Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Special: Spreading the Bat Love

In Outraged Opposition to Business or Leisure?

(Names have been changed to those of people I went to high school with. Not sure why.)

me: Liz, how do you feel about bats?
Liz: baseball bats, or flittery bats that sleep upside down and use sonar?
me: The flittery ones.
Liz: It is my opinion that they are neat.
me: They're awesome, am I right?
Liz: Yes, I would even go so far as to say they are awesome, considering their swoopyness and mosquito-eating.
me: I'm glad we are of one mind on this.
Liz: Me too

me: Cindy, how do you feel about bats?
You can think about it and get back to me if you like.
Cindy: sorry, too absorbed in social opportunity crafting
me: I understand.
Cindy: i.e., glued to gmail trying to calibrate four persons' schedule so we can drink cocktails dammit
but how about you?! :)
me: Me?
I'm pro-bat.
Cindy: Bats are OK but only if far away.
me: Bats are awesome.
They control the insect population and what-not.
Plus, they flit about!
Cindy: We couldn't sleep one night in El Salvador 'cause the bats were throwing themselves up to our interior eaves about every .5 minute.
me: Well, back to work for me.
Bat love, baby.
Cindy: Fly on, Michael!

me: Steve, how do you feel about bats?
Steve: hmm. i think bats are pretty cool. they're kind of ugly, but that's not really their fault, right? why?
me: Right. It ISN'T their fault.
Steve: they provide a pretty cool ecological service and, let's face it, sonar is pretty badass.
me: Totally badass.
I'm spreading the pre-Halloween bat love.
Steve: ah. good. do it.
me: Bats are the shit.
Steve: they deserve way more love than they get too.
me: I'm glad we see eye to eye on this one.

me: So Tina, how do you feel about bats?
Tina: baseball bats?
me: No no
BATS bats.
Hanging upside down...
Tina: gross.
me: Oh come on!
Bats are awesome!
Tina: Not going to help you get rid of a bat in your attic.
me: You have to admit they're very ecofriendly.
Being part of the ecosystem and all.
Tina: Yes, they are, and I appreciate all that they do.
But I still don't like them.
me: I'm just trying to spread some pre-Halloween bat love.
Tina: oh okay.

me: Sherri, how do you feel about bats?
If you're too busy, I'll just put you down for "Bats are awesome."
Sherri: bats, eh?
i have no problem with them, but that's because i have very little interaction with them
me: They're cute in a battish sort of way.
Sherri: i think only the good looking, caught on a nature special ones are.
run of the mill bats are just that
me: Every bat is beautiful in its own way, Sherri.
Plus, they control the insect population and what not.
Sherri: one of those things is true
me: You just want the benefits of bats without giving anything in return.
Bat user.
Sherri: precisely
if nothing else, i am a bat user

me: Hi, Stephanie.
Taking a poll: are you pro-bat or anti-bat?
Stephanie: Hey Michael. I'm not sure.
me: Well, they're good about keeping down the insect population....
Plus, the whole sonar thing is AWFULLY cool...
Stephanie: i guess i'm actualy pro-bat
(I guess I'm a little biased about this poll)
Stephanie: haha. cool.

me: John, how do you feel about bats?
John: baseball or vampire?
me: Well, vampire.
And their kin.
John: they are pretty cool...I like how they fly right toward you and barely miss all because they heard you were there
me: Good answer.
Bats are awesome.

me: How do you feel about bats, Maureen?
Maureen: I like bats!
Bats are cute, and they eat insects, and I'm sad that they're being wiped out by the fungus.
me: Good answer.
Bats are great!
Maureen: Whence comes this line of conversation?
me: I urge you to spread the bat love this Halloween season.
Maureen: Okay.
We sometimes put a mechanical bat up that drops down and squeaks and frightens people.
The Halloween decorations are my husband's deal, though, not mine.
He got rid of the too-lifelike rats after last year.
me: If it spreads the love, that's OK in my book.
Maureen: Dunno about it spreading the love.

me: So Linda, what are your thoughts on bats?
Linda: as in the animal?
me: Yes.
Linda: I am pretty neutral...I mean they exist, they don't hurt anyone, they eat the mosquitos
me: Yes!
Linda: I don't want them in my hair, but otherwise I'm cool with them
me: I'm trying to spread the bat love this Halloween season.
Linda: excellent
me: Did you know that without bats, civilization as we know it would not even be possible?
Linda: please tell me why that is?
me: Well, actually I kind of made that up.
But, I bet you could make a case.
Linda: I'm sure you could

me: I'm taking a poll, Sara.
Are you pro-bat or anti-bat?
Sara: What?
me: You know, bats!
Hang upside down, leathery wings, sonar!
For them, or against them?
Sara: Against
Creep me out
me: NO WAY!
I was hoping for something more like "bats are awesome."
Sara: haha
i gotta go.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dork Map Friday

OK, this has nothing to do with DorkFest. Nothing at all. But, I finally colored in my county map after last month's road trip and, per tradition, am showing it here.
The whole pencil-and-paper thing is getting pretty old-school at this point, so I found a good base map and have started the process of coloring it in. So far, though, I've only got as far as 1991.

Yeah, so that (plus a few Alaska boroughs) was the extent of my travels after four years of college and a couple of what felt like "big road trips" during my first year out. I'm a -- what's the word? Oh, "hick."

I found this map while I was leafing through the county notebook. It's from only about five or six years later, 1997ish. It shows the percentage of counties I'd tallied for each state.

So black is 100%, brown 72%, purple 41 - 52%, blue 30-34%, green 15-22%, and yellow 2-7%.

It was satisfying to apply the same scale to my current "collection." The percentages aren't clustered the same way anymore, so on this one, black is still 100%, brown 72-99%, purple 41-71%, blue 30-40%, green 15-29%, and yellow 2-14%.

Cartophiliac has his county map online. Where's yours?
Anyone doing DorkFest: be advised that I am going to be offline all day Saturday. So, we'll take a look at the ol' entries when I get home on Sunday.

The Library Sale CD Trove II

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

Béla Bartók
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Gwynne Howell, Sally Burgess, soloists
Sung in English (translated from the Hungarian)

When you hear that Béla Bartók based his compositions on the folk music of his native Hungary, you start off by imagining the jolly music of the simple village folk. But then, you discover that the village folk of Hungary have some rather different ideas about harmony than you do. And then you come to realize that Bartók wasn't so much arranging perky folk melodies for orchestra as stripping them down to their music-theoretical genome and then building his own pieces up from the resultant musical fragments.

Bartók is therefore not an approachable, easy-to-love folksong-influenced composer like, say, the "Bohemian" Dvorak or Britain's Vaughn Williams. His music ranges from the mildly challenging (Concerto for Orchestra) to Oh-My-God dense and angular (The String Quartets), and when push "play" on a new piece, you never quite know which Bartók you'll be working with.

It turns out, though, that Duke Bluebeard's Castle is fairly accessible both as Bartók and as opera. It is a modernist piece in one act, scored for only two voices and intended to be staged with very simple, spartan sets and lighting effects. The plot goes like this: Duke Bluebeard (no, he’s not a pirate) brings his new wife home to his castle, and she immediately wants to open up the seven doors around the main room and let some light and air into the place. Bluebeard suggests that this might not be a great idea, but Mrs. Bluebeard persists and persists, opening one door after another, until eventually she opens the seventh door and then kind of wishes she hadn't.

One of the reasons that Bluebeard works for the casual modern listener is that it is a horror opera. Many people have trouble with dissonant orchestral music in general, but we are completely accustomed to it in soundtracks to horror or suspense movies. Because of this, it feels appropriate for an opera which consists of a rising arc of seven suspenseful scenes -- as Mrs. Bluebeard talks her way into opening each of the doors, all leading to what we're pretty sure must be bad news behind door number seven. Grisly details along the way -- a torture chamber, a garden watered in blood -- complete the grim mood, and seem well-matched with the orchestra’s dense, gnashing chords.

I've heard a few Mozart operas sung in English, and the effect has always been pretty nasty on my ear. Bluebeard sounds just fine in English, though, maybe because of its modernism, or because of its obscurity, or whatever. I'm not sure. This 1993 recording, one of the CDs that is (was?) sent out with every edition of BBC Music magazine, is clear as a bell, so much so it's startling at the end when the audience starts applauding -- where did they come from?

Prognosis: Will keep CD. It's never going to be in heavy rotation, but it will be a good go-to disc whenever that ol' lesser-known modernist opera bug comes biting.

What? The lesser-known modernist opera bug never bites you? Weird.

Available butt-cheap on Amazon if you’re into this kind of thing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

DorkFest '09 Mid-Week Report

Well, it's been a quiet DorkFest thus far. Where in years past, contestants were savagely throwing elbows in a frantic attempt to clarify that they, THEY, were the dorkiest of them all, so far we have only seen a few modestly asserted claims to dorkitude.

I did, I must say, receive one Email message professing a truly awe-inspiring level of dork, but the writer emphasized that he or she was not participating in DorkFest, that if elected Dork he or she would not serve, and also kind of implied that if I confided to you the readers who he or she was and the nature of his or her dorky achievements, that he or she would track me down and break my kneecaps.

So, the field remains wide open.

Naturally, there have been numerous theories circulating as to why the 'Fest has been so quiet thus far.
  1. Strategically-minded Dorks are planning to submit their material at the last minute, so it can't be picked over and undercut by the competition.
  2. Everyone is spending every waking hour polishing their Dork resume.
  3. Even the simplest video documentaries detailing one's dorkiness takes a few days to put together.
  4. After seeing the hell that Rex Parker and g went through, who would want to be Blog Dork?
  5. No one is feeling dorky in these troubled economic times.
  6. Dorkiness? That's so 2008.
  7. The gag is getting old.

Whatever! You have until Friday to state your Dork credentials, here in the comments, via email to m5kdecathlon at gmail, or on your own blog or website (just make sure to leave a trail of crumbs). And if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, it's all explained right.... here.

The Great Movies: "Do the Right Thing"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee, 1989

Previous Contact: I watched Do the Right Thing on the big screen at its original release. At the time I thought it was OK but felt a little sheepish about not liking it better, since there seemed to be pretty much universal critical enthusiasm. On this watching, I expected to "get it" and love it.

- - - -

Do the Right Thing is intended as a parable about racial tension. It is played out on a block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City which is also carefully crafted to stand in as an Anytown, U.S.A., as wholesome on the surface and as gently seedy underneath as any Mayberry. Everyone knows everyone else in this village, and the cast is as large and as packed with colorful personalities as a Dickens novel. The movie progresses as a long series of stylized vignettes where small groups of characters have conversations in colorful settings which, even when they are outdoors, are still contrived to seem enclosed and intimate.

The most singular feature of the movie is the steadfast moral ambiguity of its characters. Even though the action takes place over only a dozen hours or so, every character is given a chance to show his or her dark side. We are asked, ultimately, to be shocked at the possibly racially-related death of one of the characters -- but we have seen him, earlier in the film, spew out his own hateful stream of racism as well. We are asked, perhaps, to feel for a man who loses his livelihood and what remains of his innocence in a small race riot -- but we've also seen his own inflexibility around racial issues. We see washed-up neighborhood bums who rise to opportunities to do good, and articulate, energetic young people who think that it's fun to wander around stirring up trouble and negativity. By the end of the movie, they've stirred up quite a bit of both.

Then there's Mooky, more or less the protagonist, who we meet at the beginning of the movie as a mellow, soft-spoken, intelligent, working man out for a honest day's work. As events progress, we gradually realize that he's a deadbeat dad and chronic screw-up who isn't so much working as allowing an employer to pay him for making his daily social rounds. Late in the film, he's shown looking tired and disgusted with all of the building tension and violence. He sighs thoughtfully and then, with an air of resignation, knowingly performs an act that transforms tension into riot. It's a weird moment.

"Do the Right Thing" is an interesting title for a movie in which events deteriorate as the cumulative effect of numerous people failing to cut their neighbors a break. At a dozen or so points in the plot, characters have an easy opportunity to back down, to let it slide, to chill out; instead, they choose to grease the slide toward the final spasm of violence. Everyone is a little too sure of themselves; no one does the right thing.

The movie famously ends with a pair of quotations, one by Dr. King decrying violence as a means of combating racism and one by Malcolm X defending it. The King quote is especially apt to the film, but the Malcolm X quote is a non sequitur. Although racism saturates the story and world of Do the Right Thing, none of the violence that eventually erupts is a means of combating racism, or self-defense against racism, or even a taking of revenge for racism. It's a sheer spasm of human destructiveness, pure and simple.

Plot: It's a hot day in Brooklyn, and everybody's out on the street. Down at Sal's Pizzeria, there are overlapping, escalating arguments among the basically decent small businessman Sal, his wimpy younger son, his hateful older son (a character who Lee seems to have forgotten to give any redeeming features, which screws up the otherwise pristine ambiguity), his employee Mooky, and two neighborhood kids, the enormous, taciturn Radio Raheem and the diminutive, garrulous Buggin'Out. Nobody pays attention to anyone else's priorities. Trouble ensues.

Visuals: The brightly colored, brightly lit sets render Bed-Stuy as something like the Fisher-Price village, a sweet, wholesome community almost surprised on this summer day to find trouble in its midst.

This is, it must be said, a movie that is starting to show its age. The characters of the film sport the height of fashion for 1989, which of course looks ridiculous to us from our current spot on the cultural long wave. To my surprise, the title music (by Public Enemy) doesn't sound anywhere near as urgent or powerful as I remember it doing at the time. Interestingly, for a film about racial tension in Brooklyn in the 1980s, there is no evidence that illegal drugs are a problem in peoples’ lives, or for that matter that they even exist.

Dialog: This is a dialog-based film with a solid script. It each of its many vignettes, characters articulate or embody ideas about race and racism; this gives the movie a slightly staged, even didactic feel, yet the characters are complex enough, and the acting solid enough, to handle the political content without cracking.

Prognosis: The very quality that makes Do the Right Thing intellectually interesting – the ambiguity of its characters – also make it frustrating to sit through. It’s hard to watch a group of more or less likeable people make bad decision after bad decision when better decisions are available and would cost them little – you want to reach into the film and knock heads together. It's also frustrating to have Lee imply, through those quotes at the end, that he's shown you something profound about how racism works at the street level: people just get more and more frustrated until, pow! things get violent. Without those quotes, the movie becomes a much more tenable case study in how things, in any given context, simply go better for everybody when people listen to each others' concerns and maybe even back down once in a while. And that’s the truth, Ruth.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

DorkFest '09!

Gentle Readers, here we are once again in October. It's a magical time, this mid-season of college football, a time for rediscovering the joys of raking, for a better-than-usual spot market for pumpkins, for depressive meditations on the deteriorating weather, and for teaching our children how to beg aggressively in costume! But best of all, it's time for DorkFest!!!

DorkFest '09!

DorkFest is many things to many people. Really, it is; I realized this when I Googled it a few minutes ago. It's a failed gaming blog! It's a San Fransisco Indie Music Festival! And another one in North Carolina! Plus the Urban Dictionary has some typically lame definitions. But what we are talking about when we say "DorkFest" here, of course, is the sacred annual celebration of personal dorkitude and the mechanism by which this Blog selects its high officers:
The L&TM5K Dork provides a range of ceremonial functions within the L&TM5K community, most of which are fulfilled merely by existing as the Blog Dork. The Dork must also be prepared to take on occasional practical tasks, such as picking a random number to determine the next book on the Reading List and so on. During one's tenure as Dork, one is expected always to act in a dorky manner befitting the high intellectual and moral standards of the L&TM5K readership and the larger dork population.

The L&TM5K Vice-Dork must stand ready to assume all the responsibilities of the L&TM5K Dork in the event of the Dork's incapacitation, decapitation, or defenestration. The Vice-Dork may also be asked to pitch in with the practical tasks as well. During one's tenure as Vice-Dork, one is expected always to seethe in resentment of the Dork, who is clearly not nearly as qualified for the position and is not doing nearly as good a job as one would have done oneself.
But let us first pause to salute the 2008-09 officers, who have served bravely and well. I speak of Lame Duck Dork Rex Parker, and Lame Duck Vice-Dork Rebel. They have trod with distinction in the footsteps of '07-'08 Honorable Dork Emeritus g and '07-'08 Honorable Vice-Dork Emeritus Fingerstothebone.

By the bylaws of the blog, the sitting Dork is not eligible to run again for the year immediately after his tenure, but will instead assist me -- michael5000 -- in the selection of his successor. The Vice-Dork, however, is free to return to the fray, seething with resentment that she does not automatically ascend to Dork. Past Dorks and Vice-Dorks are also eligible.

Are You Dork Enough?

For the remainder of the week -- through Friday the 30th -- we will be accepting submissions of evidence. These may be in any of the following formats:

  • DorkFest Classic: Back in the days of the very first DorkFest, most contestants made a few dorky assertions about themselves in the comments, then compulsively returned later to disparage other peoples' entries and puff up their own dork credentials. This traditional form of entry still retains its charms.
  • The Dork Resume: A resume laying out your training, experience, and special skills in the field of dorkiness may be sent in .doc or .pdf format to M5KDecathlon {at}
  • The Dorky Post: You may make a case for your own dorky qualifications on your own blog, or any other publically available website. Just don't forget to post a link in the comments, to make sure it gets seen by the committee.
  • The Multimedia Dork: Songs, videos, photoessays... Post a link, or send 'em to M5KDecathlon {at}

  • Combinaciones: Combinations of any of the above are perfectly acceptable.

What is Dork?

During past fests, complaints over the uncertain definition of "dorky" has been an entertaining sideshow. But this year, for no particular reason, I provide the following definition: The essence of dork is an esoteric enthusiasm. A dork partakes of a passion for and/or special abilities in one or more fields of endeavor which the majority of their peers would reject as obscure, marginal, or potentially embarassing. Classically, although not necessarily, a dork is also characterized by a certain degree of social awkwardness.

Fair Notices

Anything you submit to the M5KDecathlon address might get posted.

The L&TM5K is not responsible to any damage to reputation, self-esteem, or social "pull" you may incur due to participation in DorkFest '09.

If you decline to participate because you are afraid you might lose and be very sad about losing, you probably deserve to win. But you can't, because you declined to participate. This is what is termed a "Catch-22."

The decisions of the Dork selection committee are final. Dorky as it might be to have a long, running battle about who is really dorkiest, it would distract from other, more important issues that we will need to address, such as my opinion of obscure old movies that nobody cares about.

Material Reward!

Per tradition, the winner of DorkFest will be awarded the Third Annual Mr. Shain Memorial $16.40 Starbucks Gift Card!!!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Reading List: The Scarlet Letter

It must have been a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature.
-- p. 142

The Scarlet Letter is an gloomy, slow-moving, and arguably overwritten tale about sin, stigma, remorse, and social judgement. Like a classic opera, it revolves around five central characters:

Hester: Her husband hasn't been seen in years, and yet she's just had a baby. That adds up to bad news in Puritan Boston, so she's condemned to wear a Scarlet "A" on her chest so that the good Christians of the town will remember to scorn and mock her. She turns into a defiant loner. We are told that she is generous and kind to the unfortunate, but never actually see her in the act.

Pearl: Hester's daughter. Hawthorne is continually in raptures about wonderful elven Pearl, wild, free, sharp, and spirited. This is in contrast to her actions, however, which reveal her as kind of a pain in the butt.

[Spoilers follow for the next few paragraphs, kind of.]

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale: At first, it seems like the book has an incredibly poorly kept surprise in store: that the Reverend had something to do with Pearl's mysterious conception! But at some point, Hawthorne just begins writing as though we've known it all along. We have, of course, but I do not recall ever actually being told. Maybe I missed a page or something. The Reverend is of course wracked with guilt for his terrible sin, and over the seven years of the book is in a steep physical decline.

The Husband, Roger Chillingworth: Thought lost at sea years ago, he awkwardly shows up just as Hestor is being pilloried. Sizing up the situation, he decides to do what any thoughtful person of good judgement would: remain incognito, figure out who the father is, and become his roommate.

The Puritan Society: Embodied by any number of cameo representatives, the Puritan Society is the villain of the book. It hypocritically shuns Hester, lets Pearl (who is obnoxious, but innocent by any standard) take the collateral shunning, embroils the Reverend in an unresolvable crisis, and provides the cover for the Husband to be a grade-A jerk.

So that's the set-up for our drama, which consists for much of the book of Hester remaining proud despite the scorn of her neighbors and of the Reverend gradually cracking up. Eventually, they meet in the primeval wilderness outside of town to see if they can figure a way out of their plight. The plot begins to move a little in the final quarter, as a plan is hatched and complications ensue.

But Why Is It Classic?

Vida, casting a vote back when The Reading List was was being assembled, suggested that "The Scarlet Letter is great, but not one of those 'can’t put it down' books." I agree wholeheartedly. It is not by any means badly written, and although the style is a touch heavy-handed it is not especially difficult reading. It has passages of considerable grace and occasional wit. Yet at the end of a chapter one is not dragged helplessly onward, and once put down the book does not cry out to be picked up again. It took me several weeks to get through it, but only because I read three or four more engaging books in the interim.

Now doubtless there are any number of websites just itching to tell me why The Scarlet Letter is the best book ever, but I wish that as an educated amateur reader I could suss it out for myself. But no such luck. My instinct tells me that Scarlet Letter is much ado about relatively little, a short story's worth of soap opera that has been filled out to novel length by a narrator who would just as soon deliver pronouncements as develop his tale.*

My best guess is that the novel is well-regarded because it is either (1) a fairly clear-eyed look, for 1850, at the American past, and/or (2) a "psychological" novel. As a historical novel, Scarlet Letter is reasonably impressive. Hawthorne was writing in a country that was still far from comfortable with its own national identity, and yet he takes a pretty broad swipe at the received mythology of pilgrims, founding fathers, and the like. The psychology of the novel, on the other hand, feels a bit overwraught to me, though, and if anyone really is congratulating Hawthorne for his insights into human conciousness, I'd have to point out that he's writing a good three decades after Jane Austen and doesn't seem to have an equivalent grasp of human behavior.

As with most other novels, it would be shooting fish in a barrel to write a sophomore lit paper claiming that The Scarlet Letter is "really about" the dichotomy of nature and culture, but we'll leave that idea to the sophomores I think.

Looking for a hint, I checked out the back flap, a place where publishers traditionally try to line up the strongest arguments for you to read, or at least purchase, their product. Here's what I found, in its entirety:
"[The Scarlet Letter's] Hester was the creation of someone who loved Woman, saw her, as Verdi did, as necessarily tragic and alone, but emotionally sacred in a diminished world... Hester is the only character in the book big enough to sustain a conflict -- with the harsh Puritan world -- equal to Hawthorne's own. In a book without heroes, Hester is a unique literary heroine." -- From the Introduction by Alfred Kazin
Huh. I'm guessing the book jacket designer has since lost her job. And if this has something to do with what underlies The Scarlet Letter's enduring presence on the cultural map, I'd have to dissent. I don't know who "Woman" is, and I don't know what "emotionally sacred in a diminished world" might mean, but I can say with confidence that Hester is by no means a "big" character. To the extent that she's developed, it would be fair to call her smart, resourceful, stubborn, and strong, and one hell of a seamstress to boot. But she's hardly a vividly drawn or especially memorable character; she simply isn't given enough to do in the novel to render her so.

Enlighten Me!

In sum, The Scarlet Letter seems a representative piece of good-quality Nineteenth Century fiction. It's fine. But, why all the fuss? Why has it endured? What qualities of excellence, overlooked by me, landed it on the short-list of name-brand classics? Discuss.

Link: A good discussion of The Scarlet Letter at Amateur Reader's "Wuthering Expectations."

* But this from a reader who considers the technical chapters of Moby Dick (an otherwise fabulous book) to be pointless, self-indulgent digressions that should have been (and perhaps still should be) excised to the novel's benefit by a good editor. So I might not be your go-to guy for 19th Century American letters.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The CD Binge, part 2, Part 1

The recent Friends of the Multnomah County Library annual booksale, which I might have mentioned before, was a great place to watch the throes of declining media. VCR movies, priced first at fifty cents and eventually at a quarter, blew out the door all weekend, and yet there were great stacks of them remaining at the end of the sale. A surprisingly brisk trade was done in LP albums. And this is not even to mention the bricks-and-morter "book," still holding its own niche against the kindlefication of America.

I zipped back to the sale on my lunch break on Half-Price Monday to load up on my own declining medium of choice: music CDs. At a buck fifty, the price was right for obscure classical music and other esoterica. Then, having loaded up on a good 18 essentially random titles, I says to myself, I says, "I oughta review these on the blog!" Because, you know, why the hell not? So here goes another new fiasco:

The Library Sale CD Trove I

Zdenek Fibich
Symphony #2 in E flat major, Op. 38
Symphony #3 in E minor, Op. 53
Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiri Waldhans & Jiri Belohlavek, conductors

I have a modest little collection of guides to classical music, with a couple dozen titles going back as far as 1890. Of these, exactly two mention Zdenek Fibich. David Dubal's Essential Canon of Classical Music mentions him offhandedly -- on a list of "Bohemian nationalist" followers of Dvorak -- in its article on Janacek. The Naxos label's A to Z of Classical Music, a slightly self-servingly encyclopedic index of those C-list composers of whose music Naxos tends to have the most available recordings, describes him as "a late contemporary of Dvorak" who trained in Germany and thus "often seems less Czech than German." It notes that all of his music demonstrates "his masterly technical competence," which is not really how most composers would want to be summed up, I'm guessing.

This particular CD was produced in a vanished land called "Czechoslovakia" in 1991 from recordings made about 10 years earlier. It is pleasant music in the Czech tradition, kind of a Dvorak lite. It sounds quite a bit like Smetana, although not Smetana's very best. The resemblance is a little too much at the end of the Symphony #2, where the dramatic ending is a close echo of Smetana's Die Moldau, written about twenty years earlier.

The noticably defensive article covering Mr. Fibich on the Wiki claims that: That Fibich is far less known than either Antonín Dvořák or Bedřich Smetana can be explained by the fact that Fibich lived during the rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg empire. OK, maybe. But to judge from this CD there is a much simpler explanation, which is just that Fibich's music doesn't rise above the pleasant and well-crafted to the truly memorable, moving, and interesting.

Prognosis: Will keep CD, but more for background music than active listening.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sunset Homes of Tomorrow!

If we may judge by the amazing amount of new building going on, the West Coast, at least, has certainly emerged from that recent period of financial embarrassment which prevented most of us from building so much as a dog house! …With government backing of a better home movement, with research laboratories of great universities studying pre-fabrication possibilities, with the manufacturers outdoing themselves in the bid for new buyers, the developments for the House of Tomorrow are so intriguing, so far reaching in their implications that it all but takes one’s breath away.

For example, are we to live in gardened parks with winding streets and a centralized and beautiful business district? Are we to order a house to be delivered by truck to our lot and put up in a few days’ time? Is it possible to buy a pleasant, well-built house for $7.50 a week covering taxes, life insurance, interest, etc. with ownership achieved at the end of 20 years?

And what of glass walls and tubs in bath room and kitchen, or earthquake- and fire-proof steel houses which will require no upkeep expense? Shall we be able to forego the mess of re-papering and have everlasting wallpaper that needs only scrubbing or, if we prefer it, lovely burnished copper wall surfaces? Is it possible that the architect will insist on hermetically sealed windows so that the air in the rooms shall be positively pure by air conditioning? With apologies to Mr. Ripley, believe it or not, all of these questions can be answered in the affirmative….
Ethel M. Head
“Sunset Homes of Tomorrow”
Sunset Magazine, November 1935

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Wizard of Oz"

The Wizard of Oz
Victor Fleming, 1939

Previous Contact: I have never seen the Wizard of Oz before. No, really. I’ve never been around TVs very much, and although I’ve of course seen oodles of clips, I had never sat down to actually watch the thing from start to finish until today. A high school girlfriend found this preposterous, and had high hopes of enlightening me, but we must have broke up or something because it never happened.

I went into the viewing expecting that it would all be familiar – that I would pretty much have seen every second in one clip or another over the years. I also thought I'd probably hate it.

- - - -

So in 1900 Frank L. Baum writes this trippy parable about monetary policy in the form of a children’s adventure story, and it turns into a runaway hit. Numerous sequels (The Prisoner of Azkaban of Oz, The Half-Blood Prince of Oz) follow, but Baum’s ability to score a good movie contract is hampered by movie contracts not existing yet. So it’s not until almost forty years later that the story hits the big screen. It becomes one of the most popular motion pictures of all time. Of all time!

It turns out, though, that there were plenty of passages in the movie that I’d never seen before. The part where Dorothy runs away and encounters a kindly traveling showman, the part where the Lion sings about being a king, all of the bits with flying monkey footmen – they were all new to me, at least as parts of the movie (although vaguely familiar as plot points -- I read all of the Oz books pretty voraciously as a child).

The real surprise, though, was that I thought the whole thing was kind of fun. None of it makes a lick of sense, of course, but it’s all so exuberantly campy that it’s hard to care too much. Baum’s vision of Oz is weird enough, but additional levels of surrealism are laid on thick in frenzies of pop modernist set design and backdrop painting. The early scenes featuring the Munchkins show every sign of having been conceived and executed with the help of plenty of drugs and alcohol. And for a mid-century children’s entertainment, Wizard of Oz brings a surprisingly unsubtle gay subtext to the proceedings. When Dorothy asks her new metal companion (“Oooh! A man!!”) where he wants to be oiled first, I’m pretty sure she’s not in Kansas anymore.

It must be said that if you took the “message” of the movie at face value, you would see a grossly reactionary kind of Conservatism. Happiness, says the film, comes from staying in your place, from looking for fulfillment no further away than “your own back yard.” Fortunately, no one pays any attention to the moralizing speeches at the end of movies, so the legacy of Oz isn’t its overt glorification of keeping yourself down on the farm, but rather its hints of the far-out possibilities of life over the rainbow.

Plot: With the Gold Standard constricting the currency supply of the late-nineteenth century United States, many Populists called for…. oh, never mind. Nobody much noticed the political-cartoon aspect of the story even at the time. As for the storyline, hell, everybody knows that. I’d be willing to make a bet that a cross section of Americans would do a better job articulating the plot of The Wizard of Oz than they would articulating the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. It is a very powerful component of our national mythology.

Visuals: It’s not quite right to say that Oz switches from black-and-white to color, as the “black-and-white” segments are actually shot in a warm sepia tone. It’s as if Dorothy’s Kansas is already stuck in a time-worn photograph, even when she returns to it in the end. As for Oz, the sets are all quite over the top and a more than a bit mad. Nice camera work, too.

Dialog: People are forever bursting into song. Some of the songs are extremely well crafted (it’s hard to beat Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and others just some cobbled-together rhyming words sung with relish by the principal actors, or with a slight sense of I’ll-never-forgive-myself-for-this-if-the-check-bounces by the “Munchkins.”

Prognosis: Since I am the last adult in the English-speaking world to see The Wizard of Oz, it doesn’t make any sense for me to put forth an opinion on whether other people should watch it. You've probably seen it half a dozen times already.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Extremes in Billboard Hate

Long-standing readers will perhaps remember my previous tirades against the loathsomeness of what I call Happy-Person Advertising, and of the odious billboards of one City of Roses credit union in particular. But you know what? Several of the subsequent billboards in their series weren't quite so bad. They were still basically Happy-Person Advertising, but with some sort of gesture toward financial services. I remember that there was one of a punkish young woman holding a piggy bank. There was one, I believe, of a woman who appeared to be holding some money. So, they weren't just randomly ecstatic. That, for me, kicked the ads a couple notches up toward mediocrity.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see this billboard this weekend on beautiful SE Powell Boulevard.

Yes, that's right. The folks at the Rivermark Credit Union -- for let us now name names -- have gone from merely insultingly stupid advertising to out-and-out child exploitation! Do you think their cute lil' spokesmodel there is old enough to have a well-developed perspective on the relative merit of consumer checking accounts? Is he even, technically, legally eligible to have his own checking account? Call me crazy, but I don't put much stock in his endorsement.

Now obviously, this child had no idea when he was being photographed that he was giving the thumbs-up to a modest rate of return on funds held in a checking account. In all likelihood the Rivermark people bought some stock photos from a vendor, and it would not surprise me if the same boy can be seen giving the same thumbs-up to a chain of for-profit hospitals in the Florida panhandle, or whatever. But this is exactly what makes the ad both insulting and creepy: they believe that they can show me a random picture of a cute child, free of all context, and I will thereby instinctively be moved to do their bidding. To the extent that this works -- no doubt their advertising firm has all sorts of impressive numbers for them -- it is sinister indeed.

Incidentally, let's think about 3% checking. Let's say you are prosperous enough that you keep around $2000 dollars in your checking account -- I'll assume that if you are strapped, you have a lower average, and if you are well-off, you've got better places for your dosh than your checking account. A 3% yield over the course of a year would land you $60, or $5.00 a month. That's not bad -- you could buy a pack of cigs every month, or take someone out to eat once or twice a year. But it's hardly an amount of money to get excited about.... unless you're a child! If you offered to give a child the $5/month return on your checking account, he'd probably be stoked! He'd probably give you a big thumbs-up! So maybe that's what this is all about.

UPDATE: Update: I am only just now noticing that there appears to be about a paragraph of text set just underneath the lad's outstretched fist. It doesn't exactly call attention to itself, does it. One wonders what sort of legally-required protective language is up there -- "3% annual reward must be claimed in person at home office in Khartoum, Sudan"? -- and how many drivers are able to parse it as they zip by the sign at 40 miles per hour.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The CD Binge, part I

The gloomy thoughts on music that I rattled on about yesterday have not, like you might expect, kept me from buying any new albums. Indeed, last Tuesday I went to a CD store -- keepin' it old school! I entered the shop, moreover, bringing with me a sort of knowledge I used to sometimes have back when I thought "major stress" was the kind of thing that could be caused by a midterm examination. To wit: I knew the date a record would be released. In fact, I knew the date TWO records would be released. And I bought both of them.

The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come

The Mountain Goats was for many years the nom de rock of John Darnielle, a frighteningly articulate songwriter who recorded radically low-fi records live into cheap boomboxes, not sweating the mistakes and background noise. This method, strangely enough, produced some really fun, rocking, and occasionally haunting songs. Since 2002, though, Darnielle has brought on a drummer and bass player, embraced a more normal recording craftsmanship, and released a string of relentlessly intelligent and emotional powerful albums (Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Saved, The Sunset Tree, Get Lonely, Heretic Pride) that could stand against the best work of pretty much any other band over a similar time scale.

The new installment, The Life of the World to Come, doesn't have any song titles on its outside cover. Once you've unwrapped the plastic wrap and opened the case, you can see why the people in marketing wanted it this way: the songs are all named for a Biblical verse, and I imagine there was a certain lack of confidence that a song called "Genesis 3:23," for instance, was going to light the teen market on fire.

It's WAAAY too early in the listening cycle for me to have fully appreciated the songs and tied their content to the associated Biblical verse -- a project for the Bible blog, maybe? -- but I've heard enough to certify that this record is another worthy chapter in the massive Mountain Goats saga. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs; The 'Goats want to use rock music to figure out what life is like when you're a grown-up and you are the witness to the triumphs and terrors of the people you care about. And yet it all still kind of rocks.

Mike Doughty: Sad Man Happy Man

Mike Doughty used to be the guy in Soul Coughing, except he kind of hates Soul Coughing, and since I'm into Mike Doughty I take his word for it, so I don't know anything about Soul Coughing. Doughty is kind of the American Billy Bragg, a smart working joe taking on the world with a guitar and a fiercely intelligent way with words. Sad Man Happy Man follows in the footsteps of Golden Delicious and the amazing Haughty Melodic, but with more extensive forays into what you'd call "orchestration" if it were classical music. Electronic noises and brighter vocal lines enrich the sound, and Doughty's bass player Andrew "Scrap" Livingston picks up the cello and goes kind of nuts with it, layering interesting melodic lines over Doughty's always rock-solid rhythm guitar line.

Again, I haven't unpacked the songs yet, but there's currently a little religious study going on in Mr. Doughty's life as well, to judge from titles like "Lord Lord Help Me Just To Rock Rock On" and "(He’s Got The) Whole World (In His Hands)." If you fear a Sunday school lesson, though, I'm guessing that track 11 -- "How To Fuck A Republican" -- will put you at your ease. Unless, of course, you are a Republican. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Cosi Fan Tutte!

I don't really know that much about opera, but I know enough to know that Cosi Fan Tutti is my favorite one! I took a stack of about a dozen Cosi recordings up to the dude at the classical desk and said "Hey, sometimes I hear opera recordings that sound like they were made with a wax cylinder in 1902, can you help me find one that doesn't?" He proceded to give me a concise but enlightening explaination of why opera recordings are of mixed quality, indicated which of the versions of Cosi he actually owned himself, and ended with a vigorous recomendation of the recording that also happened to be the cheapest. This is why, although I get most of my music online now like everyone else, I sometimes still like to head back to the record shop.

(Cosi, incidentally, will be put on The Portland Opera in February. I'm all over it.)

So, just to treat myself and reward the classical music desk for being awesome, I threw in a budget recording of some works of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. This had the added advantage of letting me look forward to going home to Mrs.5000 and announcing "I got the new 'Goaties, the new Doughty, a recording of Cosi, and some Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf!" Probably I was the first person ever to utter this sentence! And Mrs.5000, being a woman of uncommon good taste, was of course delighted.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music: The State of Play

The Aging Indie Rocker Continues to Age

It has been a couple of decades now since I could be said to have much sense of what was happening in music or anyplace else, and I'm through pretending. The extent of the damage was revealed at the FOL Booksale, where I found myself getting all excited about the truly great rock music!!! for sale for virtually nothing in the CD section. Some feeling of proud decorum, some inner philosopher of culture holding fast the opinion that popular music is made to be fleeting, forced me to look at the copyright dates. This is how I was forced to confront that I was getting all excited about the music I liked when I was a university student. Which is to say, 15 to 20 years ago. To wit: I was getting excited about oldies. Well, of course I was horrified.

Partially it's the notorious compression of time that takes place as you age, and partly it's the increasingly enormous library of music that you have been exposed to in your lifetime, but trying to keep track of the musical scene becomes increasingly exhausting. In high school, if your favorite band produced a new album after two years, it ushered in a whole new era of your lifetime. Whereas now you're all like, "What, another new album? Christ, I haven't really got around to listening to the last new album yet." You dutifully keep adding to an increasingly massive collection of music even as you spend less time actually listening to music, turning meters of shelfspace or gigasectors of your hard drive into an impressive museum of immaculately curated rock music that no one ever listens to.

Retaining Cachet: The Shortcut

Now this is one of the nice things about classical music: it pretty much stands still for you. If you like Beethoven's 4th Symphony right now, you can still like Beethoven's 4th 20 years from now without looking any the worse for wear. It's durable. If you like Mozart in college, you can keep liking Mozart. It's a much different thing, in the all-important terms of what it signifies to the world about you, from ending up in your 40s and still being all excited about Bryan Adams or Bananarama or Duran Duran or something. (...with all due respect to any readers who retain enthusiasm for these fine artists) Also, there's a sneaky loophole in which you can like, say, Bartok or Lutoslawski, and thereby seem kind of avant-garde and daring -- permanently. Neat trick, no?

In the last year, too, I've really warmed up to jazz, thanks in large part to you the L&TM5K readers. And since jazz is -- and I apologize, here, to all you jazz musicians and classical composers out there -- basically every bit as much a dead language as classical music, it too has the loveable quality of holding still long enough for you to develop a real appreciation. Has it ever not been cool to be into Thelonius Monk? John Coltraine? No way, daddy-o.

So I'm hereby making formal what's been true in essence for a long, long time: I'm no longer seeking out new rock music. I won't resist it if it happens to come my way, and I'll still come out to play sometimes when my favorite bands come to town, but I'm no longer going to worry about keeping current. I'm finally ready to concede that I am, to quote the late John Paul II, "too old for this shit." (OK, OK, technically he never said this per se. He just sort of looked like he was thinking it during his last four or five years.)

Tomorrow in Music: Michael5000 goes a-bingeing!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The 5000s Prepare to be Cultured

In times past, I have often written about various cultural delights that Mrs.5000 and I enjoyed the previous weekend, causing those of you outside the City of Roses to applaud our excellent good taste but making our neighbors along the mighty Willamette wring their hands in despair at the arts and entertainments that they just missed.

So this time, cleverly, I am telling you in advance about the cultural delights that Mrs.5000 and I will enjoy this coming weekend. In theory! Of course, one can never truly know the future, and it's certainly possible that a bus accident or a sudden-onset plague or an atomic bomb could intervene to spoil all of the fun. But barring these extreme possibilities, this weekend will involve:

A concert by The Portland Columbia Symphony!

Portland's second-tier orchestra plays in smaller venues than the major-league Oregon Symphony. That puts you much closer to the big noise, and the PCSO is a very high-quality band with a rich, warm sound. And not insignificantly, tickets are a fraction of the cost of the OSO.

The concert this Friday night combines two winners. In my favorite Beethoven Piano Concerto, the Fourth, the soloist will be former Beaver State Governor Barbara Roberts!!! She is sure to.... what? Oh. OK, apparently this is a different Barbara Roberts, more of a pianist type. But hey, I'm sure she's good!

And then, there's one of my very favoritest symphonies, the Sibelius Second. It has been a long, long time since I heard it live, so you know that I am looking forward to grooving out with my man Jean.

So the concert is Friday night, Oct 16, at 7:30 pm, at 1838 SW Jefferson St. That's a big church in Goose Hollow, for those of you who know where "Goose Hollow" is. Or, if you prefer to enjoy your classical music without any risk of encountering the 5000s, there's a Sunday afternoon show at 3 pm out at Mount Hood Community College.

Portland Open Studios!

Every fall, 100 of Portland's most extroverted artists open their studio doors to the great unwashed public, hoping that people will thrust sweaty fistfuls of currency at them in exchange for their work. Mrs.5000 & I will be making the pilgramage again this year, sans sweaty fistfuls of course but ready with all sorts of complements and helpful encouragement.

Perhaps we'll revisit favorites from last year! Perhaps we'll have an actual encounter with Bridget B. in the biospace! And we'll almost certainly swing by the studio of Honorable Vice Dork Emeratus fingerstothebone -- not because we'd want to embarass her by purchasing more of her work or anything, you understand, but she usually has a good spread of snacks.

[Right: Actually, I might have to get one of these]

But What Are You Doing Sunday?

Oh, probably just hanging out. Stop by, we can crack open some beers!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Movies: "Network"

Sidney Lumet, 1976

Previous Contact: I first saw Network around fifteen years ago, very possibly with DrSchnell. I remember expecting sharp but reasonably lighthearted hilarity, and that I was vaguely disappointed by its dark, somber brand of satire.


Network is a very sharp parody of television -- both the vacuous world view that it projects, and the predatory corporate environment that buys, sells, and crafts what it pumps out onto the airwaves. Its plot revolves around an aging news anchor who, as he experiences a profound mental breakdown, is alternately anathematized and exploited by several bosses as his increasingly bizarre behavior variously attracts or alienates precious portions of the viewing audience.

He rants, he raves. He is, famously, "mad as hell, and [he]'s not going to take it any more!" And he has plenty to say about his own industry:

Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!

We deal in *illusions*, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off!
Well, sure. And the joke in the film, much as in real life, is that the viewing audience laps this kind of thing up, watching enthralled at the man who is railing against enthralled watching. The studio audience happily shouts in unison that they are as mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it any more. It's all very satisfyingly sinister, if you think that television represents the death of individual thought, and all very condescending if you think TV is a nice way for us working stiffs to unwind at the end of the day.

The satire is rendered a bit too long and a bit too stiff by [wait for it!] a romantic subplot between network executives. Intended to lampoon the corrosive effect of corporation life on human relationships, the romantic plot bogs down in speechy setpieces, eloquently written and acted but neither funny nor particularly plausible.

To be sure, Network is a very smart movie, and it has many brilliant scenes and darkly funny moments. It is too bad that it is also just a little bit of a mess. It doesn't quite hang together. In trying to feed us almost every kind of entertainment at once -- high drama, laffs, romance -- it falls into the same trap as television, becoming just a little bit disjointed, trivial, banal.

It is interesting, 33 years later, to look back at a United States terrified by a faltering economy, a sense of failing national cohesion, and the threat of terrorism. Of course, just because the sky didn't fall then doesn't necessarily mean that the sky won't fall now. But still.

Plot: Executives vie for control of a foundering television network. Their conflicting visions of what their network is and should be reflects and/or inflicts social change in the society at large.

Visuals: Network is effectively filmed in a straightforward, documentary style. It is of an age of films where it is hard to tell whether the director was intending to highlight the shabbiness of everyday life, or if the 1970s were just kind of shabby, or if we just associate the 1970s look with shabbiness now because anyplace that still bears that look has likely been stagnant for the last three or four decades.

Dialog: Extremely literate. Much of the dialog in Network is in the form of strangely articulate speeches exchanged among characters, very well crafted and acted but somewhat at odds with the grittier realism of the visual style.

Prognosis: A must-see for anyone interested in Media Studies. A might-see for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 1970s, or anyone who just likes their comedy very dark and deadpan. Optional for all others.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Hectoring Regarding the Book Sale

Books by Girls: Update

As I so assiduously alerted you on Friday, it's the weekend of the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Book Sale. Those of you who haven't turned out yet, I will expect to see today.

I also told you about the alarming imbalance of my recent reading material, and I entered the Sale Friday night with the half-assed intention of stocking up on books by, you know, girls. This resolution was, lamentably, quickly forgotten as soon as I actually started pawing through the materials.

The big motherload this year was books on casette, which were cheap and plentiful. Let's see how I did in my strip-mining of this department.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility -- FEMALE!
Gibbons, the first 2/3 of Decline and Fall... -- Male.
William Henry Hudson, The Story of the Renaissance -- Male.
Dickens, Great Expectations -- Male.
Zola, The Gin Palace -- Male.
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall -- Sounds female! But male.
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons -- Very Male.
E.M. Forster, Howards End -- Male.
George Elliot, The Mill on the Floss -- Sounds male. But FEMALE!!!
Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall -- FEMALE!
George Elliot, Adam Bede -- Still FEMALE!!!
Then after that, it was mostly art books and CDs and an old textbook, and then some Shakespeare and John Ford (Male) and some poetry, Housman and Eliot (Male), and actually only one popular sort of book, by the science fiction writer C.J. Cherryh (FEMALE!). Not bad, not bad.

So What's the Point?

My point is, there are gazillions of books still for sale by people of all genders! 1625 NE Sandy, open until 5 p.m. today (Sunday), or you can paw through the rubble for half price tomorrow, Monday, from 9 to 3. Attendance is mandatory.

I should have been in marketing.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Celebratory Bible Blog Cross-Post

Over at the Bible Blog, I just finished a long, surprisingly unrewarding half-year march through the Book of Psalms! So those of you up for a "reading project of Biblical proportions" (obligatory "Biblical proportions" jest), y'all can jump in and join me now as I start Proverbs, and then go back and worry about Psalms later. Or whatever.

Psalms is the longest book of the Bible, and trudging through it took 21 posts spread over 5 months and 6 days. Having completed Psalms, I've got through 19 of the 66 Books of the Bible: 28.8%.

Well, that's all fine and good, but I've also completed 628 of the Chapters of the Bible, or 52.8%! Or 16401 of the Verses, 52.7%! I'M MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH, PEOPLE! It's kind of like that point in the marathon where you think "you know, if I'd had the good sense to sign up for a HALF-marathon...."

Friday, October 9, 2009

It's Library Book Sale Weekend, People!!

It's time to get you some very inexpensive second-hand books!

Yes, it's time for the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale again -- the 36th Annual, if memory serves -- and I am legally obligated to demand that you -- YOU!! -- turn out in droves. And I don't care if you DO live on the East Coast: YOU WANT TO BE AT THIS SALE!!!

This is the biggest and bestest used booksale in all of the Beaver State, with gazillions of books and other media on offer. Most books are $1.50. It's also just a fun event, with lots of book-dork energy, browsing, and people-watching. It's fun.

Friday Night -- tonight, Friday the 9th -- is the Members only pre-sale, 6 to 9 pm. You can purchase your membership at the door for $30, and of course you should. Or are you a filthy commie library-hater? I don't think so!

General Hours are 9 am to 6 pm on Saturday, and 11 am to 5 pm on Sunday.

Monday the 12th is half-price day, 9 am to 3 pm.

So, come on down to the unfortunately abandoned Ecomotion dealership at 1625 NE Sandy Blvd on the beautiful East Side of the City of Roses. Hut hut hut!!!

Michael5000: Raging Sexist

When Jenners posted her quarterly reading tally today, I realized that since I've been tracking my own reading on GoodReads, I could do the same thing. The initial results were favorable: I read some 31 books between June and September, which makes me roughly 1.8 times as bookish -- or as I like to think of it, "pretty much twice as smart" -- as Jenners.

Mind you, 10 of my 31 books were audiobooks, but I think we can all embrace an inclusive definition of "read," right? Right.

Where it got disturbing, though, was in the gender breakdown. Where the enlighted Jenners had an exactly even gender balance among her authors, I had read -- get this -- a whopping 27 books by men, and only 4 by chicks! I'm a Neanderthal!

Obviously, I need to be reading more books by the ladies! I will have to pick some up at the Friends of the Multnomah Public Library 36th Annual Booksale tonight. See you there!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Michael5000 Meets the Bogeyman!

Michael5000 is talking with his friend -- let's call her Sara. Sara was born in a very distant country, and married someone from her own ethnic community. She has an extremely cute three year old.

Michael5000: It was fun to see your little girl here the other day.

Sara: Thank you.

Michael5000: Everyone was talking about how well-behaved she is!

Sara: Oh, I have to keep telling her to be good all the time. "Don't walk so fast! Don't walk so slow!"

Michael5000: Well, you must be doing a good job then, because she seems really...

Sara: You know what I tell her?

Michael5000: Um, no, what?

Sara: I tell her that if she isn't good, the Americans will steal her and take her home with them.

Michael5000: [speechless]

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Great Movies: "Lawrence of Arabia"

Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean, 1962

Previous Contact: I watched Lawrence of Arabia about sixteen years ago and remembered it as an interminable series of shots of the desert landscape, broken by a couple of violent train wrecks. But then again, I had just had an outpatient procedure and was pretty heavily sedated.


It turns out my previous impression, if not precisely wrong, was a bit limited. In truth, Lawrence of Arabia is a pretty amazing film. The interminable shots of the desert, for starters, are quite lovely, conveying the immensity of the Arabian landscape and illuminating the mindset of the characters, whose actions are always informed by the harsh natural environment.

The film does startlingly well with its anthropology and political history. The Arabs are shown, not especially flatteringly, as a people hopelessly divided on tribal lines, undisciplined and disorganized in public life. The British are shown, not especially flatteringly, as a bunch of mannered dilettantes engaging in endless, pointless military ritual in their opulent Cairo headquarters. Both shoes fit reasonably well, really.

In telling the story of how the British schnookered the Arabs into fighting on their behalf against the Ottoman Empire, the film is not without a rich historical sense of irony. “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people,” Lawrence tells an Arab man – which is a pretty rich thing for a European military officer to say in 1917. The eventual summary comment of a secondary character, the head of Britain’s Arab Bureau, could really be applied to the entirety of the British colonial adventure in the Middle East: “On the whole, I wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells.”

But the real subject of the film is of course T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia himself, and he is here a character of downright Shakespearian proportions. Wildly eccentric, insanely brave but riven by self-doubt, moralistic but occasionally bloodthirsty, suave but chronically awkward, he is a deliciously complex character. He is compelling in that is simultaneously larger than life but also a bit of the boy next door. His eventual descent into something much like madness is tragic in moral terms for Lawrence himself as well as in immediate practical terms for virtually everyone else in the movie.

Plot: Bored of a desk job, a dashing young British officer gets himself posted as a liaison to rebel Arab tribes in the Ottoman Empire. When his risky military advice keeps paying off, he becomes something of a messiah figure among the Arabs. Things get a little weird when he joins his own cult of personality.

Visuals: Stupendous, even on the modest computer screen which serves as HomeTheater5000. It must be astonishing on the big screen. The desert is filmed with loving attention and is always beautiful, even on the frequent occasions when people are dying horribly in it.

Dialog: A touch stagy, the dialog does a terrific job of explaining motivations and situations within a complex historical scenario without becoming bluntly expository. Often highly witty, especially when priggish Brits are hoisting themselves on their own petards.

Prognosis: A genuinely great movie! But, at 3 ½ hours that include many slow, panning shots of desolate landscapes, it’s not going to be the best pick for someone who needs a violent thrill every minute. No, the violent thrills come at roughly twenty-minute intervals. Block out a chunk of time and be braced for the long haul, and you ought to really enjoy this one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

40% Teal, 23% Ochre, 12% Mauve....

Yankee in England correctly intuited that I would find this awesome:

Those are the flags of the world broken down into their constituant colors and presented as pie charts. Why? Why the hell not! That's why it's awesome!

It's the work of the Media Designer (the what, now?) Shahee Ilyas, and the full set can be found here.

He also produced this composite graph of the colors in all the national flags in the world:

I think this more than illustrates a problem that I have been trying to bring to the world's attention throughout my life: THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH FLAGS WITH PURPLE IN THEM!!! Or gray.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. Carry on.

Friday, October 2, 2009

New York: My Kind of Town

I think I've already mentioned that I recently took a trip to New York County, New York, which is a densely settled island in the estuary of the Hudson River across from Elizabeth, New Jersey. And certainly, in many ways this storied land of Manhattan lived up to its reputation. It is a big, exciting, cosmopolitan city, as packed with recognizable landmarks as anyplace I've seen (in my admittedly fairly provincial life) this side of London.

And yet, there was much in the proverbial Big Apple that surprised me, where the reality of the city didn't really match my expectations. For one thing, people didn't seem any more wrapped up in their own business than they are anyplace else. I made a point of greeting people, nodding, making eye contact, and everybody seemed friendly enough. I struck up a few conversations with random people, who seemed uniformly courteous and gracious. So much for the off-putting New Yorker.

Also, in all my travels -- a meandering drive up the island from the Holland tunnel to its northernmost tip, and an urban hike from the projects of Harlem south to Grand Central Station -- I didn't see a single beggar with a sign, nor did anyone ask me for that great oxymoron, "spare change." Even passing through a breadline, nobody hassled me or made a move for my heart- or purse-strings. This made me sad for my own town, with its massive reserve army of fauxbos and, apparently, folks willing to underwrite their lifestyle. New York looked remarkably prosperous, safe, and clean compared to back home -- more stereotypes falling dazed under the onslaught of experience.

But the stereotype that fared worst from my expedition was that New York is a hotbed of sophistication. Friends, it is not. And I say this as a highly qualified Yokel, a man who grew up in a village of 2250 souls. And wherever I went in New York, I saw people acting in ways that were, for better or worse, much more what you would expect from the crossroads of Sarah Palin's "Real America" than from the stylish citizens of a World City.

The New Yokels

Since there's not a lot of spare space around, New Yorkers tend to do shit right in the street. Unloading a truck? Why not park in the middle of this major artery! Need a place to stack construction supplies? Why not right here in the busy street in front of the site! This is a common enough way of doing business in a small town, but you'd never get away with it in a city. But New York is a small town. I swear, I saw a guy washing his car -- like, with suds and a hose -- right in the middle of a city street. Who does that in a city?

Not even to mentioning the rampant jaywalking. Very small town! It would give a Seattle cop a freaking coronary.

Where you would expect all the Starbucks to be? Dunkin' Donuts. Ooh, Sophisticated. Where you would expect the groovy independent coffee shops to be? Starbucks.

Carts all over the place selling hot dogs. Seriously. Hot dogs. What the hell is this, the Fourth of July in Muncie?

Honking. Here's a thought for all of you New York drivers reading this: your personal sense of outrage about another driver's error, arrogant behavior, or timidity? No one else cares about that at all. No one. Just you. And you know what else? Honking is annoying. And very small town.

People yakking on cell phones while strolling blindly into busy lanes of traffic. Yes, it's an exciting new technology! We're glad you're enjoying it! But the real urban sophisticate always keeps one eye on his or her physical surroundings.

Where are all of the same-sex couples? I thought that there were supposed to be gay people in Manhattan; if you listen to New Yorkers, they'll make like it was the city where homosexuality was first invented. But in all the time I was there, I didn't see so much as a pair of college girls holding hands. Just a bunch of boring straight people.

And finally -- and I know, I know, the taxi is an important element of the city's transportation system, blah blah blah... -- but it's hard to imagine someone looking more ridiculous than when they are "hailing a cab." Especially the ones who are really practiced at it, who you can tell are thinking "ooh, look at me, I am hailing a cab with great skill and panache!" They could not look more like yokels.