Saturday, June 12, 2004

A brief story

Rather than commentary today, I thought I'd simply offer up an anecdote. This is story that happened to me roughly 18 hours ago, and it's totally true. I know I have a habit of exaggerating to make things more either dramatic or comedic or at least more interesting but this story I'm about to tell you is totally true. It's a perfect example of what I talk about when I say I feel my neighborhood is spiraling slowly out of control (And the anecdotal reason I don't believe the statistics about crime in the City).

Coming out of the subway, Bergen and Smith. There's a large group of teenagers and they're walking down the
street in a kind of rambunctious blob. I suddenly realize that the blob is kind of shifting back and forth, almost certainly because someone is shoving
someone else. Then the shouting begins.

I live in a loud neighborhood, and teenagers tend to be pretty rowdy, so it always takes me a second to figure out "fun or fight". It's becoming pretty clear, though, in the 2-6 second before things actually get bad that this is a fight breaking out.

I whip out my cell phone to call 9-1-1, and as I look down to see that I have NO RECEPTION the fight breaks out. There's a tall black kid with a blue du-rag and he and a small arab kid seem to really have it in for each other. I can't really make out what's going on, even though it's only about 10 feet away from me, but I see that someone's being held down, and that person is being beaten by someone who has either a stick or a length of pipe, no it's definitely a stick, there's no fleshy clang of metal contacting flesh going on, oh shit this is really bad, there's a fight breaking out and someone is getting pummeled.

Okay, now everyone's been separated, it's still unclear exactly who is on whose side, but there are adults out so things should get better. Stupidly, I
walk down the block down the same side of the street as the fight, still trying to get my phone to work and as I look down the fight breaks out again. Except now I'm standing pretty much in the middle of it.

Picture a circle with a point at its center. The fight is the cirle, I'm the center. No one's actually hitting me or trying to to hit me or anything like that, but people are getting the crap beaten out of them all around me. It was surreal, and terrible. There was nothing I could do. Most of the teenagers
were larger than me (Except for the scrawny arab kid) and I knew that if I tried to do anything, I would certainly get the crap beaten out of me by everyone. I think about shouting, but it's verry very loud, and the breath doesn't really come and I see a doorway open to a construction sight and I duck inside to try to get reception. As I do, I see one kid holding the arab kid down and at least one, maybe two or three of the other kids just wailing on him.

A bunch of adults are standing around, totally ineffectual (as ineffectual as this adult writing this right now) and I suddenly think "we should all do something" but then it's over, the group of black kids is moving down the street, a group of arab kids and adults is talking to the one kid. I close my phone, and look at the kid who got the beat down. He has two silver-dollar welts rising on his face already and his eyes are filled with tears and hate. He ducks into the pizza parlor next to the construction site and emerges with a very long knife.

Everyone's trying to hold this kid back now and get the knife from him, but it's not working, the kid loosens the grip of his hangers-on and runs down the street after the gang of kids who just left. I pull out my phone and just then cop cars start showing up, one after other, one every minute or so until there's about 6 cop cars and an ambulance and they've shut down the entire block.

As far as I can tell, the cops only were able to detain the kid with the knife. There were a bunch of adults talking to the cops trying to explain what
happened. I thought maybe there was something I could do, but I realize that I only really saw this conflict from the middle, had no idea what anyone involved looked like, or what caused the whole thing, or anything like that.

I've seldom felt so useless, I had witnessed quite a bit but had absolutely nothing of value to offer anyone. I couldn't do anything to stop it, I couldn't
do anything to clarify for the police what happened, and I was smack dab in the middle of it.

Bizarre. The ancient Greeks wouldn't show violence on stage. They considered it a greater obscenity than sex. It makes a little more sense to me now.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Bad News For Bush

There’s been quite a bit of bad news for Bush these days, much of which has been eclipsed by the Reagan canonization, and I feel that it bears repeating here on this corner of the blogosphere.

Let's start with the Reagan stuff. As this Talking Points Memo Post points out, the startling thing about GWBush's website is how little of it is about him. It used to be all about John Kerry (the front page of the website was filled with goofy Kerry photos) and now it's all about Reagan. What this essentially means is that Bush is no longer running as himself, but instead as the anti-Kerry and sorta-Reagan. I'm pretty sure that's a terrible position for an incumbent to be in. Challengers are automatically the anti-incumbent. If the incumbent is the anti-challenger, it should give the challenger the edge in defining the terms of the national discourse.

Meanwhile, according to two new posts on the AP wires, Bush is getting little credit for the news jobs and a majority of Americans no longer feel that the Iraq war was justified. Regardless of whether you supported the war or not (I didn't) that's bad news for a President who boldly sold the American people a war of choice.

These two AP articles, taken together, are especially bad. Bush has always been good (and lucky) at switching focus. Just as things in Iraq spiral towards an experiment in chaos theory BAM the economy adds some jobs. Just as gas prices go up up up WHAMMO the new Iraq government begins to take shape.

Reagan's funeral has rescued Bush Administration from its dya of reckoning vis-a-vis torturing prisoners. This story continues to get worse and worse and worse as it moves slowly up up up the chain of command. has a good article on the recently leaked memos from the Pentagon justifying use of torture of prisoners. Now I think there's a very good chance that Bush himself will escape from this torture hullabaloo unscathed. Hell, there's a chance he was kept in the dark about everything Rumsfeld and Ashcroft were planning for our prisoners, but I doubt that his administration can escape unscathed. Bush will almost certainly be left with a tough choice-- get rid of someone powerful and important in his administration (say, Rummy of Ash-face) and thus reveal his adminsitration's incompetance, or keep them on to "show strength" and look like someone who has no idea how to manage the "dream team" that his "CEO Presidency" promised us.

Kerry's chances look good. And his 7% lead in recent polls ain't bad either.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Everyday I Write The Book

In other news, “Reading To My Kid” an anonymously written blog about a young mother/writer/reader named simply “E.” critiquing the many books she and her (presumably) pseudonymously titled daughter “Tulip” tackled together is shuttering its doors for the time being.

This is sad. I don’t have kids, but I certainly get a fair share of questions about books for them whilst working at the book store, are “Reading to my Kid” was a valuable resource for me (having not read a kids’ book since I myself was a kid).

Anyway, I thought as a little tribute I would reprint one of my favorite entries which also happens to be one of the last, it’s about the Arthur books. I myself remember reading only one Arthur book, the one where Arthur has a secret admirer, and his fear of being kissed by her actually leads him to be rather cruel and bail on a date with her in the middle of the movie. This is supposed to be funny, as opposed to cruel. It always struck me that the Arthur books were not possessed with particular empathy for their subjects, indeed, for children’s books, their empathy level was shockingly low.

Anyway, here is E.’s entry on the Arthur phenomenon, which you can read here:

"Tulip read her first Arthur story as part of a treasury of children's literature I got from the library. It was a mixed bag, the treasury. The best of a certain publisher's backlist, plus some filler, it seemed to me. One of the stories was about Arthur's sister D.W. being a picky eater. Finally, she is kind-of tricked into eating spinach and likes it very much. Didactic, boring, simply illustrated, pretty much harmless.

Tulip was wild for it.

Next trip to the library my kid finds another Arthur book and begs for it. She could clearly tell somehow that Arthur was the hero of these books even though D.W. was the star of the first one she read. I don't know how she knew, but she did.
Anyway, we got Arthur's New Puppy, which was confusingly written, involved the threat of sending the new puppy away "to a farm" if Arthur didn't train it properly, involved several euphemisms for pee and poop ("ooh, he just went! I think you need some newspapers") in detailing the puppy's misbehavior, and when Arthur finally trains the dog, no mention of training him to "go" outside -- and had an unfunny plot twist about the dog hiding things it didn't like that was way over Tulip's head but might well delight older children. It featured bland, orange-y pictures of simple domestic scenes; a typical suburban nuclear family, which is all very nice but not how or where we live.

Tulip loved it.

She asked for another Arthur story at the library (she knew there were lots because the covers are featured on the back jacket of Arthur's New Puppy) -- so I figured, let's start with the original: Arthur's Nose. The first one must be the best, right? It will explain the whole appeal.

Arthur's Nose is the story of an aardvark whose unkind friends constantly make fun of his enormous nose. He decides to get a NOSE JOB and goes to the "rhinologist" -- a rhino named Doctor Louise -- who essentially offers to surgically alter his nose to improve his self-image. He is clearly a schoolchild. There is no mention of HOW she will change his nose, but she is a doctor, not a magician.

She gives him cards of all different animal noses to try up against his face to see what he'll look like with, say, an elephant's trunk. There are several amusing pictures of him with different cards, which I'm sure are very appealing and funny to elementary school-aged children.

Cut to: A's friends wondering what he'll look like -- and then he emerges from the office saying he's gonna keep his long nose: "I'm just not me without my nose!" Then the last sentence reads: "There's a lot more to Arthur than his nose." -- although it doesn't say WHAT and suggests that he hasn't learned to love it, but just to live with it and not think about it so much (which is okay, I guess).

Don't children ask HOW the doctor is gonna change the nose? Don't parents have trouble answering this question? Don't all to many children KNOW people who have had their faces surgically altered? Shouldn't we teach them that such surgery DOES NOT change the way you look in the radical ways that Dr. Louise promises, and that it is a painful and expensive path for attempting self-love? Should we have a picture book about this topic at ALL? Shouldn't Arthur tell his friends to STOP TEASING HIM or go find some friends with big noses or tease his friends back, or SOMETHING other than his lame attempt to change? he does nothing but consider surgery to rectify his situation.

And last -- but certainly not least -- the subsequent books HAVE LOPPED OFF HIS NOSE. On the cover of Arthur's Valentine and Arthur's Halloween, he still has a very slightly elongated face; by Arthur Writes a Story (see image below), he is completely castrated/anti-semitically altered/rounded. Effectively negating the entire message of the first book anyway.

I did a web search to see if Brown discusses the change in Arthur in any of his interviews, but haven't yet found anything. I'll keep looking around, though. "

Dead Celebs

I meant to write about socialized medicine today. Or maybe Pinter vs. Ionesco. But those will have to wait...

I just found out that Ray Charles died. Sad. I’m watching it on MSNBC now, and I guess because they already had stock footage available they’re playing Ray Charles appearing at the Republican Convention, so it’s this kind of double-whammy of Charles and Reagan merging in a kind of orgy of nostalgia.

Is it true that Charles went hysterically blind upon watching the drowning of his younger brother in a lake? I heard that in college, but I basically might as well have gone to “Urban Legend University”. I remember when a story went around that Dave Matthews had died. No one seemed particularly upset except for the guy who smoked a lot of pot and lived on the third floor of my building. And then there was the time when we were told that Mayim Bialik (star of TV’s blossom) died of a drug overdose. She didn’t, by the way, she just primarily works in voice over now.

Perhaps it is this constant sense of fake-death that keeps me alienated from real-deaths of celebrities. Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t know them. It didn’t used to be this way. The first one of my heroes whom I remember dying is Jim Henson. My mom told me, and I was playing in my little nook in the family room. I said “oh” and five minutes later I burst into uncontrolled sobbing, unable to stop, really beyond being comforted just thinking about how sad it would be to never see a new entertainment with Kermit the Frog in it.

Then, shortly thereafter, was the tribute to Jim Henson. The whole idea was based on “The Jim Henson Show” a short-lived (but surreally brilliant) TV program hosted by Henson made up of two equal halves. In the first half, Kermit and pals had various misadventures in the backstage of a TV show you never see. In the second half, we were treated to the magnificent John Hurt as “The Storyteller” as he told (and various muppets reenacted) various folk tales. Anyway, the idea was Kermit is on vacation (or something) and they have the job of paying tribute to Jim Henson. They don’t know who Henson is. Then the muppets look down, notice there are people underneath them and collect a bunch of celebrities to pay tribute. It featured, amongst other things, an amazing performance by Ray Charles of “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

And then… Kermit walked in. And it wasn’t Henson but someone else and he said “You did it, guys! You paid tribute to Jim Henson!” and I burst into tears again, for about half an hour, unable (once again) to stop or be comforted. It was like they had murdered Henson on screen.

Of course, I was in grade school then. Now I’m not. What I’m amazed by is that our entertainment/news industries appear to be in the same place I was in fourth grade. They treat each death of a (beloved) celebrity as if we should be rending our clothes and lighting widows on fire. A good example: during the televised service for Reagan in California, the three networks suspended the crawl at the bottom of the screen. That’s right, people, Reagan’s death is pretty much the only thing since 9/11 solemn enough to suspend the crawl. I think it’s about time we collectively get a grip here, people.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Why can't they just cover news?

I just heard Bill Hemmer say the followng thing on CNN when announcing this hour's stories:

"And in the Laci Peterson case, a bomb shell revelation... her father reveals he went fishing on the day of her disappearance"

I don't even know if that needs commmentary...

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

It's All About Me

Sorry about the lite posting days, everybody. It's been a busy around here, as I add in extra shifts at the bookstore and still try to plan my next season of work.

Also, ReaganFest 2004! has really knocked everything else out of the news.

If All Things Reagan is really what your interested in reading, well, you can scroll down for my post on the whole thing, go to Slate's rather exhaustive and entertaining coverage, keep up with atrios as he performs the thankless task of fact-checking the BS said about Reagan over the past (and next) few days. George Hunka reminds us all about how crappy the 80's really were, while Laura Axelrod provides a more personal context for how she feels about Reagan.

I will (not-so) briefly digress thusly:

The problem with the "Me" decade was exactly that, it was all about individual greed. I think it's pretty clear that one of the essential values of conservatism is selfishness. Ayn Rand ("who college freshman think is a philosopher" to quote The Daily Show) was at least open about this-- to truly believe in capitalism unbound is to believe that a society organized around "getting" (selfishness) is better than a society organized around "giving" or, well, just about anythign else. This is how Republicans scare working class people into voting for tax cuts that will destroy them rather than benefitting them. Because such large percentages of people either A) think they are in the wealthiest 1% bracket or B) think they have a real shot at making it into the echelons of the Middle and Upper Classes, Republicans can easily say, "ah yes, but when you get here, you'll want to be as selfish as possible too, and these class warfarin' Dems are gonna come along and EAT YOU ALIVE so that dark people can have Health Care is that what you want?".

The true success of the Reagan years was to put the final nails in the coffin of the New Deal and the Great Society. A mixture between our need to shed blood on foreign lands and our fears (justifiable and non-) about Communism and the ascension of American Empire conspired to destroy most remnants of a giving society. What we have now is a society organized around getting.

A society organized around getting is a society organized to benefit those who already have. Thus the rich become the super rich (the wage gap has increased with such remarkable pace from 1980 to 2000 it'll make your head spin) the powerful the uberpowerful, the privileged the Masters of the Universe and America becomes an Empire more powerful than anything ever seen on this Earth. In order for this to work, the cost (financially and otherwise) of not being part of the Uber Group increases and increases and increases while the number of people who benefit from it will shrink and shrink and shrink until it excludes just about everyone.

This is why I think new conservatism is so dangerous. I have a certain grudging respect for old-school small government conservatism, but this isn't what we're talking about anymore. These days, conservatism isn't about making the government smaller, it's about restructuring the entire society to make sure that it all benefits those already on top. Reagan was the prophet of this movement. He didn't shrink government. In fact, he made it much much larger, but did it in a way that hurt programs that helped people in need and enriched defense contractors. This is why, in my book, he was a terrible President, plain and simple.

But moving beyond Reagan, the question for all of us as the getting paradigm breaks apart (just wait, for example, until there's no more oil to get) is what can we do? How can we organize our society around a common good, a lifting up, a "giving"?

Monday, June 07, 2004

Quote of the Week!

This weeks quote comes from Frank Hauser and Russell Reich's "Notes on Directing" a very funny and very wise short guide to the art and craft that I am trying to make a life out of:

RULE # 23: Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror.
This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect from you.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Ding Dong

I remember when Nixon died. My girlfriend at the time’s mother danced around her house singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. I don’t remember the day, or where I was when I found out about either the dancing/singing or Nixon’s death. But I do remember that happening.

Last night on CNN, Aaron Brown was taking his usual role of trying to historicize things as soon as they happen. He told us that we will all remember this day and where we were and just like- well not quite just like, but you know what I mean- pretty much just like the Kennedy assassination. It’s that big.

I could write a lot about what I think about Reagan (no big fan, me, because I like it when people don’t have AIDS, when our arms race isn’t out of control, when our parties stand by their principles, when we don’t prop up and support dictators when they repress their people or gas the Kurds etc. and Reagan was apparently against all of these things) but I wanted to write instead about historicization and our immediate quest for meaning.

We like to behave as if meaning is an inherent property of events, people, places, objects, actions etc. We do this collectively to things in both a quantity (how much meaning X has) and quality (what it actually means) sense all the time. Aaron Brown last night was instructing us that the well-expected and oft-fortold death of a man who had been slowly dying for over a decade in his home well beyond the point where he could say or do anything of any import has a similar quantity of meaning to a beloved (if not particularly good) President being shot and killed on television in the midst of a parade.

Of course, Brown has to do this. It’s his job, after all, to continue to get ratings for his network. The more meaning you believe Reagan’s death has the more you’ll want to watch CNN’s constant coverage of all things Reagan over the next few days.

I’m not arguing that the story isn’t newsworthy. It is clearly newsworthy- a President has died. It is newsworthy in a way many other mega-stories aren’t—Laci Peterson, for example, or Gary Condit, or our numerous “trials of the century”. But there is a real difference between reporting the news and instructing your audience exactly how and in what ways they are to react. The latter is vaguely totalitarian, and definitely pernicious.

The truth is, I don’t know what Reagan’s death means. In terms of world events, it is prima facie totally meaningless, because he had no control or impact on world events any more. The only thing left for him to do was die, and via death become a world event. In terms of Reagan’s family it is almost certainly intensely meaningful (and painful) and I don’t wish that kind of experience on anyone. In terms of the Republican Party and the Conservative agenda its meaningful because nostalgia is the ultimate conservative mindset (a love of the past will certainly keep you trying to recreate it) and with their beloved leader gone they can call forth all the nostalgia there is to muster.

This is unfortunate in terms of public discourse. When a public figure dies, it should be a time to reckon honestly with what they did in their life and public actions. It shouldn’t be a time to piss on their grave, but nor should it be a time for deification. By constantly telling us how much everyone loved Reagan, and by constantly instructing us to find meaning in his death, our news organizations are ensuring that that complex conversation about Reagan, his legacy, and the social forces swirling around his life in politics can almost certainly never happen. We will be divided into ding-dongers and deifiers, and I don’t know if we can really learn anything about the modern Presidency or American politics from doing that.