Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Haiku For the Bailout

Sometimes the world offers a kind of visual haiku that expresses all the density of meaning, all the layers of reality moving through the world and under it and behind it, at once. A man takes a woman's hand on the street and she leans into him like a swell against a seawall; a CEO talking on his cellphone ignores both the new puddle he steps into, and the pale rainbow from the recent storm, sketched on the water-blue sky over his head.

I was reminded of another such moment today, when I read that Citicorp had purchased Wachovia. The latter company has quite a presence on Nantucket: various corporate officers own homes here and their annual party features a fireworks display that puts the town's to shame. And who pays for that lavish artillery barrage? Well, you and me, of course, the taxpayers who will be bailing these people out this week or next week, when the right compromises can be finessed.

And what a perfect, oddly sinister metaphor to show where our money went: fountains of sparks illuminating their own spider-legged trails of smoke in the flash of light against the stars, rockets and roman candles, bouquets and brocades; lovely but pointless, extravagant but ephemeral, conspicuous consumption etching its temporary fossil into the soft stone of the summer night.

Then it was over.

The rich people had their fun and it was time for dinner and another round of drinks. For everyone else? Cold cinders on the beach Monday morning, and a long work week ahead.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Scenes We'd Like to See #3: The Debate That Should Have Been

Why do we always do this? Why does every Democrat take the podium like a dishrag and let himself be wrung out by the Republican – who is invariably a moronic bully with nothing a few catch phrases and a cocky attitude in his favor? Where are our catch-phrases? More to the point, where is our anger, our passion, our simple human energy? Obama, like Kerry and Gore and Dukakis before him, seemed to have been coached by his ‘handlers’ to avoid showing any anger or outrage. He was flat-lining last night. Who are these handlers, anyway? I suspect they all work for Karl Rove. What strategy could have been more catrastrophicly foolish and wrong-headed? How many times does caution have to fail before we learn that it's the most dangerous tactic -- that the measured drone of the policy wonk means death in the polls and doom at the polling place?

You know what Obama should have said as well as I do – you were probably shouting it at the screen, just as I was. By the fifth or sixth time that smug demented geriatric bully repeated his ludicrous sound bite about Obama “not understanding” and “not getting” something, I needed Obama to shout back:

“I don’t understand? I don’t get it? You have been wrong on everything! You were wrong on Iraq. You were wrong on Education and the environment. You were utterly wrong on deregulation. You fought for deregulation during the Keating Five scandal! You were so profoundly involved with the Savings and Loan melt-down, desperately trying to roadblock any regulation or investigation, that your were publicly scolded by your own colleagues. You think Iraq is the main front of the war on terrorism – why? Because George Bush told you so. You think we’re hunting Al Queda there? Al Queda wasn’t even there before we came! Saddam hated bin Laden and the feeling was mutual. You were so eager to prove we were winning the war that you walked through a Baghdad street market – and ripped off a rug salesman – just to prove it. Except you were surrounded by soldiers and guarded from the air by two attack helicopters. That market wasn't safe and you knew it. Your visit was photo op and a lie. Are you going to deny that now, and lie some more? Because America is tired of the lies and mistakes and corruption that you and your party represent.”

Or how about McCain's “The surge is working” line? Obama got trampled there. Why not tell the truth:

"Yes, it’s ‘working’ -- if you call a minor slow-down in the killing and a few more safe neighborhoods in Baghdad a victory. But there’s no democracy in Iraq, no working army, nothing like a self-sustaining government. You’re kidding yourself! No, you’re lying to yourself. But you can’t lie to the American people any more. Not when you're on the stage with me."

Finally, when McCain trotted out the tired old lie about Obama raising taxes on people making $42,000 a year, Obama muttered something about it not being true and just let the crazy old geezer trundle on.

This is what he should have said -- and it didn't have to be ad-libbed. No quick thinking was required. Obama's people knew MCCain was going to pull these tricks. I knew it, and I’m a small-town housepainter. They’re savvy political operatives. They should have been ready with this response:

“Excuse me, Jim. I’m sorry, but I have to stop this right here and respond to the Senator. I have stated here that he is lying about my tax program, but he goes on lying about it as if I said nothing. He doesn’t listen or he doesn’t care. But maybe this will get his attention: I swear in front of every American citizen watching this debate tonight, that if what he says is true, if I really aim to raise taxes on families making under fifty thousand dollars, if he can find anywhere, in any speech or interview, in any statement or private correspondence, on my website, in my advertisements and pamphlets – anywhere – evidence that I actually said that, I will walk away from this campaign and cede the election to the McCain-Palin ticket. But listen to me, now! If he cannot find the evidence for this slanderous and inflammatory accusation, then HE MUST DO THE SAME. He must agree to terminate his campaign – not suspend it in a cheap meaningless theatrical gesture – but end it, if he cannot substantiate his claims about me. He says he’s telling the truth. Will he put his hopes for the Presidency on the line? Will you do that Senator – see, Jim, now we’re talking to each other! – because either you act like a man and do it, right here, right now, or you admit to the American people that you’re a liar.”

And McCain would have folded like a rusty beach chair.
And Obama would have won the election, right there and then.
But he didn’t. And maybe he never will.
And if McCain wins, it will be Obama's fault. Obama and his crack team of advisors. Or maybe they're just on crack. That might explain it.
This election is Obama's to lose, and he’s losing it. He's doing a superb, classically Democratic job of it. Just like Dukakis and Kerry and Gore, Oh my.
It’s Greek tragedy and it's farce, it's the Oresteia meets the Honeymooners. And it’s making me physically ill.

The worst part is, I’m absolutely certain that John McCain’s “Health care plan” won’t help me at all.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Mutant Powers for Grown-Ups #1: Epiphany Man

Here’s a question: what’s the most annoying thing about a annoying person? It’s not necessarily what they do. It’s what they think about what they do. It’s their attitude. A standard piece advice for beginning fiction writers is that the villain should always believe he’s the good guy. There’s a reason for that. The villain actually does believe he’s the good guy. Bush thinks he’s bringing Democracy to the mid-East. Cheney thinks liberals want to turn America in a Socialist dystopia. McCain thinks off-shore drilling will free us from our dependency on foreign oil.

And that’s the creepiest thing about them.

We all know the asshole who seriously believes that everybody else, everyone around him, everyone he’s ever met, is an asshole – that explains why he has no friends and even strangers cross the street to avoid him. We’ve all known the obnoxious motor-mouth who actually believes she’s ‘a good listener’ despite the fact that she hasn't shown a heat-lightning flicker of interest in anyone else’s life in decades, and can keep acquaintances on the phone literally for hours with the operatic drama and traumatic details of her own.

One of these people marched into my apartment twenty minutes after I had found out that my father died, stared at the shell-shocked group on the couch and started talking about her day at work. When my girlfriend explained the situation, this lunatic said “Oh,” – just a little pot-hole in the road to swerve around --and then re-launched: “So, anyway, the all the cooks hate me and they won’t give me my orders and then I have to explain that to the customers, I mean without seeming rascist or whatever, and when I try to talk about it I just get the cold shoulder. The one guy? His name’s Raoul? He actually had the nerve to say …” and on and on.

We just stared at her, dumbfounded.

And I realized that this woman had no idea of how she sounded, or what we were thinking at that moment, or to be more inclusive, who she really was: her nature, the truth of her character. Alcoholism is not the only mental disorder whose primary symptom is denial. And how many wives and husbands and parents and children and siblings and friends of alcoholics have yearned to hear them say “I have to stop drinking, it’s ruining my life,” before their life is actually ruined?

One Olympic level marathon talker accidentally heard an answering machine tape of a phone message – not even a live call, just a message, going on and on, ceaseless as a cicada, tedious as a cricket, subtle as a woodpecker – and was appalled.

“Do I really sound like that?”

Oh yeah. That was kind of a taciturn moment, actually.

But it was soon forgotten, that’s the point.

The only lasting value to that brief moment of clarity was it made me realize what the coolest mutant power would be. Not shooting beams from my eyes, or levitating objects, or growing metal claws out of my fingers. No, my power would be much more devastating. With a single blast I would make people see themselves with absolute clarity. Not who they think they are, but who they really are. On top of that they would get some vivid consensus flash of the way other people see them. The jerk who thinks he’s admired and efficient and envied … kind of a Renaissance man, actually … gets the blast and suddenly realizes, not for a second like the friend with the phone message, but permanently, as an absolute reconfiguration of the synapses, that he is in fact an inept blowhard, a bully and a fool; that people despise him and laugh at him behind his back. That his name itself has come to be a kind of joke, a slang word for an incompetent bungler who thinks he can do everything perfectly.

Iceman can encase you in a block of hardened snow; I think my power would be far more paralyzing.Cyclops can hit you with a bolt of sheet energy from his eyes; but you can recover from that attack.

Once you realize the truth, there’s no going back. Remember the first time you saw the flash in the upper right hand corner of the movie screen just before the reel change? Someone had to point it out to me. But now I always see it, and I always will.

Maybe my victims will take this knowledge and change. Maybe they’ll just get some kind of aneurism and collapse. Maybe they’ll spend a year or two whimpering in the fetal position. There’s no way to tell – I can’t predict that.

Hey, I’m just the messenger.

The classic Twilight Zone ending to the story of this power is that I blast someone, they move unexpectedly and it turns out they were standing in front of a mirror. The blast ricochets right back at me and I see I’ve turned into a pompous, power-crazed tyrant myself.
So I never unleash the power again.
Too bad, because the world could really use it.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Home Bureaucrat

For the last three months I’ve been struggling with the UMass bureaucracy to secure financing for my son’s semester abroad. My daughter is a social worker who spent most of the last two years helping her clients ( HIV positive homeless people) navigate the diabolical HUD paper-work labyrinth.

In the middle of yet another endless phone call (on hold for ten minutes until disconnected by the bursar’s office hang-up robot)I had a vision of what ordinary domestic life might be like if it were organized along the same lines.

In this fantasy I become the power-crazed institutional functionary. My girlfriend asks for a cup of coffee in the morning. Normally I make a pot when I get up. Not any more.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ll just need the coffee request form 676-J. When you get that signed by the Early Morning Activity office -- ”

“Early Morning Activity Office? What are you talking about?”

“We’ll need their approval. You can fax the form over to them after you’ve gotten it notarized."

“But I just -- ”

“When that’s approved you can turn it in for a single-cup-of coffee voucher --”

“Single cup off coffee? Who drinks a single cup of coffee?”

“Well, many people do, I assure you. There’s no need to be short with me. I didn’t make the rules. For multiple cups you’ll need an excess-of-ten liquid-ounces variance from the Hot Beverages Office.”

“The what?”

“It’s all very tightly controlled. We can’t have people just guzzling coffee willy nilly, M’am.”

“But, I – it …How long is all that going to take?”

“Hard to say. Depends on the brewing method. If you use the standard Mr. Coffee drip machine, and you have the sales slip and proof-of-purchase voucher, it could be as short a time as two weeks. But that has to be submitted with coffee-brand form and the grind specification sheet. The problem is, you can’t access the grind specification software until you have full approval on the coffee-brand form. That requires three signatures, one from each of the Morning Protocol offices. And you have to take those in personally. I’d get there early. Word to the wise. The lines can be brutal. Ironically, they often offer coffee and doughnuts on those lines, when they get too long.”

“You’re insane.”

“Being rude isn’t going to move things along any faster, M’am.”

“I just want some coffee.”

“Well of course. We all do. If it was up to me I’d just pour you a cup and be done with it. But I could get into a great deal of trouble for doing that. I’m sure you don’t want that to happen. I could lose my job.”

“Your job? You’re a housepainter!”

“I was. Now I’m District Supervisor for Caffeinated Beverage Distribution. So let’s stop whining and get started on this paperwork. You do have five forms of identification, don’t you? We require five forms of identification.”

“No one has five forms of identification!”

“Coffee drinkers do. As of January 1st, 2008. What can I say? It’s people trying to cheat the system. They make it worse for everyone. They think coffee drinking is a right. But in fact it’s a privilege and the sooner you appreciate that fact, the better it will be for you.”
I offer her a tissue as she starts to sob quietly, and pick up the phone to discuss tea-bag allocations with my supervisor. I’m good at this. I’ve been on the other side of it for months. I’ve learned the lingo.

I’d apply for the job, but there’s too much paperwork.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Live Blogging War and Peace #4: It's All in the Details

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.
This is because good writing is specific, bad writing is vague. Good writing thrives on details, bad writing generalizes. My Dad once told me the worst possible sentence to write in a novel. He had crafted it carefully, over the years: “Tannhauser was one of the great wits of Europe, and he held the entire table spellbound for hours.” It sounds good, but it tells you absolutely nothing. A friend of mine described an artist’s work-table in his perennially unpublished novel as “A chaotic cosmos of appurtenances”. I knew when I read it that this vague and almost contentless string of words was one of his favorite bits of writing in the whole novel. I’m glad it gave him pleasure as a writer; as a reader it gave me less than nothing. Compare that to this first glimpse of Nikolai Andrevitch Bolkonsky’s study:

The immense study was filled with things obviously in constant use. The big table with books and plans lying on it, the tall bookcases with keys in their glass doors, the tall table for writing in a standing position, on which lay an open notebook, the lathe with tools laid out and wood shavings strewn around it – everything spoke of constant, diverse, orderly activity. By the movements of the small foot shod in a silver-embroidered Tartar boot, by the firm pressure of the sinewy, lean hand, one could see in the Prince the still-persistent and much enduring strength of fresh old age.

The interesting thing here is that this is not some bravura performance piece paragraph – just another example of the workmanlike strong writing that animates every line of the book. In one paragraph he gives us the vivid image of the Prince’s lair, as well as the beast who inhabits it. We see it and more than that, we feel it -- along with the still potent personal magnetism of “le roi de Prusse” in his fresh old age. The small foot in the Tartar boot! That’s the kind of detail you never forget, the sort of small thing that accumulates gradually over a thousand pages, like the individual snowflakes that come together to comprise city-closing epic we end up calling ‘The Great Blizzard of ‘86”.

And it happens one snowflake at a time, every one of them modestly hand-crafted quietly unique, just like Leo’s sentences, every one of them good in its own way.

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Un-Popular Culture

Is it just me?
I hate everything that’s popular. Harry Potter. I don’t get it. I can’t follow it.I read one of those books and ten seconds later I can’t remember a thing about it. There’s a good Wizard teacher guy who's really bad and some bad wizard guy who’s really good, and some bad guy with no nose and a cute girl no one is ever going to sleep with. And a war about who’s the greatest wizard or something. And house elves. I have no idea.

Or how about George Lucas? This has to be the most idiotic guy who ever made a billion dollars. Everything has to be so insanely obvious – the bad guy is darth sidious and darth plague-us, in case you had any doubts about these giant thugs in black. They’re evil! Why not Darth scurrilous? Or just go with darth Evilis? Darth scumbagus Darth assholus, Darth what-a-total-dick -this guy is -us. And come on -- really ... did he have to call the big weapon the Death Star? What actual villain would ever call it that? They’d call it the Peace Star. Hello, George – all the real villains think they’re the good guys. Like you! And what’s with these worlds? Every world is one thing. A world that’s a desert, a world that’s a swamp. A world that’s a city! How insane is that? Is there a suburb planet?And where do these city planet people they get their vegetables from? The farm planet? And beef from the stockyard planet. I bet that place smells good. It’s the stupid universe.

Then there’s Pixar.
Is everyone sick of pixar yet? It’s always the same movie: bugs or fish or something inanimate ... talks! Like toys or cars or robots – It’s a talking car! It’s a talking doll! This time its a robot that squeaks. That’s it – something inanimate has feelings. And takes a journey. Enough already! What’s the next one? You can fill in the blanks yourself, like Mad Libs.
CHAIRS! The little kid's chair wants to be a big chair :“The master wants to throw me away. They’re redecorating!” and the evil baraclounger rules the house and there’s a lovable old couch that’s lost a pillow and Randy Newman will write some crap song - “You can sit on me”.
Even better – Pixar Disney presents --
MISCELLANEOUS APPLIANCES! With Dane Cook as the can opener. Not the crumby old can-opener – that’s Wally Shawn “OOO I hope this fancy new Can opener doesn’t take my job away!” Or else --
BRUSHES! The adventures of a toothbrush who wants to be a hairbrush! Chris Walken as the wily old paint brush! It’s a world with nothing but brushes in it. There’s more where that came from. Just buy the ticket. We don’t care.

I've had it. Maybe that's why I was reading Pale Fire while my friends were waiting on line to see Batman. I know what's going to happen in Batman. He's going to be tormented and conscience-stricken and then he's going to kick ass anyway. And stuff is going to blow up.

I'm sick of stuff blowing up, too. And guys walking away from the explosion in slow motion. It's one of those fresh new cliches, where everyone thinks they're doing something original. But they're not. You know who was doing something original? Vladmir Nabokov, in Pale Fire.

So I'll stick with that.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Live Blogging War and Peace #3: Pierre Bezukhov and the Tip-Toeing T-Rex

Sarah Hughes wound up sitting on the ice occasionally; Tiger woods has missed some easy putts. Dylan sings off key, Hemingway wrote Across the River and into The Trees, and Faulkner described a rainbow -- in terms of the rainstorm that preceded it -- as “the chromatic arch of its insubstantial armistice.”
We all make mistakes. Even Tolstoy.

I caught him cheating this morning, trying to gloss over a plot hole. It’s odd, because he uses a sleight of hand one sees much more often in bad movies than in great books. The trick is to set up something awful to build suspense: there’s really no way out of this one! Then you bob and weave a little, and save the day with no real explanation. Like in the incomparably awful Mr. and Mrs. Smith when brad and Angelina are trapped in the motel surrounded by SWAT teams … and the next thing you know they’re hiding from the troops under a grate in the street. How did they get there? Don’t ask! Just eat your ten dollar popcorn and drink your slurpee. Something else is about to blow up.

Here’s what Leo does:

Pierre Bezukhov is Count Kiril Buzukhov’s’s illegitimate son. The old man is dying and has written a letter to the Czar to legalize Pierre’s claim to the family fortune. Prince Vassily Kuragin and his various money-grubbing relations are expecting the inheritance (They’re cousins). They're already spending the money in their heads and the thought that Pierre might waltz in and steal their fortune has them spinning in a grotesque frenzy of rage and greed. Their solution is to steal the letter before it can be sent to Moscow. It’s in a portfolio near the dying man's bed, while the Count lounges and mutters in an arm chair at the other side of the room. It's an easy caper, because the Count’s back is turned and he’s only half conscious most of the time, anyway.

Standing against them is good old Princess Drubetskoy, who knows she stands to benefit if Pierre receives his patrimony. She’s off having a cup of tea in a different room when the theft takes place and it seems impossible for her to stop them – or even realize what they’re doing.

All is lost!
And then … for some reason, the thieves linger in the anteroom instead of making off with the document (or just tearing it up), giving Anna time to catch them. A wild tug of war ensues and Anna wins it and Pierre gets his inheritance. It’s hugely entertaining, but dragged along in the slip-stream of Tolstoy's narrative brio, the nagging question lingers: how did that work exactly? Why did the Kuragins wait around to get caught?

I was reminded of a similar lapse from a more recent master story-teller: at the end of Jurassic Park, the heroes are trapped in the Visitor’s Center by a pack of velociraptors – once again, all is lost. The carniverous dinosaurs circle the hapless humans, but when the first one leaps he gets bitten out of the air by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s a perfectly engineered moment and the audience practically explodes with relief and exhilaration. But later that night it must cross some peoples' minds to wonder ... how exactly did a tyrannosaurus Rex get into the Visitor’s Center in the first place? All through the film, the enormous creatur e's distant footsteps have caused the ground to tremble the liquid to jiggle in coffee-mugs. But this guy must have been walking on tip-toes, like a cartoon mouse in front of a sleeping cat. Because no one noticed him, not even the raptors, for whom the T-Rex is a primary predator.

It makes no sense – but I had to see the movie three times before I noticed.

I suspect that at a certain level, knowing the narrative force they can throw behind a scene, these great storytellers just don’t care. They’ve moving fast, they have the momentum: we want the family to survive the creepy dinosaurs and we want Pierre to defeat the creepy Kuragins. We want it so much that the details don’t matter, at least that’s the gamble.

Ultimately, it’s one that Spielberg loses. And Tolstoy loses, also.

A moment like this is lazy. It’s diminishing. In a lesser book it wouldn’t matter, but the first 80 pages of this one set the bar too high for this kind of cheating.

Still, the fact remains: striding through the narrow corridors of his immense, labyrinthine story, the giant stumbles occasionally; those great flailing arms, gesticulating to make a point, can knock things down, and there’s going to be some breakage.

As I blunder through my own novel, I find that truth perversely consoling.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Snakes and Ladders

As a painting contractor, I find myself turning into the harried patriarch of a dysfunctional family of ladders. It started when my son and I began naming them. The biggest one, the forty foot aluminum extension ladder whose upper rungs are held in place by bungee cords, we named Mongo. The next bigggest one, a brand new 35-footer, naturally became Mongo Jr. And that was where the trouble began. He didn't like the "junior" stuff, he wanted his own name and he felt, with some justification that he was a lot more ladder than the senior man on the crew. He had his own rope, for one thing, which made extending him to his full height easy. Mongo has to be jumped against the building while standing on the lower rungs. He hasn't had a rope for years. Most of the time,Mongo just lies there -- we only need him for the highest peaks and he is insufferably smug when he finally gets to make his appearance. "Guess you need a real ladder now," he seems to say. The only way to get a few more feet of usuable hight from Mongo Jr. is to attach a "stand-off" -- a bracket that holds the ladder off the building and improves the angle for painting. But MJ hates the bracket. He thinks it stigmatizes him as vertically challenged. I tried to explain that the points of the bracket are wider than most windows and "stand-offs" are usually used to paint window casings. But he's not buying it. None of the ladders like the stand-offs. It's like having crutches cuffed to your arms. I'm like -- "Hey! I'm just trying to paint a house here!"

My next biggest ladder really is handicapped. He used to have adjustable legs so you could use him on uneven ground. You can imagine the resentment that caused! Because of course had had to brag about it. "Maybe you should get a cinderblock to put under Mongo's right leg. Or you could just let a professional ladder to the job." Ugh -- insufferable. But now the adjustable legs have rusted and the only was to make "Leggy" as we call him useful is to bind his slats with more bungees. The bungees would like a little credit for making the whoole motley crew functional, but no one cares what the bungees think. Now every time I have to put a shingle or a plank under one of Leggy's feet to level him the others pounce. "Nice professional look, there, Legster" "You sure you can handle this?" How am I supposed to paint off a ladder who's having a breakdown? It's nerve-wracking. Next are the twins. Two twenty foot, "Mr., Home-owner"- style, lightweight ladders, "Slim" and "Jim". You can't use one without the other getting upset, and both of them feel like flimsy second class citizens. As to the step ladders -- don't get me started. Everyone treats them like dirt, but of course they have their own hierarchy. The fancy fiberglass eight footer sneers at the ever more wobbly wooden six footer who won't even talk to the poor aluminum three step we call "Bubby". You get them all on top of a van's ladder racks , it's like a box of snakes.

But I'm a good Dad and I love them all. You don't want to play favorites with heavy grade aluminaum, when you're forty feet up in a thirty knot wind.