Archive for October, 2008

Euphemism

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Today a woman I know was telling me about her brother, who – to her distress – embraces decidedly right-leaning values from down home where they grew up. Recently, when their dad needed a coronary bypass operation, the doctor assigned by the hospital was, by all accounts, learned and brilliant, with a long track record of success. But her brother didn’t approve. After meeting the doctor, he felt that this man, who’d been educated at Harvard Medical School, was too “elitist”, and so he demanded that the hospital provide somebody else.

The hospital obliged, and so their dad was operated upon by somebody else – somebody white.

Yes, it’s an ugly story. Don’t kid yourself, this election is about the very soul of this country. Someone can wear a euphemism on their sleeve because they find it unseemly to call it a swastika, but they are still wearing a swastika. I guess it’s time for me to stop trying to make excuses for this hate, so I’ll just lay this out plainly:

These racists are disgusting, and they are a disgrace, a betrayal of everything that our beautiful nation stands for. Every time someone says to you: “Oh, I’m sorry, I could never vote for a black man”, they are attacking your country. They might as well be cutting up the American flag into little pieces and urinating on it.

If you have any love at all for the United States of America, and the ideals that have instilled so much pride within you since you were a child, you have a solemn duty to fight them.

Today they say “black” is un-American. Tomorrow they will say “Jew” is un-American. The day after that they will say “Catholic” is un-American. And it won’t stop there. Once unreasoned hatred takes hold – hatred that literally makes no sense and is based upon nothing – it consumes everything and everyone in its path.

Monterey

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I’d never been to Monterey until now. There is something about the place – the sparkle of the sun on the water, the salt breeze off the ocean, the sea lions and their unending conversation, that gives this little town the sense that it is just a bit removed from the rest of the earth. Time is slower, faces more relaxed. It’s good to be somewhere like this for a little while. Just a pause really, to catch my breath.

And then I must be on my way.

Casting is destiny

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

I just saw “Notting Hill” on an airplane flight – the love story in which Julia Roberts plays a movie star and Hugh Grant an ordinary bloke. Yes, I know that everybody in the world who will ever see this film already saw it several years ago, but I hadn’t. And now I have, so there it is.

The thing that I find most notable about this film (which was, on the whole, quite entertaining to watch, although the plot mechanics creaked rather painfully at times), is the way it speaks to its audience on a meta-level, almost as an essay on the topic of “casting is destiny”. Of course Hugh Grant is not an ordinary bloke. He’s Hugh Grant. Meanwhile, the film makes a big deal out of breaking the fourth wall with Julia Roberts’ character: Because she is pointedly playing a famous movie star, we cannot help but think that we are watching Julia Roberts playing “Julia Roberts” – this wall-breaking is clearly intentional.

Casting in romantic comedies is always absurd. It’s absurd by definition. In order for an audience of millions to believe that two people represent ordinary people in love, that audience insists that these two people be represented by two movie stars – larger-than-life idealizations – genetic royalty.

And so the spectre of Hugh Grant, in the same fictional space, living in what amounts to a council flat with all of his looks and charm intact, both conforms to the conventions of the genre, and simultaneously underlines the absurdity of RomCom casting – since the continued presence of Julia Roberts as “Julia Roberts” makes it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief.

And so I found myself, for an hour and a half, waiting for somebody in the movie, maybe one of his friends in the council flat, or a waiter in a restaurant – anybody really – to suddenly turn to Hugh Grant and say “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t you Hugh Grant?”

In the end it didn’t happen, and somehow I felt vaguely disappointed.

But I suspect most people who watch the film were not at all disappointed. After all, they knew perfectly well, when they saw that gorgeous couple together at the end, that Julia Robert’s character did what she must, as RomCom convention demands (but nobody ever questions, because it would raise way too many questions about why we watch these things), to marry not an ordinary mortal, but within her own elite class. This seems to be what audiences really respond to: Movie star marries fellow movie star – an affirmation of genetic royalty.

Other elephants, other rooms

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

Today I spent time with somebody I like I lot, a friend from out of town who happens to be a conservative Republican. The last time we got together, we had a rather tense and careful conversation that led to some awkwardness and a certain amount of mutual disbelief, the subtext going both ways being something like “I can’t believe somebody as intelligent as you believes such things.”

This time though, the elephant stayed politely and invisibly tucked away in a corner of the room. The subject of politics was not raised, and it was clear that neither of us had any interest in raising it. Given the recent turn of events, I’m sure my friend would have agreed that Barack Obama is much closer to becoming our 44th U.S. President than is John McCain. But I didn’t have the slightest interest in pointing this out. It would have felt smug and condescending, and would have served no purpose other than to drive a personal wedge between us.

I think that part of the reason the topic was off-limits – much as I hate to admit this – is that Obama’s advantage is not primarily due to his political views (which of course are far more similar to my own than are those of his opponent) but rather to the fact that he has run an excellent and professional campaign, whereas McCain and his advisors have made just about every mistake imaginable – the largest being the rash choice of Sarah Palin, which has removed any hope of the G.O.P. reaching the numbers it needs among the all-important undecided voters.

It is not so much my friend’s beliefs that America is probably about to vote against, but rather the incompetency of his party’s campaign. And so, agreeing to ignore that elephant in the corner, my friend and I had a wonderful time. We discussed music, movies, family, and all of those mundane yet comforting things that will continue on beyond November 4, no matter who enters the Oval Office this coming January.

Tomorrow Never Knows

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Today I spent some time in a place where a tape was playing of old songs from the 1980’s. I happened to strike up a converation with a woman in her twenties, and we both realized that song after song was going by without her recognizing a single group – the Thompson Twins, Madness, Duran Duran. Of course this didn’t surprise either of us. Most pop music is ephemeral, something that speaks mainly to its own time and to momentary fashion.

But then, curious, I asked her about the Beatles – a group that had burst on the scene not a mere twenty years ago, but over forty years ago. “That’s different,” she said, “that’s the Beatles!” Point well taken.

As it happens, the other day I had finally gotten around to seeing Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” – a film that is clearly a thinly disguised love poem to the genius of the Beatles’ songbook. The plot of this film is mainly an excuse for the spectacle of beautiful young people singing Beatles songs that have mostly been reworked into contemporary arrangements. It was all very sweet and entertaining, and it really underscored just how powerful and timeless those songs are.

In contrast, I cannot imagine doing something like that with, say, the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” – a song whose appeal cannot really be separated from its era-specific vocal performances and production effects. In contrast, a Beatles song like “Yesterday” or “Let it Be” may be as timeless as “Happy Birthday” or “Greensleeves”.

It fascinates me how some things start out as pop, and yet outlast their era, while other things fade away. I’m sure that the young woman I was talking with would have recognized a Sinatra performance, but probably not Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence or Mel Torme. Jerry Lewis, but not Peter Lawford. “Gone with the Wind”, but not “Ninochka”. Charlie Chaplin, but not George Jessel.

I find myself wondering if we can ever know, while something is still new, whether it will become a classic? I’ll bet that when the enormously popular Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were dominating the radio waves in the 1930s, most people assumed his fame and music would continue to last down through the ages. But now he is remembered mainly for his patented blender.

And so I look around now at all the bright shiny new things in today’s pop landscape, and I wonder – who will still be known in another fifty years, and who will simply fade away from the collective cultural memory? Is there any way to tell the difference?

Qualified

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Hmm, interesting.

It seems that there is an on-line poll, being conducted by our very own Public Broadcasting Service, which is asking the question “Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?” Now you might think she is, and you might think she isn’t – that’s entirely up to you to decide.

But what’s unusual about this situation is that, apparently, folks on the political right learned about this poll in advance and have been flooding the site with YES votes. You might agree with them or not – that’s your call.

I’m not going to tell anybody how to vote, but I figure I’ll just call this to your attention and let you decide if you want to weigh in here:



http://www.pbs.org/now/polls/poll-435.html


Like I said, it’s your call.

:-)


Update: Interesting idea, but we’ve realized that this poll is broken. Don’t waste your time actually trying to vote on it. -KP

Joe the Plumber

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

A lot of people gambled on the stock market this last year and lost. But I’ll bet that this evening quite a few people gambled on Joe the Plumber and won big. I’m referring, of course, to the drinking game that John McCain graciously invited an entire nation to join during tonight’s presidential debate, with practically the first words out of his mouth.

You have to hand it to the senator from Arizona. He knew the race was lost, the jig was up, the White House forever out of reach (unless, of course, the nice folks at Diebold come through for him after all). And so, despairing of winning this debate on the merits, he had an inspiration: Why not just use his valuable time in the national spotlight to create yet another drinking game? People have been getting tired of the Maverick drinking game – been there, done that. But here was something new entirely!

All across America this evening the economy got a boost in countless thousands of bars, throughout every state of this great nation, from drink orders alone. People knew, without needing to be told, from the very first time he uttered the fateful words “Joe the Plumber”, that Senator McCain was going to use that phrase over and over and over again, as a kind of cosmic placeholder, a Mantra, a reminder to all who are in the know that we have not gathered here to engage in mere issues – no, nothing as trivial as that.

Obama, oblivious to the meta-level upon which John McCain operates, was discussing mere facts – like the fact that the $5000 you’ll get fror insurance under McCain’s policy (which is actually a brilliant mechanism to dismantle, once and for all, the entire pesky system of employer-paid insurance benefits) will actually cost you an average of $12000.

But McCain was working on an entirely more fascinating plane. He was actually proposing (while cleverly pretending to look like a complete moron by claiming to link Obama to Bill Ayers – that darling of the Annenbergs, right-wing financial backers of Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms) to invent a bold new drinking game, one that would put the “Maverick” game to shame.

In the bar where I saw the debates, many rose to the challenge, but few were up to it. Every time McCain uttered those fateful words “Joe the Plumber” another round of drinks was ordered. And another. And another.

And another.

Many hapless souls – so confident when the debate started that they could keep up – had passed out by the time the debate ended, dead drunk, lost to the world, sprawled limp and unconscious across chairs and bar stools, looking for all the world like a MeetUp group for narcoleptics.

Sometimes McCain would try to vary things, do a sort of change-up. Like the brilliant moment when he suggested that anybody coming out of the military should have the right to get a job as a school teacher without having to take those annoying examinations that everyone else needs to take.

Note: Those of you who didn’t see the debate will think I made up the stuff in that previous sentence. But actually that is exactly what he proposed. Frankly I wouldn’t have the audacity to make up something as crazy as that.

And so, while Obama talked about all those boring ideas like investing in America, making sure everyone has adequate health insurance, getting K-12 education back on track, lowering our dependency on foreign credit and foreign oil, McCain was boldly challenging the citizens of America to a drinking game, one far more challenging than any drinking game they had ever played before.

But after watching the shock and awe of McCain’s decidedly unusual gambit tonight, I am left with one question, a question that has been nagging at me ever since the debate ended: What about all those people who, trusting in John McCain, opted to play the “Joe the Plumber” drinking game, and ended up dying of alcohol poisoning? Can their families sue him for wrongful death?

Holding my breath

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

I realize I’ve sort of been holding my breath these last few weeks. Of course Obama would win at this point in a fair election – independent voters, necessary for a McCain win, have pretty much abandoned McCain altogether – but what if the election does end up being rigged?

I’m not usually given to these sorts of dark thoughts, but the stakes are unusually high this time around. I worry that some of the talk of things like the “Bradley effect” may, intentionally or not, be laying the groundwork for plausible deniability, for a narrative that can be spun to explain away an implausible Election Day outcome.

If November 5 rolls around and – lo and behold – the official results say that McCain has miraculously edged out Obama, defying all those pesky “big city” elites, what will people do? Will a disheartened citizenry simply go along? Have we been so beaten down in the last six years by learning to lay low at airports and border crossings, by the need to keep our heads down and not make trouble, by the bizarre ritual of taking off our shoes when so ordered and submitting silently to random searches?

I find myself counting states where there are no Diebold electronic voting machines, hoping that there are enough left, hoping that the landslide will be so decisive and across the board that hacking the election would just be too difficult. Hoping that if the system really does fail, there will be enough paper ballots around to be counted in a court challenge.

Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

An extraordinarily instructive disappointment

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Yesterday, to keep myself occupied on a subway ride out to Brooklyn, I grabbed an old paperback copy of George Pólya’s classic book “How to Solve It” – about the art and science of problem solving – a book I’d never quite gotten around to reading. On one page that I turned to at random, he used the example of trying to make a one-word anagram from “DRY OX TAIL IN REAR”. The idea here is to rearrange those letters in such a way that they form a single word – using each of the letters exactly once.

It seemed like a really hard problem to me, and I figured I might be able to get a good fifteen or twenty minutes – or more – of fun on the long subway ride, trying to work it out with pen and paper. I committed the short but mysterious phrase to memory, and put the book back into my jacket pocket. Then I took a pen out of my pants pocket, together with the piece of paper where I’d written the address in Brooklyn I was going to, and I wrote out the words neatly so that I would be able to study them properly as I planned my attack:


DRY OX TAIL IN REAR

Settling in to what promised to be a fun and challenging subway ride, I figured I would begin with some likely letter combinations. I started to write some letters below the phrase, and those first letters, as they appeared on the paper one after another, turned out to be the solution. Apparently while I was busy fussing with putting away the book, taking out pen and paper, copying over the five words, my subconscious mind had been merrily working away – without my knowledge or consent – solving the darned thing.

I was disappointed – in fact I felt like I’d been cheated. It wasn’t even as though I could really take credit for the solution. My plan had been to systematically apply some of Pólya’s fascinating ideas about problem solving, and to enjoy a little study of heuristic methods at work. Instead my hand had just written it all out, full stop. I was left with no idea of either the approach or the method, since my subconscious mind has an annoying habit of not telling my conscious mind what it is thinking.

Yet I suppose this was an instructive experience. We go about our daily lives thinking that we are consciously working out solutions to all sorts of problems. The reality is probably quite different – our subconscious selves are really figuring out most of it. We just show up at the end to claim all the credit and the glory. The truth is that we rely on the subconscious to add that little something extra – ordinarily we don’t even notice it happening. But every once in a while the crafty little devil tips his hand.

Epexegetically

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

I recently reread some of my favorite Roald Dahl stories. One in particular, “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” is about a computer that effectively learns the writing styles of various authors, and is able to churn out stories in these various styles better and faster than the real authors. In the story, some authors try to fight their cybernetic replacement. But eventually all of the authors cave in to the inevitable, signing contracts which specify that in the future they will no longer write, but will simply license their work from the computer.

The most fiendishly clever passage occurs when the Grammatizator’s inventor is explaining its workings to one hapless but fascinated writer:

“There’s a trick nearly every writer uses, of inserting one long, obscure word into every story. This makes the reader think the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There’ll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose.”

“Where?”

“In the word-memory section,” he said epexegetically.

What I find lovely about this passage is the effect of the insertion of that one word “epexegetically” (which means “by way of additional explanation”). Its appearance changes the entire meaning of the story. Suddenly it is being suggested that you are not merely reading a story by Raoul Dahl, but rather one that has been written by the machine which is being described – a machine which has replaced Roald Dahl himself.

Of course we know this cannot be true. After all, the machine is merely a fiction that exists inside the story. And yet, as an intellectual concept, the impossible inversion is successfully planted in our minds. I find this concept completely delicious – like the joy I felt the first time I ever saw one of M.C. Escher’s impossible waterfalls.

Can anyone think of other examples in which an author calls into question the very existence of the author?