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Lines and Shapes and Colors and Stuff

Here's the interesting thing about cartoon characters: they have no psychology.

Take the other night, for instance. Some friends and I went to see The Animation Show (2005). There's some great stuff in it. There was one cartoo-- er, I mean, animated film -- that I didn't particularly care for (except in parts), but the others ranged from amusing to, in one case, stunning in its look, its idea, and its storytelling.

It's odd how much we invest in these moving lines, shapes, and colors up there on the screen. You put the lines and shapes and colors in all the right places and pretty soon you've got us bringing them to life for you. Take this little guy for example:

You know what he is feeling. You know what you would feel like if you were being pursued by a giant, flying loaf of bread. That's how you know what he is feeling.

Except "he" isn't a "he". "He" is a series of dark lines against a white background. Dark lines against white backgrounds are not generally known for the depth of their feelings. It's you who are feeling what you know "he" is "feeling". He can't feel anything. How could he? He has no psychology.

Cartoonists. Lazy bastards. All you do is make the damn pictures. We're the ones who have to do all the work of bringing these lines and shapes and colors to life in our heads.

And boy are we diligent and dedicated about it. You really have to work hard at screwing up the lines and shapes and colors so badly that we refuse to see life in what you do (see example above). Gosh. It's almost as if we are desperate to project our psychologies onto that screen. It's kind of scary actually. Unless you are a hopelessly controlling son-of-a-bitch, it kind of gives you pause. How much of this projecting of our psychologies are we doing outside of cartoons?

If you want to just talk about moving lines and shapes and colors, then you really aren't distinguishing much between a "live-action" film and a cartoon, are you? You go see a movie with an actor in it and ... um, excuse me? You aren't watching an actor up there. You are watching a series of moving lines and shapes and colors upon which you project what you think you know, and what you know you feel, about the behaviors of these lines and shapes and colors. And come to think of it, I don't see how T.V. is much different. FOX News. CNN. Cartoons. Everywhere you look. Even the scenes you see right in front of you as you go through your day.

I resolve that from here on out, I will not see life as a cartoon. I take the pledge: Immune to the Cartoon!

Ha. Fat chance. Okay, so I resolve to try to not project my psychology onto all those moving lines and shapes and colors out there. Hmm. Okay, I resolve to try to occasionally remind myself not to do that anymore.

Okay, I resolve to try to remember I'm doing it all the time.

This projecting of our psychologies is great for the cartoonists and such, but it really plays havoc with our politics and the course of history and all that. For one moment earlier this evening, I wondered if it might be worth giving up our ability to create and enjoy cartoons if it meant we wouldn't do so much of this psychology projecting. But then I thought, hell, it's the way we're built. What can we do?

And so I stopped feeling this vague resentment I had toward our cartooning fellows. It's not their fault, after all. It's the cartoonists who remind us with their work that moving lines and shapes and colors are all we really see of each other. They go: "Here, look, look at what you are doing." So I guess it's okay by me if they keep making their cartoons.

You really should try to go see The Animation Show. You can find a schedule for the various places it's showing around the country here. For any New Yorkers out there, you should hurry the hell up about it since I think it's in its last days in town. (Hmm. It was at the Cinema Village on 12th at University Place, but I think it may be gone now...)

There was one cartoon I wanted to write about in particular called Fallen Art. When I finally figured out what it was up to, the moment of realization took my breath away. I love that moment with a piece of art -- that moment when it takes your breath away. But I won't tell you anymore about it on account of probable spoilage. Sorry.

And come to think of it, there was another cartoon I really liked (When the Day Breaks), not only for itself but for what it got me to thinking about. In this cartoon there was a gentlemanly rooster (who sort of reminded me of what Jean-Paul Sartre would have been like if he'd been a rooster), and there was a housewife who was a pig. Also, a cop who was a dog and a green-grocer who was a bunny.

At one point the pig housewife goes out shopping and the tension began to rise in me. Would the pig meet the rooster at the grocery store over the MEAT COUNTER?? What would THAT be like? What sort of questions would that raise in everyone's minds?

After the movie, one of my friends mentioned that she'd seen a Goofy cartoon when she was little and it really bugged her that in the cartoon Goofy had a pet dog. "He's a dog! How can a dog have a pet dog?" I had no answer. None of us did. Just as I couldn't imagine what it would be like if the pig housewife met the gentlemanly rooster by the meat counter.

These are the cartoons that are still waiting to be made. I saw cutting-edge stuff the other night, but no one took on questions like how a dog could have a dog for a pet, or what it would be like if there were cut-up chicken parts waiting for the rooster in the meat department. Sort of like the cartoon-world equivalents of why can't we have election machines that can be verifiably audited? Or, why hasn't anybody been punished for lying us into a pre-emptive war?

If only our cartoon news outfits had the courage to tackle topics like Goofy's putative pet dog or cut-up chicken parts or the Diebold machines or WMDs. You know what? I'd even settle for them just changing their names to the FOX Cartoon News Channel, or the Cable Cartoon News Network, or the CBS Nightly Cartoon News. At least that would keep reminding us of what we are doing to ourselves. It's not like the news isn't all lines and shapes and colors too, you know, all laid out and just waiting for our psychologies to fill it up with life. This whole dead lady in Florida thing... we'd all be so much better off if we could just see it for the cartoon that it is.

Young Person's Guide to Democracy

Here at the beginning of the 21st Century, as we head into a time that resembles the end of democracy... heh, resembles... we here at The Corpuscle would like to leave a little something behind in the hope that someday gonads may once again thrive among what, in the Olde Days, we used call "Free Thinkers".

Inasmuch as old farts are evidently of little or no use anymore in keeping freedom of speech present in our lives, nor common decency toward our fellow beings, nor civilized behavior, nor the desire for verifiable knowledge about the world, nor free thought, we orient our sights toward the Youth of the World. Good luck, kids! It's your world to screw-up now!

And so herewith, eighteen pieces of unsolicited advice:

First, masturbate if you want. It's your goddamned body. They are trying to train you to become a consuming cog in their production machine. This means the first thing they need to do is cultivate in you the notion that you don't actually belong to yourself. Dr. Jocelyn Elders got hounded out of office as Surgeon General of the United States of America for suggesting the obvious -- that kids ought to be taught how to masturbate. What else do you need to know about The Man and his attitude regarding who owns your body? Playing with yourself is probably the first genuinely powerful political act you will undertake. Beat off for Jesus, or Democracy, or Free Thought, or whatever your particular personal values are. Or, you know, just jerk-off for yourself. That is, after all, kind of the point.

Second, celebrate weirdoes. The Man wants all of us molded into cogs in His machine and weirdoes only gum up the works. Weirdoes have bumps and teeth in all the wrong places. Weirdoes have to be pounded into shapes acceptable to the rest of the machine. Otherwise, what is their use? You want to fight The Man, then make friends with nerds and homos and lonely kids and kids with greasy hair and pimples and anybody else who The Man wants you to hate. He wants you to be cruel to each other so you can learn how to be proper bullies. That keeps you alone and isolated from each other, and that makes you powerless against Him. Yes, that's right. Being kind and decent to each other is a way of fighting back.

Third, remember this: We're all in the same effed up boat. What do you want to make other people's lives miserable for? If you want to take out your aggressions on somebody, take them out on those who are aggressively trying to make you into a drone, some cog in their machine. They deserve it. But spice it this way: be funny. Take the piss out of the Machine-oids in the name of everybody's freedom -- including the stunted freedom of the Machine-oids themselves. Mess with them, but try to mess with them in a way that helps them see what cowardly weenies they are. The more of them you can free up, the easier time of it you are going to have for yourself.

Fourth, your job is to make the world into a place you don't actually mind living in. Ultimately, you don't know why you were born, and you don't know why or how or when the world is going to croak you. You can look at this purposelessness as a burden, in which case the easiest thing to do is to surrender and become a cogoid. Or, you can look on this emptiness as a blank slate -- a medium upon which you can write your own life. You didn't ask to come into this world and so, in my book, that means you are under no obligation whatsoever to mindlessly accept what you've been handed once you got here. Own this emptiness you've been handed.

Fifth, find out what makes you feel. Look, everybody knows life can be upsetting and depressing. Of course there are chemical reasons for some kinds of serious depression, and don't take that possibility in yourself lightly. There are things that can be done for that sort of thing so try not to suffer more than you have to. But your run-of-the-mill depression, the kind that comes with just being alive, is good for The Man and bad for you. It softens you up. It makes you pliable. It makes you vulnerable to The Man's machinations. If you are depressed and can't figure out something to care about, care about finding something to care about. Explore. It might be that the thing that's scaring you and making you shut down your feelings is the frightening amount of freedom you've been handed. You don't have to swallow all that freedom at once. Take a small part of it, take the freedom you have to explore, the freedom you have to not necessarily accept the role the world is trying to make you play. Go out and do something you haven't done before, but make sure it isn't something that will hurt you or hurt somebody else -- you can't find the full measure of your genuine freedom if you are dead or have crippled yourself, or if you have killed or crippled somebody else.

Sixth, here's something you can believe in even when it feels like there's nothing at all to believe in: There's always something you can do to make things better. Look, when you get to the end of life and all your options have shut down, maybe that isn't true anymore. But, screw it, I think when I get to that point I'm still going to choose to believe it. Why? Why the hell not? How am I going to find out that there's something I can do to make things better unless I believe that I can? Maybe I can't make things much better, but better is better. Believing otherwise is giving in to The Man. People who want to make things better are troublemakers and The Man hates troublemakers.

Seventh, The Man wants you feeling weak. The Man wants you feeling that there is nothing you can do about things. The Man wants, for example, to hand you voting machines that allow for fraud, and He wants you to just accept that. The Man wants to lie to you about there being WMDs in Iraq and -- listen carefully here -- he doesn't care if you actually believe Him. He only wants you to behave as if you do. See, it doesn't matter to The Man if you believe so long as you don't make trouble when he lies to you. This is how your elders have failed you. You should be outraged. It's their willingness to ignore the fact that they've been lied to that is sending you and your mates off to get killed.

Eighth, go to the web and look up a guy named Clark Kent Ervin (yes, he was named -- at the urging of his older brother -- after Superman's alter-ego). He used to be the guy at the Homeland Security Department in charge of making sure that outfit wasn't bullshitting us about making us safer here at home. He found problem after problem with that agency, failure after failure, and he had this annoying habit of actually telling the truth in public about these failures. And so he got fired. Nobody was outraged. Nobody was fired for shutting this guy up. Nobody had to pay any price whatsoever for their so totally bullshitting us. And this is how your elders have failed you again. They did not rise up and demand that they stop bullshitting us. Your elders are cowards. Your elders have become what you should be terrified of becoming. Always tell the verifiable truth, and demand the verifiable truth from others -- always, always, always the truth. From your parents. From your teachers. From the people who are purportedly "running the country". No more bullshitting. You know bullshit when you see it. This is your special talent. Never lose it.

Ninth, argue with those who want to subject you to the rules and regulations of their religion. If you want to have your religion, fine. Just remember it is your religion and you've got no right to cram it down other people's throats.

Tenth, fight back against those who want you to shut up.

Eleventh, grant to others the sort of freedom you want for yourself -- that's the only way you will ever get and keep it for yourself.

Twelfth, don't let yourself be mindlessly sold to. What sort of mindless idiot buys the products The Man wants you to buy just because He wants you to buy them? You don't have to be A Star in The Man's eyes. You don't have to be one of His Special Cogs to be worth something. You don't have to own all the right crap. What're you, stupid? Why are you giving him money? He will only use it to gain more power over you. Use that brain you've got in your head, will ya?

Thirteenth, I like to party as much as the next guy, but keep this in mind, too: staying doped up or totally slacking off isn't Resisting the Man, or Saying No, or anything else supposedly Brave and Radical like that. Tell the truth: it's rolling over on your stomach and spreading your ass-cheeks for The Man. Get. A. Clue. Don't pretend you are doing something you are not.

Fourteenth, be brave enough to stand alone when what you are standing for is the right thing. Being brave can be scary, so that means it can be fun, too. You like roller coaster rides? You like haunted houses? You like driving fast on dark roads? Try just being brave! Thrills! Chills! Spills! And don't forget to be stubborn when they are trying to make you think something they cannot prove is worth thinking. If they beat you down once, it will be easier for them to do it the next time. And the next time. And pretty soon you're stupid, just the way they want you.

Fifteenth, educate yourself, otherwise you will never be able to know when you have to brave and/or stubborn about something. They want you stupid and uneducated. Look at the school systems they are inflicting on you. They don't want you studying the truth in school. They don't want you learning science, for god's sake. At least they don't want you learning anymore science than that which will make you a useful cog in their machine. They don't want to teach you about sex. They're willing to see you die rather than teach you about sex. If that's not proof they mean to make you stupid, I don't know what is. If they won't make your schools smart for you, then you will have to make them smart for yourselves. Challenge your parents, your teachers, your school boards, your civic leaders to make your schools smarter. You might even catch them off guard one day and they'll accidentally end up doing it. If nothing else, think of the fun you'll have calling them frauds and being totally in the right.

Sixteenth, the world is worth making better, if for no other reason than the simple fact that you and your compatriots have to live in it. The world will be better for it if you can help nudge America closer to what she purports to be. You won't succeed. No one will ever completely succeed because the real America can only ever exist as a dream. But in the real world, better is better. Never forget that: in the real world, better is always better.

Seventeenth, don't forget to have some fun along the way. In fact, make sure that you do. Be kind to the good people, and the sad, and the lonely, and the odd, and your friends, but never forget to heartlessly mock the frauds. Not just now when it is easy for you to mock people; do it for the rest of your lives.

And finally, eighteenth, never forget this: your mind and your body and your heart are not charitable donations you need to spend the rest of your life being grateful for; they are the price the world has to pay you for dragging you into this life. The world doesn't own them. You do. They are the wages of life. Don't be a fool and end up spending them on somebody else's crap.

Saturday Morning Spring Vigil (0326)

NYC, 108°, March 26, 2005, 6:45 a.m.

There Will Be Some Changes

This blog is four months old this week. Lately, I'm not all that happy with the Blog Experience, and so starting today I am making some changes.

I named this thing "The Corpuscle" because (1) I've always loved that word -- the sound of it has just the barest suggestion of obscenity to it (wait, is there some sort of flesh involved here?), and (2) a long time ago it occurred to me that a human being was a little bit like a corpuscle -- one little guy, not too unlike all the other guys in the bloodstream, but different too -- different enough to have his own separate existence from all the other guys in the bloodstream, but not all that much extra special. We're all about the same color, after all, and we all have our little hemoglobin pits. Note the bloodstream at the top of this page. Note the single corpuscle riding the typewriter. Yeah, that would be me. Or, it's supposed to be me. What else do you need to know?

Well, here's one thing I'll tell you even if you don't need to know it. The blogosphere feels to me a little bit like a bloodstream too. There are red and blue corpuscles in the blogosphere, of course, and as we know they too specialize in conveying gas.

Lately, I've felt the little corpuscle on the typewriter sliding off a bit, slipping back into the indistinguishable flow. I don't like that feeling. I want to feel like a plucky little corpuscle, the little corpuscle that could!

I didn't read all that many blogs before I started this thing. Oh, I had a few that I would faithfully read. Well, more or less faithfully, if there can be such a thing as doing something occasionally with faith. However, since I started this thing I've felt compelled to read a certain set of blogs, compelled being the operative word here. The thing is, the plucky little corpuscle wanted to be up on what the rest of the bloodstream was bubbling on about, but he also didn't want to bubble in quite the same way all the other corpuscles were bubbling. He wanted to convey his own slightly different gas.

But then pretty soon the plucky little corpuscle started feeling like he had to post something as quickly as it occurred to him, lest some other corpuscle in the stream get to the idea first. To be different, it seems he feels he has to be rash. Sadly, when he gets like this, the little corpuscle is not just plucky, he's also a bit more gas than conveyance. And so the plucky little corpuscle has decided to get a better grip on his typewriter.

The first thing he has decided to do is cut back on the number of blogs he feels compelled to keep up with. He will mostly confine himself to blogs he genuinely enjoys reading for no other reason than the fact that he enjoys reading them. The really important information seems to get through anyway, no matter how few blogs he actually follows.

He hopes this cutting-back will have a doubly salutary effect: (1) He will be able to spend more time reading stuff that doesn't have anything to do with what all the other corpuscles are babbling  about, and (2) He will therefore be able to chill out on this compulsion he feels to post stuff quickly (as opposed to smartly).

The second thing he has decided to do is adhere to a posting schedule, albeit a somewhat loose one. I mention this strictly for the benefit of my readers who might want to take note of it. Generally speaking, the plucky little corpuscle is going to try to confine himself to roughly two posts a week. Should you have a date-book you like to fill up with these little tokens to the illusion that time actually exists, my schedule will be something like a new post every Thursday by 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time, and another new post every Monday by 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Actually I suspect (as is the case with this post) these Posting Moments will extend from about 8:00 p.m. the night before until the said morning times above. The hope is that by ruminating a bit longer between posts, the resulting cud may be somewhat more worthy of my time and yours.

Replying to comments will be on no schedule, of course, but will be practiced when and if the need seems present.

I have always been -- especially when playing with new toys -- pretty much a two-year old, and once I've smeared whatever new toy I've recently come across with all the peanut butter and jelly and marshmallow creme my childish hands can manage, I usually have to stop, take a breath, and tidy myself and the toy up a bit. The hope is the schedule I've decided to put myself on will help me do that.

And so the plucky little corpuscle intends to straighten up and fly right. Which, you know, corpuscles can't really fly or anything, but sometimes our little corpuscle likes to pretend he's got a bit-part in Fantastic Voyage, wherein it seems plucky little corpuscles really can fly, and maybe even believe in Faeries, too.

The End. Go to bed. And go to sleep when you get there. I've had it with you guys fooling around in there all night.

See you Monday morning (or, you know, maybe Sunday night).

Corpuscular School of Journalism

Here's why bloggers are better journalists than journalists: Blogging is a crappy job. You don't get any money. There aren't any benefits. Only a few get invited on T.V. and once those few have been on T.V. three or four times, mark my words, they won't be any better than "real" journalists.

Bloggers do it even though it's a crappy job. It should always be a crappy job.

I think there should be a maximum wage for journalists. If I owned a major metropolitan newspaper, especially one in a conservative town, I'd find out the absolute minimum a person would need to put a roof over his/her head in that town, and the least they would need to put food on the table, and, maybe, depending on the numbers, some clothes on their back. Then I'd subtract like, oh, I dunno, five bucks, just to make life that much harder. I certainly wouldn't offer any benefits. What're you, nuts? And to top it all off, I'd be mean to my reporters all day long. Oh, and they'd have to take public transportation.

See, what you want is a bunch of people truly pissed off at the world. If your people are pissed off at the world, then they will write like they're pissed off at the world. Which, when you think about it, being pissed off I mean, is the only moral place for a journalist to be.

The problem is all the hacks we have in the media just aren't pissed off at things anymore. Even John Stossel with all his "I'm mad as hell" shtick is a self-satisfied fat-cat phony. The only thing worse than not being pissed off is pretending to be pissed off. What do you think we are, Stossel, stupid? You're as transparent as a pair of whore's underpants.

Take Jimmy Breslin, for instance. He's always pissed off. I'm surprised the man has lasted as long as he has, him being so pissed off at everybody all the time. No wonder he got that stupid growth in his brain. It was, take my word for it, a consequence of him being so pissed off all the time. Being pissed off marks you. It's like the world lifts its leg and pees all over your heart. No wonder you should get a growth.

We like Jimmy Breslin. He's pissed off and he writes like he's pissed off and that's why we like him. Hell, I'd even pay him the extra money. Whatever he wanted. Anybody that naturally gifted at being pissed off deserves every dime he can get. Journalists should get paid by the bile-ounce. Only it has to be real bile, not fraudulent secretions like you get from some of these over-monied right-wing guys.

What do you want a bunch of rich and snappy-happy guys doing your journalism for? Get outta here. What you want is your ink-stained wretch. Preferably stinking of gin, hopefully divorced, and so butt-ugly even his poor, gray-haired mother won't be seen with him. The last thing you want is some snoot in a Brooks Brothers suit referring to himself as an "ink-stained wretch, heh-heh-heh". In fact, that's another rule I'd have in my newsroom: anybody who refers to himself as an "ink-stained wretch, heh-heh-heh" gets the bum's rush. And how.

And I'll tell you what else. Any of my guys shows up on T.V. owes me money. That is, if he wants to keep his crappy job.

The Thing From Beyond the Vom

This is a long post that is, in fact, despite all beginning appearances to the contrary, about America in the world of 2005. It comes out of a number of things I've been thinking about lately, including some of the stuff I've been writing about in the pseudo-series I'm calling "The New New World". Accordingly, I'm subtitling this post "The New New World, Part 5", next in the series, because I consider it a part of that same train of thought even though it goes in a number of different directions as well.

First, one small piece of stage-business: The theater I worked in for something over a decade was of the physical form sometimes referred to in the biz as a "3/4 thrust stage". That is, the stage area was not tucked safely behind a proscenium arch; rather, it jutted out into the seating area and was surrounded on three of its four sides by audience. At one downstage corner of the stage there was a sort of tunnel-entrance, coming in at an aggressive angle, which was referred to by its classical name "The Vomitorium" (from Merriam Webster: "an entrance piercing the banks of seats of a theater, amphitheater, or stadium".)

Those of us who worked in this theater affectionately referred to this "entrance piercing the banks of seats" as "The Vom".

Defining Absurd

Let us begin with a concrete example of what I mean by "The Absurd."

In the upper right-hand corner of this page there is a picture of my friend Shannon who died in December of 2004. One late night, he fell off his seven-story building in Brooklyn. This guy I'd known for twenty years, brilliant, funny, cruel, kind, outrageous, sweet, full of promise and full of despair -- in short, this human being -- fell off a very tall place and, from the details I later learned, died horribly, alone and cold on a dark and deserted sidewalk. Why? Why? There isn't any answer that makes sense. It's nonsense. It's absurd.

Would it be less absurd if, say, he had not fallen but had been pushed? Would a murder be less absurd than an accident? Somehow, strangely, it feels that things would make more sense then. If I asked myself, as I have, "How could this happen?", I could answer "Well, he was murdered." And with that I would somehow be able to explain away something that seems unexplainable. I could make logical something that seems absurd.

In the same way, if he had died of a degenerative disease, if he had spent the last six months of his life slowly fading away then finally passing on, I could explain the thing to myself by saying, "Well, he died of his disease." Somehow this would feel like his death made more sense.

But it doesn't in fact make more sense. In fact, I haven't explained away any of the ultimate absurdity of his death by surrounding it with "facts". All I have done is bury that absurdity under those facts. What I have also done is bury my own fears about the ultimate absurdity of my own life. I was brought into this world without my permission, and I will be dragged out of it, just as my friend Shannon was, against my will.

To what purpose?

I might, with some effort, be able to generate some reason for staying alive while I'm living my life -- taking care of my family, creating expressions of my experience of life to share with others, cooking great meals for my friends -- but that only justifies my remaining alive. It does not have anything to do with generating a purpose for the underlying fact of my existence. I was born and I will have to die. There's no purpose in that. It's just a simple, purposeless fact of the purposeless universe I was born into.

And if you think you've got it any better than I do, you've got another think coming.

ab-surd adj [MF absurde, fr. L absurdus, fr. ab- + surdus deaf, stupid] (1557) 1 : ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous  2 : having no rational or orderly relationship to human life : MEANINGLESS; also : lacking order or value  3 : dealing with the absurd or with absurdism... (Merriam Webster's Collegiate)

The Theater of the Absurd

If you Google on the phrase "theater of the absurd" you will see evidence of what you probably already know: the phrase has become a cliche among political commentators, used primarily to ridicule inexplicable (to the commentator) behaviors performed usually on the part of political opponents. In that context, its meaning is generally limited to: "You people are silly." But of course when the phrase was first coined, it didn't mean that at all.

In the years following World War II, a new kind of theater came into being, and that new kind of theater came to be called the Theater of the Absurd. The phrase didn't refer to any sort of "school" or "movement"; it was originally used to refer to a kind of theater that seemed to share some new and very strange themes, forms, techniques, styles, etc. It was more a way of describing a sensibility that had apparently arisen out of the ashes of the war (and all that came before it). It was weird and, at first, incomprehensible to many, but within a few years of its first appearance in Paris, it had spread far and wide. Clearly, whatever the hell this thing was, it spoke to a great many people in a very powerful way.

As it spread, critics who didn't "get it" poured scorn on those who claimed they did. Its proponents were mocked and accused of only pretending to get this pretentious crap. In some cases, I'm sure the accusation was true. In other cases... well, there is a famous story that Martin Esslin relates at the beginning of his book The Theater of the Absurd.

On 19 November 1957, a group of worried actors were preparing to face their audience. The actors were members of the company of the San Francisco Actors' Workshop. The audience consisted of fourteen hundred convicts at the San Quentin penitentiary. No live play had been performed at San Quentin since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913. Now, forty-four years later, the play that had been chosen, largely because no woman appeared in it, was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

No wonder the actors and Herbert Blau, the director, were apprehensive. How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe? Herbert Blau decided to prepare the San Quentin audience for what was to come. He stepped on to the stage and addressed the packed darkened North Dining Hall .... Blau compared the play to a piece of jazz music "to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it". In the same way, he hoped, there would be some meaning, some personal significance for each member of the audience in Waiting for Godot.

The curtain parted. The play began. And what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts. As the writer of "Memos of a first-nighter" put it in the columns of the prison paper, the San Quentin News:

The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing ... parked all 642 lbs on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn't appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long -- and stayed. Left at the end. All shook...

... A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who was present noted that the convicts did not find it difficult to understand the play. One prisoner told him, "Godot is society." Said another: "He's the outside." A teacher at the prison was quoted as saying, "They know what is meant by waiting ... and they knew if Godot finally came, he would only be a disappointment."

You don't have to be a brainiac to get this stuff; you only have to be a human being unburdened by the delusions of ordinary, daily life. For most people, those delusions -- work, play, drugs, sex, money, success, everything freely available to those of us on The Outside -- keep us from seeing what the convicts in San Quentin grasped immediately, viscerally, without pretense, or theory, or Background in the Theatuh. There is no purpose, only distractions from the purposelessness.

This is how Esslin accounts for the how and the when of the birth of the Theater of the Absurd:

...[E]ach of the writers in question is an individual who regards himself as a lone outsider, cut off and isolated in his private world. Each has his own personal approach to both subject-matter and form; his own roots, sources, and background. If they also, very clearly and in spite of themselves, have a good deal in common, it is because their work most sensitively mirrors and reflects the preoccupations and anxieties, the emotions and thinking of many of their contemporaries in the Western world.

This is not to say that their works are representative of mass attitudes. It is an oversimplification to assume that any age presents a homogeneous pattern. Ours being, more than most others, an age of transition, it displays a bewilderingly stratified picture: medieval beliefs still held and overlaid by eighteenth-century rationalism and mid-nineteenth-century Marxism, rocked by sudden volcanic eruptions of prehistoric fanaticisms and primitive tribal cults. Each of these components of the cultural pattern of the age finds its own artistic expression. The Theater of the Absurd, however, can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time.

The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions.

That was written forty-four years ago, describing the world as Esslin saw it in 1961. Has the world changed since then? In particular, does any of the above have anything to say about America in the year 2005? Well, let's just have a look-see.

Eugene Ionesco

Although I love both the absurdist plays and novels of primo-absurdist Samuel Beckett, I find the works of Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco more sympatico. If you recognize the name, it's probably because you studied one or more of his plays in school so do me a favor and keep this in mind as we proceed: if you have studied his work, but have not seen it performed, do remember you haven't really experienced him. Most theater literature courses, by accidental necessity, encourage the delusion that plays are literary works. Of course they are not. They are works meant to be performed. Drawing conclusions about them based simply on reading them and discussing them in class is like drawing conclusions about a piece of music based simply on studying the written score. You can say some things of value, but you cannot say you have experienced the piece in the manner its creator intended you to experience it.

But lacking the ability to produce a play for you in here, I suppose we will have to soldier on as best we can in spite of the inadequacy of the "literary" approach. In any case, our stop here at the Rumanian frontier will be a brief one: we need to pick up only a few small packages.

Ionesco above all the other absurdist playwrights consistently portrays the experience of the fundamental absurdity of human existence. He conveys that experience not through cerebral argumentation, but through the workings of a powerful poetic imagination. Here's Esslin on the "how" and "why" of this:

We do not expect to receive new information in a poem; a moving poem on time or the inevitability of death is not rejected by critics merely because it is not telling us any new truths. Ionesco's theater is a poetic theatre, a theatre concerned with the communication of the experience of states of being, which are the most difficult matters to communicate; for language, consisting largely of prefabricated, congealed symbols, tends to obscure rather than to reveal personal experience. When A says, "I am in love," B will understand by it merely what he has experienced, or expects to experience, which may be something entirely different in kind and intensity, and so A, instead of having communicated his sense of being, has merely triggered off B's own mode of feeling. No real communication has taken place. Both remain imprisoned, as before, in their own experience. That is why Ionesco has spoken of his own work as an attempt to communicate the incommunicable.

If, however, language, because it is conceptual, and therefore schematic and general, and because it has hardened into impersonal and fossilized cliches, is a hindrance rather than a means toward such a genuine communication, the breakthrough into the other human being's consciousness of the poet's mode of feeling and experience has to be attempted on a more basic level, the pre- or sub-verbal level of elementary human experience. This is what the use of imagery and symbolism achieves in lyrical poetry, combined with such elements as rhythm, tonal quality, and association of words. In Ionesco's theatre the same approach is attempted through the use of basic human situations that will evoke a direct and almost physical response, such as Punch hitting the policeman in the puppet show, circus clowns falling off chairs, or the characters in a silent film throwing custard pies into each other's faces. All these evoke a direct, visceral response in audiences. And by combining such basically evocative emotional images into more and more complex structures, Ionesco gradually forges his theatre into an instrument for the transmission of more complex human situations and experiences.

And here is Esslin on the "what":

...[I]f Ionesco savagely assails a mode of life that has banished mystery from existence, this does not mean that he regards a full awareness of the implications of human existence as a state of euphoria. On the contrary, the intuition of being that he tries to communicate is one of despair. The main themes that recur in his plays are those of the loneliness and isolation of the individual, his difficulty in communicating with others, his subjection to degrading outside pressures, to the mechanical conformity of society as well as to the equally degrading internal pressures of his own personality -- sexuality and the ensuing feelings of guilt, the anxieties arising from the uncertainty of one's own identity and the certainty of death.

Sounds like a laugh-riot, eh? Well, in fact, it pretty much is in Ionesco's case. Let me boil it down for you. Think of it this way: You are born into a meaningless, absurd existence -- you live for a while, and then you die. You spend most of your life studiously trying to avoid thinking about the absurdity of your situation. You go to school, you carefully learn everything they want you to learn. You get a good job. You buy a nice house, you furnish it with a pleasant family, a nice bedroom set, and all sorts of delightful gadgets.

And then you die. Rarely, if ever, during your existence do you allow yourself to think about the fundamental uselessness of it all. But never mind, you do manage to acquire lots of toys, both of the physical and of the emotional and psychological varieties. You'll buy anything, anything at all, just as long as shopping for it, buying it, taking it home and playing with it keeps you from seeing the underlying absurdity of your life.

What Ionesco and the other absurdists are doing is trying to struggle through all the distractions to arrive at some sort of genuine awareness of the truth underlying their lives. Ionesco in particular wants to convey the feeling of this awareness, and so he confronts you with a series of poetic images that, in fact, do convey this feeling.

But to what, in god's name, purpose? Just to make you depressed? No, actually, it's at least partially to make you laugh. But what's the point of that, for heaven's sake? Well, I don't have to tell you what relief genuine laughter brings you. There's a lot more you can say about laughter, but let's just leave it there for now since there is actually a greater purpose behind what Ionesco and the other absurdists are trying to do. What they seek is the aforementioned awareness. But why? Wouldn't it be better just to go off and play with all our toys?

My man Esslin again:

Concerned as it is with the ultimate realities of the human condition, the relatively few fundamental problems of life and death, isolation and communication, the Theatre of the Absurd, however grotesque, frivolous, and irreverent it may appear, represents a return to the original, religious function of the theatre -- the confrontation of man with the spheres of myth and religious reality. Like ancient Greek tragedy and the medieval mystery plays and baroque allegories, the Theatre of the Absurd is intent on making its audience aware of man's precarious and mysterious position in the universe.

Yeah, okay, but still... wouldn't it be better to just shut up about all of that and just play with all our toys?

In Greek tragedy, the spectators were made aware of man's forlorn but heroic stand against the inexorable forces of fate and the will of the gods -- and this had a cathartic effect upon them and made them better able to face their time. In the Theatre of the Absurd, the spectator is confronted with the madness of the human condition, is enabled to see his situation in all its grimness and despair. Stripped of illusions and vaguely felt fears and anxieties, he can face this situation consciously, rather than feeling it vaguely below the surface of euphemisms and optimistic illusions. By seeing his anxieties formulated he can liberate himself from them. This is the nature of all the gallows humour and humour noir of world literature, of which the Theatre of the Absurd is the latest example. It is the unease caused by the presence of illusions that are obviously out of tune with reality that is dissolved and discharged through liberating laughter at the recognition of the fundamental absurdity of the universe. The greater the anxieties and the temptation to indulge in illusions, the more beneficial is this therapeutic effect -- hence the success of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin. It was a relief for the convicts to be made to recognize in the tragicomic situation of the tramps the hopelessness of their own waiting for a miracle.

Okay, you say, but you would still rather play with your toys. Let me try, then, one last time in the form of a more concrete example. You remember my friend Shannon. The one who died. I mentioned him back at the beginning of this post so that would probably be three or four weeks ago by now... You will recall I talked about the sense of absurdity I felt at his death.

Well, in the days immediately following his death, as I struggled to make sense of something that could never be made sensical, I could feel something strange starting to grow inside me. It frightened me a bit.

In dreams I have imagined myself feeling an urge to do something terrible, and wanting above all else to not give in to this terrible urge, but feeling that the urge would eventually overwhelm me.

Standing in grocery store lines I have on rare occasions had what The Experts call, I think, a panic attack. It was this feeling of a kind of suffocating terror creeping up on me, but terror of what I can't say. Fresh vegetables? Laundry products? Actually, it was more like a terror of terror itself -- the feeling, a terror, that I would not be able to control the fear of whatever it was I was afraid of. On one or two occasions I had to quietly abandon my shopping cart and slip out of the store before I collapsed into a some sort of fit. (My apologies to all those store employees who had to re-shelve items in my abandoned cart.)

But that was what this was like... this feeling that something was growing inside me, a thought, an idea, a piece that I might have to write even though I didn't want to write it. One night I couldn't stand it anymore so I sat down and started writing. What came out made me laugh. And cry. But to be honest, mostly it amused me. My god, what sort of monster am I? Well, I can't post this. What sort of a creep writes this sort of absurdity right after his friend of twenty years falls off his building in Brooklyn? People would think I was trying to be funny.

Well, I wasn't trying to be funny. I was struggling to face this new reality I found myself in. This reality where my friend of twenty years can fall off a building. This reality was not new, of course, it was only that my awareness of it had been, shall we say, recently and rather vigorously renewed. And so I wrote this thing that described as best I could this new place I found myself in. I called it "How to Live with Dead People", and despite my fears of what people would think of me, I posted it.

In the end, it was, at least for me, tremendously cathartic. Therapeutic. Through it, I found a way to live with the fact that my friend was now dead. The response to it suggested that others had found some catharsis in it as well. It was a sort of "advice column" piece on how to befriend the newly dead. It was, in short, an absurdity, and that is how and why it did what it had to do for me.

Still not convinced? Still rather stick with your toys? Well, then, I congratulate you! You are a genuine, red-blooded American of the New Century!

Finally! Some American Politics...

This whole, long, rambling (alas!) mess that you are reading now grew out of my visceral response to the news that Paul Wolfowitz had been nominated by Bush to head the World Bank. I'm not particularly convinced the World Bank is such a force for good (though it could be) that Wolfowitz will do it much harm, but that's not the point. What I find absurd is that time after time these Bush Administration incompetents are so generously rewarded for their incompetence, and the country doesn't bat an eye.

Condoleezza Rice, through her indifference and incompetence, could not comprehend the warnings of the summer of Tenet's Burning Hair. She goes before the 9/11 Commission and successful mocks all the good it was trying to accomplish. She is rewarded with the post of Secretary of State. Wolfowitz mocks the advice of the generals at the Pentagon on the amount of troops necessary to control a post-invasion Iraq, which leads to a disastrous and deadly two year reign of chaos over there, and he is rewarded with a nomination to a post at the World Bank.

And that's just the beginning of it. It isn't just a matter of all sense being mocked through incomprehensible appointments to plum posts. There is a sense of absurdity that runs all through the make-up and history of the Bush Administration. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. A Social Security plan that purports to "save" Social Security but which in fact does nothing of the sort, by their own admission. A pre-emptive war, killing thousands, that didn't pre-empt anything because there was nothing to pre-empt in the first place. But that's just incompetence, really. What makes for the genuine sense of the absurd is that most of the country doesn't, as I said, even bat an eye.

And now I'm beginning to think I know why. I mean really know why.

They used to call this continent the New World. Oh, things were great back then. Assuming you could make your way across the ocean, you entered a land that had all the resources you might need to run away from your most primal fears. The fear of limitations. The fear of not being able to go someplace new. The fear of not being able to keep going on, forever. The fear of a toyless existence. In short, the fear of your own personal death.

Sounds like an unlikely theory, doesn't it? Here we have this Nation of He-Men, striking out into the wilderness, ready, willing and able to face down all the terrors of an uncivilized continent, happy to do battle with Savages, prepared to face the nearly Siberian winters of the American Midwest, ready to take on the great desert wastelands. But you see, those dangers, those perils represent a sort of mythical death. That death exists Out There. It does not truly threaten a He-Man. A He-Man can conquer all. Evidence of our resourcefulness, of our physical courage, of our determination runs all through the history we tell ourselves about ourselves.

But here at the beginning of the 21st Century, the continent has been conquered and we are beginning to run out of toy-options for distracting ourselves. The price of gasoline is going higher and higher and so even that pale proxy for the act of Going Places -- the Big American Car -- is receding further and further from our grasp. Our politicians tell us that if we are opposed to drilling for new oil in our precious wildernesses, we are somehow un-American... as if the amount of oil we have left to us inside our own borders somehow promises us another 200 year run at fearlessness. As if it was un-American to be opposed to toys.

The terror of limitations closes in on us, and we produce a generation of leaders, and followers too, I'm afraid, who are forced to resort to increasingly desperate measures to hide from themselves the fact that America is swiftly approaching the point where it can no longer flee into its box of remarkable toys. In short, the time is swiftly approaching when America has to finally grow up.

One of Ionesco's most famous plays is called Rhinoceros. In it, the inhabitants of a small provincial town slowly, one by one, begin to transform themselves into rhinoceroses. Finally, there is only one man, one human, left. The play ends as he stands defiantly, swearing to remain human, no matter what, though he does entertain the notion that, after all, perhaps being a rhinoceros might not be so bad...

If you haven't seen it, there is a film adaptation of it by the American Film Theater on DVD. Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Karen Black are in it. It was filmed in the early 70s and, assuming you can get past the gawd-awful 70s wardrobe and the shlocky soundtrack, you could do worse than to rent this thing and watch it. In particular, there is a remarkable scene during which Mostel's character, without benefit of make-up or costuming tricks, transforms himself into a rhinoceros. It's a pretty amazing piece of work, actually.

And should you rent the DVD and watch this scene, I defy you to not reflect on the recent (2004) American presidential election. There is another scene at the end of the film wherein Karen Black's character finally submits to the charms of being a rhinoceros. I defy you, after watching that scene, to resist the temptation to exclaim: "Ah! The birth of Ann Coulter!"

It Came From Beyond the Vom

A monster has entered our world. It might be a kind of rhinoceros, but I'm not sure. It's too big to see all at once.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet about the Theater of the Absurd is that there is a great deal of violence in it -- violence to language, certainly, violence to audience notions of what theater should be, but also genuine (well, genuine stage) physical violence. Murders abound. In Rhinoceros, most of the violence is contained in the imagery of big, dumb, grunting, thoughtless, ignorant, self-deluded brutes (in short, a herd of Rush Limbaughs) occupying the town. As I said earlier, a lot of this theater is an attempt to express, through poetic imagery, the writer's actual experience of meaninglessness in his life. The writer is trying to work things out, just as I tried to work things out in the piece I wrote after Shannon died. The Theater of the Absurd is a struggle to confront the reality of human existence.

But something terrible has happened. As America comes up against her own mortality in the form of globalization, the 9/11 attacks, the diminution of her resources, and so forth, this struggle of the individual artist on the stages of the absurd has escaped the theaters, slipped out the Vom, so to speak, and has taken root in the outside world. In the same way the religions of old, after the inhuman disasters of the 20th Century, lost their power to protect us from the absurd meaninglessness of human life, the religion of a limitless America is losing its power to protect us from facing the realities of the world we live in. And so now, apparently, like the absurdists of the 1950s, we have begun to work it out on stage. Unfortunately, our stage happens to be the flesh and blood world. We are living in our own ongoing theater of the absurd, and the violence performed on this platform is actually killing people now, and threatens to kill even more of us.

This country is cut in half. The country is not split merely by our political differences. The split is between those who are willing, like Ionesco and his compatriots, to face the reality of existence, those who are willing to see America finally "grow up", and those who can't bear the prospect of facing what seems to them an unbearable awareness: America was born, and it will, eventually, like all living things in this world, die.

Listen to the paroxysms out there. How dare I say such a thing? Panic and threats abound. Accusations of treason, in spite of the fact that I love my country deeply. Nevertheless, what I say is true: the United States of America will someday die. This is the fact that America herself cannot bear to face. The first hints of this truth terrify us and send us careering off across a political landscape laced with absurdities beyond the imaginative capabilities of Ionesco himself.

Yeah, as it happens, we are pretty good at this Theater of the Absurd stuff. If the point is to create poetic imagery that conveys the feeling of what it means to live an absurd existence, well, then, I'd say the Bush Administration and those who support it are geniuses at it. They lie, and they believe their lies. It's a gift really. A genius for the absurd.

And as I said, many plays of the absurd end in incomprehensible violence. I shutter to think what these geniuses will come up with next.

Do Not Despair. Instead: Despair!

Is there hope? Maybe. Let us look to the inventors of the Theater of the Absurd. They were the previous masters, before the Bush Administration and its supporters came on the scene.

Esslin again, on Ionesco:

It would be wrong to regard his attitude as wholly pessimistic. He wants to make existence authentic, fully lived, by putting man face to face with the harsh realities of the human condition. But this is also the way to liberation. "To attack the absurdity (of the human condition) is", Ionesco once said, "a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity ... For where else would there be a point of reference? ... In Zen Buddhism there was no direct teaching, only the constant search for an opening, a revelation. Nothing makes me more pessimistic than the obligation not to be pessimistic. I feel that every message of despair is the statement of a situation from which everybody must freely try to find a way out."

In short, the truth actually does matter. If the rest of America hasn't realized that yet, then there's nothing else for it but to continue trying to make them see it. Maybe we are awaiting the birth of a new American Theater of the Absurd... a kind of theater, or art, or film that can usefully engage all those Americans who cannot yet face the truth about the mortality of our country. Or maybe the circumstances of our own Reality of the Absurd will eventually convince them. One can only hope it doesn't take too long, nor take too violent a course in getting to where it has to go.

But in any case, whatever the future holds, our obligations now are clear. We are to face the reality of our existences. We are to face the reality of our country's existence in this world. As Ionesco says, "every message of despair is the statement of a situation from which everybody must freely try to find a way out." Keep telling the truth about America to herself. It will certainly help you and it may even, eventually, help her. Yes, eventually America will die, but with luck and a lot of hard-work, and a lot of facing of the absolute truth -- demand it from yourself, from those around you, and most especially from your politicians -- we may be able to put the endgame time way, way off into the very, very deep future.

Truth on, dudes. Brutally and relentlessly. It's the only hope.

Candle #1

We must cut through the cliches and break free from a hidebound "traditionalism"; we must rediscover the one true and living tradition. (Eugene Ionesco)

He's talking about theater -- striving for a pure (in form and ideals, if not in content) theater. But I think you can adapt the thought and create a broader goal for yourself and your society as well -- striving toward the one true and living tradition of decency toward your fellow human beings, for example. In all the darkness, progressive Americans do need these small patches of light.

A Primer on the Truth

In every vile, despicable, shit-stinking act of dehumanizing cynicism of the Bush Administration, one can always find a little ray of sunshine. My post immediately preceding this one was a late-night bark of despair at the nomination by Bush of that supremely accomplished incompetent, Wolfy, for the post of Head of the World Bank. There's an appellation for you.

Well, there being nothing else for it, post-bark, I plunged myself meaninglessly into a brief re-examination of the Theater of the Absurd. This has taken me down some interesting paths over the last few days, some of which I'm hoping to write about this weekend, but in the meantime permit me to mention something I encountered along the way that made me laugh out loud.

There is a famous story about how Eugene Ionesco came to write his first play (known in France as La Cantatrice Chauve, in Britain as The Bald Prima Donna, and as The Bald Soprano in the United States). In Paris, in 1948, Ionesco decided that he would teach himself English so he went out and bought an English primer. He brought the book home and set about his task. Anybody who has studied a foreign language at something approximating an adult age will know the silly language used in these sorts of books. I certainly remember them from my High School French classes. In any case, the bizarre, seemingly meaningless "stories" told in this English primer had a strange effect on Ionesco, and he was moved to write his play.

That's the story in outline form and I'd heard it a million times over the years, but I'd never heard the details of it from the man himself. Here follows a brief peek at the story as related by Ionesco and quoted by Martin Esslin in his classic text The Theater of the Absurd.

Ionesco writes:

I set to work. Conscientiously I copied whole sentences from my primer with the purpose of memorizing them. Rereading them attentively, I learned not English but some astonishing truths -- that, for example, there are seven days in the week, something I already knew; that the floor is down, the ceiling up, things I already knew as well, perhaps, but that I had never seriously thought about or had forgotten, and that seemed to me, suddenly, as stupefying as they were indisputably true....

As Esslin notes, the lessons presently became more complex and soon a Mr. and Mrs. Smith were introduced:

To my astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, that they had a servant, Mary -- English, like themselves... I should like to point out the irrefutable, perfectly axiomatic character of Mrs. Smith's assertions, as well as the entirely Cartesian manner of the author of my English primer; for what was truly remarkable about it was its eminently methodical procedure in its quest for truth. In the fifth lesson, the Smiths' friends the Martins arrive; the four of them begin to chat and, starting from basic axioms, they build more complex truths: 'The country is quieter than the big city...'

And thus began the playwriting career of one of the most astonishing playwrights of the 20th Century.

The moral here, of course, is don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for hidden truths lurking before your very eyes. You don't want to miss your chance to be the one who discovers, for example, how the human race might save its sorry ass.

Wolfy at the World Bank

Back when I was coming up, people who were competent were, generally, supposed to get rewarded and people who were incompetent were, generally, supposed to pay some sort of price for being fools. Setting aside the question of whether invading Iraq was a good idea, I think it's generally agreed that the post-invasion planning was a disaster. That was Wolfy sitting there in front of the Senate panel telling us that these troop estimates by the Generals from the Pentagon, in the hundreds of thousands, were grotesquely high. That was Wolfy sitting there under-guessing by one-third the number of Americans killed in Iraq. The man is an idiot, and his reward is to be nominated to head the World Bank.

I don't understand any of this anymore. Why do these idiots get rewarded for their idiocy? This is like living in a cartoon, only in this cartoon it isn't the laws of physics that are constantly violated, it's our expectations for grown up behavior. What are we to rely on anymore? Or is that the point? Here I am wondering whether the sun will rise in the East tomorrow, so I guess that takes care of me.

Net 'Drobe Dot Com

I want to go to the website, browse through the clothing items available for the coming month, fill my shopping cart with my selections, maybe a couple weeks worth of clothing selections depending on what's coming up in my life, enter my membership number, etc., put the rental fees on my card, and then select "Submit".

In a few days, my clothing selections would arrive. I would unpack the items into my dresser. When done, I would empty my dirty clothes hamper back into the shipment box, no need to sort the colors from the whites, no laundry detergent to buy, no washing machine breakdowns to fret about, no rummaging for quarters to feed to the laundromat machines.

I would simply seal the box up, affix the Return Label, and notify U.P.S. I had a pick-up for them.

Naturally, all my transactions with the Net 'Drobe site would be by way of an anonymous membership number. This would ease whatever potential embarrassment I might feel regarding the state of certain clothing items I'm returning.

I want to rent my clothes and then return them once I've worn them. Our problem is that we've been trained to believe it's necessary that we actually own our clothes. They want us to buy. This drives Fashion. But if we could all pick whatever new wardrobe appeals to us for the coming few weeks, think of the fun we could have. Think of the delightful variety we would see on the street, in the work place, in clubs and restaurants in the evenings.

Party conversation: "Oh! Hey! I wore that shirt last week! It's great, isn't it?"

Teens would develop a sense of their own look rather than adopting "the current uniform". We would begin to think for ourselves instead of surrendering our personal appearance options to somebody else's crimped and stifling sense of fashion. Democracy would be reborn.

Why can't clothes be like DVDs? Who the hell wants to own a DVD? You want to rent it when the mood strikes. You want to spend your money on renting, not owning, so you can utilize your limited resources exploring what's out there. Owning takes up space. Think of all the other uses you could put that closet space to.

No more holes in the toes of your socks. No more fatigued elastic bands in your undershorts. No more missing buttons on your shirts.

Here's the deal... Modern Laundry Science has made us safe from catching each other's cooties. You can survive wearing underwear someone else has already worn. Don't be so neurotic.

Sigh... sounds like wardrobe heaven to me.

(God I hate laundry day....)

End Nigh

One of my favorite sites, Cryptome, has links to reports of a mysterious sonic/seismic event that  took place in Florida in the last day or so.

At 7:41 pm EST, my 3-year old son and I were sitting on the couch when our sliding glass doors started to rattle. 10 seconds later the floor started vibrating, enough to send my son into a panic and inquire what was happening. Having been in earthquakes before, I assumed that's what it was. The entire event lasted about 30 seconds, and was felt in several surrounding counties. A sonic boom, no matter what creates it, is never more than a few seconds. I do not recall hearing the classic "thud" that accompanies the subsonic vibration, but I may have missed it...but the vibration lasted a good 25-30 seconds, and was severe enough to register on local seismic monitoring stations. You can varify [sic] the event at earthquake.usgs.gov.

Seeing as how the Air Force alerted the FAA with an explanation, you can probably deduce that this was some sort of military test and the F-18 sonic boom was the cover story. The event was reported in at least 8 surrounding counties, which is an area of a few hundred miles. Sonic booms are never heard or felt over an area that large, even when the space shuttle returns from orbit. Whatever it was, the military isn't giving us the full story, and as usual, the media is doing very little to find out what the real facts are. The Air Force spokesman was quoted as saying the jets would be departing either today or Sunday for the return trip, indicating we may have another "sonic boom".

I love this stuff. Reading around this item, I discover there are such things as "skyquakes". The Signs of the Times page wonders if...

...there are effects on our reality from other densities. These bleed throughs may become a more common occurrence, and perhaps explains other phenomena such as UFO sightings which have also been seen during blackouts. There may or may not be a causal relationship between UFO's and blackouts, instead they just may be visible due to the bleed through. The Signs Team thinks it is important to remember that we live in a complex, dynamic universe and should not count on a magic answer that wraps everything in a neat package.

Boy, that's for sure. You want to avoid yer neat packages.

Well, anyway, I'm reminded of the first time I heard of  the Shadow People.

I wish all of these sorts of things were true. I wish they really existed. It would explain a lot, like how come the tiny screws in my eyeglasses sometimes disappear, and why the soles of my shoes always wear out in the same pattern, and why the worst part of a thunderstorm always comes right when I'm leaving work.

I can't stand it anymore. I'm going to go read my history book. At least it can tell me why all that other kind of shit happens.

Fiend Update

A few days ago, I posted about a young man from Brooklyn, Rashawn Brazell, 19, who disappeared and whose body parts started showing up in trash bags. NYPD had noticed that the "cut job" seemed professional, implying that whoever was responsible for the murder had some sort of medical training.

I checked Google News recently to see where we were in this matter, and I was shocked to learn that there had been virtually no new mentions of it in the mainstream media. Since about February 26th, there have been a few mentions of it on the web sites of a couple of organizations, but only one mention in the press, an article in the New York Press on March 2. The article made fun of the circumstances of the young man's death, relating them to the old B-movie cult horror thriller C.H.U.D., but it also made mention of one new piece of information. The NYPD's theory now is that the "cutter" might have employed some "high precision cutting instruments" of a sort used by the Transit Authority, thereby making their perp not a doctor but maybe a transit worker. In fact, the young man's remains have been found in various Transit Authority related venues.

I'm astonished that this isn't being covered. Especially by the tabloids here in New York. This has all the "makings", you know. Sex, murder, grisly remains. But I suppose the only really relevant information here is that the victim was a young, black, gay man who, the theory goes, was on his way to a "homosexual tryst".

Oh. Nobody said anything about that. ("Rewrite! Spike the story!")

Where it has been written about a lot is in the blogosphere, including some sorrowing posts by folks who were friends with this young man. See this post at Negrophile, for a start.

At the end of my earlier post, I wrote the following:

I'm always amazed when real-life events are ripped from the headlines of crime fiction. I can never escape this vague feeling that "the work is so derivative". What are things coming to when you can't even rely on fiends to come up with something original?

Well, I guess we can hope that whatever script this monster is working from is a particularly cornball and predictable one. With any luck, a crack team of NYPD detectives will track this guy down pronto, just like on T.V. I mean, we should at least be able to rely on that, right? That real life should resolve itself before the credits roll, just like on T.V.? I'm willing to go with that. I don't mind a little predictability here.

Well, it turns out we got some predictability, all right, but not of the sort I was talking about. This terrible story is not being covered. Gee, I wonder why.

While reading up on all of this, I came across references to an FBI report, "Hate Crime Statistics, 2003". According to that report, there were 9,100 reported victims of bias crimes in 2003. All but four of those incidents involved a "single-bias" (that is, bias based solely on race, or religion, or sexual orientation, and so forth). Leaving out those four "mixed bias" cases, 51.4 percent of the remaining almost 9,100 crimes were caused by racial bigotry, 17.9 percent were caused by religious intolerance, and 16.6 percent were because of sexual-orientation bias (remaining types omitted). There were 14 bias-motivated murders. 6 of them were committed as a result of bias against the victim's sexual-orientation. 5 were the result of racial bigotry.

I dunno, maybe the numbers are too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it strikes me as odd that while about one-sixth of the bias crimes are related to the sexual-orientation of the victim, almost one-half of the bias-related murders involve the victim's sexual-orientation.

There be some pissed-off homophobes out there, apparently. Mad enough to kill, and at least one of them is angry enough to want to cut up his victim and stuff him into garbage bags. I guess you don't have to be Freud to figure that one out.

Dude. So you want to have sex with men. So what? You don't have to kill people over it. It's not that big a deal.

This Is An Apple

We live in good times despite all evidence to the contrary. [<--- Theme sentence.]

When I was admitted to graduate school (over 20 years ago, now), part of the admissions package included a teaching fellowship to help me pay my way. The school I attended had an excellent program (reviled by freshmen, of course) called "Rhetoric". The school used the word not in its contemporary, degraded sense ("That's just rhetoric"), but in its classic sense: the science of constructing and presenting an argument. The course's subtitle might have been "Reading, Writing, Speaking" since we were required to spend our time in the classroom developing the skills of our students in those areas.

Every entering freshman was required to either take the course or test out of it. The requirements for testing out (known as "clepping out") were rigorous and very, very few students got out of having to take the course. The students looked on it as a rite of unpleasant passage, not unlike having to go through puberty, I suppose.

Generally, professors in the upper level courses loved it. By the time the students came to them and were asked to write papers or participate in classroom discussions, the students' skills had been at least improved and in many cases very much improved. The most salient criticism of the program was that many of the graduate students who were teaching the courses just weren't very good at it. Indeed, as I understand it, some were actively bad. There were a couple of weeks of training for incoming graduate students to help them "get" the purpose of the program, and to help them decide how they wanted to teach their sections -- we had a great deal of freedom in that regard -- but, hell, I'd never taught a course before and it was scary. I'm not surprised there were some truly sucky Rhetoric teachers who didn't have a clue.

Still, overall, the program did what it was supposed to do, I think. I heard enough horror stories from my students about other Rhetoric teachers to fill a smallish volume, but still... no program meant to accommodate the needs of thousands of people can work for everybody. We're all stinky and messy and full of our own peculiarities. You do the best you can, and overall I'm glad I had the opportunity to participate in this program. Though it has to be admitted, in my third year of grad school when I was given the opportunity to teach more advanced writing courses -- instead of Rhetoric -- I didn't leap at the chance, I launched myself at it like a Sidewinder missile.

You'd be astonished at the number of bad writers who come out of high school convinced by their English teachers that they are great writers. These are the ones who use Big Words, and who give you (you can spot this halfway through the Perfectly Constructed Theme Sentence, With Big Words) exactly what they think you want. These, for me, were both the most interesting and frustrating students to deal with. When they got their first papers back from me, they were shocked and angry and my Office Hours were suddenly booked to overflowing. Which was good. This was precisely what the doctor ordered. It gave me the chance to sit down with them and personally talk about their writing with them. We went through their individual papers and I pointed out this flaw and that flaw but it always came back to the same general point: writing is not bullshitting. So, you know, don't bullshit me. Writing is thinking. So, you know, think.

It was a delight when these particular students got it. It was horrible when some of them either didn't or wouldn't get it. Those students who couldn't get it never forgave me for not falling for their bullshit. Fortunately, these die-hards were relatively few and far between.

I love writing stuff. Just, you know, writing stuff. Writing has always been thinking for me. Maybe not good or smart thinking -- I don't pretend to be the sharpest knife in the drawer -- but it was thinking nevertheless and so it was fun. It's also, of course, just playing. The other day I posted about a "web novel" that I wrote just because I thought it would be fun to write it. But that's another sort of writing, equally gratifying for me, but not the sort of writing I'm talking about here.

Like the self-centered brat that I am, I found it astonishing that others -- in particular these students of mine -- didn't see writing the way I saw it. It struck me, not to put too fine a point on it, as a god-damned shame. So after a time I determined that I would change my students' worlds for them. I would try to find a way to make them see writing as thinking instead of bullshitting. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I see now I was helped enormously by the impulse that exists in most folks in their late teens to call other people's bullshit. All I had to do, really, was find a way to let my students know that they couldn't bullshit me the way they'd clearly been able to bullshit others. After that, they'd do the rest of the work for me.

Okay, that was easy enough. I just told them, you bullshit me, and your grade will suffer. Like it or not, for better or worse, this approach has a tendency to make students sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, however, disposing of that difficulty revealed a deeper writing problem shared by many of these students. They now knew they weren't allowed to bullshit me, but they didn't know how not to bullshit me. Writing had always been bullshitting for them and if I was going to take that away from them, what on Earth were they to do?

So I realized that I had to more or less reforge a link between writing and thinking for them. I suppose somewhere along the line they had either been taught or had otherwise learned that what they thought was not particularly welcome in the classroom. Their natural survival response was, then, to not think and to instead give their teachers whatever they thought they wanted. Unfortunately young minds are quite adept at figuring out what their elders want from them so it was easy enough for them to just take that route. It was hard to learn that what they thought could actually be welcomed by a teacher.

I had to start from scratch. Simplicity is always best, so I went simple. Every day or so, I would start the class period with ten-minutes of what I called (not originally) "free writing". I told them to take out some paper and a writing instrument and when I said "go", and for the next ten minutes, they were simply to write. They were not allowed to stop and ponder. They were not allowed to stop and gaze at the ceiling and tap their pen against their teeth. They had to keep the point of their writing instrument on their paper and they had to keep it moving. I didn't care what they wrote about. I didn't care if it made any sense. All I cared about was that they keep their writing instrument moving. I think, but don't quite recall, that I told them they could hand in the product of these free writing exercises, if they wanted. The free writings would not influence their course grade one way or the other. Basically, I think the rule was if they were particularly enchanted by what had emerged from them that day, they were welcome to show it off to me.

Once they understood that there really was only one requirement -- keep the writing instrument moving -- they began to relax and actually (or so they told me) enjoy this sort of writing. The purpose was obvious, of course. If you aren't allowed to stop and figure out what bullshit strategy you will use next, you can't bullshit anymore. Eventually, you actually have to start putting down whatever occurs to you, and that will lead to whatever occurs to you next, and that to whatever comes after that, and so on. After a time, perhaps to your astonishment, you realize you are thinking on paper.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. And for some people, it never works. But still. It worked often enough for enough students for them to generally get it: writing is thinking.

In the end-of-semester teacher evaluations the students were required (by the university) to fill out, these free writing exercises were often cited as the most useful part of the course. And, it has to be immodestly said, many of these students (for whatever reason) were much better writers by the end of the course than they had been at the beginning.

Today is the first day of the rest of the SAT's life. You may have heard or read about the new essay-test requirement. As I understand it, the newest addition to the test is a 25-minute, two-page essay section. Some topic is given to the student, and the student then writes for 25 minutes on the topic. American education being what it is, i.e., being more oriented toward testing than teaching, I think there is an excellent opportunity here.

I was listening to a discussion of this new SAT essay section yesterday, and the reporter was asking the Noted Expert whether there was a danger that students would prepare some canned essay in their minds, then come in and wrench their canned essay into fitting the given topic. For example, a "wrenched" canned essay might begin: "I support increased funding for space travel for many of the same reasons I support gun control laws." Okay, I suppose that could be an interesting essay if the student could actually make some intriguing connections between funding for space travel and gun control laws. It could be good if it wasn't, you know, just bullshitting in order to cram the canned essay into the given topic. Chances are, though, you're going to get the canned bullshit.

Let's hope the test evaluators give the bullshitters the poor grades they deserve. Putting aside the question of whether standardized testing is actually a good thing, let's consider for a moment the opportunity we're presented with here. If word gets out that bullshitting is going to cost you, and given the fact that there is a great deal of "teaching toward the test" in American education, maybe we'll luck out and students will begin to be taught how to survive this 25 minute, two-page essay section of the SAT. That is, maybe they will be taught, more often than they may be now, that writing is not bullshitting; it's thinking.

But then it occurs to me that maybe this new SAT section is not such a new opportunity, after all. Or, more precisely, it occurs to me that maybe this supposed new opportunity isn't particularly important.

A few weeks ago I was having a pleasant dinner with some Well-known Bloggers and one of the many questions we settled that evening was that there was too much good stuff on the web. A lot of crap? Sure. Anyone with half-a-brain able to filter it out? Also sure. The fact is, there is so much good writing all around us -- on the internet, on the web (despite the scorn that is heaped on both) -- that you can hardly keep up with it. The link above takes you to an article in the Christian Science Monitor called "Teens ready to prove text-messaging skills can score SAT points". It makes the point that in these Internet Days we live in, young folks have been doing a lot of this "free writing" I talked about above. I spent a lot of my early days online hanging around the Usenet groups. Anybody who has spent any time there knows how filled with crap that venue can be. But they also know there is a lot of invigorating writing going on there too. Conversations. People thinking on their fingertips. Pressing their points. Arguing their cases. The great thing about it is that you pretty much can't get away with bullshitting people, no matter how much you think you can. You always get called on your bullshit.

In the old Internet Days, it used to be the conventional wisdom that all this online writing had degraded the overall "literary skills" of writers everywhere. It seems obvious to me now that the truth is quite the opposite. We are, in general, as a culture, much better writers than we used to be. In fact, I wish there were fewer good writers out there. There is too much good stuff to read on the web. I can't stand the thought that I'm missing a bunch of good stuff simply because I can't spend my whole god-damned day reading all the good stuff on the web. This is a glorious embarrassment of riches, and it's torture.

And the really exciting thing is that a great deal of this good writing is being produced by so many "young minds" -- minds of an age I was teaching back in graduate school. These "young minds" produce some of the sharpest, funniest, wittiest, most original stuff you see anywhere on the web. I love it. Sure, I love the good old guys, guys my age, who have the worldly experience and widely read background to sink down into heretofore hidden places. There is an abiding thrill to that. But I especially love the young ones coming up. They enliven me. And, I hope, I'm working on it at least, they enliven my writing.

And so the circle comes round. I used to teach them, or at least I tried, and now, everyday, cruising the web, I find myself learning volumes from writers half my age. Thanks, Teach. Thanks to all my new teachers out there. If I could manage it, I'd put a bright red apple on all your desks.

Wow. Fast.

From my deck just now, I saw a meteor, shooting star, ufo, whatever,  cross the visible sky in about, oh, one second. It was astonishing. I look forward to reading or hearing about it. It was moving roughly east to west. I have no idea how high it was, but I see jets flying overhead all the time from where I was standing and this thing's transit across the visible sky had to be at least ten times as fast as any of those jets ever moved. I didn't see much flame or smoke behind it, so that suggests, what...? That it was way high? If so, then it was really moving fast.

Okay, that was fun. Thanks Mother Nature. I hope Pennsylvania and/or Ohio are all right. If this thing landed anywhere, my guess is it would really have to hurt.  Or, maybe it was just a tiny thing. Who knows? Guess the news will tell me...

I Don't Know. I Can't Say. Beats the Hell Out of Me.

Leonard Lopate is an "Arts & Culture" talk show host on WNYC, one of the public radio stations here in the city. It's a great show, with excellent guests and an intelligent and engaged host. As a proof of this proposition, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard Leonard ask a question of a visiting author, there will be a slight pause, and then the author will (with a mixture of delight and mild astonishment) say, "You really did read the book, didn't you?"

Leonard is currently celebrating the 20 year anniversary of his show, and as part of the festivities he's replaying notable moments from that history. This afternoon we heard briefly from Lasse Hessel, the creator of the female condom. From the show's website, here's the text intro to the clip:

Many listeners want to know which were Leonard's best and worst interviews over the years—and Leonard always answers by saying: "I really don’t know," or "I can't remember." And it's true, because the really good ones, we hope, number in the millions, and the bad ones, we don't want to ever think about again. But one interview does stick out as particularly bizarre. Lasse Hessel, the creator of the female condom, came in to talk about his invention back in 1993. What followed may seem like a comedy routine, but we promise, this is real....

It is, in fact, pretty amusing. It's another one of those "What were they thinking?" deals. In particular, what was this guy thinking when he agreed to be interviewed on this show?

Here's a direct .rm link to Mr. Hessel's moment of fame (one hopes never to be repeated), or you can find that link on this page.

Oh, Now I Remember...

Almost ten years ago, I was fooling around with HTML, playing with my first web page, when I got this wild hair to do a writing exercise that involved telling a small group of my friends and family that I was going to write a "web novel", posting a chapter a week to my web site, and that if they wanted to follow along they could. I put it under password because, you know, this just might end up being Art, and what if I wanted to try to sell it as a novel or some other hare-brained stunt like that?

So, I did it. It was, in brief, the most fun I had writing in a very long time. I'd always wanted to be a journalist but was too lazy or shy or something and I ended up forgetting to ever be one. So I decided to indulge this fantasy of mine by writing this "web novel" in the voice of a journalist posting dispatches regarding his journey to an unusual place. I had no (or very little) idea of what would happen as I started each chapter, and I certainly didn't know what would come after it. It was a total improv, and it was a blast.

When I'd finished it, I put it aside with the thought of maybe someday revising it. I fiddled with it some, but finally went on to other stuff and eventually I pretty much forgot about it.

Time passed. Some nefarious characters (they know who they are) suggested to me that I start a blog and so, like a fool, I did. Like an even bigger fool, I started having fun writing again. There's something I started a while ago -- some fictiony thing -- that I really liked, but I stopped working on it for some reason. The stuff was good, but I was bad. I got all ambitiony and pretentious or something, so it stopped being fun, and so I eventually wandered away from it. But now, fool that I am, I'm thinking... "Why not dig that out and see if I could have fun with it again?"

So while I was digging out that stuff, I came across the "web novel" thing I was talking about, and it reminded me how much fun I had writing it. And that reminded me why I started writing in the first place. It was fun. It was about making up stories and telling them to people. It wasn't about being a writer. It wasn't about being A Novelist. It wasn't about making a sale. It was about fun. That's all.

I started browsing through this "web novel" and I thought, you know, I'm never going to revise this. I'm too far away from it now. Still, it's fun, though it does seem a bit too naively written for an actual, gen-yoo-ine, honestly-to-goodness published novel. It starts out a bit slow, but it soon picks up. I really like what happens with the characters. There's some slow patches, but a lot of good parts too. I really like that one image in that one chapter, but then later I saw that Japanese director do it in one of his animated films (damn! hate that!). It's a story, despite its flaws, and it just seems a shame to let the poor thing die in a drawer somewhere. Writing it gave me so much pleasure, maybe reading it would give somebody else, one or two people anyway, some pleasure. And anyway... hey, I was making it up as I went along day by day. What do you expect, the Great American SF Novel?

So here's the deal. The campfire is going. Break out some S'mores if you want. Settle down on top of your sleeping bag, and I'll tell you a story.

He's Fleeing the Interview!

'Member Marge? From Fargo?

That was such a great movie on so many levels. Funny, scary, the sleaziest, most awful aspects of human beings, but also the best things about us too. Characters you gave a crap about. Marge, primarily, of course. She made you believe in cornball things like, I dunno, shining beacons of justice and moral clarity in a cruel and inhuman universe. Stuff like that.

'Member Coleen? From Minnesota?

That would be Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent in Minneapolis who in the three weeks before 9/11 tried desperately to hip the FBI main office in Washington, D.C. to this weird character who wanted to pay $8,000 cash to take flying lessons. ("Just the flying part, please. I don't need no stinkin' take-offs and landings.")

She's also the Coleen Rowley who, in May 2002, wrote a letter to Director Mueller ripping the FBI a new one.

Dear Director Mueller:

I feel at this point that I have to put my concerns in writing concerning the important topic of the FBI's response to evidence of terrorist activity in the United States prior to September 11th. The issues are fundamentally ones of INTEGRITY and go to the heart of the FBI's law enforcement mission and mandate. Moreover, at this critical juncture in fashioning future policy to promote the most effective handling of ongoing and future threats to United States citizens' security, it is of absolute importance that an unbiased, completely accurate picture emerge of the FBI's current investigative and management strengths and failures.

She also was invited to testify before Congress. I didn't see her testimony then, but this evening I watched an interview with her on the PBS program "Now".

Watching the interview, I was irresistibly reminded of Marge. Coleen has that same upper-Midwest accent, only slightly less pronounced. And in the interview, she was wearing a nice if somewhat over-knit dark brown sweater. Here's another paragraph from her letter to Director Mueller:

I have been an FBI agent for over 21 years and, for what it's worth, have never received any form of disciplinary action throughout my career. From the 5th grade, when I first wrote the FBI and received the "100 Facts about the FBI" pamphlet, this job has been my dream. I feel that my career in the FBI has been somewhat exemplary, having entered on duty at a time when there was only a small percentage of female Special Agents. I have also been lucky to have had four children during my time in the FBI and am the sole breadwinner of a family of six. Due to the frankness with which I have expressed myself and my deep feelings on these issues, (which is only because I feel I have a somewhat unique, inside perspective of the Moussaoui matter, the gravity of the events of September 11th and the current seriousness of the FBI's and United States' ongoing efforts in the "war against terrorism"), I hope my continued employment with the FBI is not somehow placed in jeopardy. I have never written to an FBI Director in my life before on any topic. Although I would hope it is not necessary, I would therefore wish to take advantage of the federal "Whistleblower Protection" provisions by so characterizing my remarks.

I love that "I feel my career in the FBI has been somewhat exemplary". Heh. Pure Marge.

Well, speaking of shining beacons of justice and moral clarity in a cruel and inhuman universe, some members of the Minnesota congressional delegation are pushing for Coleen to be appointed to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (created at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission), the purpose of which is to keep an eye on the people who are willing to do anything to our freedoms in order to protect our freedoms.

From the Associated Press:

Rowley, 50, who retired from the FBI on Dec. 31, had written to all 10 members asking them to support her for a position on the five-member board.

"This board is really a good idea, because it's a way to balance and avoid mistakes and abuses that can emanate when you engage in this zealous law enforcement," said Rowley, who lives in Apple Valley, in a telephone interview Tuesday night.

In their letter, which was sent to the White House Tuesday, the Minnesota lawmakers wrote: "Coleen Rowley is an excellent candidate to advise you and our nation as we strive to find the proper balance between our constitutionally protected civil liberties and effective action to stop terrorists."


Rowley was at the center of a storm of questions over the government's handling of intelligence after she criticized the agency for ignoring her pleas in the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, to investigate terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui more aggressively. He was the only person charged in the United States in the attacks.

Rowley, who was named one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year for 2002 for her whistle-blowing efforts, has recently raised questions about the dangers to civil liberties in the government's pursuit of terrorists. In 2003, she opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I want Marge on that Oversight Board, but if I can't have Marge then I'm more than happy to go with Coleen. Oh, but wait.

The letter, which was spearheaded by Democrat Martin Sabo, was signed by both Minnesota senators and five of the state's eight House members. Three members did not sign it: Republicans Gil Gutknecht, John Kline and Mark Kennedy.

A spokeswoman for Kline, Angelyn Shapiro, said that Rowley had made "alarmist" comments in criticizing the war on terror.

"As a result of those comments, we don't feel she is the appropriate person to recommend for this position," Shapiro said.

Kennedy and Gutknecht did not return messages left Tuesday evening.

Which funnily enough puts me in mind of Jerry ("He's fleeing the interview!") Lundegaard.

Yo' Mama's My Customer

The radio tells me that there are delays on the A Line this morning because of an injured customer at Hoyt. Yesterday, also on the radio, the head of Pataki's deadbeat dad collection agency advised that customers should come in and make arrangements to make good on what they owe.

Thank you, blog customer, for stopping by to read my blog.

Have you noticed this? You're not a rider on the MTA anymore. You aren't somebody who owes money to the government anymore.

You are a customer.

Well, at least this clears up the haze. To your eternal gratitude, I'm sure, your rights and responsibilities are being more precisely defined. You are to produce, and then you are to consume. Clear away all this other junk. It's not relevant.

I pledge brand loyalty
to the flag
of the United States of America...

This, I suppose, is intended to make us feel empowered or something. Hey! It's the Invisible Hand of the Free Market! Vote with your money!

In the Olde Days, we used to vote with our votes. That's so 20th Century, I guess.

And unless I'm misremembering, we didn't used to contact Customer Relations if somebody got run over by a subway train. We used to call "the police".

Your life is somebody else's business plan.  You're not a citizen. You're a window-shopper.

Well, you better stop reading this and get ready for work. If you're late, your boss customer will want his money back.

Stay New, Baby.

I'm sorry. My mistake.

I was at the bookstore this weekend, staring at a pile of books, and I erred by browsing through this one book, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson.

First of all, I love it when different people have different names for wars. It's sort of a clue, don't you think? I mean, couldn't we at least agree on the name of the damned war? How stupid do you have to be to not get that there might be some unresolved tensions if you can't even give the damned war the same damned name?

I have a Brit friend -- a doctor, a well-educated guy, and smart as a whip too -- who didn't know what the hell I was talking about when I referred to the War of 1812. He thinks maybe they called it something else over there, but he's not sure. They might not even have a name for it, he thinks. The irony here is that he gets a bit teary-eyed whenever he hears "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Anyway, we don't call it the Seven Years' War over here. We call it the French and Indian War. Okay?

I bought the book. I love this stuff. It all ties in with my unhealthy obsession with moving to the new New World. I think that's why this book called to me from its display table. Buy me! Buy me! It's a damned big book but so far it has not disappointed.

The best part so far is reading about the massacre at Jumonville's Glen and the Battle of Fort Necessity:  Two fairly unqualified screw-ups by an up-and-coming Major in... I guess it was the Virginia Militia.

The first ended in a slaughter of wounded Frenchmen by the Major's unruly Iroquois allies. One Frenchman of note had his skull split open by the leader of the Iroquois, Tanaghrisson, who thereupon washed his hands in the exposed brains of le pauvre soldat. The feeling these days is that Tanaghrisson was trying to provoke the French. (Ya think?)

The second battle was another embarrassment for the Major. Out of respect, we will avert our eyes for the time being. Even the Major himself felt the need to file incident reports that were, um, a bit sketchier than they might have been. Best not to overburden one's military commanders with needless details. All they really need to know is that things didn't go quite as well as they might have gone, okay?

You may have heard of this Major. George Washington? I guess all of this came after he'd grown out of his cherry-tree phase.

Anyway, I'm a slow reader, and like I said this book is big, so I may be in and out of here for a while. You can leave a message, if you want, as long as your messages don't sound like they are from The Beyond or something. That freaks me out when that happens.

Look, I know America is in trouble. I know we don't know how to save her yet, but we're going to get through this. We are. You can take my word for it. Stay strong. Get out there and look at the world you live in, listen and watch the people you share this world with, and then reflect on the problem as you see it.

Stay sharp. On the balls of your feet. You're not going to find a way out of this until you get a visceral sense of the problem, and you aren't going to get that until you listen and watch and reflect. Yeah, you got to write and read blogs but blogs aren't going to save anybody, and you have to be careful to use them for food for your own thoughts, not as some way to find out what everybody else is thinking so you can think like The Big Kids.

You got to keep up on the news. You got to speak out. You got to participate. But you got to look and listen and reflect too. And sometimes you have to read a book. You got to let the problem bubble around in your head. You got to trust your instincts about the world, the people in it, and the flesh and blood life around you. Let your instincts help you find the right way through this thing. That's how you get to the things that work.

If nothing else, as a last resort, let me remind you of one true thing:

The new always replaces the old.

This is a simple, irrefutable law of life. The old slows down then stops, and then the young comes by and eats it.

As somebody who's not getting any younger I can't say I actually approve of this, but since my approval doesn't particularly matter I have but one choice and that is to choose to embrace this force of nature to the degree that I can manage it. I am a progressive, I am a liberal, and I do what I can to keep the new alive in myself. I'm comforted by the sure and certain hope that even if we fail to wrest this country back from the aristocracy faction, their own children will eventually destroy them for us. We may not be there to see it, but we can rely on the fact that it will happen. Our job is to save this country if we can, in our own time, for our own good, but if we can't manage that, we are obligated to resist and keep the way clear for the younger ones coming up.

See, the aristocracy faction knows this irrefutable law of life as well as we know it. That's what so terrifies them. Our job, if we can manage it, is to make them see that the more fiercely they resist the new, the bloodier the feasting on them by their own children will be. The new, eventually, always wins. Cast your lot with it while you can. Help it to be born. It's better for everybody that way.

And so now I'm off to read about the time when the New World was still new. Keep checking in. You never know, I may have some more dirt on this George Washington character for you.

"Stay new, baby, stay new."

In Memory

May 2006

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