Friday, November 14, 2014

Head, Heart, and ...

It appears that a lot of my thinking these days tends to circle life advice / big knowledge kinda stuff.  (Big life changes thrust upon you can spur that. On top of divorce, moving to a tiny apartment with two kids, they reorged my division at work and when the music stopped, there was no chair for me.  Starting my new job in December.  Plus, my car is dying, so I'm car-shopping, too.)

Oddly, some of this stuff I've happened upon by sheer accident, so maybe the universe (or a more divine source, as I'm a believer*) is trying to send me messages in a bottle, as it were. 
*TLD: Some would argue this is not a statement of belief, but I smile every time I hear it in the song ("Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" by the band Primitive Radio Gods):
We sit outside and argue all night long
About a God we've never seen
But never fails to side with me
One of my favorite discoveries is Brain Pickings, which is unique (as far as I know) in that it not only reviews books, but gives you a taste of a central idea to whet your whistle, or to wave you off if it does not intrigue.  Warning: Hours may be lost upon the first couple visits. 

The first article I happened upon was "5½ Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Success".

Which drove me to kind of gorge on Commencement Speeches.  My favorite were the collected Kurt Vonnegut speeches: If This Isn't Nice, What Is?

I have excerpts of my favorite theme from those in a bit, but first, other ones that stuck out were:

This great snippet from one by Jim Carrey (yes, that actor guy).

My perennial favorite, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" by Mary Schmich (aka "Wear Sunscreen".)

Some would like Anna Quindlen's book "A Short Guide to a Happy Life" which exists in print form primarily because "conservatives" protested her giving the commencement address (we'll talk more about assholes later in this post). I found it OK, and it has the distinction of bringing to a wider audience the phrase: "No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office." You can find the entirety of it here online.

I lerved "George Saunder's Advice to Graduates".  It is very Vonnegut-esque. Especially the conclusion.

Which brings me to the common theme of Vonnegut's Commencement addresses. I present all three versions of it, all from If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, because I liked the comparison and contrast, and how he constantly circled this idea, trying to say it just right.

Here's one:
Now those of you who get married or are married, when you fight with your spouse, what each of you will be saying to the other one actually is, "You're not enough people. You're only one person. I should have hundreds of people around."
Yes, and let's find a way to get ourselves and others extended families again. A husband and a wife and some kids aren't a family, any more than a diet Pepsi and three Oreos is a breakfast. Twenty, thirty, forty people - that's a family. Marriages are all busting up. Why? Mates are saying to each other, because they're human, "You're not enough people for me."
And another:
Only two major subjects remain to be covered: Loneliness and boredom. No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.

We are so lonely because we don't have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.

Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.
This is part of an idea that Vonnegut pondered much, a lot of which ended up in his invented religion Bokonism.  Having a failed marriage, I can personally vouch for the above probably being true.  My (then) wife and I did tend toward the insular.  If you are married, I'd suggest expanding your family; Vonnegut felt was important enough to mention several times. (He also said a lot about semicolons, too, but I still waffle on that.)

Finally, on the advice side, Barking Up the Wrong Tree is a compendium of life advice compiled from everywhere.  Again, you may lose a few hours the first time you visit.

Conversely, there is another side of things to consider.  Yes, advice and strategies on how to do things right can go very far, but, to quote Steven Soderberg:  "It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing."

Here's the quote in context, and the rest of the interview after is very much worth the read:
The analogy that I use is you throw a party with 40 people you've selected. Handpicked. It's gonna be a great party. It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing. That's it. One. The problem with the world is one asshole comes up with a really bad idea and now we're all taking our shoes off at the airport. One asshole in a cave and look [points out to New York City]. That's what makes this so hard. It just takes on[e] [sic] asshole.
I have seen this truth up close and personal.  We had a major asshole at the job I'll be leaving this week.  His behavior was so toxic it corrupted our environment for years, and in some ways, it will never recover. 

The damage that assholes do has actually been studied and quantified.  Two great books on it are:
- The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton (here's a wiki article on it, and Sutton's wonderful blog)
- Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

The short version is assholes are simply dangerous and need to be contained, mitigated or eliminated from your life.

I'll close with a couple examples of assholes we're facing on a societal level these days:

"Moaning Moguls" by James Surowiecki
Whiny, misguided and misinformed uber-wealthy folks need some damned reality patrol.

"Men, Get On Board With Misandry" by Jess Zimmerman
The scourge of Identity Politics has finally started to truly spread beyond college campuses. In some of my favorite liberal web rags, I've seen the words "patriarchy" and (Dear Lord) "cis" used un-ironically and with a straight face.  You'd think colleges closing down their Identity Politics stained and besieged Literature departments would've been enough to make these haters rethink what the fuck they are doing, but no, it's leaking into our popular culture.  Thus far it appears that most of the body is rejecting it like a food poisoned taco, but it is infesting some poor innocent souls who don't know what they've stepped into. Stanley Crouch said it best way back on "Politically Incorrect": "Alienation has become a commodity that you sell on an academic market."

Upon thinking about it, perhaps you should read these two things first, and then go back up to the shiny, happy, positive stuff at the top to get the taste out of your mouth.


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Frederick in Winter

Frederick by Leo Lionni was (and still is) one of my favorite books as a child. The story is about a mouse who the rest of the mouse family thinks is lazy because as they're gathering food for the winter, Frederick seemingly sits there doing nothing.  When they get all German on his ass and inquire exactly what in the hell he's up to (paraphrasing here), he says he's gathering words and things for the cold winter days.
TLD: While fishing for the Frederick link, the (creepy) Amazon history/suggestion machine pulled this from a very old search of mine: Fly away home.   It's a wonderful little book that I got from a bargain bin in a grocery store for about $3 because it was just so damn pretty. It also rivals Goodnight Moon in casting the perfect spell for a little one to drift off for the night. It became my oldest's favorite bedtime story, but it has a fragile binding, so I looked back in the day for a replacement copy in case, thus its popping up in my (creepy) Amazon history/suggestion machine.  Had I known good copies are selling for $50 - $100 today, I'd have popped for the other 5 copies. Damnit.

Here are the words of I've been gathering for that rainy day when my own are slow in coming.  They have no cohesion unto each other, but each has something that struck a chord in me.  I hope you enjoy them.

Let's start with Tina Fey's prayer for her daughter, from Bossypants.

The Mother's  Prayer
for Its Daughter

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol
for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo
stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it's the
Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not
the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered,
May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half
And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her
When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming
in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near
pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th
Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms,
getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads
while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in
parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log
flumes, or anything called "Hell Drop," "Tower of
Torture," or "The Death Spiral Rock 'N Zero G Roll
featuring Aerosmith," and standing on any kind of
balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to
Something where she can make her own hours but still
feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes
And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery?
Golf course design? I'm asking You, because if I knew,
I'd be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her
Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own
Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen.
Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for
much too long.
For Childhood is short -- a Tiger Flower blooming
Magenta for one day --
And Adulthood is long and Dry-humping in Cars
will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever,
That she may be spared the misspelled invective of
her peers
And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel
V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one clay turns on me and calls me a
Bitch in front of Hollister,
Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a
cab front of her friends,
For l will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my
eyes, Lord,
That I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at
4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love
with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its
"My mother did this for me once," she will realize as
she cleans feces off her baby's neck. "My mother did
this for me." And the delayed gratitude will wash over
her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental
Note to call me. And she will forget.
But I'll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.


Absolutely lovely.

Here are some snippets from Everyone Loves You When You're Dead: Journeys into Fame andMadness by Neil Strauss:

My favorite is the invention of Rock and Roll by Chuck Berry, which is put in a footnote!

[STRAUSS:] So maybe your audience invented rock and roll and you were the first one to listen to them and understand what they wanted and give it to them.*

BERRY: That's very good. I don't know if I know it, but I would try and get it to them. You're right there. Hm-mmm.

* In many of the theaters Berry played, be later explained, the whites were on one side and the blacks on the other. And the whites responded well to black music (the blues) while the blacks responded well to white music (country). So, in part by trying to please both audiences simultaneously, rock and roll came to be.
Beck misreads an audience.

Lounging in his tour bus, Beck tells the story of a concert he performed. It was the last show on what had been a disappointing tour, and he and his band were determined to get their final audience on its feet and dancing. Yet no matter how hard they tried, the people in the front rows remained seated. Before the encore, Beck and his band met backstage and said they weren't going home until the entire audience was dancing. They came back out and tried everything, even attempting to pull people in the front row out of their seats. When that failed, Beck did something very uncharacteristic: He yelled "fuck you" into the mic, spit at the audience, and stormed offstage.

It wasn't until after the show that Beck discovered the concert had been a benefit for the disabled, who were given free front row seats.

I love this little essay about the meaning, purpose, and the engine of fiction in the forward to Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King: 
The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places. When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can't quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It's a form of deflection, and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It's none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.

I have little patience with writers who don't take the job seriously, and none at all with chose who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It's not worn out, and it's not a literary game. It's one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It's the way we answer the question, How can such things be? Stories suggest that sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- there's a reason.

From the start -- even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing The Long Walk in his college dormitory room -- I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I'm much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief). I can remember reading George Orwell's 1984 at the age of thirteen or so with growing dismay, anger, and outrage, charging through the pages and gobbling up the story as fast as l could, and what's wrong with that? Especially since I continue to think about it to this day when some politician (I'm thinking of Sarah Palin and her scurrilous "death-panel" remarks) has some success in convincing the public that white is really black, or vice-versa.

I have soap-boxed this exact sentiment for years, especially the final sentence, because I've met so many people and have read so many music critics that ascribe to the punk ethos that Grohl dismantles here.  From

Ironically, the inspiration behind There Is Nothing Left to Lose came not from the punk rock which had informed Nirvana's game-changing rage, but largely from the AM radio hits Grohl, Mendel and Hawkins first heard blasting from their parents' car stereos in the 1970s - the music of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Wings and Peter Frampton, ironically the very music against which the original punks were so keen to rebel. This was a punk rock gesture in itself, and Grohl was wholly unrepentant.

'Having grown up in that punk rock scene, I've been so inspired by so many people, so many different bands and so many different experiences,' he told me in 2009, 'but one of the things I refuse to subscribe to, or buy into, is the guilt that most people are tortured by in that scene, the musical guilt.

'I think about it sometimes. I think about the reasons I fell in love with punk rock when I was 12 or 13: it was because of the music - the sound of what these people were doing was so fucking powerful that it moved me and totally changed my life. I didn't even need to know their intentions, I just loved the feeling that I got when I listened to the Bad Brains or when I listened to AC/DC, it was the same energy. But, along with that punk rock background or foundation comes this obligatory guilt. I guess when you state your intentions so clearly early on it becomes hard to negate that if you move in another direction.

'Personally, I don't feel like I've ever moved in another direction. I joined Freak Baby because I wanted to fucking jam, and we turned into Mission Impossible because if I played the drums it would sound better than Freak Baby. I joined Dain Bramage because I wanted to play more. I joined Scream because they were fucking amazing. I joined Nirvana because of Bleach and because there was no more Scream. But the guilt that a lot of those people from that scene still carry with them -- musical guilt, does that make any sense? Puck no! I should be able to do what the fuck I want to do! 

'And so the only thing from that whole experience that breaks my heart is that that musical guilt kept people from doing some of the things they could have done. I understand, like, the political boundaries that the punk rock scene had, but for me that was never the idea; maybe it was being from Virginia, and not being from Washington DC, but my motivation was much more musical than anything. And I feel like our band has always remained true to that ideal, just to do whatever satisfies us musically. If it feels right and instinctive at the time, then we should do that and not have anything keep us from it. Because that guilt, that fucking guilt, is what killed Kurt.'

All of Mary Roach's books are gloriously humorous romps through a particular topic like sex, death, living in outer space, or in this case, our digestive tract. From Gulp by Mary Roach:

A great sentence (about being swallowed by a whale):
While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale's stomach would seem to present a new set of problems.*

* I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.
I put in a call to [Keith] Grime [detergent industry consultant - and his real name]. The answer is yes. Higher-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats but body oils like sebum). Laundry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box. Ditto dishwashing detergent: protease and lipase eat the food your dinner guests didn't.

Grime told me about an enzyme found on the forest floor that breaks down the cellulose in dead, fallen trees. When he worked at Procter & Gamble, he tried it out as a fabric softener. (That's how softeners work. They ever so mildly digest the fibers.)

Finally, via, we have Time Out's best 100 best animated films.  As a life-long animation fan, of course I have to comment. 

Most of the list is cool, and it's cool to see no snobbery toward Anime.  Largely the list a great service to those who love animation, or cartoons, a term I still think is just fine.  A nice touch is the many categorizations offered via handy icons where you can hop to a list of movies that fit the category. 

My few quibbles are these:

Rango?  Really? Did they see this movie? I think adult critics liked it, but it's not a hit among kids.  At all.  It's always on the shelf on the library, and I bet the Netflix stats would show it's typically watched once, if at all.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox? I realize I just don't get the Wes Anderson aesthetic, which is "twee" incarnate, but this movie doesn't pass the basic test of a cartoon - that is, a movie directed primarily at kids, which some animations aren't, though this one seems to be - in that I've never met a kid who liked it. It doesn't really have much in it for adults, either.  And, it's just not that good.   

ParaNorman. I'm OK this is on the list; it's a good film. However, the climax of the film is over-the-top scary for a children's film. The list categorizes it as scary, but it should also be on the traumatic list as well, maybe even the grown-up list. Here's why, but it's a spoiler, so skip past "End Spoiler".  To read it easier, select the text.
Start Spoiler
When Norman finally finds the witch that was murdered, her spirit is so angry that it keeps splitting into many different aspects of the person, all of which are grimacing or screaming at some point.  It's scary as hell, and is reminiscent of some of the most frightening scenes from The Exorcist.  It gave me goosebumps and my little one nightmares for a while.
End Spoiler

No Wizards? This is arguably Ralph Bakshi's best.  Everyone I know who's a movie buff has seen it more than once.  It's not aged as well as I thought it would, but it's still a decent, affecting movie. This movie purposely nudges Lord of the Rings fans in the ribs throughout, and Bakshi even tried to tackle LOTR later. Other Bakshi movies are on the list, so they know of him.  This one is perhaps the most puzzling omission.
No Heavy Metal? It wasn't GREAT, but it's ground-breaking and still very entertaining. Yeah, some of Bakshi's movies had cartoon breasts in them, but this movie set the bar.  Everyone from a certain generation saw this.  It also has one of the top soundtracks ever. 

No The Emperor's New Groove?  It's one of the funniest movies ever made, and probably the funniest cartoon ever. My family and I laugh at this every time.  The jokes never get old. The ratings in IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, and Amazon are all very high. There's no reasonable explanation for Rango being on the list and not this one.

No The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh? Who do you know who can't quote entire scenes from this movie verbatim?  This figured as much into my generation's humor references as did Monty Python, Star Trek, and The Wizard of Oz (the movie). This is also the first time I believe the trope of using the printed words of the book as part of the action, so there's the innovation angle.

If you've not seen one or more of these last four, you have some great movies in your future.