Monday, April 02, 2007

The Month That Was - March 2007: Hey, look at me! Posting on time for a change. Aren't I a good boy? Can I have a bigger allowance?

Kafka on the Shore
More Worry About Vegas
Saying No to Michigan
Photo Slop
X-Treme Warrior
Life Could be a Dream: Every Haruki Murakami book I've read (that would be Wild Sheep Chase, Dance, Dance, Dance, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) is set in a universe that has the same disjointed, quasi-rationality of a dream. Things seem to be going along normally then an animal talks to you, or it rains seafood, or you have sex with a ghost. And just like in dream, there is no mystical narration to clue you in that you are not in the midst of reality; surreal events occur and are described with the same matter-of-fact observational voice that might describe a morning shave or a traffic jam. It has been said that one of Ernest Hemmingway's great talents was to use simple, direct narration to plumb the complexities of human emotions. Similarly, Murakami nails many forms of unreality, from fairy tale playfulness to the downright creepy and harrowing, with little more than very pedestrian language. Kafka on the Shore is more of this. An extended exploration of memory, regret, and how we are all driven to change by our past, the story fits well with Murakami's style.

All the characters in Kafka are haunted by their past. They are trying to progress in their lives and their pursuits of happiness while their past exerts its pull against them. That pull can be completely debilitating, alleviated only by death; it can be energizing through the compulsion to escape; it can just sit there hovering, forever influencing deeds and words.

There are two major plotlines. One involves a 15-year-old runaway boy trying to escape from his egomaniacal father who has cursed him with an Oedipal fate regarding his erstwhile mother and sister. He ends up living in what is essentially a haunted library eventually fulfilling that a certain way. The other involves a brain-impaired, illiterate septuagenarian who can speak with cats and has a certain holy, Zen master way about him -- kind of like Peter Sellers in Being There. The old man finds himself compelled to pursue a fate he is to feeble-minded to understand, he just knows it when it comes. These two characters are mystically linked in a specific violent action that propels them both towards their ultimate destiny. Events cascade to an inevitably disappointing ending. How do you end a dream without waking up and finding plain old reality there waiting for you?

Leaving aside the deeper end of things, the book is a joy to read just on cursory level. The scenes bristle with energy and Murakami creates throwaway characters that are more interesting than many a writer's protagonists. A school teacher who is disturbed by an X-files-worthy occurrence is merely ancillary character but utterly affecting. A simple, blue-collar truck driver has only a supporting role but his transforming epiphany of the beauty and potential of the world (when he is exposed to Beethoven's Archduke Trio) is brilliantly told.

Along with sorrow and violence, there is much good humor and a bit of outright absurdity. Johnnie Walker (yeah, the guy from the Scotch ads) makes an appearance as a mutilator of cats. Colonel Sanders turns out to be a pimp for a Hegel quoting hooker. Typical of Murakami, pop culture references are laced throughout.

To me, one of the most curious things about Murakami is that I like reading him so much. He does not really employ many of the stylistic features I tend to value -- clarity of narrative, respect for normalcy, descriptive brevity, a contrarian mindset -- but his mastery of impression, thematic (if not narrative) clarity, and characterization is a thing to behold.

The fact that he has a back catalogue that I haven't fully explored makes me quite happy.
What I Said About Vegas: Remember when I cited the deficient disaster that is McCarran Airport when posing the possibility that Las Vegas had peaked? Check out this youtube of a luggage carousel. Good grief.

That, however, pales in comparison to having a giant, laser-shooting Michael Jackson sculpture in the desert be the first thing you see as you fly in. Words fail me. Maybe life really is just a Murakami novel.
Saying No to Michigan: I have lived all but a couple of the distressingly numerous years of my life in Michigan. I was born in Detroit, grew up in Southfield, and have spent pretty much my entire adult life in the greater Ann Arbor area. Needless to say, I like it here. I like Michigan a lot. And it gets better each year as global warming turns the winters into minor inconveniences.

If you look beyond decaying Detroit and its utterly indistinct suburbs (and ignore the lesser lost cause of Flint), Michigan is a real gem. The west, central and northern areas of the State are loaded with lakes and forests and ski slopes and golf courses and perfect little towns with main streets that just beg to be walked down to the ice cream parlor at dusk on a warm summer evening. Really, there are probably a thousand reasons that your family summer vacation would be better spent in Michigan than Orlando.

Now it's beginning to look like tourism may soon be the only industry of consequence in the future. By any realistic measure, Michigan is falling apart economically. Unemployment is consistently well above the national average -- close to double at times. We are at the bottom in revenue growth -- effective mired in near recession while the rest of the country practically booms. Population is dropping -- figure we lose about 40,000 people a year. Businesses are flying out of the state at an alarming rate -- longtime residents and big employers Comerica and Pfizer recently decamped.

All this fiscal pathos most glaringly reflects in the housing market: you're lucky if your investment in your house has merely remained stagnant over the past few years. I have friends who have sat on two mortgages because they got caught with a new house before closing on the old one. At first they didn't worry, figuring they might have to cover both payments only for a month or two. Now it's more than a year later and they are worried and they are not at all confident in breaking even after the extended time doubled up on mortgage interest.

Probably the most depressing development is that the current government in Lansing is talking about having to raise taxes to cover budget shortfalls. That is the first step toward utter destruction. Practically every economy that goes in the toilet has started down this path: Commerce is horrible, tax revenues drop, budget shortfalls require tax increases, tax increases scare even more businesses away, population drops, so tax revenue doesn't come despite the increased rates, there are more budget shortfalls, so taxes are increased... It's easy to see Michigan marching steadily down this path. I don't know where it all ends. A crisis of some sort perhaps, like New York City in the '70s (can we hire Rudy Guiliani?), or just an agonizing endless degradation, like Detroit.

But bad times are also opportunities. Real estate is cheap. Cost of living probably won't rise too much, if at all. Getting restaurant reservations is easy. Of course, all that is only good if it is eventually going to turn around and I'm really not confident that it will any time soon. As much as I have ragged on New Orleans of late for mismanaging its future, I can't say things are run any better up here. Like I said with respect to New Orleans, voters always get what they ask for, whether they want it or not. We have no one to blame but ourselves. I just hope we are smart enough not to let the raises-taxes/budget-shortfall spiral get started, or I may end up having to live out the remainder of my hopefully numerous years somewhere else.
Photo Slop: Yes, I have used my new camera: just baby steps, slowly learning the ins and outs. To do so I did a bit of a wander around the greater Dexter, MI area to get into the swing of things. I was surprised at how rural this area still is. It kind of inspired me to go for a rural rustic starkness, but I never quite achieved it. For your perusal (most of these are around 400K):

  • [pic] A cropped shot of a huge transformer complex just down the road. I like all the detail that was picked up with such clarity.

  • [pic] A train came barreling toward me. If I was clever I would have a better idea how to get a sense of the movement.

  • [pic] The same pic halftoned in Photoshop.

  • [pic] A self-portrait (sort of) in the woods.

  • [pic] Testing for close-up detail. This is just moss on a big rock, but it made me think of the impeding spring thaw.

  • [pic 1][pic 2] This is a granary about halfway between Dexter and Chelsea (the first city to the west). I have driven past it several times and it always stands out as a striking site in the middle of farmland. I doubt I have done it justice.

  • [pic] This is just the wooded area and stream abutting a municipal park about half a mile from my home. The browns and grays in this picture are the characteristic Midwest colors once winter takes hold. In a month or two, it'll be so green and thick you can't see through it.

  • [pic] This is the Old Mill in downtown (so to speak) Dexter. Rustic.

  • [pic] Same pic in black and white and aged somewhat by Photoshop. Not quite the early twentieth century feel I wanted to get.

  • [pic] Lonely corn silos. Again not exactly the stark rural scene I had hoped for.

  • [pic] A beat up old cart in someone's backyard.

  • [pic] Same pic in sepia.

  • [pic 1] [pic 2] Two shots of a big old tree backlit by the afternoon sun. My old point-and-shoot would have gacked on this.

More to come, I'm sure.
Going to X-Treme: For those of you in Michigan (I would call you my homies, but that's soooo MySpace) and California who have Comcast cable, keep a look out for a reality show entitled X-treme Warrior on Comcast Local (channel 8 in MI, I think). It's a reality style boot camp for women, kind of like Survivor minus no bug eating, that was held both north of the Detroit suburbs and at some locale in California.

Those of you who read my weekly football column were likely entertained by my favorite correspondent, Tinkerbell. Well, it seems Tinkerbell took some time off to participate in this madness. Her money quote: "It was hell."

Visit the site and watch the trailer: the one pointing the rifle at you in the beginning is Tinkerbell. During the course of the show she managed to break her nose in two places and spent a good long time wandering around with gauze wedged up her schnozzola. Should provide some comic relief.

The show premieres at April 11 6PM on Comcast Local in Michi and 7PM on Comcast SportsNet in Cali. Do check it out.