Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Month That Was - August 2008

The Month That Was - August 2008: As I get older the months get shorter. Remember when summer vacation was, like, forever? Now I look around and all I see is stuff I had planned on doing but didn't get done. I hereby officially extend summer to include September, because I need another thirty days.

I let the summer pass without putting together an off-season review and conference preview columns for the 2008 NFL season. I suppose that pretty much means I am not going to do the column this year, although I could still hop in mid-season and reboot my usual shtick. A lot of changes took place at The sports editor, who I liked and liked working with, moved on. Then got sold to, not that it really changes anything. I guess the big thing was that it was a lot of work and I didn't see anything really coming from it. It was at the point where I had to decide if I was going to quit it or really start pushing on it and making something of myself as a sportswriter.

For the time being, it's one less excuse for not keeping up the excruciatingly slow progress on my novel, or the ongoing work on other writing project (top secret, still). Of course every time I read predictions or comments about the upcoming season or see some player acting like an idiot my desire to editorialize nearly overcomes me, so I guess the real test will come around week 7.

No travel again this month. The fact is, my day job has been a bit of bear lately -- lots of scary deadlines and so forth. Getting away for any extended length has been tricky. That will certainly be different come September.

Alien Olympics
Running Man
Detroit Follies


Readings: No major works read this month, but still much of interest.

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson -- There have been about 4 movies made based on this long-ish short story and probably a dozen others that borrowed heavily. A psychic investigator gathers a group of folks in a haunted house. Spooky things occur. Personal inter-dynamics mash-up with the psyches of the group. In time, one of them falls under control of the house or is lost to insanity, your call. Tragic ending (in the story anyway -- the movies tend to have Hollywood endings).

Jackson is all about dialogue as a tool. She is exceptionally skilled at moving the plot along and developing the characters simply by letting the conversations do the heavy work. Much of the dialogue is unadorned with adjectives, leaving the reader to fix the voice, it's a tricky task if you are trying to portray madness and it takes some getting used to.

Though a ghost story on the surface, the pleasure in reading this comes not from any suspense or action but in the sharply drawn characters and how they react to each other in the ambiguity of their situation. It goes without saying that it is not about the ghost.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Juis Borges -- A real jaw dropper, this short story. A man stumbles across an obscure reference to a long defunct country in central Asia called Uqbar, from whence came an encyclopedia called Orbis Tertius. Orbis Terius is the sum of the efforts of the finest minds of Uqbar to create a fictional world called Tlon.

In the worldview of imaginary Tlon, reality itself is denied. Everything exists only in so far as it affects one through one's senses. For example, in one of Tlon's languages there are no nouns. Instead of "The moon rose over the water" you would have "Upward beyond the onstreaming it mooned." More such examples of the strange epistemology of Tlon are described.
Eventually, it is revealed that Uqbar as well as Tlon, is an invented place, devised sometime in the 17th century by a secret society of intellectuals. By the mid 1800s it had fallen into the hands of a wealthy industrialist who was financing the completion of the encyclopedia, under orders that it have no moral underpinnings (this is related in the form of the project having "no truck with that impostor, Jesus Christ"). By contemporary times (the story was first published in 1940) the encyclopedia was well known and the precepts of the unrealism practiced in fictional Tlon were rapidly subsuming the real world.

This is certainly the best short story I have ever read, and certainly one of the finest pieces of literature of any genre. Borges prose is constructed with the greatest care, as one would suspect of an old master, but the real mind blower is the depth of imagination. Fiction and non-fiction is blended. Levels of reality are created, destroyed, then re-created. It's a detective story. It's an alternate history. Top it all off with the underlying critique of relative morality and post-modernism in general and you can't help but wonder how it all can be done in a little under 6000 words.

You can read it here in translation, side by side with the original Spanish, provided you can put up with white letters on a purple background. Probably better to pick up hard copy somewhere.

Lay of the Land (preview) by Richard Ford -- This is the third in the multi-decade trilogy (The Sportswriter and Independence Day are the first and second) of the life of Frank Bascombe, regular guy. I am only about a third of the way through this but when I picked it up at the tail end of August I dropped everything else I was reading at the time. Often thought of as a more contemporary counterpart to John Updike's Rabbit books, there is nothing in these books but a quiet suburban life, richly told. As such, many people dismiss these as boring. But they were no small inspiration to me when I was writing novels about the absurd shenanigans of normal people, without belittling them or the drama of their lives. Anyone can take a dump on normalcy. Few people can see the beauty in it.

Anyway, I'll have more to say about this next month when I'm finished.


Viewings: Caught three interesting films, all good and all foreign.

Kontroll is a Hungarian dark comedy about life among a team of subway ticket inspectors. They are, generally, slackers in various shapes and sizes, and are essentially charged with ensuring everyone riding the train has a ticket. Of course they have no real power to enforce the rules, other than threats, and they are defied at every turn by moronic commuters of all sorts. They form cliques to guard against the disdain of the world. They engage in shadowy after-hours shenanigans. Essentially, it is a comic window on an undistinguished little subculture built on a pointless dead end service job. Set the scene, add a love interest, a serial killer, and stir vigorously. A nicely done take on the genre. Funny, engaging and entertaining. It's also a cute novelty to see another country's take on honoring their unambitious serving class.

President Last Bang is another black comedy, this time Korean and dramatizing the final day of President Park Chung Hee who was assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA in 1979. Park is portrayed as a letch and his cronies are ass-kissing cretins. The decision to kill the president is spur of the moment. The head of the KCIA makes noises about a goal of preserving democracy, but it is clear he is simply annoyed and disgusted from serving with these idiots and, frankly, he's having a bad day. The act itself as an exercise in bungled confusion and only succeeds because the security forces more confused and inept than the assassins. Comedy is mixed with chaos and violence. The effect is almost surreal.

The film works especially well because no characters are shown as irredeemable. The KCIA head seems like a decent person who is wounded by the shameful duties of his job, but also a deep cynic. His aid is a first class douchebag, but he has had to suffer constant physical and mental abuse from his superiors. The president is a dirtbag, but at the moment he is about to be killed he looks into his assassin's face not with cowardice or defiance, but befuddlement. I don't know how factual this portrayal actually is, but it strikes me as the sort of film that will define the event going forward in the popular mind.

Lives of Others is a German thriller set in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. No comedy here. This is the story of a Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent assigned to monitor the activities of a dissident playwright and his actress wife. Wiesler is a dour, lonely man leading an empty, loveless life. As he listens in and follows the couple he is assigned to, he becomes more and more attached to them and sympathetic to their lives. Events lead to him being ordered to destroy the lives and work of the couple he now cares for. He does everything in his power to avoid doing so. He lies and falsifies documents to the extent he feels safe doing so. He manipulates events to whatever extent he can, but in the end he has no choice but to break the actress during an interrogation under the eye of his superior. Still, he makes one last desperate and futile act to prevent their total destruction.

In the end he succeeds, marginally, but for his trouble he becomes suspect himself and gets assigned to the Stasi mailroom doing pointless unimportant tasks. Redemption only comes some years later after the Wall comes down.

William F. Buckley declared this film to be the greatest ever made, which is overstating the case a bit. But it is certainly a profound piece of work. For most people, the picture of resistance to the East German regime probably contains a picture of an earnest Solzhenitsyn-esque protestor diligently and famously fighting the good fight, getting imprisoned and tortured but never giving in, sacrificing all liberty and life itself for a higher cause. But the majority of people in the world are not of that stripe. The majority are not ready or brave or unselfish enough to completely sacrifice the one life they have to a cause, however worthy. But maybe they would make the safe compromises and take the small risks to save someone here or there. Were I to be caught in a similar situation, I have no illusion that I would be a Solzhenitsyn, but I hope I would at least be a Wiesler.

Running Man

Running Man: You may recall my adventures getting a bike from a couple of months back. It's worked out well. I've spent more than a few afternoons tooling around on it in addition to taking a number of more serious rides. But summer is winding down, and that means I need to turn to something else. Luckily running has re-emerged as a viable alternative thanks to some wonderful new shoes from Nike.

I used to run a fair amount. Even did some 5k and 5 mile races. But the years took their toll on my poor feet and legs. Technically speaking, I have high arches and I suppinate (tend to walk or run with too much emphasis on the out edges of my feet). Non-technically, that means I am simply not well constructed for bearing weight or absorbing impact. The fact is I never in my life got beyond five miles and the fact that my legs are on the short side meant that I never really increased my speed all that much.

So decades went by and the only running I did was a brief warm ups and maybe some interval drills in a boot camp class -- never much over a mile, and even then I felt the impact pretty seriously. But I was thinking I probably should give running longer distances one last shot before I get to old, so on a recommendation from a friend I tried a pair of Nike Vomeros. Easily the most comfortable shoe I have ever put on. They feel like you have pillows on your feet.

First test: I hop on treadmill figuring I'll knock off a mile or so just to see how I feel. Next thing I know I've covered 5k without a stitch of pain. I had to make myself stop. Next test: I tell myself I'll burn off another 5k this time out on the road and see how they do. Zoom, I ripped off four miles just because I was having such a good and easy run. Imagine that: no running for many, many years and suddenly I can knock off three or four miles without a second thought. That's incredible. I would have thought I would be working my way back up to my previous five mile limit but I can get there almost instantly.

If you run and your feet are like mine, or you just want a nice comfy cushioned shoe, you need Nike Vomeros. They list for about $125 but I have found them at Nike Outlet stores for $89. I bought two pair, just in case. Seriously, go out and buy them now. They're that good. You can thank me later.

Alien Olympics

Alien Olympics: I was entirely unmoved by the Olympics. Olympians are, by and large, inhuman. 12-year old Chinese gymnasts aside, even the older gymnasts are outliers. Grow much higher than five feet, or find that your spine doesn't quite curve into a perfect semi-circle? You're better off trying out as a Cirque du Soleil extra. Swimming, volleyball, basketball? If you're under 6'4", you're a dwarf. The skills and talents they display are impressive, but it can be like watching science fiction about a race of superior aliens.

There are some holdout sports. Certainly the ones that don't specialize so heavily -- decathletes are fairly normally structured because they can't afford to be to freakily specialized for one thing. Boxers are still boxers (I would argue that boxing is the most physically challenging sport) and their weight classes keep them looking fairly pretty normal. Sports that require rackets or more complex machines such as archery, rowing, or sailing are still accessible folks of normal dimensions, but those aren't big ticket events. The glory events are the domain of those in the 99.999th percentile of certain genetic predispositions. I realize that they put enormous effort into training and they wouldn't be there without all the hard work, but the freak-of-nature aspect makes it a spectacle rather than something to identify with.

But that's hypocritical of me. I am a huge NFL fan, and those guys are not exactly everyday ordinary specimens are they? So what is it? Why don't I care about the Olympics? Maybe because it seems so manufactured. Maybe because of all the treacley superlatives that emanate from every corner. Maybe simply because the whole mess seems like a multi-year PR campaign to make everyone stand up and shout "This is a beautiful and important thing!!!" and actually believe it. Then at the very end, we set the stage for the next one in four years by making Jimmy Page look like a doofus.

I do hope that Dexter, MI never wins an Olympic bid.

Detroit Follies

Detroit Follies: Documenting the ultimate demise of the city of my birth...

•The dead are fleeing Detroit along with everybody else. No, zombification has not occurred, but people are moving their deceased loved ones out to the suburbs mostly so they don't have to go into Detroit to visit their graves. That is how desperate people around here are to never have to set foot in Detroit.

•Our black-Irish mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finally got tossed into the pokey for real. He admitted to lying under oath, which is probably the least of his actual crimes, got a 120-day sentence, and resigned as Mayor, claiming that he was now set up for a comeback. Despite destroying the careers of numerous people and wasting tens of millions in public money, I have no doubt the people of Detroit will re-elect him in the next election. They deserve him.

•Every NFL season comes along with a healthy dose of unintentional comedy, but it's entirely possible that this season has peaked early. Rudi Johnson signed as a running back with the Lions just before the start of the season. So he shows up at camp, drops his bag outside GM Matt Millen's office and goes inside to meet with the boss. He comes out and his bag is missing. Well, the place is watched by surveillance cameras so they just go to the tape to see what happened. It turns out the guy he was replacing, one Tatum Bell, stole his bag. So they get in contact with him and explain that they have him on tape taking the bag and he claims it was a mistake, he thought it was someone else's and he dropped it as his girlfriends house. They retrieve the bag, minus Rudi's ID, Credit Cards, Cash and "some undergarments." Bell makes a public statement in response: "I ain't no thief!" but the double negative speaks volumes. You can't make this stuff up.

•One bit of good news. Detroit Metro Airport is getting a new terminal. Detroit Metro (DTW) is a Northwest hub and a few years back to built a brand new terminal for them, which turned things around 180 degrees. The previous terminal was horrendous -- like some kind of third world hell hole transplanted into the Midwest. The new terminal in contrast was a stunner. Really one of the finest airport terminals I've been in, and I've been in a few. Now they have new one for the non-hub airlines set to open mid-September. This is great news for all travelers around these parts, which includes me.

By the way, DTW is not even near the city; it's a good 20 miles west so even if you fly into Detroit Metro, you still don't have to go into Detroit. So we got that going for us.