Saturday, December 18, 2010


A couple of favorites are on my mind today:  columnist and author.

Today's NYT column by Paul Krugman, Wall Street Whitewash, reminds me why he's my favorite.  Succinct, concrete, significant, and insighful, it's all one needs for a bird's eye view of how dysfunctional our political system has become thanks to one party's tactical dishonesty in thrall to misguided, gormless ideology.  (Yeah, I really wanted to use "gormless" in a sentence.  In fact, this blog exists mainly so I can do that sort of thing.  No, I don't care to discuss what I mean by "that sort of thing.")

Speaking of gormless (sorry), one more thing to add re the tax cut bill that just passed.  I'm worried - seriously worried - that the one-year payroll tax holiday will be reenshrined for another year when it nears its expiration date.  Lotsa commentators have pointed out the danger to Social Security As We Know It (SSAWKI) if it's starved of its payroll tax funding.  Privatization through IRAs of Social Security: Operating on the Nation's Unwary Suckers (PISSONUS).  I'd like to think that Congress will have the guts next year to say, "We said one year only, and we meant it."  I'd also like to have an indoor, free of charge, regulation golf course inside my condo that I can play whenever I want without having to wait. 

I'm on a quest to identify a new favorite living author.  I've been on it ever since David Foster Wallace bit the dust.  My pre-DFW fave was William Trevor.  Fools of Fortune, The Silence In The Garden,  Miss Gomez and the Brethren are spectacular, as are most of his other novels.  What short stories of his I've read are equally well crafted, and I've enjoyed them in spite of not particularly caring for that form.  The dude writes beautifully, almost, it seems, effortlessly, the plots and characters seeming to live within the words themselves.  He's still alive, so I could revert.  But there's a problem: I've been spoiled by DFW's amazing breadth of interest and form.  Novels, short and not-so-short stories, novellas, essays, journalistic forays, mathematics (Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity - the only book of his I haven't read, but I will).  All written in an original voice - informal/ post-modern, somewhat ironic) I dig and laced with humor and insight into themes beyond the story at hand.  I'm in awe of some contemporary writers' skill with words (thinking here of Cormac McCarthy), but not only are their works limited to novels and short stories, they tend to center their writing along the same themes, book to book.  Annie Dillard comes to mind, but her first novel, The Living, was no more than mediocre.    The last book of hers I read, For the Time Being, was provocative, I suppose, but it seemed more high level shtick than what it aspired to - serious engagement with timeless issues.   I think she's peaked.   Any suggestions?

As long as I'm on books, I'll mention Tod Wodicka's All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well.  I almost loved it.  Exceptional dialogue, interesting story, and lotsa room for debate as to motivation and meaning.  It's difficult to believe it's a first novel.  In fact, so far it's an only novel.  If your book group's looking for something new and off the beaten path, you'll be happy with it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Haloti Ngata and the elephant

Note: Haloti Ngata plays professional football for the Baltimore Ravens.  He is a defensive tackle, and, even by the standards of his position, he is enormous.  Haloti Ngata is also one of the best names in sports.  I love saying it.  On Monday night, 12/13,  I watched Haloti Ngata and his team play in a nationally televised game.  On Tuesday night, I had the following dream.

My name is Haloti Ngata.  I am a rhinoceros.  I am walking down a lane in what seems to be a suburban landscape.  Flat and open.  Almost pastoral, but the grass is well manicured.  The weather is pleasantly nondescript.  I know my death is approaching.  I am not aware of anything I have done to bring this about.  No divine punishment, no disease, no misplaced vengeance.  I am not scared, and I have no questions.  What is coming is inexorable.

Death is approaching in the form of an elephant.  I have never seen this elephant, but I know that it is larger than any I have encountered.  I can smell him.  A mix of dung, trampled grass, age old dirt and dust.  A dryness to it.  In the distance, I hear him trumpet.  Soon, another trumpet, louder.  The odor is more pungent.  A feeling of looming immensity, doom.

I step through the doorway of a house I cannot see and enter the room I knew would be there.  It is where I, Steve/Haloti, spent the first eight years of my childhood.  The front room has wall-to-wall, dark green carpeting.  To my immediate right is an open staircase.  Two steps up, a landing, then, turning left, a long flight up.  Heavy wooden  balusters its entire length.  I will wait at the top of the stairs for the elephant.  My plan is to charge down as soon as I sense him begin to step on to the lower landing.  Leverage, momentum, surprise will be on my side.  I, Haloti Ngata, will die, but I will inflict some damage before the end.

The trumpeting is loud, the smell overpowering.  The elephant is here, just inside the house.  I wait, calm and determined.  I feel the elephant about to set foot on the landing, and I begin my charge.  We meet and find ourselves locked in an exquisite equipoise.  My horn is directly below his throat, his tusks below my belly.  I cannot jerk my head up to inflict a wound.  He has not yet been able to force his tusks into me.  But my strength is flagging.  Time is on his side.

I wake up, but the dream does not leave.  Haloti Ngata, the rhinoceros, is now a being apart from me, as I look at him locked in his terminal embrace.

A reverie overtakes me, and I am Haloti Ngata again.  I am back at the top of the stairs, waiting.  Once more, I sense the elephant about to set foot on the landing.  Perhaps I have begun my charge fractionally later than before.  Or maybe the elephant is no longer surprised.  His trunk reaches around my front right leg before I can reach him.  He uses my momentum to pull me up over his head, whip me around, and slam me to the floor.  Even though there is no pain, I know I am seriously injured.  Perhaps I can move, but I only want to curl there in a ball.  The elephant still has his trunk around by leg.  Up, around and crashing down again.  Still no pain, but I know my injuries are mortal.  Just as I know that the elephant is not through with me.  I feel nothing, desire nothing.  Then I am being twirled in the air.  Blackness awaits.  Nothing matters.  Death and I have made our acquaintance.  And I still have not seen the elephant's face.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas shopping?

Yeah, I coulda said "holiday shopping," but you understand, right?  If you don't understand, then go out and buy The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell), the most politically correct book of all time.  (I know, you already read it.  Probably in a place of honor on your bookshelf.)  It's earned my VIDS (Verily, It Doth Suck) rating, and not only for its unrelenting (sometimes unimaginable) political correctness  It also qualifies by virtue of an extraordinarily high degree of preposterosity.  Even for sci-fi.  Not to mention poorly drawn characters and an ending which the author subsequently undid so she'd have a plot for her next book.  It's not the worst book of all time;  I'll discuss a couple of candidates - the finalists, actually - in a future post. 

Now, if you enjoy good lit, here are two books I finished recently.  First, Anne Michaels's The Winter Vault.  I enjoyed it more than her previous novel, Fugitive Pieces, written about 10 years earlier, even though the earlier work received greater acclaim.  Michaels is a poet, and I dig writing in which special care is taken with language.  Many of her passages seem less written than chiseled.  FP, though worthwhile, was a bit too cryptic for my taste.  WV is close to great, and it shoud be exceptionally appeciated by book groups.  Check the back and forth in the reviews on Amazon.  Insight and articulate argument abound.  (Not a bad idea to read them before you read the book itself.)  Same goes for The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.  Except he's not a poet.  But he did get a MacArthur "genius grant."  And LP does reach my "great" threshold.  One book I didn't finish was Steve Toth's A Fraction of the Whole.  It takes a lot for me not to finish a book, but this one was long enough to confront me with the realization that I might end up hating myself for sticking with it beyond the 250 pages I'd already read/spent.  And who knows how much it would cost to replace whatever I broke when, upon closing the back cover, I hurled it against the nearest fragile object.   I have no idea how it got on the Booker Prize short list.  I do know that the jacket blurb comparing it to A Confederacy of Dunces ought to give John Kennedy Toole's estate grounds for libel.

Thinking more about the Bush tax cuts and what's gonna happen.  Well, not so much what's gonna happen, but what's happening right now.  One thing that's happening is that liberals like Lawrence O'Donnell (MSNBC) are trying to convince other liberals that this is the best deal we can get.  Note that I didn't put "liberal" in quotes when I used it to describe him.  LO'D's a genuine lib.  He's arguing strenuously and cogently for doing this deal.  I'd like to hear him tell us if he'd still support it if its passage guaranteed that the tax cuts for the upper 2% AND that the estate tax reduction (REDUCTION!) from the Bush years would both be made permanent.  Because that's a virtual certainty if this deal gets done.  May not happen in 2012; Congress may kick it further down the road yet again.  But it'll happen sometime, and when it does, undoing it will be off the table for a generation.  That's close enough to permanent for me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In the beginning...

In the beginning, God said, "What's up with the title?"  (A quality deity wouldn't have to ask, but it's hard to get quality deities to follow blogs.)  So, what's up is that I was at my own retirement party in June 2010, and a colleague asked about my anticipation of "life in the fast lane."  I think I replied, "Dude, I'm retired.  It'll be life in the slow lane." (pause) "Now that I think about it, life without lanes is closer."  (You should know that I call lotsa people "dude."  Including female people, which my colleague was.  And still is.  And while we're into parenthetical statements about what you should know, you should know that I was a medical librarian at Oregon Health & Science University.  And you should know that I'd retired from full-time work in March 2009 and thus already had some acquaintance with post-retirement life.)  I'd already decided I was gonna have a blog; now I had a title.  You've probably noticed that it's taken me nearly six months to get around to doing it.  Time is different when there aren't any lanes.

So, what's this blog gonna be about?  Well, given the title, some of it will be musings on living without the encumbrances the normal working life.  But mostly, I'll talk about books, politics, food (eating it, not growing/preparing it), and, well, I don't know yet.  But my answering machine messages will occasionally appear, mainly for purposes of documentation.  You should know that my default (and current) message is, "Hola, this is Generalissimo Francisco Franco.  I cannot come to the phone right now, mainly because I am dead.  But, you can leave a message for Esteev after el beep."  Try to imagine hearing this spoken with a rather dreadful Spanish accent (o-la, dees ees..).  While you're at it, try to remember the old (i.e., funny) Saturday Night Live, with Chevy Chase introducing the news of the week.  Franco's been there for a while, much longer than usual.  When W was president, it was soooo easy to come up with sarcastic, 30 second barbs.  I had Bush, Cheney, Rush, Glen and Hillary answering the phone for me over those years.  Tom DeLay, too, I think.  Now?  Well, though it's still a target rich environment, it seems that more explanation is necessary.  And more explanation doesn't work well in an answering machine greeting.  I'll work on it.

Speaking of politics, here's my take on the tax cut brouhaha.  When Obama caved on healthcare, I gave him a pass.  I thought he should've fought for the public option, but in the long run, he probably got as much as he could have, given the Dems' propensity for allowing assholes like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln to play trump cards within their caucus.  (Yes, Joe Lieberman, too, though he deserves a more contemptuous term. )  Afghanistan?  Obama's not doing anything that he said he wouldn't do in the primary and general elections.  But the tax cut legislation's a different story.  The tax cuts stand as a proxy for everything we hated about Bush.  Bad economic policy, duplicitous reasoning, politics catering to those most special (i.e., most monied) interests, and craven opportunism.  I thought it was obvious that Congress had to act before the election.  As bad as things looked for the Dems, here, at least, was something they could campaign on to enliven their base.  They punted.  Easy to blame Harry Reid and the rest of the Congressional leadership, but I was disappointed that Obama didn't appear to try too hard to change their minds.  By "try too hard," I mean twist arms LBJ style or appeal to the general public FDR style.  After the election, I told myself, would come the acid test.  And right at the outset, almost as soon as the returns were in, Obama let it be known that he wouldn't renege on his pledge to end the "permanent" tax cuts for the wealthiest.  Hearing "permanent" in that statement was all it took for me and everyone else who was listening to understand that Obama'd caved.  It seems Obama believes - truly believes - that from a policy perspective this "compromise" is the best he could have done.  He may be right, but that's not what's most important.  (Obama and his advisors would gasp at the notion that policy isn't paramount in this discussion.  Think plastic bags, heads inside of.) What's most important is that on this issue above all others, we who deplored the Bush presidency need a champion.   Obama may call himself a  pragmatist, a realist,  president of all the people.  Compromise may have been inevitable.  But on this issue, we want - we need - someone who will stand against everything we were forced to swallow for eight years.  A champion.  I think of FDR, speaking of his right wing opposition, declaring, "I welcome their hatred!"  Wouldn't we wanna party in the streets if we heard that kind of thing from our president?  Sometimes you gotta tilt at windmills if you wanna lead.  If this episode doesn't end with the "compromise" being enacted, it'll be so surprising as to be historic.  And two years from now, we'll be at it again.  Except, it'll be worse, because Congress, that parliament of whores (thank you P.J. O'Rourke), will have to deal with reinstating the Social Security payroll tax.

How do you know something's a milestone in your life?  Well, doing it for the first time qualifies.  But knowing you're doing something you've never done before is pretty easy.  How about doing something you know you'll never do again?  If you know it at the time, you may see it as a milestone.  Which brings me to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.   I seldom reread books, but I've read this one before.  Three times before.  (I've read Catch-22 and Pynchon's V. three times.  That's my entire 3x list.)  So now I'm on my fourth and last reading.  Why?  Anyone who's read Pynchon could probably answer.  What elements I understand are breathtaking and unique.  Those I don't have a special, almost grail-like allure.  And those I think I get but am not totally sure of need fleshing out.  Still, it's an arduous task, even for one living without lanes, and I wouldn't do it but for a companion volume, Steven Weisenburger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion.  It's slow going, multiplying by about four the time it takes to get through GR.  So, it's not just a read; it's a milestone.  Or it will be, when I finish.  It'll be about a year, I think.  I'll talk about some other books next time.  One final thought on doing something you know you'll never do again:  David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments is a terrific book by my former favorite living author.  Suicide at 46.  Damn!