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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - October 2004

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SUBJECT:
Tricked or Treated
DATE:
October-31-2004

I've heard that Halloween is the second-largest retail revenue-producing holiday in America, right behind Christmas. I can believe it. Between costumes, candy, and decorations, there's a flood of consumer goods shoved in our collectively buying faces every year. Even though the day has some vague religious (both pagan and Christian) origins, mostly it's an entirely secular celebration--save for the Biblical fundamentalists who have a grand old time every year indulging openly in the paranoia they must normally suppress to avoid complete ostracism from society-at-large (in those that wish to avoid it, that is).

Anyway, I don't really mind Halloween. My kids had a blast and I got to eat Reese's Peanut Butter Cups--the poster child for acid-reflux disease--by the basketful. What I can't stand is how cheesy the holiday is. It's not just the commercialism, per se. We commercialize everything as a culture (the 9/11 commemorative coins perhaps being our finest hour in that department). It's the cheapness of the commercialization that bugs me. Poor-quality costumes. Chintzy plastic decorations with lousy artwork. The annual recycling of low-budget horror movies as ratings grabs. If we're going to do this every year, can we at least put a little effort into it? Some inventive, hand-made costumes? Some decorating done with a little theatrical know-how? Movies that think something other than gallons of fake blood and cow viscera could be scary? Can't we change something--anything--about the day to make it a little more interesting?

Except the candy. Leave the candy. Put that pumpkin down and back away slowly.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Actually, It Was Not Thinking of Patty and Selma
DATE:
October-30-2004

Went to renew my driver's license this morning. Like death and diarrhea, visiting DMV is one of great social equalizers in our democracy. Hoboes and CEO's alike must stand in that line every few years. (Though, I wonder if that's really true. I mean, does Donald Trump actually have to fill out a form, stand against the blue screen, and look at the smiley sticker? And who ever heard of hoboes driving?)

Anyway, as I sat there with my numbered slip and six points of ID, I became aware of the PA system playing music. Tom Petty's "The Waiting (Is the Hardest Part)." My hand to God.

What I want to know is was that just a radio coincidence, or was it a tape some sly dog at the DMV put together. They are, invariably, a rather eccentrically dour crew; however, as far-fetched as it may seem, there may be a few among them with some sense of humor. That could explain why several women my own age kept calling me "hun."

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Bin Laden Tape
DATE:
October-29-2004

Other than truly profound annoyance at confirmation that the guy's still alive, the main emotion I had watching clips from the bin Laden tape was disbelief. Not at what he said--no surprises there, except perhaps in the lack of fiery religious rhetoric. It's almost like he's softening his tone to appeal to the undecideds. I guess he's realized that it's only most, rather than all, Arabs who consider him a hero.

The thing that really floored me was how crappy the translation was. The voice-over I heard on network news was halting and not in idiomatic English. Here's global enemy numero uno and we can't even find somebody to translate his speech coherently?

Kerry keeps saying that the war on terror can be won with intelligence and strategic enforcement--but maybe Bush's policy of blundering military incursions are our best chance. Judging from the stammering of the guy we picked to tell us what bin Laden said, maybe we shouldn't put too much stock in the quality of our national intelligence. Lord knows Dubya doesn't.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Protocols of the Elders of Transit
DATE:
October-28-2004

Riding on a New Jersey Transit commuter train, I noticed bolted to an overhead shelf was a metal box--bigger than a breadbox, but not by much. On it, it had a glow-in-the-dark sign (these are a pretty cool idea in themselves) that said in big, red letters:

GUIDELINES AND PROTOCOLS FOR THE USE OF THE BULLHORN

And below that, were two or three length paragraphs in type too small to read from where I was.

At least the mystery of what's in the box is solved, but now I'm trying to figure out why using a bullhorn requires three paragraphs of explanation, not to mention it's own set of protocols. A bullhorn is an inately obnoxious device--can a set of user guidelines help kept that to a minimum, like cell phone courtesy signs on the train? In an emergency, is the conductor supposed to read all that stuff? Is a passenger? Who is it for? What can these instructions possibly say?

I guess I could just get up and look, but that would take all the fun out of it.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Weapons of Mass Delusion
DATE:
October-27-2004

I'm sorry... how many tons of high explosive did you say was missing?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
My Retirement Plan
DATE:
October-26-2004

I've been thinking some more about what kind of money-printing musical act I'll one day turn my kids (girl now under 2, boy almost 4) into . It's got to be something unique; the singin'/dancin' boy-band/pop-tart thing's been done to death. It's got to take advantage of the sibling relationship, but not in some creepy Donny-and-Marie badinage way. Finally, in order to be something I can stand to devote the necessary time and energy to, it's got to have music I like, performed a way I like it. In short, I want them to be an act I would actually like to see. After rolling the idea around a while, I think I've got something--at least an image of what I want.

They'd be college-age, closing on 20. They'd perform together, wearing similar-but-not identical jeans and t-shirt that have been tastefully grunge-ified at frayed and faded edges. They'd both play acoustic guitars, facing toward each other at a single microphone like folk singers. Their playlist would be classic rock songs arranged for hard-driving acoustic guitar--the way Pete Townshend did Who songs on the Secret Policeman's Other Ball video--and they'd play and sing in complex harmonies. The perfomance would be still and intense, no dancing or swaying, just furious strumming and vocalizing--often with eyes closed. The whole concept is to position them like a rock-and-roll string quartet, a brother-and-sister duo that perform rock songs like classical music, with serious concentration and elementally simple staging. Offstage, they could be chatty and silly in interviews and whatnot; onstage, it's all black backdrop, single spot, no-nonsense virtuosity. I have no doubt critics and parents would love it, and kids would be fascinated by it.

Of course, there are a couple of big variables here. For example, my kids may not go for the intensive guitar and vocal lessons I plan to put them through starting at age 12. Or the music I pick for them. Or the whole idea. Also, in 20-ish years, who knows what the music scene will be like and whether such an act would fly. I sure it would do well today. Maybe I shouldn't wait and start casting now. Yeah... screw the little ingrates! Refusing to live out my rock star dreams. What they hell do they think I made them for?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Turning to Ash
DATE:
October-25-2004

During a performance on Saturday Night Live, pop tart Ashlee Simpson walked offstage after the vocal track she was supposed to lip-sync to played the wrong song. As much as I don't care about this (you mean pop acts lip-sync on stage! a 19-year old girl got flustered on live TV!), it did spark an interest in Ashlee and her older sister Jessica, an even more successful pop tart. Apparently, they're both creations (literally and figuratively) of their father, a psychologist/minister (there's a double-whammy), who got them started in show biz and still manages their careers (shrink/rev/stage dad ... what a triple-threat!). Mom's a fashion designer who helps out as well.

Now the Simpson gals are cute enough (though Jessica's cartoonishly broad smile creeps me out a little) and seem to be comfortably above the low threshold of talent needed for celebrity today. With a father skilled in both the ancient and modern arts of behavioral manipulation, it's no wonder they were shepherded to stardom so easily. Their rise is practically by-the-numbers. They began singing in church (the morally unimpeachable excuse to drive your kids to perform), auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club (same era that produced Justin, Britney, and Christina), and got their first recording deals with gospel records (talk about something that plays in Peoria). A marriage of bubblegum royalty (Jessica to Nick of boy-band 98-degrees), an MTV reality show (Jessica as cartoonishly dumb-blonde newlywed), a follow-up for little sis (Ashlee's got an MTV reality show, too), and keep on keeping on with the singin'-n-actin' gig for both. That's the way you do it.

Now my kids (@ 2 and 4) are cute (I know every parent says that, but dammit, mine really are!). I'm sure they'll grow into attractive blonde, blue-eyed teens. I can start them on singing. Get them a leg-up on acting. School them in the fine arts of shillin' the rubes. I've always imagined if I won the lottery, I'd have a blast producing a teen pop act just for the challenge of it. Well, I may not have lottery money, but those two bright, beautiful (really...they are!) spawn of mine are a resource nearly as valuable. Properly molded, they could do quite nicely for their old dad's retirement funds. I'd better get started.

Oh, wait. To follow the plan, I'd have to start going to church. Never mind.

-- mm

P.S. - I think this entry definitely holds the record for the most parentheticals.

SUBJECT:
Iraqi Trainee Soldiers Executed
DATE:
October-24-2004

Today, 44 newly U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers, riding in four transport vehicles on leave from training, were ambushed and killed--many shot while lying down, "execution-style" (a stupid term when applied to war). Two of the vehicles were taken, the others destroyed. A group headed by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility.

An oft-repeated tale nowadays is that when President Bush confided his intent to invade Iraq to Colin Powell, a less-than-enthusiastic Powell is reputed to have said something to the effect of "if you do this, Mr. President, you'll own it." Well, thanks to Dubya and pals, we do own it. Our taxes are paying for it. Our soldiers are dying for it. And a deeply infiltrated guerilla enemy, with no strategic purpose other that to keep Iraq in chaos, finds easy targets in anyone distracted by the work of trying to rebuild it.

I feel sorry for those Iraqis. They opted to sign up for an army being organized by a foreign power -- probably thinking that it was best hope to help bring some stability and safety to their country and families -- only to be killed, unarmed, by foreigners bent on keeping the country unstable and insecure.

Note to Bush: foreigners in Iraq just complicate the situation. Except for us, of course. After all, we own it now.

-- mm

Story on cnn.com


SUBJECT:
Abomination in The Hat
DATE:
October-23-2004

Watched about 10 minutes on HBO of the new Cat in the Hat movie, starring Mike Myers. That was more than enough. I won't dignify this absolutely horrid turd with much photonic ink, except to say--and I don't like to speculate on the emotions of dead people, but I'm pretty confident on this one--Theodor Geisel would have hated every instant of it and felt it nothing short of a violation of everything his life's work stood for.

Apparently, this C. in H. insult to humanity and the only slightly less offensive Jim Carrey Grinch Who Stole Christmas are the direct result of Audrey Geisel--widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel and President and CEO of Dr. Seuss Enterprises--selling the rights and giving her blessing to Hollywood grave-robbing at it's most abominable. Audrey, Geisel's second wife (and reputed mistress prior to his first wife, Helen, committing suicide in 1967) married him in 1968, long after most of his famous works were published. When he died in 1991, she began exhibiting and selling some of his private artworks, and widely licensing his characters. She allegedly made $10 million in 2000 alone.

Lest you think Dr. Seuss was just a fun children's author and these are just kids' movies and I should lighten up, I suggest you check out The Political Dr. Seuss airing currently on PBS which delves into Geisel's vehement anti-Nazi/Fascist sentiments and the pervasive anti-authoritarianism in his works for children and adults. He took his subject matter--and his quest for children's literacy--quite seriously. I believe that seeing his widow's imprimatur on sadistic, off-color, illiterate (the bits of narration don't even quote his text verbatim) film versions of his work would probably have made him furious.

Anyway, read his books to your kids. Don't let them see these movies. However, feel free to let them watch the excellent cartoons made in the 60's and 70's in collaboration with animation legend Chuck Jones.

-- mm

The Political Dr. Seuss on PBS.org

"Earnings from the Crypt" for Dr. Seuss' estate on celebritytrendz.com, (source data from Forbes).
Some more detail on Audrey Geisel's earnings mentioned in sandiegoreader.com


SUBJECT:
The Boy's Latest Observation
DATE:
October-21-2004

This morning in the bathroom my 3.75-year-old son summarized his understanding of anatomical gender differences. Quote: "Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Vaginas look like butts, but are really girl penises."

I wouldn't put this one in the "he's a genius!" category, but pretty astute observations in their own way. I guess what this tells me most is it's definitely time to stop wandering around naked in front of him.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Iran Goes Republican
DATE:
October-21-2004

In an Iranian TV interview, as reported by the Associated Press, the head of Iran's security council said he would prefer to see Bush win the election, rather than Kerry. He further went on to state that he felt historically Democrats had done more harm to Iran than Republicans.

I can see that. After all, the U.S. sold arms to Iran under both the Reagan and Bush I administrations. While economic sanctions were imposed on Iran during the Clinton years, Republican stronghold Haliburton found ways to skirt around them. Bush II removed Saddam Hussein, Iran's greatest military enemy for nearly three decades, from power which has allowed fundamentalist Islamic insurgents from Iran free reign to act in Iraq.

Heck, the only harsh thing Dubya has done to nearly nu-cul-er capable Iran--widely acknowledged as a major financial and logistical supporter of Islamic terrorist groups (check your 9/11 Commission report, folks)--is some "Axis-of-Evil" name-calling. Fortunately, they're big enough to deal with that.

-- mm

Associated Press story on theglobeandmail.com


SUBJECT:
Lost in Translations
DATE:
October-20-2004

In a recent conversation, the subject of the work of Elfriede Jelinek, this year's Nobel prize winner for literature, came up. I said I had never read any her novels, and added how I didn't particularly like reading translation (Jelinek writes in German). That's not to say I avoid it studiously--I was very into Milan Kundera novels for a while--but I've had some experiences that have left me wary of translation.

Here's the main one: in college, I had to write a paper about The Stranger by Albert Camus, originally in French. I read a translation (can't remember by whom), then proceeded to find some journal articles about the book for research. I read a passage in one article, citing the powerful Eucharistic imagery in the burial scene of the narrator's mother. It quoted a passage from the text describing dirt being placed on top of a casket: (forgive the paraphrasing, it's been many years) "the blood-red earth mingled with the white flesh of roots." After 16 years in Catholic school, that kind of language is unambiguous to me. I was surprised I'd missed such an obvious reference in the text, and I went back to check the version I'd read. Much to my surprise, the passage in my book read simply "the tawny soil mixed with pale bits of root."

That always stuck in my mind as a perfect example of the perils of translation. If Camus used French vocabulary or phrasing that echoed the Catholic Eucharist ceremony, one translator was dead on while the other missed the point. If not, one translator fabricated additional meaning, while the other was more faithful. Which is correct? Don't know... can't read French. I have to trust the translator. It's just one more layer between the reader and the author, where omissions and misinterpretations can abound. Remember playing telephone as I kid? Try doing it at the U.N., if you want a really fun experience.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Vegas Casino Dream
DATE:
October-19-2004

I had a great dream the other night. I was in Las Vegas and I had been participating in some big gambling event--like a poker tournament. I was standing at the cash-out window with a friend of mine and apparently we, playing as partners, had won the tournament prize of $130 million dollars. We were presented with a choice to take the money or let it ride in a final drawing that would give us either ownership of the casino itself, or nothing. I said to my friend "I bet this place makes $130 million a day... let's go for it." We did, and won. Or, rather, I won exclusively--though I agreed on the spot I'd split ownership with my friend. Next thing I know, I'm in a room and heads of operations for various casino functions (gambling, housekeeping, food & beverage, utilities, entertainment, etc.) are all giving me reports, since I'm now the owner and will have to learn how to run the place. I remember thinking this was going to be quite an adventure.

This dream fascinates me for several reasons. First off, I am not much of gambler (there's no way I'd ever let $130 million ride, no matter how big the possible pay out), and I don't have much interest in running a large, complex business. However, in the dream, both traits seemed very natural to me and caused me no anxiety. Also, I always try to analyze the conscious roots of dream imagery. In this case, for example: I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago; I recently saw a billboard for a $130 million lottery prize; I've noticed poker on TV seems very popular right now (World Series of Poker, Celebrity Poker, etc.-- though why I would have played with a partner, as if it were bridge or something, eludes me); and the friend in my dream always has more money than me, so the idea of me acquiring enormous wealth that I'd share with him is kind of a turnabout.

However, in modern parlance, dream analysis usually implies examining unconscious roots. OK then... a thing much on my mind lately that I am trying to suppress is that stupid Bravo sitcom-writing reality show contest (see August, 13 2004) I sent an entry script to. On one level, I tell myself that I completed a decent script and that successful experiment was my sole goal in entering. I should harbor no fantasies of being chosen to appear on the show, or even a desire to have any feedback on the script (I've submitted enough writing to enough sources to know the drill on that). Still, I can't help but daydream about it. The satisfaction of having something I put a fair bit of work into actually become successful. The opportunity to see my work produced (the winners get to make a pilot episode). The pure, subversive joy of being on a reality show--a genre I malign at every opportunity. I've often described such a thing as "winning the lottery"--and, dammit, I'd love to win the lottery. But, so the disappointment of not winning (as the odds favor) won't be too crushing, I'm always trying to "psyche myself down" for the loss. An interesting thing, walking that line between hopeful optimism and practical resignation. A good thing to practice in an election year.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Full of Shat
DATE:
October-18-2004

William Shatner has a new album, a follow-up to his 1968 spoken word opus, "The Transformed Man," that launched a thousand guffaws. The interesting buzz on this album is that it's supposed to be pretty good. In place of ludicrously grave recitations of pop song lyrics interspersed with Shakespeare quotations--an understandable experiment in the artistic climate of the late 60's, I suppose--Shatner's new album, entitled "Has Been," features contributions from contemporary musicians such as Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, and Henry Rollins. Shatner still speaks, rather than sings, but the lyrics are original (written for him, that is) and are meant as tongue-in-cheek, but still pointed, comments on his life. The title "Has Been" being a perfect example.

For one, I'm glad to see this. I've always felt bad for Shatner... I mean, here's this actor who becomes the figurehead of the biggest pop culture phenomenon of the 20th century. That's got to mess you up. The ego boost of fans, the savaging of critics, the excitement of being known the world over, the tedium of having to be one thing for people. It's definitely a give and take thing, and Shatner seems to have weathered it well. Maybe he took himself too seriously at one point, maybe he was an irritating goofball at another, but hell, he's 73 and still working! That alone merits respect.

I have to say I love seeing him on Boston Legal. I actually like the show (much to my surprise... not big on lawyer shows) and his performance is one of the main reasons. As over-the-hill hotshot lawyer Denny Crane who has lost none of his bluster--but may be losing his mind--it's a character perfectly tailored to the myth of Shatner. It's great to see the guy actually act. Combine that with James Spader's character--a witheringly polite, manipulative, amoral trial lawyer--and it's like watching Captain Kirk battle Alzheimer's as he hangs out with a Vulcan who likes to mess with people's heads. Even if Shatner can never be free of the legacy of Kirk, at least he seems to have made peace with that--and is even finding new ways to enjoy it. You go, Bill.

-- mm

William Shatner sings again on cnn.com


SUBJECT:
Fahrenheit 9/11
DATE:
October-17-2004

Finally saw Fahrenheit 9/11 and I can say that everything you've heard about it is true:

  • it is biased and one-sided
  • it contains inaccuracies and unsubstantiated allegations
  • it is manipulative and exploits suffering
  • it makes Bush look like an idiot and a criminal
  • it makes the entire Bush Administration look like one colossal oil-fueled conspiracy
  • it dramatizes perfectly how the wealthy exploit the poor, even unto death, for their own profit
  • it is enraging, moving, hilarious, and ultimately frustrating because it chooses polemic over honesty.

See it for yourself and form your own a opinion. If you don't want to give Michael Moore money, then get a bootleg copy. I'm sure he won't mind, as long as you see it.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Plow and Pedal
DATE:
October-16-2004

Bought a snowblower and an exercise bike today. Actually, I bought them last week and had to wait for Sears to get them in stock. I wanted the snowblower because shoveling out from the last couple heavy winters did my already-lousy lumbar spine no good--plus, now we have an even bigger driveway than before. I wanted the exercise bike because, well, I'm fat. Been getting fatter ever since aforementioned spine went seriously kablooey about two years ago, halting what was at least a respectable exercise routine. Also, having two small children has turned me into a stress eater. I yell at them, then have a cookie. Repeat as necessary.

Got top-of-the-line stuff, too. Nordic Track magnetic resistance bike. Craftsman 8.5-horsepower, 27-inch intake dual-stage snowblower. I've had some bad experiences with cheaper products recently, so I splurged. Set me back $1,200.

I hate buying things. Oh, I love to shop... love to browse through stores or catalogs or dot-coms and fantasize about all the bright, shiny gew-gaws I might like to indulge in. But when it comes to actually plunking down cash and bringing the object of my affection home, I have almost instant buyer's remorse. I shouldn't have spent the money. I don't really need this thing. I need some other thing more. This thing won't work like I want it, too. There's a better one on the market I should have gotten instead. I should learn to do without luxuries and donate spare cash to the needy. I've become comfortable with purchasing stuff in the way, I imagine, a hit-man is comfortable with killing. It's just a job. My job is to recycle money, to take the salary a successful business pays me and put as much as possible right back into the consumer economy.

In that respect, I'm quite good at my job. I think I deserve a raise.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Can't Always Get What You Want
DATE:
October-15-2004

I was talking to someone the other day about their life's ambitions and frustrations. A phrase came out of the conversation that stuck with me:

You can be anything you want. You just can't be everything you want.

So true, so true. If you want outstanding achievement in one field, you very often must sacrifice another. Nobody (excepting, of course, Buckaroo Banzai) can be a neurosurgeon, rock star, professional athlete, race car driver, millionaire, poet, philosopher, etc., etc. If you want to be any one of those things, it's easy. Dedicate yourself exclusively to the pursuit of it for 10 years and the odds are pretty strong you'll get it. You will, undoubtedly, have to sacrifice many other things along the way, but that's the price of success.

Of course, most of us can't do that. Most of us can't afford (physically, emotionally, financially ... take your pick) the single-minded pursuit of one ideal over a decade. We're too easily fatigued or distracted or frustrated--or we simply enjoy dabbling. I know I do. I'd love to excel at one single thing, be the best in the world at it. But I'm contenting myself with being mediocre at a wider swath of activities. And guess what... you probably are, too.

You got a problem with that? There's a line from a Joe Jackson song that's stuck with me:

You can't get what you want, till you know what you want

-- mm


SUBJECT:
No #@$%#! Privacy
DATE:
October-14-2004

An e-mail containing some blog topics I was working on, that I sent to myself from my home address to my work address, was bounced back for containing offensive language. Here's the notice:


MailMarshal Rule: Content Security (Inbound) : Block Unacceptable Language
Script Offensive Language (Basic) Triggered in Body
Expression: asshole Triggered 1 times weighting 5
Expression: friggin* Triggered 1 times weighting 5
Expression: wankin* Triggered 1 times weighting 5
Script Offensive Language (Extensive) Triggered in Body
Expression: asshole Triggered 1 times weighting 60

Email Content Security provided by NetIQ MailMarshal.

As much as I'm alarmed by the Big Brother undertones here (my company uses software to actually read all my incoming e-mail?), the bottom line is that I do acknowledge that work is work and they have a right to monitor everything I do while at work or when using their equipment (phones, faxes, computers, networks, etc.). More than anything else though, I'm just baffled as to why they care. OK, scanning for sexually explicit words could be justified as a part of porn spam filtering: that explains "asshole." But "friggin" and "wankin"? I can't believe these are even on the list... with a weighting no less! Yes, they may have origins tied to sexual slang, but they're just colloquialisms now in my book. Can't the software tell the difference?

I just hope ECHELON has a little more ability to recognize subtleties.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Debate 3: Rise of the Machines
DATE:
October-13-2004

The third and final debate presidential debate went off pretty much as one could have assumed. Bush was more prepared this time, and made a better showing with less of his characteristic fumbling and fewer grimaces of frustration. Kerry was calm and in control, but stiffer than before, almost as if he was slightly bored by the process. Both harped on their catch phrases and batted around meaningless statistics, or tossed out numbers in the billions and trillions that are simply beyond any normal person's scope of comprehension. I was half waiting for somebody to say zillion or gajillion.

In any event, I'm glad this was the final debate. Both candidates have staked their ground pretty clearly and their rhetoric is getting repetitive. Anybody who's paid an iota of attention over the last few months knows exactly what you'd get from either if elected--and the sad-but-true fact that it wont' be that different. Though they struggle to present themselves as diametrically opposite (lots of "this is where my opponent and I have a fundamental difference" kind of talk going on), it's unlikely they'll be too much variation in the nation regardless of who wins. Iraq will be a mess for some time, the MidEast will continue to export Islamist terrorism, the economy will struggle, health care will falter, and lots of kids will get crappy educations. Maybe the White House can nudge through a small improvement in some area, or mess another up by neglect or mismanagement--but the big problems of today will remain for some time. The winning candidate will just put their own spin on them.

On the plus side (if you can put it that way) the good things in the country will likely continue. Most people will still manage to get by financially, and a quite a number will be doing very well, thank you very much. If/when there's another terrorist attack in the U.S.--even something of 9/11 scale or greater--the vast, vast, vast majority of Americans will be largely unaffected. Case in point: I was in Manhattan on 9/11, yet it had very little impact on my daily life--job, home, family, income, etc., all just fine. Granted, there's a big gash in my psyche, but physically, the effect was almost nil. Call it a kind of survivor guilt, if you like, but I often feel like I should have experienced more hardship, given the degree of hardship suffered by others. The machinery of the country just keeps chugging along. I suppose that should comfort me, but I find it disturbing in a way I can't quite grasp.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Still Fat
DATE:
October-12-2004

Oh, by the way, in case anybody cares, I have not lost the 10 pounds I surmised I could lose easily in a month (see August 27, 2004). In my defense, I made no effort to modify either my caloric intake or expenditure.

So, note to all you other stress-eating, desk-jockeying, closing-in-on-40'ers out there: losing weight actually does require effort.

Damn. Getting old really does suck.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Steamed Rice
DATE:
October-11-2004

Anne Rice's latest book (her 25th novel), Blood Canticle featuring her popular Vampire Lestat character, was published about a year ago. According to Knopf publishing, it's sold about 375,000 copies to date. As you might imagine, it's garnered its share of fans and detractors, many of whom have expressed their opinions on Amazon.com. Interestingly, one of the reviews--actually a response specifically to others' negative reviews--was posted by Anne Rice herself on September 6 of this year. Even this is not so unusual; many writers seem to take advantage of Amazon as a forum to comment on their own books or the reactions they engender. What sets Rice's apart is that hers was a full-blown rant.

I've read three Anne Rice books (Interview, Lestat, and Damned). I found them fascinating takes on the vampire mythology and richly written. I also found them a bit tedious at times and the impact of their conceit--not to mention the skill of their execution--did seem to diminish even over the three books (which were published over a twelve-year span, 1976-1988). It's not a big surprise that a novelist might hit on a winning formula and return to it, sequelizing for fans and profits at the cost of a gradual erosion in quality and/or originality. Many writers have done it, and many more would love the chance to. The fact that some (and by no means all) of the book's readers were seriously disappointed in Rice's umpteenth outing strikes me as perfectly plausible. Again, it's Rice's reaction that disturbs the normalcy of the scenario.

Her Amazon posting is a long, rambling, single paragraph that blasts her critics contemptuously, defends her novel in obsessive detail, and contains some ruminations on the nature of great art. Rant is really the only word that applies. Now, I can understand why a writer might be annoyed by negative reviews, particularly with the snide nastiness that web-based anonymity can spur in the most unqualified of judges. However, what I can't wrap my head around is how a best-selling, multi-millionaire author with a huge fan base could be so bothered by it as to let loose with 1,200 words of venomous hysteria. Among the joys/dangers of reading another's writing is that you can start to feel as if you know the author's private mind through their work. The dangerous part comes when you misinterpret the work and project your preconceptions onto the author. At this risk of doing that here, I'll go out on a limb and make an assumption about Rice's mind: she's lost it. Seriously, there's a whopping load of insecurity behind such a defensive diatribe. Being called a hack only bugs you if, deep down, you suspect it might actually be true. And Rice's own frustration with her work comes out with stunning Freudian clarity twice: "...how glad I am that this book is the last one in a series..." and "And yes, the Chronicles are no more! Thank God!"

Anne, baby, chill out. Relax and just laugh at your critics (all the way to the bank, as the saying goes).

-- mm

Anne Rice's review page on amazon.com

Article about her amazon post on nytimes.com (registration required)


SUBJECT:
Check Your Factcheck Facts
DATE:
October-10-2004

In the recent vice-presidential debate, Dick Cheney referred viewers to check some statistics he cited on "factcheck.com". However, what he actually meant was factcheck.org, a non-partisan, not-for-profit site affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. Factcheck.org systematically goes through both candidates statements and bullet points out errors, mis-statements, faulty logic, obfuscations, and slippery interpretations of data. For example, when Bush says Kerry voted 90-something times to increase taxes, that includes votes over time on different versions of a the same bill, votes for budget initiatives, etc--so, while not strictly inaccurate, it is misleading by design. Similarly, when Kerry's ads say Dick Cheney's gotten $2 million from Haliburton while he's been vice president, that's essentially false and willfully misleading. Cheney is receiving deferred salary payments from the time he was CEO (a common, perfectly legal tax-dodge among highly paid executives). He is contractually owed that money and, due to private insurance he bought for it, would get it even if Haliburton went bankrupt tomorrow. Lots of fun stuff like that awaits you at factcheck.org.

Factcheck.com, however, is a little web services company in the Caymans that--minutes after the debate ended--got crushed with hits to its site. Unable to handle the traffic, someone at the company decided to redirect all incoming calls to the site to the first political information website he could find--georgesoros.com. George Soros is a wealthy philanthropist and avowed liberal, so folks who went to the Cheney-recommended factcheck.com site found themselves bounced to Soros' home page, with a big "Why we must not reelect President Bush" banner.

Apparently, this was all just a mistake, snowballing from Cheney's understandable dot-com v. dot-org slip, and both Soros and Factcheck.com protest any collusion. Still, it's pretty hilarious/suspicious, depending on how you look at (which, frankly, is how I've viewed this entire campaign).

-- mm

Soros blog entry about the mix-up georgesoros.com

Explanation of the incident factcheck.com


SUBJECT:
Down To Your Civy Skivvies
DATE:
October-9-2004

A while back, I used the word "skivvies" in a blog entry (see Sept 8, 2004) to refer to underwear. I used this word from memory, assuming it to be a common slang term I'd heard many times. The other day, I'm watching A Mighty Wind (good movie, by the way) and a character says of another who is not wearing his mandatory folk-group uniform that so-and-so is in his "civvies." When I heard that, I suddenly caught that this was short for "civilian" clothes and I had a horrible flash that I'd used a wrong and/or non-existent word when I said "skivvies." It wouldn't be the first time someone misspoke a word they heard in a forgotten context (a major way words find their way into any language). I was quite relieved when I confirmed that, in fact, both words exist (thank you OneLook Dictionary Search!):

skivvies - men's underwear consisting of cotton T-shirt and shorts

civvies - civilian garb as opposed to a military uniform

I like to think that I never misuse or mispronounce words, not because I know them all, but because I'm canny enough to know when I don't know something and take the effort to look it up. Alas, I must confess this is not always the case. I'm sure many errors slip under my radar, but I do hope that I fight the good fight of clarity and accuracy whenever possible. As a trained English-language expert (hey, that B.A. ought to be good for something), I hate making diction errors. As an experienced proofreader, I hate making typos, too--though I've learned to live with them (otherwise, I'd have a coronary reading over some of the clinkers all over this site).

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Name is Thorpe. Jim Thorpe.
DATE:
October-8-2004

Spent the day in the insanely picturesque little town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, nestled in the Pocono mountains about seventy miles northwest of Philadelphia. A pleasant, 17-mile bike ride along the Lehigh river. Exploring abandoned railroad tunnels from the region's pre-WWII mining heyday. Crossing a rickety train bridge spanning an 80-foot gorge that would have given Indiana Jones pause because the guy at the bike rental shop said "everybody does it." A good day all around.

Even got a bit of history. The town of Jim Thorpe is celebrating its 50-year anniversary, yet it has existed much longer under the exquisite Native Pennsylvanian name of Mauch Chunk. The name change came about when the Mauch Chunk Chamber of Commerce, hoping to lure the yet-to-be-built Football Hall of Fame, contacted Thorpe's family and promised to build him a monument and rename the town if they agreed to move his body from its resting place in Shawnee, Oklahoma. His widow, eager for a suitable memorial, agreed. While alive, Thorpe never set foot in the town. He was re-buried there in 1957.

As with all such things, the enterprise is not without controversy. Many institutions of the town (e.g., museum, opera house, bank) still brand themselves with the Mauch Chunk name, and Thorpe's eldest son has requested the return of his body. However, people all over the northeast U.S. have heard of the town of Jim Thorpe and flock to it for fall foliage, nature hikes, and arts festivals. None of it has a damn thing to do with sports history or Native American culture, but it's still a pretty patch of ground to spend eternity in. Heck, I bet Jim would have been happy to die there if the offer had been made in advance.

-- mm

P.S. - For anybody that doesn't know, Jim Thorpe was an athlete of largely Native American descent who won several gold medals at the 1912 Olympics. These were stripped from him on a technicality when it was discovered he had played some professional baseball--the "amateurs-only" rule strictly enforced at the time. He went on to play pro football and baseball and is widely considered to be among the greatest athletes of the 20th century. His Olympic medals were not officially restored to him until 1982. More on the "official" (not sure what makes it so) Jim Thorpe web site.

Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center and the Mauch Chunk Opera House

Jim Thorpe's relatives pledge to get his body back to Oklahoma (August 22, 2001 ) on hocakworak.com, a periodical published by the Ho-Chunk Nation.


SUBJECT:
Dylan Like A Villain
DATE:
October-7-2004

Nope. Bob Dylan didn't with the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite intriguing rumors. The laurels, and the 1.3 million bucks, went to Austrian novelist/poet/playwright Elfriede Jelinek. Sorry... never heard of her. Just don't read much stuff translated from German (excepting, of course, e-mails I get at work).

According to her bio-bibliography on Nobel site, Elfriede Jelinek's (is it just me, or does that name look like something from a really, really hard celebrity jumble?) work "builds on a lengthy Austrian tradition of linguistically sophisticated social criticism." Several of her novels are described as depicting "a pitiless world where the reader is confronted with a locked-down regime of violence and submission" while another is said to portray "sexual violence against women as the actual template for our culture" (that explains haute couture, at least).

Now, I'm sure Ms. Jelinek's writing is exceptional in both craft and content--though I doubt I'll be rushing out to the book store. That's not to say I wouldn't like to sample her work, but simply a statement about the reality of my life and where reading translated European social commentary falls in priority list. To put it another way, I'd rather spend my time writing my crappy little stories than read great ones. What does that say about me? That I'm dedicated? Delusional? Well, I have no silly fantasies about Nobel prizes--but I would like, just once, to hear some fawning egghead critic try to describe my work ("probes the conundrum of identity in an indifferent society" ... "exposes characters struggling to wrest profundity from quotidian mundanity" ... "a searingly fearless inventory of the foibles middle-aged, white posers").

Et cetera. Et cetera.

-- mm

Elfriede Jelinek on nobelprize.org


SUBJECT:
Tangled Up in Blue Ribbons
DATE:
October-6-2004

The Nobel Prize for literature is to be announced tomorrow, and a weird buzz went around today about a possible winner: Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan.

Now there's nothing official about this. The Swedish Academy that bestows the Nobel has a policy to not disclose the identities of any nominees under consideration until 50 years afterward. Still, nominations are accepted from literary figures and scholars from around the world, and some have put in his name from time to time. The whole thing raises the never-ending debate over whether or not songwriting qualifies as poetry.

Well, as something of an expert (I have an B.A. in English and once sold a poem for, um, five bucks, I think... I'm sure I kept the check somewhere), I can unhesitatingly tell you that poets are just songwriters who can't play an instrument. Poetry is song. That's how it started... that's how it would still be done if academics hadn't latched onto it as good way to stake a claim to tenured job security. Poetry in the post-T.S. Eliot universe has become an exercise in encryption, obscure by design and coded to exclude the uninitiated. If a large number of people "get" a poem, it is innately deemed by the tweed cardigan set to be a work of lesser value. To be sure, there's plenty of vapid, sentimentalized pop dreck that tries to pass itself off as poetry of substance--but there's also a lot of hyper-academic wanking that feigns to be high art. Much of it comes down to taste, but there is craftsmanship that transcends taste. More and more, I find that it's the appreciation of the details of their craft that draws me to any writer's work.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about my opinion of Bob Dylan: a poet, and an important voice of a generation (bear in mind, though, it was a generation that often mistook narcissism for social consciousness).

So how does it feel?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
It's Debatable, Too
DATE:
October-5-2004

Watched as much as I could stomach (15-20 minutes?) of the vice-presidential debate. It's an interesting experience for me because, as a big Bush-hater, I don't have the same negative gut-reaction to Cheney. The main consolation I took when King George II was elected by the Supreme Court was that it would in fact be others, primarily Cheney, who would be truly in charge. Even the most canny and engaged of U.S. presidents are, to a degree, figureheads who are guided by the counsel of others. A president certainly wields power, but he does not do so in a vacuum. So I have reasoned.

Sadly, I'm just not so sure anymore. I'll be damned if Dubya doesn't often seem to be precisely the go-it-alone, shoot-from-the-hip, damn-the-torpedoes, constitution-what-constitution? kind of caricature. How much is Cheney? Quite a bit, I suspect (sometimes, I really wonder if we invaded Iraq primarily for Haliburton's benefit... a notion that, if at all true, is about as close to treason as the Oval Office can get), though he keeps a pretty low profile. That makes him less offensive to me, though he undoubtedly is, at heart, just a rich bastard colluding with his cronies.

And Edwards? Well, he's just feels like a lightweight to me. Remember the Warner Bros. cartoons with Spike, the tough Bowery bulldog, and the sycophantic mutt always circling him: "Gee, Spike! What are we doing today, Spike! Nobody's tougher than you, right Spike!" etc. Just slug in "John Kerry" for "Spike" and you get the idea. Still, in the back of my mind, I can flip-flop the scenario and make Bush into the mutt and "Spike" into "Dick." Surprised nobody's done that on The Daily Show yet.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
10-4 Good Buddy
DATE:
October-4-2004

If you're old enough to remember the CB radio craze of the '70's, you may well have blocked it out. It was a particularly goofy fad, where the public at large suddenly discovered "Citizen's Band" radio, an early standard for mobile communications characterized by range and frequency limitations (listen to me, I sound like Spock!). 10-4. Come on back, good buddy. What's the 20 on Smokey. That kind of thing. I talked like that for a summer when I was 11. Many in their 20's and 30's did as well, with far less of an excuse.

Anyway, what I always remember about it when this day (hello? 4th of October? 10-4 ... unless you're in Europe) rolls around is a particular incident from when I was in school. As was the height of cool at the time, I carried a small spiral notepad in my chest pocket (Catholic school... dress shirts). Every day, I wrote the date at the top of a new page and pocketed it flipped to that page. I had done just that, and some asshole 8th Grader (the only kind that has or will ever exist) pointed it out and said something like "Oh, gee, is that some gay CB thing." In front of a good crowd, I got to one-up him by simply pointing out that it was the date.

It is not often in the annals of kid-history that a 6th Grader bests an 8th Grader, and I consider it an event well worthy of annual commemoration. It's a chance to reflect on my past, and the formative events that have shaped me into who I am. It also makes me wonder what, exactly, a "gay CB thing" might be. I suppose this was just a pre-teen hurling the biggest insult in his lexicon--though, if you think about it, it throws the whole phenomenon of truckers calling each other "good buddy" into a rather different light.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
You'll Believe Anything
DATE:
October-3-2004

One of the first (@ 1978), and still among the best, of the parody commercials on Saturday Day Night Live was for the Triple-Bladed Razor. The twin blade was a fairly new thing at the time, and the parody featured the same cartoon cross-section graphic of multiple blades grabbing, pulling, and shearing whiskers for the closest shave ever. The beauty of the fake commercial was that it featured high-quality film production values and none of the cast members; it looked like a real commercial. They played it utterly straight until the tagline: "The new Triple-Bladed Razor... because you'll believe anything." That was a stroke of genius never equalled in the show's long history of commercial parodies--which have always been the only consistently funny part of the show.

But, lo and behold, a few years back Gillette introduced the Mach3 Triple-Bladed Razor, while Schick soon countered with the Quattro (take a guess...). Just today, I see an and for the new Gillette M3 Power Shaving System. Three blades, and a battery in the handle to make it vibrate. I'm not sure how much it costs, but the SuperSaver packet has a coupon for $6.00 off, so this ain't your father's $1.50 for a gross of Wilkinson blades deal.

Now, I don't know if this thing works or not. Don't really care. Anybody who's ever met me can attest to the fact that me and shaving aren't always on speaking terms. I tend to use a disposable razor until I actual see rust forming on it, so I'm not somebody who's advice you want on matters of the blade. However, I just can't help but snicker at the fulfillment of such a prophetic bit. We will believe anything, especially if bolstered by bold graphics. Freakin' vibrating, triple-bladed shaver. Big deal. What else can it do? Can it be a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Jeep Shot
DATE:
October-2-2004

I often find car commercials offensive. Aside from the fact that there are too damn many of them and they glorify wasteful consumption (Seriously... what would your spouse do if you surprised them with a car with a bow on it? Truly the gift that keeps on taking), they tend to have an arrogance about them that makes it appear as if owning a certain type vehicle makes you a superior person in some fashion. Granted, there are some that are amusing, many that are stylish, but few that have any of the self-deprecation that I'd consider appealing.

Case in point: a new one for the Jeep Liberty, a car I actually find attractive visually. It features an artsy-looking African-American woman,(e.g., tie-dye head scarf and dashiki) teaching a class of painting students. She tells them they will be doing self portraits today and strolls among the easels, encouraging the students to let their imaginations run free and paint what's truly inside them. She stops to admire one young woman's canvas and crows appreciatively: "Now that's what I'm talking about!" The camera reveals the woman has just painted a head-on view of her Jeep Liberty, which is also neatly in frame through the studio window.

Is this seriously offensive or what? Not so much the idea that an enthusiastic new car owner might be so smitten as to render the object of their infatuation--even under the guise of self-portraiture--but that a creative elder might look upon this with approval. Seriously, had the teacher given a cock-eyed look at the student mooning over a picture of car, the commercial could have been witty, even charming. Owners fall so in love with their new cars, they seem ridiculous. That's a real emotion everyone has witnessed. (The guy across the street from me has washed his new Porshe Cayenne every weekend for a month--how friggin' dirty can a car you keep in a garage get?) But this stupid, offensive commercial didn't even have the wit to get that basic human truth, or chose to ignore it for a more unambiguous sales push. Crap, crap, crap. Not that ever would have, but I'll never buy a Jeep Liberty just for that commercial. That oughta show 'em.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
He's a Genius!
DATE:
October-1-2004

I have a friend who's father is a pediatrician. I remember him once relating something his father experienced frequently. A proud parent would bring a kid in for some routine thing. In the course of discussion, the parent would describe something their child had done recently--spoken a word or sentence, drawn a picture, asked a question, etc.--with a kind of hushed awe, as if the kid had displayed a preternatural intelligence. Such narratives would often end with the completely serious question: Do you think my child could be a genius?

Of course, to a pediatrician well accustomed to a range of child behaviors, most of the things the parents described were perfectly normal for developing children. Bright, perhaps. Genius... well, um, let's wait and see on that. I always remembered that as a cautionary tale of parental over-enthusiasm. In an age where every school child I hear about seems to be either Gifted or ADD (both "diagnoses" that strike me largely as beneficial only to Ed.M.'s who want to earn more than regular teachers), it seems like being average is akin to socio-educational ostracism. Without consciously doing so such, I guess when I heard that I resolved to never think my future children's average behaviors as more than what they appeared to be.

Dammit, though, now that I have my own kid (@ 3.75 years-of-age), sometimes I swear he is a genius. (His tantrumy temperament every time I try to correct him when he wants to do something his own way could be evidence enough in some circles.) I was quite impressed with this picture he drew. At breakfast, he noticed the back of the orange juice carton had a graphic of two parallel cars, with hands reaching out of each to pass off an orange juice carton. He asked what this was, and I explained. Not 10 minutes later, he produced his Magna-Doodle masterpiece of that very scene. He captured the essence of the thing in a way I consider kind of startling.

Genius? Well, let's wait and see on that. But he certainly is well above average. Just like every other kid I know.

-- mm

The boy's rendition of a Tropicana promo




 





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