Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Month That Was - January 2008: I think this is the first month is years when I didn't do any travelling. Not even a weekend or an overnighter. That must not continue. In the meantime, I finished my Death Valley trip report. There are some good photos in there, but it's amazing the difference a good monitor can make when looking at photos online. Viewed through my cheapy 14" Dell LCD at work, they look rather bland, but in my spankin' HP 23" external monitor at home they are striking.

With my football column on hiatus, all that is left is for me to return to fiction. About time. But I do not want to let February slip away without at least a brief bit of travel. Suggestions are welcome.

Tube Notes
Detroit Low Down
Tender is the Night
Zune, Zune, Zune
Insane Clown Politics
Tube Notes: As usual, a quick rundown of some idiot box viewings that caught my eye.

The Wire -- Last month I feared that David Simon had let The Wire turn into a personal platform for forwarding his (somewhat sophomoric) socio-political philosophy. I'm glad to say it looks like I was wrong about that, or perhaps it was mostly isolated to the first couple of episodes. It's pretty clear now that this season is about lies; specifically about one big lie that spirals out to ensnare just about everyone in the city of Baltimore. Like they said in episode one, "The bigger the lie, the more they believe." Maybe. Still, I don't detect the heightened level of humanity in this season that I have in the previous ones. It's mostly an extended series of plot mechanisms so far.

Another interesting theme is how prime drug dealers get offed once they start deluding themselves that there is something logical or civilized about what they are doing. Chaos and evil rise up to destroy them. I'd go into this in more detail but I don't want to be a spoiler. More to come.

Breaking Bad -- This is AMC's new original series, following up last year's excellent Mad Men. Like Mad Men, it's clearly got boundless potential, but at episode two it has yet to hit its stride. Alternately harrowing and comic, it's the story of a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has inoperable lung cancer and so gets involved cooking up crystal meth with a druggie former student. The situation is complicated by his stuck-up, pregnant wife and a DEA agent brother-in-law. Murder and mayhem ensue.

Bryan Cranston (the father from Malcolm in the Middle) plays the lead exceptionally well: a straight-laced, meek, inhibited guy, faced with a suddenly limited lifespan, goes off the deep end. It seems to be playing out in a 24 sort of format where we get a day or so with every episode. Of course, the storyline of comically inept drug amateurs can only go so far. If the characters flesh out and we witness some big picture enlightening, this could turn out to be a winner. I'll let you know.

No Reservations -- I hate Anthony Bourdain. He travels around the world, eats incredible food, then writes and hosts his TV show about it. Bastard. I should be doing that. Bourdain brings something to travel and food shows that is sorely lacking. Specifically: wit. With so many whitebread cooking shows and dry-as-sand travel shows hovering around, No reservations just jumps out as something special. A smarty-pants guy who's not out to further cultural empathy or sell recipes, just have some fun experiences and not take himself too seriously. That's all you need to be a cut above in the current market. For me, No Reservations is a mixed blessing. It's a cool and interesting show to watch for a while, but then I get all angry that it's not me. I repeat: Bastard.
Detroit Low Down: Just when I thought Detroit had hit rock bottom, it blasts through the mantle and burrows deeper.

First, to the litany of "worsts" for the city we can now add Worst Place to Have a Baby thanks to Fit Pregnancy Magazine. My favorite quote: "Detroit received its best grades, D's, in the amount of access to hospitals..." If his best grade is a D, Kwame Kilpatrick needs to get called into Dean Wormer's office and put on double secret probation.

Second, speaking of Motown's good Irish mayor, let's review the timeline of his achievements, courtesy of the Detroit News:

  • January 2002: Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick takes office.
  • Fall 2002 : As the Manoogian Mansion remains unoccupied while renovations are being completed, rumors begin to surface of a wild party there and the mayor's wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, showing up unexpectedly and slapping a stripper.
  • March 2003 : Police Officer Harold Nelthrope, after being transferred out of the mayor's Executive Protection Unit, contacts the Police Department's Internal Affairs division about allegations of misconduct involving mayoral bodyguards Mike Martin and Greg Jones, as well as the Manoogian Mansion rumor.
  • March 2003 : Shortly after making the complaint, Nelthrope is called at home by Martin. Nelthrope said he begins to fear for his life.
  • March 2003 : Internal Affairs, headed by Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown, makes preliminary investigation into Nelthrope's allegations.
  • May 2003 : After a request from the mayor's of chief of staff, Christine Beatty, Brown prepares a two-page memo outlining misconduct by Martin and Jones. It does not mention the Manoogian rumor -- which is never substantiated -- but, in a separate memo, Brown writes he is prepared to look into those allegations if directed to by then-Police Chief Jerry Oliver.
  • May 2003 : A day or two after getting the memo from Oliver, Beatty claims she received a short, unsigned note saying Brown is not to be trusted. She shreds the note. The mayor, without consulting with the police chief, demotes Brown.
  • June 2003 : A whistleblower lawsuit is filed against the city and Kilpatrick by Brown and Nelthrope.
  • August 2007: Both Beatty and the mayor testify during trial that they did not have a romantic relationship.
  • September 2007 : Following a trial -- and testimony alleging misbehavior by the mayor as well as his bodyguards -- a jury awards Nelthrope and Brown $6.5 million in damages.

The latest: After swearing under oath that he was not dallying with his Chief of Staff, Christine Beatty, thousand of text messages surfaced featuring a lot of dirty talk and tryst arranging between hizzoner and Beatty. Beatty has resigned and Kwame went into hiding for a couple of days then emerged to say, "Hey, sorry, man."

Beatty's replacement, Kandia Milton, brings a bit of baggage himself. Again, per the Detroit News: "According to the bankruptcy records that Milton and his wife Lisa filed in August 2006, they owed more than $388,000 to a variety of creditors, including mortgages on three properties, a $1,305 bill from DTE Energy, $18,000 for 12 credit cards, $1,080 in Detroit parking tickets and more than $1,000 in Wayne County property taxes." Even after bankruptcy, they are still over $9000 in the hole in back taxes. Yeah, this oughtta work out well.

Just in case you were wondering, this is not a treatment for a new screenplay from David Simon. It's actually happening.

Next, just to add a little bit of weirdness, the only recent organization to relocate into the city is the Scientologists. This will be the ultimate challenge for the followers of L. Ron. I don't hold out much hope for them. The City of Detroit has devoured far more worthy and dedicated tenants. I'd lay odds they all end up in psychotherapy.

Lastly, to add absurdity on top of weirdness, Eminem, the most successful Detroit singer since Diana Ross, has apparently taken to shoveling cake down his pie-hole at an alarming rate, ballooning to over 200 pounds. I guess we can start calling him the Real Fat Shady. Guess who's fat? Fat and round. Shady's fat... (I'm having too much fun with this.)

Ah yes, Detroit just keeps on giving. Onward and downward!
Tender is the Night: I've been strolling slowly through F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. What's fascinating so far is how he presents a group of people -- good-timing, well-heeled, mostly American friends/acquaintances traveling in France just post WW1 -- and slowly peels away the facade of each of the characters especially the alpha male of the group who starts out heroic, but in time, buckles under the strain of being the rock to which the others are tethered. It is intricately done, often using close descriptions of seemingly trivial moments to set the stage.

Here, Fitzgerald describes the atmosphere of a dinner party thrown by the Divers (the story's alpha male and his wife).

The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it the sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights. And, as if a curious hushed laugh from Mrs. McKisco [a guest] were a signal that such detachment from the world had been attained, the two Divers began to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to everyone at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness and affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree. Then abruptly the table broke up - the moment when the guests had been daringly lifted above conviviality into the rarer atmosphere of sentiment, was over before it could be irreverently breathed, before they had half realized it was there.

There is so much in that single paragraph -- the sensitive description of a transcendent moment in the midst of a commonplace event that most everyone would just briefly feel, partially appreciate, then let pass only subconsciously understood; the reference to "poor children at a Christmas tree" to indicate that the Divers were of a deeper, primal emotional significance to the group, beyond being perfect hosts and admirable friends -- great stuff.
Ol' F. Scott had some chops, he did. I'm taking my time reading Tender is the Night, sometimes only a few paragraphs at a sitting. I don't want to miss anything.
Zune, Zune, Zune: I realize it makes me horribly uncool to have a non-iPod mp3 player, but I love my $99 30-gig Zune. I know it's big and heavy for a music player, but really, we're talking about ounces here. It's not particularly attractive on the outside -- black plastic with a hint of blue, but the interface is as slick as the iPod, if not more so. My music collection has a long way to go fill it up so I end up carrying every piece of music I own around with me.

One interesting thing I realized about my music collection is that there is very little commercial rock in it. Not that I don't listen to commercial rock, it's just that I don't own much. It makes sense, I suppose. My buddy Sirius has one classical station and maybe 2 or 3 jazz stations, depending on your definition, while roughly half their gajillion music stations are playing some variation of rock, so why would I need to own any.

For the record, here is a short list of some of the more prominent recordings on my Zune right now. I defy anyone to claim to have more eclectic music taste than me.

  • All the Cats Join In, Benny Goodman Orchestra
  • Bach: The Art of the Fugue, Juilliard Quartet
  • Bach: The Well-Tempered Klavier, Rosalyn Tureck
  • Ballads, John Coltrane
  • Barometer Soup, Jimmy Buffet
  • Classic Essentials Goa Mix, Paul Oakenfold
  • Compact Jazz, Stan Getz
  • Dirt Track Date, Southern Culture on the Skids
  • Discovery of a World Inside the Moon, Apples in Stereo
  • G. Love and Special Sauce, G. Love and Special Sauce
  • Into the Labyrinth, Dead Can Dance
  • The Look of Love, Diana Krall
  • The Men From Uncle, Ray Gelato
  • Nightfly, Donald Fagen
  • Nomad, Aqua Velvets
  • Playboy & Playgirl, Pizzicato Five
  • Safe as Milk, Captain Beefheart
  • Simple Things, Zero 7
  • Synchronized, Jamiroquai
  • Welcome Interstate Managers, Fountains of Wayne
  • Written In the Stars, Bill Charlap

There's more, but I didn't want to totally blow your mind.
Insane Clown Politics: I am probably the least political person in the world. I have zero interest. I thank the gods of technology for my DVR so I can skip seeing these clowns ram their messages home to the lowest common denominator every commercial break. I am constantly changing the channel on the TV in my health club from MSNBC to ESPN. I weep for the trees killed to make all the flyers they leave on my door. Every couple of years I have to take sites like Metafilter and Reddit out of my RSS feeds because their little subcultures tend to go stark raving insane during elections. Every possible permutation of human irrationality gets shouted from the rooftops. What's worse, it often gets praised as "involvement" or "awareness" when in fact it is just acting out.

I can't stand the noise, so I don't listen -- at least to the extent that is possible. As a result, I know very little about what the current group of politicians is trying to say other than the odd sentence or comment that happens to slip through my filters. One quote that slipped through and stuck in my head was from Rudy Giuliani:

I get very, very frustrated when I...hear certain Americans talk about how difficult the problems we face are, how overwhelming they are, what a dangerous era we live in. I think we've lost perspective. We've always had difficult problems, we've always had great challenges, and we've always lived in danger.

Do we think our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents didn't live in danger and didn't have difficult problems? Do we think the Second World War was less difficult than our struggle with Islamic terrorism? Do we think that the Great Depression was a less difficult economic struggle for people to face than the struggles we're facing now? Have we entirely lost perspective of the great challenges America has faced in the past and has been able to overcome and overcome brilliantly? I think sometimes we have lost that perspective.

Now, I have no idea what stance Giuliani is taking on any issues (although I am a big fan of New York City), but that may be the only time in the last 20 years that I have heard a political express any such sense and perspective. Anyone with any reasonable world view would see this era as being amazingly stable and prosperous, and blissfully uneventful in any historic sense. We should be delighted by this. It means we can get on with our lives, devoting ourselves to personal relationships, spiritual fulfillment, commercial advancement, artistic or scientific achievement, and other activities vastly more valuable and important than politics. Instead, we wring our hands and convince ourselves the end is nigh unless we CHANGE or DO SOMETHING.

I suppose part of it is a combination of politicians needing to convince you they are essential to your life for the sake of their power, and journalists needing to convince you to watch cable news or buy a newspaper for their livelihood. And there are probably other reasons more deeply-seated in human neuroses. The net result is everyone goes insane. As I write this we are nearly done with 2 weeks of similar insanity in the sports world leading up to the Super Bowl. That's bad, but at least it ends. The political version of this insanity never does.

The older I get, the more it seems that the news is on a strange sort of tape loop. The nouns change, but the verbs stay the same. Look, if you were living at a pivot point in history, you wouldn't know it. You (historians) could only see it long after you're dead. Oh, you might predict that you are at a pivot point; and you might be right, but it's like any other correct historical prediction -- a lucky guess. That fact is we are so far away from any sort of real trouble that we could survive a president selected randomly from the phone book with little difficulty beyond a few years of petty annoyance.

Statistically, you (we) are extremely likely to be living in a historically uninteresting and uneventful time. Play the odds: stop fretting over politics and get on with your life. Don't bother going insane, it just makes you crazy.

(This is likely the only thing you will ever see on politics here. My apologies for causing you to suffer it.)