Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Rare Activist-Type Post

About most issues I am, let's face it, a lazy, apolitical sod. However, this new bill which aims to reclassify the ways AIDS and HIV are designated for travelers, deserves our support. My link is to Andrew Sullivan's discussion of what the bill will do. In that discussion are links to the web sites of the two senators who have introduced the bill, John Kerry and Gordon Smith. I encourage all of you to go their web sites and voice your support.

"How Do I Act So Well?"

In my ongoing attempts to find comedic inspiration, I've been watching the last two seasons of Extras. My admiration for Ricky Gervais has been mitigated slightly by this interview in which he comes off, as the Brits say, as a bit of a prat. Still, the show is hilarious. The clip below is one of my favorite moments; it features Sir Ian McKellen teaching Gervais' character the secret of good acting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kant Attack Ad

Oh God this is funny.

Via: Andrew Sullivan.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

White Noise: An Exchange. Part II

Here's part two of my discussion with John about DeLillo's novel White Noise. Part one can be found here. Enjoy!

* * * * * *


I want to make a very brief comment at the top here to address a potential criticism. I understand what bad practice it is to critique a novel having admitted to reading only the first 30 pages of it, so in the time since our last exchange, I've finished the book. I'm glad I did, not least because I think I found a few things that I can usefully contrast to DeLillo's Underworld, a novel I liked a great deal, despite its flaws. But more on that next time.

You say you're getting ahead of yourself when you write about the mostly ominous tones on DeLillo's palette. (To quote you: "In the midst of banality lie great dangers. But we humans are blind! We don't pay attention! We're distracted by all our objects, by the machines and products which fill our empty days!") Luckily, this is a conversation, and you're not getting ahead of me. In fact, you're reading my mind. The first thing I wanted to mention in my second salvo is this passage, while the family is gathered in the kitchen:
The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.
This is ridiculous for several reasons, some of which even contradict each other. I'll label them until I get bored or run out of letters: A) First and foremost, it makes an obvious point in the (non-)guise of a bad image. It's even followed by a section break, meaning its profundity is expected to not only register, but to linger. Instead, this pause only serves to emphasize the ridiculousness. B) It's not practically meaningful. Smoke alarms go off all the time without fires around. Especially in the afternoon, with everyone awake and aware, they shouldn't be panicked about it. It's like saying people should react to every blaring car alarm as if a vehicle is being hotwired. C) Speaking of practicality, forget about checking for fire; not one member of the family goes up to just rip the damn thing off the ceiling to stop the noise? Really? They finish their lunch in silence? (Of course, it wouldn't even be silence, with the soundtrack of the alarm.)

See, it's hard to start unpacking moments like that one, because it's like addressing suitcases fresh off a month's vacation overseas -- you could waste the better part of a day doing it. What's important is that, as a reader, you register all those complaints internally and instantaneously. This makes for a bumpy and frustrating ride.

But at least the smoke-alarm variety of menace attaches itself to an actual object. At least as often, the sense of something momentous is left not vaguely defined but undefined:
Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
That's pretty general, all right. It's what Myers referred to as "the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers," though I'd say even that description is generous.

Since you brought up Myers, I went back and looked at that essay, which I read when it was published in summer 2001. And now I'm feeling a bit bad that we're having this conversation, since he pointed out many of the same things, though we've yet to truly lapse into plagiarism. (Myers is back at it in this month's Atlantic, putting his full nelson on Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. I haven't read Smoke, but I thought Johnson's Angels and Jesus' Son were both terrific -- particularly the former. I don't know -- at his best, I think Myers is a needed corrective to a culture of book reviewing that increasingly doesn't discuss books on the level of their prose. But at his worst, I think he's someone who magnifies a sentence or two from a 700-page novel in order to make points that may be too fine. On balance, I think he's a less histrionic version of Dale Peck, and I do think there's room for someone like that.)

(By the way, apropos of nothing, my spell-check inquired about not one, not two, but 22 of the words in the Rabelais passage you included last time. Spell-check needs to brush up on its 16th century something fierce.)

OK, I'll leave a couple of other brief points for my next (last?) missive. Feel free to broaden the scope of this discussion, now that Myers has been introduced. Or not. Blog free or die.




I love this; your points are both funny and true. Why doesn't anybody turn off the fire alarm? I'd never thought of that! I want to linger on this passage, actually, because it provides me a convenient entry to discuss what I believe to be the book's central problem. And that problem is this: it has a thesis. (Roughly: the endless, inescapable presence of data in American life alienates us both from each other and from ourselves. The result is that we inhabit an empty and sterile world, in which our only relief from fear and suffering is unthinking consumption.)

Many people (like Joshua Ferris, on whom more in my next post) seem to think this thesis constitutes a powerful insight into American culture, and of course those are the people who most admire the book. I think a very interesting discussion could be had on the thesis itself. (Perhaps you could address that in your response?) However, I'd like to make another argument, which is that a work of fiction should not have a thesis.

I'm not saying novels should not contain ideas. I'm saying they should contain many ideas. Because, if it aims to show the world as it is -- to represent reality -- art must make an effort to show that the world is a multifaceted, and often contradictory place, certainly not one that can be reduced to some simple ideology. I think you could make a strong argument, in fact, that the very purpose of art is to provide structure in which these sorts of competing and contradictory ideas can coexist. (And in so doing, offer some kind possible hope for existing in a pluralistic democratic society.)

I think that the effect of a thesis on the reader and the writer is to create a book like White Noise -- one in which every single human interaction exists in part to prove the book's central idea. So, to return to your fire alarm scene, the reason his characters don't turn off the fire alarm is not because that's the kind of people they are, or because they have some psychological or exterior reason not to -- it's because Don DeLillo doesn't want them to, because he's trying to make a point. And that justifies 90% of what happens in the novel. No one in White Noise speaks as a person in the world would speak or acts as a person in the world would act. I understand that novels aren't reality and that artists have to distort things for effect, but while reading White Noise with any degree of attention, you constantly say to yourself: This is totally wrong. This wouldn't happen. This is not the way the world is. People don't talk like this. Etc. etc. To which I think DeLillo would say: but I'm trying to prove a point. To which I would say: but the fact that your point forces you to distort reality so gravely only proves how empty it is.

I looked for scenes where this distortion occurs, but it was hard to choose. There's one on almost every page. People think in lists, or in vapid and portentous banalities (the passage you quote about the "sorrowful weight" of possession is a perfect illustration). They don't speak, they lecture, and their argument is always part and parcel of the theme:
"This is the new austerity," he said. "Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I'm not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It's like World War III. Everything is white. They'll take our bright colors away and use them in the war effort."
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies?"
"What is there?" "Heavy molecules. The whole point of space is to give molecules a chance to cool down after they come shooting off the surface of giant stars."
"If there's no hot or cold, how can molecules cool down?"
"Hot and cold are words. Think of them as words. We have to use words. We can't just grunt."
"It's called the sun's corolla," Denise said to Steffie in a separate discussion. "We saw it the other night on the weather network."
"I thought Corolla was a car," Steffie said.
"Everything's a car," Heinrich said.
It's one reason I don't think you really needed to read past page 30; the book is just the same idea over and over and over again. There are no additional pleasures; the language is workmanlike, the characters are flat, the dialogue is preposterous. As Myers notes, many people say it's a very funny book, but almost none of them ever actually bother to point to what in it makes them laugh.

I want to briefly describe why White Noise, more than almost any other book of the last twenty years, excites such an intense response in me, but I'm going to wait for a later email. Hopefully I'll also have mustered up some thoughts about B.R. Myers, a critic I very much admire. In the meantime, I'm curious what you have to say about this idea of art that has a thesis. Can you think of any successful art that's animated first and foremost by a single all-encompassing idea? And what do you think of White Noise's thesis? Is it true? Is it powerful?


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Baby Baubles?

Should I be disturbed by this? Because I actually found it kind of sweet.

Though I have to believe that a diamond bracelet is nowhere NEAR just compensation for being pregnant, if the only scale for comparison is pleasure and pain. But maybe I underestimate the joy of diamonds.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Writing Life

After a week of brutal slogging, I resolve a tricky problem with the plot of my TV spec. The solution is a complicated five-page scene in which I manage (I think) to both be funny and clear up a number of story inconsistencies. For an hour afterwards I allow myself to reflect, contentedly, upon my TV-writing powers.

This morning, I realize that my five, laboriously rendered pages can be replaced by a half-paragraph speech. I do nothing. The pages I already have are fine, I tell myself. Not just fine: outstanding! Such brilliance, surely, should be preserved?

Today I steel myself and make the cuts. The script is already too long and the pages in question introduce a plot-line that distracts from the main story. It's true, the jokes were good. But if I came up with good jokes once, I can probably come up with them again. At least, that's the hope.

All this work for something I don't even like. Bleah.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Pound and The Cantos

In grad school I briefly attended a seminar on Ezra Pound's Cantos, a very long and generally tedious 'poem' with which Pound occupied the last third of his writing life. It was like watching a demented preacher harangue people about some obscure God that likes to eat his own children. I confronted the professor on the second week with an Auden quote that "poetry makes nothing happen," incurred his wrath, and stopped going soon thereafter. I read about half of The Cantos that semester before deciding I could find better things to do with my time. Like, for example, hit myself over and over with a shovel.

That's not totally fair; there are some nice moments in The Cantos. But to find them requires wading through vast amounts of dreck. Anti-semitic ranting, half-baked theories about world monetary policy, mistranslated Chinese ideograms--it's all there. Someone (who?) once compared reading The Cantos to being lead through a museum filled with exhibits on every culture and idea the world has ever known by a guide who was insane. That seems about right to me.

I thought back on grad school tonight because the new issue of Poetry features an outstanding discussion of the Cantos written by Clive James. James is smart, his style is conversational, and he's very funny. Highly recommended. I just hope Professor Revell has a chance to read it.


For those of you who don't have time to read the entire article, here's a representative excerpt....
Nor did Randall Jarrell, who could appreciate the best of Pound but used that as the exact measure for finding the Cantos a mess, ever manage to put a big enough dent in the masterwork's reputation to hamper the academic attention that gathered against it like light against pyrites. The less precise Pound was, in fact, the more he invited explication. But if we don't know, and can't know, what one of Pound's more arcane pronouncements means to us, we are left with the obligation to be impressed that it means a lot to him. It's just a bad gag when he assures us that "ZinKwa observed that gold is inedible." ZinKwa, or someone like him, crops up frequently, straight out of an episode of Kung Fu and always making an observation that nobody in his right mind would ever try to rebut. A proclivity for Confucius-say-style, potted wisdom was high among Pound's worst habits, almost on a level with his admiration for the monetary theories of the Social Credit pundit Major Douglas. The two kinds of verbal tic were particularly deadly when connected, like a scorpion's double tail.

In Canto LXXVIII there is a passage meant to get Pound's economic theories into a nutshell:

taxes are no longer necessary
in the old way if it (money) be based on work done
inside a system and measured and gauged to human
inside the nation or system

Or, indeed, inside the space station or Battlestar Galactica. Every economic system features money based on work done inside a system and gauged to human requirements. The question is about whether it is based well or badly. But no amount of exhortation and incantatory repetition can make a guide to conduct out of hot air. In Section: Rock-Drill, Pound's faith that a sufficiently gnomic utterance will yield an unswerving truth reaches absurdity with such lines as "the arrow has not two points." Well, it certainly shouldn't have one at each end.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Scenes From A Marriage: II

The wife last night made a comment on which I have been musing these last few days: "If you bring another Thai mistress into the apartment while I'm sleeping, I'm going to give your car to dockworkers.” No. Actually, what she said was, "I had a good time Saturday night. (We'd gone out to dinner, and then had a few drinks). It was nice to sit with you at the bar. It's one of the only times during the week we get to talk."

Now, of course, I see my wife every night. (The mistresses are later). We certainly don't need to wait till Saturday to talk. And, in fact, we don’t—we talk every night (except on Tuesdays, when I drink Tio Pepe in the study with my former midshipmen). But, I know what she means. Weekday nights, in the apartment, is not an occasion which lends itself to moments of deep reflection on life and love. It’s an occasion which lends itself to Project Runway and bed.

But, of course, we have to talk. (Get to! Get to!) And this brings me to the sort-of point of this sort-of observation, which is that one of the skills, for want of a better word, one learns, being married, is to have and enjoy what I will call (non-pejoratively) “low-content conversation.” We can’t always talk about ‘important’ topics, either because we’re tired or because we have no new thoughts on the subject. But we want to talk—not to sit in silence. So we discuss small things: how best to store our baking powder; my wife’s various tribulations with the fitness cult she’s joined at our gym; what to get my brother for Christmas (A Maserati? Or a parrot?) And though some information is communicated, the point is less what we’re saying, than the fact of saying anything at all. It’s like, by speaking, we reassure each other we exist and that we care about the other’s existence.

It recalls to me this passage, from Donald Barthelme's Snow White. (I know: I quote him a lot. Because he's SO DAMNED GOOD).

Dan sat down on a box, and pulled up more boxes for us, without forcing us to sit down on them, but just leaving them there, so that if we wanted to sit down on them, we could. “You know, Klipschorn was right I think when he spoke of the ‘blanketing’ effect of ordinary language, referring, as I recall, to the part that sort of, you know, ‘fills in’ between the other parts. That part, the ‘filling’ you might say, of which the expression ‘you might say’ is a good example, is to me the most interesting part, and of course it might also be called the ‘stuffing’ I suppose, and there is probably also, in addition, some other word that would do as well, to describe it, or maybe a number of them. But the quality this stuffing has, that the other parts of verbality do not have, is two-parted, perhaps: (1) an ‘endless’ quality and (2) a ‘sludge’ quality. Of course that is possibly two qualities but I prefer to think of them as different aspects of a single quality, if you can think that way. The ‘endless’ aspect of ‘stuffing’ is that it goes on and on, in many different forms, and in fact our exchanges are in large measure composed of it, in larger measure even perhaps, than they are composed of that which is not ‘stuffing.’ The ‘sludge’ quality is the heaviness that this ‘stuff’ has, similar to the heavier motor oils, a kind of downward pull but still fluid, if you follow me, and I can’t help thinking that this downwardness is valuable, although it’s hard to say just how, right at the moment….

Having transcribed this passage I now apprehend that it actually has only the slightest relevance to what I’m talking about above. Either there is another passage from Bartheleme—and I think there is (about ‘blague?’)—that DOES address the topic, or I am just completely wrong. In which case, I invite you to draw whatever reasonable conclusions may be drawn from my initial post.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Poker: A Hand and A Question

The Hand

Just back from Puerto Rico. The last time I was there the casinos offered only 5/10 Limit, but they have No-Limit now. Here's a hand that came up after about a two hours of play.

Blinds were 2/5. I have played bone-tight since I sat down, raising only one pot preflop, and folding all the rest. The game is filled with maniacs.

I open UTG with JJ. The first pocket pair I've seen. I raise to 30$. Everybody folds until it gets to the Big Blind--an older man with what looks like dyed red hair. He has played very tight so far--checkraising two maniacs out of a hand on the turn with a big bet and the Nut Full House several hands ago. Anyone else at the table, holding the same full house (Kings full of Jacks) would almost certainly have called the turn and hoped one of the maniacs hit their draws on the river, but Red Dye pushed hard--too hard--on 4th street, turning what should have been a 400$ pot into a 150$ pot. (In No Limit the real skill isn't in winning hands; it's in maximizing the amount you earn on the hands you do win).

I go into his backstory because his tightness should have affected my play in this hand. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

From out of the big blind, he now reraises to 60.00$. Several things go through my head:
1) Oh no! Not THIS guy.
2) Is there any hand he would reraise with that I can beat?
3) Why such a small raise?

Probably he has me beat. Maybe he has KK and is making a tester raise to see if I will come back over the top. Or, maybe he has AA and is just trying to juice the pot. Could he have AK? If it's me and I have AK, I just call an UTG bet from a tight player. But donkeys abound.

First big decision: call, fold, raise? I can't reraise with JJ. But I don't want to fold. His cheap reraise has given me a chance to see a flop and maybe hit a big hand. If he has does have AA and the flop comes J 4 2, is there any way he's going to be able to get away from the hand? I doubt it. He has 300$ behind, so I'm effectively getting better than 10-1 on my call.

I call.

The flop: Q 9 5, two clubs.

I'm not too worried about the Queen; there's no way this guy has reraised with AQ. If he has QQ, well, I was beat anyway.

I lead out, to see if he has a big pair, betting 100$. He thinks for 20 seconds or so and calls.

I think: if he had KK or AA, he would reraise. He must have either 10/10, J/J, or AK. AK makes the most sense; he's probably calling to hope to hit an A.

The turn is a 4. I go all-in (220$). He calls and tables AA.

I'm broke.

So obviously I played the hand badly. I should have checked the turn. What threw me off is that Red Dye really was worried on the flop. He wasn't pretending to think; he really didn't know if he should call. I assumed that weakness meant he couldn't beat JJ; in other words, I assumed he would play the hand like I would play the hand. If I'm the one with AA there, I reraise the flop. He didn't--not because he was trapping, but because he was worried I might have a set of queens (I think). He knew how tightly I'd been playing thus far, and he was actually worried about his Aces.

It's an interesting hand only because it shows how much our opponents affect our play. If I'm heads-up in that same situation against a strong, pro-type player, I will immediately become afraid after he calls my flop bet. I know a strong player won't call with just AK, so I'm beat. But because everyone else at my table in Puerto Rico was playing loose and stupid (calling 50$ preflop bets with 8 2, e.g.) I assumed, subconsciously, that Red Dye was also loose and stupid. (It didn't help that he looked like he'd just broken out of a mental ward). I made an unwarranted assumption about his play, and it hurt me.

I also got hurt by not thinking more deeply about the table image I was projecting. Red Dye knows how tight I am; he can't believe I'm bluffing. Therefore, if he calls, he MUST have a good hand. Finally, I got hurt because of my own prejudices. I assumed that AA or KK would HAVE to raise that flop--because that's what most 'good' players would do. But everyone plays differently, and trying to make reads on people based on my opinions about how they SHOULD play is not ideal. Instead I need to try to think about how my opponents DO play. And that requires imagination.

In retrospect, I think the right line is to call pre-flop, thinking I'm probably beat, and then either check it down or make a small 1/2 pot-sized bet on the flop and if that gets called, check it down. It's possible that line forces me, against some opponents, to lay down the winning hand. But good players lay down good hands--winning hands, even--all the time. I was impatient and I didn't give my opponent enough credit. And that hurt me.

The Question

A decent player raises UTG. You are on the button with A7 of clubs. How many players do you need to call the UTG raise in front of you before you'll also call?

What do you all think?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pool and Cars

An interesting article in the New York Times on the demise of the professional Pool Hustler (so THAT's why I can't find games anymore!) I wanted also to link to a great piece in the New Yorker about learning to drive in China, but, sadly, it's not available online. But, read it! Especially funny is the description of the test Chinese drivers have to pass in order to acquire a license. I would transcribe, but I seem to have thrown the issue away. Which is odd, because my magazine pile contains several issues of the Atlantic published in 2006. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I'll be gone next week; top officials in Pakistan have requested I fly in to mediate between the factions currently struggling for control of the government. My plan is to bring them coffee cakes--and maybe a copy of "Frank Sinatra Croons Songs to Mediate Between Warring Pakistani Factions." If that doesn't work, I'll probably just find a cardroom.

Point is, no blogging. However, there are any number of succulent, long-thought out posts that still await your replies. Come on, people! What else do I have? Bad television, wine, and the few of you who read these posts to the end. Let's have some colloquy. Colloquy!

In the meantime, here's the conclusion to Barthelme's "The Genius." It can be found in his masterwork, Don Quixote.
His worst moment: He is in a church, kneeling in a pew near the back. He is gradually made aware of a row of nuns, a half-dozen, kneeling twenty feet ahead of him, their heads bent over their beads. One of the nuns however has turned her head almost completely around, and seems to be staring at him. The genius glances at her, glances away, then looks again: she is still staring at him. The genius is only visiting the church in the first place because the nave is said to be a particularly fine example of Burgundian Gothic. He places his eyes here, there, on the altar, on the stained glass, but each time they return to the nuns, his nun still staring. The genius says to himself, This is my worst moment.

* * *

He is a drunk.

* * *

“A truly potent abstract concept avoids, resists closure. The ragged, blurred outlines of such a concept, like a net in which the fish have eaten large, gaping holes, permit entry and escape equally. What does one catch in such a net? The sea horse with a Monet in his mouth. How did the Monet get there? Is the value of the Monet less because it has gotten wet? Are there tooth marks in the Monet? Do sea horses have teeth? How large is the Monet? From which period? Is it a water lily or group of water lilies? Do sea horses eat water lilies? Does Parke-Bernet know? Do oil and water mix? Is a mixture of oil and water bad for the digestion of the sea horse? Should art be expensive? Should artists wear beards? Ought beards to be forbidden by law? Is underwater art better than overwater art? What does the expression ‘glad rags’ mean? Does it refer to Monet’s paint rags? In the Paris of 1878, what was the average monthly rent for a north-lit, spacious studio in an unfashionable district? If sea horses eat water lilies, what percent of their daily work energy, expressed in ergs, is generated thereby? Should the holes in the net be mended? In a fight between a sea horse and a flitternmouse, which would you bet on? If I mend the net, will you forgive me? Do water rats chew upon the water lilies? Is there a water buffalo in the water cooler? If I fill my water gun to the waterline, can I then visit the watering place? Is fantasy an adequate substitute for correct behavior?

* * *

…But now a brown UPS truck arrives at his door. It contains a ceremonial sword (with inscription) forged in Toledo, courtesy of the Mayor and City Council of Toledo, Spain. The genius whips the blade about in the midmorning air, signing the receipt with his other hand….

Friday, November 9, 2007

Scenes From A Marriage: I

Here's a rough transcription of a conversation that took place recently between...uhm...two friends. It took place on the evening before the husband's birthday.

WIFE: (Seems unhappy).
HUSBAND: What's wrong?
WIFE: I already know I'm going to be really upset tomorrow.
HUSBAND: What? Why?
WIFE: Because it's your birthday, and you aren't going to have a cake.
HUSBAND: But I don't want a cake.
WIFE: Yes you do. Everybody wants a big cake on their birthday.
HUSBAND: I don't.
WIFE: Yes you do.
HUSBAND: I don't.
WIFE: Everyone does. And you're not going to have one. That means I'm a bad wife.
HUSBAND: You're not a bad wife. You're a wonderful wife. Why do I care about a cake when I have you?
WIFE: No I'm not. If I were a wonderful wife, I'd make you a cake.
HUSBAND: If you want to make me a cake, you can. You know I like your cakes.
WIFE: No, because you won't eat it.
HUSBAND: Yes I will!
WIFE: Not every day. You'll just eat it tomorrow. Then it will sit around in the refrigerator and go bad. That will make me REALLY upset.
HUSBAND: I'm sorry. I just don't like to eat cake that often.
WIFE: That's all right.
HUSBAND: What if you made a cake and we froze it?
WIFE (with profound scorn): You can't FREEZE butter-cream.
HUSBAND: I'm sorry.
WIFE: It's all right. It's my problem.
HUSBAND: Well, it's my problem too.

Gradual petering out of conversation. Viewing of "Beauty and the Geek."

ADDENDUM: in lieu of a big cake, several small lemon pound-cakes were prepared. The icing was sugar-based, thus allowing it to be frozen. The cakelets, as it were, exceeded all standards for lemon-based excellence previously held by the husband (no small connoisseur of lemon). Husband ate several. It's likely he'll have more tonight. I mean, that's what I hear....

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Viewing Notes: Une Femme Est Une Femme (A Woman Is A Woman)

For relevant film information, go here.

A short summary: Anna Karina plays herself. She struggles to choose between two men--her boyfriend and Jean-Paul Belmondo (best known to me as the star of Godard's earlier Breathless). She's also a stripper. And she wants a baby. But neither of those facts matter, because the movie has no real plot. Essentially it's just Anna Karina. If you think she's delightful, you will at least not hate this. If you don't think she's delightful--at least a little--you are either formed entirely of cobalt, or you are grouchier than even me. Which is no mean feat.

If you've never seen Anna Karina in anything, you should. I'd suggest Vivre Sa Vie, my favorite Karina-Godard collaboration. She's like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's but sexier and quoting Sartre. Stylish and iconic she represents, I think, the Platonic ideal of a French woman. Whatever that means.

Anyway, back to A Woman Is A Woman.

Here are my (drumroll for name of Feature): VIEWING NOTES.

-Exuberant and joyful but so intent on its whimsy it allows story and other long-term concerns to languish. Wonderful in bursts, exhausting as a whole.

-Scenes of people walking through Paris are filled with faces, strange juxtapositions of architecture, random and careless beauty. Godard makes Paris a character in all his films. Often it's the best one.

-Thought about France: Everything is subsumed by STYLE. All acts are are part of a look, an appearance, an attitude. (Based on a scene in which the boyfriend keeps showily opening, but not reading, a Communist newspaper.)

-A movie in which characters repeatedly say: "Men are ___. Women are ___." A formulation that should be used no more than once per day.

-In a similar vein: this is typical dialogue: "Is this a tragedy or a comedy?" "You never know with women." Sounds awesome! Makes not much sense.

-Many theatrical effects in search of an emotion to sustain or require them. Example: A scene in which the boyfriend and wife speak/fight by showing each other words on books which say their thoughts. ("Monster.")

-A great idea: two lovers who are always shown kissing outside Anna's apartment. We never see their faces. They never move. Backs to us.

-Anna Karina: artist first, actress second. That's not an insult.

-What I like most about Godard is this: he's not afraid of joy.

Announcing A New Feature

Introducing...Viewing Notes! (Dancing. Bears.)

Brought to you by your good friend at Toyota!

No, no.

In which I make notes about significant films. To qualify, a movie must be either from the Criterion Collection, or come highly recommended by someone I know. Also, I have to have my pencil handy during the viewing.

Probably this will mostly apply to "important films"--ones I watch, at least in part, because I'm supposed to.

It's going to be big. You'll see.

Friday, November 2, 2007

White Noise: An Exchange. Part I

My friend John and I are having a discussion about Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. Here are the first two emails.

John writes:

You know that I've only managed to make it through the first 30 pages
of White Noise, twice. Underworld is one of my favorite novels despite
its flaws, but for some reason the flaws seem much more glaring to me
in this novel, and yet I think it's generally held in higher regard. I
wanted to start by talking about his view of suburbia and consumerism.
On the very first page, the narrator itemizes the loot from a recent
shopping expedition:

"....the junk food still in shopping bags--onion-and-garlic chips,
nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints."

I think some people must find this funny, or insightful, or both. It
just seems silly to me. Maybe in the mid-80s, when the book was
written, just casting one's eye over a panoply of pop-cultural (or in
this case, pop-culinary) items stood as some kind of larger spiritual
commentary. Or is it just DeLillo who thinks noticing those things is
deep in and of itself? He resorts to gimmicks like this often early in
the book, which is one reason I can't bring myself to delve further.
Am I right, or does he back off a little bit as he goes?

Of course, when he tries to connect images like the one above to more
explicit commentary, I get even more agitated. A few pages later, he
goes back to the groceries for inspiration:

"It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls -- it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening."

It's clear that DeLillo is satirizing those who have a "snug home" in
their souls that is satisfied by food purchases. But whenever I read
something like the paragraph above, two thoughts occur: 1. Who are
these people who stake their existential happiness on family bargain
packs? Isn't DeLillo just creating them in order to destroy them? That
seems boring. I feel like people in the 'burbs with the giant,
gleaming grocery stores enter and leave them feeling like anyone else
would: depending on their mood. I frequently shopped at such places in
Texas. Sometimes it was thrilling -- on a good day, or some night at 2
a.m. when I was feeling wistful -- and other times it was deadening
and seemed like too much. DeLillo's stance, that it somehow inherently
reflects a larger soullessness, strikes me as a teenage feeling. 2. Is
it wrong to feel some kind of satisfaction from living a life that
allows you to have what you want/need? Where does DeLillo draw that
line? Put another way, how many groceries are you allowed to be happy
about before you become ridiculous?



So much to say!

The problem I’ve had in responding to your letter is that I agree so completely with everything you’ve said, I don’t know what to add.

On the subject of the supermarket: yes. DeLillo returns here (the supermarket) again and again throughout the book. It’s worth your time to compare the paragraph you cite to the book’s final paragraph, in which the narrator again revisits the supermarket. It would be a useful way for us to consider the book’s overall thematic development (such as it is).

On the subject of lists: yes. There must have been a time—maybe in the 70s—when providing long lists seemed an exciting literary technique. The master of this, in my reading, is Donald Barthelme. He stole the technique from Rabelais (among others) who frequently uses it as a way of undercutting (by overdoing) the gravity of a situation. Here’s Rabelais on the preparation for a siege:

Some from the fields brought into the fortified places their movables, bestial, corn, wine, fruit, victuals, and other necessary provision. Others did fortify and rampire their walls, set up little fortresses, bastions, squared ravelins, digged trenches, cleansed countermines, fenced themselves with gabions, contrived platforms, emptied casemates, barricaded the false brays, erected the cavaliers, repaired the counterscarps, plastered the curtains, lengthened ravelins, stopped parapets, morticed barbicans, assured the portcullises, fastened the herses, sarasinesques, and cataracts, placed their sentries, and doubled their patrol. Everyone did watch and ward, and not one was exempted from carrying the basket. Some polished corselets, varnished backs and breasts, cleaned the headpieces, mail-coats, brigandines, salads, helmets, morions, jacks, gushets, gorgets, hoguines, brassars, and cuissars, corselets, haubergeons, shields, bucklers, targets, greaves, gauntlets, and spurs. Others made ready bows, slings, crossbows, pellets, catapults, migrains or fire-balls, firebrands, balisets, scorpions, and other such warlike engines expugnatory and destructive to the Hellepolides.

This is totally irrelevant to White Noise. But I love Rabelais.

At some point, the newness faded—and that point was long ago. Now the technique has to be judged on its merits which I think, generally, are few. Lists make for uninteresting writing. The heart of any sentence—the engine—is the verb. Take that away, and you get flat, listless (no pun intended) sentences. They smack of laziness: they require the writer only passively record what he sees or imagines, and to dispense with subordination, logical reasoning, and ordering in time—the tools and exigencies of thought. White Noise is stuffed with lists (along with their ugly older brother, fragments). They reflect, I suggest, the essential intellectual laziness that characterizes most of the novel.

* * *

For me, it’s useful to consider the ways a book (as distinct from a poem, or a movie) can provide its reader pleasure. (Because pleasure, in the end, is what counts). If that seems to slight the role of art (shouldn’t they do more than just give us pleasure?) realize that I consider being taught, or made to feel, or—ideally—made to feel and think simultaneously—varieties of pleasure. Pleasure at its most rarefied, and noble.

In order to save something for the next letter, I’m only going to talk here about two ways of the numerous ways a novel can provide pleasure.

1) Humor, Laughter, Wit.

Many great writers are funny (perhaps all? Humorlessness a trait of all mediocre artists?). Some, I would submit, are great ONLY because they’re funny. The works of P.G. Wodehouse, for example, offer no great psychological penetration into the human soul. They don’t force us to examine our world, or to delve more deeply into its hidden mysteries. But they’re funny—sometimes very funny—and that’s enough.

Many who admire White Noise seem to think it’s funny (my edition features a glowing blurb from the New Republic that cites its devastating wit). I’ve read it three times, and at no point in any of those readings did I so much as crack a smile. Of course I can’t prove that it’s not funny—a negative can never be proven. But I would invite anyone who disagrees to provide examples of passage they find funny.

One of my favorite critical essay of the last few years was R.B Meyer’s, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” In it, he has this to say about DeLillo’s sense of humor:

Throughout DeLillo's career critics have called his work funny: "absurdly comic ... laugh-out-loud funny" (Michiko Kakutani), "grimly funny" (Phillips). And most seem to agree with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt that White Noise is "one of Don DeLillo's funniest." At the same time, they refuse to furnish examples of what they find so amusing. I have a notion it's things like "Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?" but it would be unfair to assert this without evidence. Luckily for our purposes, Mark Osteen, in an introduction to a recent edition of the novel, singles out the following conversation as one of the best bits of "sparkling dialogue" in this "very funny" book. It is telling that the same cultural elite that never quite "got" the British comic novel should split its sides at this.

"I will read," she said. "But I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered."

"'I entered her and began to thrust.'"
"I'm in total agreement," I said.
"'Enter me, enter me, yes, yes.'"
"Silly usage, absolutely."
"'Insert yourself, Rex. I want you inside me, entering hard ...'"

And so on. Osteen would probably have groaned at that exchange if it had turned up on Sex and the City. The fuss he makes over it in this context is a good example of how pathetically grateful readers can be when they discover—lo and behold!—that a "literary" author is actually trying to entertain them for a change.

2) Linguistic/Stylistic Beauty.

By “beauty” I don’t mean “complexity.” Updike and Nabokov are both fantastic prose stylists. So—in his quiet way—is Graham Greene. So is Denis Johnson. So is Raymond Carver. DeLillo, in my reading, is not. His prose isn’t awful; it’s not embarrassing. But neither is it special. Here’s a selection, chosen completely at random (it’s at the start of Chapter 21, page 107 in the Penguin Great Books edition):

After a night of dream-lit snows the air turned clear and still. There was a taut blue quality in the January light, a hardness and confidence. The sound of boots on packed snow, the contrails streaked cleanly in the high sky. Weather was very much the point, although I didn’t know it at first.

What can we say about this? There is a taut blue quality in (not “to”) the January light. Ok. I don’t think that’s a meaningful change. I think it’s supposed to be profound and ominous; I find it a little self-conscious. The third sentence (“The sound of boots...”) is a fragment, a favorite DeLillo technique. I think it works fine here; this is probably my favorite sentence in the paragraph. Stylistically, there’s nothing much here to praise or censure.

By the way, the paragraph’s ominous conclusion (“although I didn’t know it at first”) perfectly captures the book’s mood. In the midst of banality lie great dangers. But we humans are blind! We don’t pay attention! We’re distracted by all our objects, by the machines and products which fill our empty days!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s not much relevant to a discussion of White Noise, but I want to include a selection from Couples, Updike’s semi-notorious chronicle of infidelity among the leisured elite. It’s a novel whose characters repelled me and whose story didn’t really interest me. But I could not put it down, because of writing like this:

Piet was by profession a builder, in love with snug, right-angled things, and he had grown to love this house, its rectangular low rooms, its baseboards and chair rails molded and beaded by hand, the slender mullions of the windows whose older panes were flecked with oblong bubbles and tinged with lavender, the swept worn brick of the fireplace hearths like entryways into a sooty upward core of time, the attic he had lined with silver insulation paper so it seemed now a vaulted jewel box or an Aladdin’s cave, the solid freshly poured basement that had been a cellar floored with dirt when they had moved in five years ago.

I can ignore and forgive any issues I have with Updike because the prose affords me so much pleasure. White Noise does not.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Thoughts From Confucius

From The Analects:

The Master said, "A man is worthy of being a teacher who gets to know what is new by keeping fresh in his mind what he is already familiar with." (II, 11)

The Master said, "Yu, shall I tell you what it is to know. To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge." (II, 17)

Thursday, October 25, 2007


This article in the New York Times has made me homesick. A favorite quote (the writer is describing a Houston Tex-Mex restaurant named El Jardin):

Steaming combination platters of beef tacos and guacamole-topped chicken flautas cover the tables. For $5.55, the No. 16 was paralyzing — three pork tamales steamed in cornhusks dripped with gravy and cheese. You want to take a nap after lunch.

Monday, October 22, 2007

In Which I Rant About An Esteemed American Critic

Adam Gopnik is one of the best critics writing in America today. Along with Louis Menand and John Updike, he’s one of the critics in the New Yorker that I always read. He is intelligent, of course, (how do you become a critic for the New Yorker if you’re not? Only David Denby knows); but more importantly he’s enthusiastic; he isn’t cynical about what he reads and he manages to combine the erudition and training of an expert with the passion and perspective of an amateur.

That said, there is inevitably a passage in every one of his essays that irritates the living heck out of me. The passage in question this week comes at the end of a discussion on abridged versions of classic novels. (Apparently a British press is now publishing half-length versions of long 19th-century masterpieces like Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Anna Karenina.) Gopnik is surprised to find that most abridged novels seem to read as well as the originals.
“.... when you come to the end of the compact “Moby-Dick” you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

What drives me bonkers here is the last sentence. It’s intended to be clever, but in fact it’s false—and the reason it’s false is because Gopnik is trying so hard to be clever.

Why is it false? Because the abridged version of Moby Dick is not, in any way, phallic. I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not “reach” and “point” are accurate descriptions of a phallus; let’s say for now that Gopnik is right, and that they are (but they’re not). Even so, there exists no person in this Universe who, upon finishing a book sharing the traits with the abridged version of a classic—one that is “sound, sane” and well-plotted—thinks to themselves, “You know, that book had reach. It had point.” No one. Not even Adam Gopnik. How could he? Those words bear no relation to the reading experience he describes.

What’s more, Gopnik knows this. How can he not? Anyone smart enough to write the rest of this essay must have known, when he coined that formulation, he was saying something that was not true. He knew, and did it anyway. The pun at the end of the paragraph (“All Dick and no Moby”) was important enough that he could justify the falsity its creation demanded. He wanted to sound clever, and even though that required him to say something untrue, he didn’t care.

It’s one thing to distort experience because you are, at root, unable to capture it. That’s a lack of skill; and though it is a failing, it is not a moral one. But Gopnik has no problem getting experience right, if he wants to. He has the skill; he’s just chooses not to use it. (If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the essay). And that, ultimately, is why passages like these make me so angry—because his failure is not the failure of the mediocre writer. He could say something true, but chooses not to. He would rather sound smart than write the truth. And that IS a moral failing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

"L.A. Is The Apocalypse"

This mildly deranged, Dave Hickey-esque, rumination on L.A. comes from a pretty excellent blog about contemporary architecture, urban planning, and all sorts of other nutty stuff . (Via: ASWOBA). It's intense, but funny and--at least in my limited experience--fairly accurate.

Greater Los Angeles

No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you're fine: that's just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.
That's how we dooz it.

L.A. is the apocalypse: it's you and a bunch of parking lots. No one's going to save you; no one's looking out for you. It's the only city I know where that's the explicit premise of living there – that's the deal you make when you move to L.A.
The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you're the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

And maybe that means renting Hot Fuzz and eating too many pretzels; or maybe that means driving a Prius out to Malibu and surfing with Daryl Hannah as a means of protesting something; or maybe that means buying everything Fredric Jameson has ever written and even underlining significant passages as you visit the Westin Bonaventura. Maybe that just means getting into skateboarding, or into E!, or into Zen, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism; or maybe you'll plunge yourself into gin-fueled all night Frank Sinatra marathons – or you'll lift weights and check email every two minutes on your Blackberry and watch old Bruce Willis films.

Who cares?

Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You're alone in the world.

L.A. is explicit about that.

If you can't handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don't need, then don't move there.
It's you and a bunch of parking lots.

You'll see Al Pacino in a traffic jam, wearing a stocking cap; you'll see Cameron Diaz in the check-out line at Whole Foods, giggling through a mask of reptilian skin; you'll see Harry Shearer buying bulk shrimp.

The whole thing is ridiculous. It's the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who lives there knows that. No one thinks that L.A. "works," or that it's well-designed, or that it's perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it's interesting. And they have fun there.

And the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous. In L.A. you don't have to be embarrassed by yourself. You're not driven into a state of endless, vaguely militarized self-justification by your xenophobic neighbors.

You've got a surgically pinched, thin Michael Jackson nose? You've got a goatee and a trucker hat? You've got a million-dollar job and a Bentley? You've got to be at work at the local doughnut shop before 6am? Or maybe you've got 16 kids and an addiction to Yoo-Hoo – who cares?

It doesn't matter.

Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it's bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don't matter. You're free.

In Los Angeles you can be standing next to another human being but you may as well be standing next to a geological formation. Whatever that thing is, it doesn't care about you. And you don't care about it. Get over it. You're alone in the world. Do something interesting.

Do what you actually want to do – even if that means reading P.D. James or getting your nails done or re-oiling car parts in your backyard.

Because no one cares.

In L.A. you can grow Fabio hair and go to the Arclight and not be embarrassed by yourself. Every mode of living is appropriate for L.A. You can do what you want.
And I don't just mean that Los Angeles is some friendly bastion of cultural diversity and so we should celebrate it on that level and be done with it; I mean that Los Angeles is the confrontation with the void. It is the void. It's the confrontation with astronomy through near-constant sunlight and the inhuman radiative cancers that result. It's the confrontation with geology through plate tectonics and buried oil, methane, gravel, tar, and whatever other weird deposits of unknown ancient remains are sitting around down there in the dry and fractured subsurface. It's a confrontation with the oceanic; with anonymity; with desert time; with endless parking lots.

And it doesn't need humanizing. Who cares if you can't identify with Los Angeles? It doesn't need to be made human. It's better than that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is It Wednesday? I Guess It's Time To Define Love

Rainer Maria Rilke on love:
We must trust in what is difficult. It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult. It is also good to love, because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation…. Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

Pretty great, huh?
Via Cosmic Variance

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Final Solution To All Global Warming

Ok, that's a slight overstatement. I wanted to get your attention, though. This article, in City Journal, a market-centered policy journal, argues persuasively against carbon "cap-and-trade" programs. Such programs are increasingly popular (one now exists in Europe) solutions to Global Warming. According to the author, a better policy would be to implement a straight-up tax on carbon emissions and remove the numerous state and local regulations which currently make it almost impossible to build nuclear power plants. A thought-provoking piece.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Awful People

This scene, from Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, came to me inexplicably when I woke up this morning. (Shouldn't have eaten so much salsa for dinner). It shows what a great comic actor (Cleese) can do with even a minor part. Apparently Cleese drew inspiration for the role from watching minor British Royals press the flesh at soccer matches. (Excuse me: Football matches!) The last line is really really funny--not for the words so much as the delivery. Probably that's what makes great comic actors great; they can turn lines that, for most people, would be throwaways into something approaching high art. Enjoy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

For Your Enjoyment

-An insightful, if somewhat gloomy look at the current English-language literary scene in the New Criterion....

-Pinback, my favorite band of the last few years, has a new album out....

-A site my brother will appreciate: a brave young critic sets out to view and review every single movie in the Criterion Collection. To judge by his review of Andrei Rublev (tops, probably, on my "All-Times Favorites" list), he's a smart and articulate critic.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spotted: D-List Celebs!

The wife and I had a funny little LA moment on Friday. We went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner--a dive-y neighborhood place--and found a cameraman and producer set up in the main dining area. Turns out one of the couples (Heidi and...some guy?) from "The Hills" was eating there. The crew had come to record. Diners seated in the main room were being asked to sign release forms.

We ended up sitting directly across them (no camera though: they'd gone by then). Both looked supremely bored to be in each other's presence. At different points in the conversation they each talked or texted other people on their cell phone.

And she is REALLY thin. Unpleasantly so. Her arms look like pieces of balsa. Yech.

It was 6:30, too. Seems early for glamorous young Hollywood-ites to eat. But probably they were going to some big party that night. Or something.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Poker IV

I haven't written about poker in a long time. A long, long time. Mostly because I haven't played much in the last few months. That, and the goiter.

But, I'm just returned from Las Vegas ("The Big Easy") where I DID play poker (and won). So, to pacify my legion of enthusiastic readers (Legion!) I will describe two of the more significant hands I played this week. One of them, I played well. Another, not so well.

Setting: The Venetian 550$ Buy-in Friday Hold 'Em

Hand One

Blinds: 500/1000
Ante: 50

Midway through the tournament. We are down from four to two tables. I have the biggest chip stack at the table. To my left sits the other big stack at the table ("Cigarette"). He has an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, orange aviator glasses, and a variety of mustache generally associated with 1970s porn stars. So far he has played a loose aggressive game; my read on him is that he's not afraid to move chips around.

I am in the SB with 9/4 offsuit. Everyone folds. I call the blind (500) figuring that since we are the two big stacks and I outchip him (barely) we will play a small, unexciting pot.

Cigarette sees it differently. He doesn't check; he raises: 4000 more.

Most of the time, I would fold. After all, I have a terrible hand and very little invested in the pot. But something here feels wrong. My Spidey-sense, as it were, is tingling. I don't think he has NOTHING; but neither do I think he's especially strong. Most of all, I think he wants to take the hand down right now; he probably has a hand like AQ.

At this point, my table reputation is fairly tight. I've played only a few hand in the last hour. Almost every time, I've showed good cards. I should--SHOULD--be able to push him around. Or so I think. So, I raise 6000 more, for a total bet of 10,000. He considers long and hard. I try to study him; unfortunately the dealer sits directly between us. I sense, though, that he's not happy about my reraise. I'm not sure he completely believes me--he knows I know he seemed weak on his first bet--but he's definitely thinking.

He calls.

The flop comes: 3 7 8 rainbow. This is a great flop. If, as I suspect, he had high cards, it missed him altogether. So far my bets have represented a large pocket pair. This is the kind of flop that I should like. I lead out and bet 7000. He folds.

I show my cards to the table. I don't want to come off as a jerk; at the same time, I don't want to have to play big pots against him in the future. If he sees I'm slightly unpredictable he might be inclined, in the future, to let me see flops for cheap. He'll also be less likely to bluff at me; he knows I might play back.

As it happens, Cigarette man busts out about thirty minutes later; my attempts to 'set him up' for the endgame go for naught.

Hand Two

Blinds: 1500/3000
Ante: 100

The final table. We are down to eight. The top five are paid. I am second in chips to the player on my left (Pony-tail). Pony-tail is a solid player; he's mostly folded since he sat down. Twenty minutes earlier he won a very large pot off of me when he backdoored a flush on the river and I paid him off with two pair. It was that hand that lost me the chip lead.

My cards: A9.

Everyone folds to me on the button: I raise to 8000. (Blinds are 1500/3000). Pony-tail thinks and then calls. I'm not happy. He has shown no interest in defending his blinds before this hand. If he calls, he has a hand. Unless I hit the flop HARD I am done with this hand.

The Flop: As Ac 6s

Hard to hit it much harder than that. Except, to my consternation, Pony-tail now leads out and bets into me for 12,000. ??? Puzzlement. Confusion. Hello?! McFly? Doens't he know that I'm the one with Trips?

Does he have a six? Does he have a middle pair (8/8)? Is he using his tight reputation to try and steal? Surely if he had an Ace he would check here--wouldn't he?

I'm not sure. I'm either way ahead or way behind. If the former, he'll only fold when I bet. If the latter, I don't want to put any more money into this pot. I call.

Turn: 8d

He checks. I check. Same reasoning as on the flop.

River: Ks.

He now bets 20,000. !!!! What the hell is going on here? I go into the tank. The river has completed a spade flush. Is it possible he was betting the flop on a flush draw? Or did he have AK, and just make Aces Full? Or has he read my calls for weakness and decided his middle pair is actually good? Or maybe he had KQ and is now making some kind of value bet?

I have to be beat. There is no hand I can beat that would lead into me on the flop and river. I have 60,000 in chips. 20,000 is a significant amount. Could he be on a stone-cold steal? Does Pony-tail have that kind of guts? He is almost guaranteed to make the money already; would he really risk so many chips on a bluff? No. He must have a hand.

Or so I think. But then, I call. I have to see it. I know I am beat, but I have to see it. Because I am a donkey.

He shows: AK. He was ahead the whole time. He checked the turn because he was worried that I had paired my kicker (he knew I had an ace, too) and had filled up. When the King hit the river, he knew he was good (obviously).

The king killed me. Any other river and we probably check it down. But, I also killed myself. On the river, I should have folded. I could have folded. I couldn't beat any hand that could bet there. But it's hard, hard, hard to fold three Aces, especially heads-up. It's hard, but not impossible. I should have done it. But I didn't.

Epilogue: Once we got down to six players we chopped the prize money. Pony-tail had 40% of the chips at that point; the rest of us each had about the same amount. He got 5gs, the rest of us got 2400. Not a bad tourny. But if only I had folded that river....

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

This and That

I'm sorry I've neglected the blog this last week. I've been working madly on a teleplay, and when I get in my manic writing phases (MUST FINISH MUST FINISH MUST FINISH) I resent being involved in any other literary endeavor. And blogging, as I've learned in the last few months, is hard. It amazes me that John and Kate (plug plug!) manage to put out such elegant and thought-provoking posts with such consistency. Amazes and depresses me. Everyone writes so damn well!

So anyway, here's what's been going on in my life:

-I'm reading a book of short stories by David Gates called The Wonders of The Invisible World. Gates wrote the introduction to my copy of Little Dorrit, through which I slogged, as a knife might through a particularly tedious and deeply-frozen chunk of butter, this spring. I love Dickens, but Little Dorrit? I don't think so. The stories typically center around embittered intellectuals living in and around New York. But the writing is good, and there's enough wit and insight to lift it above the usual generic short story mush.

-The wife and I just finished the second season of The Wire. Wow. It's hard to praise the series as deeply as it deserves. The most significant thing I can think to say is that on three consecutive nights last week I had dreams that featured characters from the show. The only other TV that's done that to me was The Sopranos. If you walk through the garden, you better watch your back. (MAN I love Bunk! And Omar, of course. Has there even been a more stylish and charismatic criminal?)

-This weekend I'm going to Vegas. On Saturday, I'm playing a Celebrity Hold'Em Tournament at the Hard Rock Casino. You never know for sure--some celebrities take poker very seriously--but the poker skill of your average actor/rock singer/rap star is about equal to the field goal-kicking skill of your average 6 year old. Let's hope I catch some cards. Reports will follow, unless I bust out early on a runner-runner suckout. Then, they probably won't.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Distance From Loved Ones

I've been thinking about this poem recently, for reasons I'm not sure I understand. The poet responsible, James Tate, taught at the University of Massachusetts when I as at Amherst. Once or twice, I saw him wandering around town. He typically had a dazed, self-absorbed, fragile kind of aura about him--very much like a poet is supposed to. A holy innocent, he seemed, although I don't know how much of that was contrivance and how much was truth. Regardless, I love this poem.
Distance from Loved Ones
by James Tate

After her husband died, Zita decided to get the face-lift
she had always wanted. Half-way through the operation
her blood pressure started to drop, and they had to stop.
When Zita tried to fasten her seat-belt for her sad drive
home, she threw-out her shoulder. Back at the hospital
the doctor examined her and found cancer run rampant
throughout her shoulder and arm and elsewhere. Radiation
followed. And, now, Zita just sits there in her beauty parlor,
bald, crying and crying.

My mother tells me all this on the phone, and I say:
Mother, who is Zita?

And my mother says, I am Zita. All my life I have been
Zita, bald and crying. And you, my son, who should have known
me best, thought I was nothing but your mother.

But, Mother, I say, I am dying. . .

Thursday, August 23, 2007


As anyone who has been made to listen to the stories of my on-again, off-again love affair with caffeine will know, I regard the drug with a wary combination of fear and admiration.

Right now I am back "on."

Caffeine is to the human mind as the moon's gravity is to the tide. We drink caffeine in the hope that by increasing the force of the moon's gravitation, we will increase the power and the frequency with which we are blessed with waves (human thoughts). However, if the power and force of the moon's gravity grows too strong, then the waves break up--are torn apart, dissolve before they ever reach land. This is what it feels like to have too much caffeine. You have a million thoughts, each of last two seconds. You can't follow through on anything. The mind becomes a vortex, consuming without producing.

At the moment, luckily, I seem to have some waves coming to shore. On which I place surfers (words?) in the hope that their peripatetic and awkward stabs at beauty may, occasionally, succeed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Onion is still funny

"Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended"
My favorite part:
Hiles said he became drawn to the prospect of setting the play [The Merchant of Venice] in such an unorthodox locale while casually rereading the play early last year. He noticed that Venice was mentioned several times in the text, not only in character dialogue, but also in italics just before the first character speaks.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"A Certain Alienated Majesty"

Emerson is insane. I love him. This is from "Self-Reliance." I believe it was recorded in '77, just after Live From Budokan.
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time become the outmost,--and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to use with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impressions with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I Also Would Like My Own Rocket Sled

I have never in my entire life had any desire to jump out of an airplane. Several friends have done so; they all report it as being a glorious and life-affirming experience--one that I "have to try." Well, no: I don't. I'm perfectly comfortable here on the ground. I like not having to worry about plummeting thousands of feet to my death.

Strangely, though, I've always been fascinated by people who do jump out of airplanes. I'm especially interested in high-altitude drops--people jumping out of planes so high above the earth that they have to wear pressure suits and oxygen tanks to keep from dying. Part of my interest comes from my experience on airplanes. I sit there: I'm afraid; I look out the window and I always imagine what it would be like to fall from that height. ("Unpleasant" is my best guess). The fact that people actually jump from those heights--and much much higher--amazes me. And baffles me. (There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in my philosophy). Why do they do it? I guess it's the same mindset that causes people to climb high mountains, or live in trees. They want to prove to themselves it's possible.

Or, they're completely mad.

Such, I think, would be a fair assessment of John Paul Stapp, an Air Force physician who is among the various pioneers of super-high-alitutude skydiving profiled in "Falling", a fantastic article appearing in this week's New Yorker. (Unfortunately, the article in question is not available online: you'll have to get the print edition. For further information, go here.) To really get a sense of the true courage--and insanity--of the kinds of people who jump out of balloons suspended nineteen miles above the surface of the earth, you need to read the whole article. (It's well worth your time). Here, though, is a brief excerpt. The passage I'm quoting describes early tests conducted by John Paul Stapp to determine, basically, how much misery the human body could endure. Among his goals were to figure out if it were possible to parachute out of a jet, flying 70,000 feet above the earth at near the speed of sound, and live.

Stapp wanted to know the true limits of human tolerance. He used cats, chimpanzees, and human subjects for his research, but reserved the most dangerous tests for himself. Beginning in 1946, he made repeated flights to forty-seven thousand feet in an unpressurized plane, racking his body with the bends. (By breathing pure oxygen before a flight, he discovered, he could rid his blood of the nitrogen that would bubble up as the pressure dropped.) Later, he had a rocket sled built on a track in southern New Mexico and fired himself across the desert at up to six hundred miles per hour. By December of 1954, Craig Ryan writes in his 1995 book "The Pre-Astronauts," Stapp had broken his ribs and wrists, suffered concussions, hernias, retinal hemorrhages, and "searing headaches that lingered for days." His final sled run subjected his body to forty-six times the force of gravity and left him temporarily blind. But he survived.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Porcupine-Lay

I first learned about Patrick O'Brian through David Mamet, of all people. He claimed--I think it was in an interview--that the best novelists then writing (this was 15 years ago) weren't the so-called "literary" ones (Auster, DeLillo, Roth, etc): they were genre writers. As examples he listed John LeCarre and Patrick O'Brian. I read LeCarre almost immediately. (He's excellent, by the way). O'Brian, for some reason, I put off. Maybe I wasn't ready for twenty straight 300-page novels. I think I knew that once I started, I wouldn't stop. It was a big commitment.

Five years ago, I finally picked up Master and Commander, the first book in the series. I read it, then I read the series. A year later, I read the series again. In the process, I bought eight of the novels. Perhaps unfortunately, they now reside six inches from my reading chair. The result is that I reread them over and over--generally to the neglect of whatever book (usually 'literary') I'm supposed to be reading. At this point, I've probably read each of them at least ten times. I know them better than anything else in my shelves.

I don't have the time or ability to attempt a full-length appreciation of O'Brian. Briefly: he is amazing, and I would encourage you all to read him. As far as it's possible to know what it would be like to live in a different era, O'Brian, I think, knew. (By which I mean: imagined.) To read him is to have, at least in flashes, hints of that same knowledge. He's a writer of phenomenal intellect and great wisdom, of course; but more than that, he is a writer, like Shakespeare, able to depict fully-realized portraits of society on every level. Dukes and princes, admirals and captains, sailors and whores: they're all there. None of them are sentimentalized, and all of them are somehow real.

Big claims, I know, and ones that I can't illustrate in a single passage. Here, though, is one of my (current) favorites. The ship is about to leave port. "Jack" is Jack Aubrey, the captain and one of the book's heroes. The other character, Heaven, is insignificant to the plot:

...and now they had been together long enough, with a good deal of foul weather and some very hard fighting, to have formed a distinct community with a great sense of their ship and a great pride in her.

A somewhat anomalous community however in a ship that looked so very like a man-of-war, for not only did it contain no Marines, no uniformed officers and no midshipmen, but people walked about at ease, even with their hands in their pockets; there was a certain amount of laughter in the forecastle in spite of the parting; and the quartermaster at the con, wiping a tear from his cheek and shaking his grey head, did not scruple to address Jack directly: "I shall never see her like again, sir. The loveliest young woman in Shelmerston."

"A lovely young woman indeed, Heaven," said Jack. "Mrs. Heaven, if I do not mistake?"

"Why, sir, in a manner of speaking: but some might say more on the porcupine-lay, the roving-line, if you understand me."

"There is a good deal to be said for porcupines, Heaven: Solomon had a thousand, and Solomon knew what o'clock it was, I believe. You will certainly see her again."

Friday, July 27, 2007


That Louis MacNeice is less known and less read than W.H. Auden, his friend and fellow poet, has always seemed to me a shame. Auden, it's true, attains greater heights ("Musee Des Beaux Arts", "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"), but MacNeice is a far more consistent read. Brilliant lines litter the Selected Auden, but long stretches are tedious and hectoring. It is also increasingly irrelevant. Auden's poetry has become less useful now that the historical eras with which it engaged (Nazism, Fascism, Socialism) have faded.

The Selected MacNeice is less showily brilliant. It's pleasant, approachable, and humane. This is not to say that MacNeice was never virtuosic. "Sunlight On The Garden" and "Bagpipe Music" both are monuments to craftsmanship. But what distinguishes MacNeice's poetry is their matter-of-fact-ness. It's a volume you can open at any page and find that most desirable poetic commodity: pleasure. This is one of my favorites.

Goodbye, Winter,
The days are getting longer,
The tea-leaf in the teacup
Is herald of a stranger.

Will he bring me business
Or will he bring me gladness
Or will he come for cure
Of his own sickness?

With a pedlar's burden
Walking up the garden
Will he come to beg
Or will he come to bargain?

Will he come to pester,
To cringe or to bluster,
A promise in his palm
Or a gun in his holster?

Will his name be John
Or will his name be Jonah
Crying to repent
On the Island of Iona?

Will his name be Jason
Looking for a seaman
Or a mad crusader
Without rhyme or reason?

What will be his message--
War or work or marriage?
News as new as dawn
Or an old adage?

Will he give a champion
Answer to my question
Or will his words be dark
And his ways evasion?

Will his name be Love
And all his talk be crazy?
Or will his name be Death
And his message easy?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fun With Fatwas

Nutty fatwas from important Islamic leaders. The second is the best. Apparently, it is forbidden for married couples to be completely naked during sex. The workaround, proposed by a fellow Imam, is even better....

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pure Intentions

Next time you’re in the supermarket, go to the soap aisle and read the label of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

Actually, that’ll take too long. Just read this. It’s a selection—one of the milder ones—from the aforementioned label
The 2nd coming of God's Law" Mohammed's Arabs, 1948, found Israel Dead-Sea-Scrolls & Einstein's "Hillel" prove that as certain as no 6-year-old can grow up free without the abc, so certain can no 12-year old survive free without the Moral ABC mason, tent & sandalmaker, Rabbi Hillel taught carpenter Jesus to unite all mankind free in our Eternal Father's great All-One-God-Faith! For we're All-One or none: "Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!" Exceptions? None!

Yep, that’s a soap label being quoted. And it goes on. And on and on and on.

Dr. Bronner, it turns out, cared about more than getting people clean. He wanted to reform mankind. The soap was a vehicle; it allowed him an outlet for his…philosophy.

I know all this because last night I saw Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, a documentary on the great man. It was outstanding. With a subject as…intense…as Dr. Bronner, how could it not be?

I cannot possibly do justice to the movie or the philosophy in a few paragraphs. Here, though, is a very small selection of what I've learned about both.

1) Dr. Bronner’s philosophy (explicated, at length, on the bottle) centered around something called the moral ABCs. He believed his mission on earth was to teach the world the moral ABCs. Once he had done so, war would end and mankind would unite in love and happiness.

2) The Moral ABCs appear on every bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. There are thirteen (which makes me think they should actually be called the moral ABCDEFGHIJKLMs. But no matter). Here is ABC number 11.

Essene & Chinese birth controls must reduce birth or Easter Isle type overpopulation destroys God's Spaceship Earth! God's law prevents all conception below pH3. Therefore, Essene contracepted for 400 years with rosehips, pH2! So, absolute clean, apply vaseline oil, butter or cream, insert teaspoonful juicy lemon pulp, pH2. O.K.! Next day, douche with qt. soapy water, pH8, restoring pH5 balance God made! Eggwhite is pH9. Dr. Bronner's soap, pH8, guaranteed the mildest made; below pH8 soaps biodegradable, synthetic-sulfides cannot. At conception, 10 grams contain 100 million humans! or... 10 HUMANS IN 1 INVISIBLE MICROGRAM - SMALLER THAN DUST!

3) Dr. Bronner believed that every 76 years, in time with Haley’s comet, a prophet would return to help guide man back towards peace and unity. Examples of past prophets include Jesus, Muhammad, Hillel, and—and I am not making this up—Mark Spitz.

4) Really.

5) Dr. Bronner was institutionalized in the mid 40s. He escaped and made his way to Los Angeles, where he dedicated himself to selling soap.

6) During the 40s and 50s, Dr. Bronner called the FBI on a near-daily basis. He complained, mostly, about the presence of communists within America. He hated communists.

7) As who does not?

8) During his life, Dr. Bronner filled more than 3000 audio cassettes with thoughts about his philosophy. Unfortunately most of it remains, to this day, untranscribed.

9) Dr. Bronner’s grandsons, who run the business today, are major figures in the drive to legalize industrial hemp.

10) His son, Ralph, recently starred in a one-man, off-Broadway play. In it, he tells stories about growing up with his legendary father. In his youth Ralph was left with strangers for years at a time so that his father could travel the country lecturing on the moral ABCs. Amazingly, Ralph holds no grudge.

11) This list captures no more than 10% of the Bronner family’s craziness.

12) Really, more like 5%.

13) You need to see this movie. Believe me.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A New Town

"When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveler sees not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this process is carried out in rotation. Now I shall tell you how. On the day when Eutropia's inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others. Since their society is ordered without great distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from one function to another takes place almost without jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments, so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely returns to a job that has already been his.

Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; the open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous miracle."

-from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Poker III

My first foray into the LA poker world went...badly.

You never really know, when you lose, how much of it is due to bad luck and how much is due to poor play. It’s easy to assume that every time you win you played well. Similarly, it's easy to beat yourself up every time you lose. (As I have been all week). But the two don't necessarily relate. You can play very well and lose, and you can play very poorly and win. To play “well” means that you play in a way will win over the long term. It means you put money into bets that will win more often than they lose. But in the short term, anything can happen. If you’re constantly putting money in on hands that are 80% favorites, you’re a good player. Even so, 20% of the time—1 in 5—you’ll lose. And if your opponents are any good, realistically you’re much more likely to be putting money down on hands that are only 55-60% favorites.

So it’s helpful for me to think about how I play independently of how much I win or lose. To evaluate decisions, not results. (A tactic, by the way, that I think is useful outside of playing poker. That's why poker is REALLY interesting--because of how much it connects to).

I think I played OK last night. B-, let’s say. Maybe I’m just being charitable.

Most of my losses occurred in one hand. I describe it below. I still don’t know if I played it well, badly, or somewhere in the middle.

Game: No Limit Hold’Em
Blinds: 5/10
Place: Mos Eisley (otherwise known as Commerce Casino--“a wretched hive of scum and villainry”)

My hand: 8d Qd

I’m on the button. Everyone folds to the cutoff, a terrible terrible player. He limps in. He’s already shown a willingness to call enormous off bets on very thin draws. He’s also on tilt. I have position and I feel pretty good about my chances of outplaying him after the flop. I raise to 40.00$. I figure I’ll either take down a small pot (of the blinds and the donkey’s limp) or he’ll call, and I’ll play heads-up, in position, against a poor player.

Instead, the Big Blind re-raises, making it 75.00$. Limping donkey calls (putting in 65.00$ more on top of the 10.00$ he’s called with, on a hand not good enough to raise the button and the blinds).

It comes back to me. I consider the Big Blind. He’s a decent player, I think. But, like most players at the middle-limits of NLHE, he’s already shown an inability to fold big hands. (He’s lost a large pot earlier when his overpair got beat by a set.) He’s clearly ahead of me at this point in the hand—I put him on KK or AA. However, I have a hand that will be very easy to get away from if I miss the flop. And if I do outflop him, I think he might pay me off. Also, there’s limping donkey. He can’t lay down anything; god knows he’ll pay me off.

If I call the BB’s raise, I’ll have a little more than 400.00$ left. The big blind has more chips than I do; the donkey has about 200.00$. That means I have a chance to turn my 400.00 into 1100.00$.

Or so I tell myself as I (perhaps mistakenly) call.

The flop: 8h 10d Jd

Huzzah and hurrah. This is about as good a flop as I can ask for. I have a diamond flush draw, an inside straight draw, and a pair. If the Big Blind has AA or KK, I have a total of 17 outs (two eights, three queens, three (non-diamond) nines, and nine diamonds). It's impossible to put the donkey on a hand, but even if it's something as good as 9/Q , I have outs to beat him.

The big blind bets 150.00$. The donkey goes all–in (it turns out to be $280.00). I think for not very long, and go all-in as well. The pot has gotten large enough to justify a call, and if I'm going to call 280.00, I may as well reraise. It's unlikely I'll push out the BB, but it's not impossible. Anyway, I'm willing to play for all my chips. Even though I’m trailing, I doubt I’m worse than a 40% dog. As long as neither player has a diamond draw, I like my chances.

The BB thinks for a while, and then calls.

He tables: Ad Ah
The donkey tables: Js 9c

I am 44% to win at this point. (I find, now). I have invested a total of 450.00 to try and win 1150.00$. I am being laid the correct odds. Which is small comfort when the turn and flop come 10, 2 no diamond, and the Aces rake the pot.

In retrospect, I guess I could have folded preflop. There was enough dead money at the table that it might have been smarter to wait for a more clearly favorable opportunity to get all my chips in the middle. While it's true that this was the statistically correct play, it's also true that, psychologically, it can be difficult to open a session by losing 600.00$.

Once the flop came, though, I can’t get away from that hand. Can I?