Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Month That Was - November 2008

The Month That Was - November 2008: Little to say except that I continue to cross days off the calendar with no obvious end in sight. This droning on gets worse when the weather gets cold, and frankly, I think we are in for a blistering cold winter this year. I've seriously considered taking up cross-country skiing this year, if we get enough snow -- just to get out and stay fit.

All this is compounded by the fact that each year for the past three my company has reduced the amount of vacation time you can carry over from year to year. This year we are down to carrying a single week -- 40 hours -- which means that if I decide to make a January or February run for the sun I will have to be extra judicious in my plans for the remainder of the year. Long gone are the days when I would have five or six weeks banked and be able to head off into the wild as the feeling moved me.

Not that it will stop me. I will weasel whatever I need to get out of town -- leverage floating holidays, get "sick" at the right time, and so forth. But the travel time security blanket is gone.

I should mention that as I write this I am winging my way towards Vegas and points west for my traditional Thanksgiving trip. That write up will have to wait until next month. This month you get my Florida trip report, including pictures posted on my new Smugmug account (hooray!), which is like Flickr only classier. I'll work on getting some of my old stuff up there too. It's much easier to look at the galleries than clicking links through individually. Plus it gives me chance to tag them and for complete strangers to find them and point and laugh.

Remembering the Forgotten Coast
Inside the Glove
Pale Fire
Flick Notes
All Things Must Pass

Remembering the Forgotten Coast

Remembering the Forgotten Coast: An extra, extra long weekend gave me the opportunity to head down to Sarasota again, for a quick visit with family, then off to explore more of Florida. I should have the State just about covered by the time I die. This trip I was to head up into the Panhandle -- commonly known as the Redneck Riviera. Photos are on Smugmug.

An el cheapo flight from AirTran got me into Tampa (apropos of nothing, it was one of the final domestic flights that did not charge for checked baggage, which is a rant I have already howled), and to the Hertz check in desk where they didn't have the car I requested. I wanted a mid-sized car with Sirius since I was going to be on the road for a good bit of time. As expected they offered me an upgrade, but not to a full sized car. They offered me a Mustang GT, which counts as an upgrade even though it is stiflingly cramped because, presumably, it is really fast and tasteless bimbos will think you are a player. I really had no interest but the next grade up was a Ford Edge, which would have been fine, but they wouldn't give me that upgrade for free. So if I wanted Sirius, I had to take the cherry red Ford Mustang GT or pay more than I had intended. I took the Mustang and put Hertz on my ever growing list of bastards.

I will say this for the Mustang, it steers very precisely and it is exceedingly quick. The power would have been lost on me but the first time I pulled out on a two lane road to pass a semi and hit the accelerator -- whoa Nellie! You could get whiplash on that downshift.

Anyway, Sarasota remains Sarasota. It is a strikingly beautiful city. And the sun is always shining. And the trip across the bridge to the Longboat Key is worth the price of the trip. The other thing about Sarasota is that there is a ton of stuff to do there. I've spent a huge amount of time there over the years and I still find new experiences. This time it was Mote Aquarium. A great place to spend a couple of hours with the embalmed giant squid, the shark tank, the pool where you can pet the rays, the hands-on crustacean exhibit, educational movies, boat tours into the bay, even the old-time ice cream parlor on the premises. Manned by a volunteer staff (mostly retirees), it's the sort of place Sarasota specializes in: low-key but top quality attractions that don't claim to be anything more than they are.

Family visit over, I aimed the Mustang toward the Forgotten Coast. Generally when one thinks of the Florida Panhandle, one thinks of the spring break madness at Panama City and the massive condo and resort development over into Destin and Pensacola. But the coast between Tampa and Panama City, which is essentially the hard left turn where you shift from peninsular Florida in to the Panhandle proper, remains largely underdeveloped. Traffic arteries move north from Tampa inland to Tallahassee and west towards Gainesville then down into Panama City, bypassing the easternmost panhandle for the most part. As a result the coastal towns in that area have taken to referring to themselves as the Forgotten Coast, which from east to west, includes the towns of Eastpoint, Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, and Mexico City Beach.

Two quick observations about this being the Redneck Riviera: A) It is. B) But it's not what you think.

There are a decreasing number of uniform places in this country. Despite a political class that likes to paint counties and even entire states in red or blue, I doubt you find a state that is more the 55% or so one way or the other. That means if you took a random sample of ten people from the most partisan state you could find you would still only likely get six people who conformed. At the county level maybe you'd get seven once in while. Which is to say you rarely go anywhere in the country and get overwhelmed with the prevailing socio-political sentiment. This being a couple of days before elections, it was pretty clear that the place was majorly McCainiacs, but there were still a healthy number of O-bots to balance them.

The other thing is that these places, like everywhere else you go, are gentrifying. Apalachicola was my first stop, and the social changes of the last decade or so are written all over it. From time immemorial, it had been a fishing village populated with back-slapping bubbas, now suddenly there is a stylish Cuban restaurant on main street and a Starbucks knock off -- which by the way happened to have the very best breakfast sandwich ever; unbelievably fresh and flaky croissants -- where the bubbas now backslap over $4 lattes. Those picture perfect old houses in the historic district are now trophy homes for wealthy northerners with fishing boats. But they all seem to be doing OK with it, from what I could tell. Everyone I happened to make eye contact with was delighted to start up a conversation about anything and everything, usually ending up with a suggestion about what a good place it was to live. Smarmy, small-minded northerners would probably freak-out at the good ol' boy drawl and neighborly familiarity and sneer at the simple rubes, but I sure saw nothing but a lot of decent, freindly folks living lives that urban elites fanaticize about -- which is why they are down here overpaying for all those historic fixer-uppers and opening upscale coffee bars and boutiques.

The big to-do in Apalachicola was the Florida Seafood Festival, a celebration of, well, seafood. Thousands come in to the little town from far and wide. A carnival is set up. Oysters are shucked and beers are poured on every corner. The day starts off at sunrise with the Red Fish Run, a friendly foot race of 5k through the historic district with a whopping 60 or 70 participants, including Yours Truly. What comes next is a lengthy, joyous parade featuring all the usual suspects -- community groups, high school bands and beauty queens, car dealers and politicians, Shriners in their little cars and pirates on their boat floats, all flinging candy to children along the way. When the sun warms up, the gates are open on the festival proper where any local restaurant worth its salt has a food booth set up; there are carnival rides, crab races, oyster eating contests, and live entertainment featuring both Country and Western music. It's generally well done, and everybody seems to have a good time. But I must say this: The folks in the panhandle no doubt are expert fishermen, but they have no clue how to cook what they catch. It is all battered and sauced and spiced beyond recognition. It's as if they took some beautiful fresh catch and made very attempt to make it taste like chicken fried steak.

My big discovery of the Seafood Festival was the music of Jim Morris -- basically a Jimmy Buffett disciple who plays around Florida. He wasn't actually there, there were just playing a collection of his called, appropriately, Seafood Platter over the loudspeakers. It's now on my Amazon wish list.

I wasn't actually staying in Apalachicola, though. The hotels were all booked up for the festival. I was staying further west in Port St. Joe, home of the renown St. Joseph State Park, which the renown Dr. Beach named best beach in the U.S., back in 2002. If you peruse that site a bit, you'll note that the good Dr. has a predilection for Gulf beaches -- not that I disagree, the beach further south in Naples is my benchmark, but I can attest to the total serene beauty of the beach at St. Joseph State Park. Although you would be unlikely to find it as deserted as I did, the fact that it is in a State park, that facilities are sparse and basic, that there is nothing commercial (especially beach bars or t-shirt huts) for miles, and that lodging is limited to campgrounds and rustic cabins, generally means you won't find you big beach partiers here. I think crossed paths with exactly one couple, and everyone else I saw was pretty much a speck in the distance. Nor will you find any discarded cans or bottles or Big Mac wrappers and such. Which is good because anything that would mar the quality of this beach, with its talcum power sand and wholly organic feel, would be criminal.

My final evening I made the hour drive to Panama City Beach just to see what all the fuss was. Panama City is where all the Deep South types go on spring break, so naturally the beach road was lined with bars and crap shops and liquor stores and tacky motels. I pulled into a monster sports bar to catch some of the Sunday games, and actually got a decent muffaletta, but at half-time I decided to duck out and head back to a dockside restaurant at the Port St. Joe Marina because I really wanted to spend my last evening in the open air rather than inhaling the moldy beer smell endemic to virtually every sports bar in existence.

I should have stayed. I snagged a seat at the bar at the marina only to find that they had such a completely basic cable TV package that they didn't even get the broadcast channels, so I couldn't see the Fins game. Then I ordered a beer and it turns out that the city of Port St. Joe is dry on Sunday. Great. So I got a game I didn't want to see and a Diet Coke. Whatever the case, I still got the sunset as the pictures attest.

Drive back was ugly -- I held to the secondary coast roads instead of the freeway. After the turn south into the pneninnsula things go full-on suburban fast and don't stop; an endless row of Home Depots, WalMarts, Targets, Best Buys, Publix, Applebees, Chilis -- for over a hundred miles (literally) (no literally literally). At Clearwater you can turn off down the bay road, but even there the shore is hidden by huge resorts. St. Pete/Clearwater has some very nice aspects and the beaches are stellar, but the bits and pieces of beauty seem rather swamped by concrete. It seems a million miles from sweet Apalachicola.

Here's hoping the Forgotten Coast stays that way.

Inside the Glove

Inside the Glove: Things are getting dicey here in The Mitten. Actually, things have been dicey for quite a while. Now they are looking apocalyptic. Michigan, wracked with a contracting economy for years, now gets to feel the full force of the national recession as transmitted through the auto industry. An enormous number of jobs in Michigan are linked to cars and the ramifications of GM/Chrysler/Ford going belly up are huge. For the City of Detroit proper, it might be the end of the world.

That's not necessarily an argument for a bailout, though. If I were a narrow-minded political animal I would argue there is no option whatsoever and the loss of the U.S. auto industry would be dire for the nation. The fact that I have many, many friends facing real income consequences from this, and the ancillary affect it will have on everyone in these parts, means that I should feel that way. And I do, superficially. But, sadly, I have inflicted upon myself the habit of trying to see the big picture.

The number being tossed around is $34,000,000,000.00. Lots of zeros, there. Now let's say you're sitting in Ft. Lauderdale or Tucson or Eugene or Burlington. If the car oligopoly destructs, you're not going to see your friends trickle away in search of employment or see local strip malls abandoned. You probably drive a Toyota anyway. Why should you give those clowns shivering away in the Michigan winter any of your money, even if they call it a "loan" or a "bailout"? Didn't they get themselves in this predicament to begin with? Well, if that's how you feel, then were screwed (perhaps justly).

But suppose you do want to help out, the question then becomes what is the smartest way to spend your 34 billion. The auto industry wants you to give it to them, but what are you actually trying to achieve? Is the goal to keep the auto industry alive, or is it to assist the desperate people associated with it. Those are two very different things. What is magical about the auto industry that having it around means more than having that much more of some other industry? In other words, why is it better to prop up the auto industry rather than use the money to expand a different sector (or sectors) of the economy as a way to employ the ex-auto people?

This is why there is all the hemming and hawing about the future plans of the big-but-diminishing three. There is no point in providing 34 billion to the auto companies if it is going to go down the toilet for the UAW monopoly and the incompetent corporate bureaucracy, just so we can keep uncompetitive businesses going so folks don't have to adapt. That's not a loan or a bailout. That's welfare. If you give us the 34 big ones and we squander it trying to avoid adaptation, then the joke's on you.

On the other hand, if you give out the 34 billion to get us resituated in industries that are healthy and growing, thereby providing us security an avoiding us coming to you with our hands out again, you can declare victory. Yes, that massive proportion of the labor force all looking for employment would be traumatic, but 34 billion could sure help that along, couldn't it? Nobody wants their life turned upside down in relocation and have to assimilate in a new working environment, but I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.

The point is, it's not a simple binary choice: give the Big Three the money or the let everyone fend for themselves. There are options. There are outside the box strategies that may be better and may or may not include letting GM/Chrysler/Ford live on as they were.

Then there's the question of whether it is really good for Michigan to get the bailout at all. If the auto meltdown brings the reality of Detroit to the broader state, are we really better off getting 34 billion? What are the chances that we would be asking for another few billion in debt forgiveness every few years -- not competing in the market anymore but at the public trough, just so we can hang on a little while longer? Meanwhile, our taxes would shoot through the roof because fixing the roads and paying for the lousy school system would fall on a smaller and smaller number of people. The raise-taxes/lose-population death spiral would speed up (this death spiral has been present in Detroit for years). What, exactly, is the endgame and how do we get there so we can start over? I don't know. Perhaps it would never happen. Perhaps we would become wards of the federal government, like the District of Columbia. Perhaps we would end up burning the abandoned homes for heat and eating roadkill venison all winter. It's nice to think we are going to find a way to turn things around, but as much as I love Michigan, I see no evidence that there is that kind of foresight and ambition among the political leaders or the electorate. Whatever the endgame is, we will have to reach it before anything really changes.

Why am I so negative? Because I know what a lost cause looks like. I have seen Detroit "rebuilding" for the last half-century with less than nothing to show for it. Imagine the millions or billions of dollars that have been poured into that city over the past fifty years, all wasted in the name of trying to save the unsavable. Are the folks who appear in the pages of Detroit Blog really better off for having been caught the endlessly-fraying safety net for decades, rather than having bitten the bullet and started a new life in, say, Raleigh NC, 20 years ago?

Of course, I live in a sort of bubble. Ann Arbor has the insulation of University as its tax base, and I work as a software development manager for a company that serves the private financial and regulatory sector, so I have a very safe job. The only debt I have is on my condo and considering I would probably pay more in rent than I do in monthly mortgage and property taxes, I am in no trouble. Even the latest investment meltdown didn't alter my lifestyle. Now, I have had hard financial times in my past and I know very well what it's like to be out of work, but maybe I am far enough removed from such pain that I don't have sympathy anymore.

Yet, I do hope the money comes here. For me, personally, yes, I want the 34 billion. I don't want my friends to feel pain or move away. I'd rather have the option of shopping at Whole Foods and Macy's instead of Kroger's and Wal*Mart. I don't want my property takes to double because sales tax revenue has disappeared. Give me the money, keep stringing me along. In twenty years or so, I'll just slide off to Sarasota, hike my polyester pants up under my armpits, and spend my time bitching about everything over my senior coffee at McDonald's.

But looking at the big picture, 34 billion might be less of a loan or even a gift, and more of a curse.

Postscript: The death spiral begins with things like instructing traffic cops to write more tickets as a source of revenue and leads to cops writing thousands of tickets for personal gain. This is the on-ramp for the road to ruin, and there are no exits in sight.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire: Wow. What kind of mind does it take to conceptualize such a work as Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov? And can I replace my current, run of the mill version with such a mind?

It goes something like this. In the introduction we meet the narrator, Charles Kinbote, a pompous, arrogant, academic ass who is in possession of the final work of a famous poet, John Shade, with whom the narrator maintained a friendship. This final poem was unfinished at the time of Shade's death, with 999 of 1000 lines being completed. Shade it seems was murdered in some manner that involves Kinbote.

The second section of the book consists of the poem itself; all 999 lines. It's a fine poem, autobiographical, that shows Shade to be an aged, introspective, soulful fellow. There are sections on mortality and loss, delivered through the heart-rending story of his daughter who was apparently born with some disfigurement and became a suicide, his love for his wife, and his struggles with the creative process. It is a quite a work in and of itself, outside the context of the novel, and I say this as someone who is not warm to poetry in general.

The third part of the book is where all the action occurs. We're back to Kinbote's voice in what is supposed to be a detailed analysis of the poem. Kinbote, who's friendship with Shade was strongest during the time Shade was writing the poem, was under the impression that Shade was writing about the storyline that he (Kinbote) was feeding him (Shade) -- specifically, the story of Kinbote's homeland of Zembla, a monarchy that had its royalty deposed by communists in a revolution. It was a story that was close to Kinbote's heart and his ego seems to have deluded him into thinking that the poet had an equal interest. The poet did not. So in his "analysis", Kinbote rarely actually discusses the poem and simply uses the verse as a platform from which to launch his own narrative describing the life of the King of Zembla, the crisis of the communist revolution the King's flight to safety, and the timeline of an assassin sent to find and kill the King.

Kinbote can be infuriating, as when he takes a heartfelt passage about the tragedy of Shade's daughter's suicide and simply goes off on his Zemblan story with casual cold-heartedness. On the other hand, the Zemblan story is itself fascinating and Kinbote, despite his unmitigated self-regard, is not entirely unsympathetic. In time one is left with the stories of two seemingly disparate characters who's desires for understanding life, loss, and longing are intertwined with their ultimate fates.

It's Nabokov, so you can expect florid, exquisitely constructed sentences. The structure of the book into the intro, poem and "analysis" is utterly flawless. A slow and thoughtful reading of is required. Although I am sure people who are steeped in the history of literature will find precedents, it strikes me a something totally original. So much so that my ultimate reaction is not so much to the book extant but what sort of brilliant imagination could bring it into being.

(By the way, if you are an X-files aficionado, knowing the genesis of the name Kinbote should bring a smile to your face.)

Flick Notes

Flick Notes: As usual, I see movies once they are well past their box office peak; often not until they hit cable. Here are some quickie reviews of what I've seen of recently.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - the story of the end of the James Gang and the murder of Jesse James, along with the story of what followed on for his killer Robert Ford. Kind of slow moving, it is standard, gritty western stuff but the sharp angle on Ford, and how he is compelled to kill James is interesting. More interesting still is what happens after. He starts out heralded as a heroic figure, and makes a decent income re-enacting the assassination on stage, but in time, popular opinion turns and he is labeled a coward and James is elevated as the hero. It gets so bad that he finds himself consistently shamed in public and is eventually gunned down himself, by a Jack Ruby-esque character. A good lesson for anyone who believes fickle public opinion and mawkish celebrity are contemporary developments. There is little new under the sun. Excellent acting all around, including Brad Pitt as James who is showing himself to be more and more of an exceptional actor. It's making me look forward to Benjamin Button.

I Am Legend - Will Smith is also a excellent actor with a terrific presence and the first half of the movie is fascinating as he makes his way through empty streets of Manhattan with only his dog for a companion, hunting deer and dodging zombies. When the plot moves from his survival to his rescue it descends into the sci-fi grist mill. Clever in parts, but ultimately forgettable.

Darjeeling Limited - Arch-typical Wes Anderson outing: three brothers, sullen, depressed, and eccentric, set out on a journey to sort out family issues. I admit to having a soft spot for his previous stuff - The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic. They are quirky and indirect. They are loaded down with people staring into space or blankly gazing at the camera -- intended to be especially poignant. Characters intone so as to express meaning through often very bland dialogue. Maybe it's just the presence of Bill Murray in some of them, but I find it endearing in a soft-serve sort of way. But Darjeeling just didn't do it for me. I never really cared what these people were struggling with. In fact I was never entirely clear on it. Maybe it was the noticeable lack of Bill Murray.

No Country For Old Men - I get the feeling I should have liked this. The whole idea of the existential force of brutal chance cutting through a world of people trying to make decisions as if they were really in control of their lives, seems like something that would appeal to me. But it just struck me as inhuman and, frankly, a little academic. Yes, perhaps we just have the illusion of control while merciless random forces effect all our lives, often thwarting us or killing us. No Country tells us that by clubbing us over the head with it, but we already knew it. Art is telling me something new about it, not just yelling it louder.

Ironman - This was fun. Well crafted superhero fare, moved along especially well by Robert Downey Jr.'s ironic mastery. Some of his exchanges with Jeff Daniels had to be heavily improvised because they were clearly having a good time with them. As good as you will while watching it.

The Dark Knight - You have to at least give this movie splitsies with the first Spiderman on the best superhero movie ever. To me this one gets the nod for having the more operatic ending, where only a few understand how much the hero has sacrificed or that he is a hero at all, for that matter. He doesn't get cheers. He doesn't get the girl. He gets the short end of the stick and has to be content with having done the right thing. Another example of the malleability, power, and necessity of myth, kind of like The Assassination of Jesse James above. The praise for Heath Ledger was well earned, not just sympathetic. I am semi-hoping they make no sequel and just leave it sit where it is. Not bloody likely.

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass: This list of "timeline twins" from identifies edgy cultural artifacts that you may have experience to when they first came out and finds comparable oldies to the current day. The one that got me: listening to Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols (1977) today would be the equivalent of having listened to some old Doris Day or Perry Como in back 1977. Whoa.

It is yet further evidence the time from, say, 1955 to 1980 was a time of accelerated change. The difference between Johnny Rotten and Doris Day is vastly greater than the difference between, say, Jack White and Johnny Rotten. (Although when it comes right down to it, the difference between Johnny Rotten and Doris Day is greater than the difference between Jack White and Doris Day.)

Meanwhile, a friend of mine made the observation that her three year old daughter will never know a world where you cannot stop TV whenever you want. We are raising a generation of children with no bladder control.

But if you really want an artifact from the past, remember Battle of the Network Stars? Arguably it was the predecessor to shows like Surreal Life and Biggest Celebrity Loser. Check out the video of Gabe Kaplan smoking Robert Conrad in a 100-yard race. I remember seeing this first run and being blown away that Mr. Kotter was actually faster the James West. How could that be? I don't know if this is proof that the world is getting better or worse. It is proof that I'm getting old. As if I needed it.