Tuesday, May 23, 2006

2006 Addy for Ironic Contradiction in a Tagline

Intelligent Update
Intelligent People... Sharing Intelligent Knowledge

Man, that made my night.


Oh, please, for the love of all that is good any holy, read the articles on this site. I found their ad on craigslist, and giggled at their tagline, but then I started reading their articles. Oh, my, I just...

Go, now. My favorite moments are the guy that quotes himself as an expert and the chick's beer tips.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Big Game

School and such are kicking my ass, so I haven't had much time to work my random thoughts into anything close even my usual borderline coherence. So, instead, a short short story I wrote to help me process the Super Bowl debacle.

The Big Game

The day after the Big Game, the Commish sat at his desk with his furrowed brow in his hands. He was staring at the 8” x 10” photograph that sat on his desk, recently removed from a manila envelope addressed with only his name, and he was very, very pissed off.

The photo provided what appeared to be conclusive proof of a Fix. A Fix in the Big Game. A Zebra, an Owner, and a shitload of money.

The Commish finally tore his eyes from the photo, leaned far back in his chair, and looked heavenward. But no Big Guy Upstairs could save him from this. It was his deal, his league, his Sport.

Of course the problem was, that last part wasn’t true. It wasn’t his. He's merely the steward, and as the photograph can attest a pretty fucking inept one at that. The Sport belongs to itself.

And he should have fucking known, shouldn’t have been able to sleep a wink last night yet he slept like a baby. An overweight, drunk baby with grey body hair. The Big Game had been prime for foul play. Teams with squeaky-clean reputations. Not particularly close but not a blowout. Pivotal and controversial calls by the Zebras coming early enough in the going that their impact could be obscured, made debatable by the chaos of the action.

Why not those assholes from back East? the Commish thought. They are practically expected to cheat every time they play, and I could handle that. Why not a blown call in the final moments, one I can point to and say “See, there it is, it’s not the Sport but the Zebras what are fucked up,” and let it all go with a firing?

Why this? This is bad, he thought, this is very bad.

His intercom buzzed, and he jammed his finger down on the button.

“Goddamnit, I said I didn’t want to be disturbed!”

“Yes, sir, but it is about the parade, and…”

“Not now, no! No interruptions.”

“Yes, sir. I understand, sir.”

No, he thought. No, you don’t. Maybe three people in the world understand. A Zebra, an Owner, and Ben Franklin, multiplied over and over a dozen dozen times.

The Commish stood up, walked over to the television in the corner of his office, and switched it on. The Network was playing highlights of the Big Game, interviews with Players and Coaches and Jubilant Fans, all with the sound mercifully muted.

The Commish watched their silent mouths. Wooooooooo! I’d like to thank our fans… We did it, baby. We did it. Nobody believed in us but we believed in ourselves. I’m going to Disn….

He snapped it back off, disgusted. This is a fucking mess. And what am I going to do about it?

Today the Commish announced a Fix in the Big Game? C’mon. Look, it ain’t like we can just play it over, huh? So, I’m supposed to rip victory out of the hands of these Fans? Because, I can’t give a victory to these other Fans if I do, can I? Only a Game can do that.

No. Letting this out wouldn’t do anything but release a flood of doubt and cynicism that would rekindle every bad feeling stored up over the years in every Fan. Every bad call no longer a vagary of the game but evidence of another Fix. Sure, it would start with the Fans that were screwed yesterday, but every grudge that lingers in the world of Sport, buried half-dead in shallow graves, and they are multitude, are Legion, would be reborn, their existence vindicated by this, the Fix in the Big Game.

The Commish ripped open the top shelf of the filing cabinet under the TV, fished a flask of bourbon from the back, and took a long pull.

The Fans have to believe in the Story of Sport. His job was to protect the Sport, and the Sport was built upon the unshakable faith of Fans. There is room in the Story for the Losing Fan, who can take the denial of victory out on Players and Owners, can rail against cruel Fate, and line up dutifully the next season and the next. But, the Fan that is screwed by the System, who has victory stolen by a representative of the System, may find it an exercise in futility. Why play if They can simply cheat, take away my Joy on a whim?

He took a longer pull from the flask. So, what, I guess now I’m their Daddy? he thought. Protecting the Fans from things they don’t want to know? If I was really working for the fans, my job would be to protect the integrity of the Story, but instead I’m supposed to prop up a fucking Myth.

“You, sir, are a schmuck,” he said to his empty office. “You damn well knew what you were getting yourself into.”

He remembered what it was like when he could still be a Fan. Remembered the Joy of My Team chasing down the Championship, remembered how easy it was to convince himself that he had contributed to it, had earned his share of Joy, rationalizing it, allowing himself to call it Joy, to give it parity with all other joys, because of the purity of it, of Sports.

That was the story They sold, that the Commish was selling now. Fairness, Team and Civic Pride. The Commish realized he had been around long enough to see Players sacrificed on the altar of Team, often by their own hand, to see communities carried on the crest of waves of spontaneous Civic Pride in the Race for a Championship crashing straight into disastrous decisions. And the Commish had called on those ideals time and again, never with any hint of irony; he would have said, if asked “This Is Sport.”

He had no right to be surprised that Fairness would in turn demand its pound of flesh when its cover was blown.

I don’t get to be a Fan, he thought. I’m a fucking Suit. The Fans believe in the Story, and the Suits prop up the Myth. I don’t work for the Fans, I don’t even work for the Myth. It’s just another tool, like Team, for protecting the system that produces and lives on the Myth. If I forget that, if I get fucking noble and try to protect the Story, the system that produces the Story will fall apart.

And what then?

His suit felt suddenly heavy, and the Commish sagged.

This is so much worse because it wasn’t a Coach or a Player but an Official, he thought, part of the System. Not a rotten apple but a parasitic infection in the bark. You don’t chop a tree down for one bad apple, but you do kill a sick tree before it brings down the entire orchard.

The Commish straightened up, threw the flask into the cabinet and slammed it shut. He walked back to his desk and pressed the button on his intercom.

“Get Him on the phone.”

“Who, sir?”

“You fucking know who! Just get Him on the phone. Tell him it’s about a job.”


Friday, May 12, 2006

Look! Daddy!

This little anectdote bobbed to the surface of my brain today and I thought I'd share it.

When Liv was somewhere between a year and 18 months, early on in my stay-at-home daddy career, she and I would sometimes sit in front of the computer together and browse museum collections online. I was particularly interested at the time in how infants/toddlers developed aesthetic sensibilties, and liked watching which images she responded to.

She always identified Mama in the pictures, occasionally something abstract but mainly scenes of pretty women. When a picture came up that made the connection for her, she would lurch forward and point at the screen. Mama! Mama!

But never Daddy. I'll admit I lingered on pictures of bearded men hoping to get something, but no.

Until, one day, she did. She pointed and said with authority, "Daddy!" And she has continued to say so any time since that she has seen the picture. Here it is:

It's called "The Tippler."

An Ode to Retelling

I’ve mentioned that I’m a gigantic geek, right?

Lately, I’ve been reading all the back copies of Ultimate X-Men that the library has, which is all of them, which is pretty friggin’ great. Ultimate X-Men is a great fucking concept. Essentially, all of the characters and the history of the X-Men entirely retold, with characters’ relative ages and aspects of their storylines changed, and placed into a modern realistic context (Bush, Condi and Rummy all figure large).

What makes it so impressive to me is how well the series has maintained the essential nature of characters in this new narrative setting. Iceman is still irreverent and cocky, but now one of the youngest instead of the first X-Men, and the same age as Kitty Pryde and Rogue, whereas before he was significantly older. Colossus is still fatally flawed, but now it is his closeted sexuality and a Russian mafia past that will be his undoing. Nick Fury, cigar-chomping granite-jawed whiteboy hero of the American Right, has suddenly been cast as Samuel Jackson.

And, it all works. I’ve been deep in the X-Lore off-and-on for a looooong time, and have no problem settling into this new world in the out-of-order four book arcs I get delivered off my reserve list at the library.

I knew they could do this, as when they transformed the Marvel universe into an alternate reality for a four-issue Age of Apocalypse arc in the mid-90s, in which they also managed to maintain character integrity in a twisted narrative landscape, going so far as to swap hero and villain roles.

But, the ability to pull this off as its own narrative, strong on its own merits, is just tickling the shit out of me.

Theatre tries to do this all of the time, most often with Willy and the Greeks, and it tends to leave me cold. Much as the Ultimate X-Men would leave most full-grown adults cold. When there is an audience as engaged with characters, be they serial or just endlessly examined, why not start reiterating the story? Fucking with the permutations? There is something uplifting, something that smacks of the immutable nature of the soul, in seeing characters maintain essential traits through warping of their narrative contexts.

I’d like to know in what ways artists can make that experience more widely accessible, bring that joy to a broader audience than theatre geeks, comics geeks, or serial scif-fi and fantasy geeks. Which narratives would we warp? And how would we traits would we render essential, unchanged by context?

Speculative re-histories seems the obvious choice, but I’d rather go more meta-pop-culture, like a retelling of the 4077 with Frank as the company clerk and Winchester running the show when a young Lt. Pierce strolls in, or a bar run by an Iowa hayseed, who inherited it from his ex-catcher-coach uncle, where a former pitcher gets drunk and a mailman dispenses sage and measured advice. Or maybe Beetle Bailey as a record store clerk, holding a candle for his cousin Hi.

Fer chrissake, you’d think I could find something better to do with my time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Three Things

For anyone with the sanity not to read my last verbosity, three groups of things I know:

1) Ly may feel, and I wouldn't want to be the one to disagree, that Cake is the frat boy version of They Might Be Giants, but consider this: I Will Survive by a boy was something that could only have been released in the '90s, when being a scorned boy was borderline cool, and the decision to do so illustrates a keen understanding of gender politics in "art." Because, consider this - how much differently would you read The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia if narrated by a man. "See, little sister don't miss when she aims her gun" has a different ring when it is a dude killing the cheating wife of his bro. Uglier, and less righteous, no?

2) Regardless of certain people's resistance to any form of anthromorphizication (it is like philosophizing, but about God) - The universe has a reason for everything that happens. Rarely is that reason to fuck you over.

3) An analogy of sorts. Ketchup is for hamburgers, mustard is for hot dogs, and NEVER the twain should meet. Much as Jameson's is ordered neat, Crowne Royal on the rocks, and Bushmills never at a Catholic bar. It is the Law of Condiments and Whiskey. Wisdom by another name.

Good night and good luck - may you still be drunk when the sun rises.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Buckle up for WAAAAAAAYY too much pondering on the function of literature

I’m troubled.

I try very hard to keep myself honest, to avoid the trap of continuing to believe something because I believe it.

Some words from Chekhov that set in motion my current internal-water-muddying:

That the world “swarms with male and female scum” is perfectly true. Human nature is imperfect… But to think that the task of literature is to gather the pure grain from the muck heap is to reject literature itself. Artistic literature is called so because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is truth – unconditional and honest…

You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.

I just read this very annoying essay by Francine Prose in which she tells us about her semester commuting to teach creative writing, occasionally dropping pronouncements on her class, rules which she would almost invariably find broken by a Chekhov story on the commute home – y’see, there are rules, but all rules can be broken if broken well, see the two sides, PROFOUND, huh? (This seems to be the house style of the essay collection, well-worded positions of compromise between oppositional pairs, and it gets more fucking annoying with each iteration.)

But, the passages from Chekhov’s letters that she included near the end of the piece got my juices goin’ a little. I felt an instinctive intellectual kinship with them right away.

So, the very brief class discussion on the essay ends up making a quick run at authorial responsibility and understandings of authorial intent. I’m totally wet. One fellow student points out that when she reads submissions for publication, if she can’t see for sure how a character’s racism or sexism or whatnot is being used, she pitches the submission without remorse. Another fellow student and I protest that view of fiction.

Then it goes here: In 1996, in Moses Lake, 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis opened fire on his algebra class, saying that he had planned the attack carefully and taken ideas from Rage by Steven King (under his Richard Bachman pen name). The student who brought this up said that King claimed, when asked, that he had no responsibility, and yet, this student said, he was obviously accountable. I disagreed, we called it a matter of opinion, and class ended.

I got on the road back to Seattle with various versions of “I’m not buyin’it” running through my head (would Loukaitis have been a normal well-adjusted kid without the book? were there no school shootings before this? what if Loukaitis had been reading a non-fiction account of a school shooting? then who is accountable?), but building up quickly to this one question I wished I had the time to ask – What are the implications? What does it mean to be a writer if her position was correct?

I started getting uppity in my mind. What, are we only to write nice stories and morality tales? Regardless of whether there is ugliness in the world, there can be no ugliness in our pages? I suppose we should believe literature has this grand prescriptive power and only write stories of the world as it should be?

And, it struck me right then. What if we did? What if regardless of the sordid state of the world, all the creators of narrative wrote the world as they thought it could be? Given the power of narrative I so often lobby for, could we not write a better world? Share nothing but positive narratives to the point that we only have positive narrative metaphors by which to understand the world, construct the world?

Of course, it couldn’t be an enforced thing, but even considering it as a conceptual possibility, this was a crisis of faith for me. Because, my stand that the author is not accountable to the impact of his work insomuch as we can’t even begin to figure anything like actual intent becomes very tenuous in light of the power of narrative and necessary role of art as propaganda ideas I’ve been throwing around.

So, I’ve been floundering about with this. If narrative has the power that I claim it does, must not those who tap this power be held accountable to their actions?

I haven’t entirely resolved this to my own satisfaction, but there are some things I think I know:

- While I do believe in the power of narrative in a very real way, especially when you start looking at the unconscious metaphorical models for constructing morality that cognitive science claims we have (I currently love Lakoff), I think any question of whether creators of narrative can write a better world comes down to whether you believe that the human being is essentially perfectible or essentially fallible. I lean toward the latter, though I’d call it essentially atavistic in a way that favors individual over social.

- Censorship, even by implication (you shouldn’t be writing that) is never cool. The greatest promise of the information age is its power to subvert censorship, as it is all built upon an understanding of the actual networks that support the superhighway, in which attempts to censor are read as network damage to be routed around. That being said, I have little but contempt for excess for its own sake. Fuck the stupid asshole who made The Doom Generation and Nowhere, fuck Oliver Stone, and fuck Bret Easton Ellis.

- I instinctively lean toward a descriptive function of literature and away from a prescriptive function, which I guess I already said in pointing out the resonance I felt with the Chekhov quotes (and, by the way, he was my favorite on Star Trek, with his badass borderline-redshirt self a one-man fuck-you to the Russkies – you WILL be assimilated, Reds!)

- I think the place from which the dissonance emanates is the move from author to reader roles. I don’t believe artists should be constrained from operating under a descriptive understanding of fiction (as long as I do it honestly, it doesn’t matter what I choose to represent) by the possibility that a reader will come along and make a prescriptive reading of that author’s work.

- In the end, I have little doubt that this will become a negotiation of binary binaries. Meaning, authors must understand that the narratives they create will be read in some combination of descriptive and prescriptive modes and that their intentions will come from some combination of descriptive and prescriptive understandings, and readers must understand that the works they read will have some combination of descriptive and prescriptive intent and that their own reading will be influenced by a combination of prescriptive and descriptive understandings of literature.

(Oh, and quickly, how can a work operate prescriptively even without any prescriptive intent? By normalizing described behavior to some degree. In other words, if literature shows you what you already believe, you will believe it more strongly.)

How’s that for a definitive place to end? No wonder people find English majors so fucking annoying.