Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Fun with Dick and Jane

We watched Fun with Dick and Jane, a Jim Carrey send-up of Enron and corporate fraud in general.

The class humor was a lot more biting (and, not coincidently, really funny) than I expected. I had expected the movie to make out the executives to be the unequivocal villains, and the workers of Globodyne to be the gosh-just-folks good-guys. But there was almost no attempt to tar and feather the executives, but quite a bit of spoofing of the upper-middle-class:

  • The Harper family has a Hispanic housekeeper/nanny, and while film is completely sympathetic to the woman, it repeatedly reminds the audience that the child is speaking better Spanish than English. Dick and Jane never react to this, more than the missed beat necessary to let the joke settle it, but nonetheless the barb is there: somebody else is raising their child, and it shows.
  • The movie opens with a graphical homage to The Truman Show, with Dick walking out of his house and waving to the neighbors. It was a pointed reminder that there is something more than a little fake about the suburban lifestyle. There is the petty keeping-up-with-the-Jones conversation over the neighbor's new car. And then a long row of nearly-identical Beemers in the parking lot of Globodyne. The message: yes, all these people have good jobs, but there is a hollowness to it.
  • When Dick spends a day standing on the street corner with the Mexican day-laborers, you are reminded again of class distinctions you had nearly forgotten. Dick and Jane feel utterly humiliated to take entry-level service jobs, and they feel like their world is ending . . . but meanwhile there are illegals making even less, who seem to be a lot happier and less neurotic.
  • When Dick and Jane try to make off with the plasma flat-screen TV to sell, their son absolutely freaks out. "Go, go, go!" Dick is yelling, while the nanny clings to an utterly despondant boy screaming. Yeah, it's funny, but . . . ouch. The kid is more torn up about losing his TV shows than his parents. Are we still feeling like the American middle class are the good guys?
  • Dick's first venture into crime is stealing sod to put back his lawn. The lawn . . . the ultimate symbol of suburban comfort and wealth. Beautiful and useless. (Can you tell I don't have a lawn?) And the world-ending crisis that drives them to armed robbery? Foreclosure on their home. The message is pounded in, again and again: these people are utterly identified with their material wealth.

I admit, I enjoyed the ending. It's a nice little fantasy that (sadly) everyone wishes could happen: we fleece the super-rich executive who perpetrated the fraud and give it all back to the people who lost everything. If only it was so easy.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Money taboos

Malcolm and Aidan were playing, and Malcolm kept pretending that he was going to eat the nickel he was holding. Aidan, partially out of brotherly concern, but mostly out of desire to push him around, took the nickel away and threw it in the trash.

Janet and I (who were trying to finish our supper) were scandalized. "NO! You don't throw money away!" Aidan, quite reasonably, asked, "Why?"

"Because . . . it's against the law," I respond, immediately realizing how lame that sounded. And I started thinking about it. After all, from his point of view, nickels are not highly valued, are plentiful and replaceable. And it's not like the world was going to end because a nickel went in the trash can.

But Malcolm still wanted his nickel. "I can't find it," Aidan says, and I find myself clawing through trash up to my elbows to find the damn nickel. And I'm thinking, "What a powerful compulsion . . . I don't rationally care about the value of this nickel, but something in my psyche is revulsed by the idea of money going in the trash."

I remembered that some charitable causes will actually include a nickel in their mail pieces, clearly visible through the address window. They figure (rightly) that most people will find it impossible to throw away the piece unopened with a nickel inside . . . and once they open the letter and take out the nickel, they will feel morally obliged to give something back to the charity.

How did this happen? What does it mean about our society (or, my psyche, at least) that currency is treated with a reverence normally reserved for holy objects?

The Count of Monte Cristo

We just watched The Count of Monte Cristo. It shows how much we get out that we're only getting around to watching something that was released four years ago. Some thoughts:
  • I have to wonder now how much of The Shawshank Redemption Steven King had borrowed from the Monte Cristo novel. You have a lot of the same elements: a falsely accused prisoner, with a close friendship in the prison, digs a tunnel for over a decade in his efforts to escape, and eventually recovers a hidden fortune and visits revenge on his captors. Hmmmm . . .
  • For that matter, there was a plot device in The Silence of the Lambs that seemed rather similar to what happens in Monte Cristo. In both films, a prison successfully escapes by disguising himself as an injured/dead person and is carried out of prison by his own captors. Double hmmmmmm . . .
  • I can feel the roots of the American revolution in the French populist sentiments of Dumas. The story goes out of its way to paint the hero, Edmond Dant├Ęs, as an self-made man, the commoner who rises by his native ability, while the villains are pointedly snobbish aristocrats who believe their high births justify all kinds of . . . well, villainy. That tension finds its way into all kinds of stories, I guess -- the resourceful poor boy who marries the princess is a stock character in Grimm fairy-tales. And yet, the emphasis on one's birth and blood are still present with the hero: the story takes pains to show that Edmond's son Albert has all the nobleness of his true father and none of the scurrilous behavior of his presumed father. As much as we celebrate the "little guy" and deride the aristocracy, we too believe that one's parentage is important.
  • One of the best lines of the movie comes from the Priest, who says, "I'm a priest, not a saint." The line is echoed later by Edmond: "I'm a count, not a saint." For what it's worth, I seem to be coming across this sentiment more and more in popular culture and advertising. I call it the "Han Solo complex": everyone wants to be one of the good guys, but no one wants to be that good. The cinematic hero is always part anti-hero, with darkness in his soul . . . or, as Angel would say, "the big flappy coat king-of-pain type." I sometimes wish the movies could celebrate real sainthood without having to apologize for it.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ken Lay check out

So, Kenneth Lay dies suddenly while waiting for sentencing in his massive fraud conviction for lying about Enron.

A billionaire, now facing spending the rest of his life in prison, just . . . dies.
How conveeeeeeeenient.

Perhaps it wasn't intentional. Perhaps the strain of the absolute, total dissolution of his company, his fortune, his reputation, and his freedom was enough to put him over the edge. I could understand that.

But I can also believe that maybe, just maybe, he decided he had had enough and checked out. We won't know for sure until all the tests come back to see what was in his system. I'm usually not the conspiracy-theory type, but this just smells of a story.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


"Aidan, please take your fingers out of your mouth."

Of course I know it's futile. He's been habitually, constantly chewing his nails for the last year or two, and there is little I can say to change the compulsion. This time, he just grins a smug grin, eyes closed, chin thrust out, as if to say, "Ha, ha, you can't stop me." Other times he might make his mean-tiger face, a fierce frown with teeth and claws bared.

"I don't know why you keep doing that, even when it hurts you." About every other day he asks for a Band-Aid to put on a finger that is red and raw from his nibbling. But this time, as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I pull up short and think.

Janet and I were listening to Angela's Ashes, and I think of Malachy "mad with the drink," helpless before his alcoholic compulsions. There was no sense to those compulsions, either . . . no sense at all. And, for that matter, I have my own nervous compulsions. If my hair gets too long, I twist the forelock of my hair until it sticks out in a Disraeli spiral, until my hands and elbows hurt with the exertion. "What if, instead of the irresistable urge to touch my hair, it was the irrestible urge to take a drink?"

"Hey, Boo-boo . . . tell you what. You can remind me whenever I twist my hair, and I'll tell you whenever you're chewing your nails. And maybe we can help remind each other not to do it."


Opa's Harvest

A happy gibbon (made of beeswax) harvests the berries from Opa's sprig.

An AP vignette

This weekend, while Janet and I were outside with Malcolm at my parent's farm in Brevard, my older son Aidan was inside with his grandparents. He had been kicking around quietly on his own, when he noticed that his Opa was asleep in his recliner. He quietly snuck up beside him, climbed up on the couch beside the chair, and leapt full onto Opa's stomach. Instead of the reaction he expected (surprise, a rough-house smile, perhaps), he was violently thrown aside and roundly cursed by both his grandfather and grandmother at the same time. He slunk off downstairs in tears, knowing he had somehow blown it, and not knowing what to do.

Once Granny and Opa had regained their composure, they knew that Aidan hadn't meant any harm and were sorry to leave him in such a state. I went downstairs and lay on the bed with a Aidan for a while and talked with him. He knew that he had done the wrong thing ("I was getting kind of wild, and when that happens I don't always think well," he said) and he could accept that Opa was right to be upset . . . but I couldn't for the life of me convince him that Opa had forgiven him. Thirty minutes of discussion, conjoling, prodding, and assumptive closing could not get him to come upstairs for dinner.

"Opa, maybe if you could just tell Aidan you still love him and its OK to come up, he might come," suggested Janet. Opa marches downstairs, "Hey! Com'on! Stop this nonsense! I'm the one who got hurt, not you! I shouldn't have to come down here to you, you should be coming to me to apologize!" And so on. Not surprisingly, Aidan was not persuaded. Opa marched back upstairs.

Granny goes down and tries her hand. I wish I had heard her approach, because she managed to persuade Aidan to come upstairs and apologize to Opa. "I . . . didn't mean to hurt you," he said. "Of course you didn't," said Opa, gently and matter-of-factly, "and now that's the end of it." And we sat down to dinner. Later Aidan came to me and said, "I did apologize to Opa." "Good!"

As we were loading up the kids to go the next day, Opa came to the car with a sprig of red berries he had plucked from a bush. "I know that he wanted to take some of these home," he said. Aidan was silently thrilled, his face twisting in a mix of emotions. Opa reached into the van, tickled Aidan's chest, and said, "I love you!"

We all drove home happy. Everyone had tried very hard, and somehow, in spite of mistakes on all sides, we arrived at the right place.

Angela's Ashes

Janet and I listened to an abridgment of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, read by the author, on our way to and from Brevard this weekend.

Normally, I find abridgments of any work with a narrative to be anathema, because the violence they do to a story to make it fit the average attention span is too great to bear. But I have discovered a few valid exceptions: massive works of non-fiction, and narratives which you aren't sure will be worth the effort. I had heard all the ballyhoo around Angela's Ashes and was therefore suspicious; anything liked so much by millions may have all the quality of The Celestine Prophesy or The Da Vinci Code. But I had heard interviews with Frank McCourt that made me like the man, so when Janet suggested it, I was game.

O my God . . . what a wonder. I have never read a memoir so remarkable, so engaging and literary. No work of fiction could give better characters or scenes. Some thoughts:
  • I think a big factor in making McCourt's book so popular was his writing style. His sentences are short, his descriptions brief. All the strength of the book is in his selection of the detail. He doesn't have to spend pages and pages describing Limerick; he makes you feel like you're there in a heartbeat.
  • It's remarkable to see how the crushing poverty that McCourt grew up in was primarily self-inflicted (if you accept, for the time being, that his father was capable of controlling his drinking.) As decrepit as Ireland's economy was, any bloke could feed his family and have a little left over if he just worked his job and brought the wages home. It was The Drink that left them starving, and nothing else. I have to wonder how much that is true in other desperate circumstances . . . if we took away substance abuse and armed conflict, how much poverty would really be left?
  • Having been steeped in Unconditional Parenting for the last few weeks, I have no trouble understanding how a parent can love their child, in spite of what they might do or who they may become. So it surprised me (but maybe it shouldn't) to see that the converse is just as true: a child will love his father, regardless of how much of a useless drunk he is.
  • There is a magical quality to McCourt's tone that allows him to show the darkest tragedies and cruelties of life without appearing harsh or bitter. That quality, I think, is Compassion. I used to think, when I was younger and more "hardened righteous", that Love was a squishy virtue and not very compatible with a desire for the Truth. Now I am coming to see that you need an extraordinary amount of Love for the world to truly see it.

Celebrating Freedom

So, we're back. For those of you who haven't figured it out by now, holiday weekends that take me out of town usually are blog black-out days, since I can't always get an internet connection and I don't feel like inconveniencing everyone for the sake of a few posts. Really, this is a sign of confidence and security in my blogging habits. I can stop whenever I want to.

* * *

We are once again presented with a holiday which I simply don't know how to celebrate. Celebration was never an issue for me before, at least in my adult life, because holidays were primarily a day that other people took off work, and a day I could work in relative peace. While I was no scrooge when it came to other people observing holidays, I never really made such days my own.

But now I have kids, and I know that a part of being a good parent is providing seasonal rhythms, and setting examples, and finding the right occasions to symbolically mark significant things, etc. etc. To be honest, I've been leaning on the Waldorf school to do a lot of this, but now school is out and we are upon the one holiday which I belief deserves more attention than it usually gets, which is Independence Day.

Yes, all the religiously observant are rolling their eyes, because I haven't put Christmas or Easter at the top of my list of holidays-whose-true-spirit-is-not-observed. And the politically involved are also rolling their eyes, because in the midst of a controversial war all things patriotic are viewed with suspicion, since every side (the hawks, the doves, and the rationally ambivalent) are draping themselves in the flag. (Terse disclaimer: absolutely nothing in this blog should be construed as a position on the war.)

But I stand by my claim: few know how to celebrate this day. Independence Day is not merely a jingoistic rah-rah-we're-the-best holiday. Unlike most other countries, this country was founded on ideals, and those ideals are literally what make us Americans. I think the man on the street, when asks about "freedom," thinks immediately of political freedom, or maybe freedom of the press, or (more rarely) freedom of religion. Which is all true . . . but I don't know how many realize that every good thing we have in this country, especially the material and economic, are also rooted in this freedom. Yes, we're rich in natural resources . . . but then again so are lots of other countries. Economic freedom, free markets, and free trade are what put us over the top to become the most powerful nation in the world.

So, when you're thankful for living in a free country, you should not merely feeling a half-hearted smugness at being able to vote (a privilege which only a minority avail themselves of, anyway) or being able to say what you please (which even fewer put to any decent use) , but rather be thankful for every freaking thing in your freaking life. If I was feeling especially blasphemous, I would say that there is more evidence for the providence of freedom than for the providence of God . . . though I know I would be wrong, since this freedom itself grew directly out of our religious and spiritual values.

We put up a new flagpole this morning, and as I unfolded the flag I felt genuine reverence, because the values and ideals that are embodied in this flag are the Spirit at work in the world.