Sunday, January 30, 2011

Another book

Before I can tell you about The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, I have to tell you about my daughter.  Not all about her.  Not even a lot about her.  Just one episode, in fact.  One day, when she was about 15, I picked Sarah and her friend, Arianne, up after school.  "Dad, what is up.  I mean, what is up."  Arianne chimed in, "Yeah,"  And so on for the next 20 minutes or so.  Neither of these teenagers was ever close to valley-girldom, so I attributed their fascination with this one phrase to a mild, peer-borne infection of something or other and hoped it was brief.  It was, and it was.  I'm mentioning it now because I want to convey how striking it was to hear a normal question, what's up, transmuted into an entirely different sort of element simply by undoing the apostrophization and exercising the option of changing it from a question into a statement.  Keep that transmutation in mind when you read the next paragraph.

So, the bottom line on The Unnamed is that it's great, if you 1) buy the premise, and 2) accept the characters' response to dealing with said premise.  The premise is a sudden occurrence of a disease/condition that requires Tim to walk, regardless of circumstances.  There's no precedent to be found in the medical/psychological literature.  I could buy that.  How the family members - Tim, his wife and daughter - choose to cope with it will strike some as implausible.  I don't know if it'll ruin the book, though, because there are some arresting issues addressed, mind vs. body and the nature of love and spousal duty being the most significant.  I had some difficulty with #2, but loved the book anyway.  You have to care about the characters, and the writing's superb throughout.  Especially at the very end.  Not to spoil it, but nothing happens.  (Reread paragraph one if necessary.)

I'd bet that most people who've also read Ferris's first novel, the darkly comic Then We Came to the End, will prefer that one.  As much as I enjoyed it, my vote goes to his new book.

FYI - I'm presently in "'sup" mode.  As in, "Dude, 'sup?"  "Yo, 'sup."  Does away with meaning altogether, reducing the utterance to mere acknowledgment of another's presence.  Punctuate it any way you want, depending on how much you're interested in having a conversation.  And there's no danger of having one's teenage daughter and her friend go apeshit saying, "Is up." to each other for the better part of an hour.  At least there better not be.  Hmm, when Tim was first struck by his walking compulsion, his daughter was about Sarah's age when the "What is up"  episode occurred.  Could it be that his daughter came home from school one day and besieged her father with an extended riff on that phrase?  Why didn't Ferris reassure me that that's not what happened?  What's up with that?  I mean, what is up with that.  Wait, I guess it's "what is up with THAT?".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals and Santa Claus

Dear Editor,
Thank you for answering my question about Santa Claus.  Now I have another one.  I get confused about all these British rock bands, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Animals.  How do you tell them apart?
Virginia O'Hanlon

The letter was dated December 22, 2005.  Who knew that Virginia ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus") O'Hanlon was still alive?  A bit more than somewhat addled, perhaps, but still kicking.  Through a protracted and excruciatingly bizarre set of circumstances (involving the US Postal Service, a typo on my change of address form, Blackwater, a congressperson whom I can't name, and the Internet), the letter - and the responsibility for responding - fell into my hands early this month.   My reply is below.  Sensitive as I am, and Virginia being THAT Virginia, I thought it best to withhold a few - but only a few - details.  I mean, after you've told her what you told her about Santa, you're supposed to break the news of John Lennon's assassination?

Dear Virginia,

Man, it sure took you a while to get around to thanking us.  You're welcome. 

Francis Pharcellus Church, the guy who responded to your Santa Claus inquiry, is a bit under the weather.  He's asked me to respond to your question about telling apart the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.  I hope the question/answer format I've chosen makes things clear.  By the way, everyone calls them "the Stones" now.

How many members?
Beatles (B) - 4.
Stones (S) - 4 or 5.
Animals (A) - 5.

Trademark album cover?
B - The White Album. (It's all white, Virginia; you don't need a picture.)
S - Sticky Fingers.
A - The Animals.

Trademark anatomic feature?
B - Hair.
S - Tongues. (Especially Mick's and Keith's.  Together.)
A - Zits.

Representative hit song (G-rated/definitely non-subversive)?
B - All You Need Is Love.
S - Jumpin' Jack Flash.
A - N/A.

Representative hit song (not G-rated/subversive possibilities)?
B - Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
S - Live With Me.
A - House of the Rising Sun.

Most appropriate city in which to hear them.?
B - Liverpool.
S - New York.
A - Rotterdam or Detroit, whichever's closest.

If they were an author, they'd be?
B - Dostoevsky.
S - Hemingway.
A - Mailer.

If they were a disease, they'd be?
B - Tuberculosis (popularity plus a romantic/tragic aura)
S - Malaria (popular, worldly, and it's got staying power)
A - Grotesque acne or herpes.

Most closely associated bodily fluid/secretion?
B. Semen.
S - Semen.
A - Semen.

OK, that didn't work; second most closely associated bodily fluid/secretion?
B - Tears.
S - Sweat.
A - Pus.

Selected career highlight?
B - Getting fucked up (that means smoking marijuana, Virginia) at Buckingham Palace before meeting the Queen.
S - Altamont.
A - Staying out of jail.

Drug of choice?
B - Marijuana (just noses out LSD).
S - Things go better with coke.
A - Heroin.

I meant drug of choice for the fans.
B, S, & A - So did we.

What to wear if you're going to see them in concert (excluding footwear)?
B - Your brand new mod outfit.
S - Designer jeans and a tee.  A clean tee. 
A - Anything you don't mind getting vomit on.

What footwear?
B - Cool leather boots.
S - Anything you can dance in.
A - Anything that'll protect you when you step on used syringes.

If the group were a female singer, it would be?
B - Ella.
S - Lady Day.
A - Janis.

If the group were a male singer, it would be?
B - Elvis (bet you thought I was gonna say Chuck Berry).
S - Chuck Berry.
A - Jerry Lee Lewis. 

Archetypal lyric (G-rated/sanitary/totally non-subversive)?
B -
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
(All You Need Love)
S - 
But it's all right.  I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, 
It's a Gas!  Gas!  Gas! 
(Jumpin' Jack Flash)
A - N/A.

Archetypal lyric (?)?
B -
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
(Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds)
S - 
I laid a divorcee in New York City
I had to put up some kind of a fight
The lady she all dressed me up in roses
She blew my nose and then she blew my mind
(Country Honk)
A -
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
(House of the Rising Sun) 

Initial emotion/thought upon hearing your daughter's dating a band member?
B - Happiness  /  "But please, God, not Ringo."
S - Concern  / "Please, God, not that Keith one."
A - Fright  /  "God, how could you do this to me!"

Initial emotion/thought upon hearing your daughter's engaged to a band member?
B - Elation / "But please, God, not Ringo."
S - Ca-ching! + residual concern / "Thanks, God.  It's not that Keith one, now, is it?"
A - Catatonia / "-----------------------"

All the best,

Steve Teich

P.S.  Uhhhhhhhh, Virginia, by now you know that Santa doesn't really exist.  I mean, you learned that a long time ago, right?  Right?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two books

I just finished two books, both of which are more than notable.

W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz is a novel for all lovers of serious fiction.  It's got the traditional Sebald touch - a few photos to spice up the narrative.  But the story itself, about a man coming to terms with his forgotten/ignored early childhood, is a startling examination of memory and its power over us.  Along the way, there are more than a few provocative observations on time and architecture.  And even though Austerlitz is translated from German, it's not at all stilted.  I should tell you that fans of paragraphs and chapters will probably be disappointed.  Paragraphs can go on for ten pages or more.  There are no -  as in zero - chapters.  To be fair, there are a couple of what might be called sections.  To be fairer, some sentences run to half a page, so that kinda more than cancels out the sections thing.  This is a can't miss choice for book groups that refuse to dabble in genre or popular fiction.  B/t/w - one of my friends (she teaches literature and also has good taste) finds Sebald's writing too somber.  Somber yes, but too somber is up to the reader.

Robert Caro 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is, without qualification, without question, without a doubt, the best biography of all time.  And that's in spite of the fact that vol. 4 - the one that covers his entire presidency - hasn't been published yet.   (I'm praying that Caro doesn't kick off before he's done, but it could be close.)  I was waiting a long time since vol. 3 (2003) for a fix for my Caro jones.  The problem is that he's only written one other bio (he was a journalist before becoming a biographer), and that was in 1975, before he started in on LBJ.  But I couldn't hold out and had to take on The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  Its 1162 pages (not including notes, index, etc.) of massivity make it difficult to read in bed and nearly impossible to carry around waiting for the opportunity to sneak in a few pages.  On the other hand, it's the second best biographical work of all time.  Especially if you're from the New York City/Long Island area.  In that case, you will learn an amazing amount about how your surroundings became your surroundings.  (What, you thought that someone saw an expanse of sand and declared it Jones Beach?)  But even if you've never set foot in New York, this book is a close to a must read as any biography can get.  First, Robert Moses was no ordinary urban planner.  Take all the baseball players elected to the Hall of Fame up until now and put them together.  Comparing that composite to any single player is like comparing Moses to any single planner.  And, even better (unless you lived in NYC/LI), both he and his legacy were deeply flawed.  That story makes for terrific reading.   Best of all, though, is what you'll learn about power.  Especially how power works at city and state levels.  Caro's journalistic background is evident in his writing.  It passes any reasonable academic muster while remaining almost compulsively readable.  If you can lift it, read it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beards - pt. 3

As promised/threatened, time for partial-face beards.

The Lincoln.  An authentic Lincoln, requires sideburns connected with chin whiskers.  Cheeks may be partially, but not entirely shaven.  You won't find many of these outside Amish communities.  The good news: insofar as it works, the Lincoln's ok for older dudes.  In fact, it's only for older dudes.  The bad news: insofar as it works usually isn't all that far.   It shows, or so the non-Amish wearer may fancy, a certain individuality and a regard for history.  If done inappropriately, by someone under 50, let's say, it also shows an inability to face facts about one's individual face and/or a disregard for contemporary times.  The most promising non-Amish Lincoln hunting grounds are college campuses.  Philosophy, literature and physical sciences departments, specifically.  And no, physical sciences do not include athletics.

The PPM.  PPM stands for Peter, Paul and Mary.  Mary shouldn't count, but that's understood.  PPMs come in varying length and enjoy the widest spectrum of users.  Any age, any body type.  Unfortunatement, they are quite popular among groups that you probably don't wanna be associated with.  Like right wing, ignorant, tea party assholes.  Like right wing, ignorant Rush Limbaugh dittoheads.  Like angry, anti-government, gun toting ignorami.  Like neo-Nazis.  But they're also popular with normal people.  Generally, the idiot fringe who choose PPMs tend to wear them clipped awfully close.  A lot closer than PP&M ever did.  Well, a lot closer than P and P.

The goatee avec barbet/soul patch.  Like the PPM, but sans moustache.  For artsy types who don't wanna be taken for right wing idiots.  Advanced age not a problem.  Same for advanced girth.

The chin scraggle.  Take one of those cocktail hot dogs.  Slice it lengthwise twice, so you're left with a thin, flat strip from the middle.  Now paste it on your chin, making sure that some of it goes under said chin.  There ya' go!.  This is probably the hippest beard going.  That means you gotta be young; otherwise the look is glory days/trying too hard.  What makes the chin scraggle cool is that it's both minimalist and a representation of the wearer's interpretation of mimimalist.  That interpretation is played out in density, size, shape and over-chin/under chin ratio.  It's a scraggle, so too much density is no good.  If you see a dense chin scraggle, you may assume that the wearer doesn't really understand.  Sorta like reading about sex when you're twelve.  Or a priest.  So it's mainly about the other three elements.  (Wait a minute, forget what I said about priests.)  Size won't tell you much, other than you don't want it too big.  It's not a goatee.  And because it's a scraggle, the shape isn't terribly important, as long as it comes across somewhere more shaped than totally random but less shaped than topiary.  In other words, roughly symmetrical.  But over-chin/under-chin ratio (oc:uc) is signficant.  Tending toward a high oc:uc is common.  As such, it's less hip than a low ratio.  Generally, something under 1:1 is good.  The smaller the ratio, the hipper you probably are.  Just make sure you keep something above the chin line and don't let it get too far down the underside.

The turtleneck (or neck beard, if you prefer).  The t-neck means nothing above the jawline.  This is for two - and only two - types of dudes.  First, young, thin and European.  It tends to give them a hungry, vulturish look.  And I don't mean that in a good way.  The second type is older and stout.  What comes across is a certain vibe of prosperity.  Retired businessman/banker prosperity.  What also comes across is a look that says fur-covered storage area.  Different people will have different takes on what it is you're storing - nuts, diamonds, bon-bons, lice - but they'll all think you've got something up your neck.  Beware.

Now that my beard overview is as complete as it's going to get, what do you think?  Did you create pictures in your mind?  Did the pictures of the beards come with pictures of the wearers?  Did the pictures of the wearers come with associations?  Associations regarding the ages/body types I indicated?  And did those associations include character, lifestyle, and other non-distinct qualities?
I hope so.  And I suspect so.  And the reason I suspect so is stereotyping.

We're human.  (At least most of us are; I have to wonder about Ann Coulter.)  As humans, we are inferential, inductive creatures.  Try going a day without making an inference based on incomplete information about someone or something.  Try surviving without using inductive reasoning.  Cannot be done.  So I have not much sympathy when people whine about stereotyping.   Those complaints are nearly always lodged against unpleasant stereotypes - the avaricious Jew, the dumb blonde, the black criminal - but the argument is made against stereotypes in general.  Do we hear complaints against the positive stereotypes?  Hardly.  So argue against caricature or simplification, if  you like, but please don't call some representation you don't like a stereotype and expect to win your case simply on that assertion.  Having said all that, I understand how important it is to judge individuals individually.  Which means ignoring stereotypes.  Ignoring stereotypes is difficult.  It's probably a good deal more difficult if you can't admit to having and using them, so why not cop to that fact.  Then try.  Practice on beards.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Beards - pt. 2

It appears my enumeration of full-face beards was deficient, i.e., I fucked up.  Please add to the list the following one (or two, depending on your interpretation of "Julius Mirson").

The perpetual 3-day growth.  Just what it says, except it may be as few as 2 days for exceptionally heavy beards and as much as 5 for lightish ones that are relatively difficult to see.  For hipsters only, which means young and thin.  A p3-dg on homo rotundus is no longer an authentic p3-dg; it's just an indistinct growth on a slob.  The trick in a successful p3-dg, of course, is the perpetual part.  That's what electric clippers are for.  Regular use thereof produces - or is supposed to produce - a laissez-faire/not trying too hard look.  Not trying too hard takes a lot of work, but it's cool if you can pull it off.  In addition to incompatible body shape, there's a caveat that cannot be overemphasized: age.  If one's whiskers are white, trying the perpetual 3-day growth will result instead in, uhh, see below.

The Julius Mirson.  Julius Mirson was my maternal grandfather.  When I knew him, he was, to my eyes, always old.  As in white hair, insofar as he still had hair.  About once a month, my mother would haul my sister, Karen, and me to visit Nanny and Poppy.  (Nanny was Bertha.  She had a mole instead of a beard.  I'm not gonna talk about moles now, so say bye-bye to Bertha.)  They lived in a high-rise apartment building.  We'd take the elevator up, get off and proceed down a long, dimly lit hall.  By dimly lit, I mean the predominant color was murk.  Or silt.  In other words, there was no color that one could detect with the naked eye.  Except for the doors.  Those were a deep burgundy, with the unit numbers displayed on goldish plates beneath the peepholes.  Sounds?  Not a chance on those carpets.  We could have heard ourselves talk, I suppose, but I don't think we ever tried it.  We knew what awaited us.  But don't think we were sensorily deprived just because we could barely see and couldn't hear.  We could smell.  The most distinct memory of my trips down that hall was the smell.  Close, floral in a bad way, stale.  It seemed that the air itself had weight.  I believe it's possible that while one was in those halls, time stood still.  (Probably a great selling point if you're marketing to seniors.)  Okay, up to the door near the end (I think it was near the end, but, because of the murk/silt motif, who knows) of the hall and ring the bell.  What happened next never varied.  Julius Mirson (never my grandmother) would open the door.  Open necked, long-sleeve shirt, giving his turkey neck full play.  He'd bend down and clamp one hand on my head (I always got it first; don't know why), the other on my jaw.  He'd pull my face toward his, rasp out an "Ahhh, svitniss," and plant a slobbery kiss on my cheek.  And that's where the Julius Mirson beard comes in.  JM had a perpetual - as in always, as in every damn time - 3-day growth.   And as he'd slobberkiss me (try this on the back of your hand; you'll have it down in no time), he'd rub his p3-dg against my entire cheek.  It would glide (rather unpleasantly, but still glide) over the slobbered over part and scrape against the rest.  Then he'd do it to Karen.  Sorry, I don't remember what happened to my mom.  I was probably too traumatized to notice.  Looking back, I wonder how JM ever managed to keep it at a 3-day level.  No clippers for consumers back then.  Did he plan it that way, waiting for my mom to call to arrange things and start not shaving at d-day minus 3?  Did he have a medical condition that prevented his facial hair from growing beyond a 3-d length?  If he were to come back to life, I think that's what I'd want to find out first.  I'd kinda like to hear one more "Ahhh, svitniss," too.  (Bertha's equivalent, delivered at a barely audible pitch, was, "Hello, dollink."  I'm pretty sure they got the idea for the musical from her.)

B/t/w -  I have a daughter.  When she was little I'd threaten her with noogies, zetzes (index and middle fingers' second knucles applied in a pinch), and Julius Mirson kisses.  I shaved every day, but by evening I had enough hair to inflict mild scraping.  Slobber was always available.  And I loved saying, "Ahhh, svitniss," as I held her head.  It was all in good fun, of course, but now she lives on the east coast, 3000 miles away.  I wonder why.

Partial-face jobbies next time, for sure; my other grandfather died before I was born.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Books, beards, and beyond - pt. 1.

Aleksandar Hemon is interviewing for the position of Steve's Favorite Living Author.  He probably doesn't know that, but still.  Interviewing means I've got to read just about everything he writes, which in turn means I have to read his short stories.  Now, Hemon's come out with three books so far, only one of which is short stories.  Hardly an onerous task.  In fact, I'm only mentioning it so I can express my general low regard for ss's.  This is silly, of course.  But even when they're good, they generally just don't stick.  Not with me, at least.  Frankly, not with many people, as far as I can tell.  We who relish good fiction can all enjoy short pieces, but how many of us can come up with specific stories we've read once, maybe five or ten years ago, and remember them well enough to express why they touched us?  Not many, right?  Hence my low regard.  There are exceptions, of course.  Beginning with David Foster Wallace.   Girl With Curious Hair isn't only a wonderful introduction to his work, but the title piece is unforgettable.  Especially if you've ever done drugs.  And who but DFW could make a story out of a dictionary entry?  OK, maybe someone else could, but only Wallace thought of it and pulled it off.  (Datum Centurio in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, if you're interested.)   I've dug lots of stories by Alice Munro, Ellen Gilchrist, and William Trevor, too.  Not that I remember any, except for Floating Bridge in Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Which brings me to Hemon.  The Question of Bruno was published in 2000; it was his first book.   The themes of identity, dislocation, war and death that mark his subsequent novels are all there.  As are his  understated humor,  emotionally nuanced characters, and penchant for adjectives.  Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls ranks among the best stories I've ever come across.  I've never ventured into lit crit, so forgive me my ignorance if I maintain that I read it as an exploration of displacement and an extended metaphor for death.  It's also grimly funny.  If you like it, you'll enjoy the rest of Hemon's work; if not, you're wrong.

I've also been thinking quite a bit about beards.  Shortly after I ventured down life without lanes (i.e., retirement), I grew a beard to accompany my vintage 1968 moustache and the barbet/soul patch I added shortly before I semi-retired in 2009.  We'll get to my present facial hair configuration and its place in the constellation of beards later.  For now, I'd observe that new FHCs and retirement seem to go together for lotsa guys. 

So what do I think of when I think about beards?  Classification, of course.  Just what you'd expect from an ex-librarian.   Let's first get my approach clear.  I don't count moustaches or soul patches as beards, but when accompanied by chin whiskers, they're part of the beard for purposes of classification.  Second, I'm not gonna include ethnic takes on/varieties of  beards.  Ditto for women with beards.  I claim no understanding of either realm.  And ethnic women's beards is, well, terra incognita.  So, when I describe a beard, picture it worn by a white male. 

Beards fall into two general categories, full-face and partial face.


The professional.  "Professional" doesn't refer to the beard's owner, but to the short, well-polished beard itself.  These beards are not grown, they're cultivated.  And one doesn't "cut" a professional beard.  One doesn't even trim it.  No, one grooms it.   Maintenance takes some time and rather more attention.  A  degree of pride and prosperity are hallmarks of its owner.   The professional beard is de rigeur for Oregon criminal defense attorneys.  They're also popular with economists, though not with those on the margins of opinion.  Middle age and up.

The professor.  Similar to the professional, but longer.  Similar to the sculpture (below), but shorter.   As its name suggests, it's a distinctively academic pursuit, though it will appeal to writers, too.  The professor has a relatively wide margin for error/inattention, thus the appeal to absent minded profs. Suitable for all ages.

The sculpture.  Longer than the professor, shorter than the mountain man.  The owner is generally lean and may well have an artistic background.  Performing arts, especially.  And let's not forget REI workers.  High maintenance required, but owners relish the chore.  Failure to attend to its upkeep results in a mountain man look; confusion among one's acquaintances (and audience) ensues.  The sculpture provides its owner with terrific opportunity to be creative.  Which parts long, which short?  How long is long?  Pointy or not?  It's really chin topiary.  Not a great look for beginners.

Mountain man.  Long, uneven, unkempt.  This is the beard for bikers.  Not much in the way of upkeep.  The owner should be of some size, and that goes for both height and girth.   The MM looks ridiculous on anyone under 30.  After that, age is irrelevant, as long as you're big.

Santa.  Think mountain man, but grey to white, rounded and even.  Hell, think Santa.  Upper middle age and beyond.  Please.

Hermit.  Like the mountain man, but without the upkeep.  In fact, any upkeep disqualifies a beard from this category.  And that includes washing.

I'll deal with partial-face jobbies in my next post.  And yes, there is point to this.