Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Elative Absolute

This article in The Economist tries to determine which of the world's spoken languages is the most difficult to learn. Here's a sample:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

Beyond sound comes the problem of grammar. On this score, some European languages are far harder than are, say, Latin or Greek. Latin’s six cases cower in comparison with Estonian’s 14, which include inessive, elative, adessive, abessive, and the system is riddled with irregularities and exceptions....

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Until 2010




Tomorrow is the return of Fly The Dog Across the Country Day. Today we had the vet inspection (What a racket! 60$ for a certificate to fly, obtained by having a vet do nothing more than weigh our dog and look in his ears. Give me a break).

I don't expect to be doing much posting between now and the New Year, so Merry Christmas to all from our family to yours. I leave you with a few more shots of Bink in holiday gear. Happy Holidays!



Friday, December 11, 2009

As Promised






Christmas in ANCIANT-land. Note the glorious wood panelling in the room around the tree. I described our living room area to my wife as "An Arkansas Hunting Lodge Christmas." She didn't like that. Still I can't help feeling, when I look at our tree, that Kenny Rogers should be coming out from the next room any minute to do a Christmas duet with Dolly Parton. That's not a bad thing, by the way. It's just unexpected.

Bink's hat doesn't show as well as it could in these photos. We've got some antlers rustling around somewhere; hopefully those will be a bit more majestic.



Monday, December 7, 2009

What Is Up

It has been, I know, a long time since I put up a new post. I'm sorry. I've been doing nothing for the last month but writing, sleeping, and playing poker. Well, that, and the occasional dose of Reality TV. (Season Finale of Top Chef this Wednesday!) I'm resolved to take a break from my own work in January and return to work on a movie list that I started several months ago. I'm also considering posting an excerpt from a script in progress, with the idea that you all might give me some constructive criticism. (By which I mean, like any writer who says they want constructive criticism, I'm hoping you'll say it's great over and over and over again, and nothing else.)

Before the holidays, I do plan to have some more photos; we've got a tree up now, as well as some exciting Christmas-themed outfits that the Bink, his own desires notwithstanding, will no doubt soon be modeling. I'd also like to put up a post about the third season of Mad Men, which we've almost finished. But I cannot promise anything. I've been winning significant money playing poker online, I'm doing good work on a TV Pilot, and I'm making real progress on my lifelong goal of becoming the first-ever Heisman trophy winner to play the lead in a Broadway revival of West Side Story. I've got a lot going on, in other words, but I'll be back soon. Until then, may all your chestnuts dance and crackle, and your sugar plums be tasty, and your wombats fill the night with joyous ulultation.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Best Moments in the Wire

One of the contributors at Pajiba has seen fit to compile clips of what they believe to be the 100 greatest lines of dialogue from HBO's epochal series, The Wire. A few of my favorite lines are missing, but it's still well worth your time.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What The Fasionable Dog Will Be Wearing This Fall




For my wife, dressing up our dog in fun seasonally-themed outfits is a standing temptation. The pumpkin-hat seen here is a little big, but I think Bink makes it work. When you have this much style, it needs to be shared.

Christmas, by the way, is going to be something.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Afternoons

Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acorns,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.


-Philip Larkin

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Renewal

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.


-James Merrill

Saturday, October 24, 2009

East Coker

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

-T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"American children are fattened more efficiently than any other children in the world."

So far, Parks and Recreation has been mostly ho-hum. I watch it because I'm lazy and it's on near enough to 30 Rock for me to give it some respect. Last Thursday, however, it finally lived up to its promise. The episode, "Sister City," was about a visit from a delegation of Venezuelan Parks Department Officials to the show's home of Pawnee, Indiana. Fred Armisen, perfect as usual, played the supremely patronizing and entitled head of the Venezuelan delegation. ("We thank you for this container of sap, and the bag of garbage....") but the entire cast was excellent. There were at least a dozen laugh-out-loud moments (the relationship between the two interns was particularly great). It's starting to seem as if the show is hitting on all its cylinders. Check it out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Plug

I've recently joined a subscription DVD service called Film Movement. For about 100$ a year, I get one obscure foreign movie (and accompanying short) sent directly to my house every month. I don't have to return them; they're mine to keep. That means that if I want to watch Munyurangabo, the story of a young Tutsi who steals a machete from a market in Kigali, or Spare Parts (the synopsis for which begins "Embittered widower, Ludvik, spends his nights transporting illegal refugees in his van from Croatia, across Slovenia, and into Italy")--eight or nine or thirty times in a week--well, who's going to stop me? (Besides my wife.)

I watched my first selection, Gigante, last week. The story of a lonely, heavy-metal loving security guard whose work monitoring the video surveillance at a soulless, Walmart-esque grocery store in Montevideo suddenly grows meaningful when he develops an unrequited love for one of the cleaning staff, Gigante is the first movie I've seen set in Uruguay.

Gigante was solid--not mind-blowing, but certainly worth my time. (Although can I just say that I'm officially tired of stories about people watching other people. Yes. I get it. We're all watchers. We live in a hypertextual miasma of disconnected emotions and pixellated love. Blah blah blah....Baudrilliard.... blah blah... Art in the Age of Mechanical... blah blah.... [stabs self in face with pen]....)

Point is: it's a tired conceit. Rear Window was working with the same ideas fifty years ago and in ways that were far more interesting and complicated than the subsequent imitations. (Interesting trivia: originally Rear Window was also supposed to be set in Uruguay, but they had to move it back to the States after the unions complained about the poor quality of the beaches in Montevideo.)

Where have I gone? Oh, I know. Gigante. Basically worth my time. The subtlety and precision of the actors as well as the overall sweetness of the story (love triumphs; faceless corporations everywhere agree to give out bunny rabbits to all employees once per day) kept me involved. Also, I get to listen to some Biohazard. And that can never be bad.

So, I'm excited. Film Movement. Check it out.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Yesterday in LA

I met yesterday somehow (how) not one but two
actual poets. In Los Angeles. Well actually I met
only one—the other was her husband—but still.
What are the odds? Slim, I says,
slim. And now, again, my thoughts turn to poetry
as the corn stalk thinks of sunlight
fitfully
dozing in its dark seed cell.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Status Update Wombat

No big topics here, but I thought I'd give my legion of half-crazed fans a soupcon of glorious ANCIANT.

Glorious glorious.

-What the hell is up with Glee? I got suckered into watching it by all the hype; so far I have to say it pretty much sucks. When the episodes are good, it's almost always because the songs are good. Having ten people do a rock/a capella version of "Don't Stop Believing" is, of course, totally excellent--but only because Journey itself is totally excellent. Take away the Journey, and what do you have? A show with fantastically cartoon-like characters, ridiculous storylines, and jokes any fifteen year old could outdo. I'm giving it one more episode.

-I've been watching SportsNight on DVD. I was a huge fan of the show during its original run and I had high hopes for the DVDs. I have to say: so far, they don't live up to my memories. What was irritating about Sorkin's writing style has gotten way more irritating, and what was moving now seems a little overwrought. I'm hoping the second season gets better. That's the one I remember as being best.

-My god have I lost a lot of money playing online poker in the last month.

-Due date for screenplay rough draft: Sunday. Looks like it's going to happen. And the angels will dance.

-I'm on a white bean kick. The way I learn to cook new dishes is by taking an ingredient and working on it every night for, say, a year. Right now it's cannellini beans. My poor wife. She's tired of them already, and it's only week one. But I'm going to learn to cook some damn good white beans, by mid-2010. That's the plan.

-Also, seared tuna. Although that's not much of a challenge.

-Tuna: 22.00$/pound. What the hell!?

-Two book recommendations: The Stars, My Destination by A. Bester and The Warrior's Apprentice by L. McMaster Bujold. The best kind of page-turners; enthralling but not insulting. Nutritive and tasty! (Unlike my cannellini beans).

-What does the photo up there have to do with these entires? That's my riddle to you. The first person to tell me will receive a (now out-of-date) copy of College Board's The Official SAT Study Guide. As well as a pound of white beans with rosemary and bacon. And maybe some other stuff.

Monday, September 21, 2009

PLO

Fresh from a week of traveling through the East Coast, I spent Sunday and Monday playing marathon sessions of Pot Limit Omaha. Why? I don't know. I'm not a great Omaha player (yet). If I wanted only to make money I should play Hold'Em. But Omaha still holds many mysteries; that's part of its appeal. It keeps me interested.

I played mostly B- poker, won a very small amount, and mostly ran ok. I probably still bluff too much; especially at low stakes, this is a mistake. But, against thinking opponents, Omaha offers lots of opportunities for creative bluffs.

A hand that came up yesterday illustrates this. I'm on the button with (As Ac 8h 7d). Two players ahead of me limp, and I bet the pot. I get one caller, a tight, thinking player UTG. So far this player, who I'll call "Marine" (his icon on the poker site I play at was a US Marine in dress uniform) lead out on a flop of (10h 2h 2c), betting exactly half the pot.

You can make an argument to call, raise, or fold here. I had noticed, however, that this player tended to bet smaller when he had drawing hands than he did with made hands. (A pretty common phenomenon. People who have good hands bet more than people who don't. Seems obvious, but it's true.) It's unlikely that he would have a two in his hand and if he had tens full he would either bet pot or, more likely, check in an attempt to go for a check raise.

I decided that he probably had a flush draw--although a two was not impossible. I called, figuring that if the heart flush did not hit, he might give up.

Instead, the turn was a King of hearts. Again, Marine bet out half the pot (about 20$). Again, I called. Why? I have no idea, except that his half-pot bets made me feel like he was weak. So far during that session I had played very tight; he hadn't seen me bluff once. He was also way up in the game, and I thought it was likely that he would be wanting to protect his winnings, and not want to put in a lot of money with a medium strength hand. If he had a flush now, he still had to be worried that I had filled up--a distinct possibility given that Kings or Aces are the most likely hands for me to raise preflop.

I thought that calling the turn might seem like a smooth call--like I was trying to lure him in to betting into my Kings full. Or at least, I thought that it COULD look that way. It was possible that HE had Kings full, in which case I was in big big trouble.

The river was a brick and again he lead out, but this time for only 30$, into a pot of about 90$.
I then reraised, all-in (for about another 120$). He thought for a long, long time. Clearly he had some kind of flush and didn't want to let it go. But at last, he folded. He'd decided to give me credit for Kings full. Which I might have had. But I didn't.

Then a few hours later I donked away that same hundred making a hugely inopportune bluff into someone who'd flopped quad eights. In poker, if you want to bluff, you should not bluff someone who has four of a kind. That's an old saying. And it's true.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Good Mojo From Amazon

Does anyone else think this is hilarious? It's smack at the top of the amazon.com home page. Is this a book they have for sale or a cache of highly enriched plutonium? (If you find it hard to read, click on the image. It will enlarge).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Looked Like This....But Real


This starts out ok but halfway through becomes amazing. Sublime, almost. That's the job I want to have: to stand behind the cutout of a cardboard bear and try to manipulate it so that it looks like it's really alive.

For some reason this reminded me intensely of my friend, Johannes. J, if you're out there: this is for you. [Via Andrew Sullivan]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

There Might Be A Rabbit in La Regle De Jeu


This short film by the Coen Brothers made me laugh out loud. It also made me want to see this movie, Climates. And by the way--for anyone wondering--there are actually dozens of rabbits in La Regle De Jeu. That's pretty much the source of its greatness, right there. The rabbits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Post Which Starts Out With Me Trying To Be Funny But Ends Up With Me Just Being P*****

At some point during my first year of marriage, I originated a exciting coping technique, which I call “conversation retire.” (I know: it needs tuning. Let me know if you can think of something better). "Conversation retire" works pretty much like it sounds. Once a certain conversation topic has come up a certain number of times (43), without in any way drawing close to a resolution, either one of us is allowed to declare that that topic is, from that day forward, banned from public consumption. It has been “retired.” We could think about it; we just couldn’t talk about it.

Almost immediately, it proved a hit. Gone for good were the most emotionally agitating (and dialectically unsatisfying) of our conversations. For example: Angelina Jolie. My wife, as it turns out, has a LOT of anger towards Angelina Jolie. Probably, she should. I don’t know. But I have now heard about the many faces of Angelina Jolie’s evil enough times to be able to recite them all by heart. Even worse, despite how frequently it comes up, the subject STILL sends my wife into something approaching a frenzy. So, in the interest of the common good, I’ve had to have it banned.

Other topics that we’ve decided to ban include: Oprah Winfrey (Who, Even Though She May Not Be As Evil As A********* J****, Is, in Reality, MUCH Worse than Certain Naïve Unknowing Husbands Might Suspect); Felipe, Our Ex-Housepainter, And How Stupid We Were Not To Have Done A Last Inspection Of Our In-Fact-Badly-Painted House Before We Paid Him; The Unbelievable Gall of Certain Friends of My Wife Who Never Bought Us A Wedding Present (Despite The Fact That Some Were Actually Members of The BRIDAL PARTY); Jon and Kate Gosselin, Relationship and Parenting Skills Thereof; Hugh Hefner, Relationship and Business Acumen Thereof; and, finally, above all else, THE TOPIC—the one for which the whole idea of ‘retiring’ conversations was originated…Michael Vick. More specifically: How Michael Vick, As Punishment For His Crimes, Deserves the Death Penalty.

Ok, now understand. I don’t like Michael Vick. I didn’t like him before the dogfighting stuff came out. I like him less now. He’s a terrible person, and deserves to be permanently banned from public life. But I don’t think he should be put to death. And my wife, hyperbole aside, actually did. And does.

This ended up becoming a long-running debate. Her side of the argument was that after he got out of jail, he would re-sign with another team, make a lot of money playing football and eventually be totally rehabilitated. In a few years, it would all be forgotten; therefore to make sure that didn't happen, he should be executed. Really.

My argument was that it wasn't necessary. Even before the dogfighting stuff, Vick was on the way down. He was never better than a second-tier quarterback. He couldn’t pass; he wasn’t a great leader; he wasn’t well-liked. Add to that the massive public outcry that would greet any team crazy enough to sign him, and there was no way—NO WAY, I explained (in the Knowledgeable, Man-Who-Understands Sports voice I trot out from time to time)—that he would ever play again in the NFL.

You all know what happened. Somehow—stunningly—my vast insight into the mechanisms of pro football has proven insufficient. Vick’s been given one more chance. My wife, it saddens me to say, was totally 100% right. (Which suggests, by the way, that Angelina Jolie lives entirely on the blood of slaughtered kittens). It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me want to root against the Eagles.

I started this thinking I’d write a funny post about the travails of marriage. Now, though, I’ve become upset. I was grouchy (well, grouchier) all last week because the Bink was going through some sort of unhappy emotional phase (it manifested itself in a lot of mean-spirited growling and excess barking). Literally 1/3 of my waking involves me worrying in some way about his happiness. And I don’t even like animals! Meanwhile, Michael Vick is charging money so people can come watch dogs fight to the death!? I mean…what the bleep is that?

I guess no one deserves to be punished forever, but somehow this seems to have all gone away so fast. I just feel like somehow there is something deeply wrong with Vick. Anyone who would willingly inflict pain upon something innocent and helpless is profoundly broken. And two years in jail is not enough. The death penalty may be too much. But this.... This is not enough. It can't be. It just can't.


What a great guy!

Friday, August 14, 2009

New Review

I have a new review up over at The Second Pass. Here's an excerpt:
It is hard to explain why the American, except in his exhortatory and passionately argumentative moods, has not struck deep into American life, why his stories and verses are, for the most part, only pretty things, nicely unimportant. Anthony Trollope had a theory that the absence of international copyright threw our market open too unrestrictedly to the British product, that the American novel was an unprotected infant industry; we printed Dickens and the rest without paying royalty and starved the domestic manufacturer. This theory does not explain.
Wait a second. No. That's not right. My review is of a book called The Magicians. It's about, uhm, Magicians. College age kids. Anyway, read it. What else do you have to do?

(The above quote, by the way, comes from "American Literature" an essay written in 1921 by John Macy).

Friday, August 7, 2009

It's Coming

My friend Dez, over at GNABB, has just finished compiling a list of his "Top Fifty Movies of All Time."  It's got me thinking.  It's got me inspired.  It's got me riled.  And so, my fellow readers, be prepared.  Soon, I too will have a list.  Magnificent and shining it will be as a beacon, giving light succor to the blighted citizens of our weak and weary world.

Probably it will feature The Muppets.

Really.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Name That Tune

The following is excerpted from a classic work of literature.  My challenge: can you identify the book in question?  It's one I believe many of my readers have read.  It was written in the last 150 years, in English, and continues to be read to this day.  I've removed all proper names, so as not to give it all away.

By the way, in case it's not clear: the passage opens with someone speaking.
`And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!' 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. You can easily overtake me on the road, for you are young, and I am ageing and go softly. I will linger, and look back; and at last I will surely see you coming, eager and light- hearted, with all the South in your face!'

The voice died away and ceased as an insect's tiny trumpet dwindles swiftly into silence; and _____, paralysed and staring, saw at last but a distant speck on the white surface of the road.

Mechanically he rose and proceeded to repack the luncheon-basket, carefully and without haste. Mechanically he returned home, gathered together a few small necessaries and special treasures he was fond of, and put them in a satchel; acting with slow deliberation, moving about the room like a sleep-walker; listening ever with parted lips. He swung the satchel over his shoulder, carefully selected a stout stick for his wayfaring, and with no haste, but with no hesitation at all, he stepped across the threshold just as ____ appeared at the door.

`Why, where are you off to, ___?' asked ___ in great surprise, grasping him by the arm.

`Going South, with the rest of them,' murmured ___ in a dreamy monotone, never looking at him. `Seawards first and then on shipboard, and so to the shores that are calling me!'

He pressed resolutely forward, still without haste, but with dogged fixity of purpose; but ___, now thoroughly alarmed, placed himself in front of him, and looking into his eyes saw that they were glazed and set and turned a streaked and shifting grey--not his friend's eyes, but the eyes of some other animal! Grappling with him strongly he dragged him inside, threw him down, and held him.

___ struggled desperately for a few moments, and then his strength seemed suddenly to leave him, and he lay still and exhausted, with closed eyes, trembling. Presently ___ assisted him to rise and placed him in a chair, where he sat collapsed and shrunken into himself, his body shaken by a violent shivering, passing in time into an hysterical fit of dry sobbing.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In other words, is not a person

My favorite moment in the July 20th New Yorker is below.  It describes the attempts to hand-count every ballot in the closely-contested Franken/Coleman Senate election.


Each challenged ballot was projected onto a large screen visible to a roomful of observers from the public and the press. The members of the Canvassing Board scrutinized and debated the markings on each ballot to decide the voter’s intent, and their deliberations were videotaped and streamed live over the Internet. Minnesotans found the process mesmerizing.

Some ballots presented little difficulty; in one instance, a voter had clearly filled in the bubble beside Coleman’s name but had accidentally, or in a moment of indecision, touched his pencil tip in Franken’s bubble, leaving a small dot. The judges gave the vote to Coleman. Other ballots provoked long, absurdist exchanges. One ballot—from Beltrami County—became locally famous. The voter had filled in the bubble for Franken but had printed “Lizard People” in the write-in area. After a few minutes of discussion, Marc Elias, a lawyer for Franken, spoke up. “My argument would be that ‘Lizard People’ is not a genuine write-in,” Elias said. “In other words, is not a person.”

“Do we know that for sure?” one of the judges asked.

Another asked, “If it said ‘Moon Unit Zappa,’ would you say, ‘Oh, no, there is no such person as Moon Unit Zappa?’ ”

“I would say that that would be permissible,” Elias said.

“Well, but you don’t know that there’s not someone named Lizard People. You don’t!”

The judges voted to have the ballot tossed out.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Self Promotion

Over at The Second Pass, John asks contributors to write about their most overrated classic--about canonical books you're allowed NOT to read.  My contribution comes at the end.  It's on A Tale of Two Cities.  The whole piece is worth reading, though.  I particularly admired--and agreed with--the entry on Lawrence's The Rainbow.  In the immortal words of Krusty the Clown: "Ughh.  That just kept on going."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rubik's Art


This more or less blew my mind.  (Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan).

Friday, June 26, 2009

Annie Are You Ok?

I once owned parachute pants.  I had a black jacket covered in zippers.  I did the Moonwalk-- whenever I had a chance.  (I had them more than you might think.)  When Michael Jackson was on the cover of Time magazine (1984?)--I harassed my mother until she went out and got it for me.  Then, I read the article about him over and over and over.  

When I got to college, I found out he'd done an album before Thriller.  Every few weeks or so, during my senior year, some friends of mine would clear out their living room of furniture, hang up a disco ball, and play Off The Wall over and over and over.  Disco Dance Party Nights, we called it.  When I started dating my wife, we used to paint together at my apartment; there were only two albums we ever listened to while we worked--There's A Riot Going On, and Off The Wall.  When I got married, I insisted that "Billie Jean" be one of the first songs our DJ played--not for the crowd, but for me.

What he had was joy.  Skill and musicality and moves--sure.  But it was more than that.  Michael Jackson made ME want to dance--a gangly, suburban white dude.  More than that: he made me think I could.

He probably went crazy in the end.  But on the way, he made some f***** incredible music.  

The world today is a little less funky.  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bad Art

I'm thinking these days about what makes some art seem better than others.  In the process, I've come to think that most of the art to which we're exposed (or at least to which I'm exposed) is basically pretty good.   The Road may not have lived up to the hype, but it's not as if it was a self-published guide to selling tractor trailers.  If you actually want to understand good art, you need to think about bad art.  And bad art (not mediocre art) is often out of sight.  

Somehow this has lead me to the website for Boston's Museum of Bad Art.  I can't even begin to do justice to what's there; let's just say that it's worth your time.  Almost every single painting they have posted should be seen, but since I can only choose one, I've decided to go with...wait for it...."Sunday on the Pot With George."  (I know.  What a title!)  Someone on the site describes the painting as "the single most memorable artistic experience in his life--a bit like his recent bout with shingles."  Yes!
Ok, I'm sorry, but I have to show another one.  This one was painted on lace--four layers of lace, to be exact.    


The description is worth quoting in its entirety:
The texture of the lace lends a luster to the complexion. Careful placement of Christmas poinsettias adds an Easter Island element to this remarkable portrait of the sixteenth president's wife. A painting that could have changed the course of the Civil War.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran, Twitter, Kutcher

What's going on in Iran seems somehow to be hugely important--not just the events, but the way they've been covered.  The cable stations have been mostly terrible; they don't have many reporters there, and they've got a lot more experience hosting fake round tables in which pseudo-pundits repeat canned talking points about who's up and down in Washington than they do reporting on nascent revolutions.  Meanwhile, the blogosphere has been all over the story.  Andrew Sullivan especially has been great (it's an event made for his strengths), and if you haven't been reading his site regularly, I urge you to do so.  It's gripping stuff.  

And to think: without Twitter, none of this would be possible.  Maybe Ashton Kutcher was right.  The mind reels.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Real American Wombat

G.I. JOE trailer in HD

Let’s be honest: This is probably going to be bad. Fine: it’s definitely going to be bad. Still, I’m going to see it. Because it has ninjas. Ninjas ninjas ninjas. Two of them, actually. You may reasonably ask why a high-tech, 21st century Special Ops military force would need a ninja. Aren’t throwing stars pretty useless in comparision to, I don’t know, anti-tank guns? That misses the point--badly. The point—as any ten-year old boy would happily tell you—is this: ninjas rule. They just do. And if one ninja is good, then obviously two ninjas are better. Way way better.

By the way: Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Those are their names. The ninjas.

Yep. It's gonna be goooood.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The 23rd Time MIGHT Be The Charm

Part of the enjoyment I'm getting from suddenly starting to care about the NBA is that I can now appreciate the full genius of ESPN.com columnist, Bill Simmons.  For those who don't follow sports, Simmons ("The Sports Guy") combines actual sports analysis with a fair amount of high-level ridicule.  At his best, he's very very funny.

The moment below is my favorite from his new mailbag (a regular feature in which he responds to reader questions).  The premise of THIS mailbag is that the people writing in aren't average readers, but sports celebrities.  (Obviously, the letters are all made up).  Here's his response to a question from Mike Brown--the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that lost in a blowout to Orlando after almost everyone on Earth predicted they'd make the NBA Finals.

Q: What should I have done differently?
-- Mike Brown 

[+] EnlargeMike Brown
Elsa/Getty Images"No, no, no -- just keep doing the same thing!"

SG: You mean, other than come up with offensive plays or a playbook? I will never understand two things. First, why you didn't mix things up at all : throw a zone at Orlando, try a zone press (which worked really well in the regular season), go super-small when Howard was on the bench and play LeBron at center; something, anything. You just let the Magic do their thing and made no real attempt to throw them off. Perplexing. And second, why did you insist on doubling Howard and leaving their shooters open? One of the reasons I picked you to kill Orlando in my now-infamous chat was because I thought you'd use 24 (and maybe even 30) fouls on Howard, single-team him, make him score 40 points a game to beat you and stay home on their shooters. You did the opposite. I will never in a million years figure out why. It was like watching someone hitting on various female celebrities at a Hollywood party by saying, "Hi, I'm a member of the paparazzi, I have no money, and I have VD" and going down in flames over and over again but feeling like the 23rd time would be the charm. Again, perplexing.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Great Men in History

I'm reading a bunch of books on or about Heroes these days.  (Why have I capitalized that word?  I don't know).  Mostly to research/get ideas for the screenplay.  I'm also reading historical biographies (as opposed to fictional biography) dealing with, well, heroic-type individuals.  Right now, I'm reading one on George Washington (known for discovering peanuts).  Yesterday, I came across an interesting sentence, which I share in the (almost certainly vain) hope that one of you yahoos can offer up some sort of intelligent response:
Periods of rapid transition in the history of man often produce extremely great men because the simultaneous existence of two systems of thought and behavior opens twice as many alternatives as are available to individuals living in a static time when only one system prevails.



Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Odds and Wombats

I don't post enough.  I know this.  Or at least, I think this, quite a lot.  But then I also think: I have staggeringly little to write about.  My on-again, off-again love affair with coffee.  My refusal to get fitted for new contacts, even though the ones I have give me a headache after twenty minutes and cause me to mistake anything seen from my right eye for the Mock Turtle, from Alice In Wonderland.  My 18th passage through The Ionian Mission.  My backyard experiments with humpback whales.  (I'm training them to deliver messages over long distance and then return home without getting lost--or even knowing how to fly).

So instead of trying to cobble together a coherent, journal-style entry, I'll just list some recent happenings in my not-all-that interesting life.

-The NBA Playoffs have made me happy.  I don't generally keep up with sports (for me, all the joy went went away the day that Tris Speaker retired) but somehow, I've gotten sucked in this year.  At first, I was motivated only by my ever-increasing hatred for Kobe (and only slightly behind him, Phil Jackson) but I've since come to enjoy the games for their own sake.  Orlando should take the East and though I hope Denver gets there against them, I don't think they will. Kobe's a tool, but he is pretty damn good at basketball.  Watching sports is also MUCH better with DVR; you can skip free throws, commercials, Craig Sager, and anything else you don't want to watch.  So that's been good.  I really like the Magic too--no huge stars, just a lot of solid unselfish players who shoot 50 3-pointers every night.  Basketball like it was meant to be played!

-Teaching a dog to roll over isn't easy.  At least, not for me.  If you want to teach a dog to do something it can already do--or already does on its own--you just catch it doing that activity, and then reward it.  It's not too hard.  (That's why the Bink is a past master at obeying command to lie down, sleep, or gnaw off all the rubber tips of doorstops through our entire house).  But dogs do NOT like to just roll over naturally (at least ours doesn't.)  Therefore, a lot of my days now consist of me saying "Roll Oooover" nine or ten times in a row while my dog stares happily and blankly past me, listening for cars to go growl at.  It's not all that different from trying to teach the quadratic equation to a bored 17 year old girl--except that the Bink will probably learn to roll over eventually, whereas my last student will NEVER learn the quadratic equation.  And, I sometimes help the Bink by putting my hand on his back and physically rolling him over.  I don't do that with my students.  Any more.

-Barry Bostwick played George Washington in a PBS miniseries many years ago.  I'm reading a bio of the great man (Washington, not Bostwick) and Bostwick--or at least photos of him taken from the TV show--appear on the cover.  He looks a LOT like Rob Lowe.  

The association has probably not helped my opinion of Washington, since I now imagine his presidency as being a lot like the mayorship of Bostwick on the Michael J Fox show from a few years ago.

-We're going to Mexico at the end of June.  No one seems to be in favor of this.  But what are you going to do?  I have to get my fall supply of Gila Monsters somewhere.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Digging in The Dirt

This morning, cleaning our dog’s hair, my wife uncovered an ominous-looking bug.  I thought it was a great Etruscan weevil; my wife wasn't sure.  We did know where it came from.  Yesterday (while I slept), the Bink had managed to escape through an open door and make his way into the back yard just as our gardener finished laying down a coat of sweet-smelling mulch on our flowerbeds.  (And when I say "mulch" what I really mean is "manure.")  From there, he had done what any self-respecting dog (or pig) would do when faced with such an immense expanse of heretofore unexplored dirt--he'd bathed in it (more or less).  Unfortunately (maybe) I missed the whole display, but apparently he went totally and utterly insane.  The only reason he was eventually corralled was because he came across a partially skinned opossum (left there by my neighbor’s cat) and grew so disturbed that my wife was able to catch him.  He was immediately bathed, of course, but apparently the bugs were undeterred.

The question: was the bug we found a flea or just some harmless mulch-critter?  Failing to obtain confirmation from Google images, we headed toward the Studio City Animal Hospital, carrying the bug along with us in an appropriately-sized Tupperware.  (My wife owns 438 pieces of Tupperware, so finding one this size was no problem.  We actually have a whole line of tick and mite sized containers, just in case).

Turns out it WAS a flea (“A big one, too.”) This lead to PetCo (motto: not only do our stores smell bad, our employees are really unhelpful!) and ended with an extended bout of vacuuming and home-directed fretting.  The house is now clean; the dog is now deflated (he's been treated like a leper all day) and so far we've found no more fleas.  (Although I did turn up what I'm pretty sure was a monitor lizard in the hall closet.  I could have sworn we had those taken out!) 

The mulch has also imparted a distinctly rural smell to our environs.   Our neighbor was so upset by it that she left a chiding note on our door, complaining that she had been forced to cancel an outdoor barbeque; apparently her guests don't like being attacked by swarms of flies while inhaling lungfuls of recently-lain manure.   Wimps.   We went over to apologize, and she seemed placated.  (I told her that we'd harvested the manure fresh from our own hogs, and offered to give her some.  That made her happy, as you would imagine.)  

I actually don’t think it smells that bad--nothing like Iowa City in June.  Now THAT was a smell.

Anyway, it’s been an eventful weekend.  Suburbia is a lot less dull than you might think.

 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Curse You, Rockets; Curse You

I made a mistake last week: I dared to believe in the Rockets.  I watched the first game of the Lakers series and I saw a team I hadn't seen before.  I saw a team that played with energy, with passion--with toughness.  I saw a team that had at least two genuine scoring threats.  I saw a team whose center did not drop the ball on big plays, and who lived up to his hype.  Most of all I saw the hated trash-talking, sexually harassing egojerk Kobe beaten.  And I rejoiced.

Last night, though, I saw the Rockets I'm used to.  Yes, they sort of hustled; yes, they didn't give up.  But it wasn't enough--nowhere near.  Artest got ejected for no good reason.  Yao scored -3 points, and dropped the ball anytime we needed him to get a basket.  Our point guards looked like they couldn't make it III college ball.  We turned the ball over once a minute.  And Kobe scored at will.  

Which is the real Rockets?  Sadly, I think it's the latter team.  When we acquired Yao Ming, I predicted that he would never win a championship.  I wish I could go back on that prediction, but I don't think I can.  Yao is an impressive person: hard-working, generous, respectful.  He's the model of  how you want a pro athlete to act--off the court.  (His eponymous Chinese restaurant is also one of the best in Houston).  Unfortunately, his on-court play is more smoke than heat.   He's the antithesis of clutch.  He's the Derek Bell of basketball players; he'll score 35 in a game at home against the Raptors, but he never seems to have the goods when we need him.  

It's not all his fault, of course, but he is our star; he is a future Hall-of-Famer (probably) and he should be better.  He can't win us a championship by himself.  But he can lose it.  After last night, I'm thinking he's going to lose it--yet again.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Giant Snake Terrifies Borneo


Ok, yes.  This is (almost certainly) a fraud.  Still, it's a great image.  The story can be found here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Movie Bites

More six-word reviews, with stars (from 0 to 8).

Hello, Dolly: Barbara Streisand: all craft, no art.  (* * *)

Raise the Red Lantern: Confined, the mind devolves.  (******)

Slumdog Millionaire:  The structure wins out.   (*****)

The Cincinnati Kid: Steve McQueen cannot act. (* * *)

Hellboy II: So much paint.  So little color. (* *)

Small Change: Truffaut is smarter than Godard.  (* * * *)



Friday, April 24, 2009

All The Pretty Wombats

I've been reading All The Pretty Horses.  About it, I would say that if you like the following passage--if you find it beautiful and true--you should read the book.  
He rode through La Vega without dismounting, the horse blowing and rolling its eyes at all it saw.  When a truck started up in the street and began to come toward them the animal moaned in despair and tried to turn and he sawed it down almost onto its haunches and patted it and talked constantly to it until the vehicle was past and then they went on again.  Once outside the town he left the road altogether and set off across the immense and ancient lakebed of the bolson.  He crossed a dry gypsum playa where the salt crust stove under the horse's hooves like trodden isinglass and he rode up through white gypsum hills grown with stunted datil and through a pale bajanda crowded with flowers of gypsum like a cavefloor uncovered to the light.  In the shimmering distance trees and jacales stood along the slender bights of greenland pale and serried and half fugitive in the clear morning air.  The horse had a good natural gait and as he rode he talked to it and told it things about that world that were true in his experience and he told it things he thought could be true to see how they would sound if they were said.  He told the horse why he liked it and why he'd chosen it to be his horse and he said that he would allow no harm to come to it. 
I will say, as well, that I had to look up six words in this paragraph (two of which appear in no Spanish or English dictionary I own) and also that if I stopped to look up every word that I didn't know, reading this book, I would probably still be on page 50.  



Saturday, April 18, 2009

"I Wasn't Expecting That"


This video clip, of a Welsh phone-salesman singing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma", is one of the more moving things I've seen.  Apparently, he's been an international sensation for more than a year now, so you may already have seen it.  If not, it's absolutely worth your time.  (Watching Simon Cowell's smirk melt away into incredulity is the least of its pleasures.)  I don't know how you can watch it without tearing up. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Slagging on Sasha

Another inane review from The New Yorker's worst critic, Sasha-Frere Jones.  This one's of No Line On The Horizon, the newest effort (sort of) from U2.  Among the many idiocies contained therein:

"The band has done relatively few cover versions, a tacit acknowledgment that its gift is peculiar and limited...."

"Bono’s voice can sound strained fairly quickly and isn’t in the same league of instruments as that of Michael Stipe or Robert Plant...."

"In a U.K. poll conducted several years ago, the band’s slower, spiritual song “One,” which is so basic it sounds almost like a traditional ballad, was voted the greatest song ever recorded. It isn’t, but it’s a model of simplicity and unfussy positivity...."

"“No Line” works precisely because it doesn’t try too hard to add to the band’s pile of epic moments. This album is a long dinner with old friends, all of whom love each other, most of whom are born talkers, and some of whom hold the floor for too long. Not every anecdote holds up, and some of the food belongs, untouched, on the edge of your plate. But it would be small-minded to leave before the whole warm, rambling night is over."


Where to start? Has the band done few covers because of its "limited" gift or because they happen to be able to write pretty damn good songs by themselves?  (I don't recall the Rolling Stones doing too many covers, or even the Beatles once they'd broken through).  Is "One" (which, for my money, is absolutely their greatest song) a model of "unfussy positivity?" I guess since it's not "fussy," exactly, it could accurately be described as "unfussy"--but in no universe is that the first, or even the fiftieth, most apposite adjective.  As far as its putative "positivity"....maybe we're listening to different songs, Sasha.  The "One" I know is about despair and desolation--about what it's like to want more anything in the world just to give up.  No, the speaker does not give up; hope does endure (mostly).  But the song is not 'positive', and it's certainly not positive when considered within the general context of their music.

What about Bono's voice?  SFS thinks it's worse than Stipe's.  Uhm, really?  I'm not trying to hate on Stipe, who can sing (although a lot of his lyrics are spoken more than sung).  But even if we're talking about the Bono of 2009, I'd say he's still got the better set of pipes.  Go back to, say, 1990, and I'd say he could hold his own against Plant as well.  They have radically different styles, of course, but as anyone who's tried to do a karaoke of "With or Without You" or "Where The Streets Have No Name" can attest, the Bono-man can wail.  (And, as anyone who's heard ME do those songs will also attest, I cannot.)

Finally, there's his assessment of No Line on the Horizon.  It "works" because it doesn't "try too hard" to add to the "pile" of "epic moments." (Note the slight but quintessential New Yorker scorn: neither "pile" nor "epic", as they're used here, are terms of praise.) Well then, Sash, why does it work?  Here we go--because it's 'warm' and 'rambling?'  Really?  Are those qualities we want, or expect, from U2? Is it qualities they deliver? (One out of two's not bad.) The best reason he can give us to listen is to suggest that those who don't are "small-minded." So...you want to convince people to appreciate something by insulting those who don't? Count me persuaded!

Why do they publish this guy?  Somebody?  Anyone?  Off the top of my head, I can think of five friends of mine who could write better pieces.  And let me assure you all: my friends are not that bright.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What The Hell Was That?

So last night we watched The Dark Knight.   Two hours and thirty minutes of torture, sadism, and gratuitous violence, intercut with half-baked, incoherent gibberish about anarchism and man's fallen nature.   

This was a hit, right?  This was the "best Batman ever?"

I kept thinking: why am I watching this?  I don't care what happens to ANY of the characters--whether they live or die; whether Batman violates his one, unbreakable rule; whether they all get turned into giant penguins and hunted down by deranged psychotic polar bears.  It was all the worst aspects of a cartoon combined with all the worst aspects of a live-action 'naturalistic' movie.  Just enough stylization to render the characters two-dimensional, but not enough to distance the viewer from all the violence.   Fight scenes that were simultaneously wonderless and absurd.   It was ridiculous.  More than that, it was insulting.  Humorless, portentous, sophomoric dribble.  I would have walked out if I'd been in a theater.

Also, maybe I have a much lower tolerance for on-screen violence than other people, but did anyone else find it was too much?  Could you imagine taking kids to see that movie?  I felt like I was watching Reservoir Dogs at certain points.  Only, you know, without any writerly or directorial talent shoring it up. 

I don't know.  I guess I'm a grumpy old man.  In the immortal words of Krusty the Klown: "I could have pulled a better film than that out of my...Hey Kids!" 

But maybe I've missed it.  Have I?  Someone who liked this film--and it seems like everyone did--explained to me what I'm missing.  Did it just catch me at a bad moment?   Was Heath Ledger really THAT amazing?  Would anyone ever watch this twice?  If so, why?

Friday, March 27, 2009

It's My Birthday Too, Yeah



Today was a big day for a certain small dog: today Elliot "Bink(ers)" Lake officially turned one year old. It’s been quite a year.  Not only was I radically unprepared to be a dog owner, I was actively unwilling.  Only one person in the world could have overcome my host of reservations.  Luckily—I think—she happens to be my wife.

Bink celebrated his birthday by gnawing--and in some places actually consuming--the border and understitching of our expensive new carpet.  He’s sitting on a chair in the photo above because he’s been given a "Time Out."   He doesn’t look very chastened, does he?  Regret, I think, is not a common emotion for small dogs.  If it were, he might consume a higher percentage of actual food, and a smaller amount of rubber, cardboard, styrofoam, and sundry other organic substances too unpleasant to mention.  He’s a mischevious, rascally, and incredibly joyous little creature.   I can’t believe I ever got along without him.

One of the reasons we chose a Maltese over other dogs was because of their longevity. Apparently, many can live to be fifteen or sixteen years old.  In other words, I’ve got many years of Bink-dom in store for me.   I doubt they’ll be enough.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Added to the Blogroll

Not content to manage and run two internet blogs, my friend John has now begun a third.  Called Second Pass, it's dedicated to shepherdry.  And drag racing.  There may also be some books on there somewhere, I don't know.  Read it.  One day soon the world wide web will be called the world wide John.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seen and Known

At ASWOBA recently, John linked to a music critic who reviewed songs using no more than six words. (To help clarify he also awarded stars.) I love the idea and intend to use it for movie reviews from now on. Here are thoughts on some of my recent viewings. In the interest of change, my rating system will run from one (worst) to seven (best).

Burn After Reading: Does not add up. (* * *)

Crossroads featuring Def Leppard and Taylor Swift: No one is Def Leppard. Even them.  (****)

Winter Light: The church is bare.  (****)

Pretty Young Things: Fizz only hurts the head.  (* *)

Ninotchka: Communist delight? No.  (* *)

2046: Time is longing. Both are infinite. (****)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Shift in Emphasis

I have given up online poker. I will have less money but I will gain in time, time and mental clarity. Now I will read. Read and read and read and read. For the last year or two I have not been reading, not enough, not with intensity. Now I will. In the queue: Hunger (K Hamsun); The Way Through Doors (Jesse Ball); Diaires, Vol I (Gide); The Dead Fish Museum (Charles D’Ambrosio); Collected Poems (Alan Dugan); Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Angus Wilson). Also, screenplays—all and sundry.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Morning

Elliot scurries from window to window, warily monitoring our backyard.  A squirrel kneels beneath our peach tree, resting.  Elliot is not amused.

"Don't you people realize what is happening out there!?  There are squirrels!  Running rampant!  Something has to be done!"

I nod, chewing on a muffin.  My wife has woken up early to bake them from scratch.  I have woken up more recently.

Outside the squirrel and a playmate streak across the lawn, flaunting their freedom.  Elliot frowns.  It is the frown of an old man, in a block of council flats, watching a group of youths smoke cigarettes on his frontsteps.  "The barbarians draw nigh!" he seems to say.  "Why won't you act?"

In an hour or so, the neighbor's cat will show itself in our driveway, and Elliot, once more brought face to face with his great, inveterate nemesis, will whinny and howl and probably even bark.  The price of comfort is eternal vigilance.  He, at least, understands this.  I am coming to.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Lovecraftian School Board Member Wants Madness Added To Curriculum"

My friend L sent me this link to a piece from The Onion.  I encourage all of you to read it.  It contains this excellent paragraph:
"Fools!" said West, his clenched fist striking the lectern before him. "We must prepare today's youth for a world whose terrors are etched upon ancient clay tablets recounting the fever-dreams of the other gods—not fill their heads with such trivia as math and English. Our graduates need to know about those who lie beneath the earth, waiting until the stars align so they can return to their rightful place as our masters and wage war against the Elder Things and the shoggoths!"

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Two Readers Project, Ch V


"Giving Blood" by John Updike

Instead of trying to talk about this entire story I thought I would pick out a few paragraphs and talk about those specifically.  The point is to isolate an effect--in this case the way Updike transforms going to a hospital to give blood into something mysterious and otherworldly.  (It's very much in keeping with what I think is one of the thematizing sentences in the story; "Romance is, simply, the strange, the untried.")
At the desk they were directed down a long corridor floored with cigar-colored linoleum. Up and down, right and left it went, in the secretive disjointed way peculiar to hospitals that have been built annex by annex. Richard felt like Hansel orphaned with Gretel; birds ate the bread crumbs behind them, and at last they timidly knocked on the witch’s door, which said BLOOD DONATION CENTER. A young man in white opened the door a crack. Over his shoulder Richard glimpsed—horrors!—a pair of dismembered female legs stripped of their shoes and laid parallel on a bed. Glints of needles and bottles pricked his eyes. Without widening the crack, the young man passed out to them two long forms. In sitting side by side on the waiting bench, spelling out their middle names and recalling their childhood diseases, Mr. and Mrs. Maple were newly defined to themselves. He fought down that urge to giggle and clown and lie that threatened him whenever he was asked—like a lawyer appointed by the court to plead a hopeless case—to present, as it were, his statistics to eternity. It seemed to mitigate his case slightly that a few of these statistics (present address, date of marriage) were shared by the hurt soul scratching beside him. He looked over her shoulder. “I never knew you had whooping cough”
“My mother says. I don’t remember it.”
A pan crashed to a distant floor. An elevator chuckled remotely. A woman, a middle aged woman top heavy with rouge and fur, stepped out of the blood door and wobbled a moment on legs that looked familiar. They had been restored to their shoes. The heels of those shoes clicked firmly as, having raked the Maples with a dazed, defiant glance, she turned and disappeared around a bend in the corridor. The young man appeared in the doorway holding a pair of surgical tongs. His noticeably recent haricut made him seem an apprentice barber. He clicked his tongs and smiled. “Shall I do you together?”
We're going here to give blood but we're also entering into a kind of strange almost phantasmagoric forest.  It contains a witch, whose door says BLOOD DONATION CENTER.  In it, there are dismembered legs, and medieval barbers with tongs who offer to 'do you together.' Elevators are alive (or at least alive enough to "chuckle") and "glints of needles and bottles" prick our eyes.  (What a great, great sentence) like deadly weapons.  If romance is, as the narrator asserts, simply the strange and untried then this experience is undoubtedly romantic.  It's romantic in the strict sense, the one given by the narrator, and it's romantic in they way probably most of us define it; it leads to romance, to the birth (or rebirth) of love.  After they've made their journey into this strange forest, the Maples emerge newly joined.  Their fragile relationship is at least momentarily healed.    ("Hey, I love you.  Love love love you." Richard says as they leave the hospital).    

The prose of course is beautiful but it's subjected to an organizing idea; without that larger structure, the individual sentences would never pop the way they'd do.  

For more on Updike's basic thesis--check out this post, and the accompanying article.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This New Video Magic

I really dig this, both for the song (by Fleet Foxes) and the video itself. Yesterday I was talking to a student about the true definition of the word "marvelous." (It means "having to do with herring.") I think this is a pretty excellent example.


Mykonos from Grandchildren on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Today

I am going to see Confessions of A Shopaholic.  This is because I love my wife.

Will I still love her when the day is over?  That remains to be seen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poker Challenge

This is big news in the poker world.  Young online phenom Tom Dwan has challenged all comers to play him heads-up, at least four tables at a time, for a minimum of 200/400 blinds.  They must play at least 50,000 hands.  If Dwan loses money, he has promised to pay his opponent 1.5 million dollars (on top of whatever he's already lost).  If Dwan wins, he gets 500,000$ from his opponent.

Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey have already accepted. 

Should be interesting.  For those of you who have real lives and jobs, 50,000 hands is a massive massive amount--even four-tabling.  It should take months.  Given those stakes, someone could lose 3 million easy, independent of the side action.

You can read a long debate about it(and some clarifications) here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Two Readers Project, IV

"Labor Day" by Alice Munro.

John,

First off, I’m glad you chose Alice Munro; it’s given me a chance to reassess her work. As of course you know, Munro is a writer admired by all--or nearly all.  I’ve read most of the Selected Stories before, but for whatever reason they've never much excited me.  Maybe it’s the subject matter or maybe it’s the general emotional terroir from which they spring.  Maybe it’s a failure of imagination on my part.   

I won’t say rereading “Labor Day” has radically changed my view of Munro, but it has given me a new respect for her writing.  I admit it; she does a lot well.  Here are some passages or moments that I particularly admire....
  • The first sentence: “Just before six o’clock in the evening, George and Roberta and Angela and Eva get out of George’s pickup truck—he traded his car for a pickup when moved to the country—and walk across Valerie’s front yard, under the shade of two aloof and splendid elm trees that have been expensively preserved.”  I LOVE 'aloof.'  It's perfect.   It’s also an unusual word to use to describe a tree.  Its strangeness doesn’t manifest itself immediately because it’s buried so deep within the sentence. I think it ends up being a key word in the story—a thematizing word, as it were.
  • The present tense makes it seem like something reported, as opposed to told.  Probably the present tense always does something like this but it seemed especially noticeable here.  
  • “The four people are costumed in a way that would suggest they were going to different dinner parties.” Again: aloofness,  separation. “Costumed” is excellent; it gives the sense that while these people are taking part in something they haven’t completely surrendered to it. The whole dinner is a kind of performance. Roberta acts the part of a caring girlfriend, the daughters act the part of loving daughters, George acts the part of a dutiful husband. Underneath, they all fear; they all have reservations, doubts. But for tonight, the performances goes on.
  • More on costuming: Roberta…”herself has given up wearing long skirts and caftans because of what (George) has said about disliking the sight of women trailing around in such garments, which announce to him, he says, not only a woman’s intention of doing no serious work but her persistent wish to be admired and courted. This is a wish George has no patience with and has spent some energy, throughout his adult life, in thwarting.” I love the rhythm of that last sentence; the appositive “throughout his adult life” is masterful.
  • I was unpleasantly surprised by the transition, midway though, to George’s thoughts.  (“George is enjoying the scything.”) Munro has done so much to make us dislike him at that point, that going inside his mind felt like it be hugely unappealing.  But, of course, Munro is better than that.  Instead of giving us more cruelty and aloofness, she presents a view of the Roberta/George relationship.  Suddenly, he becomes sympathetic.  He feels underappreciated; she doesn’t help out around the house; she doesn’t work. She doesn’t seem happy and he takes her unhappiness personally. It’s a perfect interlude and it makes the story far more interesting.
  • George starts scything as soon as they reach the party. I wonder if this is intended to evoke Levin, from Anna K.  Munro wears a deep erudition very lightly; it’s not too big a stretch to imagine she did this deliberately.
  • Another intertextual clue: Roberta’s linked to The Tale of Genji. I wonder how much more I would understand about her character, if I’d read that book.
  • What do you make of the discussion between Valerie and Roberta that begins…”this is a bad time for you….”? (“I doubt if things happen so symmetrically."/“I don’t think so either, really. I don’t think you get your punishment in such a simple way. Isn’t it funny how you’re attracted—I am—to the idea of a pattern like that? I mean, the idea is attractive, of there being that balance. But not the experience. I’d like to avoid them. “you forget how happy you are when you’re happy.“And vice versa. It’s like childbirth.”   I don’t think I really understand it.   And yet I sense that it is somehow crucial.
And this takes me to my final question—a question with which I’m often visited, arriving at the end of a Munro story: What the hell just happened? I don’t mean that glibly (well, a little), but what was that story about? What does the final image portend? (“The shaggy branches of the pine trees are moving overhead, and under those branches the moonlight comes clear on the hesitant grass of their new lawn”)

Actually, transcribing that sentence about the moonlight (which reminds me, oddly, of Hemingway) has given me an idea. Consider the adjective Munro uses here to describe the grass—“hesitant.” What does that remind us of? I’ll tell you what it reminds me of; the trees, at the start. It must be deliberate. We’ve gone from trees which are “aloof” to grass which is “hesitant.” Is that the transformation that the story has described? Both are thematizing words, I think; both personalize the inanimate.

I know, reading Munro, that beneath the seemingly arbitrary happenings her stories describe exists a profound internal coherence. The coherence is never immediately apparent. (If it were, it wouldn’t be profound). But we intuit it, just as someone who has no experience with classical music can nevertheless intuit some abiding structure beneath the seemingly superficial melodic dalliances of a Mozart concerto. And that’s, I think, is the mark of a great craftsman—the ability to reconcile order and chaos. The first gives us hope. The second gives us truth.