Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Month That Was - June 2013

The Month That Was - June 2013: June was more of the usual. I ran a race: the Dexter-Ann Arbor Half Marathon which should not have been as hard as it was. It hurt. A lot. Worse than last year which suggests I have slipped out of shape or something more terrifying -- I am getting older.

More work on the house: furnishing the deck, which involved assembling a Rubik's Cube of a gas grill, an adventure worthy of its own rant. In the end I got it done, with very few leftover parts. The roof sprung a leak, luckily it was solved with some patchwork. My roof is pushing 20, I should probably start saving for a new one. Had the living room painted. It would have taken me weeks to do on my own. The pros got it done in three days.

Speaking of pros doing things, I broke down and hired a guy to mow the lawn. I know it's like admitting the lawn defeated me, but look, I cut lawns as a kid and then cut this one for three summers. I have nothing to prove when it comes to my ability in grass warfare.

I also put up a bird feeder. We'll see if my squirrel warfare skills are up to snuff.

Lots of 'Rants' this month. I don't know what meaning to assign to that.

[Rant] We Love the '90s
[Rant] Tellin' Stories
[Movies] Going Attractions - June Releases
[Detroit] Murder and Hockey
[Rant] The New Thurston Howell III

[Rant] We Love the '90s

We Love the '90s?: Someone I have known since she was a little girl recently posted on Facebook: "Please just let me go back to the '90s." This was odd to me since she is in her early 20s and would have been a child then. Another 20-ish person responded with "Best years of my life," to which the reply was "Better music, better clothes, better people, better everything!" Usually if you are hit with nostalgia it is for your 20s not in them. There's probably an essay in that about how making childhood too good for your kids causes depression in their 20s. (I would never write so dumb a thing, but I could see such an idiotic idea making the rounds in the more thoughtless media outlets.) The big suggestion that came from this Facebook conversation was to watch Portlandia, where the dream of the '90s is alive.

This stood out for me because it dovetailed with a book review I had just read for America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier. I haven't read the book and I won't since it is a political review of the times and I work hard to purge all politics from my life, but I gather from the review that the argument is that the time from the fall of the Berlin Wall (the end of the Cold War) in 1989 to 9/11 (the start of the War on Terror) was a formative time. Events during that decade-ish presaged a shift from the old world -- the final vestiges of the 20th century and the us/them world of WW1/WW2/Cold War to the world of Whatever-Today-Is-I-Sure-Don't-Know. They were the calm before the storm of chaos in which we live. I suppose...

So what is to be the final reputation of the 90s? Apparently it was good for kids since they miss it so. The economy was in boom -- a lot of people made, and spent, a lot of money. Crime was dropping over most of the country. No wars -- well, there was the Gulf War but that was over in a couple of months, and Somalia, but that never made the headlines so no one noticed. Nouveau hippiedom -- also called hipsterism -- was in full bloom. Sounds like paradise.

Then how come we didn't notice how happy we all were as it was happening? That's an easy question. We never notice. I have come to the conclusion that the bulk of people in the Western world are, in fact, quite happy -- they just can't see it. The real question is how come we never learn? As I remember the '90s, we were convinced that everything was awful and there was no hope and we were living in terrifying times. Just like we were in the '70s and the '80s and now. The newspapers and opinion pages were loaded with dire misgivings. Just like today. We were certain civilization was in a death spiral of moral weakness and consumerism. Just like today. Environmental calamity was right around the corner. Just like today. We never stop misunderstanding what we see around us, which is just human nature. But we also never learn to accept that it is likely that we are misunderstanding what we see around us. We never stop to say, "Wait. Every other time I felt like this I was wrong. Maybe I'll tone down the shrill hand-wringing this time." We just replay our delusions over and over. I can only assume they comfort us somehow.

I have to admit the '90s did set the stage for my adult life. It was the time I transitioned to full adulthood from my extended post-college childhood. I started working for the company I still work for 20 years later. Moved to my beloved adopted home town of Dexter, MI, where I still live. Bought my first home and am now on my second. Joined a gym and started paying attention to my health which I still obsess over. Wrote my first novel. (Apple Pie came out in late 1999. Oh, so long ago.) It would be followed by two more and I still hope to increase that number. I early adopted the Internet and now it dominates all our lives. It was also when TV started its trajectory to greatness (Seinfeld, Buffy, Northern Exposure, Freaks and Geeks, culminating in The Sopranos) which continues to enrich us culturally.

Then everything stopped. I have previously argued that by the turn of the century the rate of cultural change had slowed to almost zero. My hobby horse examples are the movies American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. American Graffiti came out in 1973 and was a nostalgic look back at 1962. After eleven years, the world had changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Dazed and Confused came out in 1993 and was a nostalgic look at 1976 -- 13 years and it was a new world. Today, if you look back 11, or 13, or even 15 years back, everything would look pretty much the same. No one would be carrying a smartphone, but aside from that the end of the '90s would look pretty much identical to today. Clothes, hairstyles, music, humor -- the differences between then and now are trivial and superficial.

So I guess you can't blame anyone for '90s nostalgia. It was the last chance anyone will get to look back on a different world. Nostalgia is dead. Generation Z will never know a world that was different than their own.

[Rant] Tellin' Stories

Tellin' Stories: Robin Hanson posted an excerpt from Elements of Fiction Writing, by Orson Scott Card, the successful science fiction writer. He highlights Card's description of the four elements of every story: milieu, idea, character, and event. All stories contain these four elements in some combination.

Leo Tolstoy once said "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." I would have replied there really is only one story. A stranger coming to town is only interesting because it sends a man on a journey. But the point of that is that the change in a person if only thing that matters. It's all about character; about enlightening an aspect of a human that causes interest.

Card, it seems, thinks that belief is recent to the 20th century:
Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be "good."
As an example, he offers Lord or the Rings, which is a story based mostly on milieu. Ideas, Character, and Plot are shallow and inconsistent. Yet it is still great (according to Card and most other people).

Hanson chimes in to suggest our elevation of character stories it is a by-product of rising incomes:
Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features.
And adds later:
It is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.
Which is the sort of off-the-cuff Hansonian analysis that rings true, given the premise. Although I suspect all writing in any age has been geared to cognitive elites. At least those elite enough to read. But then we are talking about stories generically, not specifically writing.

I still worry about that premise -- that the great stories aren't just about character. I'm just not sure it's correct. Perhaps I am too deeply attached to my own bias. Let's take a close-to-home look.

Every Sunday night or the past few weeks, Game of Thrones and Mad Men have been on back-to-back. Mad Men is one of the most character focused shows (stories) ever produced. Sure, the milieu (the '60s) is important, but the specific events are almost irrelevant. There is no question the point of the exercise is following the development and interaction of extraordinarily complete and realistic characters. Game of Thrones is all about events. Again, milieu (Westros, etc.) is important but the bulk of the story is about the events that happen -- a sort of live look into a timeline. Characters have some shading, which is good, but no development. My main critique of GoT is that it doesn't go anywhere. Everyone is moved around like pieces on a chessboard but with no larger idea behind it. Things happen, but they are only important because they lead to the next thing that happens. Attention is held but nothing is enlightened.

Tangent: It's fun (for me anyway) to apply this "four pillars" concept to some the great TV shows. The Sopranos was a combo of character and idea, the idea being how deep our self-delusion run. Deadwood I would say idea mostly idea (how does barbarism become civilization?) with character a close second. The Wire Started out as idea (institutions as vengeful deities) and character but I would argue it became events based as it aged and lost it's edge.

What about the paragon himself, Shakespeare? Nothing more highbrow than that, amirite? Characters are memorable but the arcs are not all that sophisticated. He leans on good versus evil instead of grey versus grey. I'd call him an events guy in the main. Of course, the poetry is what counts here, not the story.

Perhaps it's more a matter of goals. If you believe the highest form of story is one that enlightens, then I don't see how you get away from character as your focus, most likely in some combo with idea. Events and Milieu are interesting but can only be enlightening if they affect people or ideas.

But who (apart from George Bernard Shaw) would suggest Shakespeare's stories were inadequate? Or, as Card suggested, Lord of the Rings? They are great stories with less than complete attention to character. It's clear that in terms of effect on the reader (listener? consumer?) these stories are second to none. I have to grudgingly agree with Card and Hanson. I (and it seems We) have probably shortchanged non-character focused stories, but I still don't think they move beyond their value as mere stories without a character focus of some sort. Perhaps I am too busy trying to differentiate great stories from art.

[Movies] Going Attractions - June Releases

Going Attractions: June Releases - Just like last month, these are the big time films that came out in June. I will see precisely zero of these in the theatre, but I will happily speculate on whether I will catch them on cable.

Man of Steel -- Never met a Superman movie that was worth a damn. Although I do remember a couple of humorous moments in the second Christopher Reeve film. The plane rescue in the previous reboot was pretty good. The two-part Mole Men episode in the Superman TV series from the '50s was about as good as TV sci-fi got at the time (I'm guessing -- it was 9 years before my existence). That's about all the good I have to say about Superman. I was a Marvel Comics kid, not DC, so even then I didn't cotton to the Big S. I thought the movie Hollywoodland about the rise and fall of George Reeves (the '50s TV Superman) was well done for the most part, even to point of liking Ben Affleck in it. Of course, the real enduring legacy of Superman is that it made Jerry Seinfeld want a girlfriend named Lois so much he raced Duncan Meyer. Until then, He Chose Not To Run!

So, no. I doubt I'll watch it.

This is the End -- Whoa, what a concept. Endless self-referential irony in a movie that is 100% cameos. Future film historians will look back on this movie as the pinnacle of Hollywood post-modern comedy. It's absurd to even offer an opinion. Better to offer a sneering review of the opinion along with droll some meta commentary. Still, Seth Rogen's posse can be pretty funny so I'll likely watch it. Hell, if I could zone out to Hot Tub Time Machine I can zone out to this.

The Purge -- Negative. The only thing I want to know is at what point Landru shows up. (If you got that reference you are true geek. Respect.)

World War Z -- As much as I admire Brad Pitt's work, there is only so much you can do with zombies, what with their deceased nature. Don't get me wrong, I love zombies, per se. They are the ultimate video game cannon fodder; the new nazis in Castle Wolfenstein, if you will. And you can pretty much do anything you want with them with moral impunity because they are already dead (necrophilia aside). But you just know someone is going to come along and humanize them. Have a pretty girl fall in love one in defiance of her parents. We'll have a zombie rom-com. Then it will be over. We'll have to find new target for a advanced lasers and plasma pulse weapons, never mind plain old chainsaws. Cuz they'll have rights. Wait. You say it's been done? Crap. What's left now? Orcs? Skrulls? So I guess this film is the last hurrah of traditional zombies as nothing but a gore source. I suppose I'll watch it if I happen to stumble upon it while channel surfing, before they ban it for being offensive to the living dead. Civilization continues to decline.

[Detroit] Murder and Hockey

Murder and Hockey: A new description of how bad things are in Detroit -- yeah, I'm at it again -- includes this wonderful line: "...there were 344 murders in 2011, of which just 39 were solved." Maybe Detroit is the new Juarez. Seriously, that sounds like something pretty close to anarchy. It's a wonder murderers from all across the globe don't dump bodies along Cass Corridor knowing full well that no one'll will ever get around to looking into the case. But we still want a new hockey stadium. Let's not lose track of what's important.

Meanwhile, across Eight Mile Rd. in Southfield, where I grew up, the good middle-class blacks are trying to keep the bad ghetto blacks from moving in, thanks to the real estate meltdown. Holy exploding irony meters, Batman. I wish I could wax eloquent about the glories of the Southfield of my childhood, but I cannot tell a lie. It is a dreary, soulless slab of cement filled with nondescript office buildings and downscale strip malls. Still, at least it's not Detroit.

Now I have a policy of never going east of U.S. 23 unless I have to get to the airport. I am a wise man.

[Rant] The New Thurston Howell III

The New Thurston Howell III: Decades ago I spent a few summer sailing on Lake Erie so the upcoming America's Cup caught my eye. The America's Cup used to be a day-sailing race between multi-millionaires who had an this sort of honor system for what sorts of boats could enter and they were at least marginally related to the sorts of sailboats most sailors actually sail. They may have been haughty rich bastards playing with expensive toys, but at least they had a sense of reticence and tradition.

But the ever advancing crudity of the world is an irresistible force. America's Cup is now a competition between multi-billionaires and oil sheiks, raced in vehicles that are essentially planes or gliders constructed in such a way that they keep some semblance of adherence to the water. They do not have sails, they have wings. They do not have hulls, they have aerodynamic fuselages. In short, they bear little or no resemblance to proper boats.

The big cheese in the America's Cup is the reigning champion, Larry Ellison. Ellison made his fortune as the founder of Oracle, the database/software giant, and is about as close to a perfect megalomaniac as ever borrowed your Grey Poupon. The yacht club he selected as headquarters for his defense of the Cup was chosen on the fact that they needed his money so badly they would let him do whatever he wanted -- basically turning control of the place over to him as needed. Better yet, get this quote from a NY Times article:
...Mr. Ellison, who recently appeared at a red-carpet premiere of 'The Wind Gods,' a laudatory documentary about his 2010 [America's Cup] victory that was produced by his son, David.
I'm sure Ellison will win again; he has apparently priced-out a good chunk of the competition. Maybe he'll commission a laudatory HBO mini-series this time. The America's Cup is lost cause -- corrupted by narcissism, it is the freak show of sailing, to be watched for the purposes of gawkery only. No point in complaining, though, it had a good run of over a century. Can't really ask for more than that.

More on Ellison's megalomania: He recently purchased the island of Lanai. Yes, the entire Hawaiian Island of Lanai. That includes a couple of high-end resorts and all the infrastructure. He is apparently going to turn it into some sort of utopian sustainable tourist paradise. The sort of place all solid upper-middle class progressives would vacation with the same pride they take in driving hybrids and overpaying at Whole Foods. Truth in Advertising: I'd vacation there in a heartbeat.

My favorite quote from that last link: "...he likes to say his favorite car is his 'white Toyota,' a white Lexus LFA, the company's $380,000 race car." What a remarkably dickish thing to say. Larry, I have owned Toyotas exclusively for the last 28 years, and you, sir, are no Toyota driver.

Funny thing about Larry is how blatantly nouveau riche he is. In his seminal book on class in America, Class, Paul Fussel points out how actual upper class folks don't attract attention. They don't want it, don't care about it. Being demonstrative about money is what a middle class guy does when he gets rich. That's Larry: a middle class guy who's money makes him feel special, allows him to do special things, and he wants you to know it. (Which is not to say he doesn't do good things with it.) Compared to the truly upper class -- who would be more inclined to race Newport-Bermuda in a trusty old Hinckley -- Larry's boating antics make him look like Thurston Howell or Judge Smails.

On the other hand, Larry probably doesn't care what people think of him, and my Toyota is 12 years old. So who should be talking about class?