I'm basically just posting to test something out. (With a bit of luck, the red area in the left-hand column will now say something other than "This is where you stick random tidbits of information about yourself". Finally.) But since a smattering of content is always good, check out Ted Barlow's blog, particularly the week of January 13-17, which was devoted exclusively to political and media-related light bulb jokes. Very good times, folks.
Monday, January 20, 2003
Sunday, January 19, 2003
I had dinner last night with the Infield-Harms who were in town for a long weekend from Madison, Wisconsin, where they report it has been consistently warmer and less snowy than here. Grrr. But it was a very nice time, over quality Mexican food. Most of my conversations of the "intellectual community" type nature lately have been online or via phone, so it was very nice to have one face-to-face with dear friends. I was also reminded of my rule of Mexican food, how you can tell something with some level of authenticity from something utterly devoid of it. (Yes, I'm looking at you Taco Bell and Chi-Chi's, and yes I also realize that post-modern and post-colonial theory teaches us that "cutural authenticity" is a highly problematic concept, and yes I still realize that grad school ruins you for real life.) It comes down to one thing--pork. If you can order pork (pork barbecue does not count), then it is a real Mexican restaurant. My carnitas burrito was very tasty.
While I'm on Mexico and authenticity and intellectual community and whatnot, my latest read is Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. The backstory to this book may be as interesting as the book itself--heiress to the enormous Huntington railroad fortune goes back to school to get a writing degree from Stanford as a senior citizen and publishes a first novel in her 70s to wide acclaim. The book itself is about a middle-aged California couple who decide fairly abruptly to move to rural Mexico and try to re-open the husband's grandfather's old copper mining concern. We are told right from the start (page one, in fact) what is going to happen--the business proposition will be successful, but the husband will be given six years to live and will prove that prognosis to be accurate. So the book's quality will rest not on plot and suspense, but on character and style.
While I've talked before here about how my thinking is heavily influenced by post-modernism and thus a recognition of multiple epistemologies, when it really comes down to it it turns out I'm very much a rationalist--tolerant of other ways of thought and critical in many ways of unbridled rationalism, but ultimately choosing the rational most of the time. Given that, I tend to be annoyed by a particular literary device prevalent in a lot of writing by white people about white people in Third World countries. That is, the writing wherein the locals' customs and beliefs never succeed in influencing the white (usually American) outsiders, but we as readers see the uncanny mystical forces looming constantly and ultimately, inevitably, winning. The "gypsy curse" is a common way this plays out--authors don't include gypsy curses that ultimately prove completely wrong. I like this kind of writing when it delves into the beliefs and (especially) practices of the locals to show that they aren't just mystical, pre-modern savants but are actually people living in the real world whose apparent mysticism is at least partly a cover for closely guarded local knowledges that do make sense if you know how to interpret them. Perhaps another way to think about this is in terms of this question: Are the locals fully developed characters, or are they just local flavor?
When it came down to it, I felt like this was really Sara's (the wife's) story and the locals by and large were just local flavor. I don't want to say they were pure stereotypes or to put a racist reading on the Mexican characters, because I think Doerr presents them as a wide range of human character archetypes; but I do ultimately fell as if they were archetypes without much depth. Sara is a solid and somewhat memorable character, the book is breezy and the prose flows, and I give Doerr credit for not making Americans good guys and Mexicans bad guys or vice versa. But ultimately I was hoping for a bit more--maybe in particular something about the ways that having foreigners living among them changed the local villagers and changed the foreigners as well; instead I felt that they lived side by side and had contact, but didn't really affect one another on a meaningful level.
On today's games, it seems that Oakland and Philly are almost universal consensus picks, but it's worth noting that it's been six years since both home teams won the conference championship game, and it's been 9-10 years (I'm not sure about Dallas/Buffalo II) since both number one seeds advanced to the Super Bowl. Just something to think about, in case you have any inkling that Philly might suddenly get cold or Oakland might suddenly get old.
And if the Eagles and Raiders do have a Super Bowl XV rematch next weekend, maybe we can finally get Harold Carmichael on the cover of ESPN The Magazine...
Posted by Joe at 1:03 PM
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
OK, not a doozy of a review as promised yesterday, but still a doozy of a book. Thomas Pynchon writes two kinds of books: (a) crazy-ass paranoid books in a fun, rollicking style, and (b) crazy-ass paranoid books in an unreadable style. It turns out that Vineland falls into category (a). Through characters such as a hippie burnout, his daughter, a government goon, and a super-ninja white-chick, Pynchon tells the story of post-World War II American social history--the sex, the drugs, the TV, the music, the politics, and most emphatically the paranoia. I can't even begin to give you a digest version of what goes on here, but from the beginning to the end I was completely enraptured. In Vineland everything is a drug--drugs, of course, but also power, TV, quests, love, lust, etc. Appropriate, then, that I found it thoroughly intoxicating.
Posted by Joe at 8:12 PM
Tuesday, January 14, 2003
No blogging for several days now. I guess my mind has been busy with other things such as watching football, wondering about my future, and thinking up about a million and a half Pete Townsend/"My Generation" jokes.
I saw Adaptation on Saturday, and it played with my head a bit too. I don't know if it's as mind-bending as Being John Malkovich was, but it is pretty trippy. Chris Cooper's is one of the most unique characters I've seen on celluloid in a long time, and while it's a bit of a cliche I'll still say that I admired Nicolas Cage taking the risk of playing the Kaufmans, so very different from his typical roles. I was even a bit discombobulated for a while after seeing it, to the point where I couldn't even really get into the Steeler game for about a half, which is odd for me. Also, it had some moments where I was the only one in a somewhat crowded theater laughing--moments I always enjoy--in this case, some funny meta-commentary basically on what's going on in the screenplay as it's happening in the movie. I particularly enjoyed the screenwriting teacher interrupting a long voiceover narration with a harangue against the use of voiceover, leading C. Kaufman to wonder (in voiceover) whether he should use voiceover.
My weird discovery of the day: the Bud Dwyer fan club. DEK and I were just joking after the Steeler-Brown tilt that Butch Davis' press conference might have a Dwyerian feel to it. Also, I realize the cool parts of the Internet are the parts where someone has taken their lifelong, or at least long-term, obsession and turned it into something fun for others to look at for ten minutes. In that vein, courtesy of TopFive.com's links of the day: TV Crossovers and Spinoffs; note in particular the utterly freakish Group 2.
I haven't posted much personal in a while, and I'm not sure how much I want to right now. I decided a while ago that I really wanted to focus on getting a job in DC, but all efforts in that direction have led not much of anywhere. I'm trying to decide whether I need to throw myself into the fire, try to get some family support to just move and then find work, or whether that just has even bigger disaster written all over it. The problem is that I've convinced myself that the only reason I'm not getting the DC-based jobs I apply for is that I'm not local, but I don't really know if that's true or not. I'm also starting to realize that living at home is not going to make me have a sudden nervous breakdown--it's just going to continue to push me further into low-grade depression, angst, and sloth. This is not good, but the lack of sudden impending crisis keeps me from taking any drastic measures. It also doesn't help that one voice in the back of my head keeps saying that I never should have left L.A. and thus I should try to go back, but that's just not feasible at all right now, and also I don't know whether I really miss L.A. or just a particular time and set of circumstances and people there that are no longer in place. What this adds up to is a big ol' case of option paralysis, combined with my propensity for inertia; maybe I just need to read Generation X again! Sadly, I don't think my answer is going to be that simple.
No book review today, as I still have 40 pages to go, but tomorrow or Thursday I should have a doozy of one--possibly the best novel I've read since Infinite Jest in '97.
Posted by Joe at 9:38 PM
Thursday, January 09, 2003
The latest book I finished was Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. This book was exhibit two of how graduate school in the humanities ruins your life. (Exhibit 1 came while watching football last weekend when I deconstructed a not-particularly-noteworthy commercial in about 5 seconds and then explained it out loud for a minute and a half--and did so without really trying.) All I could think about during this book were the strange echoes of eugenics, "scientific racism", and racial physiongnomy that kept popping up--as they will in books from the 1920s--and I could never drown this out long enough to just enjoy the book. The alternate explanation is that the book just wasn't that enjoyable, which is also possible. And part of it is probably that I have very little interest in reading about Catholic faith. Still, I loved My Antonia, so this was a big disappointment. I just don't think Cather understands the place and times (New Mexico in the 30 years after Guadalupe Hidalgo) to the same degree she did the Nebraska prairie of her own youth. Perhaps if you've never read anything about downtrodden, oppressed people this book will have something to say to you, but since grad school screwed me up for real life by making me read that sort of thing for four years, this book didn't tell me much, and I felt like there were a few things I could tell it.
As for the new job, not much to report really. So far so good, but next week the deluge will start. In the meantime, I'm stuffing envelopes, typing, copying, filing, blogging (ok, not technically in my job description), and teaching myself the parts of Microsoft Office that I don't already know.
Posted by Joe at 1:11 PM
Monday, January 06, 2003
I started the new temp assignment today. I am the secretary for the Secondary Education Department at California University of Pennsylvania. This could be a very long-term assignment, though of course I am looking to escape for a real job in a real city ASAP. But it looks like I'll be here in the meantime. I don't know exactly how sick the person I'm replacing is, but I heard the voicemail message her husband left the department to report her absence, and the gist of it was:
"Hi, This is x; y is in intensive care and has been for several days. She's had a lot of internal bleeding and they're having trouble stopping it. Once she starts to recover, she'll have to be at home for three or four months, and then she'll have to go back in for surgery to get her colon put back in. Etc..."
In other words, long-term assignment. It's very very uncomfortable knowing that the only thing that would abbreviate the assignment is the non-zero chance that the person I'm replacing will die, and thus they will actually hire a full-time person. There is also a non-zero chance that I would be that person; I'd still look for a better job, but at least I'd get benefits while I looked.
Sadly, there is no D-Mart, but there is a Subway.
As for the actual work, it's very light right now as I get settled in, but next week the semester (i.e. the chaos) begins....
Posted by Joe at 10:28 PM
Sunday, January 05, 2003
And the Maurice Clarett era just gets weirder and weirder...
A few observations from a day of watching crazy-ass wild card games:
The 49ers won despite the presence of Jim Mora Sr. on the sidelines wearing their cap. Did anyone else figure that the guy who issued him a sideline credential for a playoff game will be fired tomorrow?
Jeremy Shockey and Dan Campbell might restart the old NFL tradition of going and winning the tag team belts in the off-season, possibly calling themselves the New York Wrestling Giants.
Part of why the 49ers won in spite of Mora on the sidelines is that the Giants signed 41-year-old Trey Junkin to do their long-snapping this week and he promptly choked. Does anyone else have the impression that the secrets of long-snapping are like the formula for Coke--only a set number of people are allowed to know them at any given time? If so, Patrick Mannelly may soon be killed by elders wielding, well, probably wielding footballs--footballs that can be thrown through their legs at tremendous speeds!!
Posted by Joe at 10:08 PM
From the guy who allegedly wears a shirt that says, "Joe"...
The online version of a dot column today...
Mom and I went to see Two Weeks Notice today. This is notable because it is the first movie I have seen with Mom in an actual indoor theater since the original release of The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it is only the third time in that period that Mom has seen a movie in a theater in that time--interestingly enough, all in the last 12 months and all starring Sandra Bullock. I have no idea what this means, I just pass it on FYI.
Wow, what a bland pair of wild-card games we got today--though perhaps it was necessary after the crazy tension of the Tortilla Chip Party Bowl and its multiple overtimes. Actually, all I care about this wild card weekend is that the Oranges are once again exposed, and the Steelers get to symbolicly do the Flaming Thumbtacks that which the Tacks did physically to Tommy Maddox a couple of months ago.
My latest read was Thomas McGuane's Nobody's Angel. I'm not sure how this made the Chronicle list (which is here in case you've joined our blog already in progress) as this is a bland book that didn't do anything for me. The protagonist is a career army officer who has returned to the family ranch in Montana, where he tries to figure out whether he will live out his life there or move to Spain for no apparent reason. I just never started to care about anyone here, and so the drama that unfolds when our hero starts sleeping with a married woman with a potentially volatile husband never really engaged me. Not recommended. The only nice thing is that this book marked 25 down for me on the Chronicle list, i.e. halfway to my new goal of finishing 50 of the list.
Bill and I discussed on Wednesday whether that day's downpour was a symbolic washing away of 2002, or a nasty-ass omen for 2003. Only time will tell.
If environmental activists are serious about reducing methane emissions, they should start a full frontal attack on the traditional New Year's pork and sauerkraut dinner. 'Nuff said.
I start a new temp job Monday at the local university. Watch this space for the blow by blow.
Posted by Joe at 12:16 AM
Thursday, January 02, 2003
I am writing this during the halftime show of the Orange Bowl. If I remember these correctly, it should be ending by about next Wednesday.
I had a quiet New Year's. In my experience that's the best kind. DEK and I watched The Black Six New Year's Eve afternoon. I was expecting fourth-rate blaxploitation; I got sixth-rate blaxploitation. It made Dolemite look like Citizen Kane. OK, maybe Citizen Ruth. Premise: Six NFL players play a motorcycle gang that may or may not care about anything, and then they have this big climactic fight with a white motorcycle gang who killed one of their brothers, and they may or may not have won the climactic fight and/or died. The last scene makes the final scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail seem decisive and relevant.
Then we went to an alleged party that turned out to be a very small get together with a few friends (total attendance: 5), watched some movies, and played a game of redneck trivia that I won due to my knowledge of 18th century British literature. I crashed at Bill and Terri's, and Bill and I had New Year's brunch at the Olive Garden. All in all, it was a quiet celebration; whenever I've tried a more elaborate one, I've always ended up miserable, so this is the way I like to do it.
What the hell's a Coraghessan?
My latest read has been Budding Prospects by T. Coraghessan Boyle, who wisely goes by T.C. nowadays. I had some reservations about this book because Boyle teaches at USC, and I learned through the grapevine there that he has a miserable reputation as a human being. But I had read The Road to Wellville years ago and enjoyed it, so I went ahead anyway.
Here is the opening paragraph of the book:
"I've always been a quitter. I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band. Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team. I dropped out of college, sidestepped the army with a 4-F on the grounds of mental instability, went back to school, made a go of it, entered a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century British literature, sat in the front row, took notes assiduously, bought a pair of horn-rims, and quit on the eve of my comprehensive exams. I got married, separated, divorced. Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat. I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston. When I was nineteen I made frantic love to a pinch-faced, sack-bosomed girl I'd known from high school. She got pregnant. I quit town. About the only thing I didn't give up on was the summer camp. Let me tell you about it."
I liked him immediately.
"Summer camp" turns out to be a scheme proposed by a sort-of friend to grow $1.5 million of marijuana one summer in rural Humboldt County California with three guys. Boyle describes the paranoia, original glee, and ultimate disappointment of the project with a manic energy that really caught me up in the adventure. This is a unique take on the traditional story whereby people start on an escapade with high hopes, continually lower expectations until they are as low as can be had, but ultimately achieve some sort of satisfaction (a) from completing a project, even a hopeless one, and (b) from an unexpected source--usually (and in this case) a person of the opposite sex. Taking this plucky, Algeresque story and placing it within the framework of an illegal activity is a bit original, by for the most part the joy is in the humor and style.
The original goal of my reading list was to read the whole damn thing, learn more about the West, and find new authors I want to read more of. Now my goal is to read 50 of the 100 because I don't want to spend 5 years on just this one list, and I'm well on my way to accomplishing the other two goals. Boyle is almost certainly someone I'll come back to. The best comparison I can think to make is to call him a slightly more highbrow Tom Robbins.
Posted by Joe at 10:26 PM
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Usually this time of year makes me nostalgic, thinking back to the good and bad of the year gone by, trying to assess the year and make plans for the year to come. This year, my only reaction is: So long 2002, good friggin' riddance, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. I hope everybody's 2003 is better than my 2002...
Posted by Joe at 12:12 PM
Saturday, December 28, 2002
Two more books down on the Western reading list. The Underground Man is a Lew Archer mystery from Ross McDonald. It's functional, but I prefer the hard-boiled amorality of Chandler or James Cain to the somewhat less cynical version here. With the L.A. locations and P.I. protagonist, I couldn't help but keep thinking this was a watered-down Chandler. But if you're more of a mystery fan than I am, it's probably worth a look.
The second book is Ethan Canin's The Palace Thief, a mid-1990s short story collection, with the title story the inspiration for the recent film The Emperor's Club. The book consists of four pages of about equal length, my favorite of which was the opener "Accountant", in which a middle-aged accountant with one last chance at a major business coup instead opts to walk off with a memento he believes that he is earned. The whole story revolves around the accountant's thinly veiled anger toward a former high school friend who has found great success with the hard work that he himself has put in. All four stories are strong, creating protagonists who are not easily likable, but through whom Canin demonstrates the small obsessions that stick with us and the brief, seemingly minor moments that haunt us. If one thing connects these stories, it is that their very different male protagonists make discoveries that bring both clarity and a type of disappointment that will linger, though not deep enough to bring on despair or catastrophe. Knowing the characters must continue to deal with these disappointments on an ongoing basis is perhaps the only truly depressing part.
I also took time out to read my second David Sedaris book. If you haven't read anything by Sedaris yet, run don't walk to the library or bookstore to pick up one of his essay collections. Yes, now. I'll wait...
Posted by Joe at 10:48 PM
Friday, December 27, 2002
Two commercial updates:
1. Thanks to Mike for sending along a link that might help explain Matthew Lesko, Superpatriot.
2. I figured out the third annoying commercial. It's the one where the guys are arguing over the relative footspeed of the $6 Million Man and the Bionic Woman, and then the woman driving pulls over and says, indignantly, "Guys, it's a TV show." To which I inevitable scream back, "NO, it was TWO TV shows!" If you're going to get indignant, get your facts straight, dammit!
P.S.: Yes, my mother pointed out that both characters started on one show, but then they very quickly each had their own, so I'm not conceding the point on this one.
P.S.S.: Yes, my 59-year-old mother could probably average 15 points a game at the right trash tournament.
Posted by Joe at 12:28 PM
Thursday, December 26, 2002
On a weekday autumn night in 1980 a 37-year-old mother, her 5-year-old son having just entered the first grade, went to her first and last PTA meeting.
On the agenda for that evening, the Association for the elementary school was to decide how to spend a $1,000 surplus that it had somehow accumulated. In truth, the meeting would not so much “decide” as it would ratify a proposal on the table to buy $1 Christmas ornaments for each of the 900-plus students enrolled in grades K-6. Only the lone aforementioned mother stood up with an alternate suggestion: wouldn’t it be nice, she proposed, if we could use this surplus for something educational, such as a computer. This naïve proposal met not merely opposition, but open hostility, and the proposer was literally booed back to her seat, while the main proponent of the ornament plan proclaimed her a Scrooge, while saying that for some of the poor rural district’s students, the ornament might be the only present they received that Christmas. It is not known whether any other parents or teachers secretly approved of the dissident proposal, but if they did they kept their heterodoxy to themselves.
For the 23rd consecutive year, the Wright family 2002 Christmas decorations include a flat, perhaps 6-inch tall, gold-colored ornament depicting two pajama’ed young children hanging stockings on a mantle. The annual placement of this ornament has long been accompanied by a chuckle, with mock teary outbursts of, “This might be the only present some poor kids might get this year,” and with laughing speculation that such poor kids might have actually been happier with no presents as all. This ritual was repeated for nearly 20 years, but in the last few years the placing of the ornament has gone by without much comment (though new visitors are still guaranteed to hear the whole tale); still, however, the now 27-year-old recipient of this $1 gift still insists on having the ornament on the tree, and insists on placing it himself. And at some point the recipient came to realize that, were he able to save just one of the family’s traditional decorations, he would have little trouble choosing the long-derided bauble with which he will forever associate his mother’s fruitless defiance—a cheap gold-plated ornament with the prominent inscription: “P.T.A. – 1980.”
Posted by Joe at 8:39 PM
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
I'm completely choking on sweetness and sugar right now. No I'm not talking about cookies or pie--mom insisted on watching the last hour and a half of Pollyanna today, and I now truly understand one more English adjective. Scariest part of the movie: Except when you get a good schnozz closeup, Karl Malden is the absolute spitting image of Brian Billick.
Part of today's X-Mas festivities (more on that later this week) involved watching VH1 Classic's day of Christmas videos, about which I can only say that they are no more or less screwed up than music videos in general, which makes them alternately highly appropriate or highly inappropriate for holiday family viewing. Some highlights--the early video era Squeeze's "Christmas Day", which was both one of the most religious songs and also the most mammo-centric video; seeing "Christmas at Ground Zero" twice, as only Weird Al could do a song simultaneously about Christmas, love and nuclear holocaust; Hall and Oates looking especially gay on "Jingle Bell Rock" in sweater-vests; and the always awkward Bing-Bowie collaboration on "Little Drummer Boy", a good song and nice version, but the dialogue on the video was more forced than Abner Louima's confession. I just couldn't get the image out of my mind, either, of Bowie taking Bing to Studio 54 afterward so they could get coked up and get oral sex from Mick and Bianca Jagger alternately.
I know, I have issues.
Three commercials that have been driving me insane in recent months/days:
1. ALF and Emmitt Smith. Not all of them, just the one where Emmitt says, "We both give a lot back to the community." HUH?!?! What kind of charity work has ALF THE FREAKIN' PUPPET been doing lately? Acting as a chew toy for homeless dogs? Being a warm winter coat for poor kids?
2. Matthew Lesko, superpatriot. Matthew Lesko, the free government money guy, was extremely annoying by himself. Now we should buy his book not just to help ourselves and Mr. Lesko, but to help out our country by developing our talents to the fullest. Troubling.
3. Dammit, I forgot the third one. Hopefully I'll remember for the next entry, which will hopefully also feature one or two more book commentaries, and a little (true) holiday story I've been working on.
Posted by Joe at 8:34 PM
Monday, December 23, 2002
Weird access stuff the last few days--a demi-power outage in the house, ongoing foibles with trying to get DSL set up, etc. Thus no posting in a few days. Not a lot to say now either I guess, though I will recommend this site for quick but fun daily puzzlers, and Quiddler in particular turns out to be a very good family game.
Rooting for a tie yesterday in Cleveland-Baltimore was interesting. "OK, it's 7-3 Browns. Go Ravens! OK, 10-7 Ravens. Go Browns!" In the early fourth quarter with the Ravens up 13-7 I said to DEK, "We need Awesome Phil from Dawsonville to be really good (2 FGS) or really bad (missed PAT)." Browns win, Browns win, which turns out to be the second-best of three possible outcomes. Steelers make it moot by beating the Paper Bucs tonite.
I saw Gangs of New York on Saturday. I knew in advance I'd be watching as a historian rather than a movie fan, and as historian I was impressed. My anachronism quibbles were very minor--mostly I suspect there were more Chinese women in Scorcese's movie than in all of early 1860s New York. (I'm thinking back to this very good book on the subject.) There are two things I particularly liked about this movie, things that many reviewers seem not to have liked. One is that the movie embraces the fact that it is more about spectacle than plot or story; I have no problem with this, and in some ways I prefer it for a period piece such as this one. Secondly, it is only a very small and vague spoiler to say that the climax of this movie illustrates something that movies never do--it demonstrates that sometimes we set up our narratives and our stories within our own narrow contexts, but they ultimately end up resolved not by much of anything that we do but by the larger context of where and when we are. It is a rare movie that sets up a conflict between two characters, and then resolves that conflict largely in terms of bigger events happening around them instead of a simple climactic battle. Some might find this anti-climactic, and on the wrong day I might as well, but it struck me as appropriate at the time.
Posted by Joe at 11:22 AM