Sunday, January 29, 2006

Aquarius rising

What do Thomas Paine, Tom Selleck, Oprah Winfrey, W.C. Fields, Leadbelly, William McKinley, Edward Abbey, Katharine Ross, Anton Chekhov, Heather Graham, Victor Mature, Paddy Chayefsky, Germaine Greer, Claudine Longet and Ron Franscell have in common?

Immense personal charisma? A way with words? Widely read blogs?

Nope.

We were all born on January 29.

(I should have included Shirley MacLaine on this list. In 104 BC and in 1747, she was born on January 29, too.)

~~~~~

UPDATE: My friend and editorial cartoonist Andy Coughlan, who immersed himself in Chekhov for his master's thesis, says ol' Anton's birthday is reported variously, including Jan. 29. But Andy's most reliable birthdate for Chekhov is Jan. 17. I have therefore barred the Russian playwright from the exclusive January 29 Club, which accepts only one-365th of the entire population.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Can you be anti-war AND pro-soldier?

In a blunt column that begins, "I don't support our troops," L.A. Times columnist Joel Stein this week argued that it is illogical and rather disingenuous for anybody who says they oppose the war in Iraq BUT support the troops fighting it. Under the headline, "Warriors and wusses," Stein writes, in part:
"... Being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken — and they're wussy by definition. It's as if the one lesson they took away from Vietnam wasn't to avoid foreign conflicts with no pressing national interest but to remember to throw a parade afterward. Blindly lending support to our soldiers, I fear, will keep them overseas longer by giving soft acquiescence to the hawks who sent them there ..."

I've long believed that you couldn't be both anti-war and pro-soldier. Imagine yourself talking to a young soldier and saying: "I think everything you risk your life to do is ill-advised, stupid, inhumane, murderous, sickening and the people who declared it are liars, cheats, thugs and swindlers who don't care if you get disemboweled by a roadside bomb ... but I support you entirely."

Do you think that young soldier FEELS supported?

What do you think? Can you hate the war but love the warrior? Can you love the war but hate the warrior? Or is saying so just a way to have your cake and eat it, too?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Things matter

"If all goes as planned, carefully wrapped pieces of the hotel pantry
where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated will be packed
into two steel containers and put into storage this week
in a fenced-in, garbage-strewn lot within
sight of a strip club billboard.
... What happens from there, no one knows."

"The cremated remains of a convicted killer were
in the hands of his [Indiana] attorney, who would not reveal
where they might be interred because
he did not want photos of the spot
to end up on the Internet."

~~~~~

Have we become a nation of souvenir hunters? Prowlers of eBay and ransackers of other people's attics? Hey, buddy, how much for that piece of toilet paper that clung to Burt Reynolds shoe at Mort's? That old saw about "one man's trash ..." has grown a little dog-eared in our eBay culture.

Undoubtedly, somebody would auction the meat slicer that was in the same hotel pantry as Sirhan B. Sirhan and Bobby Kennedy, as if it were some sanctified relic of a historic event. Why? because somebody would BUY it!

Just like the guy who sold the bathtub where James Earl Ray supposedly stood when he shot Martin Luther King. Or the people who collect scribbles, photos and paintings by serial killers. Or the lady with the Madonna's face on a cheese sandwich. My God, everything has a price (no reserve, no minimum) in our Garage-Sale Nation. These aren't keepsakes and mementoes anymore ... they're commodities. And some are more than a little grotesque.

What does it say about us when we'll spend hard-earned cash on a letter from a third-rate serial killer nobody ever heard of or a bad painting by John Gacy (left), but we can't afford body armor for American combat troops? How could someone justify $500 for a "rare" piece of the original Hollywood sign (on eBay now) but also be open to any ideas to avoid paying income tax? Who hid a free can of water distributed by Budweiser to Hurricane Katrina victims ... and put it on eBay for $10? Why would anybody want to own a pair of ballet slippers signed by Princess Diana for the tidy sum of $10,000 -- when she never actually owned them!? Did you know that at this very moment on eBay you can bid on hair samples that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana and Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion)? Fergawdsakes, who'd pay $25,000 for a kidney stone beamed down by William Shatner? Last week, somebody did (at least the money went to Habitat for Humanity.)

It's not that some things aren't interesting collectibles. I have a few oddities of my own. But it seems that the threat/possibility of something showing up on eBay has consumed us. And for good reason: You want some eBay maniac rooting in your garbage and selling intimate relic of your life? On the other hand, would you pass up $10,000 for that hankie old Aunt Piddy dipped in Dillinger's fresh blood on a Chicago street back in '34?

Things matter to us, without a doubt. We keep stuff for no good reason sometimes, because of an inexplicable emotional attachment. I don't quarrel with that. I have often felt a tingle when I've held a piece of history in my hands, whether it was a minie ball found on the battlefield of Gettysburg or a letter from Ernest Hemingway to his son. I understand the attraction things have to us. Maybe it's just part of understanding where we come from, who we are and why we care about life. People have always kept little things ... to remember.

And sometimes it's about making a profit from crap. What's different today is eBay, antique malls, and other proliferating outlets. Again, who wants a kitchen appliance that was merely in the same room as an assassination? Who wants a box of ashes left by a freakish serial killer whose name you never heard?

Somebody does. And somebody pays. Pretty well.

Oh well. If anybody wants the old monitor that was used by an authentic American novelist to write his first book, I'll sell it for a premium. I'll sign it with whatever endearments you like. I'll include a sample of my DNA, if you like, but that'll cost extra. I reckon I can make more on eBay than I ever did in royalties, because the actual words I wrote apparently aren't as valuable as the machines I used to create them. And I'll do anything to make more room in my attic.

"The crowd over there was standing around, and a lot of them
were wiping their handkerchiefs in the blood and so forth.
One fellow rubbed his handkerchief in the blood, held it up
and showed it to his wife, and he says,
'Look honey, this used to be Dillinger.'
He says, 'Our kids are going to love this someday.'
--Chicago photographer Hank Schaefer

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A tour of 'Munich' ... by an insider

Tony Kushner wrote his first screenplay (with co-writer Eric Roth) and it happens to be Steven Spielberg's "Munich." But Kushner's no newbie playwright: He's won a Tony, Emmy and Pulitzer Prize and his works include "Caroline, or Change" and "Angels in America."

In today's L.A. Times, he writes a marvelous column about how he faces questions and criticism now just from the rest of the world, but from his family, too. It's a complex story, bound to raise complex issues and moral struggles. Who wins the high ground is anybody's guess. Among Kushner's observations:

"Contradiction in human affairs, such as the possibility that injustice can drive people to do horrible things, is routinely deplored and dismissed in these troubled times as just another example of the naivete of the morally weak (a.k.a. liberals and progressives). But there will always be pesky people who, when horrific crimes are committed, insist on asking, 'Why did that happen?'"

Monday, January 23, 2006

Interview with Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx, the reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winner, has generally shunned the limelight to devote her energies to writing. That's both refreshing in our media-saturated world and disappointing for those of us who'd like to hear more about her processes.

But her short story "Brokeback Mountain" -- crafted into an Oscar-likely script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana -- has made it more difficult for the Wyoming-transplanted writer to stay hidden in her beloved backwoods.

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features a Q&A interview with Proulx that's about as revealing as she can be ... which is to say, not too terribly much. But she has some interesting things to say. Among them, her hopes for the story, in both its film and literary forms:

"I hope that it is going to start conversations and discussions, that it's going to awaken in people an empathy for diversity, for each other and the larger world. I'm really hoping that the idea of tolerance will come through discussions about the film. People tend to walk out of the theater with a sense of compassion, which I think is very fine. It is a love story. It has been called both universal and specific and I think that's true. It's an old, old story. We've heard this story a million times, we just haven't heard it quite with this cast."

Blackballed in Texas

"I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me for a member."
Groucho Marx

Once, when I had just taken the helm of my own daily newspaper in a small Wyoming town, a rather worried rancher came to see me, to sort out my politics in his cowboy way. "How do you generally come down on Republicans or Democrats?" he asked.

"Amused," I said.

I've been deleted from the Texas Connection Blogroll because my politics weren't conservative nor rabid enough. I was defrocked because I didn't say bad things about a liberal blogger to whom I link, nor would I remove his link. There's simply too much sturm und drang in the blogosphere as it is. In that way, moderate views are apparently a threat to the stability of the universe. So, it turns out, The Right is as quick as the Left to muzzle anybody with whom it doesn't agree.

So any of you Texas Connection blog-rollers who liked to stop by for a cuppa joe and some militant moderate views to keep you regular, please link me. I promise more of the same provocative views from the Majority Middle.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 'true' story behind 'Munich'

In the past couple weeks, Americans have brooded over fact and fiction in our media -- or perhaps have never stopped brooding since the time of the Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times. If James Frey -- whose memoir "A Million Little Pieces" is likely a brilliant fraud that bamboozled Oprah, Doubleday and millions of readers -- has contributed anything to American letters, it is to lube our skepticism about what is true. Not an entirely bad thing.

I'm skeptical by personality and profession, and against the backdrop of recent news, I saw Steven Spielberg's "Munich" last night. The film opens with the epigraph: "Inspired by a true story" -- which usually means "OK, we made a lot of stuff up, but some names, places and events are sorta maybe genuine if you squint real hard and think way out of the box."

How accurate is the film's depiction of the kidnapping (and subsequent mass murder) of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich? Was the super-secret Israeli hit team that avenged them real? Were the assassinations of terrorist planners accurately rendered? Did the Israeli assassins really find themselves at one point face-to-face with PLO terrorists in a Greek "safe house" and talk themselves out of danger by claiming to be members of various European terrorist gangs like ETA and IRA?

Dr. Cathy Schultz of the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., is a history professor who specializes in Hollywood's treatment of true events. Her essay on the movie "Munich" answers many questions, including "Did this really happen?"

While both Palestinian and Israeli sources have disputed some of the book's accounts, it's Schultz' assessment that much of what you'll see in the movie actually happened. Not so, say some like Rachel Neuwirth, who had trained with many of the Israeli athletes before the '72 Olympics, but didn't go to the fated Games. In a piece for The American Thinker, she wrote:

"Sadly, the average movie-goer will never know where fact ends and fantasy takes over. As a result, many will no doubt come away confused about the moral issues involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, seeing diminished difference between the barbarity of Arab terrorists and the justice meted out by the Israeli agents who pursued them."
In fact, the film was "inspired" by George Jonas' book, "Vengeance," described by publisher Simon&Schuster this way:

"'Vengeance' is a profoundly human document, a real-life espionage classic that plunges the reader into the shadow world of terrorism and political murder. But it goes far beyond that, to explore firsthand the feelings of disgust and doubt that gradually came to torment each member of the Israeli team, and that in the end inexorably changed their view of the mission -- and themselves."

Is it a good film? Yes. It makes you think about the nature of good and evil, whether any culture has rights and superiority over any other -- including the right to kill innocents to induce terror or make a statement.

But is it a true film? The epigraph says it all: "Inspired by a true story." Unlike James Frey, the filmmakers don't say it's true ... then lie. They say up front it's a creative work that takes much/some of its material from actual events. And like Rachel Neuwirth says, you probably will never know where the reality and the fantasy intersect.

"Munich" -- and most other Hollywood fare -- probably shouldn't be shown in World History classrooms as an accurate depiction of real events. But it should be seen in the parallel universe of a movie theater, and truly contemplated. The message is rendered in light and shadow and sound, but it's relevant to the real world outside the theater.

PHOTO ABOVE: Associated Press

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Corpses 'lost' in post-Katrina bureaucracy

Sometimes the news will break your heart and make you angry at the same time. That's the case in the story about Eldo and Julia Allen's search for their son an daughter-in-law, whom they last heard from the day before Hurricane Katrina scraped across Biloxi, Miss, where they lived. Here's the AP account:

"[The Allens] waited for nearly four months, not knowing the horrific truth: that their son and daughter-in-law died as the storm surge swallowed their Beach Boulevard apartment. That their bodies had long since been found and identified at the Harrison County, Miss., coroner's office. And that they were about to be ``disposed of'' after going so long unclaimed.

"The agencies the Allens had been calling all those months hadn't contacted the coroner, and the coroner hadn't checked with the agencies. "

Worse, the son and daughter-in-law's corpses were designated as having no known relatives, then cremated. The Allens' labyrinthine journey through the tangled and kinked bureacracies of FEMA, Red Cross, the Mississippi coroner, Social Security and other agencies ended just before the "authorities" were to "dispose of" the unclaimed ashes ... only five months since the storm!

Some 4,200 people are still missing since Hurricane Katrina. Some are probably not dead, but relocated. Some might have been duplicated by careless clerks. But many are dead and some of them are likely reduced to ashes by the feckless boobs we expect to protect us from storms and other disasters. Many have probably already been dumped in paupers' or mass graves, or worse.

FEMA isn't woefully inefficient because of the laughably inept Michael Brown ... it is a culture of waste and incompetence ... and this is an agency that we expect to help protect our safety, lives and homes. The Red Cross is only marginally better, but only because its workers have humane motivations. And in 131 days, a new hurricane season -- already predicted to be a killer -- starts again ... and we haven't even found all the victims of the last one.

Instead of looking for new handouts from millionaire swindler/lobbyists, and quibbling over whether a Supreme Court nominee's name is prounced "Alito" or "Alioto" ... or writing children's books from the perspective of a dog ... why can't Congress enact laws that prevent the disposal of bodies from the Katrina disaster until all efforts to identify them have been exhausted?

UPDATE: Coroner Gary Hargrove of Harrison County, Miss., called me on April 3, 2006, to clarify that the Allens' misrepresented the facts in their tragic case. He says their son and daughter-in-law's bodies were never designated as having no relatives and cremated; they were returned as soon as the Allens had made appropriate proof and arrangements. Hargrove claims the delays in making the connections are not entriely explainable, although he wonders why the Allens didn't contact his office directly with questions when they suspected their children might be dead. Hargrove also says an AP reporter who originally wrote the story never interviewed him until it was too late. Hargrove cannot explain why FEMA, the Red Cross or other agencies weren't able to help in thise case, but that his office did nothing wrong.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Word of the Day: Noumenon

I'm always challenging young reporters (and a few old ones) to tell me something I don't know. For me -- and probably for our readers -- an element of "discovery" is one of the things that make a story worth reading. And for newspaper reporters, what good is telling readers only things they already know? They wouldn't think their 50-cents was well spent without a little "gee-whiz," would they?

Gee whiz. Maybe it's an idea they hadn't ever considered, or a real-life situation they could never imagine on their own. Maybe it's the linkage of two distinctly different moments or notions into one, as if providing the missing link.

Or maybe it's just one perfect word.

While reading a novel into the wee hours last night, I had a moment of discovery. In this case, it was a single word.

Noumenon.

It's derived from Greek, meaning a “thing in itself” -- the opposite of phenomenon, the thing that appears to us. Noumena are basic realities that cannot be perceived by our usual senses. You can't touch, taste, smell, hear or see them, although you might sense phenomena they cause. According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, they aren't "knowable" but they must be "thinkable" because moral decision making and scientific investigation depend upon the assumption that they exist.

Like what?

Desire. Reason. Ambiguity. Jealousy. Pride. Evil. A soul.

OK, that's a poet's take on a word (and a philosophy) that's far too tangled for this blog and blogger. Poets suck at complex details. The eggheads over at Wikipedia can quibble endlessly about disambiguation and proto-existential phenomenology, but a poet just likes the way the word rolls around in the mouth ... and how it gives a name to a whole species of things he thinks about.

What else would be a noumenon?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

You must be schadenfreuding me

"Women who seek to be equal to men, lack ambition."
-Timothy Leary

It turns out that the ability to really enjoy revenge is mainly a guy thing, according to a new study. Women, it turns out, really suck at enjoying the pain of their rivals, according to Nature magazine. (And anybody who believes that has never divorced a woman.)

There's actually a fancy name for this characteristic: Schadenfreude, or the malicious enjoyment derived from other people's troubles. It combines the German words for "damage" and "joy" (pronounced SHAH-den-froy-duh.)

And male superiority in schadenfreude is possibly the result of evolution, the researchers at the University College of London said. "Lower male empathy may have something to do with their ability in keeping the society together by being able to coldly dole out sentences," they said.

Hold the phone ... men were only superior to women when the victim deserved it, the study said. "They expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment," said one article.

Otherwise, men showed the same empathy as women when the victim was being punished unfairly. "These results suggest that fairness in social situations shapes the nature of the emotional link we have to other people," said Dr. Tania Singer.

Well, this still doesn't explain a billion years of spurned women whose furies Hell hath none of, but you can't argue with science.

WARNING: Men, do not use the word "schadenfreude" in the presence of your male friends. They will take great pleasure in making you suffer for being a geeky sissy. That's how schadenfreude works.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I wanna be a crackhead toddler, too

Leave it to the San Francisco Chronicle's perversely irreverent Mark Morford to see a commercial opportunity in depravity, addiction and richly re-imagined history:

"I shall start my story humbly, meekly, just like JT LeRoy and James Frey. Small town, somewhere in Idaho or maybe rural Montana, brought up by a sadistic pedophiliac Pentecostal preacher father who only has one good arm and a decimated colon, and a narcoleptic mother with 17 cats who sucks down cases of Tab and reads the 'Left Behind' books as nonfiction and who passes out every night in a Percocet haze watching endless reruns of 'Knight Rider.'"

Want to know the rest of the story? Click through to Morford's hilarious column in today's Chronicle

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Are democracies more peaceful? Let's vote


It's a precept that Americans have no difficulty believing -- that democracies are peaceful countries -- but in a fairly clear-eyed, if brief, analysis of the notion this week in the LA Times, author Mark Helprin says it ain't necessarily so.


"This claim, which has been advanced in the past in regard to Christianity, socialism, Islam and ethical culture, is the postulate on which the foreign policy of the United States now rests. Balance of power, deterrence and punitive action have been abandoned in favor of a scheme to recast the political cultures of broad regions, something that would be difficult enough even with a flawless rationale because the power of even the most powerful country in the world is not adequate to transform the world at will.

"Nor is the rationale flawless. It is possible to discover various statistical correlations among democracy and war and peace, depending on how they are defined and in what time frames. "

Helprin points out that Germany was a democracy when it instigated World War I, and the United States undertook the Mexican and Spanish-American wars without any overt threat to national or global security. Indeed, the Civil War itself hardly stands as a tribute to the peaceful nature of democracies.

OK, so maybe democracies aren't by definition peaceful. But are they more peaceful than other forms of government, such as communism or dictatorships? Helprin says:


"It isn't that democracies are too old or too young or too fat or too thin, but that none is perfect and that, therefore, all are subject to forces that may override the theoretical peacefulness of representative governments. Even perfect democracies, which have never been and will never be, cannot offer the kind of Pax Democratica [the U.S. imagines.]"

Fascinating essay on a myth that is guiding many modern decisions in America.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

No whining in the press box!

One of the pitfalls when your team has won three of the last four Super Bowls -- as the New England Patriots have -- is that you forget how to lose gracefully -- as the New England Patriots did Saturday to the Denver Broncos in the AFC's divisional playoff game.

Now, it's not fair to judge all fans by the nation's 167,239 sports columnists, each of whose job is to say outrageous things and then go suck up to pro athletes. But Boston Herald and ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski shows how puerile (I used that word specifically because most sports columnists don't recognize it) and parochial they can be. Woj might not cheer in the press box, but he whines in print this morning:

"I have a better chance of slipping the Lombardi Trophy some post-Super Bowl tongue than the Denver Broncos do this year. That's because neither of us are going to be playing in The XL at Ford Field come Feb. 5. And if the Broncos do make it to Detroit, I'll pay the barbershop tab for Jake Plummer to shave the worst beard this side of an Amish barn raising. ...

"'We got the win, that's all that matters,' said Plummer.

"That's sort of true. Criticizing a team after it reaches the AFC championship is like ripping Angelina Jolie for wearing too much lip gloss. But I can't help it. If the Broncos think they can play like this and beat the Colts in Indy, or even the Steelers at Mile High, then they're suffering from oxygen deprivation. ..."

"As Plummer jogged off the field and toward the stadium tunnel, he stopped just long enough to hand the game ball to a 10-year-old boy leaning against the railing. His name was Jack Dunnigan, and for several minutes he was so stunned by the gesture that he couldn't speak. Memo to Jack: Hold onto that ball. It will be the last one Plummer hands out this season. "

Woj, your team lost. They lost because they made a lot of mistakes. Ask somebody what "class" is, go buy some, and show it off. And when it comes to criticizing ugly beards, buddy ... well, you wouldn't get much on eBay for yours.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Million Little Grouses

Fascinated by this week's war of words
over fact and fiction in American literature
-- but missed my commentary on NPR this weekend?

Not a problem! You can listen online.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The dog ate my manuscript ...

Oh man, if I was married, I'd love to explain a wild night of carousing this way to my angry wife:
"My account of events is a truthful but subjective recollection of last night," I'd say, "and the essential truth of what I've said should not be eroded by your skepticism."

That's what fibber-memoirist James Frey, author of the now-murky "A Million Little Pieces," told CNN's Larry King last night. I gotta admit, the guy's good. If he truly is a former addict -- IF -- then he surely exhibits the superior manipulative powers of a GREAT addict.

~~~~~~~

UPDATE from Random House/Doubleday web site:

"Contrary to erroneous published reports, Random House, Inc. is not offering a special refund on A Million Little Pieces. It has long been standard Random House Inc procedure to direct consumers who want a refund on any of the tens of thousands of books we publish back to their retail place of purchase, unless they purchased the book directly from us in which case we refund it. Yesterday we had 15 calls to our customer service line specific to A Million Little Pieces and fewer than that today. "

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

'Country Boys' on PBS


Criticism of contemporary TV is really low-hanging fruit for a media blogger, but the vast wasteland of television programming today has a few oases. One is the remarkably evocative, alternately hopeful and heartbreaking documentary, "Country Boys," by David Sutherland, airing its final segment tonight on PBS.

A companion film of sorts to the 1998 PBS blockbuster "The Farmer's Wife," "Country Boys" turns the lens to Cody Perkins and Chris Johnson, two teenage boys from Appalachian Kentucky. Although wired to the world via the Internet and cable, they are deeply rooted in a region stigmatized as "other," where the lack of economic opportunity puts its youth under uncommon pressure. The film follows them over three years, from ages 15 to 18, examining what it means to come of age in Appalachia.

In fact, the documentary evokes far more than even filmmaker David Sutherland admits in that description. Cody's and Chris' circumstances -- if they could somehow translate -- would be just as withering for teenagers in the big-city. And although they are products of a chronically depressed region, their lives offer a window into a generation we might not fully understand. These aren't kids on the fringe. They are like many of the kids you know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Professional liars on your bookshelf

Almost simultaneously today, two "nonfiction" authors were unmasked as flamboyant frauds ... and they aren't named Clifford Irving!

After simmering speculation throughout the literary world, the New York Times has unmasked JT Leroy, author of books such as "Harold's End," as not being who he says he is. Who does he say he is? Oh, just a guy who started life as a 12-year-old truck-stop hooker (thanks to his mom) and got AIDS and dreams of getting a sex-change operation to bring out the woman living inside. Well, I'll be damned ... there IS a woman inside and she's a 40-year-old Brooklyn-born, middle-class Bay Area housewife who invented Leroy!

But the wicked Leroy isn't alone in today's fraudulence. A bigger bastard-seller than Leroy is James Frey, whose "A Million Little Pieces" was anointed by Oprah herself. His book? "A nonfiction memoir of his vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal," according to SmokingGun.com, which now accuses Frey of being a far bigger sissy than he portrays himself in print .... 3.5 million copies, to be exact.

Luckily, most of the people who buy the books Oprah tells them to buy don't actually read them, but does anybody really care if a purportedly nonfiction book is, well, fiction? Isn't a good story a good story? And hasn't the Internet made us all fans of factless fiction fancy-dancing as truth? After all, wasn't Capote's "In Cold Blood" a nonfiction novel?

Armistead Maupin, whose own novel "The Night Listener" was based on his personal experience with literary fakery, told the San Francisco Chronicle he was discomfited by Leroy's fraud. "A lot of people argue that such frauds cause no harm and are a great joke played on the literary establishment ... But in fact there's something very callous about using AIDS and an abusive childhood as a way of getting sympathy and support. I'm surprised that people were bamboozled as long as they were."

OK, but face it, novelists are professional liars, right? They are paid to make stuff up. They are illusion-makers. Didn't JT Leroy and James Frey simply take the illusion to its ultimate end? Didn't they merely tell us, "It's true and I swear it"? And we fell for it. Shame on us ... but wasn't it fun?

American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"

I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a hyper-realistic eyewitness home-movie and you shoulda seen the look on your face and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??

This is the literary equivalent of Reality TV. They tell you what you're seeing is real, but it's not real at all. It's simulated reality, edited into convenient 30-minute bytes ... and we eat it up.

In America today, we live with too much fiction posing as fact. Blogs, books, politics, TV, videogaming, movies -- and some would say, even the news -- thrive on it. But it's not art to swear you're telling the truth and then fib. That's just common lying. The artful trick is to tell me you're lying and make me believe every word is true.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Get yourself stoned


Wanna see what your headstone might look like?
(and don't be too grave about it)

Teddy tests the waters ... of children's books

Teddy Kennedy is gonna write a children's book.

The 56-page book, "My Senator and Me: A Dogs-Eye View of Washington, D.C.," "not only takes readers through a full day in the Senator's life, but also explains how a bill becomes a law,"according to its publisher, Scholastic, Inc.

Well, Madonna wrote a kids' book, but some things just don't seem right. What's next?

"How to Make New Friends" by Jack Abramoff?
"Ahmed and the Big Boom" by Osama bin Laden?
"I Hate You! I Hate You!" by Howard Dean?
"Jesus Loves You (But Not You)" by Rev. Pat Robertson?
"10 Fun Things To Do During a Time-Out" by PeeWee Herman?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Your own dying words ... write them here

Among the many heartbreaks in the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia is the poignant story of the miners who scribbled their final thoughts on scraps of paper, knowing they'd soon be dead.

"Tell all - I see them on the other side," Martin Toler wrote in pencil on an insurance form in the dark, "It wasn't bad, I just went to sleep." And at the bottom, "I love you."

Another note said: "We're not suffering. We just went to sleep."

Partly because it's a timeless fear that we won't be able to speak those last important messages before we die, and partly because underground mine disasters are a rarity in modern news, readers' hearts go out to these families whose last words from their fathers, brothers and sons will be written on the backs of pay stubs and old grocery receipts.

But the practice among underground miners -- who live every day knowing that such a fate is possible -- is an old one. Tragically, death underground is slow (and certain) enough to allow time to write such notes.

Dolores Riggs Davis, an Ohio historian and an expert on mining disasters, told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in 2000, that it's a perfect storm of human impulse and circumstances.

"I've seen my share of these letters," she told reporter Rex Bowman. "People desperately want to reach out to a loved one. They'll tear scraps from paper bags to write a note. They want people to know what they were feeling when they died."

In a 1902 Tennessee mine disaster, J.L. Powell wrote to his wife:

"Dear Ellen, I will have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen, take care of my litle darling Lillie. Ellen, little Elbert [also in the mine] said he believed in the Lord. He said he was saved if we never see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. He would meet his mother in heaven if he never lived to git out. We are not hurt bad, only perishing for air. There is but few of us here. I don't know where the other miners are at. Elbert said for you all to meet us in heaven, All the children meet us both in heaven."
Another miner in the same hole wrote:

"Alice, do the best you can. I am going to rest. Goodbye Alice. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all perishing for air to support us. But it is getting so bad without any air. Charlie said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1-1/2 o'clock. Marvell Harmon's watch is now in Andy Wood's hands. ...Raise the children the best way you can. Oh how I would love to be with you. Goodbye to all of you. Bury me an Elbert in the same grave. Tell little Ellen goodbye. Goodbye Ellen. Goodbye Horace. We are together. It is now 25 minutes after 2 o'clock. A few of us are alive yet, Jacob and Elbert.OH GOD FOR ONE MORE BREATH."
In a 1915 West Virginia mine explosion, miner Bill Derenge wrote:

"We are all still alive but not knowing [how] long God will spare me so dear friends should it be Gods will that I must die you will find on me a Gold watch and a purse with $10 and 90 cts and the rest of my belongings is at G John Souls house such as trunk and clothes So please notify my father and restore everything safely to him So God being my helper I will close."
So imagine this: You're a mile below ground, huddled in the dark, cut off from rescue and all you can do is wait to die. You have a pencil and a piece of paper the size of a pay stub.

What will you write?

San Francisco Quake of 1906 ... as seen by Jack London


You probably already knew Jack London was a great American writer, but some never-before-exhibited snapshots of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that will soon be shown by the California Historical Society prove he was also a talented photographer. At the height of his fame, London shot the photos when he and his wife, Charmian, visited the devastated city to write a magazine article for Collier's magazine. An excellent article about the photos and their history appears in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

You can't go home again

Are Katrina-wrecked homes in New Orleans' impoverished Lower Ninth Ward a threat to health and safety ... or a living museum?

Up to 2,400 houses "deemed in imminent danger of collapse" (and not all in the Lower Ninth Ward) are expected to be demolished within the next few weeks under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Yesterday, activists chased away city bulldozers that were about to raze some all-but-fallen houses that were damaged by the hurricane, some calling it "obscene" and some calling it a "conspiracy."

Even the City Council president, Oliver Thomas, who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, called it "callous." "The last time I checked this was still America," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Nobody's going to touch my family's property unless you're going to bulldoze me. And you better be a bad dude if you're going to try to bulldoze me."

Katrina laid bare many unsavory realities in New Orleans. Among them: No city, state or federal government has all the answers, and none can be counted on to always do the right thing in a crisis. But also: People will do some pretty stupid things in a crisis.

In principle, the destruction of houses that threaten health, safety and community progress is a good idea, although it's understandable why those homeowners don't wish to see the corpses of their former homes bulldozed. But has the City of New Orleans done everything it can to work with homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods to lessen the emotional impact of such demolition?

Given the late and ineffective "action" -- and ultimately fatal dithering -- of government officials before, during and after Katrina, I wouldn't count on it. The government (city, state or federal) hasn't earned enough trust to be able to stride boldy into wounded neighborhoods and start knocking down houses.

But the people of New Orleans must also understand that the hollowed-out, moldy corpses that were once homes cannot be preserved indefinitely. It's not safe, healthy, nor good for the revivification of a great city. All of us along the Gulf Coast who lost something in the hurricanes of 2005 must understand that, though it pains the heart, some things simply must go to make way for something better.

PICTURED ABOVE: A New Orleans church flooded after Katrina. The horizontal yellow line is a water-line stain left by floodwaters. (Photo by Ron Franscell)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pat Robertson speaks for God ... again

In his latest interpretation of God's will, the Rev. Pat Robertson today announced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land." On his TV show "The 700 Club" today, Robertson said:


"God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible and he says `This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, `No, this is mine.' ... [Sharon] was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU [European Union], the United Nations, or the United States of America."

If Rev. Robertson knows what God is going to do, why doesn't he warn folks? And if God is now smiting fellows who divide, a repentant Robertson better have a word with the Big Guy. God knows where he lives. In fact, it's a little surprising that he hasn't already awakened with a Holy Hand Grenade in his boxers!

Look on the bright side, though: We didn't elect Robertson president. American Jews might be forced to wear Stars of David on their lapels or something equally creative. Rev. Robertson just seems a little too eager for fellow humans to suffer -- Hugo Chavez, for example -- for a clergyman. Say a prayer for poor Pat

Take this job and ...

If CNN's Lou Dobbs were the U.S. Secretary of Labor, would America start working again?

Well, maybe. But that's just one of the 10 productivity-enhancing suggestions in this morning's LA Times op-ed piece by Joe Robinson, author of "Work to Live." While Lou Dobbs has certainly been a familiar face in the crusade against outsourcing and the "forgotten middle-class worker," Robinson's other nine suggestions actually make sense ... which is why they probably won't get any traction in today's American business climate. Robinson's column begins:
"It was a great year for labor — if you worked at a call center in India, made your living as a CEO or sold real estate to big-box stores. But deep in Cubicle Nation, the average American worker remained on a fast track to the Industrial Revolution, with soaring workweeks, declining wages and health, pension and vacation benefits vanishing faster than you can say job security."

After his nomination of CNN's Dobbs for a Cabinet post, Robinson's other nine suggestions include:

-- Restore the 40-hour workweek. "Almost 40% of us are working more than 50 hours a week, not exactly what the Fair Labor Standards Act intended when it set the 40-hour workweek in 1938."
-- Establish workplace rules for e-tools ... including no work emails being sent to a worker's home.
-- Allow more telecommuting.
-- Legalize vacations. "Almost a third of American women and a quarter of men don't get any vacation leave anymore because, unlike 96 other countries, the U.S. has no paid-leave law."
-- Provide guaranteed sick leave.
-- Support a living wage. "With the skyrocketing costs of gas, food and rent, an increase in the minimum wage is long overdue."
-- Tighten the salary test. "The explosion of salaried employees — now 40% of all workers (including a huge jump in salaried caregivers) — is without doubt having major repercussions on divorce rates, child care, civic responsibilities and drug sales. Wake up and smell the Paxil."
-- Provide paid childbirth leave to all working Americans. "Only 40% of American workers are eligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, and fewer still are brazen enough to actually take the time off."
-- No more back-patting. "This year, make a point of not supporting workaholic martyrs ('I worked all night! I came in on the weekend!' 'Really? How lame.') who don't drive productivity but stress everyone around them. "

Would all those things work? Undoubtedly somebody would benefit ... until some merchant realized he could do it better and cheaper overseas or with illegal immigrant labor. Robinson's suggestions have some merit, but aren't the magic beans to American productivity. Labor unions have many of those "perks" he mentions, but nobody is holding up unionists as the ideal American worker. Clearly, those "fixes" wouldn't transform the U.S. business-scape.

Although, I might mention that I'm for automatic 20% pay raises every year. That'd certainly improve my productivity for a couple days.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Here's your sign

The damage to Southeast Texas wreaked by Hurricane Rita has been sobering ... except for moments of irony and humor caused by the storm's random jumbling. Here are some examples (and if you have any similar photos, please send them and I'll post them here.)


Canal City, Texas: There's only one road in or out ... and it's a backroad

An unfortunate misspelling for a restaurant. Did they mean "awful" ... or "offal"?