Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Month That Was - September 2008

The Month That Was - September 2008: Another year under the belt in my increasingly long life. Birthday 48 passed at about 6:15AM on the 13th. I am closing in all too fast on a half century. For what it's worth, I detect no special impartation of wisdom or peace so far. I did have a wonderful week in the Southwest, touring through New Mexico and eventually settling in for a few nights at a Tucson spa, each day a minor adventure. A full report will be forthcoming.

I am struggling with what to write in this update, primarily because I am very disconnected from most everything of common interest these days. The presidential campaign dominates everything, and I have zero interest. I have no doubt the nation will continue whatever the outcome and, more likely than not, anyone's expectations about the effect of a particular candidate on the world is probably wrong. The financial meltdown is somewhat troubling, but luckily I am not a struggling young man anymore and I have been fairly wise with my money so I am not in a position to be fiscally devastated by anything short of a depression.

My life pretty much revolves around going to work (which I never blog about on principle), staying healthy and fit (boring, and annoying to listeners), travelling, and consuming art. The last two dominate this site. Oh, and football, which I am not writing about for blogcritics for the first time in three years. (Maybe I should post stuff here instead?) I am doing a fair amount of writing on my top secret new project, which may never amount anything. And I am still working on Misspent Youth, which may never amount to anything.

I am not a hermit. I see friends regularly. Stay involved with family and my father's finances (he can no longer do so himself). I am not isolated, but I am disconnected. Maybe that's a by-product of aging: so much of the day-to-day of the world seems to be a rerun that it doesn't seem worth commenting on. Or maybe I am just in a funk over putting away my bike and getting out fall jackets and shutting up the windows and turning on the heat at night. It could be a long winter.

Tube Notes
The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe
Money Honey

Tube Notes

Tube Notes: Lots of interesting, if not necessarily good, TV these days.

True Blood - An exercise in heavy-handed irony, this is the story of a world where fake blood has been invented and, as such, vampires can come out of the crypt and try to "mainstream" with regular folk. The too-clever premise is to use this to look at human bigotry through a different lens. Throw out that gimmick and it's just another action/mystery style TV show but with vampires mixed in. From Alan Ball, the mind behind Six Feet Under, I expected more. It is arch and obvious and borderline lurid. The characters are all rather annoying, the plot is a garden-variety murder mystery, the dialog is banal.

Anna Paquin is a standout as the lead, but that's about all that is worth mentioning. So far. I'll see it through to the end of the season before final judgment is passed.

Entourage - Remains a wispy, pointless, mildly humorous little diversion. Hell, it's only a half hour -- that's not much a time waster. There's nothing to it, but because of the good natured chemistry of the characters, I still tune in. It goes without saying that the show is carried by The Piven, with an occasional over the top assist from Kevin Dillon. Interestingly, it has much less substance than True Blood yet I'm more interested in how Vince's career turns out than any vampire mischief. Best dialogue this year:

Q: "Where are we gonna get magic mushrooms?"
A: "Eric Roberts, of course."

Dexter - My favorite guilty pleasure just returned for season 3. Dexter remains creepy with just a touch of dark poetry. It attempts to shine a light on different behaviors by placing them in the extreme context of a murderer -- one who can and will take his desires, which are well-reasoned and noble, to the ultimate conclusion. Thoughtful concept, but it's still a guilty pleasure. Michael Hall is utterly amazing as the sweet, slightly nerdy, baby-faced monster.

Mad Men - The last great drama left on TV. To think that only a few years ago we had The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire all in active production. Now only Mad Men is left in the drama-for-the-ages category.

Things are falling apart in 1962. (I had this pegged erroneously as 1964 in a previous post.) And as things fall apart for Don he seems to grow more and more narcissistic. The interesting comparison to draw is between Don Draper and Tony Soprano (The creator of Mad Men was a producer of The Sopranos). Both of them could perform kind and even noble acts, but at their core they are nobody's heroes. Tony was of course, a vicious killer. Don is nothing like that, but he is simply not a good person.

Virtually every character is getting what they want this season and coming to have regrets. Who will learn what, is the question. Snap judgement: if anything Mad Men has improved from last year. Which is remarkable.

The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe

The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe: Frank Bascombe is the protagonist in a trio of books by author Richard Ford. He is a suburban everyman. Throughout the three books we follow Frank through a few select days of his life and effectively live inside his head. In the first book, The Sportswriter, we are introduced to him as a New jersey based fiction writer turned sports writer (as Ford once was, before resuming fiction) (oh, and, remind you in a small way of anyone else?). He is living a tenuous life in the shadow of the death of his 9-year old son and the subsequent divorce which may or may not have been due to grief over their lost son. In this book Frank is separated emotionally from everyone and everything -- trying desperately not to suffer any more pain. In the course of the book, he seems to accept that pain and tragedy are unavoidable byproducts of living.

Book 2, Independence Day, is at least partially about that re-engagement with the world. Frank has given up sports writing and become a realtor. His aim is to not find his place in the world but make it by attaching to his community and especially reconnecting with his wayward son whose is living with his mother and her new husband, and who may be half crazy (the son). The main theme is the complex relationship between independence and connectivity. In the end Frank seems to have moved from desiring mere engagement to desiring true connection.

Book 3 (and final, according to Ford) is The Lay of the Land wherein we find Frank in the third quarter of his life. His second wife has left him. His children are grown. He is a something of minor real estate mogul in seaside New Jersey. He has prostate cancer. Although he still finds himself fantasizing about all the things he's never done and he hasn't lost hope that at least some of them could happen, but they would have to come to him, he will not go to them. He believes he has achieved something he calls "permanence", but over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend all that changes. His attitude and situation take turns he couldn't have dreamed of. He faces death (somewhat improbably, and not from his prostate) and finally comes to terms with ancient relationships -- friends, children, ex-wives. Coming through it, he realizes permanence is perhaps not so permanent.

The preceding description is dry and dreary but that is not the impression to take of these books. That's just the high concept stuff. The real magic of these books for me was the treat of seeing everything through Frank's eyes. And I mean everything. You follow along with his days from start to finish, including all the boring mindless stuff people do every day. Like I said, for me, that's something special.

Most regular readers know that one of my hobby horses is the lack of fictional documentation of the normal life of the majority of us. Novelists, when they look at the typical middle-class life and the people that lead it, which is rarely, treat it with utter disdain. Mindless, soulless, shallow shells we are, with our selfish, amoral, even evil, tendencies rationalized and concealed (just ask Raymond Carver). Yet there's a reason a majority of us live that way, and a reason many who can't wish they could. It is a good, comfortable, secure life where dramatics are rare and there is time for reflection and examination. It's the best deal for raising a family by a long shot. Most of those who treat it with disdain can only do so because they already live it.

But the bottom line is that it is our life. It is the way we live today. It has unique contemporary, yet still primal, conflicts and resonance. Why not do what novelists are supposed to do and tell the story of it artfully? Ford does exactly that.

Frank Bascombe lives vaguely, full of day-to-day contradiction. He is an admirer of commerce, speaks and participates enthusiastically in it, but dislikes any development that may cause commerce to disrupt his comfortable world. He is a loyal Democrat, but it appears to be a tribal loyalty, rather than the result of serious political philosophy. He seeks comfort and certainty, but tells himself change is good and necessary. He takes half steps and quarter steps. He freely admits that he has lived a smaller life than he could have, but also a happier one. When one of his exs -- the one he cheated on -- offers an olive branch, he realizes he hates her. When the other -- the one who ran out on him for her first husband and may or may not have subsequently driven the first husband to suicide -- wants to come back, he's delighted. He prefers to keep an open mind, but hates his daughter's boyfriend at first sight. He loves is son, but can't tolerate him. Despite all his endless rumination and good intentions, his life is a confusing mess that he can barely understand, never mind explain. In short, he is exactly like you, me, and everyone we know.

We spend time with Frank and his thoughts as he goes about his days. We observe with him the malls and bars and roads and neighborhoods he passes through and we recognize it. He might describe the traffic jams he gets caught in; or the careful-not-to-sound-guilty conversations he has with cops; or having to urinate urgently behind a hardware store, getting caught by security, and garnering sympathy because of his prostate cancer; or of happening to encounter his dentist on the street and realizing half-way through the conversation that he wasn't been recognized -- all the kinds of mundane things that happen to all of us in one form or another. It's hard not to see this as a document of what we do through our days and how it intermingles seamlessly with our fears and dreams and hopes and failures.

Perhaps it's worthwhile to note that the primary criticism of these books is that they are overfull with observational minutiae, either geographical or philosophical. They move slowly, to seemingly trivial ends. The resolutions in Frank's development you do get are marginal and likely to be discarded in the next chapter. All that may be, but Ford's intent, it seems to me, is to simply lay it out there as it actually is. Here is contemporary life. Do you find it dull? Do you find it fascinating? Empty? Rich? Small? Scary? Brave? Sad? Comic? The spiritual precedents here are Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Walker Percy's Binx Bollinger, but it is even a step closer to naked, tedious reality. These books serve as the finest fictional documents of the way of our lives at the turn of the millennium. It's likely that future generations will look at them for understanding of our hour-to-hour existence. Might be worth seeing what they'll see.

Money Honey

Money Honey: As I mentioned the financial meltdown has not adversely affected my life so far. Yes, it's a down year for my 401k and IRA. And my regular stock trading has taken about the same hit as everyone else's, but I was not counting on that money so what I'll probably do is sell off a bunch for the tax benefit and immediate buy up some index funds and wait for the next bull market. Actually, with prices so depressed I should probably buy a new house and a new car.

Housing is obviously cheap now. Judging from recent nearby sales, I think I'm still ahead on my condo. Of course, I've been here quite a few years (is it already 10?) so even the real estate crash couldn't entirely wipe out my gains. I am a creditor's dream, so getting financing wouldn't be a problem. Of course, there is the hassle of moving; the hassle of finding a place and completing a sale; the potential that the real estate market may not recover in my lifetime, or at least not in Michigan. Couple all that with the fact that I am fine living where I am. My condo fees are higher than I would like, but I have quiet, non-nosy neighbors, a safe, low-traffic neighborhood, and I am five minutes drive from anything I need (including work) and about twenty minutes to Ann Arbor for anything I want. Suffice to say, my motivation is low.

A car is a more interesting proposition. In the past 24 years I have owned exactly three cars, all of them Toyotas. I had an '84 Celica that I drove for 9 years, a '93 Camry that I drove for 9 years, and my current '02 Camry (well into 6 years). If I stay true to form, my next car will be a '11 Toyota of some sort, but cars are awfully cheap right now. Especially American cars. You can get enormous discounts on SUVs and Minivans since nobody wants them, and though I hate SUVs (driven by cretinous view-blockers) and have little use for a minivan (not generally associated with bachelors), I love a good deal. They are not particularly fuel efficient, but gas prices are coming back down a bit and the money you save goes a long way to paying for gas.

My choice at the moment would be a Jeep Patriot, with a (relatively) easy on fuel four-cylinder engine. Modern four-cylinder engines easily out-perform many V-8 models from back in the day. Yes, there are other, nicer rides to tempt me, but it's so much car for the money it would be hard to resist.

But we run into the fact that I am happy with my current, paid-for Camry. It hasn't been as trouble free as my previous Toyotas, but whenever I get back into it after a few days in a rental, I realize how quiet and smooth it really is. Once again, motivation to change is insufficient.

I'll probably be kicking myself when it comes time to upgrade (either house or ride) and whining that I should have bought when things were cheap. On the other hand, if I did buy now would I regret spending money on something I don't need instead of, say, flying off to Hawaii sometime soon? Not to decide is to decide.


Quotables: Smart sentences and clever comments I've encountered.

Stephen Fry on travel -- "Travel is about two things, and two things only. Bowels and laundry." (source)

Haruki Murakami on fitness -- "I think that one...condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy. A gentleman shouldn't go on and on about what he does to stay fit." (source: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running)

P.J. O'Rourke on his encounter with cancer -- "I have, of all things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that?" (source)