Thursday, December 29, 2011

The First Happy Ending -- Bible Study, Night Seven

Much has been made of Abraham's piety in almost sacrificing his favorite son, Isaac, but not enough has been made, in my opinion, of whatever quality in Isaac prevented him from trying to murder Abraham after the execution was called off. Precisely how Isaac responded to his near-slaying is left unrecorded, suggesting that he did little, which leaves one to wonder at his forgiving nature. Or perhaps he was just extremely passive,  Isaac, and disinclined to do anything to anyone, no matter what anyone had done to him. In any case, his submissiveness seems superior to that of his father, who'd met with God so often that obedience probably came easy to him. Isaac, however, barely knew the deity, first encountering Him while bound with cords and lying on a bed of firewood. That he remained faithful following this horror is one of the Bible's greatest emotional miracles.

Another one of the Bible's emotional miracles comes a bit later, when Isaac is awarded that rarest and finest of human experiences: truly mutual romantic love. When Rebekah first glimpses him from atop her camel after being being recruited as his bride, she isn't aware of who she's ogling. Luckily, given the surge of passion she feels, he turns out to be the husband she's been pledged to.  Had this not been the case -- had Isaac been someone else and had Rebekah been smitten with him instantly -- the Bible might have stopped right there, with an intractable conflict of the heart that even God might have despaired of solving.

But it's all for the best. The wedding night goes splendidly, marking the first instance in the Old Testament of two people getting exactly what they want in the precise manner that they want it, without a lot of turbulence and testing. That the happy deflowering takes place in the tent of Isaac's late mother, Sarah, heightens the sense of symmetry and rightness. Indeed, the whole love story seems slightly implausible -- prince seeks princess, secures one through intermediary, and not only is delighted by the results but finds that she's delighted, too -- making it the Bible's first full-fledged fairy tale.

Monday, December 12, 2011

That's Torahtainment! -- Bible Study, Night Six


So far the Genesis story has been straightforward, proceeding in a simple, linear fashion, but now the tale grows complicated and layered. Like a TV serial melodrama, the focus is on one family, the House of Abraham, but the narrative splits our attention between subplots, including the perils of Lot, the fate of Sodom, the ongoing warfare between regional kings, and the sexual power struggles of Abraham's women. The overlapping structure grows so dense, in fact, that an ingenious device is introduced to give the reader a breather now and then: repeated, rhythmic appearances by God, either in visions or by way of angels. And Now a Message from Our Heavenly Sponsor...

The message in question is ever the same: Hang tough. Over and over, as though he risks forgetting a cosmic promise delivered from on high that's sometimes accompanied by bursts of flame, Abraham is assured of a bright future revolving around extensive real estate holdings, many descendants, and an exalted name. As if to keep grabbing his Favorite Son's attention, God exaggerates the math involved, telling Abraham that his heirs will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dust specks covering the ground. God also keeps Abraham in keen suspense as to when these heirs will start appearing. When barren Sarah finally grows so frustrated that she turns over her reproductive function to Hagar, her servant, who brings forth Ishmael, Abraham's situation becomes so tense that he probably wishes he'd stayed childless. Not only does the birth occasion a cat fight between the two main women in his life, his child is born emotionally disabled. Ishmael, a so-called "wild man" whose "hand will be against every man," suffers from Oppositional Disorder.

Two steps forward, one step back. That's how it continues to go for Abraham, turning his arduous, good news-bad news life into history's original soap opera. Lot, his beloved brother, achieves prosperity, but chooses to settle down in sinful Sodom. God gives Abraham everlasting influence, but on the condition he mutilate his penis (and all the penises of those around him). God grants him and his people a great homeland but also makes known that before they can enjoy it they will be slaves in Egypt for four centuries. Sarah bears Abraham a normal son, but God instructs him to kill the boy.

What's a put-upon patriarch to do?

Hang tough.

The content of this primitive cable series has to do with the origins of Judaism, but the form of the drama is equally important, seeing as it prefigures the modern potboiler and its characteristic effect, the cliffhanger.  This is to say that not only does All Abe's Children predict the founding of Israel, it also presages, in aesthetic terms, a not-unrelated development: the birth of Hollywood.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Abraham, Best of Breed and Best in Show -- Bible Study, Night Five

He kind of sneaks up on you,  this Abraham. At first he seems like just another figure in a long and tortured genealogy whose members (Arphaxad, Serug, Reu, etc) turn out to be pontoon bridges across Time, structures to be discarded and forgotten once they've afforded passage to his seed. Then, out of nowhere, he suddenly breaks out, surpassing and marginalizing those who sired him. It's almost as though (or it's precisely as though) all history before Abraham was whelped were just a complicated breeding program that yielded a couple of good dogs and lots of bad ones but no all-around, enduring champions. And Abraham is certainly a show dog, since what is his distinctive trait?  Obedience. He comes when he's called. He heels. He sits. He fetches. Canine Abraham is God's best friend.

It's tempting to think of Abraham as virtuous, but morality, in the sense of tenets and principles whose difficult application exalts the soul, doesn't really exist yet in the world. What matters at this juncture is God's favor, which is obtainable through lots of licking (in the form of building altars). As Abraham's adventures prove, if Master loves you you can do no wrong, and if He doesn't you can do no right.

Consider poor Pharaoh, who Abraham deceives by pretending that Sarah, his wife, is really his sister. The trusting Egyptian, acting in good faith and motivated by honest masculine instincts, takes lovely Sarah into his grand household and reimburses her 'brother' handsomely for his willingness to pawn her off, showering Abraham with asses and camels, all of which he cheerfully accepts. Pharaoh's reward for showing such generosity to a guest in his kingdom who ran a con on him rather than thanking him for his hospitality is to be beset by plagues. When the potentate uncovers the ruse and, understandably, vents his grumpy puzzlement (What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst tho not tell me that she was thy wife?), Abraham doesn't even bother to answer him, that's how cocky he's grown from knowing God has his back. Abraham doesn't return the asses, either. Or the gold. Or the silver. Or the cattle. He departs with his loot and once he's in the clear, his wife at his side after serving as sultry bait in history's riskiest-ever pimping scheme (exactly what happened to Sarah in Pharaoh's harem-room is left provocatively unaddressed), he meets up with God at a spot they picked out earlier and the two of them basically high-five each other.

Operation Egyptian Honey Trap complete!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Disciplining The Bad Puppy That is Man and Why The Internet is Doomed -- Bible Study, Night Four

Reading My Late Mother's Bible


I think I'm finally getting a handle on Genesis: God, when He created the human race,  saddled himself and the world with the equivalent of a very intelligent, very defiant puppy. It ate stuff it shouldn't have in the Garden of Eden and was banished to the backyard. In the backyard, it bit and killed a litter mate, fouled the grass, and generally ran wild until it was sprayed with a garden hose as punishment. Then it shaped up for awhile. But just awhile. And then, because it was a puppy with hands, not paws, and because it wasn't really a puppy at all but a tool-using hominid endowed with language, it erected the Tower of Babel.

The Tower was bad, one sinful stack of bricks, but why it was bad, the reason, I find surprising. I used to think I knew the reason. Before last week, when I started reading the Bible instead of just quoting from it and alluding to it and smugly assuming I'd absorbed it merely by sleeping at night in its vicinity and having several friends who vote Republican, my sense of what made the Tower of Babel abominable was the excessive pride that it expressed, the narcissism behind it, the arrogance. Wrong, it turns out. What made the Tower offensive -- or not offensive, but deeply threatening -- was the amazing teamwork of its builders.
For those who believe that capitalism and corporatism are systems beloved of God, I have bad news: except for those that He personally authorizes such as the assembly of the ark, He dislikes big projects, especially big, costly ones, and particularly ones whose execution depend on complicated communications. He dislikes them because, for a being of such vast powers and undisputed cosmic alpha status, He's ridiculously insecure. He may even fear for his job, to hear Him talk:

"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."

There is palpable panic in this verse. It's almost as though, as the Tower rose and rose and the sound of its architects, engineers, and laborers conferring and conversing reached His ears, God could feel human beings coming for Him, could begin to imagine them turning on their master. He seems not to have to have foreseen such competition, but once it materializes, He acts immediately; acts in the frustrated manner of an eight year-old who suddenly finds himself losing at a board game. He demolishes everything from the building itself to the universally-shared language that permitted its construction.

We all saw what happened in New York City ten years ago. Now I fear that the Internet is on borrowed time.

[To catch up with this project, see prior posts]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jehovah Swallows his Pride -- Bible Study, Night Three

Reading The Bible My Late Mother Left Me


It's the big do-over, this part of Genesis, and all that goes before it is a false start, proving that God isn't perfect, after all, and that His creation passed through a first-draft stage before being disposed of and revised. I like God for this; He's a writer too, it seems. I admire His willingness to swallow his pride. To gaze down upon all the characters He'd made and deem only one of them worth keeping must not have been easy. I sympathize.

O, lucky Noah! But his sons were luckier. Simply by virtue of being the descendants of the only man in  history who'd managed to win approval from Boss God  (other than Enoch, who God was so in love with that He snatched him straight up into heaven before the fellow even died), they were spared from the world's first genocide. Along with their mother and their wives, of course, who were the luckiest ones of all. They sure married well, those women. By accident? Or did they see something in the Noah men that told them to ignore all other suitors? I'd love to know, but I guess I never will. At this point in the Bible wives and daughters are basically just anonymous wombs for boys. (Is there a counter-Genesis somewhere, still buried in a desert cave, perhaps,  in which all these women actually have names? If not, some clever feminist should write one -- or what are Women's Studies departments for?)

The ark is built, is filled, the rains arrive, and Noah, his family, and the beasts float off for what must have been the wildest adventure ever, as well as the most claustrophobic domestic drama in the annals of the genre. Strangely, we're told very little about this interlude, which must have been marred by endless shouting matches and, if human nature was human nature then, numerous threats by Noah to park the ark and let one or more of his kin get off and swim. But instead of this unimaginably rich material we get a lot of dry and technical details about the precise duration of the deluge, the depth of the waters, and the rate at which the flood subsided after the storm had ceased. God may be a great writer, but not his scribes. The greatest melodrama of all time they left unexplored in favor of meteorology.

The best part of the narrative is the epilogue, which gives one a sense of all the crazy business that must have gone on during the cruise. Noah, having survived his awful voyage, understandably goes into business growing wine grapes. He promptly gets drunk on his own product, only to fall asleep naked in his tent. Shem and Japheth, two of his three sons, alerted by their brother Ham, find him in this condition and cover him up, and when he awakens he does something God-like: he destroys someone's life for a minor lapse of conduct. This would be Canaan, Noah's grandson by Ham, who didn't assist him during his cold night of slovenly, forgetful intoxication and gets made a slave or servant to Uncle Shem. All for the crime of not being co-dependent.

Thus did dysfunction come into the world.

[For more about this project, see prior posts]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

God Rages On -- Bible Study, Night Two

[My mother Millie, who died three months ago, left me her King James Study Bible, annotated in red ink and in her eccentric all-caps script. I have decided to read the the book straight through in the hope of consoling myself for my deep loss. I'll let you all know what I think of what I find. I'm attempting to do this with a wiped-clean mind, although I must admit I have my prejudices. I don't, for example, believe the scriptures to be the perfect, literal Word of God, but I'm willing -- indeed I'm eager -- to be surprised.]


If the first few chapters of Genesis were the anatomy of a drug bust (see prior post), the chapters concerning Cain and Abel appear to describe a bad spell on a plantation ruled by a capricious, ill-tempered master who reserves the right to treat his slaves with irrational favoritism -- because He feels like it. Cain, the farmer, Adam's clueless firstborn who's operating on no real knowledge at all (it's not like there's a Bible for him to read yet), presents to God an offering of produce that, for no reason that God sees fit to mention, fails to please Him as much as Abel's offering, which consists of a sacrificed live animal. I can only imagine Cain's confusion: why should his gift, whose harvest required no violence, be deemed so roundly inferior to one that necessitated the shedding of blood and the destruction of one of God's own creatures?

Cain seems to conclude from this episode, quite logically, that God prefers offerings involving carnage, and so he, quite logically, kills his little brother. God, the supremely inconsistent one, frowns. Slaughtering a lamb or a goat is good, Cain learns, but slaughtering the slaughterer of a lamb or goat is some sort of unforgivable atrocity.

God punishes Cain in the same manner that he recently rebuked his parents: by kicking the poor offender off his land. Then, in an act of punitive piling on that shows God to be not just wrathful but horrible, not merely firm but borderline sadistic, He takes away Cain's power to grow crops anywhere. Finally, in a seeming act mercy that comes off as more of a boast about His power to do anything He damn well pleases, God scars or brands Cain in a fashion that will cause anyone who sees the mark to realize he's God's private property and not hurt him.

Events grow unintelligible now and we enter the hard part of the Bible, the part that requires an atlas, a genealogy, and a notebook for writing down all the rules. Cain drifts to the land of Nod, where other people live, and takes a wife, whose existence is unaccounted for. Soon afterward, Eve has a son, replacing Abel. His name is Seth and he also has a son.

So far, in the line of Adam, there have been only sons, no daughters.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

My First Night of Bible Study -- A Brief Report

At last I understand: the Eden story in Genesis is about a drug bust and its aftermath. It begins by discussing the prohibition of a potent psychedelic substance: a plant or a fruit that grants those who ingest it personal access to divine capacities. Most damningly to those who wrote the story (with the goal, I suppose, of consolidating their hold on law-giving and other 'holy' prerogatives), this prohibited substance sensitizes the mind to the presence of 'good' and 'evil, essentially making priests of those who take it. (And making other, conventional priests redundant.)

Then the people take the stuff. As it happens, the creature who assists them dwells as close to nature, to the soil, and as far from hierarchies and sky gods as it is possible to get. The serpent, by virtue of living on its belly, is a most earthy, egalitarian animal.

The rest of the story concerns the people's punishment for unlocking their latent godliness through commerce with the psychoactive plant.  Banishment and hard labor are some of their punishments. And shame, of course, which is the fiercest lashing of all because the people give it to themselves.

How weird, how unexpected and how weird, that the establishing myth or narrative of Jewish and Christian morality deals not with murder, deceit, or theft but with altered consciousness, with tripping. How strange to learn that our Original Sin -- at least in the minds of those who wrote the Bible -- was closer to taking mushrooms than taking a life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

BREAKING SAD (My Own Problems And The World's Are Starting To Merge)

I'm quitting smoking again. I'm quitting everything. I'm not so sure this can be done. But today a San Francisco venture capitalist told me: "All games have to end now. No more shortcuts." He was referring to the global economy, to China and the Euro and the Budget, but I've become confused these past few months: my own problems and the world's are starting to merge. It feels like the septic mid-70s to me, with Nixon and junkies and movies about murderers and everyone getting divorced in my small town, a time that only stopped scaring me ten years ago, a time when adults felt free and kids felt sick.

And last night I watched the second episode of season one of Breaking Bad, that series about how American dads and husbands are secretly savage, narcissistic gangsters -- or would be if they were allowed some fantasy running room. Walt, the hero-villain, same name as me, that monster of non-metropolitan masculinity, the only man on TV who actually looks like one, was holding a drug killer hostage in a basement, bike-locked by the neck to a stout pole. The killer had inhaled acid in Walt's meth lab and was this far from dead but then came back to life, groaning and heaving the way my mother did when she expired in the hospital three months ago from a freak infection of the brain. Watching the guy brought me back to that hard moment, making me want to smoke, but I held fast.

My mouth tastes metallic from the departing chemicals. It feels like I inhaled acid in Walt's lab.

And then, just this morning, they failed to cut a budget deal, crashing the stock market, a weekly occurrence now. I care about the stock market these days. When my mother died, she left me a few shares of companies she believed in. 3M. Apple. It wasn't like her to believe in things, but after a while, if you have an extra few bucks, it's pretty much mandatory that you try, especially if you want your money to grow. It hasn't grown, though. It's faltered faltered and it's fallen. That she's not around to absorb this fact consoles me. It also saddens me. She died so faithful. When you occupy Wall Street, remember them: the suckers.

And on Twitter today the comedian Albert Brooks asked if the news was bleaker than it's ever been or was it that he'd bookmarked depressing Websites? I have an answer for him: it's both, of course.

When I don't smoke, I can't write. Not well. Not smoothly. That's evident here. But I'm starting not to care. Coherence is not a thing I've noticed much of bike-locked to my pole and losing money the toxins departing the wars the jobs all gone the freak infections the violent TV shows. It feels like when I was a kid and had my mother but knew in my heart there was nothing she could do. Or maybe it's history passing through the body, and not just mine, perhaps.

Yours as well?

Don't smoke.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

At Iowa Methodist Hospital My Mother Died from A Strep Infection of the Brain

All the kids now tell their friends "I love you." Girls my daughter's age, 12, all say "I love you." And so, sometimes, do boys my son's age, 10.  They say it when they part ways after school. They write it in e-mails, in text messages, on Facebook. "I love you." They even say it to their parents. "I love you," they say, and then head off to the movies. "I love you," they say, and then climb on the team bus. It's not something I did at their age, all those years ago, saying and writing "I love you" all the time, and it's not something that the other kids did, either, particularly not outside the home, the family, where love, as we then defined it, didn't exist. Outside the family, people 'liked' each other. Now they love each other. And they say so. Sincerely. With feeling. I've heard it. Authentic feeling. You can think it's a fad, but I've heard it: it's said with feeling.

Three weeks and three days ago my mother died unexpectedly at 71. She was in Iowa, visiting her boyfriend, which she did every year when the state fair was going. One morning he found her on the bathroom floor. She couldn't speak. Her eyes were open, but barely. An ambulance came and drove her to the hospital, to Iowa Methodist in downtown Des Moines (a city that is beige across the board and has terrible traffic at certain peculiar moments but then seems to empty out entirely), where someone ran a CAT scan and discovered a 'sizable mass' in her brain, behind her eyes. A surgeon went in and found an abscess there, 'encapsulated,' sealed off from other tissue, and immediately he drained it of built-up fluid and then bathed the area in antibiotics. The fluid, infected with something, was sent for tests. Hours passed. Night came. My mother remained unconscious, breathing with noisy mechanical assistance. A nurse said she saw her blink when spoken to sometime between four and five a.m. and rated her coma an optimistic '11' on a scale -- an official coma scale -- that runs to 15, for some reason, and starts at 3.

I got there a few hours later from Montana, fighting with my girlfriend the whole way. We fought while we packed, about which supplies to bring and what size containers of liquid -- three ounces or five -- can legally be carried on to planes. We fought on the plane over who was more uncomfortable trying to sleep bolt upright without a pillow. We fought all the way down a hall and up an elevator and down another hall to the CCU, accusing each other of failing to use the sanitizer dispensed from little pumps near all the doorways. Sometimes the sanitizer was a foam, other times it came out as a gel. I liked the gel. As it dried, it cooled my hands. It felt effective. The foam felt weak, a pleasantry.

The right side of my mother's scalp was grey and shaved and there was a run of black staples where she'd been cut. My brother and his wife were standing over her rubbing her wrists and stroking her smooth bare ankles. Everyone was saying the right things. Everyone sounded sweet and stressed and brave. Everyone sounded perfect. We amazed ourselves. We amazed ourselves in the way that people do when they find themselves rising to a grave occasion that they've always known would come someday but didn't practice for out of superstition, because to practice for it might attract it. It turned out that we didn't need to practice, though. We were natural born virtuosos of the deathbed.

Oh God, we were good. It kind of made me sick.

We all went home around eleven that night. My girlfriend and I had a room in a vast Marriott built around one of those plunging central atriums that ought to provoke more suicides than they do and are awkward places to eat breakfast, with all that disquieting space above your heads. I took an Ambien when I laid down and a few minutes later I had a vision of my mother walking behind my girlfriend at a distance of a foot or two but then, as the two of them passed by the TV set, closing the distance and merging with my girlfriend. It was a vision, not a dream, because I described it the instant after it happened to my actual girlfriend, who was awake and who responded by reaching behind herself to feel the space where my mother (I insisted) had physically, or at least visually, entered her.

At six in the morning the phone rang right on schedule and my brother right on schedule said get over here -- don't eat, don't shower, don't think, get over here -- and we, right on schedule, raced over in our rental car and there was the surgeon, all scrubbed and right on schedule, asking permission to go into the skull again and suck out more junk again, more goo, more fluid, he frankly didn't know what it was this stuff (necrotic brain tissue? ordinary pus?) but he sure as hell wanted it out of there this minute ("Your mother will be, if not entirely paralyzed on her left side..." That was in there too somewhere) except that we, the loved ones, right on schedule, and in accordance with the Health Directive kept by my mother always in her purse (she'd worked as a nurse all her life, she knew the truth; the tubes, once they go in, they tend to stay in) told him to please go away and let her die.

Right on schedule.

Which she didn't do.

First she punished us for a while with perfect vital signs until I started laughing, proud of her, proud of her savage creaturely momentum, her mad ungovernable pendulum persistence. Who knew that, despite her pose as my dear mother, my dear autodidact Gibbons-reading mother who once went to Hungary, then crossed it off her list, and then went to Egypt and crossed it off her list, and then learned Italian and crossed it off her list, and Latin and French and The Lives of the Impressionists and the Bob Dylan Songbook and Naguib Mahfouz, was actually, underneath it all, Lou Gehrig, a being of pure brute Newtonian pump and suck.

When it's over you go in a room and sign some papers with people who do their best not to let on that they did this only half an hour ago with people just as brave as you feel you are. (And maybe you are, but if so, then bravery's easy, not a virtue, a reflex, like drawing one's first breath.)

The test came back Streptococcus intermedius and I am afraid I have it and you do too and that it is one of those new mysterious bugs that most of the the time does nothing, just sits or circulates, but that some of the time (and perhaps more often of late, since everything bad seems to happen more often of late) can collect in your brain and destroy you in two days.

Which is why all the kids say "I love you" all the time now, even though, if you ask them, they don't know why. They think it's normal. They think it's what kids always said. It isn't, though. I was a kid once and I remember: We said other things.

Lots of things.

But what?

For Mildred Irene Kirn (Stein), 1940-2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fight Night in the Situation Room (They Also Serve Who Only Sit And Watch)

How curious that the most arresting image -- and the one most likely to endure -- from The Night We Finally Got Bin Laden has nothing do with the late terrorist mastermind (whose death shots have been embargoed, I suspect, not simply because they might spark outrage but because our government's psy-ops experts would just as soon he be remembered as a flaccid grey shut-in who used 'natural Viagra" and primped before shooting propaganda tapes by dying his beard a specious Wayne Newton black) or the robo-stud soldiers who sent him straight to Hell (their hyper-virile DC comics fearsomeness somehow enhanced by their anonymity) but captured instead a knot of tense officials huddled around an unseen video monitor, watching a mission they'd funded and approved but were powerless, for the moment, to control. In direct violation of the laws of showbiz as codified by Aristotle and perfected by Samuel Goldwyn, the Osama drama's climax was a played as a reaction shot, that is. It was all spectators, no spectacle. The chorus took center stage and the antagonists weren't onstage at all but present only by implication, as the objects of the others' gazes. 
Even if footage of the raid emerges, my hunch is that the poster for the production will still favor the static, passive supervisors over the kinetic, engaged participants, partly because the tableaux of their faces tells a range of complicated stories while an action shot would tell just one, and a comparatively crude one. Examine the picture closely. Start with Obama, the leading man, who looks less like a stalwart head of state than a grumpy hostage of circumstances. He seems to resent the fact that this high-stakes dice roll forced on him by the collective, by history, might well break him as an individual, reversing the lucky streak that got him here.  Less distressed but appearing slightly bored is the vice president, whose face wears a second banana's dull disengaged look, since the best he can claim if things go well tonight is an assist, and if things go poorly, whatever, he won't lose sleep but he might feel less like waking. As for the general with the laptop, he's a model of disciplined on-task professionalism lightly salted with ironic fatalism. He understands in a wise old soldier's way that victory is just defeat turned shiny side up and every battle short of Armageddon is important to the combatants but is finally only a skirmish. Then there's Hillary, the stunned control freak with her right hand clapped over her mouth. She'll later pretend that the gesture was a nothing, an innocent attempt at cough suppression, but what most observers see and can't not see is a workaholic bureaucrat suddenly confronting the blunt force impact of foreign policy on the fragile human skull.

One of the group portrait's small surprises is that give-em-hell Hillary,  who stood firmly by her man as he smart bombed some sense into the Serbians and shelled the encircled Branch Davidians until they died in a mass rush up an imaginary stairway to heaven, comes off as as a humanistic softy compared to the younger woman to her rear who's one of those precocious government studies nerds Obama is always importing from the Ivy League. I don't know her name and refuse to waste time finding it because she's the kind of ambitious, knife-willed woman that I confess I find threatening on occasion and sometimes feel that others should as well. Look at her there, peeking in between the others with her hard, bright, algebraic eyes that plug into her Baby Mozart brain.  It interests her, the drama on the monitor, but not directly, the way it does the others. It interests her sociologically, as the key to the rank-based seating arrangement which correlates proximity with power and didn't assign her a formal spot but didn't banish her, either,  allowing her to loiter at the periphery as long as she pretends that she's not staying, just pausing on her rounds.

But enough of with the magnifying glass. The picture has been scrutinized for days now and soon it's nuances will be all picked over. What's gone unremarked on, though, is the great broad fact of it as an expression of a critical shift in our dramatic vision of war.  Put simply, we've downgraded the action-adventure part -- the shooting, running, ducking stuff performed by a demographically narrow contingent of volunteers with a low cultural profile who figure in our imaginations, increasingly, as depersonalized weapons operators rather than vibrant full-spectrum individuals --  and emphasized the management aspect, recasting it along the lines of power-player, white-collar melodrama whose typical settings are courtrooms, corporate headquarters, and other sites where massive egos clash and titanic strategists plot strategy. Seen this way, war is a matter of high-caste intrigue, which is why the great war photo of the new era leaves out the soldiers, the weapons, the debris, the carnage, and the whole battlefield. That's background now, all that mayhem and that mess. The front has shifted. The front is now the rear.

Right now, today, again, before a group of watchers who we out in the audience can envision quite clearly now that we've studied a photo of them at work,  the image of a new target or  a new victim is being broadcast onto a large screen from tiny cameras mounted on a drone or in the helmet of a commando. This is war, though it doesn't seem like war. It looks like what we do when we plunk down on the couch at night or when he head out on the weekend to a sports bar. I can't fully articulate my thoughts on this, but I sense that some longstanding human project, perhaps a secret one, a dark one, and possibly one that's uniquely American, has finally been consummated with this development.

Warfare remade to resemble chilling out? 

Anyway, mission accomplished,  I suppose.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


After escaping the battle of Tora Bora in the fall of 2001, Osama Bin Laden was said by his pursuers, who made their huge fuck up sound almost like a plan, to have ‘gone to ground.‘  This week, ten years later, when the villain was killed by a land loving team of Navy Seals acting on orders from our collective consciousness that we’d half forgotten issuing, we finally found out what ‘ground’ meant: not an impenetrable mountain lair but a glum cluster of primer-colored buildings resembling a foreclosed-on Motel Six. Government officials and the press tried to magnify the hideout’s stature (and burnish the legend of those who overran it) by calling the place a ‘compound,’ but its insides were just as grubby as its outsides. The room full of soiled bedclothes where the arch fiend codenamed ‘Geronimo’ mounted his last stand -- or fell without a fight, we can’t be sure -- looked like the crib of a  meth-head petty thief ducking the pepper-spray goons of Dog the Bounty Hunter.

It had to end somewhere, History’s Greatest Manhunt, but the fact that it climaxed in dull suburbistan next to a training base for the hunters’ allies proved less startling than the discovery that the hunt was still going on at all. Like the Tuesday morning shock of 9/11, the Sunday evening shock of Bin Laden’s death caught America flossing, concluding a tragedy that we’d stopped thinking about with a catharsis that we’d stopped hoping for. It was a moment of spooky historical symmetry, especially as it played out on TV. Down a long hallway that symbolized the past strode a grim-faced first-term president whose skin color, which we still notice despite ourselves, made him look like a figure from the future.  Just as we had when Bush spoke way back when, we knew by the time Obama opened his mouth just about everything he had to say, which only heightened our need to hear him say it.

What followed was a patriotic head rush, the first thrilling chill of tribal unity that we’d enjoyed in a decade that felt like three. For an instant, I was ashamed of this euphoria -- after all, a human being had died, and my taxes had paid for the bullets that blew his face off -- but then I relaxed and let myself regress, perversely pleased that geek-era America hadn’t entirely lost the John Wayne ugly streak that separates us from the Belgians. Like the pug-nosed New York City firefighters whose machismo I’d borrowed  ten years earlier, the Navy Seals aroused a part of me that I’d kept hidden but never out of reach, much like the hunting knife stashed under my car seat. It appeared that Obama shared my instincts. As he uttered the pitiless words ‘at my direction’ in reference to the lethal raid, his educated features hardened slightly.

Harvard Law Review, First Blood. 

There are times when one’s solemn duty as an American is to watch cable news for days on end and track a big story from its early stages as a government-sponsored morality play toward its mature form as a media-driven incoherent muddle. In the earliest version of Black Hawk Up: The Payback, a cowardly Osama with a gun ducked behind an unarmed woman when Team Testosterone tagged him with its red laser dots. How our guys shot around her and brought him down was left unexplained to protect our high-tech secrets. Later on, in a transitional version, the woman declined in prominence, leaving a slow-draw Osama to face the music of a so-called  ‘double tap.’ And then, inevitably, he had no gun, though he did make a move consistent with trying to fetch one. Same difference. Our heros shot him in the eye, as the photos of his corpse would prove. If only they weren’t too gruesome to release. At which point, out of nowhere, a dog entered the story.

This swarm of details fuzzed up the big picture, which gradually came to look something like this: the last remaining superpower spends pretty much its last remaining dollar mustering armies, building secret prisons, dispensing billions of dollars in foreign aid, and launching fleets of drones in order to whack a sickly terrorist who spent his days on a dank floor-level mattress making low-grade motivational tapes. Then a courier who we identified after years of reluctant waterboarding smuggled these tapes past a garden of marijuana plants (thank you, Twitter, for this zany grace note) into a Moslem world that barely resembled,  thanks to an unforeseen series of revolutions unrelated to religious zealotry, the one that spawned Al Qaeda in the first place and that we feared it would someday dominate.

We finally got our man last week, that’s a natural fact (although we may never know quite how we got him), but here was the trouble: history got him first,  reducing him to fat-Elvis, late-Howard Hughes mode.
Frustrating side note or devastating irony? 

I think we at least deserve pictures of the dog.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

These Terrible Events and the Matter of their Size

I set my alarm clock late last night (early this morning, actually) to go off three hours after I went to bed. I wanted to know what was happening in Japan and I could only grant myself three hours' worth of suspended vigilance. That's because, minutes before I turned the light off, I read a report about radiation releases at the earthquake-affected nuclear plant. Expert opinion contained in the report, as well as what advertised itself as expert opinion in the appended comments section, suggested that even if there should be a 'meltdown' (a word that I understand chiefly in its vulgar form, as a sort of uncontrollable tantrum, but whose technical, scientific definition I'm enough aware of to be chilled by) there was little to fear in terms of...  What, exactly? What are the terms of fear these days?



'Senseless' Deaths-per-Minute?

Second Coming Signs?

Events that are Revelatory of Humankind's Radical Dysfunctionality and Point To A Coming Conmprehensive Trauma?

Even more than an update of the headlines, it was some answer to this question of measurement, some  sense of how to calibrate my instruments for registering calamitous news, that I went to bed apprehensively desiring. An earthquake and a tsunami within one day were a lot to take in, but nothing I wasn't equipped for; add in a technological disaster, though, and the whole combo was a bit too much. Natural catastrophes, I had a box for those. Fiery collapsing buildings too, unfortunately. And yes, because I'm old enough, I had a place to put nuclear stuff as well. But all at once? Even Hollywood has failed me here. Though a few of its omnibus CGI apocalypses have served up all of these elements and then some ('Independence Day,' '2012'), the underlying scripts were so contrived that the horrors didn't horrify, they merely impressed.

Meaning this was new, this news.

It feels like there's been a lot of new news recently.

So anyway, when the alarm clock woke me up, my laptop computer was right there by my pillow. I rolled over on my side and clicked. The building around the reactor had exploded. I watched a brief video of the accident. I watched it several times. That's how it works now: the five or ten seconds of critical footage, initially an impressionistic blur, is played and replayed until it yields its message, until its act-structure becomes perceptible. And then, once it has, you can fix a caption on it. Mine in this case was: They  Said When it Started It Probably Wouldn't Go This Far, But I Was Absolutely Sure it Would. Or, to frame it another way: What is it about reality lately that bad dreams grasp it better than informed analyses?

Now, a few hours later, things have calmed some. Certain key boundaries have held, it seems. But I still don't know how to graph what's going on. I still lack a unitized basis for comparing Japan to Haiti to Libya to Katrina to 9/11 to what might be coming in Saudi Arabia to what could happen tomorrow in, say, Los Angeles or -- as suddenly seems plausible -- in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Oslo simultaneously. Though maybe not Oslo. Scandinavia still seems safe somehow. Nothing awful ever happens in Scandinavia.

Which, these days, probably assures that something will. And that the something will be something other than the unthinkable somethings that have preceded it.

I suppose what I'm saying is: The Richter Scale, how quaint.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Would it Be Like to Care About Wisconsin? Imagining an Alternate Political Self

I'd have to be one of those people who think of teachers in the way that Hollywood asks us to in those hit movies where a failing school wracked by ill-discipline at every level is gradually led by a person of simple tastes, unsexy habits, and not-for-profit hair through a painful but redemptive process of acknowledging, pursuing, and satisfying its latent desire for greatness. I'd also have to be able to forget my actual teachers, who often dismissed or ridiculed my overt desire for greatness and whose unprepossessing looks and manners seemed less to suggest nobility of spirit than uncertainty of body.

I'd have to be one of those people who aren't distracted, when watching TV or browsing on the Internet, by lurid celebrity gossip; or, rather, who are distracted by such gossip but know it to be merely that, a lurid distraction, and whose intellectual compass needles reliably return (after some wiggling) to topics such as fiscal years, parliamentary procedure, and collective bargaining.

I'd have to be able to sustain aesthetic interest in Governor Scott Walker's face, a sort of embryonically indistinct contemporary male conservative visage that seems, like a stem cell, capable of growing into the faces of most of Walker's peers, but particularly Mitt Romney's. Which may be another way of saying this: Walker's face appears to be the average of the family of faces that Romney's is the ideal of.

I'd have to be able to shift cultural perspectives and take the state of Wisconsin seriously as a stage for Vital Political Dramas With Ramifications for Our National Future rather than continuing to see it as a comical repository of dated White Ethnic folkways, one of which is belonging to labor unions and others of which are eating sausage and bowling.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Uses of Charlie Sheen, A Wittgensteinian Investigation.

1. As Cautionary Tale.

Acutely problematic. Since Sheen's biography bears little relationship to the experiences of most civilians, it's hard to know how exactly he went wrong or how, under the circumstances (father a hyper-observant Roman Catholic political activist thinking-person's movie star; brother a frozen-in-pop-culture-time non-thinking person's teen-dream idol; face a peculiar demonic composite of both of them that's somehow been robbed of its individuality; ex-wife a robotic sex kitten projection deemed real only for legal and gossip purposes; TV show a fiendishly exploitative mechanism which invites the viewer to superimpose what he knows to be Sheen's degraded consciousness on a generic asshole background of a character), he might have avoided going wrong.

Yes, in theory, cocaine abuse is something human beings should avoid, but Charlie Sheen does not exist in theory. He exists in what one might call a 'problem space' that is singular, novel, and largely incommunicable. Inside of it and according to its rules 'cocaine abuse' may well resemble what we on the outside, in the consensus problem-space, think of as 'light and healthy eating' or 'preparing for the hero's journey.'  

2. As Social Media Binding Agent

Marvelously efficient and unlikely ever to be surpassed. In the endless one and a half days since Sheen shrugged off his fictional carapace as the 'star' of Two and a Half Men ( a show so majestically barren of personality, so perfectly clone-of-a-clone-of in style and affect, that it could have made a 'star' of anyone who stuck his live head in the cut-out hole it offered), and launched his new 'reality' career as a live-wire interview subject who was at first authentically unstable but is surely enough of a performer to realize now what the audience expects from him and to deliver it with all his might, meaning he's now both unstable and feigning unstable, Sheen has emerged as the consummate, perhaps defining, subject of social media conversations. He is the great Third Person Outside the Room that allows loosely associated strangers interacting on Twitter etc. to engage in synthetic confidential intimacy.

His any-guy name 'Charlie' helps immeasurably here, but what helps most is this: Charlie too treats "Charlie Sheen" as the great Third Person Outside the Room.

3. As Secret Superhero of the Id

Profoundly influential yet puzzling.

At a time when few of us know first-hand exactly what Total Self-Gratification would constitute if our means and our access to party supplies were infinite, we are left to infer from Sheen's aftermath appearance  --  from the graven lines around his mouth and the very small holes in the center of his pupils where the 'twinkle' used to go -- what it's like to do everything you want to anyone you want to do it to in a safe and luxurious environment while you're the highest you can be. It's fun to imagine what Sheen felt, that is, and what it felt like (at one time) to be Sheen. It's a way to connect with our orgiastic selves. It's a way to not have to pretend that cocaine feels bad and that meaningless sex, by meaning whatever we want it to, isn't in fact the most meaningful sex of all.

The problem, though, is that when you look at him, you get this distinct weird feeling that Charlie Sheen is the only person in the whole universe incapable of actually enjoying, actually getting off on in a deep way that really sticks to the neurons afterward, the myriad pleasures of Homo Malibu that were formerly open to Charlie Sheen.

(Describe your own uses of Sheen in the comments section and I will consider them in a future post)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

New Ways to Suck: A found poem consisting of a partial reverse-order list of my 'Tweets' (let's find a new word for those things) from Oscar night arranged into stanzas. 'Sadists' refers to the producers who chose to put Kirk Douglas on; 'Marilyn Manson' to Russell Brand. Who also reminds me of Tiny Tim.

A big night for close-trimmed beards.
Franco made the mistake of attending the after-party first.
Oprah looks like she is about to collide with Earth.
Cate Blanchett claps limp.
Franco refuses to look us in the eye. He obviously ate it rather than smoked it. Kicking in hard.

It would be so easy for them to lick or suck the statues yet they never do.

Bring back silent movies
Blow me, Academy.
I used to want him to win.
Nice biceps.
Emotion or brain damage?
Is that Marilyn Manson?
New ways to suck being explored now.

Franco now being injected with Niacin.
They don't care and can't believe we do.
They need to move to animated hosts next year.
Worse than my prom. And reminds me of it.

The Retro-Bloggers Manifesto

When it comes to technology and media, some people are Early Adopters. We're not. And it's not just that we're cheap. We genuinely never think anything's going to last. Then it does -- just long enough so that when the lights come back on we're the only boys with their underwear down. We're Late Resuscitators. And since we can't help it, we try to make a virtue of it. It's like with vinyl records. Now, we're not saying that blogs are the vinyl records of the Internet, but... They quite demonstrably are, so we don't have to say it. Compared to their successor forms, they contain more sensory information per unit of whatever and they have a richer, more emotive sound. In fact, the instant we felt ourselves becoming nostalgic for blogs (We were watching our Twitter feeds swiftly dither by and we thought, "This is the Brownian Motion of culture, this is entropy itself, and we love it, it's freeing the tyrannized peoples of countries we don't have to live in, except that's since we're Twittering too it's probably about to die out completely, except in Yemen") we decided to write one. The formatting and the other tricky stuff that used to cost $5,000 is easy now.  Like most things that no one wants to do anymore because they overdid them and ruined them, it's so easy, in fact, that it practically runs up and does itself for one, then flatters one and adores one and even offers to pay one a little bit for letting it do it. So, there's that. Also, have you read a magazine lately? We love the Kardashians (they're so old Hollywood!), but most of the articles are shorter than this post and they're all about diving watches. Yes, there is The New Yorker. Of course. And the Atlantic Monthly. And also McSweeney's and its sister publication and Tin House and Open City and the Virginia Quarterly and so on. (Or did that close?) And Vanity Fair! We really don't know about Harper's, though. Those depressing art photographs of massive chemical spills at dawn as seen either from space or from the implied perspective of one of their aboriginal victim's ghosts that the editors always run above the stories are not only pretentious in a way you don't see a lot in New York-based smart publications anymore, they truly do depress us after a while. They make us feel nihilistic, not engaged. Or weirdly angry. And so does the sad-ironic Harper's Index, which is basically a masochistic thrill for thoughtful medium-high-income liberals at this point,  and so do the exquisitely-counterpointed-so-as-to make-you-smirk-suicidally-at-the-moronic-folly-of-it-all-but-then-you-read-something-great-and-moving-and-hate-yourself-for-smirking Harper's Forum pieces. What is the editorial goal of Harper's? Honestly. To publish often-superb writing in such a way that no matter what the individual pieces are about the reader will always go away thinking:  "I should never under any circumstances reproduce and next year at this time I should probably go to an assisted-suicide legal-marijuana state and, while dressed in clothing of the other gender, die?"

We would prefer not to. We would prefer to do this.  Since nothing pays anymore anyway, why not?

And why should you possibly mind?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Facts (Includes true personal George Clooney and Jorge L Borges anecdotes)

I live in Montana and California but go to New York a lot to visit The Masters. Stuff that won't go into my novels or that won't pass the major media filters is what will go here. That big picture is of my girlfriend. The little picture is of me when I was her age. I have kids. I grew up in a Minnesota town of 500 where a noon siren sounded every day so people who worked outside knew what time it was. The town where I live now, in Montana, is pretty bombed out from the recession. I love to drive, no matter how expensive gas is. I drive a Ford. A hybrid Fusion. Great car but not in snow. My family is originally from the Cleveland/Akron area. I went to Princeton and wrote a memoir I'd like you to buy called Lost in the Meritocracy about how much I hated it. I loved Oxford, though. You just read a lot there and write little essays and stage amateur plays with your friends. The movie Up in the Air was based on my novel of the same name. George Clooney starred. He played me. In person he's smart and charming and extremely sincere about his Sudan work. He could have stolen my girlfriend from me and showed signs that he knew it, but he didn't. I think that shows class. In both of them. The movie Thumbsucker is based on one of my novels. It was directed by Mike Mills, is terrific, but is not as good as Mike's upcoming movie, "Beginners," which is superb. Of all the Hollywood people I've met, my favorite is Robert Downey Jr., who is a kind of shining psychedelic optimist and as verbally quick as any top-tier writer. I was very good friends with Clark Rockefeller, who was revealed as a fraud and one of the last few decades' greatest con men. He sure fooled me. I saw Samuel Beckett walking down the street once in Edinburgh wearing a long navy blue wool coat. It was like seeing a great British sailed frigate from the Empire days come knifing up a little river, that shocking, that beautiful. I also met, unexpectedly, Jorge Luis Borges once, long after I thought he was dead. It was 1985. It was like meeting Kafka. He recited a speech from King Lear (in English) and then explained how it might be improved. When he recited the improved version, I had to concede he was right. He reminded me of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, all bent over and blind with a curled wooden cane.

My Honest Impressions of Islam in the Biographical Order They Occured

1. Aladdin and genies. Enchanting.
2. "I Dream of Jeannie," the TV show. Dumb but arousing,
3. An adult at one of my parent's cocktail parties in 1970 or 71 using the term 'Black Muslim' about the   boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay. Worrisome somehow.
4. Coming across the name 'Malcolm X' in a newspaper or magazine. Frightening and puzzling.
5. Befriending Asif Agha, a brilliant student from Pakistan, at Princeton. The first human spirit and intellect I ever knew that I would call 'beautiful' in the richest sense of the word. Enlightening.
6. Visiting the Alhambra with a girlfriend in 1984. I had a peculiar and novel aesthetic experience midway through the guided tour: I sensed, very powerfully, that I was in the presence of ideal forms that I lacked the maturity and the depth of spirit to perceive properly. Haunting, frustrating, and humbling.
7. 9/11. Disorienting and terrifying.
8. Various post 9/11 readings, serious conversations and semi-organized attempts to educate myself on the topic of Islam. I come to understand the religion as a rather peculiar mixture of a cult of personality and a trippy eccentric version of late monotheism. I come to view the societies, by and large, as backward and medieval and peculiarly susceptible to oligarchical subjugation. Interesting, depressing.
9. Ongoing cable news coverage of Middle-eastern affairs. Distancing.
10. Sudden onset of revolutionary fervor in Egypt, Libya, etc. Inspiring.
11. I learn that a very chic English woman of rather high social standing who I knew at Oxford University has converted to Islam and has become publicly active, particularly in the arts and education spheres, in promoting her faith. Challenging.
12. General awareness of Sufism as a kind of psychedelic, mystical, all-involving practice that I feel spiritually attracted to despite my ignorance of its tenets, history, and so on. Intriguing.

Tentative Conclusion: Islam, let's talk. In person. Though you do scare me a little sometimes. I also suspect that you, at your best, are my superior in certain ways.

Self-Service Assisted Suicide (The Costco Syndrome)

Was just at Costco this morning doing my part to help kill off the last few American Main Street businesses when I did something I've never done before: peeled away from the long lines at the checkout counters to use one of the self-checkout counters. Normally, I shy away from them. They look complicated. They look like it would be easy to make a mistake while trying to get them to work, creating a big do-over hassle that just wouldn't be worth it. Also, since shoppers get no discount for using them, I figure that I'm needlessly subsidizing the store at my own expense by foregoing the assistance of a live wage-earner.

But today I had only a few items and a bit of time on my hands, so I thought 'What the hell?' The moment I arrived at my station, in front of the ominous scanner-machine with its HAL Computer-like internal blue electric eye, a guy in a Costco uniform rushed up to help me. This puzzled me some. What kind of savings was the store achieving by using both an expensive machine and an expensive, benefits-wanting human being? Then I realized that, of course, this doubled-up situation was only temporary. At some point in the future (a point already graphed out by Costco),  most -- or enough -- customers will have so thoroughly mastered self-checkout that calls for human backup will be rare. At which point the helper guy (and the other one hovering in back of him for the other self-service aisle) would be reassigned or let go. Probably let go. As would a number of the live cashiers. Duh.

That wasn't the shocking part, though -- Costco's pursuit of mechanized efficiency. The shocking part was how weirdly cheerful, how manically chipper, the doomed helper guy was about rendering himself obsolete. He grinned and bounced and offered me aid as though it was he, not management, who was going to save money when the robots shoved him aside. He actually acted like he had a stake in his own redundancy and wanted to hasten it.

It's the labor equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome and it's everywhere. In fact, by blogging for free about the subject rather than writing this for a paying magazine, I'm proving that I suffer from it, too.

(Please send in your own examples of this phenomenon)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vote Like an Egyptian -- Rahm Emanuel Elected in Chicago. (See Bodabag's comment below)

The news of Rahm's Emanuel's victory in the Chicago's mayor's face surprised me. It surprised me that it was news. My first thought when I saw it was: But this already happened, didn't it? Or, rather: Since there is no conceivable universe in which this could have happened otherwise, why is space being wasted on announcing that it has? This is the kind of election that's decided when the ballots are printed and the leading candidate fails to die during the campaign. And my next thought: So actual Chicago human beings really left their homes and apartments in the middle of a tough winter and possibly even made themselves late for work so as to voluntarily and individually help solemnize this Newtonian inevitability? Really? They put on gloves and boots and scraped off their car windshields just to make this profoundly predestined procedure technically legal? Boy, are they good citizens in Chicago, I thought, to do such a favor for this rich, powerful, connected man who needs no favors.


It all feels like something that used to happen in the Middle East.

Maybe we're taking up their slack.

Thumbsucker: A homemade 3rd party trailer from the movie of my novel that comprehensively misrepresents it in an orchestrally cyclonic way. When I saw it all sense of authorship of the underlying work vanished in me. It was a wonderful Buddhist moment. It happened just yesterday.

The Dictators -- When Looks Do Not Deceive (Mythical Profiling Works)

Are these not the ugliest men the collective genetic unconscious could possibly create? I mean, they look like villains out of story books. Mubarak was 100% per cent vampire-mummy. Qadaffi is the evil pirate I doodled on a notebook page when I was nine. History is really laying things bare for us. Thank you, Stereotypical Dream Mind: You are proving a sure guide in this otherwise confusing time.