Thursday, June 30, 2005

Rape and Revelation: The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing


When we deal with strangers, we accept the façade they offer. Only with longer acquaintance do we see through the lies to encounter the truth beneath. For the stranger we see in the mirror, however, sometimes a lie is more revealing.

In The Business of Strangers, which aired last night on the Independent Film Channel (IFC), the revelatory lies involve Julie Styron, a brittle single woman of power, so recently promoted to CEO of her company that it "hasn't sunk in yet." Brilliantly portrayed by Stockard Channing, Julie at first is convinced that she is going to be fired when the board goes into a secret meeting while she is away on a business trip.

Terrified that she has been betrayed by the company she has made the center and sole purpose of her life, she contacts a weaselly head-hunter, Nick Harris (played by Frederick Weller). Julie begs Harris to assure her that he isn't looking for her replacement; Harris oozes unbelievable insincerity as he promises he isn't—and we see Channing's brilliance in the way Julie accepts what she is certain is a lie without believing it.

Julie's assigned tech-assistant, Paula (in another wonderful casting decision, played by Julia Stiles), is fired when she shows up late to the presentation which Julie has, cooly, given anyway. Once Julie learns about her promotion, however, she apologizes to Paula, and offers to pay for her hotel room. And now the business of these strangers really begins.

Stuck in layover-mode together, the two women begin to explore each other's lives. Beginning with the superficial ("Where did you go to school?"), they swap lies, defend mental territory, and easily drop into quasi-best-friend behavior. Julie drinks far more than such a guarded woman would in the presence of a rival. Paula is exposed as a mental-manipulator par excellance. In their bathing suits in an elevator otherwise full of men, she leads the older woman into a teasingly sexual conversation involving a "black strap-on." Introduced to the oily Harris in the hotel bar, Paula tells Julie privately that he had raped her best friend years ago at college—then calmly invites Harris into Julie's suite for drinks.

From there, the film decends into a tensely-drawn exploration of power, control, and the truths that lies let slip. We see the steel under Julie Styron's brittle exterior; we learn the chaos that underlies Paula's outward calm. The story twists and turns, providing glimpses of each woman's past. And Harris is, in the end, only the palette on which these two women depict their own desires and regrets. The brief tenure of such art (and the rejection of the self-revelation involved) is made clear in the movie's penultimate scene.

Even with the sinuous twists that came before, the final surprise of the story left me saying, "Hey! What happened?" The haunting image of Julie Styron in her CEO's office, in the last few frames of the film, simply underscored the question mark.

Fasten your seat belts for this one, guys. It's a trip with a lot of unexpected course changes—but definitely one worth taking.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"Frank" Loses Genitals, But Moves Into Winery

Sculpture of baggage handler, nearly complete.
    THIS caused accidents? "Frank" before vandals.

In Penticton, British Columbia, "Frank" the Baggage-Handler, a two-meter-tall nude statue of a man surrounded by suitcases, has found a safe haven from the vandals who removed his genitals, broke his ankles, and toppled his suitcases.

The statue, created by sculptor Michael Hermesh, was originally due to be shown through September at its original stand overlooking Okanagan Lake. According to the AP story published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, however,
Trouble arose soon after Baggage Handler was installed in the downtown turnaround in this lakeside resort early this year. After distracted drivers narrowly avoided accidents, a plate was installed over the genitalia. Then it was removed because it drew attention to the groin area and looked silly.

After the vandalism, Hermesh sold the resin-impregnated plaster sculpture to the Red Rooster Winery, whose owners plan to move him inside. The winery, which was created as "a place where quality wines will continue to be developed and presented; where artists and musicians will showcase their talents," has an art gallery on-site where "Frank" will, one assumes, feel right at home, even without his penis.


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Inside Mission Control: Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz


From "God Speed, John Glenn," to "Houston, we have a problem," NASA's Mission Control Center has been the uncelebrated focus of support for the U.S. space program. Astronauts made the news and rode in ticker-tape parades; the telemetry crew at Mission Control in Houston and the dozen-or-so tracking stations simply did their jobs.

We first learned about the tense behind-the-scenes action at NASA with the release of the movie Apollo 13, the airing of the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon—and this book, Failure Is Not an Option, written by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Kranz, an insider at Mission Control from the first "manned" flights ("chimped" flights, actually), is in an excellent position to tell the story of the unsung battles and triumphs of Mission Control. These stories ring with the genuine voice of the tautly-focused events inside the control room. For those of us whose most uplifting experiencees of the 1960s were not founded on rock-and-roll, but on rocket launches, the effect is like returning in time to a cleaner, more earnest age, when shrill voices meant disaster. That calm, reasoned, in-control aura pervades this book.

It is strongest as Kranz discusses the fire on the launch pad that claimed the lives of astronuats Ror Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom; and the computer crash that nearly stranded Apollo 13 in space. The appalling blaze during a capsule test for the first Apollo mission would have halted less determined men.
It was perhaps the most defining moment in our race to get to the Moon. After this, nothing would be quite the same, ever again.
—from "A Fire on the Pad"

For a time, we simply could not bear to look back at the Apollo 1 inferno. We could only look forward to the next blank page, the next mission... we would dream about those terrible last seconds. They would be with us forever.
—from "Out of the Ashes"

Apollo 13's victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat has been told graphically in the Ron Howard movie. Here, Kranz's inner dialog is the revelation that did not come through in the film.
At this point, Lovell uttered the ominous words, "Okay, Houston, we have a problem." In both the MCC and on board the spacecraft, voices were normal, but heart rates had picked up... In the MCC, you can't see, smell, or touch a crisis, except through the telemetry and the crew's voice reports. But you can feel some instinct kicking in when something very wrong is going on... I was wondering which problem Lovell was reporting... The reports and our experience indicated an electrical glitch. I believed we would quickly nail the problem and get back on track... I was wrong.
—from "The Age of Aquarius"

These are admirable men, and Kranz makes it perfectly clear why they (and by extension, he himself) ought to be admired. This is one of the books that is kept on my bed-side shelf, ready for me to reread a section or in toto.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Ten Commandments Plus One: The Eleventh Commandment by Lester del Rey


Way back in the 1960s, as the U.S. Supreme Court was just beginning to consider if the Ten Commandments were appropriate decoration in the nation's schools, science fiction writer and history professor Lester del Rey was pondering what might be the result of an established state religion in America. He set the stage for such a radical departure from the Constitution in The Eleventh Commandment with another 60s icon, global thermonuclear war.

Following the nuclear annihilation, which destroyed the Vatican City and vaporized the Pope, a new pontiff was selected from amongst the American Cardinals. When Europe also elected a Pope, the American church split from the Old World Catholics in a schism that established the priority of the eleventh commandment:
"Ten were given to Moses, for the Hebrews." Gordini answered. "And our Lord instrusted us to observe them. But what we call the Eleventh—it should be called the Original—was given by God the Father to the entire human race through Adam, to whom He said, 'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.' It was the foundation of our accomplishments."

In a decimated land, these principles found fertile ground. To Boyd Jensen, immigrant from the colony on Mars, the culture they spawned is frightening, baffling. Four billion people live in North America, another billion in South America; most of them are American Catholic in faith. Contraception is illegal. Boyd's profession, biologic research, is an arena restricted to priests. Poverty is commonplace among the laity, practically unknown in the clergy.

In addition to the misery of the huddled masses, mutations and plagues are everywhere. Boyd learns that he will not be allowed to return to Mars, once he has been exposed to the diseases of Earth—and there is also the hint that his own DNA is damaged, that he was tricked into coming to Earth to remove him from Mars "pure" gene pool.

Boyd believes he can survive on Earth without subscribing to the state religion. He wears an unobtrusive patch that keeps him sterile; he "isn't the type" to succumb to the bleeding disease (faint foreshadow of AIDS, there); he does have more training in cytology than many priests, and this is valuable knowledge. He hasn't reckoned with two things, however.

At a higher gravity than Mars', the contraceptive is less effective. Boyd is fertile enough to get a young woman pregnant. Her baby is taken from her by the Church to be raised in a special facility, and Boyd is determined to help her get him back.

And the Church knows more than they're telling about the extent of the mutations. The Eleventh Commandment may be the only thing that guarantees mankind's survival on Earth.

Del Rey's conception of a Catholic America was obviously predicated on the Third World Catholic states of Central and South America. At the beginning of the story, New York City (actually, Long Island) seems more like Caracas or São Paulo. Del Rey seems to be saying that Catholicism is the cause of poverty and overcrowding. As you read on, however, his message comes clear: The root cause of this misery is the human need to contend for survival.

And you don't get to opt out of the game, as Mars has done with her "pure" racial stock. The crucible is where the metal is purified and made strong, not the shelf.

In the end, The Eleventh Commandment seems hardly dated. Its plot needs little amendment to be conceivable as our own possible future, even though it was written nearly a half-century ago. And the warning, that the fruitful will multiply and the meek will inherit the Earth, is one worth considering.

Other conceptions of the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not cause thy children pain, a very moving poem. Bishop Ussher called Christ's admonition to his disciples the eleventh commandment: "I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." A bumper sticker supplied Brian Elroy McKinley's version: "Find God and Find Happiness." And a civil rights campaign from, ironically, 1962 (the publication date of my Eleventh Comandment paperback) renders the commandment: "Thou Shalt Stay Out of Downtown Birmingham."

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Some Like It Drag: Men in Black (Dresses)


What is the appeal of a guy in a dress? Comic and pathetic by turns, movie transvestites (as opposed to your everyday TV) possess some magic that can turn a drab story around, or sink a poorly-conceived flick into B-movie oblivion. Donning a dress can gain an actor kudos, or haunt his life ever after with innuendo and rumor.

Director Ed Wood (Glen or Glenda, Plan Nine from Outer Space) was a real TV in the most classic sense. To borrow the tagline from his transvestite mystery, Glen or Glenda, "He Loved Women So Much, He Dared To Dress Like One!" Johnny Depp was able to portray the disturbed director, complete with cashmere cardigans, without significant harm to his acting career. (Although Depp seems "Teflon-coated" in this regard, having also survived charges of wearing too much mascara in Pirates of the Caribbean.)

The thoroughly-camp Rocky Horror Picture Show makes a dark hero out of the gender-confused alien Doctor played by Tim Curry. Thousands of otherwise-straight men around the world have put on the bustier-and-gartered-stockings costume, and sung—in public—their paean to muscle love. In one of its darkest themes, Rocky Horror first makes the TV an alien, then reveals the allure of transvestitism to even the squarest among us. Cross-dressing is about "absolute pleasure."

In a far more traditional men-in-dresses theme, it's actually about disguise. For Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, going drag in Some Like It Hot, a girl's band was the one place their pursuers would never look for them. The gentilely-comic antics of guys in dresses are predicated on their absolutely-straight sexuality; it isn't funny unless Curtis is conflicted about his desire for Marilyn Monroe, or Lemmon is trying to stave off the advances of Joe E. Brown.

In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman took the diguise theme in a different direction. It's not gangsters he's trying to escape, but his own reputation. Here, again, is the conflict with the outward face and the inner desires, as Hoffman's Dorothy character melds both the would-be-lover of a woman (Jessica Lang) with the object of a man's affection (Charles Durning).

Some movies showcase the abilities of their actors by having them play both masculine and feminine roles. Diedrich Bader is genially goofy as Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies, but truly hilarious as his cousin, Jethrine. And without the exquisite gay drag of two of George Hamilton's four roles in Zorro, the Gay Blade, that movie would have been fatally overwhelmed by the shouting performances of Brenda Vacarro and Ron Liebman.

Nathan Lane used his dress-up performance to poke some fun at the stereotypes of masculine and feminine in The Birdcage. Interestingly, Robin Williams' role** as the "masculine" partner of this gay couple was equally powerful and ambiguously-gendered. Where La cage aux folles, the film's French progenitor, was focused on the conflict between family values and gay partnerships, The Birdcage slid this debate to the battle between image (especially political image) and substance.

The best (and worst) drag-queen performances portray these men as what they are. To see what I mean, watch the amazing performances that give us the lonely, but coping with life, Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Then contrast them with the scuzzy, sleazy, conflicted and lost men* of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the movie that spawned To Wong Fu.

I've commented before on the fact that neither Snipes nor Leguizamo appear to have been hurt by their roles as drag queens, but that Patrick Swayze's star seems tarnished by his stint as Vida Boheme. This is despite the fact that, even in a dress, Swayze manages to get in some bare-knuckle fighting and rescue a woman—perhaps the problem is that, as in Pretty Woman, "she rescues him right back."

To Wong Fu gives us the glamor of the drag, but reveals its secret heart of alienation and yearning for something that can never be. Priscilla does the same thing, minus the glamor and a (somewhat) happy ending. And if one is Hollywood and trite, and the other Australian and bitter, these are the two faces of transvestitism in the movies.

Now, I know I've left some out. Y'all jump in here and tell me about them!

*Terrence Stamp in a dress has to be seen to be believed.

**Robin Williams has escaped entirely any stigma from two roles where he plays gays, and one—Mrs. Doubtfire—where he appears, not just in drag, but in frumpy drag. His greeting to the three drag queens in To Wong Fu is perfectly gay: "Oh, my God! I'm like a compass near north."

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Cane Toads, Nuclear Contraband and Comic Criminals
Review: Big Trouble by Dave Barry


I never needed Depends before, but I guess there just comes a time in one's life...

For me, it happened without warning while reading Dave Barry's excruciatingly funny Big Trouble, a romp of a story about a pocket nuclear weapon, two sub-mental crooks trying to sell it, a couple of klutzy hit men after a sniveling embezzler, and a drifter who lives in a tree. What happens when this crew of losers encounter an everyday Miami family, a pair of cops on patrol, a pretty immigrant (and a hallucinogenic toad)? Pandemonium.

The book (which came first for me) is not quite identical to the movie starring Tim Allen, Rene Russo and Stanley Tucci, and although it is hard to believe if you've seen the film, is much funnier. It opens (and closes) with Puggy, a hopeless vagrant whose happiest moment comes when he discovers the abandoned treehouse at the Herk house. It's free, it's quiet, it's private—at least until the hit men show up looking for Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci in the film), a self-absorbed embezzler who doesn't deserve his lovely wife (Rene Russo) and screwball daughter.

Herk has made the major mistake of his life, borrowing and losing money from the wrong family. His life-lesson is due to come from a pair of dedicated, focused hit men who are simply not prepared for the muggy Miami nights. Their initial hit is thrown off by a simultaneous paint-ball assassination by Eliot Arnold's son. By an unfortunate coincidence, Eliot (Tim Allen's role) is at the Herk house apologizing for an earlier episode with his son. Herk's single-minded nastiness, Eliot's immediate attraction to Anna Herk, and the clueless cops who investigate the scene, are merely frosting on the hilarious goings-on behind the scenes.

See, a couple of local small-time gangsters have found this nuclear weapon. They've dragooned Puggy (remember Puggy?) to help them set it up for sale. Eliot's son Mark and Anna Herk's daughter Jenny happen to witness one of the bloodier steps in the crooks' plans, and Jenny winds up hostage on a plane that is also carrying the bomb.

Any time things threaten to get serious, Barry rings in the psychedelic cane toad, the terror of the Herk's dog, and the deliverer of ironic payback to at least one criminal.

So, go on, get the book—at least, rent the movie! And you might want to lay in some Depends, just in case.

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Google-Friendly Titles for Your Book Posts

We get lots of vague advice to "make your post titles Google-friendly," but no specific tips on what constitutes such a G-F title. (Or how to code it so your Editor doesn't need to change it.)

Creativity in writing your posts ought to extend to the titles, right? And yet, because Google and other engines put such an emphasis on the title, a bit more consistency is also desirable. The following guidelines may help, especially if you're as confused as I was. I've written this so you can Cut-and-Paste the line of code you want, edit the ALLCAPS potions to include your information, and have a ready-to-post Title.

First, the requirements. You need to do these with your posts, or risk having the title edited. Since editing that happens after Google has snarfed up your post can negatively affect your G-F ratio, you should care about this.

No Periods     Period. If you include a Web domain, leave off the extension. Don't use a period to end a title. And please, one exclamation point is more than enough!!!

Turn Off Caps Lock     The only appropriate all-caps entry in a title is an acronym (like NASA or VRWC). I use Title Caps Style (all non-article, non-prepositional words are capitalized) for my own posts, but that's a stylistic choice. (News stories often use Sentence Caps Style instead, in which only the initial word and proper names are capitalized.)

Book Titles in Italics     Italic text helps the title of what you're reviewing or commenting on stand out from the body of your text. In the same way, it visally marks the title of the work you're reviewing, IF the book's title is part of your post title:
<i>TITLE</i>       —OR—
Note: Book titles and author's names should always be correctly capitalized. When in doubt, use the capitalization you see on the cover of the book.

If It's a Review, Say So     Including the word "Review" in the title of a review post does help boost your Google page rank. It also helps your item be found by searchers looking specifically for reviews. Brevity is also to be preferred, so a simple "Review:" is better than "A review of..."
Review: <i>TITLE</i>

Now, the creative stuff:

Include the Author's Name     Including the name of an author—especially one who is highly ranked by Google—can also help boost your post's G-F quotient. There doesn't seem to be any difference between the possessive mode (i.e., Neil Stephenson's Crytonomicon) or attribution (Crytonomicon by Neil Stephenson; Crytonomicon - Neil Stephenson). This is probably because "by" is a Google "stop word"—it is ignored, as is punctuation.
Review: <i>TITLE</i> by AUTHORNAME       —OR—
Review: <i>TITLE</i> - AUTHORNAME

Key to a Hot Google Topic     Okay, now we get into some really creative writing. Google page-ranking is evanescent; you cannot hope to claim a high spot and hold it forever with a single post. So if your review can honestly be keyed to a current hot topic on the Web, use this technique to bring readers to your post.

The obvious application is a review of a work by or about someone in the news. The best example in recent days is Eric Olsen's review of a book about Michael Jackson, released during the heat of his trial. By including one extra word that ties his post to the current issue, Olsen ups his chances of a higher G-F value. (Please note that his extra word is totally appropriate to his review, not thrown in only to glean G-F points!) But your post doesn't need to be concerned with a current celebrity—if what you've read, or your commentary on it, has something to say about any hot topic, get creative!

Combinations     Maybe you are like me; you want the title and author and and the word "Review" and a clever, creative hook to pull in readers. So you set it up, but there are all those colons strung in a row, "Hook, Line and Sinker: Review: Book Title by This Author." Yuck. There are a couple of useful punctuation elements that can substitute for the first colon. The most Google-friendly of these is the simple linefeed:

This code results in a title that looks like:
Hook, Line and Sinker
Review: Book Title by This Author

A bit more complicated is the em-dash, a character that is preferred by professional typesetters over a double-dash. The style rulebook says that, for the body of your text, the em-dash (or double-dash) is used in place of parentheses—especially when the parenthetical phrase ends the sentence. It is also used to mark attribution at the end of a citation, which helps justify its use in this case.

The less Google-friendly style option looks like this:
Hook, Line and Sinker—Review: Book Title by This Author

See also: Style and Substance: Using HTML Codes in BlogCritics Posts and HTML Basics for Bloggers

Friday, June 24, 2005

Weekly Blogscan: The Organic Diet

At a traffic light today, I found myself behind a car with a bumper sticker that my casual glance read as Eat Organic. Just as the light went green, my brain clicked on to inform me that it actually said Eat Origami. Now, the health benefits of consuming only folded paper figures aside, I wondered if the organic food movement had spread to the blogosphere. The answer is a resounding Yes.

We have the Organic Lifestyle in New Zealand, the UK, and as a women's online magazine. Interesting that the last features—prominently—an advertisement for Aphrodite Chocolates.

Conversely, Suw Charman at Chocolate and Vodka has her priorities in order. In fact, she tells us
Today I realised—with a glass of orange juice, a bar of Green & Black's dark organic chocolate and a bag of champagne truffles on my desk—that I had sort of fallen off the sugar wagon. Well, less fallen off, more jumped off. Enthusiastically. This probably explains why I spent much of this afternoon either asleep or very nearly asleep.

At her Organic Baby Farm, Utah blogger Wacky Hermit is "growing the World's Cutest Free-Range Milk-Fed Kids... and feeding them nothing but crap." Her recent post "Today At GotMilk Prison Camp" makes the point that "with enough rhetoric you can make anything sound like torture." (Plus, it's both satiric and cute!)

At Milk Is Milk, on the other hand, a reprint of the Oct. 2004 treatise by The Scientist editor Richard Gallagher exposes the Organic Food Placebo. Gallagher quotes British peer Dick Taverne, "...the craze for organic food is built on myth. It starts with a scientific howler, has rules with neither rhyme nor reason. None of the claims made for it have ever been substantiated, and if it grows it will damage the nation's health." Taverne's complete remarks are available at another organic-debunking blog, Foreign Dispatches, in the post "You have to be green to swallow the organic food myth."

Perhaps in response, the Accidental Hedonist chronicles the questionable organic nature of some organic dairies. The blog notes that "it's not surprising that once it had been determined that there was a market for such products, some corporate farms sought to get a piece of the pie." Unfortunately, they charge, at least one group of dairies operating in California, Idaho, and Colorado, is violating two of the standards that would make the milk organic.
"According to reports, both the Idaho and California operations differ little from conventional confinement dairies other than having their high-producing cows fed certified organic feed," says Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst, at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

Janet Roberts uses her FoodWords blog to steer us to a viral Flash video, "Obi Wan Cannoli Wants You!"
Even if you're sick of Star Wars, you have to check out... the Organic Trade Association['s] "Store Wars." Starring Cuke Skywalker, Obi Wan Cannoli, Ham Solo and Darth Tater, it tells the tale of food adulteration and how to combat it. Spot-on parody of the earliest Star Wars chapters, obviously done by people who appreciate a good pun (Hey! Watch out for the Thai fighters!).

Sod-covered couch has living upholstery.
   The sod sofa also produces oxygen.

Greg Tate of Ready Made gives us the detailed instructions to create the only appropriate sofa for all organic couch potatoes. The brain-child of Bruce Main, this grass-upholstered lawn chair is the perfect back-yard accessory.

Head Chef Charlie Ayers posted Google Daily Menus, until he decided the rest of the world didn't care what Google-folk eat every day. His recipes regularly featured organic greens.

Meanwhile, the Treehugger touts organic catsup as a condiment preventive of cancer. The actual agent tested was "Lycopene, an antioxidant that for years has been known to have protective effects against breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers... found in cooked tomato products like tomato sauce and, yes, ketchup."

In May 2005, The Politic commented on a National Review item that posited organic farming is "simply not sustainable." The blogger used the item to drive the opinion: "There is way too much hype over how bad genetically modified (GM) food is. How small minded can these people be? The truth is that this propaganda was created simply to sell products in the over priced organic food industry." If the choice were limited to GMO vs. organic, we might agree with him that you can "Eat Organic If You Want People To Starve."

Or you could eat organ meats, although as Roast Beef warns us from his GREP blog, this can have disturbing consequences. He and his buddies went for lunch at a Korean Barbeque, but wound up eating more than they had bargained for. CAUTION: Not for the queasy.

This is the reason there is a market for organic food. We want control over what we eat, to know that no alien genes, pesticides or strange stress hormones will spice that dish. And even if it is fleeting or false, we seek to know whereof we eat.

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It Killed Him: The Man With Three Wives


Last night I got sucked into a 1993 made-for-TV movie, The Man With Three Wives. I cannot explain why this sleaze even caught my eye sufficiently to cause me to turn it on—perhaps it was the concept that it was based on a true story. Maybe it was the opportunity to see Pam Dawber again.

Whatever my initial motivation, I was thoroughly hooked by the first commercial break. Beau Bridges, who played Dr. Norman Grayson, the polygamist of the title, presented a complex character with confused motives. Genuinely caring, a truly good doctor, Grayson suffers because he really does love all three women.

Yet he lies to them, constantly, by omission and by action, covertly and overtly deceiving everyone for whom he supposedly cares. He complains of stress in his life; his solution is to marry a third woman. He even juggles two wives who live in the same community, managing to keep them separate. Wife #1 (Lillian, played by Kathleen Lloyd, a veteran TV-movie actress) is the mother of Grayson's three adult children. Wife #2 (Katy, played by Joanna Kerns, familiar to wide-screen audiences from Girl, Interrupted) owns her own business; Katy's father is another doctor at Grayson's hospital, and his good friend.

The unbelievable conjones required to keep up this balancing act can be encapsulated in one scene. About four years into their marriage, Katy arrives at the hospital and asks Grayson to take her to lunch at the mall. She knows Lillian (whom she believes to be her husband's ex-wife) is participating in a bicycle safety event there. Grayson not only consents to introduce them, but stands there with a gentle smile on his face as the women exchange guarded greetings—he even invites Wife #1 to lunch with him and Wife #2! (Fortunately for Grayson's adrenals, Lillian cannot leave the booth she's tending.)

Bridges' Grayson never breaks a sweat in public—but at night, as he weaves his pattern of false emergencies and late hours to sleep with both local wives for a few hours each night, the years of bigamy begin to take their toll. Increasingly, he wakes in a cold funk, and needs to gobble antacids to return to sleep. When Grayson helps Robin (Pam Dawber) through her divorce, this woman with whom he has a long history of friendship becomes first a refuge from his stress, then a new source when he marries her, too.

The third marriage escalates his problems, as Grayson begins to lose some control in this incredible juggling act. He "forgets" to make several mortgage payments on the house he is buying with Katy, in order to pay the income taxes for his household with Lillian. Checks are being returned NSF from all the accounts he's opened for the three homes. His marriage to Robin entails travel every other weekend, and when he rejects Robin's offer to come visit him at the hospital, saying he "can't afford to put her up in a motel" there (which is probably true on several levels), her suspicions are aroused.

Robin, unlike either of Grayson's long-term wives, is sufficiently worried to hire a private detective. What she learns sends her storming into Grayson's office with a full annulment, and a restraining order to keep him away from her daughter. She does, however, consent not to tell anyone else about her "husband's" infamy.

Throughout the movie, I was engrossed by the narrow escapes and the effrontery of this man, whose three wives could say, even after his bigamy was revealed, "But I still love him!" I knew his artificial world would eventually come crashing down. The grace of this movie (which, given the topic, could easily have been as sleazy as its title implies) is that we want Norman Grayson to succeed, even while we know that he deserves, and is doomed, to fail.

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

More from the Wormrunner's Digest: Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows


In the early days of exploration into the mysteries of DNA and RNA, the experimental "tool" of choice was the lowly flatworm or liver fluke, Platyhelminthes, planaria, Dughesia tigrina. These hardy specimens were easily obtained, simple enough that their behavior resembled organic NOT gates, and capable of regenerating from cuts, longitudinal or axial. Even partial cuts would stimulate regeneration, giving rise to worms with two, three, even ten heads.

The excitement in using flatworms was that they could be "taught" to run a maze, then shown (by Dr. James V. McConnell in a disputed experiment) to transmit their knowledge to untrained planaria who consumed their chopped-up bodies. Something in the trained worms acted as a knowledge store. This stuff, named "Memory RNA" by its discoverer, prompted hopes of a "Ph.D. pill" in the future.

The maze-running of such animals to create a trained food-source for investigation was so widespread, it gave rise to the quasi-satiric Worm-Runner's Digest, published at first as humorous entries in the staid Journal of Biological Psychology. When the satirical pieces began to diminish the reputation of his peer-reviewed items, Digest editor James V. McConnell first printed the humor pieces upside down at the end of each volume, then separated the two entirely.

Freed from the proximity to the now-waning furor over the college-bound planarium, Digest articles eventually covered a multitude of topics, from archaeology to zoophyly. This particlar collection, Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows, is "more than 50 percent planaria by volume." I hope we can all learn something from its consumption.

From the initial "Questions and answers with Grant Swinger" (in which the operations of the "Center for Absorption of Federal Funds" are described) to the final "Neil Illusions" (showing the panicked urge for new optical illusions to which the researcher's name might be appended), these are iconoclastic articles. Their primary aim is to amuse, but the secondary purpose is to let hot air out of the pompous image of the scientist.

So we have a "Handbook of common laboratory diseases," including Apparatophilia and Disbursitis. "The professional patient" illustrates the arrogance and impatience of some researchers by casting these qualities onto their human subjects. And F.E. Warburton's classic, "The lab coat as status symbol" is reproduced here.

Some pieces require a faint familiarity with other classics of literature and science. "A singluar case of extreme electrolyte balance assocviated with folie a deux" uses the style of a clinical report to describe why Lot's wife became a pillar of salt. "The fall of the house of Oozer" is a wonderful retelling of the Poe story (complete with an inset spoof of "The Raven") with flatworms as the main characters. And in three ends to the tale of "The blind men and the elephant," we get a capsule description of the errors that rise from all three modes of resolving committee disputes over scientific fact.

I suspect only worm-runners would find sufficient humor in the radio play by "Tollan Dymas" titled, "Under worm wood: a romp for wrigglers." Perhaps my own deficient knowledge of Dylan Thomas' works was more to blame. But juxtaposed with this is a charming collection of doodle-quality sperm cartoons, showing, for example, the Ph.D. sperm with a tiny mortar-board and the Jester sperm with a minute belled cap.

"Smorr Chen" tells of a University of Chicago student's encounter with the pervasive nature of a charming accent, and what happens when he encounters the antidote. "How to teach a cow a damn good lesson" details the way a new milker is taught which position to take in the milking barn. (Not for PETA or pet-cow proponents, by the way, although the methods described should be understood as outmoded and no longer in general use.)

There's more here, most very funny. Like A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown, this collection shows that, whatever else research writers may be, they are certainly not devoid of a sense of humor.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Claustrophobia in Paradise: Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds...
—e e cummings

Maggie, the naive New Yorker who visits Paradise in Tsipi Keller's Jackpot, is an unusually self-absorbed young woman. The antithesis (at the beginning) of Cumming's Cambridge ladies, Maggie seems uncomfortable in mind and bare of soul. Her intently focused story is told almost exclusively in terms of her inner dialogue, making this a claustrophobic trip, indeed.

When we first meet Maggie in New York, she is preparing to go out to dinner with her friend, Robin. Instead, Robin proposes that the two women go on a winter vacation to the Bahamas, to a resort called Paradise. Maggie consents, and Robin then sends her off without the promised dinner. This, with other events revealed in Maggie's reminiscences, make it clear that Robin is no true friend—but Maggie seems compelled to seek Robin's approval.

It also becomes obvious that Maggie admires Robin, even while disapproving of her. She mentally chides her friend for being plump, skipping breakfast, wearing nail polish—and for casually taking up with men at the resort, especially the older man, Ben. We are set up to be wary of Robin on Maggie's behalf, to worry that the naive girl will be led astray by her amoral travel partner.

In fact, Maggie has tied her behavior to Robin's as an anchor, striving to be more in control than her friend. So when Robin takes off on Ben's yacht (without a word to Maggie), our girl comes unmoored. Without Robin to compare herself to, Maggie descends into a maelstrom of drunken gambling and prostitution.

Despite its claustrophic inner focus, this story is fascinating; Keller deftly provides clues to the source of Maggie's desire for approval, her fatal inability to govern her own life, and her final abandonment of her job, her States-side persona, her body, and her judgement, to the seductive allure of Paradise.

At less than 200 pages, Jackpot would not seem to be a demanding read—but I warn you, Keller's Maggie has power to take you along with her. That slender volume is, like Maggie's planned seven-day vacation, deceptive in the duration of its effect. The furniture of Maggie's soul, once her remodel is complete, is uncomfortable and unbeautiful—but inviting nonetheless.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Mercury-Gold Amalgam: The Confusion by Neal Stephenson


In the second volume of his excellent Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson takes the major charactors we met in Quicksilver, Daniel Waterhouse; Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm; and Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, on a world-wide adventure of piracy. The complexity of style in the Baroque Age, the taste for endless recursions, loops and folds, partaking a tiny portion of a thousand styles and mingling them into a single con-fused fashion, is both the theme and the apparatus of the novel.

Like Quicksilver, The Confusion is divided into books, in this case, two: Bonanza and The Juncto. Bonanza tells the tale of Vagabond Jack Shaftoe in his new life as a Barbary galley slave, gold thief, king in India, and co-conspirator. The Juncto centers around Eliza as she straddles the roles of mother, wife, political financier, King-maker and correspondent. The two books alternate in describing European (and Asian) politics and financial matters during the Baroque Age.

Solomon's gold, which pirate Jack acquires for the cabal of freed galley slaves he leads, is reputed to contain an essence not found in "baser" golds. This essence, which makes the gold marginally denser than the ordinary metal, is what the alchemists of Europe desire; Jack's theft brings him (and Eliza, by association with him) into the enmity of such as the Duc d'Arcachon—and Isaac Newton.

Jack, however, is unaware of the extraordinary quality of what he has stolen. So when he and his cabal escape the Barbary fleet by sailing south through the Red Sea, they take the golden loot into the Indian Ocean. There, it is stolen in turn from them by the warrior queen Kottokal, along with several of Jack's ex-slave cabal.

Meanwhile Eliza, and her infant son Jean-Jacques (reputed to be the son of Etienne, heir of d'Arcachon, but probably the son of Jean Bart the French privateer), fleeing to England with her wealth of gold and silver from the collapsing finances of Belgium and Amsterdam, is captured by the privateer Bart. Thinking fast, she loans her captured wealth to the King of France for use in the war against the English. As a consequence, instead of being a captive of war, she is a guarded noblewoman (Countess de la Zeur)—and eventually, as wife of Etienne, Duchesse d'Arcachon.

Eliza is given a commission to travel to Lyon and purchase timber for the French Navy. The commission is a meant to be a learning experience for her, to teach her the byzantine ins and outs of the paper used in Lyonnaise finance. As Eliza grasps the way this new concept of money works, we learn the foundation for the alchemical lead-into-gold shift that creates wealth from commerce, that derives value from the flux and change of values, and rests on trust and knowledge.

This "flux and change of value" is the quicksilver to the gold of known facts and scientific concepts (and hard money); the amalgam of the two will give rise to a new system of the world's finance—and new paradigms for wealth, government, and even knowledge itself. Whenever fluxion, the derivative as the slope of the curve of change, is discussed in this era, Newton and Liebniz must be involved. Their on-going dispute over which is the originator of the calculus supplies another of the intricate Baroque inter-weavings to the story.

In an appropriately Baroque fashion, Newton also serves as the pivot-point for another mercury-gold analogy. With the intercession of Daniel Waterhouse, the physicist-become-alchemist is installed as director of the London Mint, at a time when the political battleground between Whig and Tory has been made concrete by two institutions, the Bank of England (based on the mercuric changes expected from Commerce) and the Land Bank (based on the hard-money asset of England itself).

Daniel's reward for convincing Newton to assume to assume control of the Mint is an endowment for the "Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technological Arts," a one-way passage to the colony, and a sinecure as the Institute's Director. There, Daniel hopes to create a Knowledge Engine, conceived as a way to categorize scientific facts, and eventually, to mint new theorems from this flux and change of knowledge.

The Confusion uses its interleaved themes to create a thrilling tale almost (but not quite) overwhelming to the senses, and its appeal demonstrates that the human taste for the artistically complex did not die with the end of the Baroque age. The story is a crucible, with its contents, quicksilver and gold, beaten into a perfect amalgam, somewhat denser than gold alone, and containing the essence of wisdom.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Rejected Books


I can count on the fingers of one hand the books I've abandoned after once beginning them. It takes the other hand and some toes to enumerate books I've finished, then vowed never again to read that author.

See, I fall in love with books. I eat, sleep, breathe the protagonist's problems, imbibe his ideals, yearn for her desires, mourn their losses. I trust the author I have met and loved before to take me on an interesting journey. I'll make the connections, I'll put in the hours, just take me along!

So when I do encounter a novel that I just cannot finish, I don't think it's just me. Gregory Maguire let me down with Mirror, Mirror, after I tripped with Wicked, The Ugly Stepsister and Lost. I haven't thrown out the book—yet—but I can't get past page 46. The characters don't engage me, and this is one time the retelling of the fairy tale is not refreshing, but boring. I'll try again, perhaps some day when my reading well has gone dry. Meanwhile, it sits on my shelf, one prominent crease in the spine marking where it lay open on the coffee table for three weeks.

Richard Paul Russo is also on my wha' hoppen? list. Ship of Fools has a great concept (a generation-ship whose crew have forgotten their origins, and encountered something that may be evil), and the author had done wonderful things with the "cyberthriller" Carlucci novels. But somewhere in the middle of Ship, the story simply grinds to a halt. You don't care anymore, you just want OUT!

I "try before I buy" with books, by applying the Rule of 33, although usually I only do this with a new or untrusted author. But before I developed that rule, I read Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home. I devoured this book, because I had so enjoyed The Other. In fact, even my rule would not have helped me spot this one. The problem with Tryon's book, for me, was what I call the "unexpected gross-out." This is a shocking plot element that is unforeseen because the writer has carefully masked its approach, the authorial equivalent of burying a razor-blade in a sweet red apple.

I adore David Weber's Harrington novels, and even enjoy his fantasy series that starts with Oath of Swords. The series about the Moon as an alien secret spaceship, though, leaves me cold. Curiously, my spouse did love Mutineer's Moon, and bought all the subsequent books. I, on the other hand, look at those novels and see a waste of time that could be better used telling us about Honor Harrington or her tree-cat Nimitz.

The final rejected book I'll list here is from the pen of Larry Niven. I had such hopes of Scatterbrain, which offered a peek into the skull of this brilliant writer, but delivered an incoherent mush of essays and half-finished stuff juxtaposed with excerpts from his better-known stories. I've read everything Niven has published—this is the only one I regret!

It's not a long list. There are few others I could name. And now the floor is open for nominations from you.

Are there any books that so repulsed you that you vowed never to read another word from the author's pen?

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Friday, June 17, 2005

Searching With Style: Google Hacks


With over eight billion Web pages indexed, the wealth of information available through the Google search engine is awesome, and somewhat daunting. A simple interface hides the powerful search tools available to the cognoscenti. Everyone wants more Google juice, but Google keeps changing the algorithm that delivers their page-ranking.

So it was time for a new edition of Google Hacks, the inclusive reference to tweaking Google searches, written by Google experts Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest, with plenty of hacks contributed by other veteran Google-busters.
Hack #11: Google serves as a searchable archive for back issues of online publications.

The new edition includes dozens of updated hacks from the first edition, plus 25 new hacks that use the enhanced capabilities of Google and its API gateway. A section even covers Gmail, "Google's unique take on online correspondence." The quadrupling of information available from Google since the time of the first Google Hacks edition means that it is even more important now to automate searches.

The book starts with a swift overview of Google's search terms, and some tips on how to fine-tune your search string. Once you have a solid grounding in how to enter search keywords to bring up what you want, the authors begin to introduce the hacks. The first hacks are simple tips about hidden (or simply less-obvious) Google goodies like the Google directories, or the keywords that will help you find weblogs.
Hack #15: Repetition matters when it comes to keywords weighting your queries.

If you haven't used a Hacks book before, you might be a bit overwhelmed by the pages of Perl, CGI, and other code. The good news: the authors walk you through how to create and run the hack program for each one. The better news: if you don't care to enter the program, almost all of them are available, ready-to-use, online. I recommend entering the code yourself if you're interested in learning programming; the step-by-step instructions are a lot more understandable when you've typed them in.

Nearly every hack also includes a segment called "hacking the hack." With these suggestions, you can tweak the program to bring it closer to your own needs. You, too, can generate Web pages from a Google search. You can "scrape" Yahoo News into a comma-delimited file suitable for importing into Excel. Create dynamic Web content that counts keyword occurances, ranks them by "mindshare," or boxes them up ready for your readers.
Hack #24: Let the Google API transform those random ingredients in your fridge into a wonderful dinner.

Google Smackdown is a popular hack, one that regularly maxes out the 1000-API requests per day limit on its online site. I pitted "blonde" against "brunette." Guess which won. Right! Blonde totally smacked-down brunette, with 1,050,000 unique mentions for the blondes, versus 316,000 brunettes. This is really a kind of Google-ranking for keywords. Other hacks use this concept, twisted a bit: Geotargeting (Hack #46), for example, determines the relative popularity of a trend or fashion in different locations.

A short chapter packs a solid punch on searching for images. The authors begin with Google's Advanced Image Search, which lets the user filter images based on type, size and color. Content filtering for images is less than 100-percent safe, they point out, so some images may be questionable for family fare. But several hacks add the ability to find corporate logos, or search for personal photos.
Hack #53: Capture the Map—Put a little Risk into yyour Googling as you try your hand at world domination.

Next come the "add-ons," like Googling via IRC. And what in the blazes is a Search Engine Belt Buckle? This is a hack that "repurposes your PDA to display a scrolling list of 24 hour's worth of all the bizarre and banal things that people are looking for on the Web—right there just above or below your navel."

"Whatever your reasons for trying, switching to or lusting after a Gmail account," the authors say in the opening of Chapter Six, Gmail, "you're sure to be delighted both by its proper and 'improper' uses—the latter being the focus of the chapter." The gigabyte-sized storage of the Gmail account is its major draw. But even if you have one, how easy is it to use? The first hack is how to get an account, followed by how to create custom addresses. My favorite? Using your gig of Gmail space as a Linux filesystem!
Hack #79: Drop a gig of Gmail storage on your Windows desktop, and treat it just like any other drive.

Chapter Seven covers Google AdSense, a site-customized ad service that uses keywords from your content to deliver appropriate advertising to your site. The first hack in this chapter covers click-through rates (CTRs), and how they affect the cost/value of advertising. Further hacks help you generate, scrape from your competitors' sites, and evaluate the worth of AdWords keywords.

Finally, the filet mignon meat of the book is the chapter on Webmastering. Here is the discussion of the mysterious Page Rank and the "even more mysterious ranking algorithm." Strategic linking, "hot and cold running content" that is on-topic, and not linking to bad neighborhoods, as Google calls them, all affect your site's Page Rank.
Hack #89: Be a Good Search Engine Citizen—Five don'ts and one do for getting your site indexed by Google.

The authors round out this substantial offering with a fairly complete list of hacks that detail how to program Google requests in nine different ways, from Perl and Java to C++ and VB.Net. This section also discusses scraping and spidering programs with a focus on keeping your Google operations clean.

In short, this book provides a fascinating hands-on experience in taking Googling to the next level. Like all the Hacks books, it has tips for the timid, and big, bold programs for the brave. You may never look at Google the same way again.

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Weekly BlogScan: Dad Day Afternoon

Hero. Competitor. Protector. Queller-with-a-glance of teenage pretensions. Model of manliness. Woodshed punisher. Father, Papa, Daddy, Pop, Dad. Sunday is Father's Day, and many of us in the blogosphere are making plans to honor or placate the Big Guy.

I start with Rebel Dad, whose blog "puts the stay-at-home dad trend under the microscope." He has recently inveighed against the reality show Meet Mr. Mom, because it presents such a twisted version of Dads. R.D.'s top two assumptions the show makes, which doom it to fail:
  1. It assumes that raising kids is a terrible job. But most of the working dads I know would see a week alone with their children as a good (if exhausting) opportunity.
  2. It assumes that men suck at caregiving...

Another at-home Dad is Mike, the TruckinDaddy, who gloats over his score in a junkyard search that replaced his "To Do" list of home chores on his other blog, AtHomeDaddy.

Daddy, make a picture sings the praises of a wise life-partner in Why I'm glad I married you—reason number 7,543,234:
Me: You do have batteries.
     Big Brother: I do NOT!
Me: Do so!!!
     BB: DO NOT!!!
Me (yelling upstairs): Mommy…..
     Mommy (yelling downstairs): Yes?
Me: Do the kids have batteries?
     Mommy (after thinking it through): Yes. And take his out.

Darth Vader mask.
    Luke, I have formatted your hard disk. (NOo-o!)

Father doesn't always know best. The computer-deficient Dad is a stereotype, perhaps because his number is Legion. According to Computer Stupidities, letting Dad play with your computer is dangerous, but hilarious. "My Dad: 'Ok, so I go into the Microsoft...' It usually takes two or three guesses to determine which Microsoft application he's in." (Mincing Words) And: "My best friend's family recently bought a new computer. They had all the hardware set up and the software ready to be installed when the stepdad picks up the Windows 95 box and says to his wife: 'How do they get the box into the computer?'... Apparently he thought that to install software you had to get the box in there somehow." (The Bleeding Obvious)

In Jon's Jail Journal, the blog of "a celled-up counter culture leader fighting science fiction facism," Jon interviewed the son of Sammy the Bull ("Junior Bull" Gravano) about his dad's involvement with mobster John Gotti:
"Did you know what John and your dad were up to?"
"I saw money and guns. I didn’t know that it wasn't legit. My dad had a construction business. People were always visiting, paying respect. I didn't realise what the mob was until I was sixteen, after the government got him... My dad was a mobster’s mobster."

For Anonymous Lawyer, the knowledge that he is a "bad father and a worse husband" helps innoculate him against Life Coaches, a career-group of people who promise to help A.L. resolve his life issues. gave me an entirely new sense for what people do after they realize they can't function in the high-pressure world of corporate law. The irony is that these people, claiming they can help people like me manage my life and deal with the stress and figure out how to reach my goals are the people who couldn't hack it themselves.

Waiter Rants had a profitable encounter with a father tired of his son's long hair. But coturnix of Science and Politics is concerned about the Lakoffian Strict Father model of parenting, and its extension to universities.
It is no coincidence that The University is a metaphor for a Nurturant Parent model of a community... It is also no coincidence that The University is the seeding place for progress of the society... Of course most of the faculty are liberal...

The Empress at Query Letters I Love shares with us a query about a script submitted in Hollywood. "I have daddy issues," complains the writer. "Please validate me." One of the comments:
"This script deals with the dark comedic lives of an upper Midwest family." Next to monkeys, time travel, Hitler, and sharks, I would like to add the phrase "Dark comedy" as an indicator the script will inevitably suck.

Father Jake Stops the World is the blog of a "sometimes heretical Episcopal priest." Jake got tagged by a Book Meme, but owns only about 300 books. He blames a recent "mad dash across the US, taking with me only what would fit in my car; my dog, my clothes, and 14 boxes of books."

The posts of isabel at She's a Flight Risk tend toward the poetic, and her father is a constant theme:
Teetering on the twilit threshold between sleep and consciousness, I drift in and out of a proto-phantasm. Images of my family, friends and father beckon me to return from my miasmic state to the overly-bright clarity, sharp edges and blunt surfaces of wakefulness... I wake to jungle darkness, all insects and reptiles, and in the corner of my room—the bit of movement catching my eye in the shadow amidst the cornerbound shadows... Just barely escaping as I wake and seek to lay eyes on it.

I sleep so lightly even the dead cannot pass undetected.

I do not have such poetry in me. Fortunately, my father is living, and I only need to call him on Sunday. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

And thanks for everything...

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Aurora Illinois says, Down with Christmas! (Decorations, that is)

Maybe you've had a year like this. The Christmas decorations take a lot of effort to put up, and then, when New Year's is a distant memory, you just haven't found the time to take them down. And here it is, mid-June, and your house still sports a Santa and eight tiny reindeer.

Is that anything for your neighbors to complain about? Would you expect a letter from the Mayor, asking you to remove the out-dated holiday decor? If you live in Aurora, Illinois, it is, and you can.

Santas climbing a drainpipe.
   Cute at Christmas, tacky now.

The campaign to have Christmas decorations removed began with a letter from city alderwoman Juany Garza, according to James Kimberly, staff writer for the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
This is by no means the biggest issue facing the ward. Crime is a much more pressing problem, and street gangs continue to recruit young people... Still, while crime directly affects only a percentage of the population, everyone sees out-of-place Christmas decorations, Garza said.

Garza hopes the letters—written in English and Spanish for her predominantly Hispanic constituents—will convince residents that the decorations reflect poorly on the community.
[Aurora] Mayor Tom Weisner said the city will look into ways to regulate Christmas decorations through an ordinance if residents do not comply with Garza's request to clean up by Thursday.

While the effort is aimed at cleaning up residential neighborhoods, the city itself is one of the offenders.
Aurora's 12 aldermen have offices near City Hall... In the building's lobby, a curving staircase ascends to the second-floor offices. Along its banister runs a thick green strand of Christmas lights, the plug lying on the carpeted floor.

When that was pointed out to her the other day, Garza smiled.

"It's not my ward," she said with a shrug.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tyranny of Slenderness: The Obsession by Kim Chernin


This is a profoundly disturbing treatise, superficially about the fashion of women's bodies—but at its base, The Obsession Kim Chernin writes about is for power over the minds of women and men.
...I recalled the faces of women who had recently lost weight. The haggard look, the lines of strain around the mouth, the neck too lean, the tendons visible, the head too large for the emaciated body. I began to reason... There must be, I said, for every woman a correct weight, which cannot be discovered with reference to a chart or to any statistical norm...

Chernin's approach to this obsession is feminist, to be sure, because she is discussing the seizure of power underlying the focus on size. On the way, however, she uncovers some truths that are equally applicable to diet-obsessed modern men.
  • 90% to 98% of dieters eventually gain back all the weight they lost—and more
  • This recidivism leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing over loss of control—both of which are emotional states conducive to weight gain, creating a feedback loop
  • Samoan women, accepted by their society as beautiful at heavy weights and large sizes, rarely exhibit the hypertension "caused" by lower levels of obesity in women whose societies reject them for being fat.

Along the way, Chernin speculates about a number of things that may be related to the current obsession over weight. Chinese foot-binding, for instance, is reeled into the discussion, with 19th-century corsetry and modern plastic surgery. And if there is a vast conspiracy to make women unhappy with their natural bodies, it is one willingly entered into by women themselves; if hundreds of thousands of women have their breasts enlarged, still more have their breasts reduced, their thighs sucked slimmer and tummies tucked in the endless battle with fat.

Why would women conspire against their own natures? Chernin lays this issue firmly in the woman's own choice to meet a shifting ideal, and in the desire to retain youth. The pre-pubescent slimness and lack of body fat informs the current fashion; women are trying to be girls of the age when they were non-sexual. (It is in reasoning about why men would want girlish women that Chernin is most feminist; she believes men are subtly jealous of the woman's generative ability, her womb, and thus seek to keep women in a physical state that belies this power.)

There are, in addition, Puritanical impulses that support the fashion for slenderness. Lust and gluttony are both loss-of-control sins. The curvaceous, obviously-fertile woman is an occasion of sin for lust; her fatter sister is presumed to be a walking sign of her own gluttony. Darker sins are covered by our Puritanical reaction.
I don't think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women. [Emphasis mine.]

Again and again, Chernin asks us to look at the fat woman, with her "rounded cheeks, plump arms..., broad shoulders,... full thighs, rounded ass... of a woman made that way according to her nature, walking with head high in pride of her body, however it happened to be shaped." We need, she insists, to see each woman as she is meant to be, ripe and full of promise, not cut her down to some Procrustean ideal.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Jefferson's Mid-East Hostage Crisis: The Pirate Coast by Richard Zachs

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country's battles
On the land and on the sea...
U.S. Marine Corps Hymn

Richard Zach's thrilling novel, The Pirate Coast, provides insight into the reason for the second line of this chorus, "to the shores of Tripoli."

In 1785, the Moslem regent of Tripoly, Yussef Karamanli, declared war on an infant nation, the United States of America, sending out Barbary pirate vessels to harrass, sink or capture American shipping. The goal was to have tribute paid by the U.S., in exactly the way the Barbary regents had been bribed for centuries by France, Britain, Denmark, and so on. President Thomas Jefferson's response to one such demand (in public, anyway) was, "Millions for Defense, but Not One Penny in Tribute!"

By 1804, the war had escalated, with six U.S. fleet ships in the Mediterannean. Then Bey Yussef siezed the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and held them as slaves while he waited for ransom and tribute to be paid. Jefferson responded by sending William Eaton, a former consul to the region who had already proved himself no friend to piracy or slavery, with a commission to find and support Bey Yussef's brother Hamet in a coup atttempt to create a U.S.-friendly state on the Barbary Coast.

Once Eaton had departed, however, Jefferson began to reconsider the commission. In the age of sailing ships, information from the other side of the world might be years out of date, and Eaton, no diplomat, had ruffled more than a few feathers while a consul in the Middle East.
A former army captain, Eaton had recently been court-martialed and convicted. He was impetuous, hardheaded, argumentative. His loud voice cut through conversations; his ramrod-straight stance inspired respect; his Dartmouth education added polysyllables to his vocabulary. Diplomacy, he had very little; he was blunt-spoken, exceedingly direct. He once wrote of the feeble efforts of the U.S. Navy that "a fleet of Quaker meeting houses would have done just as well."

The US. government, with a huge debt from the Revolutionary War, found it cheaper to pay off Tunis—and keep the pirates away—than to fight against them, Jefferson's anti-tribute bluster to the contrary. Eaton, however, was appalled by the aspect of slavery close-up.
"For my part, it grates me mortally when I see a lazy Turk [a Moslem] reclining at his ease upon an embroidered sofa, with one Christian slave to fan away the flies, another to hand him his coffee and a third to hold his pipe... It is still more grating to perceive that the Turk believes he has a right to demand this contribution and that we, like Italians, have not the fortitude to resist it."

Within two years, this disgraced diplomat would lead a band of eight Marines (then a service chiefly known for supplying military bands to Washington ceremonies) and several hundred foreign mercenaries, "the dregs of Alexandria, on a mad hopeless mission to march across the hell of the Libyan desert." Eaton, cut off from the promised funds for his mission, used every wit and wile available to him to round up the missing Hamet, corral the nomadic tribes who had allied against Bey Yussef, and keep them all marching in the same direction.

Eventually this rag-tag group would mount a surprise-attack on Tripoli's second-largest city, Derne, and they would achieve a near miraculous victory—followed by a disastrous retreat in the face of that victory, as commanded by the jealous U.S. Naval commander, John Rodgers, and the pompous (and disastrously compliant) Ambassador to Tripoly, Tobias Lear. (Six years after his suspiciously lenient treaty with Bey Yussef, Tobias Lear, then United States consul general to Algiers, would accept two female Italian slaves to work as housekeepers in the consulate. Their $75-a-year upkeep was part of his reimburshed expense accounts, making the U.S. government complicit in their slavery.)

Their retreat would abandon the allied tribes to the vengeance of their enemies, most of whom had fled when the U.S. fleet showed up in the harbor of Derne, assuming the fleet was there to support Hamet's allies. Despite the slaughter that followed the U.S. retreat, the United States Marines acquired a new reputation for courage. Eaton's single Marine officer, Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon (a fiddle-player in the Marine band), raised the U.S. flag over the harbor of Derne. This was the first time the flag would fly over conquered foreign territory; it flew side-by-side with the banner of Hamet, would-be Pasha of Tripoly.

Returning to the U.S from the Barbary Coast, Eaton found himself lauded and fêted by a 15-state nation that had thrilled to his victories. In Washington, however, Eaton was faced with another campaign far more dangerous than his recent trudge across the Libyan deserts: he set out to recoup his financial losses from multiple Mediterranean campaigns, and to bring Lear, Rodgers, and Jefferson himself under censure for commanding his retreat from Derne. None of the principals are simon-pure; Zachs spares no one, not even Eaton himself.

Thrilling, enraging, and delighting by turns, The Pirate Coast reveals that many things we applaud or decry in current events actually have a long, if secret, tradition in the United States. This is a wonderful story—and so well written, I have already ordered Zach's history of Caribbean pirate Captain Kidd, The Pirate Hunter.

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