minutes or less per post; and writing daily helps me to process the day.

2) Before falling asleep many days, I read a few pages of Iain M Banks's 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first book in his Culture series. Banks is loved by people whose tastes match up with mine. And I like it... but I find it hard to get into.

Partly that's due to the writing, which is occasionally odd--and even when it's in a good way, odd prose is odd.

Partly that's due to the structure of the book, which is very episodic: one guy gets lost in space and tries to get somewhere. Even when the scenes are interesting--as when the main guy gets marooned on an island of religious cannibals and has to figure out a way off--it's hard to see the long-term stakes of these episodes. And long-term stakes matter when you've got such a long book.

3) In college, I took some computer science courses, and I noticed that writing code is a lot like playing Tetris: if you do it before bed, you'll start to dream about it. You'll look around the world and say (Tetris) "I wonder if an L could fit under that branch" or (code) "I wonder is a hash would be a better way to model bus riders." Like Tetris, code-writing colonizes your brain. (Kind of like any language, I guess.)

But the real way that code will colonize your brain is in how--hold on, I just thought of something.

::Time passes while I try something out on my code.::

And that is really the way that code colonizes your (or at least my) brain. You can be doing something else and suddenly--wham!--you thought of a way to solve a problem that you were stymied by before. That's just good, old-fashioned subconscious puzzle-solving, the same as when you fell asleep and woke up with the answer.

The colonizing part is when you have to stop whatever you're doing and go check that solution to see if it works. And that example above, that wasn't a joke. I really did have an idea and I wanted to see how it worked out.

Which is great for my code, which is getting incrementally better.

But it sure is hard on the rest of my life, which at any moment can be taken over by a code-related idea.

4) Which brings us to this: For that past few months, I have kept careful records of any movie I saw and I saw a lot of movies. Movies I watched with Sarah, movies I watched while at the gym, etc. So far, in September, I haven't purposely watched any movies. In fact, I purposely watched an episode of Star Wars Clone Wars--and that took me four-five days to watch a 20-minute show. This time in Austin may be not so good for my culture consumption. Which is ironic, since it's Austin and there's so much going on!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 243: Francis Scott Key, Defence of Fort M‘Henry (#243)

Francis Scott Key, "Defence of Fort M‘Henry" (1814), with an account by Roger B. Taney (1872) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

So, sometimes, these LoA stories give a glimpse behind the history: the story from before people knew how history would turn out or a view of a historical event from someone else's POV.

Today's selection doesn't really do any of that. We have Francis Scott Key's "Defence," which we know as "The Star-Spangled Banner." And sure, it's nice to see all the verses and think about people struggling through more of that before they get to see a ball-game.

After that, we get Key's friend Taney's account of how Key came up with that song. Which is almost exactly what we read in the headnote: Key goes to negotiate for the release of a friend; he ends up a temporary prisoner of the British so that they can attack Baltimore without fore-warning; Key ends up watching the bombardment of the American fort; and he is much relieved when, you know, the American flag was still there.

Which means that we get a glimpse of history almost EXACTLY as it is often told. I rarely say this, but you can give this entry a pass.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fiasco game play review: Fort Two Fork, TX

For most of my life, I've been into roleplaying games but not a big player of them. It was always easier to collect and read the gaming books than it was to collect actual players (except for a brief, shining moment in college). Even when I lived in San Angelo, where I wasn't likely to get a game going (largely because I didn't leave my apartment), I still read about new games and occasionally put them on my present list. 

Which is how I ended up with a copy of Fiasco, a game where three-to-five player co-create a Coens Brothers-style story where ordinary folk get caught up in schemes that inevitably go horribly wrong. It's really an interesting game, which I liked so much--in theory, after reading but not playing it--that I recommended it on Twitter to screenwriter and occasional gamer John August. And that's how we got this episode of his podcast, where he and two other screenwriters played an on-air game.

Finally, after telling other people about it, I got a chance to play a game last night with some other programmers who live in this student-housing. (Which I will explain later.) Luckily, there were only four of us and one had already played and I had the book with me to refer to for any questions. It all went relatively smoothly game-play-wise.

But as a story, it was amazing. The first part of Fiasco is picking a setting and using some random dice to help build up your characters' relationships according to the setting options. We played in the wild west, so the relationship options included things like "sheriff and deputy," "opium dealer and addict," "reformed criminals," and "mail order bride and groom." As soon as we had those relationships mapped out--and the setting options and dice really help here by limiting the choices--we could instantly see all the forms of conflict embedded in these characters. Which is, of course, why Jason Morningstar doesn't give individual character creation, but only gets at those characters through their relationships.

Perhaps now is a good time to note that our game played a little silly with some parts of the story: our "western" sometimes had Indians acting up on the frontier and sometimes had the internet; sometimes there were horses and sometimes cars; and above all, while character generation keeps things vague, when we never really decided if the "mail-order bride" was actually a woman or if we had a homosexual relationship, that turned into a running joke about how progressive our town was.

As for the story itself, it turned out to be a classic tale of innocence abused: our good sheriff was also an opium addict with a plan to get all he could from the town; our reformed criminal and opium dealer wasn't so reformed after all and wanted to take over the town, using whatever mysterious prize he had stolen years ago in a deal gone wrong; our mail-order partner really did want to leave his criminal past behind and wanted to help the deputy see all the evil machinations that the sheriff and the opium dealer were engaged in; and our deputy, oh our deputy, was the easily confused muscle who kept getting used by people. (Really, I spent most of my night busting in to confront people about their villainy, only to be turned around and sent off to confront someone else. Imagine Brad Pitt's character from Burn After Reading but with a badge instead of a bicycle.)

It all ended with a lot of bloodshed and tears and new bad habits--which is how you want your game of Fiasco to end.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 242: Jerry Izenberg, A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent (#242)

Jerry Izenberg, "A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent" (1967) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

It is college football season, which I know for two reasons: one, I'm living in a house in Austin with some people who are interested in college football; two, I'm living very close to the UT-Austin campus. So, yesterday I went out grocery shopping at 9--before it got too hot--and I passed a bunch of people who had set up in the stadium parking lot for some tail-gating. Think about that for a second: people set up to hang out at 9 for a game that starts at 6, knowing that it'll get up to 100 degrees around 2 or 3. That's dedication.

Which is one of the themes of today's LoA story, which is an article about how pro-football scouts discovered the talent pool available at all-black colleges, starting with Grambling State University--and starting because a series of men were dedicated to the work and to the people they served. First, there's Grambling's president, Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who took a struggling college and made it into a successful institution; second, there's coach Eddie Robinson, who Jones brought on to coach football, and who believed in himself and in his players enough to make them work hard; third, there's the star running back; fourth, there's the black pro player who finds this news article on the college player and gives it to his scout; fifth, there's the preacher and coach who taught Eddie Robinson, etc.

(If you're wondering, women play an out-of-focus role here: they are the mothers who need to be convinced that Grambling is the place for their boys, they are Robinson's aunt who told Jones to go hire him, and so on. Their role is important, but not really what Izenberg is interested in.)

It's all set up almost perfectly for a sports movie: how the little (black) guys persevered and overcame the odds.

Underneath that, though, Izenberg is not shy about the racial angle and about what that means for these men. (Interesting to note that this story was written for but not run at the Saturday Evening Post.) When he notes that Jones and Robinson help their players with their contracts, he notes that many white players would go into those negotiations with a lawyer, but the black, low-income, and rural students of Grambling don't have that option. When he notes how much Robinson gets paid or how many people the stadium can hold--or even that Robinson, after his own graduation from college, could only find manual labor--Izenberg hits on the notion that America hasn't been the land of opportunity for all its children. Which, in 1967, might've been a radical tone for a sports column to take.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A few thoughts on mid-life career changes

Labor Day seems like a fine day to consider what work means to life and vice-versa; and especially for me since I've just started an immersive web-programming/development course.

You might think that this is a radical change for me, going from English major to programming, but I've always been interested in science and especially computers. I mean, I had all the classic kid-scientist toys: microscope, chemistry set, physics set, telescope, scissors for cutting through electrical cords when the fan was still on, etc.

I also took just about all the computer science classes that Bard offered when I was there. I started by learning to sort using wooden blocks (cedar, according to the teacher, so after learning to sort we could keep the moths off our sweaters); and I ended by learning assembly code. I wasn't one of the kids programming his TI-85 to play Monopoly in high school, but I did build some websites from scratch in college. So let's not say that this is a big change in interests, just a change in focus.

Now, after that big introduction, I have to be honest: I don't really have all that many thoughts on changing focus. Or rather, I have one big thought: if you're changing focus or even having a more radical career shift, it probably means more to you than it does to anyone else in the room. I don't mean "it's all in your head, man"; I mean, everyone starts somewhere. So even if you started by sorting cedar blocks (which I still have in my closet, keeping my sweaters moth-free), there's still no telling where you'll end up.

But just to prove that I haven't given up all my literary interests, I'll add that many of my favorite writers basically began writing in the middle of some other career, like Sherwood Anderson. Anderson operated a successful business selling paint when, at the age of 36, he suffered a pretty serious nervous breakdown, including disappearing for four days and walking (probably) from Elyria, OH, to Cleveland, OH. (Which really shouldn't take four days.) Only then did he begin writing.

So, if you're changing careers, just remember: as long as you don't disappear for four days, you're doing OK. Heck, even if you do disappear for four days, you might be doing great. Just look at Sherwood Anderson.

2014 monthly movie list: August

  1. The Lego Movie
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Saving Mr. Banks
  4. The Infidel
  5. Bad Milo!
  6. Mary Poppins (never seen entirely before and interesting: so much of the story was plot-unrelated spectacle; and the real protagonist of the story--in one reading--is Mr. Banks, who hardly gets any screen time at all, but has the biggest arc, from caring about the bank to caring about his children*; but a lot of this is still very enjoyable and engaging)
  7. Brave
  8. Turner and Hooch (so 80s, so young Tom Hanks)
  9. Pontypool
  10. 20 Feet From Stardom
This was a good month. Even the lower rated movies were still pretty solid. 20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about back-up singers that was very interesting, but not quite for me; Pontypool was a strange horror film that didn't entirely work, but at least it went for something a little different with its language virus and limited setting (a radio station under siege).

Special note here for Bad Milo!, which is a very particular type of horror-comedy film--and that particularity is a lot of anxiety about the ass. And anxiety in general. Ken Marino plays an anxious husband and employee who swallows all his anger and other ugly feelings: when his overbearing boss makes him fire people--swallow it; when his new office is a repurposed bathroom and his new cubicle mate tries to use one of the (non-functioning) toilets--swallow it; when his dad who abandoned him can't bother to help him through crisis--swallow it; when his mom's young new husband is very demonstrative about their sex life--swallow it.

In a move worthy of J. G. Ballard and David Cronenberg, these bad feelings that Ken swallows cause/exacerbate a medical situation: he has a polyp in his rear that is actually a Dark Half. This is somewhat archetypal Jungian/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde material (or at least our modern form of that story): when someone upsets Ken's character, Bad Milo comes out to kill them--but since Bad Milo is a part of Ken's character, he can't just kill it, but has to reconcile with it.

Of course, given that premise, this isn't a philosophical film about accepting your shadow--or it is a film about that, wrapped up in a lot of jokes about things coming into or out of Ken's ass. As you can tell by the fact that I don't even know Ken's character's name, the film is not a masterwork of narrative storytelling. (I mean, if the main couple is waiting to have a kid, why are they seeing a fertility expert?) But it is a fine execution of an odd premise.

I'll talk more about the film du summer, Guardians of the Galaxy, at a later date.