Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Romance of Train-Hopping.

When I was in my early and mid-twenties I became obsessed with the idea of hopping on a freight train and venturing to parts unknown. For a number of years I lived in near proximity to the railroad tracks. This could have been a result of having limited resources to spend on rent. In one apartment the trains roared by so closely that I used to wake up in the middle of the night believing that the city was under bombardment. Eventually I got used to the sound, and it was integrated into my subconscious as a comfort and reminder of home. This could well have contributed to the romanticism I associated with train travel.

I also learned quite early that passenger trains were the most pleasurable way to cover long distances. I often took that route across Pennsylvania, and even into New York City. The leisurely pace wasn't as frustrating as it could be, because riders were able to get up and walk around. A visit to the lounge car could break the monotony of the trip, and on more than one occasion I met interesting fellow travellers with whom to spend a few hours in conversation. If I didn't feel like talking I could read (since that particular motion didn't make me nauseous), and when I got tired, the sounds of the rails would lull me into a pleasant sleep.

Of course stowing away on a commercial line wouldn't be nearly as comfortable. There were lots of considerations that needed to be taken into account before I could pull that off. I'd have to locate an ideal place to jump onboard safely... when the engine slowed down enough to permit a confident hold on a ladder. And I could never figure out exactly what I would need to bring with me. I'd have to put a lot of thought into the clothes I wore... no doubt weather conditions could make a long ride gruelingly rough. Plus I didn't know how I'd explain my actions if I got caught by railyard security. All these issues introduced enough doubt into my head to keep me from ever following through on my temptation.

I wonder if things would have been different if I had seen Riding the Rails, an American Experience Documentary released on PBS in 1997. This film documents the widespread phenomenon of train-hopping during the Great Depression. It specifically focuses on the firsthand accounts of people that hit the road during their teenage years. Some of the interviewees did so to escape the pain and suffering of home, while others were simply looking for adventure. It's clear that while these folks look back on this period of their lives with some nostalgia, very few had any idea what they were getting themselves into at the time. The perils of this type of travel were substantial, and while riders took advantage of a free form of escape... they often paid with the loss of innocence, if not their life.

The archival footage in Riding the Rails is particularly fascinating, with hardscrabble faces masking the ages of many of these young hoboes. Challenges of self-sufficiency were complicated by predators who were constantly alert for opportunities to exploit the naive. In many towns throughout the West, townspeople were extremely unwelcoming to intinerants. Many tramps ended up in local jails before being driven from town. It was a desperate time in US history, and many communities couldn't even take care of their own poverty-stricken residents... let alone strangers coated with grit from the road.

Ultimately there was so much hardship in this way of life that one would have to be foolhardy to embrace it. Yet there's something in the plaintive call of the folksingers that provide the soundscape to this documentary that brings all that sentimentality right back- the unfettered pilgrimage and yearning for freedom that is endemic to the American people.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Roberto Arlt, "The Seven Madmen".

I've just completed a book by an obscure Argentinian named Roberto Arlt, entitled the Seven Madmen. The story concerns a group of down-and-out eccentrics who plot to form a secret society which will eventually throw the nation into chaos. It was written in the 1920's, as Argentina was coming into its own as a world economic power. Immigrants streamed into the country from all over Europe, for the promise of cheap land on which to make their fortunes. Many of them ended up destitute in the coastal urban gloom of Buenos Aires. This is Arlt's milieu. His writing is choppy, but its depictions of scrappy, insane and desperate characters was diverting. Arlt is said to be a precursor for authors as diverse as William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh and Iceberg Slim- none of which I would list among my favorite authors.

What did particularly fascinate me was this book's strange concoction of half-baked philosophies, and descriptions of a seedy underworld that existed in a foreign place. I know very little about Argentina, then or now, but merely on the merits of it being a document of a specific time and place... I probably wouldn't hesitate to read the follow-up to The Seven Madmen. The Flamethrowers apparently picks up where this one left off... tracing the further adventures of the conspirators who appear in Arlt's world.

It is certainly a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells that inhabits The Seven Madmen. We meet Erdosian, a meek Walter Mitty who dreams of gaining the resources to create his inventions... like custom-colored pets and copper-plated roses. There's the "Melancholy Thug"- a mathematics professor-cum-pimp, with his rough cynicism and intimate knowledge of brothels. The Thug's expected to work out a budget for the construction of a whorehouse, which is optimistically expected to fund the secret society's revolutionary activities. That enterprise is expected to be supplemented by the efforts of the "Gold Prospector", who has fantastic tales of a backcountry stream that flows with the most precious of metals.

When it comes to adding a touch of legitimacy, "The Major" is called upon. He's an Army officer, who claims to be a mere sergeant, but has the inside dope on the type of support that can be rallied among the discontented military forces of the country. Every society needs it's talking head, and "The Astrologer" is the ringleader and master theorist of this plot... his expertise is in lies, and the ability to use them to surround himself with these zany visionaries. He's not beyond combining disparate threads of utopian and dystopian logic, from sources as diverse as Nietschze, Marx, and Mussolini. Finally, the musle of the outfit is provided (in part) by a shady figure named "The Man who Saw the Midwife". His role is a shadowy one, known only to the Astrologer. We do know he has something to do with dispatching enemies.

There are several other peripheral characters adding extra color to the plot, but it is ultimately the story of Erdosain and the torments he encounters as life shits upon him. What mad visions may come when we become at long-last irrevocably disillusioned with life? There seems to be some truth in the implication that hellfire has so much fuel that rages beyond control- so much so that it singes the periphery of our everyday exixtence. Meet the gamblers, whores, pimps, petty thieves, extortionists, cuckolds, and brutish louts that people Arlt's universe.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Manifest Destiny.

Today I found myself thinking a lot about "Manifest Destiny"- a thorny concept that verges on paradox. For those of you that slept through History class, this was the notion that the United States was fated to expand its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Ironically it was perpetuated by the Democratic supporters of Andrew Jackson, who were calling for the annexation of former territories of Mexico and the Oregon Country. Manifest Destiny was (to some) a justification that called upon Divine Providence to assert the rights of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to expand and spread "Republican Democracy" throughout the continent.

Coined by journalist John O'Sullivan in 1845, the term was embraced as a rallying call of a people intoxicated with themselves and their culture. This kind of "American Exceptionalism" was often carried to chauvinistic extremes, with political and military leaders using it to justify all sorts of injustices to indigeneous peoples. If it was God's Will, then there really wasn't any other virtuous alternative to remaking the world in the image of the United States. Yet what type of virtue can be imposed on unwilling people without hypocrisy? Conquering and/or politically dominating foreign nationals can't have anything to do with Republican Democracy. But people seemed to embrace this fuzzy notion when this nation was young, and old habits die hard.

The enlightened student of political philosophy would probably prefer to believe that Manifest Destiny is an outmoded position. However, it's stench still lingers in contemporary US foreign policy. In fact it's been a fairly constant companion ever since the land making up the lower 48 was first subsumed within the country's borders. And the idea wasn't the sole province of the Democrats for long. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, famously referred to US politics as the "last, best hope of Earth". In fact, his Gettysburg Address (arguably the most famous political speech in US history) has been interpreted as the most enduring statement of America's Manifest Destiny and mission. It's no surprise then, that having occupied all it could on the North American continent- the US cast its eyes upon foreign lands.

Interestingly, not all proponents of Manifest Destiny believed that it was only to be expressed through expansion. Even the notorious land-grabber Thomas Jefferson originally resisted the idea of growing beyond reasonable limits. In John O'Sullivan's era, the Whigs vocally objected to the stated US mission. Many believed that, rather than imposing its will on others, the United States should serve as an example of virtue- a "shining city on a hill". Few informed citizens in the United States today are naive enough to put forth the current state of federal governance as a standard bearer to the rest of the world. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections exposed all sorts of problems in our contemporary system.

As far as the more common interpretation of Manifest Destiny is concerned, there are obviously quite a few among the rabble that still endorse the Americanization of others by force. Not only that, but there are some very prominent politicians and policy makers (within and without the official government) that are actively capitalizing on jingoistic nationalism in order to pursue policies that have proved disastrous (refer to The Project for a New American Century). Even among those that disagree with miltary strategies to expand American "influence", there are many who would seek to do the same by economic globalization - which seems to me to be a mere outgrowth and further articulation of the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Capitalism is the modern virtue that we seek to export and advance. Its achievements at home are lauded from sea-to-shining-sea. It is the unquestioningly-accepted doctrine taught in every school of economics in the country. But its utility... from a third world standpoint... is still very much to be decided. Maybe they can consult with what remains of the Native American nations on the topic(s) of American Exceptionalism/Manifest Destiny/Globalization?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Showing Art.

Tonight I'm going to the reception for my friend's photography show. He's had work in the Westmoreland Museum of Art and in the Carnegie for the AAP annual, but he's never had a solo exhibition before. The art has been up on the walls for weeks, but he seemed like he had to work up to the prospect of an actual "opening". The printing, framing and hanging came quite easy for him- but nonetheless he's nervous about talking to others about his own work. There's a bit of irony to his anxiety because he's been running a successful framing and gallery business for years. He's put together many shows, and presided over many openings for other artists... yet the idea of doing this for himself is stressful.

Is it easier to talk about someone else's work than your own? I guess it would all depend on the individual personality. Some creators are so vested with confidence and ego that I can't imagine they would think twice. But this isn't the first occasion I have experienced the other extreme. The first show I was ever substantially involved in was made easier for me by sharing the space with a friend. I put up a mixed bag of photos that I collected during my first year with a camera, and he hung fantastic wire sculptures from the ceiling. Somehow this odd mix worked. Certainly our opening reception was made more successful by the appearances of many of our friends... both mutual, and from our respective social circles. It took the edge off the experience for me, because I didn't have to carry the whole load. Yet it might have been an entirely different story if my partner had followed through on his own threats to skip the opening. I think I improvised some dire consequences as a threat against that action. Whatever I said, it was successful. He showed up, and so did many others. We had a good time, wine and Pabst. I even sold some stuff.

When it comes down to it, I guess I was a bit spoiled by my first show. I expected that I would sell more and more with each subsequent exhibition. Of course that wasn't the case. What I had not counted on was that many of my friends would not be able to support every single showing of my work. I had my second (and first solo) show at the same place we had shown earlier- a coffeehouse in the South Side of Pittsburgh. I felt that the work was much stronger that time around, and adjusted my prices accordingly. I had a thematic series of images, and I was sure that people would respond well. In fact they did, but they weren't buying. Maybe it was partly my fault, because I integrated a "guess the title game" and awarded a free piece to the participant that got the most correct. It took some of the heat off of me... people were engaging with the work. But ultimately it was probably a bit of a distraction. And then most of the people who really connected to the material, who would hang it on their walls, were too young and too poor. The content was dark. The venue itself did have the benefit of constant traffic, unlike a gallery, but wouldn't naturally attract a base of art collectors.

Since then I've had some experiences with group shows, and I even had a chance to curate a carnival-themed exhibition. Those were fun times... again I wasn't the sole focus. Now in two weeks I'll have another solo show, and won't have the crutches of others' involvement to see me through the event. This is a "proper" gallery, with limited weekly hours. My stuff will be up for two months, but a lot is riding on the opening. It is a radically different body of work (as I've mentioned here before) and particularly difficult to talk about. I'm looking forward to it, but the pressure is definitely on.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Jose Saramago, Literary Genius.

Sometimes I marvel at the task of the translator. The job of transforming language from one language to another, without losing the essential cultural aspects and challenges of the author in his own words, would be daunting. That's especially the case with Jose Saramago, a portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author, whom I consider to be one of the greatest living writers. It may be premature for me to form this judgement... as I have only read two of his works, but I have a high level of confidence that I will continue to hold a consistent opinion of his skills.

Saramago defies many conventions of the contemporary novel. As I have very little formal training in grammar, I'm limiting to pointing out some of the obvious examples. The author virtually eschews indicator words to let the reader know which character is delivering dialogue. By itself, this wouldn't be that off-putting... but Saramago also refuses to put line breaks in his novels. His writing flows through the pages of his book without pause, daring us to continue without until we are finished . He also smashes the literary equivalent of the cinematic fourth wall. Without warning, Saramago will address the reader directly... sometimes smack dab in the middle of some internal dialogue of the protagonist.

And despite these features, Saramago strikes me (and others, obviously) as a literary genius. His wit, insight, and labyrinthian style of storytelling dazzle the reader. Yet we shouldn't be tempted to believe that his main skill is artful contrivance... he comments on deep and provocative philosophical issues, without coming off as pretentious. He is virtually firing on all cylinders at once. Sometimes I feel as if I am going to be lost in one of his meandering (dare I say "Proustian"... ah, fuck it) sentences... but then I am compelled to follow its reckless path. Through the force of his literary abilities I come out on the other side believing I understand him exactly as intended. Through this device, he elicits a low-level tension that keeps me reading way past the time I had originally intended.

I discovered Saramago through his best known work- Blindness (1995). As much as I would like to do justice to this book, I read it several years ago... and would be commiting a disservice by attempting a comprehensive review now. Basically it is about the reactions of a society in which its citizens are rapidly and inexplicably losing their vision. Of course it is allegorical, but not in a way that it loses its connection to realism, or blunts its emotional impact. It is a frightening work despite the fantastic elements. There is much to be learned about a world that loses its bearing and descends into barbarity. I have no doubt that the essential message of Blindness is a universal one, and that this book will achieve the status of literary classic for the ages.

This week I completed a more recent Saramago work entitled The Double (2003). In this work the protagonist discovers the existence of an exact duplicate of himself, living across the expanse of the large metropolis in which he lives. He becomes obsessed with confronting his twin, and the elements of his life change rapidly. This situation challenges the perceptions of identity, and the evolution of his identity crisis leads to tragic consequences. The Double is deeply enmeshed in the existentialist tradition, yet manages to retain the feeling of a Neo- Noirish thriller. As our "hero" ramps up his efforts to solve the puzzle of his duplicate, the reader is propelled to the story's conclusion. Saramago has already informed us that it all ends badly, but that hasn't alleviated the anxiety we experience... or any feeling of impending doom.

While The Double is considered one of Saramago's lesser works, I was completely involved in the experience of reading it. If perhaps some of its characters lacked the substance and depth that might be expected from a master author, its exploration of self-identity and perception resonated with me. Often I stopped to ponder how I would negotiate the main problem that the protagonist faced. There is a quality somewhat reminiscent of a fable in the little I have read of Saramago. There are implications beyond the plots of his works. The questions he asks his readers are intriguing and have much to do with the basic mysteries of our lives. And ultimately this is why I expect to continue reading his books. I am certain that my appreciation of Saramago is not to be contained during any one phase of my literary life. The prospect of exploring his entire body of work is exciting.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Check out art this weekend.

Are you ready to brave the wintry streets for the good of art? It's been a long dry spell here in Pittsburgh. The holiday season is always gruelingly slow in terms of quality openings. And January really wasn't much better. I hope you caught the Bill Miller show over at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts- because if you didn't, you really missed out. I was familiar with his stuff before I went to this show, but this work blew away anything I had seen previously. Unfortunately it was quite a bit out of my price range. You can check out his web page. Anyway... this weekend holds a bit of tantalizing promise.

Friday, Jan. 26th (tonight)

The big event is the seasonal downtown art crawl, sponsored by the Cultural Trust. Start the evening at SPACE Gallery (812 Liberty Ave), with a show curated by Thad Kellstadt. I know the work of quite a few of the participants, and can say with some confidence that this show (HOME/AWAY) will be well worth attending. Look for these artists in particular: Chris Lisowski, Josh Bonnet, Jesse Jamaica McLean, Jae Ruberto, and (of course) main-man Thad K.

Then trip across the street to Future Tenant (801 Liberty Avenue) for Work With Me. This exhibition is a series of collaborations by the artists involved. Thad K. pops up here too. It looks like he owns the 'burgh this month. Despite the fact that this gallery tends to rotate through a small stable of local creators, the work is usually intriguing and memorable. This show opened last weekend, but I haven't seen it yet.

Make sure to sample a selection of international artists at the Wood Street Galleries (601 Wood St, 2nd Floor) group exhibition, Thread. This place typically includes a lot of high-falutin' rationale for its curatorial choices... and I don't feel like translating artspeak. So if you are interested in reading about what you're gonna see later- then check out this page. (Here's a sample... "The curatorial model of Thread physically emulates the structure of a web log. Here at Wood Street Galleries, the exhibition is parsed into four categories, simulating threads in a conversation about the resurrection of craft aesthetics within technology-based contemporary art making. ") Umm...yeah, whatever.

I'm going to make it a point to check out "artists who create traditional art using untraditional materials and artists who create untraditional art using traditional materials." (That's their words, folks.) This happens at Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery (937 Liberty, 2nd Floor).

and... I'll cross my fingers and hope there's something worthwhile over at 707/709 Penn Avenue. By the way, all these events happen between 5:30 and approximately 9PM.

Saturday, Jan 27th

Follow up your Friday with a visit to the rapidly gentrifying Lawrenceville neighborhood. I'm not going to tell you that you won't be able to buy hookers and crack there anymore, but I'd have to assume it's a lot more difficult now, what with the new "Weed and Seed" grant.

Your first stop is the Digging Pitt Too (45th and Plummer Streets) for the New Artist Preview. Get a sneak peek of Marci Gehring's intricately involved and enormously-scaled paintings. Marci's got a solo coming up at the main branch of Digging Pitt (4417 Butler Street), and it's opening on April 14. New work by Christiane D. (of Soma Mestizo fame) will confound you with its esoteric surrealism. And David Gonzales and Dyer Fieldsa seem to be an approriately-matched pair for a new series of collaborations. Come from 7-8:30 PM.

And then proceed down to Hatfield Street for three more gallery openings, including events at Trinity Gallery (4747 Hatfield St.) and the Society for Cultural Exchange. These joints don't seem to put much effort into advertising their wares, so I don't have too much information for you. But hey, at least you know that something is going on down there... which is something that the millions of people that don't read my blog can't say.

When your done with the art... sample some of the fine night spots that are popping up in the area. The Brillo Box (4104 Penn Avenue) has become the urban hipster mecca. And in keeping with the theme, it is owned by artists. If Punk Rock is more your style, check out the American Legion-style grit of Belvedere's (4016 Butler St.) - they gots Pabst! And Ray's Marlin Beach Bar has morphed into Remedy (5121 Butler Street). Get a bite to eat there. Tony, the new owner, is an affable guy. Tell 'em Merge sent ya.

By the way... I caught notice of an event called Carnival Poetica- which starts at 12PM on Saturday at the Shadow Lounge. There's a whole list of performers... but sightings of Bob Ziller and Darryl Fleming are anticipated.

FINALLY... go to the Beehive in South Side (1300 East Carson Street), on Sunday from 6-9PM, for Mark Panza's first solo show of photography. Mark's extraordinary aptitude for presentation is patently evident in this stunning series of works, juxtaposing human and natural construction.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Forgotten Noir: "Loan Shark" (1952)

When I decided to take the plunge and explore Film Noir with Warner Home Video's first genre collection, I had no idea of the wealth of titles awaiting release in back catalogues. Several years later, I am still on the lookout for the latest offerings. One of my most recent acquisitions is the first Forgotten Noir Set from VCI video. I've been slowly picking my way through the six movies in this set. Last night I was pleasantly surprised by Seymour Friedman's Loan Shark, which stars George Raft, Dorothy Hart, Paul Stewart and John Hoyt.

The story begins with the physical assaults of several employees of a tire factory. The victims have all borrowed money from a group of loan sharks operating out of a saloon across the street from the plant. Eventually some workers decide to do something about the exploitation of their fellows, and events boil over into murder. Into this mess walks George Raft's character, recently released from a 3-year prison term for assualt. He'd like to keep his nose clean, but gets pulled into the drama of the plant. Raft agrees to infiltrate the mob and get to the bottom of the operation that is terrorizing the community. In the process he is forced to alienate his friends, co-workers, sister, and girlfriend.

From the initial shots of a rainy urban sidewalk, I knew I was going to enjoy this film. It's got classic noir cinematography with plenty of shadowy night footage. There is also an aspect of gritty realism, with scenes shot on location at actual work sites (the tire factory, an industrial laundry). The dialogue is suitably snappy and the pacing holds the viewer's interest. As one might expect from the cast, the acting is uniformly excellent. Stewart and Hoyt radiate malice and portray excellent villians. Look for Russell Johnson ("the professor" from Gilligan's Island) in one of his very first film roles. But make no mistake, this hard-boiled tale is elevated by the presence of Raft.

By the time this was released, George Raft had reached the stately age of 57. Despite his advanced age, he was still able to bring a physicality to the role that younger actors would have struggled to match. He participates in several choreographed fights throughout the film, and convincingly pulls them off. Raft was an interesting figure. Born in 1898 in Hell's Kitchen, Raft soon developed talents as a dancer, boxer, and billiards player... and subsequently went on to try his luck in Hollywood.

Raft established a reputation as a tough guy, and played a series of gangsters and convicts. His credibility in these roles was no doubt enhanced by his real-life ties to mob figures. Those relationships came in handy when a hit was put out on James Cagney, who was trying to keep mafia influence out of the Screen Actors Guild. If it wasn't for Raft's work behind the scenes, a piece of heavy equipment (a klieg light... if you must know) would have "accidently" crushed Cagney on a film set. Despite his street savvy, Raft didn't always make the best career decisions- he turned down roles in The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Casablanca and High Sierra.

While Loan Shark certainly doesn't rank with the classics of the genre, it contains several of the key components that make Film Noir fun. If nothing else, track this down for its cast and settings. At the very least, you're sure to be entertained.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Robert Chalmers, "Fortune's Bastard" (2004).

The author who chooses to create a reprehensible protagonist, with whom the reader is expected to empathize, sets up a serious challenge for him/herself. That's certainly the case with Robert Chalmers, whose character "Ed Miller" in Fortune's Bastard is extremely difficult to care about. He's racist, reactionary, close-minded, homophobic, greedy, imperious and arrogant. By his own reckoning he is unable to truly connect with anyone... including his eight-year old daughter. I found myself desiring his downfall from the very beginning. Chalmers satisfied that longing, almost to a fault.

Miller tempts fate by snubbing a disabled homeless person in the beginning of the book. He shrugs off the minor curse that he receives in return. But that curse is fulfilled in spades. His marriage, his career as an executive editor of a rightwing news-rag, his house, and his accounts are quickly lost in a devastating run of manifest karma. He is in so over his head that he must actually flee the country. Thus begins a long process of character transformation. Miller is forced to confront many situations that plague ordinary humanity. For the first time in his life he has to deal with abject poverty, overt resentment, powerlessness and loneliness. And he's got a long learning curve. He quickly finds himself in trouble and is forced to move on again.

It is when Miller arrives in Florida that the full force of fate thrashes him full in the face. It's almost fatal. He finds himself stranded in a retired carny compound surrounded by a dwarf, an albino, a lizard-skinned woman, and other assorted freaks. This cavalcade of oddity is presided over by Vincent, "The Half-Man"- a sadistic tyrant obviously loosely based on "Lobster Boy", Grady Stiles, Jr. I also detect a hint of Arturo "The Fish Boy" from Katherine Dunn's carny fiction masterpiece, Geek Love (1989). But this is by far the most nightmarish carnival-related setting in pop culture. There is very little love flowing around the camp. It is in this location that Ed Miller will finally locate his long lost humanity.

Chalmers book takes the reader through several worlds, each of which could easily stand alone as the setting for a full, fleshed-out novel. The characters and their interactions are framed by radically different perspectives in each section of the book. While this approach demonstrates an impressive range, it can also give the impression of incongruity- as if this work was cobbled together from several short stories. But at the same time, these parts work to illuminate several hidden dimensions of Miller's superficially repugnant personality. Which means by the end... we are finally willing to admit that he has suffered enough. There is genuine redemption at the book's conclusion. And while happy endings are often cliche and mundane, in the case of Fortune's Bastard, its resolution almost comes as a relief.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Body Disposal.

Yesterday on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Mark Harris- author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2007). I haven't read the book, but I found the conversation enlightening. Harris argues the merits of eco-friendly burial, as oposed to the contemporary methods, which are expensive and harmful to the environment. Like many people, I tend to avoid thinking too much about my own demise and how my body should be disposed of. But I do see the value in thinking about this issue in broader social terms.

Frankly, some of the points Harris made in his discussion with Gross are fascinating. The average price of a basic funeral and burial is about $10,000. Money must be laid out for the death certificate, embalming, hairdressing, placing the deceased in the coffin, the coffin itself, the viewing, the funeral ceremony, the transportation of the body, digging the grave, the cemetary plot, and a headstone. Of course like anything else in our society, there are a variety of options available. For example, you can buy a simple wooden coffin or an indestructible copper one. And these are just the costs that apply to the family and/or friends of the dead.

Burial methods imply costs to society at large. Most obviously, cemetaries take up valuable real estate. This is a pet peeve of at least one of my friends who is obsessed with urban planning. They tend to break the flow of an otherwise dynamic community. In addition, the embalming and internment processes use an ordinate amount of resources that could be better used to serve the living. There are also polluting wastes that need to be disposed of, and much of it ends up in our sewers. And every container placed into the ground disrupts its ecology. For some reason people in the United States are particularly obsessed with permanence... and this means that the society's dead tend to linger in the ground.

I've never cared much what happens to my body once I'm dead. It's not like I'm going to have any use for it at that point. As far as I'm concerned, it will only really effect my loved ones. But I don't like the idea of being lowered into the ground preserved like a wax figure, and enclosed in an impenetrable box. I figured I'd just be cremated, and my ashes scattered in some wilderness. Cremation is certainly less expensive than burial. It has an effciency that attracts me. Yet Harris points out a drawback with the process. Apparently many baby-boomers (with their silver fillings) will be emitting mercury up the smokestack and into the air we breath. This residue settles onto the ground and gets into our water supply. Scientists are not sure about the extent of the problem... but it is a concern.

As Harris points out, there are alternative arrangements that can be made. There are now eco-friendly options, like biodegradable burials in a nature reserve. With a cardboard coffin it's not long before your body starts decomposing, and your remains get reintegrated into the next cycle of nature. Or if you prefer- your cremated remains can be mixed with concrete to make an artificial reef, which is then dropped into the ocean to create a fish habitat. These arrangements have the benefit of bequeathing one last act of selfless giving.

Finally, some states allow home burials... and others allow you to do it without any embalming. If you are a bit selfish, you may want to put the nutrients back in your own land to benefit your heirs. That solution includes simplicity without appealing to those damn hippy liberals! Make sure you check the state laws wherever you live first. If you need suggestions or hints, there is a wealth of true crime material detailing D.I.Y. methods. Why not consult the experts?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome.

Recently in my spurt of serial killer reading, I came across a reference to an arcane disorder entitled "Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome" (MBPS). I had heard of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a film by British director Terry Gilliam), and I was aware that the name applied to some sickness... but I didn't know exactly what it referrered to. It's no doubt the oddest-named illness that I have ever heard of. Before trying to understand what MBPS was, I thought I'd check out Munchausen syndrome... to learn about the syndrome in its direct form.

Munchausen syndrome is a disorder whereby the individual feigns illness in order to get attention. He/she may also actually create symptoms in order to lend credibility to claims of illness. Somehow, for those who suffer from Munchausen, hospitals and doctors represent comfort. These individuals often create elaborate medical case histories, peppered with medical terminology and concepts gleaned from their research into health affairs. Oftentimes they are very convincing, and manifest the signs and symptoms of whatever sickness(es) they have chosen to simulate.

The disorder's title derives from a historical figure named Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, a.k.a. Baron Munchausen (1720-1797). As a young man he served in the Russian military against the Turks, and came home with a litany of ridiculous tall tales. But it wasn't until the 1950's that an English doctor named Sir Richard Asher made the dubious association between the man and the disorder. In fact this is all pretty straightforward... if frankly a bit of a letdown. There are but few maladies named for literary figures. One would hope, at the very least, that an individual so honored would have at least suffered from the illness that bears his/her name. Sadly that is not the case here.

While this information by itself is of mild interest, another dimension of wierdness is unveiled in Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. In cases of MBPS, a parent applies the manufactured symptoms and signs of sickness to his/her child. It is one of the most twisted and devious forms of child abuse that I have ever read about. Women (98% of MBPS cases are committed by female perpetrators) struck with the disorder have been known to actually provoke actual illnesses in their children. The motivation of such women is twofold: to gain attention and to enter into a dependent realtionship with doctors/hospitals while fooling them. Psychoanalysts file this type of behavior under a category of behavior called "perverse relating". This character disorder entails the "conscious violation of social norms, and a certain gleefulness at being able to fool powerful, sought-after parental figures" (source link). I have read accounts of women who have had multiple infants die from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) until suspicious relatives alerted the police.

But to make this story even more compelling... it seems that there is a group of people dedicated to exposing MBPS as a fraud. The group is called MAMA- which stands for Mothers Against MBPS Allegations. Their claim is that the disorder was invented by doctors hoping to avoid malpractice suits, and is deliberately misused by opposing parents in custody suits. While they acknowledge that incidents of child abuse occur, and must be taken seriously... they discount MBPS as a genuine threat.

This idea that MBPS exists is so peculiar for many, that they just can't get their heads around it. A "normal, well-adjusted" parent can't conceive of deliberately hurting their child. But yet I can't help but look around at the sophisticated ways people have developed to manipulate reality... and believe that MBPS fits within that scope of individual capability. Accounts of infanticide are well documented, both in popular media and scholarly journals. Why would it be so difficult to believe that some mothers have such urges, yet flirt with them over a long period of time? I find that too many in our society tend to view things through a black-and-white perspective. But one need not look too far in the distance to find hints of humanity's destructive urges. The signs are all around us. The truth is that human psychology may be infinitely more complex than previously thought by romantics, idealists and priests.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Gambling... A Sucker's Bet?

Is it possible that gambling is a growing phenomenon in the United States? It sure seems like it lately. From my circle of friends to the nation-at-large, everybody seems to be falling in love with it. It makes me wonder what I am missing. Is the prospect of "free money" that alluring? I would think that just about anybody with average intelligence would understand that gambling is a sucker's game. But that's simply not the case. It even has a fancy new psudonym- "gaming". Does that really make it more fun?

All over the country people are rediscovering the joys of throwing their money at chance. A google search for "sports betting tips" brings up over 1,700,000 hits. Poker is now a spectator sport on television. State lotteries are thriving. Communities across the nation are considering proposals to bring "gaming" to their towns. It's been big local news here in Pittsburgh over the past couple of years. They are bringing slots to town. That's right... slots. It's fun, ok? You put your change in a machine and it returns up to 92 cents (by average) on every dollar you spend. Moronic is what that is. I'll make change for anbody that will take 90 cents on the dollar. And I'll even smile and wish you good fortune. But people get addicted to it. They sit on uncomfortable stools and stare robotically at a series of rotating symbols. And wait for a courtesy drink of alcohol. Not in Pittsburgh though... no free drinks at the new casino. So what's the point?

I'm sure it was different when gambling was confined to Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Go to the ocean and stroll the boardwalk after you blow your load. Grab a hooker on the strip in the city of lights. Send your wife and kids off to see Siegfried and Roy get mauled, while you sit unperturbed at the blackjack table. Whisk away your pregnant girlfriend and get married in an Elvis-themed chapel. These were exotic destinations that for most Americans had broader appeal than a trip to France. For godssake, people would even drive a couple of hours to get to Wheeling, WV. Granted that it's exotic... but c'mon. Who's really going to care when they can go to the nearest city to do it? Just the addicts I'm sure.

I avoid watching sports on television and equally avoid most people that do so. So sports betting has absolutely no appeal to me. It's world lurks on the periphery in the after-hours club, or around the water cooler. It doesn't usually bother me because I'm not around it. I'm sure it makes seeing the games more interesting. But I couldn't care less. I learned my essential lesson about betting on sporting events by putting together my own weekly football pool with a friend in middle school. I collected the money and he won the first week. The next week our mutual friend was miraculously ahead. On the third week my partner won and people began to get suspicious. We pocketed our profits and retired. Of course... the only way to win is to be the house. It's that simple.

Now even my intelligent, artistically-minded buddies are getting into the act. No... they won't watch sports either. They now have poker night. It started out harmlessly... just something to do to pass the time while bullshitting about diverse topics. Penny ante stuff... just for fun. A year or so later and people are dropping a hundred bucks (and more) in a night. And they are still trying to get me to join in. They dangle the attraction of being around an interesting group of folks. Not me though... no way. I know that they look at me as "fresh meat". They say, "Oh, but you'd be really good at it. The psychological aspects would intrigue you." But I haven't broken down yet.

The only thing in the way of gambling that has been the slightest bit intriguing is horseracing. I'm not talking about off-track betting. That sounds like an opportunity to blow a month's salary in an environment with all the charm and substance of a sports bar in a strip mall. No... what attracts me to the idea of the horses is seeing them run live. I like the idea of the atmosphere of the track... grizzled old men smoking cigars and dropping peanut shells at their feet. Blue-haired ladies having a hi-ball in the lounge. A legless guy on a wheeled tray tooling around and selling tip-sheets. Now that sounds like fun.

I even think that I would find studying the racing forms compelling... with the colorful names of the horses with their past times marching across the pages. The old-style analog board with the changing odds displayed... the scratchy P.A. system announcing the winners... the dust rising from the track as the thoroughbreds thunder by... this is all quite appealing to me in its cinematic qualities. But even though I've been wanting to take such a trip for awhile, I haven't done so. Because ultimately I wouldn't want to find out that I was a sucker just like everybody else. I guess I'd rather keep my illusions.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Smearing Barack Obama.

The lastest news in presidential campaign politics allegedly originated with the Hillary Clinton camp. This little snippet came to me coutesy of the Glenn Beck show ("The Third Most Listened to Radio Show in America!!"), who was blathering on about a supposed "scoop" from Insight Magazine. Insight is a particularly odious, conservative internet "news magazine"... owned by cult leader and right-wing icon, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Their contention is that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was raised a Muslim, and educated in a madrasah. (In case you don't feel like reading the rest of this post... I am under obligation to point out that this is completely false.) To understand the nature of this allegation, you have to understand what a madrasah is. It's the Arabic word for school... and it's taken on some perjorative meanings. Just as Catholic and other parochial schools in the United States integrate their own brand of religious beliefs in their educational programs, Madrasahs incorporate Islamic teachings. Since 9-11, there has been ample suspicion about the nature of madrasahs.

These Islamic schools are suspected of indoctinating students with anti-Western values. Mistrust is particularly directed at madrasahs that use an interpretation of Islam traditionally referred to as Wahhabism (followers of this approach now prefer the title "Salafism".) This is basically the fundamentalist and literal tradition of Islam, akin to Christian Evangelicals in the United States. They claim to interpret the words of Muhammed directly (sound familiar?) from the Qur'an. Schools of Wahhabi proliferated with increasing Middle Eastern oil wealth in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Wealthy Saudis have especially been known to donate large sums of money to build such schools. It is thought by many in the current US administration that al Qaeda used these madrasahs to recruit and train terrorists.

So what does any of this have to do with Barack Obama? Good question. Obama was born to a Kenyan father who divorced his wife when his son was two years old and moved back to Kenya. It is said that Barack Hussein Obama Sr. (the father) was part of the Kenyatta regime, which had a brutal record of mistreating the Kenyan people. But that's a wholly irrelevant story as far as his son is concerned. When Obama was six his mother married an Indonesian foreign student, who moved the family to Jakarta. This man was an oil manager, and a non-practicing Muslim. It was in Indonesia that Obama spent two years at a Muslim school, after which he spent two years in a Catholic School. At age ten, Obama moved to Hawaii to be raised by his maternal grandparents... and he enrolled at the Punahou School- a large private, prepatory school in Honolulu. This was a co-ed, non-sectarian school originally founded by Congregationalist missionaries. Obama and his current family are members of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

Those are the facts. Barack Obama spent two years in a Muslim School, between the ages of six and eight. He spent just as much time at a Catholic school, and the majority of his schooling at a non-sectarian institution. One might wonder why the years he spent being indoctrinated with Catholicism or non-sectarianism are not at issue. For these seem more significant to his personal story. Whoever floated the "madrasah smear" is desperately grasping at straws. And just who is responsible for it? No one really knows. It's been purported that Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton uncovered these scurrilous accusations during background checks following Obama's formation of an exploratory committee to examine possibilities of a 2008 presidential bid. The Clinton campaign denies any involvement. Meanwhile conservative commentators have been floating such shady rumors for some time... look at this link from August of 2004.

Of course it doesn't really matter where these prevarications originated. They suit Glenn Beck's needs. In fact the right wing echo chamber is having a field day over all of this. (Just look at this idiot.) They no doubt love to parrot sketchy whisperings that the Clinton people are behind all of this. I would even hazard a guess that many of them consider their own hands clean. By innocently floating concerns that "maybe Obama is hiding something", they can shuck any legal liability by pinning the source of their "questions" on someone else. Meanwhile they stir up a hornets' nest of resentments between the two popular Democratic presidential candidates.

I can't help but detect the rotting scent of Karl Rove's corpse behind all these specious allegations.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The 100-Hour Agenda Underway.

Inevitably we are now approaching the end of the first 100 hours of the new Congress. The Democrats, having seized control of both houses, made no secret about having an aggressive agenda. They outlined point-by-point the legislation they intended to pass- now it's time to evaluate their follow-through. With 57 hours to spare, the Democrats have addressed the issues bundled as "6 for '06".

Implement some of the neglected recommendations of the 9-11 commission.

- This passed 299-128 on January 9th, with 70 Republicans crossing party lines to vote with the Dems. It requires the United States to fully monitor all air and sea cargo arriving within its borders. It also redistributes homeland security funds to communities that face a higher risk for terrorism.

This seemed like a no-brainer to me- especially the latter part of the bill. It appears that a lot of federal funding was lost in what amounted to "pork barrel" spending, by congressmen seeking to boost their popularity in their own districts. It only makes sense that more resources should be shifted to places like NYC and DC, rather than Montana and Wyoming.

Raise the federal miminum wage to $7.25/hour over the next two years.

-This passed on January 10th, with a 315-116 vote (82 Republicans supported the bill). Republican Senate leaders have stated their intention to bundle small business tax cuts ($8.3 billion) with the legislation. It is expected that Senate Democrats will accept this compromise, but doubtful that House Democrats will play along with a revised bill.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you already know my feelings about the minimum wage. Simply put- life on the current minimum wage is below the basic living standard that should be expected in a developed nation.

Expand federal funding for stem cell research.

-On January 11, congress voted (253-174) to lift the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell reserach. This vote was 37 short of a veto-proof majority. Dubya is certain to try to stifle this bill when it crosses his desk.

Anyone with exposure to the media would have a hard time remaining unaware of the controversy regarding stem cell research. The newest tactic on the Far Right is to claim that adult stem cells are more effective than embryonic ones. Some have even suggested that embryonic stem cells are useless for scientific or medical purposes. I'm not a biologist, so I am not going to try to assess the accuracy of these claims. Having said that... I'm pretty sure that the radio pundits I've heard discussing this issue are not scientists either.

Reduce prescription drug costs for seniors.

-Januuary 12th saw the passage of legislation (255-70) intending to curb medical costs for seniors. The idea here is to allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug costs with pharmaceutical companies. Some Republicans in the Senate would like to limit this by targeting specific drugs instead. It is rumored that Bush will veto this bill if it goes through in its current form.

Honestly, I don't have a strong position on this. I am aware that seniors pay exorbitant costs for drugs that prolong their lives. I do find it ironic that Republicans are taking (what amounts to) an anti-free market position on this issue.

Cut interest rates for student loans.

-This past Wednesday (the 17th of January) Congress voted (by a 356-71 margin) to cut student interest rates (for need-based, federally subsidized loans) in half, within five years. The cost of the bill ($6 billion) will be offset by lowering the government's guaranteed return to lenders. But this legislation may be complicated by inter-party conflict. Senate Democrats have suggested that students would benefit from an expansion of federal tuition grants.

The popularity of this measure is evident in the result of the vote. The remaining conflict resides in deciding whether or not to expand the scope of this bill. I have no problem with giving students some financial relief. However I would like this relief to be tied to public service. For instance, debt forgiveness could be extended to graduates working in jobs that benefit the "public good".

Work to minimize America's energy dependence.

-On January 18, Congress voted (264-123) to add $15 billion in new fees, royalties, and taxes for the oil industry. Apparently energy companies have been operating rigs in the Gulf of Mexico without paying billions in royalties that should have been applied. In 1989, an "oversight" in leasing contracts allowed these companies to operate in US waters without compensating American taxpayers for the public resources they extracted.

This bill is woefully insufficient in addressing necessary changes in national energy policy. There is no question that companies should be required to pay royalties on the massive profits they make exploiting the commons. Whoever was responsible for the "oversight" should face criminal consequences. But that doesn't excuse Congress from putting more significant effort into facing the increasing challenges we face regarding energy. This is the crucial issue of the future.

All of this arrives in conjunction with lobby reform in the Senate. In a rare example of cooperation (a 96-2 vote), lawmakers ended the practice of lobbyists giving gifts and travel benefits to senators. The vote also makes senators more accountable for "pork barrel" amendments that they slip into legislation.

It's obvious that the Democratic leadership in the House is off to an impressive start. They have been expedient in pushing their platform. But there are critics. The Republicans are crying foul- with claims that the Dems are not following through with promises to involve the opposition in a bipartisan effort. Yet when you look at the voting totals, it's glaring that many Republican legislators saw these proposals as moderate. Whether or not the new majority chooses to exploit its position to pursue genuine change will most likely decide the results of the 2008 elections.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Unusual Homes.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of living in an exceptional environment. Whether it be in a harsh desolate place, or in a crowded and compact area, I enjoy seeing how people have adapted their lifestyles to their surroundings. It simply follows that when I get the opportunity to digest a print or video representation of unusual living arrangements, I get pretty excited.

Such was the case when I found out that Chris Smith (director of the hilarious American Movie (1999)) had followed up his success with a documentary called Home Movie (2001). It's subject matter was originally intended solely to be made into a series of commercials for, but Smith seized the chance to shoot extra footage to expand into a feature. The film focuses on five unique homespaces inhabited by idiosyncratic characters who are odd enough to be reflections of their homes, or vice versa. One couple has transformed their suburban tract home into a paradise for their cats. A sci-fi obsessed engineer-type has created a Jetsons-like residence, with multiple moving parts. Another couple has domesticized an abandoned missile silo in the midwest. An alligator hunter lives on a house-raft in the swamps of New Orleans. And finally, an old lady has retired to her treehouse in the wilds of Hawaii.

Home Movie is particularly fascinating for its concentration on the personalities of its subjects. These houses are projections (mostly conscious) of their owners' philosophies, personalities, and deepest needs. They, in each case, seem almost perfectly suited to the individuals who live within them. There is very little evidence of compromise with society's conventions, or its depiction of what homes are "supposed" to look like. My only real beef with this DVD is that it runs short at a mere 66 minutes.

So I was quite pleased to learn that there was a book that examined several iconoclasts who absolutely refused to move from the harsh environments where they happen to live. Jake Halpern was a novice reporter at the New Republic when he learned about a couple living in Centralia, PA. This town was situated atop a mine that caught fire in 1961. Gradually conditions worsened until almost all of its inhabitants had left. Halpern interviewed the recalcitrant couple, and was further inspired to search out similar folks who were drawn to live among extremes. After awhile his hobby developed into a book entitled "Braving Home" (2003). Halpern believed that by visiting these people and living with them for a short time, that he could get a new understanding of the concept of "home". Why would a man continue to live in a Hawaiian tract development that was surrounded by lava flows from an active volcano? What is there to say about an elderly gentleman clinging to the idea of finishing out his life in a flooded-out town (the first incorporated black municipality in the nation), protected by an insufficient dike?

Particularly fascinating to me is the town of Whittier, Alaska. Originally conceived and operated as a military base protecting a strategic seaport- the entire place consists of a 14-story high-rise surrounded by a few outbuildings. Its couple hundred inhabitants are largely self-sufficent. Whittier has a video store, post office, tanning bed, church, B & B, and police station- all located within the large building. There's a restaurant, bar, and school as well. It is only accessible through the port, or via a 2 1/2 mil- long railroad tunnel cut through a mountain. For months at a time, harsh weather makes Whittier virtually unreachable. It receives no direct sunlight for an entire season. And 60 mph winds consistently whip through the valley where the "town" is situated. Not surprisingly many of Whittier's long-term residents found their way to the town as an escape from something else. This fact, along with the stifling close proximity, places privacy at a premium. Few extend their stay past three full winters.

Halpern and Smith have created documents that display the essential influence of setting. If "sense of place" is important, then these two works are essential primers. No doubt our living arrangements are more prosaic, but I believe that an examination of these quirky folks can lend insight to our understanding of the places we choose to reside.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Arcane Transmissions.

Recently I have been pondering what it might be like to be a paranoid schizophrenic. That disorder would include symptoms of delusions and auditory hallucinations. With this subclassification of the disorder, I wouldn't have to give up organized thinking and I could still display wild mood swings. I could look for signs everywhere, believing that I could divine the future and perhaps master my fate through the sheer power of thought. Surely there is fertile ground (even in my immediate environment) where I can encounter sources of divination.

As an example... I recently received an e-mail from one "Rhinehart []". This sender appears (at first glance) to be employing some form of random text generator in order to sell me on the purchase of stock from some corporation called "China Biolife Enterprises". One might assume that this e-mail has been sent out en masse to thousands of prospective customers. But maybe that's just what they want you to believe... In truth this seemingly nonsensical text may secretly be trying to convey a series of secret messages- just for me! Perhaps the wily author of said note is merely employing the William Burroughs/Brion Gysin cut-up method of poetry to cloak his/her meaning. Let's have a look at the text itself:

"Alynna nechayev, ds star, maquis. Quotes bios plots fad type year
votes, series. Site fighting women of world about this fight.
Poesister, sister fran april dress. Lives ingrid mitchell cruise,
deception, days summer dool, informal. Guys father dowling hudson
fugitive priest!
Which service provided, youan license?
Vision buffalo thanks third assistant.
Italy friday, loly munoz sonja. Nechayev ds star, maquis, glass
shield lewis sorority girl.
Sabrina goes college gerinikki jobjumper.
Person users posts updated near. Future clicking button left through,
stepbystep process.
Here, info wide coverage womens.
Ratings december thank you your su cant.
Sukhothai, super pro at carrington house. Barbara reilkin counselor lovelorn.
Contact help history pictures from videos sale!
Naveau murder mode classic.
Ill never love again teenage, geri sabrina goes college. Geri
sabrina, goes college.
Preemptive strike journeys end descent, chain command stanja.
Atty brooke, mcadam crimes passion unsolved mysteries dark.
Info wide, coverage womens kickboxing."

What does this REALLY mean? To get at its true meaning... we'll have to look at it in several sections:

"Alynna nechayev, ds star, maquis. Quotes bios plots fad type year
votes, series. Site fighting women of world about this fight.
Poesister, sister fran april dress. Lives ingrid mitchell cruise,
deception, days summer dool, informal. Guys father dowling hudson
fugitive priest!"

It seems quite obvious that the key to understanding revelatory events of the 20th century lies in the story of the downfall of Czarist Russia. What's not so well known is that one of Czar Nicholas' daughters (here referred to as "Alynna Nechayev") survived the massacre of her family. Neither are people aware that Nechayev, upon her subsequent flight to the US, formed an underground sadomasochistic order based out of the lower east side of New York City. It was from her position as head of "D's Star", that Nechayev engineered the catastrophic market crash that led to the Great Depression. The reference to "Poe's sister" illuminates the link between the great Poet's ostensibly "insane" sister Rosalie... who, styling herself "Fran", masked her role as the link between the Marquis de Sade and "The Great Beast" Aleister Crowley. "Fran of the april dress" was a symbol of feminine power in the Order of D's Star. Ingrid Mitchell Cruise was Nechayev's agent of intrigue... Cruise plied her whorish trade on Wall Street, recruiting dupes for the great unfolding plan that would bring the center of the financial world to their knees. The "fugitive priest" in question is (of course) Rasputin... The Mad Monk. His role in D's Star is only speculated upon... so I won't presume to solve that aprticular mystery.

What have we next?

"Which service provided, youan license?
Vision buffalo thanks third assistant.
Italy friday, loly munoz sonja. Nechayev ds star, maquis, glass
shield lewis sorority girl.
Sabrina goes college gerinikki jobjumper.
Person users posts updated near. Future clicking button left through,
stepbystep process.
Here, info wide coverage womens."

It was a few years into the devastating 1930's that Nechayev finally chose a hand-picked successor as head of D's Star. Nechayev was on a secret getaway in Buffalo, NY when one of her "assistants" (male slaves) began speaking in tongues about a lovely Italian girl named Sonja Munoz. The "third assistant" procured the local girl, with the assistance of his police badge (referred here as the "glass shield", for obvious reasons). Munoz was a victim of the desperate times, and was employed as a streetwalker in order to help feed her family. Nikki, Gerri and Sabrina were the names of her infant daughters. Here we lose the thread of this section. It seems the author of our secret message is giving us veiled instructions with which to trace the geneology of Sonja Munoz.

"Ratings december thank you your su cant.
Sukhothai, super pro at carrington house. Barbara reilkin counselor lovelorn.
Contact help history pictures from videos sale!
Naveau murder mode classic.
Ill never love again teenage, geri sabrina goes college. Geri
sabrina, goes college.
Preemptive strike journeys end descent, chain command stanja.
Atty brooke, mcadam crimes passion unsolved mysteries dark.
Info wide, coverage womens kickboxing."

Now it gets dicey. In order to ferret out the later activities of The Order of D's Star, we must learn of the activities of Sonja Munoz' daughters. We know that Nikki became growingly alarmed at her mother's odd activities during WWII. Her story is a tragic one. She escaped to California to find stardom in the growing motion picture industry of Hollywood. There her star burned brightly... but burned out quickly. After brief success as a femme fatale in several Film Noir pictures at S____ Studios, she fell in with a bad crowd and became addicted to marijuana. Word got out quickly, and she had difficulty getting studio heads to place her in their most expensive projects. She soon found herself playing the role of an exotic Arabian dancer named "Sukhothai" in a series of stag films (produced by a fromt company entitled Carrington House). Her broken body was discovered in a Skid Row hotel in the mid-fifities. Authorities suspected foul play... partly due to tips from Nikki's therapist, Dr. Reilkin. But a case for murder was dropped by frustrated investigators after their few leads turned into dead ends. Nikki enjoyed an unfortunate resurgence in notoriety during the video revolution of the early 1970's, when several early reels of her stag appearances resurfaced in a Naveau, CA garage. Only a privileged few have had the opportunity to view those videos.

Nikki's sisters (Geri and Sabrina) seemed to settle down into typical domestic existences, after attending a semi-prominent midwestern liberal arts college. But apparently our author knows soemthing that we don't. It is reasonable to believe that Sonja Munoz eventually passed down the mantle of D's Star to one of her surviving daughters. It is common knowledge that Geri assumed her domestic chores with relish, finding angelic satisfaction in baking buckeyes and bottling marmalade. The only source of "mystery" in her life was her husband's untimely death after passing out drunk in his own driveway. Geri seemed to have recovered her composure quickly... she remarried quickly, and only made sporadic visits to her first husband's plot at Atty Brooke Cemetary.

Sabrina's path was a bit more complex. We know that she took up martial arts after being captivated by the short-lived "Green Hornet" television program. After a few years on the circuit, she gave up her budding interests in kick-boxing and settled down with her husband, an army veteran who had served as a consultant in Vietnam (1960-1963). Her relations with her surviving sister seem to have been a bit thorny. There are vague whisperings of a love triangle involving the siblings immediately after college. But mostly Sabrina's story in one of faithful service to her husband... who recently reached the apex of his military career as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. He was rewarded by an appointment to the Pentagon's Special Planning Office in late 2000.

Neither of the sisters seem likely candidates for the succession of authority in the Order of D's Star. Obviously the author of this e-mail has information that could help unravel this enigma. Unfortunately he has sought to veil his communication in this absurd form. But it is absolutely imperative that I decode his words, for my very destiny is at stake. For you see, I suspect that one of Sonja Munoz' daughters is my biological birth mother. I have believed this for some time.
The Order of D's Star is indeed my birthright, and if only I can figure out this puzzle... then I can truly ascend to great deeds. Perhaps YOU have the missing piece that can help me solve this riddle. Maybe RHINEHArt can be convinced to end my torture... Help me if you can.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"The Chumscrubber", the Suburbs, and the American Dream.

By now filmgoers have some reason to yawn when confronted with yet another widely released film documenting the well-known suburban malaise that plagues the heartland. Dark comic dramas centered on such material are virtually a sub-genre all on their own. Perhaps the best among the early ones was Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge (1979). It was about a group of disaffected and bored kids whose parents sought to escape the problems of the cities by constructing a planned community in the middle of nowhere. Of course the neglect of the children's interests leads to disaster and tragedy. Much of that film's strength derives from its cast of young and virtually unknown actors- which features a young Matt Dillon making his flm debut.

The low-budget Suburbia (1984-directed by Penelope Spheeris) would be the punk-rock cult classic within this typology. It's a depiction of the suburbs taken to their nihilistic extremes... the kids in this movie have no supervision at all. They band together and occupy abandoned houses, consume large amounts of drugs, and commit mayhem. Once again tragedy ensues. Perhaps the best known film in this group would be Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999). This self-conscious and clever deconstruction of the American Dream was awarded five Oscars for its cynical attack on traditional suburban values. This spawned another wave of wannabes hoping to cash in on its fashinable success. We can add other films such as Donnie Darko (2001), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and The Ice Storm (1997) to the canon.

As long as the suburbs and exurbs continue to be "viable" living arrangements within our society, they will be fertile ground for future filmmakers (who likely will have had some direct experience with them while growing up). Canadian-born Arie Posin directed his feature length debut The Chumscrubber in 2005- a film certain to take an honored place among the aforementioned examples. Starring the very talented British actor Jamie Bell (sans accent), The Chumscrubber is yet another story of a scheming group of unsupervised kids, running amok and flirting with disaster. The title refers to a videogame antihero, whose mission involves cleansing the landscape of sprawl. Several of the characters are tangentially associated with this icon- and thus "The Chumscubber" is more of an impressionistic allegory than a plot device.

If you've seen a lot of the other films I've mentioned in this post, you'll notice that Posin's film covers a lot of the familair territory. The director takes a little criminal plot, and surrounds it with all the family dysfunction, missed communication, social alienation, absentee parentism, emotional repression and trenchant commentary that you've come to expect from a movie like this. But its lack of originality does not seem to matter in this case. The camera work is compelling without being distracting, and the dialogue is well-formed enough not to seem contrived. Posin has surrounded Bell with a competent (yet not flashy) cast that includes Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, William Fichtner, Tim DeKay, and John Heard. These are actors whose names may not be instantly recognizable... but whose faces will.

The Chumscrubber proves that, with a good script and a fresh directorial approach, even material that is well-trodden can be satirically poignant, cleverly sculpted and very entertaining. It's not out-of-place among the best movies of this subgenre. Now if we can only find some American horror filmmakers who realize this...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King Day.

Today is Martin Luther King day, and all over the country federal employees are enjoying a rare Monday away from work. Perhaps they will ponder the meaning of this national holiday, and reflect upon the man in whose honor it is celebrated. But probably not- especially if they are white. Because after all... what did MLK do for white people? Certainly many contemporary adults remember getting this day off of school when they were kids. And at some point (if they didn't grow up in the Deep South) they were probably taught a little something about his deeds and legacy. Maybe they can recall hearing a recording of one of his famous speeches about racial equality and civil rights... likely something having to do with a dream and the color of a child's skin. Tellingly though, the further you get from the city- the more you see locally tax-funded employees toling as if it were just another day. Like so much else in modern society, this is mostly a case of demographics.

Yet if you turn on the television or radio today (at least if you are a consumer of public broadcasting), you'll hear another take on MLK's life and work. Every year they seem to require a new spin to keep the story fresh. It appears that this year they are seizing on the labor angle. Apparently, towards the end of his tragically abbreviated life, King began to involve himself in labor disputes. He notably supported a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenneesee. If he hadn't already underscored the threat he posed to the status quo (what with civil rights and his extremely controversial early opposition to the Vietnam War), he certainly went over the top in getting involved with workers' rights. Nothing hurts more than a strike at the pocketbook. It put the AFL-CIO in a tough position. The famous labor organization needed to see a success in municipal employee organization. But because of the race issue... they were only able to muster lukewarm support for the black sanitation workers.

Really, there's much to be inspired by through an examination of MLK, regardless of your color. He bucked centuries of conflict and hatred, and preached a message on non-violence to address the ills of society. People nowadays rarely realize how significant his approach was. The Sixties were a time of dramatically-increasing black militant action. The Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam were espousing a radically different viewpoint from that of King. This was brought home to me yesterday through an odd source. And although the events I read about occurred after King's assasination... their origination began during his lifetime.

In Peter Vronsky's "Serial Killers" (2004), the author writes of an obscure inner cult of Elijah Mohammed's Nation of Islam movement. This group was called the "Death Angels", and membership was attained by killing white people. The aspiring initiate was required to kill a minimum of nine white males, five white females, or four white children. When successful, the killer would be granted his "wings", and his photograph would find an honored place on the bulletin boards of Nation of Islam centers nationwide(with hand-drawn angel wings affixed to his back). If what Vronsky writes is to be believed, the California chapter alone had fifteen full-status members.

Society-at-large learned about the Death Angels through a criminal case referred to as "The Zebra Killers". These colorfully-named characters were a group of five would-be "Angels" based out of San Francisco. They weren't as discreet as the successfully-ascended "Angels". In a period stretching between 1974 and 1975, they raped, robbed, and killed their victims in public spaces such as bus stops, telephone booths, and all-night laundries. Some unfortunates were even kidnapped and tortured. The city was terrorized until one of the five turned state's evidence- and Jesse Cook, Larry Greene, Manuel Moore, and J.C. Simon were indicted for their crimes. They were convicted and given life sentences. Although the Death Angels of California were thought to be responsible for the murders of as many as 135 men, 75 women, and 60 children... the suspected 15-20 members responsible for much of the carnage escaped indictment due to insufficient evidence.

Martin Luther King's achievements are put into perspective by comparisons with some of his contemporaries- such as the Death Angels. He was largely responsible for transforming the great and understandable rage of African-Americans into peaceable social change. It's unfortunate, given the extreme possibilities of provocation and hatred, that King was viewed as a troublemaker (or worse) by many national and state authorities. Perhaps they realized the error of their judgement when they observed the widespread rioting that spread throughout the country after King's assasination. It's not too late to absorb and apply King's great message to today's conflicts. That's what this day could be about... for everybody.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thomas Vinterberg, "It's All About Love" (2004)

A few weeks ago I posted a review of the Thomas Vinterberg/Lars Von Trier collaboration Dear Wendy. As mentioned in that post, I was very impressed upon first watching Vinterberg's bitter classic of dark humor, Celebration. Dear Wendy was a bit of a mixed bag... but I enjoyed it. In the process of writing the review I discovered mention of It's All About Love, a Vinterberg film that was sandwiched between the two I had already seen. I probably would have been on the lookout for it anyway, but a reader comment further solidified my desire to track it down. Lo and behold, I recently found a copy of it at Hollywood Video for a mere $5.99. Of course I grabbed it.

Starring Joaquin Pheonix and Claire Danes, It's All About Love takes place in an imaginary near future- 2021. Pheonix's character has travelled to New York City in order to deliver divorce papers to his estranged wife (Danes). His intention is to meet quickly with her, get her to sign the papers, and continue on to his destination. Danes is a world-renowned figure-skater with a coterie of managers and assistants fashioned into some sort of odd family grouping. Pheonix is persuaded to extend his stay and spend time with his ex-wife. They are on good terms, and it is obvious that they still care for each other. But complications soon become apparent. Danes wants to retire, and those who depend on her for their income are not anxious to see this happen. Pheonix gets drawn up into a convoluted plot to see Danes through these difficulties.

The emotional conflicts between Pheonix, Danes and her entourage form the main thread of the plot. Yet meanwhile we learn that the world is going through extreme environmental transition. There is a quickly approaching ice age, and it is causing problems on a global scale. In NYC people are falling over and expiring in the street. Themes of urban anomie are reflected by passersby, who unfeelingly step over their expired fellow citizens without comment. At one point we catch a glimpse of a body lying on the surface of a public trash receptacle. Meanwhile in Uganda, the country's citizens are beginning to defy gravity and float up into the sky. This condition is only cursorily referred to, and seems to have little bearing on the story of our heroes.

The film continues on its merry way, periodically reminding us that this story of imperiled love takes place among random and strange occurrences. It's a bit of a thriller and a bit of a romance, with the merest trappings of science fiction. The story could have well been told in the present, without the wierd window-dressing. These disparate elements did however add a compelling dimension to the proceedings. I'm not an expert at decoding symbolic allegory, and so I'm not going to try to explain the Ugandan phenomena. But the climate change aspect has a direct parallel with the events that help unfold the main storyline.

No doubt the average mainstream filmgoer is going to be extremely dissatisfied with this film. However beautifully shot the movie is (in places), it is quite easy to condemn it as pretentious and sentimental drivel. Vinterberg's choices often seem deliberately intended to obscure an empty core. Besides the arbitrary devices of fantasy that the director employed, he made one or two other serious missteps of distraction. Despite the American cast, the actors all employ a set of awkwardly subtle foreign accents. This has the effect of making the dialogue sound obtuse and contrived. In addition, Sean Penn appears in an awkward series of disconnected scenes with no apparent purpose other than to add starpower to the cast.

With the consideration of Dear Wendy and It's All About Love, I have to admit viewing Vinterberg's directorial skills with a hint of suspicion. What made Celebration the classic it is destined to become was it's brutally raw honesty. The artifice of these two follow-up films, while compelling in some mildly curious way (especially in Dear Wendy), suggests that Vinterberg's intitial promise may be fated to remain unfulfilled. However there is enough presented in his entire body of work to justify a continued interest in his projects, albeit an interest tempered with a bit of skepticism.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Seeing Live Music. Slim Cessna: Solo at 31st Street Pub.

Last night I did something I haven't been in the practice of doing much lately- I went out to see some live music. There once was a time when I frequently enjoyed going out to shows. But I guess I've gotten a bit cranky as I've aged. The thought of standing in some cramped space, getting my ears rung by a bad mix of guitar rock just isn't that alluring anymore. I have some great memories and it's mostly satisfying enough to simply remember the great shows I caught in my twenties.

I got to see Pavement in 1992 at the William Pitt Union. Gary Young was still the drummer, and he made a big production out of trying to do drunk handstands on his kit. The band had to stop and set the tempo for each song beforehand. I don't think I'll ever see that type of loose, shambling glory again.

The Jesus Lizard show at the Oakland Beehive around the same time was also revelatory. David Yow was in the prime of his drunkenness, and he performed the entire set without shoes. He deep-throated the mic, and stage-dived... howling aroung the impediment in his throat while being passed from hand-to-hand in the audience. At one point he got so worked up that he pounced on the security guy, who was unfortunately running around on the steamy stage dressed merely in a pair of tighty-whities, and began to simulate sex on top of him. Yow was certainly sick.

I was lucky to see Iggy Pop outside PNC Park shortly after it was built. It was part of some alternative tour that had piggy-backed on the success of Lollapallooza. Iggy had sprained his arm during the previous night's show in Cleveland by stage-diving into a stunned crowd that failed to catch him. He jumped around stage so wildly that he shimmied right out of that sling, and had to have a roadie tape his flailing arm to his sweaty torso with duct tape. And that didn't slow him down for the rest of the show either. His manic intensity was unparalleled- which was especially amazing because he was already in his fifties.

And speaking of Lollapaloozas, I certainly saw my share of quality acts at those travelling shows. P-Funk was as loopy and obsessively retarded as I could have imagined. The Beastie Boys were a highlight. I caught bands like the Flaming Lips and Girls vs. Boys on the second stage. And I was at the Ministry show that so possessed the audience that a full-fledged riot broke out. Raving fans upset a pizza cart and started throwing the dough and tomato sauce at security. People were lighting fires and tearing clumps of sod out of the ground, hurling it at the stage. That particular episode made regional news.

The year before last I discovered Slim Cesna's Auto Club. My friend's band was opening, and he called and suggested I come out. I responded with skepticism, telling him I had lost interest in live music. He said I should just trust him and see the show anyway. I'm glad I gave in, because the Auto Club's modern day backwoods-revivalism blew me away. Slim and sideman Munly bring the word to the good people with a punk rock aesthetic and apocalyptic Americana. They are the most consistent and energetic performers that I have seen in recent years- essential and not-to-be-missed.

I also vividly remember seeing standout Yo La Tengo, Ween, Nashville Pussy, Southern Culture on the Skids, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hogg, My Morning Jacket, and Don Cabballero shows. So I guess when it comes down to it, I just have been spoiled. Standing at the 31st Street Pub last night, and availing myself of the cheap beer special, I couldn't help but feel jaded. Although I have great amounts of respect for any musicians who have the courage and determination to get an act together and take it onstage, I can't help feeling that the concept of "performance" is beyond many groups.

It's not enough to go out and hear bands play their songs in the same way they've recorded them on their albums. Why should I make an effort to go to see a band if they are going to come out and go through the motions without ever really connecting with the audience? It's cheaper and more convenient just to stay home and listen to the music in the comfort and privacy of my home. I want an experience. I don't want to watch people with their backs to me, or their heads down... in contemplation of their hands. Do something. Even if you have to engage the crown in some sort of between-song banter- I came out to be entertained. If I choose to see a band, I already know that they can play their instruments. I want more than that.

That's why I was satisfied when I saw Slim Cessna's solo act last night. The singer-songwriter schtick is especially difficult to make interesting or dynamic. Cessna pulled it off with theatrics and genuine feeling. He got off his seat and addressed the crowd directly, even jumping off the stage at one point and getting in people's faces. It was as if he was calling every spectator out. Sure... his set was heavy on Auto Club standards that I have come to know word-for-word. But he made them somehow more personal by performing them by himself. He accompanied himself via laptop... with backing tracks. This is an approach that could have easily become suspect without Slim's sincerity and professionalism. He truly understands that people came to a "show", not a recital. And people responded to him, in a way I haven't ever seen at a solo performance.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Elective Cosmetic Sugery: Or...Tormenting Melanocytic Nevi.

So... a few weeks ago when I was feeling old, and I listed a number of complaints about aging... I left off another ugly reality... moles. That's right. A melanocytic nevi. A bithmark. A blemish. A mar. A (hopefully benign) neoplasm. A dysplastic nevus. Or more properly speaking... a whole bunch of them. You see... moles can be acquired by exposure to ultraviolet light, or they can be congenital (that means you're born to have and/or get them). As we age, more and more of them appear, and they get bigger. In this increasingly anxious age, the changes that occur in moles over time are cause for worry. We are told to monitor them and have them checked regularly by a dermatologist. Perhaps there will be cause for concern... you may have to get a biopsy to see whether or not you have melanoma.

I've always had some moles. My parents had a large amount of them. And so they are just something I have learned to live with. Once I had one on the right side of my neck. For years I took my time shaving, carefully avoiding the mole to avoid cutting into it. If I nicked the thing it would trickle blood for about half an hour. Finally I got sick of pussy-footing around, and I gouged the thing right off my neck with my safety razor. I remember having to make several passes before it was level. I never regretted doing it.

So last year, I finally decided to go to a specialist and have him/her take a look at my collection of moles (the attached ones, sicko!). There was one particularly annoying mole on my scalp that I often aggravated when brushing my hair. I've always had to point it out to anyone cutting my hair, and this felt like getting off to a bad start with someone poised over me with a sharp pair of scissors. I knew I wouldn't miss this particular chaotic mass of overzealous cells. I also had a couple on my inner thigh that chafed when I walked long distances in the summer. I could do without these as well. So OK... I made my very first appointment for elective cosmetic surgery. The wait was over six months with this particular specialist. Well fine... these blemishes weren't going anywhere. The worst that could happen is that they grew and made of themselves better targets for removal. Right?

Finally, today I had my appointment. There's the customary wait that all doctors give you, so you can consider dashing out of the office for something that's more fun. And the paperwork. Then you eventually get in. I refused to sit in my underwear waiting for the good doctor. It just seems kinda perverse, ya know? So anyway... he comes in and I take off just the requisite amount of clothing to point out my superficial flaws. And I had been mollified beforehand by being told that these guys use lasers to blast them right off your skin... without pain, like. Nope. I have to get a local anesthetic, deliverable via sharp-assed needle. Then he takes an implement that looks like the scissors I use to trim my beard, and he just goes to town... gouging them and scooping them away. When he takes the bits away from my head, it feels like he's scraping my skull. (But he does't have to cut my hair, and for that I am grateful as all hell.) I briefly consider asking him for the remains, and then I do. He doesn't answer me at all. Just ignores the request flat-out. And now I'm wondering if it was a faux pas.

Really though... it occurs to me to believe that a guy who does this kind of work for a living should certainly be prepared for a little oddity. I tried to engage him in conversation. I thought of every movie that seemed to apply to what he was doing... The Dark Backwards (sadly unrelaeased on DVD), in which Judd Nelson becomes a comic sensation when a "mole" on his back grows into an arm. Then there's How to Get Ahead in Advertising with Richard Grant. But I get no reaction. I comb my memory banks for some appropriate chatter, and finally hit paydirt. Joe Charboneau! Of course... "Super Joe"!? I asked the doc if he ever heard of Joe Charboneau, and the guy's face lights up like a late-season Christmas Tree. Must be a baseball fan, no? So I told the doc a story I once heard about Charboneau- he used to (allegedly) carve his moles out of his own skin with a buck knife. Oh that Super Joe! I think I got a chuckle out of him, but I can't tell because his back is turned and I can't see his reaction. And then just like that... conversation's over.

Y'now... it's not like I really needed to talk to this guy. He was efficient and quick, and addressed my problem. But you'd think that if you are going to be a mole exterminator, you might be interested in some topical humor. Maybe I should have told him how Joe used to open beer bottles with his eye socket. Or drink beer with a straw through his nose? I try to stay appropriately on the subject though. But that's another story for another time.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Leon "Whitey" Thompson, "Last Train to Alcatraz."(1988)

I've always enjoyed the stories of men/women in desperate circumstances. When you pare away all the artifice of a social personality, what do you have left? These are the situations in which one's expressed values find their true test. Whether the story be about extreme poverty, crime, disaster or war... I believe we can access a truer part of humanity by examining people's actions in crisis. A devastating form of extended crisis is being placed within a prison. The conditions and dangers of incarceration seem to elicit the rawest behaviors from a person's core. Inmates are stripped of almost everything but their will and their word.

Over the years I've read some of the classics in the prison genre. There are several quality works written by those outside the system, including Pete Early's Hot House (Leavenworth) and Daniel Bergner's God of the Rodeo (Angola). Others were written by people with experience inside prisons. To write New Jack, Ted Conover went undercover and worked as a C.O. for a year at Sing Sing. There are plenty of works about foreign prisons- Slavomir Rawicz's Long Walk details his escape from a Siberian prison circa WWII. And there is even a handy "How To" book by Jeffrey Ian Ross (Behind Bars), which provides strategy tips in order to enhance your survival chances should you land in prison. Ultimately memoirs of actual convicts seem to have the most authenticity. From the convict's perspective, I enjoyed Jimmy Lerner's book You've Got Nothing Coming and the classic Belly of the Beast, by Jack Abbot.

I decided to continue my exploration of first-hand accounts with Leon "Whitey" Thompson's book Last Train to Alcatraz. I was pleased to find a signed copy of the work on a back shelf at Half Price Books for $3. Thompson was able to commit over 30 successful bank robberies during the 1940's, before a prospective partner-in-crime dropped a dime on him. He received a 15 year sentence, of which he spent ten years at McNeill Federal Penitentiary in Washington. Having developed an incorrigible reputation, he was eventually ensnared in a conflict with a guard. He was transferred to the most infamous prison in the federal system... "The Rock"- Alcatraz.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the routines of daily life in prison, both at McNeill and Alcatraz. Whitey was generally regarded as one of the meanest inhabitants of the cell block. He participated in an extortion racket, and generally built a shell of hate around himself. He was always on the lookout to exact revenge on his fellow inmates, for any perceived slight. After his transfer to "The Rock" Whitey began to experience a slow change in his character. His legendary recalcitrance began to recede... and he developed better relations with his fellow inmates. He even softened a bit toward a couple of the guards. One of the main causes of this transformation was his discovery of painting. It's clear that Whitey would have had a hard time not extending his stay without that diversion.

In fact Thompson's release at the end of this segment in his life, along with his noble efforts in creating a post-incarceration existence for himself, are nothing short of amazing. Whitey includes a basic outline of some of the formative events of his youth... and the overall tale is quite harrowing. He was completely without family support, and left to fend for himself during the difficult years of the depression. Even his experiences in the Navy during WWII suggest that he was fated for self-destruction. The negotiation of the specific mores and interrelationships of prison life honed his character to a sharp edge, and presented significant challenges to his readjustment into society. There is obviously much more to read about Whitey Thompson. In fact, he wrote several more books throughout his lifetime. I'm aware that he made a return trip to prison after Alcatraz. But Last Train to Alcatraz gives us a full plate- with grit, horror, and ultimately... redemption.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Not an Early Adopter.

Listening to the radio this morning I heard about some new device that can be attached to your television to get downloaded content directly from the net. Apparently you can use your regular ol' TV remote to access it. Or at least some can... those that can figure out which remote controls the TV. I'll be taking a pass on this new invention... as I have with the satellite dish, IPOD, Blackberry, Bluetooth, TIVO, DSL, ON Demand, laptop, MP3 player, memory stick, Playstation, Hi-Def, Plasma, and flatscreen TVs. In fact, it is miraculous that I can even come up with those names to form a list. I only got a cell phone two years ago. And I still connect to the net with a dial-up connection.

I'm not what you would call an "early adopter". According to theorist Everett Rogers, only 13.5% of society truly is. So I guess I shouldn't feel too bad. At least I'm not a "Luddite". I own a digital camera, and upload images to my desktop. I own a lot of DVD's, and I watch them on a modestly-sized television. We have a land-line phone, a microwave and an automobile. I certainly don't reject all technology. But I do tend to be suspicious of all of the new crap. Philosophically I like to think of myself as a bit of a transcendentalist. I don't need to jump onboard every new techno-fad. It's really about the content for me... and not so much the form. Passing up the hot new-fangled devices doesn't preclude me from considering any idea whatsoever. Maybe I'm jaded... but I don't feel that I need a better quality image, or more portable media than I already have available to me.

It seems to me that when it comes to a lot of the latest generation of gadgets- it's a matter of "the law of diminishing returns". Simply put... we pay an increasing amount for an ever-decreasing benefit or improvement. I didn't like the fact that VHS tapes got warped and tended to roll on-screen, but when the big closeouts started at the rental outlets... I took home armfuls of movies I hadn't seen before. That's one obvious advantage of being behind the technology curve... great waves of cheaply-priced content. I've seen quite a lot of movies that I wouldn't have had a chance to see otherwise. The benefit of the introduction of the DVD format was that many films that had been long out of print were reissued. Of course image resolution was better than VHS. But what's next? How much better does the picture need to be, and will we be able to see much of a difference? And why do we need to be able to receive these pictures and sounds from wherever we are? Do we really need to watch television episodes or listen to music on our cellphones?

Why do we need to be accompanied by our media 24-7? Wasn't it already crossing the line to be instantly reachable from any spot on earth? Isn't there something to be said for "getting away from it all"? Sure, you can set your cellphone to "manner mode". But you still feel compelled to see who's calling. You're still texting people. You may not feel that it's an intrusion, but I do. It's an intrusion if you are constantly distracted from our conversation. It's a distraction from your immediate and present circumstances. (If you don't believe me... watch someone driving while they are on their cellphone.) And it's ultimately a quality of life issue.

It makes me fear the path that society has chosen. I love the idea that technology has made the transmission of information quicker and more convenient. It can be a tool of tremendous benefit. But I think that the capability of the technology to allow people to escape their surroundings is dangerous. Inevitably you are still part of the world... but a world you are no longer paying attention to.