Monday, December 28, 2009

capitalist nightmare

Last night, i dreamt that i was with a business associate, working out of a temporary office in a new high-rise building. We were both new to the job. Our company had rented a conference room, and set up flimsy room dividers and logos, trying to give the appearance of solidity. We were trying to sell some product or service to potential clients. We shucked and jived, always walking a high-wire act in danger of being exposed as insubstantial. Many of our marks walked out, but we were unfazed. One visitor saw through our facade, shook our walls a bit, and left. We suddenly noticed a news telecast about a man who had been found with knife wounds, and died. We knew they would trace the murder to us, as the victim had been a potential client who had left our building after receiving the fatal wounds. I was pretty sure we had repeatedly stabbed him, but my memory was hazy, as our obsessive focus had been on making the sale. My partner and i quickly but quietly made plans to throw each other under the bus, as we knew that the authorities were probably outside the building already. We tried to think of any escape plan, content to sacrifice each other.
Sometimes the connection between dreams and consciousness is tenuous. Other times, the connection is as obvious as a draft-dodging leader taking a photo op in a military uniform. The thoughts in our mind as we drift to sleep are soon enacted in the imaginarium of our dreams.
Yesterday, i tried to explain to my ex-cold warrior father that the U.S.-Soviet conflict had nothing to do with capitalism vs. communism, as Russia was communist in name only. One might charitably say that the conflict was between capitalism and socialism, but even that misses the mark by a good margin. The U.S. had a free market economy and the U.S.S.R. was state-controlled, but the Soviet Union's brand of socialism was closer to facist totalitarianism (like every other "communist" government of the past century), and our own brand of capitalism had been gradually turning socialist ever since the thirties. Ask yourself this: do you approve of social security? Congratulations, you're a socialist. You disgust me, you bleeding pinko.
Trying to explain to a cold warrior that he wasn't fighting communism, however, is a bit like painting in a blizzard. The thrust of my explanation was that a strong central government is inherently anti-communist, as communism is a system of no government at all. But this sounds like anarchy, which is how my father took it.
A better angle to use is the question of ownership. In communism, everybody owns everything. Everyone has a stake in every aspect of society, and decisions are made by short-term, elected "governments", through majority agreement. Understood in those terms, communism is profoundly more democratic than the bloated plutocracy the U.S. had become by the time of the Cold War.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

written by a gay friend about me

This week, i was chatting with a friend. He said some particularly complimentary things about me, so much so that i wrote to him the next day and jokingly suggested he should write a personal romance ad for me. I was not the least bit surprised when he actually did so. In the spirit of fun, i posted the ad on the craigslist M4W section, along with the picture above, and one bracketed section of my own words. The entire ad is below, in braces. I used my friend's own parenthetical as the title. It's also the title of this post, with only the last word changed. I didn't edit a single other word, which was a challenge, because i'm a writer and my sense of self is extremely pronounced. But in the interest of not being a control freak, i left his words untouched.

Wrob is a playwright and actor in his early 40s. While his emphatic lack of religious beliefs rules out sainthood, he is a fundamentally decent fellow who, despite a sometimes dry sense of humor, does not have a cruel bone in his body. Other bones, and muscles, are present, however -- he's wiry and has no body fat to speak of, so if you're looking for a beefy football type, he's not the best candidate. Wrestling, on the other hand, is a real strength, and you should ask him about it after a few drinks. His glass will contain tea, not liquor, not because he's in AA but because he's something of a purist about keeping his head clear. This makes him an enjoyable and lucid conversationalist who always has an interesting take on human nature and our place in the cosmos. (Just don't get him started on the Muppet movies.) It also means that when he misbehaves, he does so in complete control of his faculties. When it comes to sex, he has a refusal to follow external rules but an insistence on living up to a good moral code. Inevitably because of wrob's time in theater as a writer, actor, and director, a fair number of women around him show interest, and the occasional gay man, too, wondering if he might swing the other way. But in the world of wrob, a woman's body is her temple -- and his. (Maybe he's religious after all.) If I tell you that he loves Star Trek and has a photo of himself standing next to William Shatner, you might assume that he's a sexless wonk. Seeing a head shot of him should help dispel this concern. You'll also see his good skin and the fact that he still has a terrific head of hair, for which we hate him. If there's any incongruity in his appearance, it's that his strong jaw and large eyes suggest a certain manic quality (this explains why MTV cast him as the chainsaw wielding psycho for their recent Halloween promos), but he is really not a bad boy. Well... maybe if you really, really want him to be? Couldn't hurt to hit him back and find out.

I also posted the ad because it was nice to be emotionally able to do so, after not being able to even browse CL for six months after my last breakup. I always try to approach online romance without expectation...but this time, i have to say that i light-heartedly expected i might get a whole lot of responses.
Are you ready for the numbers?
In the four days since i posted, i've received approximately twenty responses. The first one was from an intelligent, literate woman in Nova Scotia, who wanted to say that my ad was the best she'd ever seen. The second response said "Dear prospective massage client". And the rest? Every single one has proven to be spam, some variation on "I loved your ad so much that i have to meet you, and would you please click onto another site, where you can find my pictures and we can then get to the sex we'll be enjoying soon?" The pictures accompanying these replies ranged from fairly wholesome to "wide-open beaver".
So basically, my ad brought in not one single response from a living, breathing NYC woman. Not one. Am i surprised? Well...yes. Almost dumbfounded, actually. How does that ad go unresponded to? My sharpest critique of it was that it made me seem more normal than i am...but i expected that factor to only increase my responses.
In my experience with online ads, i'd long ago learned that M4W is not a particularly fruitful way to approach things. I'd posted one of my poems from time to time, and never got more than a handful of real responses. But if i hadn't gotten that one appreciation note from the Canadian wilds (okay, she lives in a city of 350,000), i might be almost questioning my sanity now.
Anyone have any theories on why New York women did their best cricket impersonations? I suppose my only hypothesis is that CL has degraded even more in the time i've been away. But really, i'm just scratchin' my head.
So to my friend who wrote the ad, and to my new penpal in the frozen north, i love you both. Have a merry Maxmas and a romantic new year!
P.S. Friends and relatives have since offered opinions on why the ad was met with silence. The only one i've found interesting is my mother's idea that the ad is so impressive women might be intimidated. More morning breath and flatulence, next time?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"borrowers" refuted

Sometimes in writing a poem, in trying to capture a glimmer of something universal, you have to use tunnel vision. You have to consciously ignore relevant truths...deeper truths...and not just supplemental truths, but sometimes contradictory ones. It can make you want stand up and shout "Crap!" to your own poem. By way of example, i will now refute a premise at the core of my recent poem, "The Borrowers".

Would you want
the best lover you've ever had
if having meant borrowing

Would you want
the deepest desire of your life
if having meant borrowing

Would you offer
your eager virginity
to one gentle and true
if having meant borrowing

Would you want
to be the borrowed
Caught between the need to love
and knowing their dreams
are not your own

If this writer or his "borrowers" were better able to live in the moment, the question of "having" would become largely moot. If two people share a moment, but are focused on what happens next (or down the road at a time only imagined) they're selling the moment short, refusing to commit their entire beings. They're allowing fear, the specter of loss, to shadow their every thought. They're living in a world of negotiation, but a gift that comes with a price tag is in truth no gift at all. Why isn't the moment enough? Is the me-first mentality of capitalism the worm at the core? Is that the indoctrination of selfishness that poisons us?

P.S. Sometimes writers aren't even as smart as their creations...i just had a friend point out another interpretation, placing the pain of the borrowers in the fact that the borrowed isn't entirely "present" for the experience...which is not only a valid interpretation, it may also be true of at least some of the women who inspired the poem.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

maxmas music guide

Is anything more heartwarming than Maxmas music? Well, i suppose listening to Maxmas music while sipping soynog as your Honey rubs your feet with frankincense oil wearing nothing but a Santa hat...with a puppy asleep on your chest.
There was Maxmas music in there somewhere, right?
So here be your guide the very best Maxmas music i know! Aware of my own adorable biases, the first thing i've long screened for in a Maxmas album is the absence of religious falderal. Excellence, however, can trump bias.
I'll get the nog and the hat. You sit back.
A CHRISTMAS TOGETHER, John Denver & The Muppets
Who can explain the ineffable magic of transcendant chemistry? No one, otherwise it would be effable! Why was it that everything John and the Muppets did together went beyond normal Muppet greatness? We don't know, and we don't need to. This album is almost too good to use as holiday party music, as it's more entrancing than the average partygoer.
(music and lyrics by Johnny Marks)
Lifted straight from the soundtrack of the Rankin/Bass classic, with original versions plus full playouts of incidental versions. As magical as the film.
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, Daryl Hall & John Oates
Released in limited quantities, years after the hits stopped coming. It's absolutely sublime. Arrangements that sparkle, vocals that entrance...the first note Daryl hits is perhaps the most singular first note of any album i know.
I can't imagine any album ever topping this one for dumbfounding brilliance in a staggering range of arrangements. Neil feels absolutely at home in each style, from blues to rock to choral to barbershop(!). It seems criminal to single out one track, but the original song "You Make It Feel Like Christmas" flies as high as the ones you already love.
Another album released decades after the band's pop peak, this quiet delight lacks the flash of most great albums, but that's exactly what gives it strength. As Peter Griffin might say, it doesn't insist on itself. It's just richly layered harmonies sung by beautiful voices. Beckley and Bunnell mix new songs with classics, and nothing feels out of place. It will put you under its spell, rarely making you stop to say "Hey, this is really good".
All hail the King. No, really.
Know what you'd do if you could do anything, with no burden of expectation? You'd have fun, and your name would be Ringo. And the funny thing? He's occasionally brilliant. He lets rock n' joy fly on this one, so jump on the sleigh. It features the only song ever credited to Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey.
I feared the "crappy sequel" syndrome, and wasn't entirely disappointed. Only about half the songs rise to the level of the first album. But do you have any idea how rare it is to have an album in which every other song is inspired? Neil adds jazz, swing, and reggae to his holiday bag.
JOY TO THE WORLD, Chuck Negron
Chuck, formerly of 70s uber-band Three Dog Night, released this in 1996. I approached it with trepidation, not sure how well Chuck could fly on his own, and noticing that the album had its share of god tunes. It also seemed like an invitation to cheesy badness to marry Three Dog Night's biggest hit, "Joy to the World", in a medley with the carol "Joy to the World". The first time i heard the album, it was as bad as i could have imagined. But the second time, it started falling into place. Chuck's voice has never sounded sweeter, and the production/arrangement is simply beautiful. The title track is a joy, and there's also a lovely medley of "When You Wish Upon a Star"/"A Place For Us".
Merry Maxmas, one and all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

greatest U.S.americans (& worst)

(There may of course be enormous fallacies herein, as certitude and history are almost mutually exclusive. And of course, subjectivity renders this exercise almost silly. But it's fun. Brown or William Lloyd Garrison? Lincoln or Douglass? Twain or Vonnegut? Both Debs and Keller? Yeah, otherwise no woman. Bruce or Flynt? Should Brown also be on the "worst" list?)
Ben Franklin
Thomas Jefferson
John Brown
Abraham Lincoln
Mark Twain
Eugene Debs
Thomas Edison
Helen Keller
Lenny Bruce
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cesar Chavez
Muhammed Ali
(honorable mention: native american genocide victims)
Anthony Comstock
Alexander Hamilton
Andrew Jackson
Woodrow Wilson
Joe McCarthy
J. Edgar Hoover
Karl Rove
(dishonorable mention: Christopher Columbus)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

greatest maxmas movies

Thurl Ravenscroft. I just like saying "Thurl Ravenscroft".
Get him. He's givin' out wings.
Heat Miser. Cold Miser. 'Nuff said.
"Burgermeister Meisterburger" is the second-coolest nickname anyone's ever called me (the other one's a bit sexier).
I resisted watching this one for many years, out of some sort of bizarre loyalty to #2 on this list. I was wrong, i was wrong, i've said it, i was wrong.
The most grown-up Maxmas film, the most "real" romantic comedy, and the greatest ensemble film. Ever. If someone described the "naughty" bits to a prude, they'd never watch it. Yet it's so deftly made that it feels like a family comedy, suitable for all...which it is.
Bumbles bounce!
And the Rankin-Bass stop-motion magic rolls on...
Rankin-Bass showing they can do conventional animation too...brilliant performances by Joel Grey and George Gobel, and the unforgettable "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand".
The hands-down best performance of Michael Caine's career. The most startling endorsement i can give is that for more than fifteen minutes, i forgot that Jim Henson had died.
Special Awards of Merit:
-Not unlike a photographic negative of the following two films. But for one moment of (religious) mawkishness, it's quite sublime.
-Each has one song ("What's This", "River Bottom Nightmare Band") that is as off-the-charts good as any moment of any Maxmas magic ever.

Friday, December 11, 2009

go (star wars) figure

I opened the greatest gift of my life on Christmas morning, 1977. The movie STAR WARS had been released seven months before. I was nine years old, and will forever maintain that no demographic was ever more perfectly vulnerable to the cultural flashbang George Lucas had dropped on the world that May. The moment Vader walked in, i was inextricably, forever taken.
I had dreamt of this gift. I tried not to think about my chances of getting it. I was still a year or two away from being able to conceive of acquiring such a gift on my own. Perhaps never again would my desire for something be so pure, and my grasp so tenuous.
I unwrapped it, and my starry eyes beheld...the Star Wars Creature Cantina action figure set.
I already had a few figures. But this set was special. Not available in stores. I'd never seen one in person, and was now the only person i knew in the world who had one. It consisted of four figures and a cardboard backdrop which folded, dividing it into a wall section and a ground section. The wall was the outside of the cantina, with aliens walking by, and one sandtrooper. The ground had holes in which you inserted plastic foot pegs, on which you could stand your figures. The figures were Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, and Snaggletooth. Snaggletooth would become a rarity, as the version finally released in stores was shorter, more stocky, and bootless. The one i had was regular height, with a blue uniform, not red. I played with my figures and took good care of them, but a couple years later i threw out the backdrop after the seam wore out, and split apart. Had i been just a year older, i perhaps wouldn't have let it come to that point of disrepair, or would have kept the pieces.
Other kids were tougher on their figures, playing with them until the paint or limbs came off. When my original Luke lost some paint, i got a replacement. I also noticed when Kenner started using a different mold for Han's head. I got the new one, and kept the old. I started keeping my figures individually wrapped in ziplock bags. I never lost accessories, and the one exception to this led to the only time i ever stole anything as a child. Princess Leia had the thinnest blaster, and back in the seventies we had a thing called shag carpet, which in my room was a mix of brown, tan, and black. Not the best place to keep track of tiny black pieces of plastic, but i only ever lost one: Leia's. With Mom's supervision, i took apart the vacuum cleaner bag, but to no avail. I carried the weight of that loss for a year or so, resolving to someday reunite Princess and pea shooter. Then one day, i found myself in a department store, looking at a row of figures, and noticed that someone had taken a Leia out of its box, but left the box. And there, taped to the dangling plastic shell, was the blaster. I took a long, hard look into my soul, and then a look in either direction. I reached out my hand, and made my collection whole.
I wasn't proud, but i learned that day that anyone's principles can be bought.
Did i have all the figures? Can you even ask? I remember the first one i didn't have, and the whole flap over Boba Fett's spring-loaded, child-choking jetpack rocket. I hadn't gotten Fett early enough to have one of the banned ones.
By EMPIRE, i was saving my weekly allowance to get the figures for myself. As much as 90% of my weekly 50-cent allowance from 1977-1983 went to Kenner. They started out at $2.75, and were $5 or more by the time JEDI finished. I got 'em all...and some more than once. I remember when the sales tapered off after EMPIRE, they had a $1.99 clearance sale. I picked up seven or eight stormtroopers, and two Imperial commanders (the ones with the black domed helmets, who weren't really commanders, but that's another story). And therein lied my passion-within-a-passion: the Imperials. You might not guess this, given my life's quest for goodness and truth, but my favorites were the Imperials. They were just too cool (though when i went through my naval history phase, i gravitated to the Axis powers, so there was obviously a trend going on). The coolness stemmed from Vader, with the stormtroopers close behind. I never got doubles of single-identity figures, but by the time my chest was full, i had ten troopers, four snowtroopers, and three rebel snow soldiers for good measure.
I kept the faith until JEDI. But the "Gold Medal" series is the straw that broke this camel's back (or possibly the two separate Niktos). I had been slowly facing the reality that there was a certain amount of bald-faced, corporate greed going on. The number of figures released per film kept going up, and the characters kept getting more obscure, until there were ones you didn't even recognize. The "Gold Medal" series was maybe the fourth for JEDI, and my principles finally won out over devotion. I said "no more", and didn't buy a one. In years to come, i sometimes regretted that just the teeniest bit, particularly because i missed out on having Han in carbonite.
There were a handful of others i had missed by the end of JEDI. It would be many years before i finally found Zuckuss, a TIE fighter pilot, and Artoo with sensor-scope.
I had actually manifested a little resistance to corporate greed even from the start, though. I'd decided that figures were sufficient, and that i didn't need the vehicles. With a couple exceptions (X-wing, Imperial troop transport), i maintained that purity. By EMPIRE, my brothers were old enough to be enamored too, and i let them get vehicles while i focused on figures.
I saved every proof-of-purchase, too. For what, i'm still not sure. I might have made one or two trade-in deals over the years, but that leaves a hundred or two at the bottom of my chest, to this day.
And i never understood the fans who kept the figures in the case. If you're an investor, go play the market, but if you love your figures, take 'em out and let 'em run around.
The only time i almost regret not getting the vehicles is when i see one of the old Death Star sets. But i could do better than Kenner anyway. When they finally released the Falcon, i almost did a spit-take at how pitiful it was, all shrunken and distorted. I had made my own in the early days. I took a piece of cardboard over three feet wide, and cut out a Falcon shape. I made walls four or five inches high, divided the ship into sections, and then made a topside. It hit the trash after a year or so, but it was better than what the store-going kids had. I also made some Hoth fortresses out of styrofoam.
I have a friend whose young son has fallen in love with Star Wars. He gave him all his old figures to play with. He's a better man than i, Gunga Din. Me, i dream (along with my brothers) of that future day when one of us has a house with a Star Wars room.
And here's another dream...for anyone else who remembers 1977 like i do. A couple decades later, when they released a Tarkin figure for the Special Edition, yeah, i bought it. A Tarkin figure had long been the one gaping hole in the Star Wars universe. Peter Cushing, however, had been perhaps the skinniest actor in the history of Hollywood, and the figure that finally emerged did not reflect that.
So imagine for just a moment that it's 1977 again, and instead of the Death Star droid, they released a Tarkin. Picture what it would have looked like...hold the image in your mind, and lock it away in a special place.
Okay, come on back now.
I love you all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Lies My Teacher Told Me"

(Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong)
-by james w. loewen
Within a chapter, i knew it was one of the greatest books i'd ever read, one that will soon appear on my "required reading for every human" list: In 1995, loewen deconstructed twelve high school history textbooks to find out what they say, what they don't, and then he sought to find out why. He investigates why history classes are the subject of such profound student apathy. It turns out that students are too smart for the crap we feed them. When presented with a history which celebrates only the eurocentric american experience and avoids the hint of anything even the tiniest bit controversial, students subconsciously know they're being conned, and manifest resistance behavior. Loewen offers statistics on how history is unique among school subjects, in that the more classes one takes, the more measurably dumb one becomes. The higher one climbs on the educational ladder, the more one identifies with one's society, and subconsciously adopts the view that one's country is "right". Loewen also talks about the myth of american exceptionalism, inherent in which is the notion that our moral and ethical growth has been an upward constant. As just one rather stunning counter-example, in 1870 a white state senator from Mississippi married a black woman...and got re-elected. To say nothing about this continent's ethical/moral plane pre-columbus, which was at a level we're still well short of. And don't get loewen started on columbus. Not only did people NOT think the world was flat before he sailed, he was quite the johnny-come-lately, as archaeological evidence suggests that sailors from Indonesia, Africa, Asia, and other parts of Europe explored this land centuries, if not millenia, before columbus. To say nothing of explorers from this land themselves, who visited Scotland or Scandinavia some two thousand years ago. But columbus fits the "Europe-leading-the-world" archetype, so hey-ho, with columbus we go! Anyway, there's lots more, and it's not all euro-bashing; i'm much more a lincoln fan now than ever before.

"The Cartoon History of the United States"

-by larry gonick

Brilliant. I was going to rattle off a long list of adjectives, but really, "brilliant" in every sense of the word pretty much covers it. It's the first history book you'll ever read that is both page-turner and giggler. Everything that was wrong with your high school history book (the avoidance of anything controversial or resembling a viewpoint other than "Yay, eurocentric America!") is set aright. I first learned of gonick through "The Cartoon History of the Universe", which only impressed me enough to make it the first book that every thinking human should read. It was successful enough to spawn over ten sequels...i myself can't wait to read the one on genetics, and (whee!) the one on sex. His website: Gonick doesn't disappoint in this one. There's an initial letdown that his drawings are less fleshed out, as though he'd been facing a publication deadline. But you get used to that quickly enough, for the content is lovingly fleshed. Gonick is beautiful at making the big picture accessible. The big picture often escapes even the most intelligent among us, but i here offer twenty words from this book that will give any seventh grader a better understanding of the world than the four stupifying (or stupidifying?) years of history courses to come: "And technology begat industry...and industry begat capitalism...and capitalism begat communism...and communism begat anti-communism...and anti-communism begat fascism...". If you're looking for the perfect gift for a young mind, or a youthful mind, or a mind that you'd given up on, look no further.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Babylon 5"

One of those sci fi shows i was always vaguely aware of, but the few seconds i saw here and there never prompted me to stay. A part of me always wondered whether i were missing something. It was on the air for years, so someone must have been watching, yes? And Bruce Boxleitner always seemed pleasant enough (i never actually watched SCARECROW & MRS. KING, but it looked acceptable, right?). And Stephen Furst, the inestimable Flounder? Plus a dash of Jeff Conaway, so delightful in GREASE and TAXI? And TREK's Walter Koenig? Why not??
I'll tell you why not.
It's awful, just awful.
I picked up season 4 at Goodwill for a song. By the fifth episode, the benefit of the doubt got used up. I tried to gut out a few more episodes, knowing a Koenig story arc was arriving.
Couldn't do it. Just couldn't do it.
Monumentally unwatchable.
A critique of all the latter TREK series has been that they got away from the social relevance of the classic, to become eminently average, copycat sci fi fare.
If you'd like to know how unfair that is, sit through this show, which is the living, breathing actualization of that critique. It will make you run screaming for any TREK in humble gratitude. It will make you realize you shouldn't bash TREK for occasionally not living up to its roots, but be amazed that they came close at all.
B5 is entirely lacking in inventiveness. It has no edge. The dialogue's a bit flat, and the occasional attempts at hipness and humor are a little painful.
Okay, Goodwill, i stand to make a $10 profit selling this turkey on Amazon. Well done.