Friday, December 14, 2012

Must-Read Obit

An exceptional, must-read obituary from The Telegraph.  Maybe the best thing, pound for pound, you'll read all year.  Unbelievable.  I can't do justice to how impressive it is.  A single solitary incident from this man's life would make most people proud forever.

How many prisons did the man escape from??

Perhaps my favorite part is how--as an aside!!-- it's related that he became the UK hang-gliding champion for, like, 8 years, during the 60s.  The mentioning of it is so casual.  The war was over, he didn't have much else to do, so he went ahead and decided to master hang-gliding.  And that is maybe the TENTH MOST AMAZING THING the man did.

Un-fricking-believable.

A sample (takes place during WWII, obviously):


...In the darkness Deane-Drummond fell into a slit trench on top of a German soldier. He and his comrades were taken prisoner and moved to a house on the outskirts of Arnhem, a temporary PoW “cage” holding about 500 all ranks and guarded by an under-strength company. Deane-Drummond found a wall cupboard about four feet wide and 12 inches deep with a flush-fitting concealed door. He unscrewed the lock, turned it back to front, pasted over the outside keyhole and locked himself in. For the next 13 days and nights, he remained there.
The room beyond his door was used by the Germans as an interrogation centre. He had only a one-pound tin of lard, half a small loaf of bread and his water bottle to keep him going. A gap in a corner of the floor surrounded by pipes served as a makeshift urinal.
On the 14th night, the Germans left the room empty and held a party upstairs. Deane-Drummond slipped out of his cupboard, climbed out of a window, dropped into the shrubbery, dodged the guards outside and got away.
A Dutch family concealed him in a shed next to their house. When the Germans searched it, Deane-Drummond, hidden under a pile of sacks, remained undiscovered.
He was passed from one “safe house” to another. On one occasion Baroness Ella van Heemstra, the mother of Audrey Hepburn, arrived with a bottle of champagne.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Making A Piece of Furniture

There are, let's say, fifteen screws.  They all need to be fully screwed in; only then will the piece of furniture be finished.  To turn one screw one-half a rotation takes about four hours.

The temptation is to want to take a single screw and turn it in all the way.   The more unscrewed something is, the more painful is to look at it.  It's messy, it's ugly, and it reflects badly on you, the maker of the furniture.  But as long as some of the screws are more than, say, halfway unscrewed turning one in all the way is a fool's errand.  When one is too tight, the other screws can't go in.  That means the screw you've done in all the way will have to be unscrewed.  That's time lost (not to mention that it hurts to wreck what has already seemingly been well-done).

You have to come to believe that, insofar as it's possible, your great, abiding goal must be to be maintain as low "a delta" as possible.  (Delta: the gap in height between the most and least 'screwed-in' of your various screws.  So, if your most 'finished' screw is 80% in, and your least 'finished' screw is in 20%, your delta is 60.)

What this all seems to call for is a process by which the 'maker' goes from the first screw to the second, from the second screw to the third, and turns them each, in turn, one half a rotation.

However, that doesn't necessarily work.

Why not?

The final three screws (THE END) can never be more screwed in than any other screw.  They must always lag the others.  More importantly--the final screws are frequently IMPOSSIBLE TO TURN.  No matter how much you work at them they will not penetrate any deeper into the wood.

When this happens--when the end won't coalesce (and in a sense the entire problem of MAKING the furniture is a problem of the final three screws)--there is no neccessary obvious solution.  Maybe the END screws need to come out all the way, and be put somewhere else?  Maybe if some of the 'earlier' beginning screws are worked on more, are pushed in deeper, the END screws will start to penetrate.  On the other hand, working too much on 'beginning' screws will increase your overall DELTA.  And that is not to the good.

Sometimes the ugliness of the entire thing becomes so overwhelming, so deleterious to your own confidence in your ability to make a piece of furniture that, purely in order to maintain your own sanity you decide to take one screw and work it in as far and as deep as it can possibly go.  Although this...surrender does mess up the delta, it also can renew your confidence.  So maybe it's not so bad?

Also--there is no 100%.  No screw is ever actually 'in' all the way--it will never stop turning in its hole.   The challenge, then, is to determine whether or not, when it turns in its hole, it's helping to knit the wood together, or splintering it from the inside.  And that can't be known--only guessed at.

Vodka is useful, sometimes, during all of this.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

It's Time to Post Again

Sorry for not posting very much. All I do is write on the play right now (which really--really--is nearing completion). Every time I consider writing on the blog I tell myself the work should go into the play. It devours all my time, energy, joy, and hope.  I love and revile it.  Writing is terrible.  Don't do it.

Other than that...let's see. I started Martin Chuzzlewit. The Kindle makes ordering massive amounts of never-to-be-read literature simple and cheap.   I now have the Complete Dickens, the Complete Austen, the Complete Shakespeare, the Complete Chekhov, the Complete Buckminster Fuller... whoever.  Anyone who has some 'complete' omnibus edition available for a buck--I've got 'em.  I hadn't read Martin Chuzzlewit yet so I started just to see what I thought of it, and I got swept in.  Its most famous character, Pecksniff, occupies the first thirty pages almost all to himself.  That makes the book seem way better than I now fear it's going to turn out.  Its energy has begun to abate now that Pecksniff has receded and its eponymous hero has arrived in the United States, but I've given myself permission to skim (never skim, being one of my usual reading commandments) some of the many, many gratuitous set pieces Dickens rams in to expose (YAWN) the venality, greed, and hypocrisy of ...uhm...all Americans.  (He didn't much like us, did Dickens.  The weasel.)

We saw Looper last week.  Worth a view (and I hate all movies)--entertaining, well acted, well (enough) written.  A good afternoon out.  Like any time travel movie, it all falls apart as soon as you think about it closely, but at least that doesn't happen until you leave the theater.

I had been intending to post about the election but really, at this point, it's all been said. My friend Dez had a good post on his blog, which said pretty much all I think about it too.  I watched the election returns on Fox News, that night; that was big fun.  It got me intrigued by what I'll call the far right, and as a result, in the last few weeks I've started listening to AM Talk radio.  At first it was to savor the despair of all the right-wing provocateurs.  Now I'm just ensnared.  Don't get me wrong--the shows are terrible.  Bizarre conspiracy theories linking Petraeus's resignation, the attack on our embassy and Benghazi, and, I don't know, the need to go back to a gold standard; ominous forecastings about what Obama "really" plans to do to America (apparently Medicare is about to be extended to ALL CITIZENS, everywhere!) and lots of lots of good, old-fashioned ranting.  Now that it's Christmas they've started in on the 'War On Christmas" meme, which never fails to entertain.  A nudist commune in the hills of Berkeley asks to have a giant Santa Claus taken down from a state park, and suddenly CHRISTIANITY ITSELF IS UNDER ATTACK.  It's compelling stuff.

I'm going to post soon about my football predictions from the start of the season, and put down some picks for the playoffs.

I'll also say, right now, as a prediction for next season: if RGIII doesn't get hurt between now and next December, the Redskins will make the playoffs next year.  If they can draft some defensive linemen and maybe a cornerback or two, they might make the NFC Championship.  That guy is _for real_.  Also, seems like a really decent person.  The kind of guy I like to root for.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The miserable and wanton story of their destruction and dereliction"


I've left off Infinite Jest for the foreseeable future.  I'm 700 pages in, more or less, and at this point I have zero interest in continuing.  The moments of inspiration and excitement now come so infrequently as to be almost nonexistent, and I can no longer summon up the faith I need to motivate myself through the endless, unlinked scenes of cruelty and suffering that fill the book.  Wallace's virtuosity as a writer has come to feel increasingly empty, like makeup on the face of a tedious, narcissistic bore.  I may finish the book one day--probably at this point I should--but it will not be soon.


In the meantime, I've started A Time To Keep Silence.  Written by Patrick Leigh Fermor, the book describes the author's experience staying as a guest (but not a believer) at several of Europe's oldest  monasteries.   It's fantastic.  Fermor's prose is formal and yet vibrant, and passages of extraordinary writing appear on almost every page.

A sample (from the introduction):

It is impossible for anyone who has had even this slight experience not to feel, at the sight of empty monasteries, a sorrow sharper than the regret of an antiquarian.  Something of this elegiac sadness overhangs the rock-monasteries of Cappadocia that I have tried to describe.  But, for us in the West, because of all such relics they are the most compelling mementoes of the life that once animated them, the ruined abbeys of England that have remained desolate since the Reformation will always be the most moving and tragic.  For there is no riddle here.  We know the function and purpose of every fragment and the exact details of the holy life that should be sheltering there.  We know, too, the miserable and wanton story of their destruction and their dereliction, and have only to close our eyes for a second for the imagination to rebuild the towers and the pinnacles and summon to our ears the quiet rumor of monkish activity and the sound of bells melted long ago.  They emerge in the fields like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.  The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories.  Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree-tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Center Supports Obama

As I believe was made clear in the (excitingly) still-ongoing debate about politics on this blog earlier in the month, I am, at core, a dull, vanilla centrist.  I'm voting Obama because I think he comes closer to the center than Romney who, though once a centrist, has tacked worringly rightward in the last several months.

Of some interest to me, then, is the news that two other bastions of the boring center have just come out to endorse--Obama.  The Economist magazine is one.  The other is New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  Because it gibes with so much of what I feel myself, I excerpt his endorsement at length.  (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan:)

...I believe Mitt Romney is a good and decent man, and he would bring valuable business experience to the Oval Office. He understands that America was built on the promise of equal opportunity, not equal results. In the past he has also taken sensible positions on immigration, illegal guns, abortion rights and health care. But he has reversed course on all of them, and is even running against the health-care model he signed into law in Massachusetts.
If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for president, I may well have voted for him because, like so many other independents, I have found the past four years to be, in a word, disappointing.
In 2008, Obama ran as a pragmatic problem-solver and consensus-builder. But as president, he devoted little time and effort to developing and sustaining a coalition of centrists, which doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction. And rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice, he engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it.
Nevertheless, the president has achieved some important victories on issues that will help define our future. His Race to the Top education program - much of which was opposed by the teachers’ unions, a traditional Democratic Party constituency - has helped drive badly needed reform across the country, giving local districts leverage to strengthen accountability in the classroom and expand charter schools. His health-care law - for all its flaws - will provide insurance coverage to people who need it most and save lives.
When I step into the voting booth, I think about the world I want to leave my two daughters, and the values that are required to guide us there. The two parties’ nominees for president offer different visions of where they want to lead America. One believes a woman’s right to choose should be protected for future generations; one does not. That difference, given the likelihood of Supreme Court vacancies, weighs heavily on my decision. One recognizes marriage equality as consistent with America’s march of freedom; one does not. I want our president to be on the right side of history. One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.
Of course, neither candidate has specified what hard decisions he will make to get our economy back on track while also balancing the budget. But in the end, what matters most isn’t the shape of any particular proposal; it’s the work that must be done to bring members of Congress together to achieve bipartisan solutions. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both found success while their parties were out of power in Congress - and President Obama can, too. If he listens to people on both sides of the aisle, and builds the trust of moderates, he can fulfill the hope he inspired four years ago and lead our country toward a better future for my children and yours.
And that’s why I will be voting for him.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thoughts on Infinite Jest



My friend, the redoubtable Massey, has asked me to share some of my erstwhile thoughts about Infinite Jest, the David Foster Wallace behemoth that I started last month.  I'm only halfway done right now, and I'm afraid I have nothing of real substance to contribute, but I am due for a blog post.  Anyway, it's always useful for my own mental processes to have to make explicit some of what I have burbling inside my head.  Hopefully, too, this will start a literary discussion to rival our recent political blow-out.

So, what about it?

Well, first off, I find the book, in general, pleasantly accessible.  I guess I had expected it would be more difficult--difficult in the way of Ulysses, I mean, where you almost can't read it, the first time through, without a guide.  Infinite Jest is actually quite readable; though a lot of the vocabulary is (needlessly) obscure, the story itself--such it is--is more or less right there in front of you.  I started reading it because a friend, a fellow-writer, suggested he found the book 'generative,' a useful source of inspiration and motivation toward writing.  I think he was right: I've been reading Infinite Jest in the morning every day before I start to work and it does seem to be useful in dislodging ideas from my often clogged and refractory mind.  For that alone, it's worth reading.  (Interesting topic for future post: generative fiction/art vs 'great' art.  Always the same?  Probably not.)

At this point, I'd say the novel does not succeed as a narrative.  It's not really a forward-moving story, so much as an interrelated series of riffs and tableaux.  He's interested in two major subjects--addiction (drug, alcohol, and, in a way, tennis) and America's relationship to pleasure (where that pleasure manifests itself in both drugs and popular entertainment--television in particular).  The latter subject especially is one I find engaging, and so I'm generally happy enough to read Wallace musing on the subject.  But musings is really a lot of what the book consists of--or rather, it's what the book, at its best consists of.  I don't have much interest in what happens to the characters (nor, do I think, did Wallace while writing it) and the book's complex relationship to time--the way it cuts constantly back and forth between many different time periods in the life of its characters--give the whole reading experience a static, motionless feel.  Time is not a thing that moves forward; we rather experience people frozen in various attitude at various moment in their life.  The snapshot moments are interesting enough, but the relationship between the characters' pasts and presents rarely feels significant.

The part I find least compelling, at least thus far, is the ersatz history of the United States, President Gently, and the Quebecois resistance.  (The sequences with Maranthe and Stately sitting on top of a butte in Arizona arguing about the nature of America are especially tedious.)  With any other writer, a book like this couldn't work, but Wallace is smart enough to be able to stitch together a series of riffs on whatever topic he feels drawn to and make it readable.  A book of great moments, but not, in its entirety a great book.  That's the verdict for now.

Two people I've thought about frequently while reading it--and to whom I've been intending to write emails recommending they read it--are 1) Seb and 2) "Subliminal Gary."  For entirely different reasons, each of you would respond to this in a big way (Seb maybe most of all?).

Also--this is a GREAT book to read on Kindle/Ipad.  It makes it easy to look up all the esoteric medical vocabuarly, and going back and forth between the endnotes and the main body of the novel takes only the touch of a screen.  Also, makes it easy to transport.  For whatever that's worth.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Random Prediction

So I woke up today convinced that in the next week or so, Norv Turner would be fired.  I'm setting this down in writing in a semi-public place in the event that it happens, so you can all marvel at my prescience.  If it doesn't happen, then, well it should.

My other football predictions are so far looking pretty good.  Maybe it's time to just start a sports blog?  There are so few of those around, right?

Not much else to report around here.  The Wife and I are going on a fall vacation to Boston starting on Thursday.  I bought a Kindle, thinking it would make it easier to read and travel (and because Infinite Jest, the current project, is a bit of a monster, luggage-wise.)  An unexpected benefit: reading on a Kindle allows you to instantly look up the meaning of any word you don't know (just hold your finger on the world in question--no need to both with getting up and going to the dictionary).  I generally think I have a pretty good vocabulary, but David Foster Wallace seems to take an obscure joy in using words that, well, I imagine few people would know.  So that has come in very useful.  Also nifty is the ability to read his footnotes instantly--you just touch the footnote number, and you are transported there.  When you're done, you touch the number again.  There's no need to flip back and forth.  It's really the perfect book for a Kindle.

All right.  As you were.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Crucial Status Update

At some point, recently, in the hearing of others, I believe that I suggested that Station to Station, and not Low, was, in fact, the greatest masterpiece produced by the great producer of masterpieces, the Thin White Chameleon, Mr David B, Esq. That, I now retract. Utterly and irrevocably. It's Low, my friends. Low upon Low upon Low. Set it down in the records, in the stony syllables of history, from now until the end of recorded time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"I have something to add..."

As someone who works regularly with high school students trying to improve their writing, I found this article in The Atlantic, about a Staten Island high school making massive strides in the quality of its student essays, useful and intriguing.

An excerpt, which I found inspirational and funny:

Classroom discussion became an opportunity to push Monica and her classmates to listen to each other, think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing. When speaking, they were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.
“I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
“I have a different opinion …”
“I have something to add …”
“Can you explain your answer?”
The structured speaking was a success during Monica’s fifth-period-English discussion of the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. “What is Willie Loman’s state of mind? Is he tired? If he is tired, why would he be so tired?” asked the teacher, Angelo Caterina. “Willie Loman seems tired because he is getting old,” ventured a curly-haired girl who usually sat in the front. “Can you explain your answer?,” Monica called out. The curly-haired girl bit her lip while her eyes searched the book in front of her. “The stage direction says he’s 63. That’s old!” Other hands shot up. Reading from the prompt poster made the students sound as if they’d spent the previous period in the House of Lords instead of the school cafeteria. “I agree that his age is listed in the stage direction,” said John Feliciano. “But I disagree with your conclusion. I think he is tired because his job is very hard and he has to travel a lot.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

He Does It His Way

I will have some responses to the more recent posts on the behemoth politics post in a day or so.  In the meantime, I challenge any of you to get through this video without laughing with glee.  It's not until the 1:10 mark that the joy begins.  You'll see.

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan


Thursday, September 6, 2012

On the DNC

"In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in." 

That's one of the many great lines from Clinton's speech last night.   This Democratic Convention, I think, marks the death blow for the Romney campaign.  Assuming Obama makes no major gaffes between now and election, he's going to win.  That's not a bold prediction, I know, but I can't help that what seems obvious to me seems obvious to everyone else.  My hope is that an utter defeat this fall will help the Republican Party reform itself into a party of viable, responsible adults.

Can anyone who has watched both of the nominating conventions believe that the Republican Party, as currently constituted, deserves--or is prepared--to be in power?  Their entire strategy since Obama came into power has been to oppose his every attempt to do anything (including an attempt to balance a budget the substance of which they agreed with) in the hopes they could defeat him.  Or, as President Clinton put it last night:

President Obama...tried to work with congressional Republicans on health care, debt reduction, and jobs, but that didn't work out so well. Probably because, as the Senate Republican leader, in a remarkable moment of candor, said two years before the election, their No. 1 priority was not to put America back to work, but to put President Obama out of work.

This was Mitch McConnell, of course.  And this, at core, has been the motivating ethos of the Republicans--not we want to govern, but we want to WIN.

Another excerpt:

When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness.
I tend to value small government over large, and the private over the public sector.  I am fully persuaded that our most important challenge over the next ten years will be cutting entitlements and working out a sustainable model for balancing budgets.  I have many problems with several stalwarts of the Democratic base.  And yet for all that, I have never been so fully repulsed by the Republican Party as I am today.  I won't say they have no ideas--I think (hope?) they do.  They don't make arguments based on those ideas, however; they argue only that Obama is bad.  The entire Republican convention, last week, could be summed up in the phrase "Obama Is Bad."  It's lame dispiriting stuff.  What a contrast to what we've seen from the Democrats so far in Charlotte.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

NFL Season 2012



If there's one thing I'm for which I'm known and respected--nay, even revered--among my friends it's my abilities as a football prognosticator.  Each year starting in August the pleas to hear my predictions about the upcoming NFL season grow and more fervent.  Phones ring.  Emails are sent.  "Please, ANCIANT," they say, "Please tell us what will happen this year in the NFL."

Be calmed, my friends.  Your pleas need sound no more.  The knowledge is coming....


1) The NY Jets will finish under .500.  Rex Ryan will not be the head coach at the start of 2013.

2) Brandon Weedon will disappoint as the Cleveland QB.

3) Ryan Fitzpatrick--who I like as a person--will play poorly.  Everyone will talk about the huge contract he got last year and how much the Bills overpayed for him.

4) Sam Bradford AND Blaine Gabbert will shake off their bad performances from last year; both will play well enough to justify being number one picks.

5) The Steelers will not make the playoffs.

6) Defenses will figure out how to contain Cam Newton; his numbers will decline significantly from last year.  He will look average.

7) In Philadelphia, Nick Foles will play well enough for Michael Vick (who will suffer the usual out-for-four-games-with-bruised-ribs injury in week 6) to generate a QB controversy.

Most of my picks so far are about QBs, I realize.  Is it because my natural athleticism and steely-eyed badassery makes me essentially a pro NFL quarterback myself?  Probably.

8) The Falcons will make the playoffs.  The Bears will not.

9) I am still not a believer in the 49ers and Alec Smith.  I should be, I guess.  But I wouldn't be surprised if they finish at 9-7.

10) The Dolphins fire Jeff Ireland as GM.  This is a wish more than a prediction, borne of me thinking he's not only a terrible GM but a really unlikable person.  But I'm putting it here anyway, in the hopes it will be true.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Fawning PR Man

I've never felt, for any Presidential candidate, as strong a revulsion as the one I feel toward Mitt Romney.  If there's any interest from readers, I can try, in a later post, to adumbrate some of what I see as his many flaws.  In the meantime, this editorial in The Economist, while too mild in its condemnation of Romney's craven pandering for my tastes, is worth a read.  Its scolding, disappointed tone is, methinks, a bad sign for a candidate whose background and ideology (if an empty suit like Romney can be said to have ideology) would seem to make him a natural ally of the eminently pro-market, anti-regulation Economist.

Sample quote:

Competence is worthless without direction and, frankly, character. Would that Candidate Romney had indeed presented himself as a solid chief executive who got things done. Instead he has appeared as a fawning PR man, apparently willing to do or say just about anything to get elected.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"I hate this so much"

My friend, ASWOBA, posted this on Facebook, but in case any of my eight readers didn't see it, I'm going to repost.  It's the account of two diners eating at a restaurant called "Dans Le Noir" in New York City.  The gimmick is that the dining room where you eat is kept completely dark.  As in, pitch black.  You eat your whole meal without seeing anything (or anyone).

And is it horrible?  Oh yes.  It is horrible.

Two samples from the article:

EaterGM: We talked about this several times during the hour and a half, but the only thing that got us through there was just blind faith that we weren't going to die.
EaterAK: I think it's funny that I was worried about making small talk with strangers before going in, because once we were in the dark room, all I could think of was getting out of there.
EaterGM: The only thing. So, the waitress comes over and explains that we'd have to pour water into glasses by sticking our fingers in the glasses.

* * * 
EaterAK: I should note that while we're eating we are sitting in this dark room, it's VERY loud and very stuffy.
EaterGM: Oh, extremely. Yes, like a subway car during rush hour.
EaterAK: And every ten minutes or so one of the waiters yells for everyone to be quiet, and then it revs up again. Our waitress explained that it's due to the fact that you don't know how close you are to people so you just yell. I noticed my throat hurt afterwards.
EaterGM: Ha yeah, we were screaming at each other the entire time. "WHAT DOES YOUR FOOD TASTE LIke?" "I HATE THIS AMANDA." "IT"S HORRIBLE." "I HATE THIS SO MUCH."

Friday, August 10, 2012

'I never thought you were.'

I excerpted the Our Mutual Friend passage in the last post not only to call attention to its own felicities but because I was struck, reading it, by an intriguing parallel between it and Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of The World.

Here's the relevant passage from O'Brian:
'Forgive me, sir,' said Jack, rising, 'but there is still the question of hands: I am short, very far short, of my complement.  And then of course there is the chaplain.' 
'Hands?' exclaimed the Admiral, as though this were the first he had ever heard of the matter.  'What do you expect me to do about them?  I can't bring me out of the ground, you know.  I am not a goddam Cadmus.' 
'Oh no, sir,' cried Jack with the utmost sincerity, 'I never thought you were.' 
'Well,' said the Admiral, somewhat mollified, 'come and see me tomorrow.'  
...Allen and his new captain walked out into the street.  'I shall see you tomorrow, then, Mr Allen?' said Jack, pausing on the pavement.  'Let it be early, if you please.'...
Now that they were out in the open, surrounded by quantites of people and talking about subjects of reat importance to them both, such as the ship's tendency to gripe and the probable effects of doubling her, Allen's constraint wore off, and as they walked along towards the ship he said, 'Sir, may I ask what a Cadmus might be?' 
'Why, as to that, Mr Allen,' said Jack, 'it might not be quite right for me to give you a definition in such a public place, with ladies about.  Perhaps you had better look into Buchan's Domestic Medicine.'
Cadmus, sowing dragon's teeth, creates an army

It's the same joke--someone's trying to cover up their ignorance by pretending to be unwilling to say something not fix for mixed company.  I don't necessarily assert that O'Brian intended to borrow this idea from Dickens; I doubt it was a conscious theft.  But O'Brian--as erudite and learned an author as any I know--had undoubtedly read Dickens.  That idea, that set-up for a joke--if you want to call it that--had stuck in his head.  The pleasure of finding that connection, of seeing an idea passed form one hand to the next, is one of the great joys that reading, and especially _rereading_ offers.  (Only because I've read all of the O'Brian books a dozen times was I able to associate the two moments, reading Our Mutual Friend.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"...at the confounding enormities..."


This passage below is from Our Mutual Friend, which I'm rereading right now, and which is giving me immense pleasure.  It's a book I'd almost entirely forgotten.  It's fantastic.  The passage below stood out to me for reasons I will go into in an upcoming post.  First, though, it should be savored on its own terms.

There is some backstory.  Mr Boffin, having recently inherited a large fortune, has hired a street vendor, Mr Wegg, to come to his house at night and read out loud to him from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  (The image above shows them together on the street).  Mr Boffin, however, being scarcely literate, has named the book he wants to have read as "The Decline and Fall of the Russian (Rooshan) Empire."  Wegg, an angling little con man, claims to be familiar with The Decline and Fall of The Russian Empire--and in doing so he helps to earn himself the job.  The scene below occurs when Wegg, arrived at Boffin's house, realizes he's admitted to being an expert on the wrong book.
And now, Mr Wegg at length pushed away his plate and put on his spectacles, and Mr Boffin lighted his pipe and looked with beaming eyes into the opening world before him, and Mrs Boffin reclined in a fashionable manner on her sofa: as one who would be part of the audience if she found she could, and would go to sleep if she found she couldn't.
'Hem!' began Wegg, 'This, Mr Boffin and Lady, is the first chapter of the first wollume of the Decline and Fall off—' here he looked hard at the book, and stopped.
'What's the matter, Wegg?'
'Why, it comes into my mind, do you know, sir,' said Wegg with an air of insinuating frankness (having first again looked hard at the book), 'that you made a little mistake this morning, which I had meant to set you right in, only something put it out of my head. I think you said Rooshan Empire, sir?'
'It is Rooshan; ain't it, Wegg?'
'No, sir. Roman. Roman.'
'What's the difference, Wegg?'
'The difference, sir?' Mr Wegg was faltering and in danger of breaking down, when a bright thought flashed upon him. 'The difference, sir? There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs Boffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin's presence, sir, we had better drop it.'
Mr Wegg thus came out of his disadvantage with quite a chivalrous air, and not only that, but by dint of repeating with a manly delicacy, 'In Mrs Boffin's presence, sir, we had better drop it!' turned the disadvantage on Boffin, who felt that he had committed himself in a very painful manner.
Then, Mr Wegg, in a dry unflinching way, entered on his task; going straight across country at everything that came before him; taking all the hard words, biographical and geographical; getting rather shaken by Hadrian, Trajan, and the Antonines; stumbling at Polybius (pronounced Polly Beeious, and supposed by Mr Boffin to be a Roman virgin, and by Mrs Boffin to be responsible for that necessity of dropping it); heavily unseated by Titus Antoninus Pius; up again and galloping smoothly with Augustus; finally, getting over the ground well with Commodus: who, under the appellation of Commodious, was held by Mr Boffin to have been quite unworthy of his English origin, and 'not to have acted up to his name' in his government of the Roman people. With the death of this personage, Mr Wegg terminated his first reading; long before which consummation several total eclipses of Mrs Boffin's candle behind her black velvet disc, would have been very alarming, but for being regularly accompanied by a potent smell of burnt pens when her feathers took fire, which acted as a restorative and woke her. Mr Wegg, having read on by rote and attached as few ideas as possible to the text, came out of the encounter fresh; but, Mr Boffin, who had soon laid down his unfinished pipe, and had ever since sat intently staring with his eyes and mind at the confounding enormities of the Romans, was so severely punished that he could hardly wish his literary friend Good-night, and articulate 'Tomorrow.'
'Commodious,' gasped Mr Boffin, staring at the moon, after letting Wegg out at the gate and fastening it: 'Commodious fights in that wild-beast-show, seven hundred and thirty-five times, in one character only! As if that wasn't stunning enough, a hundred lions is turned into the same wild-beast-show all at once! As if that wasn't stunning enough, Commodious, in another character, kills 'em all off in a hundred goes! As if that wasn't stunning enough, Vittle-us (and well named too) eats six millions' worth, English money, in seven months! Wegg takes it easy, but upon-my-soul to a old bird like myself these are scarers. And even now that Commodious is strangled, I don't see a way to our bettering ourselves.' Mr Boffin added as he turned his pensive steps towards the Bower and shook his head, 'I didn't think this morning there was half so many Scarers in Print. But I'm in for it now!'

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Enlightenment is always a crime."


I highly recommend this fascinating history of a time in American history when the Government allowed medical research into LSD.  Two samples to whet your appetite.  First, the opening:

At 9:30 in the morning, an architect and three senior scientists—two from Stanford, the other from Hewlett-Packard—donned eyeshades and earphones, sank into comfy couches, and waited for their government-approved dose of LSD to kick in. From across the suite and with no small amount of anticipation, Dr. James Fadiman spun the knobs of an impeccable sound system and unleashed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” Then he stood by, ready to ease any concerns or discomfort.
For this particular experiment, the couched volunteers had each brought along three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months. In approximately two hours, when the LSD became fully active, they were going to remove the eyeshades and earphones, and attempt to find some solutions. Fadiman and his team would monitor their efforts, insights, and output to determine if a relatively low dose of acid—100 micrograms to be exact—enhanced their creativity.
It was the summer of ’66. And the morning was beginning like many others at the International Foundation for Advanced Study, an inconspicuously named, privately funded facility dedicated to psychedelic drug research, which was located, even less conspicuously, on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Menlo Park, Calif. However, this particular morning wasn’t going to go like so many others had during the preceding five years, when researchers at IFAS (pronounced “if-as”) had legally dispensed LSD. Though Fadiman can’t recall the exact date, this was the day, for him at least, that the music died. Or, perhaps more accurately for all parties involved in his creativity study, it was the day before.
Then this, from a few graphs further down:
Over the course of the preceding year, IFAS researchers had dosed a total of 22 other men for the creativity study, including a theoretical mathematician, an electronics engineer, a furniture designer, and a commercial artist. By including only those whose jobs involved the hard sciences (the lack of a single female participant says much about mid-century career options for women), they sought to examine the effects of LSD on both visionary and analytical thinking. Such a group offered an additional bonus: Anything they produced during the study would be subsequently scrutinized by departmental chairs, zoning boards, review panels, corporate clients, and the like, thus providing a real-world, unbiased yardstick for their results.
In surveys administered shortly after their LSD-enhanced creativity sessions, the study volunteers, some of the best and brightest in their fields, sounded like tripped-out neopagans at a backwoods gathering. Their minds, they said, had blossomed and contracted with the universe. They’d beheld irregular but clean geometrical patterns glistening into infinity, felt a rightness before solutions manifested, and even shapeshifted into relevant formulas, concepts, and raw materials.
But here’s the clincher. After their 5HT2A neural receptors simmered down, they remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. And the establishment agreed. The 26 men unleashed a slew of widely embraced innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits, a conceptual model of a photon, a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device, a new design for the vibratory microtome, a technical improvement of the magnetic tape recorder, blueprints for a private residency and an arts-and-crafts shopping plaza, and a space probe experiment designed to measure solar properties. Fadiman and his colleagues published these jaw-dropping results and closed shop.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"He was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected."


Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thinking about Sorkin

I've never read John Irving.  I don't want to any more than I ever have (not much) after reading Charles Baxter's excellent review of Irving's new book in the recent NYRB.  I've been thinking about the ending of the review for several days.  Here it is:

Reading John Irving’s novels, I have often found myself swept away by the story and emotionally overwhelmed at the same time that I have felt an uneasiness bordering on rage. Irving doesn’t mind assaulting his reader with full-frontal sentiment until that reader finally gives up or capitulates. Reading his novels is like spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast filled with Victorian furniture and being mugged in the middle of the night. I finished The Cider House Rules—the orphan takes over the orphanage!—in tears, but also outraged by what had been done to me. The reader of one of these novels does not collaborate with the author so much as submit to him, a condition that creates polarized responses of resentment and tender sentiment. The combined effect reminds me of an anecdote told by that charming and neurotic memoirist, pianist, and film star Oscar Levant, about a movie he once saw in the company of the composer Virgil Thomson: 

"...That same night we went to see a preview of the movie Young Man with a Horn, based on the legend of the late Bix Biederbecke. The story begins with a young man from Missouri. Virgil, too, was from rural Missouri, so the identification was immediate…. The boy’s role was played by Kirk Douglas and was a study of a musician in search of the indefinable…. When the lights went on after the cornball climax, Virgil’s face was streaming with tears. “What an awful picture,” he complained."
* * * 
The reason this review's been in my head, I think--other than its sheer excellence and perspicuity--is because of Aaron Sorkin's new show, The Newsroom.  As many reviews have attested, it's an appallingly bad show (bad in a way that recalls the 5th season of The Wire; its badness not only offends in the moment, it casts a retrospective pall on all the writer's done before).  A long thoughtful explanation of all that's wrong with The Newsroom is beyond my ambition at this moment.  In part though, what makes it so frustrating is the quality that Baxter finds in Irving, and that Virgil Thomson found in the Young Man with a Horn--the excellence of the craftsman in contrast with the mediocrity of the artist.

And as a craftsman Sorkin is undoubtedly a master.  He knows every trick, and he conjures up supremely affecting and moving moments seemingly without effort.  Unfortunately, they're wasted in service of what increasingly seems a puerile and uninteresting mind.  He's like a musician who can sight-read any score but can't compose anything but banalities.  If he weren't such a master of his craft--if he were just a hack writer on True Blood--no one would care about the quality of his imagination.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  He's frustrating because he does so much so well, but his skills are unbalanced.  He's like Paul McCartney, in Wings, a great musician but not a great artist.  So I watch the show to pick up tricks of the craft, but I have to pause and fast-forward through at least 1/3 of it.  I hate it, but I watch it and am affected.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

For All You Fans of Stephen King

I'd recommend this article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  In it, critic Dwight Allen tries to overcome his lifelong resistance to the writings of Stephen King.  Spoiler That is Not Really A Spoiler Alert: he fails.

The comments below the article (almost all of them aggrieved) are almost better than the piece itself.  I found Allen's article fairly mild and un-snobbish, all things considered; his readers, apparently, did NOT.

I have no real horse in the race.  I've never read any of King's writing, but that's only because horror and ANCIANT do not mix.  I still can barely sit through The Shining, and I'm told that the movie is much less scary than the book.  I have been a little confused, in the last few years, by the New Yorker's insistent championing of King's writings, but not to the point of actually caring.

The core problem, I think, with Allen's argument is his valorization of literary fiction.  The percentage of all fiction, in any genre, written in America in any given year that's actually good--whatever 'good' means--is maybe 10%.  Doesn't matter if it's literary fiction, horror, of sci-fi; excellence is rare--as rare if you're reading Franzen than if you are reading King.  Maybe more so.  Allen, however, seems to want to encourage all the lover of King's novels to turn instead to Zadie Smith, where true pleasure and enlightenment awaits.  That is not a winning argument.  White Teeth is not--it can't be--better than The Stand.  Nor is Freedom.  If you want to say: abjure Stephen King and read Trollope, or Sebald, or Penelope Fitzgerald, okay.  There, I can go with you.  But at least make it a contest.

Anyway, it's worth a read.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Lord have mercy, Yes..."




"So You Think You Can Dance" has chosen the twenty contestants who will appear on the show this season.  Thank God, that Cyrus "Glitch" Spenser of the Dragon House dance crew in Atlanta was one of the twenty.  (For performance by his roommate, see below).

The people in the audience cheering for him in this clip, by the way: they're his competition.  In theory at least, they should be cheering for him to fail.  Except that there's no way anyone could cheer for this guy to fail--he's too damn good.  Also, he might call his fellow aliens to start bombarding the planet.

Friday, June 29, 2012

"It is not unlike beef...."


I'm listening to Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers right now.  I can't recommend it highly enough. It's hard to do justice to Trollope in a brief excerpt; his genius manifests itself over pages and chapters, not in paragraphs.  Nevertheless, I strongly encourage you to read this book.  The following is part of the chapter that introduces the novel's central villain, Mr Slope:
Mr Slope is tall, and not ill made. His feet and hands are large, as has ever been the case, with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance, however, is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank, and of a dull pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision, and cemented with much grease; two of them adhere closely to the sides of his face, and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers, and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly of the same colour as his hair, though perhaps a little redder: it is not unlike beef,--beef, however, one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is capacious and high, but square and heavy, and unpleasantly shining. His mouth is large, though his lips are thin and bloodless; and his big, prominent, pale brown eyes inspire anything but confidence. His nose, however, is his redeeming feature: it is pronounced straight and well-formed; though I myself should have liked it better if it did not possess a somewhat spongy, porous appearance, as though it had been cleverly formed out of a red coloured cork.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"..and we move around like tigers on vaseline..."




The first 45 seconds is people talking, but then the guy starts to dance.  And it is incredible.  Having watched this now a dozen times I'm still not entirely convinced this person is an actual human male.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Jack White Concert Review


The wife and I go to see music once a year at most.  Last year we saw The Dead Weather; this year we saw Jack White.  The common link is my wife's semi-obsession with Mr White.  Apparently she has frequent dreams in which we both move to Nashville (I think I get to go), somehow run into Jack somewhere around town, and all become friends.  So.  I don't know what to make of that, but it doesn't sound promising, does it?

White played a few nights ago at the Wiltern and so we dressed up like young people and left the valley. On a weeknight.  Which is basically, for us, the equivalent of dropping acid, hijacking a yacht, and spending a month cruising the Dalmatian coast.

The show was not bad.  White has a likable stage presence and he's obviously a gifted musician.  He also looks remarkably like Edward Scissorhands.  His tour is in support of his first solo album, Blunderbuss, which is made up, apparently, of songs he's been writing over the last several years.

The band was fine, the songs were okay.  My takeaway was that White needs other people who are creatively potent as himself to be in contact with.  He has innate musical talent--he's one of those people that if you invented a new instrument tomorrow, he could play it well by next week--but his songwriting skills have yet to really blossom.  He works mostly in fairly standards--blues or three-chord, I/IV/V, single basic repeated riff-driven songs.  That's nothing wrong with any of that, but I don't get the sense, watching him, that he's pushing his own creative boundaries.  What he needs is a collaborator who's as talented as he is, someone who'll challenge him to be better than he has been before.

A few nights before the concert, The Last Waltz had been on TV, and when I watched Jack White the person I thought off was Rick Danko.  They're both talented musicians; they both play many instruments well; and they both have a genuine rock oddness to them.  They're not trying to seem eccentric, they really are eccentric.  The difference is that Danko, for whatever reason, joined his talents--for some amount of time anyway--with other people as equally talented and strong-willed as himself.  The result was at least two masterpiece albums.  White, on the other hand, keeps finding projects where he's the alpha dog.  The resulting music is what I imagine Rick Danko's solo albums probably sound like.  They're fine; they're not devoid of interest, but they're not special.  White could be special--I think.  But not on his own.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Predictions and Random Thoughts

Predictions

1) The Spurs over the Heat, in six games, in the NBA finals.

2) Bringing Tebow to the Jets was a bad idea.  Massive problems will result.  The Jets will finish 8-8.  Rex Ryan's job will be in jeopardy. (Not all due to Tebow, of course.  But he's going to exacerbate an already-bad situation).

3) Even though they're down against the Devils, I like the Rangers to win not only this series, but to beat the Kings in the Stanley Cup.  Even though I'm rooting for the Kings.  The only LA team worth rooting for.


Random Thoughts

Veep on HBO is exactly what I feared it would be.  Cynicism masquerading as wit.  Worse, cynicism masquerading as wisdom.  No surprise, I guess given that two of the main producers are the ever-bilious and horrible Frank Rich, and the guy behind In The Loop.  It's the same problem I have, in some ways, with Mad Men.  Making every character on a show base and selfish is just as shallow and unconvincing as making every character a noble, selfless would-be saint (see The West Wing).  Humans aren't always, only motivated by fear, careerism, and selfishness.  It's irksome.  

Also irksome, though for many different reason, in the much-ballyhooed Girls, also on HBO.  I don't yet know what I think of this show.  It goes from impressing to bothering the living hell out of me every time I watch it.  One of its core problems, I think, is that the suffering of its main character, Hannah, rarely transcends her own place and time.  We sometimes feel for her, but we rarely feel _with_ her.  At least, I rarely do.  And, I don't get why every single sex scene in the entire show has to strive to attain the maximum level of cringe-inducing awkwardness.  Jury's still out, I guess.  My favorite moment in it so far has been the scene between Hannah and her now-gay ex-boyfriend.  THAT was funny-and also, somewhat moving.  Wish the show had more of that.



Van The Man

Despite the sneering disdain of my New York Intellectual friend ASWOBA, Astral Weeks remains one of my most beloved rock (rock-jazz?) albums.  On that subject, I highly recommend this excellent appreciation of Morrison's work.  It contains, among other things, a fascinating list of Morrison clips avialable on YouTube (which I am off to check out).  A sample: 

I recently edited a book titled The Neuroscience of Preference. Unsurprisingly, this got me reflecting on my own preferences. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that few have endured the ebb and flow of time. In fact I often experience what I suspect is a common phenomenon: private embarrassment at these temporal disjunctions in taste. A recent example was seeing a model of car that I owned in the late 1970s. At the time it seemed desirable and the essence of modernity. What presented itself to my eyes all these years later was nothing short of a hideous box awkwardly balanced on four wheels. When it comes to preferences, an awful lot of them are evanescent, a fact that is perennially exploited by the fashion industry.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there are some constants. For me, one of these is an enduring passion for the music of Van Morrison. No other human voice has such power to arrest my attention and compel me to listen. This is a preference that has endured for more than 40 years.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Of Course. Who Wouldn't?




"Bertie, you're extraordinary," she said.

"Eh?  How do you mean, extraordinary?"

"All this nonsense you have been talking, trying to reconcile me and D'Arcy.  Not that I don't admire you for it.  I think it's rather wonderful of you.  But then everybody says that, though you have a brain like a peahen, you're the soul of kindness and generosity."

Well, I was handicapped here by the fact that, never having met a peahen, I was unable to estimate the quality of these fowls' intelligence, but she had spoken as if they were a bit short of the grey matter, and I was about to ask her who the hell she meant by 'everybody,' when she resumed.

"You want to marry me yourself, don't you?"

I had to take another mouthful of the substance in the bottle before I could speak.  One of those difficult questions to answer.

"Oh, rather," I said, for I was anxious to make the evening a success.  "Of course.  Who wouldn't?"

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sebald Is As Good As Advertised



But the more I labored on this project over several months the more pitiful did the results seem.  I was increasingly overcome by a sense of aversion and distaste, said Austerlitz, at the mere thought of opening the bundles of papers and looking through the endless reams I had written in the course of the years.  Yet reading and writing, he added, had always been his favorite occupation.  How happily, said Austerlitz, have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander, and how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper.  But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, that I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed.  If at times some kind of self-deception nonetheless made me feel that I had done a good day's work, then as soon as I glanced at the page next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies, and lapses staring at me from the paper.  How much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.  Soon I could not even venture on the first step.  Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The SAT is Tomorrow. That Affects None of You, I Know

Sorry for the long radio silence.  I've been teaching and writing, mostly the latter.  The wife and I are going on a mini vacation to the Napa Valley next weekend, and I'm trying to reach a certain writing threshhold before then.  For the last two weeks it seemed impossible that I was going to meet that threshold, but something good seems to have happened finally and it's looking sunny.

I'll try to take some photos in Napa and do another foodie write-up.  We're going to The French Laundry, which should be a highlight.  Also going to stay at place with a nice pool and view and so forth, so it should be relaxing.  Not that I ever really relax.  But, I should be less anxious, at least.

More to come, soon, I trust...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Time to Play?


This article about married, middle-aged men who attend "My Little Pony" fan conventions is a memorable read.  Sample:
Isn’t there something a little weird about grown men playing with rainbow-hued ponies? Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, doesn’t think so. She says, “They’re just a fan base revisiting childhood and some of the things they have left behind” — and, in some cases, the things they didn’t get a chance to experience the first time around, such as brushing a pony’s synthetic mane. 
It’s escapist in a positive way, she says: “It really is just different ways people have of fulfilling these very fundamental human needs.” 
For all his flamboyant pony shirts, R.S. has received surprisingly little flak. “I would’ve thought it was weird — I did think it was weird, when my friend first told me about it,” R.S. says. “But no one cares.” And if he ever did feel ostracized? He shrugs and spreads his hands. “Haters gonna hate, you know?”

Monday, April 2, 2012

For Johannes


I then went down the hall to join Madeline Bassett...

"Oh Bertie," she said in a low voice like beer trickling out of a jug, "you ought not to be here!"

....She went on, looking at me as if I were a rabbit which she was expecing shortly to turn into a gnome.

"Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel."

The name was new to me.

"Rudel?"

"The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge."

I shook my head.

"Never met him, I'm afraid. Pal of yours?"

"He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli."

I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

"For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore."

"Not feeling so good?" I said, groping. "Rough crossing?"

"He was dying. Of love."

"Oh, ah."

"They bore him to Lady Melisande's presence on a litter, and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died."

She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensued.

"Terrific," I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn't think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Vegas Recap II

Blackjack

One lesson I take from our last trip: if you’re going to drink, the first night may not be the best night.  Another lesson: if you’re going to drink, play blackjack.   That’s how to win!

Or at least, that’s how we won.  I have long ago forgotten all the ‘correct’ plays to make in blackjack (“Basic Strategy” as it’s known).  There’s no need to remember them; any dealer will tell you the correct play whenever you ask.  This frees up the mind for more important tasks, like trying to find a cocktail waitress.  Or, making conversation.

For some reason when I drink I start to believe that there exists a unique understanding—a bond almost--between myself and Casino workers (especially those who run the games).  In an alternate life, I guess I somehow imagine that if things go badly, that’s what I’d end up doing.  Pit bosses and dealers are always slightly bored; conversing with the tourists, I assume, is the best part of the job.  (Friendly tourists, I should say.  Dealing with the jerks who abuse the dealers when they lose money is surely the worst part of the job.  But that is not my way.  It doesn't even make any sense.  How can you get mad for losing money?  Of course you’re going to lose money.  That’s the point of a casino.)

Anyway, by the time we found a few seats at a 15$ blackjack table, I had enough alcohol and hazelnut flavored chocolate in me to feel, renewed with me, my powerful fellowship with the folks who run casino games.   As soon as we sat down, I struck up a conversation with the pit boss.  I first tried to talk to the dealer but he didn’t have much of a personality.  (At least, I didn’t think so.  He and The Wife-al Unit got along quite well).  Eventually, though, I started to become sober.  Sensing the danger in that state, I politely asked the pit boss if he could find us a cocktail waitress.

He agreed it had been slow and flagged down a waitress.

There then emerged a situation.  The waitress, was, let us say, in a mood.  A mood which was not a mood of happiness.  A mood which she took out on the pit boss.  I think her complaint was that he hadn’t been polite enough in summoning her, but mostly she was just...not happy to be there at that moment.  She yelled at him.  Something about how to talk to a lady, I think.  (To which I considered responding: does a “lady” wear fishnet tights, a bustier, and bring men alcohol for money?  But I did not.  I may have been tipsy, but I’m not a moron.)

Anyway: the pit boss was polite, and the waitress was not.  She did take our drink orders, at that point, though.  And in fact, from then on, service was quite good.  Although, in all honestly, that may have been a mixed blessing.  Anyway, after the situation ended, and the waitress left, I complimented the pit boss on his equanimity.  We moved on to other subjects.  A few minutes later we learned that the waitress had lodged a complaint with the floor manager (!) about the way the pit boss had talked to her. 

Having heard the entire exchange, and feeling like it was definitely a good situation for me to involve myself in, I volunteered to testify to whoever I needed to that the pit boss had been a complete professional.  Then, a bit later, the floor manager arrived and did, in fact, ask me for my version of the events.  I told her I thought the pit boss had behaved with perfect decency and she said (the floor manager) that’s what she’d assumed (“she knew what a good guy he was”), and that had been that.  But, it was some fun drama.

I mean, I think that's how it happened.  During all this I drank many many vodka tonics.  So who really knows?  I do think my wife seemed embarrassed by my loud boisterous BS-ing with the various casino people.  I know: How could that be?  And yet, that is my memory of the evening.

When it was all over, I learned we’d somehow won 300$.  That was the most shocking event of all.  As I told my new friend Pit Boss I (Matt?) as I got up, “I didn’t know you were allowed to win money at a casino.”  I think most of it came from one hand in which I split nines against a dealer eight, got dealt another nine, split that, and then got dealt, on the first and third nine, a two, requiring that I double down.  So that by the end of the hand I had a least 100$ on the table.  And the dealer did then bust.  And there was much rejoicing.

On the other hand, we may have won solely because my wife, after an hour of playing 'correct' basic strategy, decided she was going to start making the plays SHE wanted to make.  (Or, as our grouchy dealer said of her, admiringly, "you are not playing by THE book: you are playing by YOUR book."  Which is more true than he knows.)  That was some good times.  The looks of horror on the faces of the other people at the table as the wife tried a hit a sixteen against a dealer's five.  (I think I talked her out of that?)  Her creative, some might say haphazard, plans for doubling down.  Her fearlessness when hitting to a seventeen.  It was something. 


Poker:

After a long night of revels, I spent Saturday playing poker.  Usually, when I used to go to Vegas, I typically played 2/5 or even 5/10.   After Friday night, however, I had no capacity for any game that required actual thought.  That left 1/2.  I was dazed, hungover, and half asleep for most of the day; at 5/10 that would have hurt my game.  At 1 / 2 it helped. 

At those stakes the only ‘skill’ you need is patience.  You wait to get a hand, you bet it, and you rake the chips.  It’s hard to sit for hours at a time with donkeys folding medium strength hands; when the fountain of money is so nearby, the temptation is to reach for it, bucket or not.  But no one folds in 1/2 and fancy moves avail you naught.  You have to have hands.   You can’t force things (my usual problem at those stakes).

But force things I did not.  Force of any kind was not, at that time and place, my metier.  And in part I was so patient (i.e. 'tired') I managed to make a pretty sizable win (at least for those stakes).  It probably also helped that I haven’t watched poker on TV in the last several months.  Watching pros make fancy plays at each other always inspires me to do the same.  And fancy plays are losing propositions at 1/2 . (Last time I was in Vegas I check-shoved a river for an all-in bluff, representing a straight against top pair.  I got called in about two seconds.  Sigh.)

It helped that I got dealt some real hands.  Even more important, I got dealt them at the same time that the table donkeys decided to spew off chips.  I doubled up early on by making a full house against someone who had top pair (and who refused to fold).  Then, an hour later, I raised AJ in the CO and got the big blind to check raise me all-in on a flop of A/J/5. (He had queens!) A jack high flush an hour later saw my 300$ buy in rise to 800.

Feeling a little more mentally acute, I switched, that afternoon, to Pot Limit Omaha (a game the Venetian now spreads every day—how things have changed).  PLO is not a game of amateurs; the tables were filled with serious looking dudes wearing headphones and sunglasses.  Still, I think I have at least some edge in that game, and when I managed to get my top two pair on the flop to hold up against a big stacked calling station, I ran my day’s total win up to more than 1000$.

Sunday was more of the same.  Patient ABC poker while I waited for the donkeys to make mistakes.  Again, I chipped up steadily.  Did I make any interesting plays?  Two that I can remember.  The first involved a float against a massively aggressive player which I turned into a pot sized bluff on the river after a flush card hit.  That got him to fold.  I also made one good call-down based on a read.  UTG, I open limped 77, when an aggro guy behind me raised to 17$.  I called and dark-checked the flop.  It came nine-high; he bet 30$, and I called.  The turn was a blank: I checked and he checked.  The river was a queen.  He hesitated and then bet 50$.  I called quickly and he mucked what I’m sure was AK.  Not a hero call by any means (his turn check made it much easier), but it was helped by a hand he’d played earlier, in which he raised the same 17$ and ultimately tabled AK.  He’d varied his raise size all day, but the only time it had gone as high as 17$, he’d shown AK.  That made the call down easy.