Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Month That Was - May 2010

The Month That Was - May 2010: Another month and another revision to Misspent Youth. Now it's back to sorting out the formatting. Then on to the cover.

I managed to get in a whirlwind weekend in NYC for Memorial Day. Technically in May, but I'll write it up for next month. For now, let's just say the Apple remains the Apple. I don't spend enough time there (for which my wallet is thankful).

It's time to (yet again) replace my Sirius receiver in my car. Doubt I'll get away with a simple replacement unit this time. Adventure and annoyance are likely to ensue.

And I have slowly -- oh so slowly -- kicked off investigations into a real estate upgrade. It's the usual story depressed market and cheap rates make things appealing. More on that later too.

[Books] Peter De Vries
[Detroit] Kwame Up the River
[Rant] Fresh Mex
[Health and Fitness] Not Quite Going the Distance
[TV] The Pacific

[Books] Peter De Vries

Peter De Vries: If you were to try to pay me the compliment of a lifetime (and there is no reason you should) you could simply tell me that my writing reminds you of Peter De Vries. Yes, I realize you have never heard of him.

For thirty years -- from the mid 50s through the mid 80s -- De Vries was perhaps the most celebrated satirist alive. He was prolific -- cranking out roughly a book a year; short, funny novels filled with insights from profound to catty, centered on suburban mores and religious confusion. The films Tunnel of Love, Pete 'n' Tillie, and Reuben, Reuben were based on his writings. He wrote for the New Yorker in its heyday, alongside James Thurber and J.D. Salinger among others. Kingsley Amis called him the "funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic." Harper Lee compared him to Evelyn Waugh. Dude had all-star chops and everyone knew it, is what I'm driving at.

Then he disappeared. Not unusual for a writer to vanish. What was strange (and borderline criminal, to my mind) was that his books disappeared too. He stopped writing in the mid-80s and was dead by '93. In that time every one of the dozens of books he had written went out of print. I only ever discovered him via a handful of odd comments here and there amongst the more thoughtful magazines I used to read (this would have been right around the time of his death). Luckily, it happened that my favorite local used bookstore, Dawn Treader, regularly found themselves in possession of discards which I gobbled up. About four years ago, two of his books were brought back into print and there was hope that more would come, but it has yet to happen.

De Vries had a master's understanding that the source of all comedy is pain. Especially satire. Raised in a strongly Protestant tradition and a lifelong believer, De Vries nevertheless had serious misgivings about God and his characters reflected that uncertainty. Often they were involved in floundering searches for secular meaning, which seemed to inevitably lead to another common theme: loose sexuality. This theme kicked in heavily in the '70s, when one of his Desperate Housewife-ish characters claimed, "It's all musical beds now."

It's easy to see the stuff of satire: morally confused, quietly desperate, even unknowingly happy characters, bouncing around the suburbs, grasping and whatever transient fulfillment they can find. Some things never change, eh? If there is shortcoming to De Vries works it is that they are often very lightly plotted. Most of the action consists of following characters through their lives and building a picture of them through gimlet-eyed observation and good humor (De Vries is a "laughing with" guy, not "laughing at").

The point of all this is that De Vries deserves better than to be out of print with the exception of a couple of books hanging by a thread. His novels are not long. They remain quite relevant to contemporary life, apart from the odd cultural reference. Is there no publisher that would put together a collection of, say, five of them in one volume? Can nobody take the time to scan them and clean them up for Kindle release? (Even the movies listed above are only available in VHS, for pity's sake.)

Here's what De Vries deserves: In a couple of years, when Matt Weiner is casting around for a follow-up to Mad Men, he uses De Vries works from the seventies to create a whole new period mini-series (this one more comedy oriented). Mix and match characters and events from multiple books. For political context, start with the fall of Nixon and end with the rise of Reagan. For social context, start with a nuclear family in church and end with a sloppy mess of divorcees and step- and single parents at a No Nukes rally. Then just use De Vries to fill in the gaps. (Yo, Matt! If you're interested in development, let's talk.)

For now, I suppose, you'll want to hit Amazon or Alibris. Slouching towards Kalamazoo seems to be everybody's favorite. I can recommend Sauce for the Goose, The Prick of Noon, and Madder Music also.

One final ignominy is that many of his book listings aren't even accompanied by a single paragraph description, as though they were just anonymous paperbacks in an enormous pile of undifferentiated used books in some warehouse. A satirist fate? De Vries tombstone bears the inscription, "Life was hard, but comedy was harder." Amen, brother.

[Detroit] Kwame Up the River

Kwame Up the River: Well, I have to laugh. Detroit's former leader, the self-styled "hip-hop mayor," Kwame Kilpatrick, got sentenced to 1.5 to 5 years in prison for trying to hide assets from the court and just generally being Mr. Scammy McDirtbag. Hee. Hee. Hee. There will of course be an appeal.

The most telling point of the story, and the one that perfectly illustrates how Detroit works, is the angle on Kwame's lost job. It seems once Kwame was ousted as mayor he managed to land a cushy no-show sales job with Compuware, one of the few employers left in Detroit. He was salaried at 120k per year, yet never closed a deal. No doubt he was spending all his time trying to stay out of jail rather than cold calling prospects. Now under prison sentence, Compuware has decided to let him go.

The telling thing is that Compuware put him on the payroll to begin with. Do you know why? They did it because there was a realistic chance that he would come back; that he would not only beat the charges, but get re-elected mayor. And if that happened, then they would have the mayor in their pocket. It was worth 120k per year to Compuware to take that risk. If you understand that you understand Detroit. And you understand why it is a failed city.

Poor Mayor Bing is working like mad. He's doing the right things and is putting his heart into it, but I'm afraid it's just too late. Whatever progress he makes will be immediately undone by the next Coleman Young or Kwame Kilpatrick. Guys like Dennis Archer and Dave Bing are just little Dutch boys. Frankly, I don't think Detroit deserves them.

[Rant] Fresh Mex

Fresh Mex: I'm sure many of you have been very anxious to learn how I feel about Fresh Mex-style fast food. Well, you can relax now. I'm about to tell you.

In the greater Ann Arbor area we have three fresh mex chains available: Chipotle, Qdoba, and Moe's. Each has its distinct advantage so here's a quick guide.

The best standard burritos come from Chipotle. Their meats just seem fresher and juicier, they offer the traditional beans or fajita style, and their salsa verde is a cut above. They also have the simplest menu, so the folks behind the counter rarely get confused and ham-fist your order. The meal of choice for me is a carnitas (pork) burrito, fajita style.

Qdoba extends the choices a little. Specifically, they have grilled veggie burritos which is cool because even people who eat burritos for every meal need their vegetables. A downside is the salsa verde is not as good as Chipotle and they charge extra for forgoing beans and getting it fajita style. On the other hand, they provide something called Mexican Gumbo, which is a burrito minus the tortilla, in a bowl, covered with some awesome tangy tomato broth. It is a steaming pile of awesome.

Moe's has, I think, the lowest quality of food (although it's not bad). But they have the broadest selection of ingredients, including tofu and fish. And you can get fish tacos. They aren't terribly good. The food carts vendors in and around San Diego would wretch at the sight of them. But they are actual fish tacos, which are required eating occasionally and tough to find cheap-and-easy around these parts. Moe's also has a salsa bar for those who like to load up, but again, the salsa doesn't seem that special to me. One bonus is that you get free corn chips so if you're in the mood for bulk over quality, this is the place.

I know there are folks peppered all over the southwest, sneering at this while scarfing down their favorite taqueria fare. Fair enough. Here in mid-Michigan, you get what you get.

[Health and Fitness] Not Quite Going the Distance

Not Quite Going the Distance: I spend an inordinate amount of time at my health club and otherwise working out. Really, to the point where it's nearly unhealthy. I rarely speak of it because I agree with Haruki Murakami when he says, "A gentleman shouldn't go on about what he does to stay fit." Of course Haruki-san said that in a book about running marathons, so go figure. Most people, when confronted with a description of my workout habits, are confused. Why spend all that time sweating and grunting to stay fit? Why not enjoy life? It's not like you're going to live forever.

Here's the thing. I feel about fitness the way other men feel about golf, or fishing, or old cars, etc. It's my avocation, my escape, my hobby, my outlet. It is not a means to an end, but the end itself. It is one way in which I enjoy life. This post is just a set up because going forward, in outright defiance of Haruki-san, I may post a bit more about my fitness efforts. After all, this is my diary; it's about what I do and how I spend my time, so I really don't have much choice.

I have a number of fitness shortcomings and nemeses. Probably the worst of them is my flexibility, especially hamstrings. It's problem common to most men. And like much in the realm of physical limitations, it is genetic in nature. You can get better at anything through practice, but your DNA imposes certain limits on how much better.

The flexibility thing I can accept, but the most troubling nemesis for me is running. It's been a multi-decade struggle trying to get myself to be a strong distance runner and I haven't yet succeeded. I have friends who habitually knock off half- and full marathons; they speak of it casually, in the same tone as if they just rented a movie or went out for lunch. For me, five miles is a good solid run and I've never gone further than, oh, about 7 miles.

I started running many years ago -- call it the mid-80s. I was living on the western edge of Ypsilanti and I used to run through the various neighborhoods and by Washtenaw Community College. I managed to get a few races in. Did the Briarwood 5k a couple of times. And I did a 5-miler called the Miracle in the Apple Orchard run which basically circled WCC, wherein I finished in just under a 9 minute mile pace. But I plateaued there. No matter what I did I did not seem to get any faster nor did I feel particularly capable of running further.

Then I pretty much gave up running in any serious way. I suffered periodically from painful plantar fasciitis. It would come and go until I realized that had to religiously stretch my calves to keep it at bay. I also, from time to time, gained a fair amount of weight, which is death for a runner. Anyway, running fell by the wayside for years. It was just too uncomfortable and I felt I had better alternatives.

Fast forward to about a year ago and suddenly I started running again. I'm not exactly sure why. Perhaps the biggest reason is hearing friends talk about their running exploits and marathon training and so forth, then coming to the realization that time is quite probably running out on my ability to do such things. Essentially, if I was ever going to get to be a decent distance runner it was now or never (strangely, I'm not getting any younger). So I bought a pair of wonderfully comfortable Nikes and set out running again in earnest.

After about a year of semi-regular training I am, essentially, back where I was decades ago. A solid run is 5 miles at a 9-minute pace. I can push beyond that distance wise to about 7 miles. On level ground, or a treadmill, I can do three miles at about an 8-minute pace. That's it. And trying to push beyond my limits in any significant way has tended to result in little injuries -- stress fractures, strains of all sorts. While there's something to be said for being able to keep up with my quarter-century younger self, it's pretty clear I am never going to run a marathon. I suspect I am just not structurally designed to run vast distances. That DNA thing again.

But I've done a few 5ks. This summer I will do at least one 10k. I'd like to get up to a half-marathon. Folks tell me at that distance it's still a matter of athletic endurance vs. a full marathon which crosses into pain endurance. I've been doing some speed training with a local running group and some trail running which is a new experience and I did a fair amount of cold weather running this winter. Who knows, maybe a light bulb will go on over my head and I'll find the missing clue that leads me to find my inner Masai. Until then, I'll be one of those guys whose name pops up about half-way down the list of finishers in one of the middle-aged groups and is just happy to get a t-shirt and a distressingly ugly photo at the finish line.

[TV] The Pacific

The Pacific: This was the counterpart to the Dreamworks/Playtone WW2 European theatre triumph from a few years back, Band of Brothers. I had high hopes for it, having read one of the two books on which it was based. Sadly, it didn't come close to measuring up.

One of the great things about Band of Brothers was the broad brush strokes. You saw good leaders and bad leaders. Some of the fighting men made it through, some didn't. All the while, it never descended into cliche and cynicism. It showed a military that, despite errors and setbacks, wasn't dysfunctional. Bad leaders were ousted. Good leaders were revered. Some soldiers cracked up. Some soldiers overcame. Horrors were balanced with camaraderie and joy.

Whether intentional or not, The Pacific turned out just the opposite. It was a one note samba of degradation. The three main characters were grunts serving in some of the most harrowing fighting ever seen. The images and action in these scenes was monstrous beyond imagination, leaving you feeling gut punched and astounded anyone could survive. But that doesn't make it good drama. Man is thrust into a harrowing world -- it gets worse -- then even worse -- then indescribably bad is not a good plot outline no matter how skilled the presentation. Effectively, they pushed the theme to the point where it was impossible to relate to. It may have been an honest and accurate historical representation of the situation, but if it is pushed beyond the audience's ability to personalize, it fails as drama.

Any respite from the carnage involved the characters trying to interact with the normal world after their awful experiences. Pursuing women on leave; struggling with being understood by family; unable to put their experiences in words. That's fine, but it's been done to death over the years and The Pacific adds nothing new. The result of all this is a story so overwhelmed with showing the effects of war in general, that it fails to personalize it for the characters, and by extension, personalize it for us through our connection to them.

At the end of Band of Brothers we were introduced to the actual survivors they had portrayed. Despite their typical-of-the-breed humility, they expressed a great range of feelings -- sorrow, loss, pride, and numerous variations of gratitude. We only get to meet but a couple of the subjects of the Pacific, neither of whom is a principal character, and they aren't very talkative. All we are left with is the portrayal and their attitude towards their experiences seems to contain a single sentiment: disgust.

Again, it's possible to argue that the relentless carnage in these battles made for a different experience than in Europe and therefore it's an accurate portrayal. Apart from that not being a good excuse for mediocre drama, it's untrue. I have read With the Old Breed, the memoir of Pvt. Eugene Sledge, one of the main characters. His emotions as portrayed in print are anything but simple or single-minded. More importantly, his humanity leaps off every page. The Pacific does his memoir no justice. You're better off spending a few hours with With the Old Breed than ten hours in The Pacific.