Friday, March 29, 2013

The Civil War and American Art

I went to see The Civil War and American Art exhibit a few days ago at the American Art Museum. It was awesome.

That's Negro Life at the South by Eastman Johnson. The original is being shown at the exhibit. This painting blew me away. There's a lot going on in this image, but look at the skin tones of its characters: some people have light skin, some have dark skin, and one--on the far right--has skin light enough to pass for a white woman. Clearly, she does pass, given the type and color of dress she's in. Why is she here, then, if she's white? Perhaps her father was white, her mother was black, and she's visiting her family.

Whatever the case may be, the image has an amazing point: that race isn't innate, but constructed. What does whiteness mean, in this painting? Blackness? The distinction is arbitrary and, in this world, haunted by the unseen presence of a white master, tyrannical.

This sort of commentary is still meaningful, but Negro Life at the South was released in 1857. 1857!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A week in D.C.

I'm in D.C. for the week with my Dad. I got in a day earlier than him and spent yesterday walking the length of the national mall. What a strange place: half church, half-zoo. The buildings and their subject matter are austere and important, but crowds swirl around them running and gawking. I'm trying hard not to pass judgment on the people playing frisbee on the U.S. Grant Memorial, or the woman watching her child feed nuts to a squirrel by the one of the Smithsonian buildings, but it's hard. I'm a snob. Or, really, I'm an acolyte. Not really a zealot--I don't have the stomach for it. Still, it's clear. Nationalism is my religion.

I don't think that's so absurd. The words above Lincoln's head in his memorial read:
In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever
The language is pretty clear. The memorial is a "temple." His memory is "enshrined" within. So when I feel that the swarming crowds around Lincoln, or elsewhere on the mall, don't treat the place with proper respect--really, that they're blaspheming(!)--am I wrong? Probably I am.


Today we're going to see an exhibit about art during the Civil War. Maybe we'll cruise by the capitol dome to see if the anti-circumcision protesters I saw yesterday are still there.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Some (not exactly current, but whatever) thoughts on torture in Zero Dark Thirty

"Zero Dark Thirty," the latest movie from Katheryn Bigelow, begins with white text on a black screen. "Based on first hand accounts of actual events," it reads. After a moment the text fades, leaving us in darkness. The panicked sounds of 9/11 fill the room. It's chilling to be brought so close again to that much desperation and death. Terrifying, even. For a few short minutes, we are Bigelow's detainees, held for torture, forced to conjure the memory of our greatest modern tragedy. So when the torture of captured al-Qaeda operatives begins--in scenes filmed in disgusted, tactile detail--the film has already prepared us, in a way, to see this. 9/11 happened, and America was terrorized and tortured as a nation. Then, as a nation, America terrorized and tortured others. Was it moral? Was it justified? Was it even expedient? ZDT hardly seems interested in these questions.

Torture is at the heart of ZDT, a film in which torture and death are simply real, whether right or wrong. What makes ZDT so terrifying is its belief that its world is ours. The sounds of 9/11 are only the first of many historical images or sounds included in the film, which intersperses the actual stuff of history throughout its fictional world. There's the scene of four CIA operatives, who have done the hard work of torture for their country, pausing to hear candidate Barack Obama opine in a televised interview that the USA must not torture in order to regain its "moral stature." The operatives listen without comment. They seem to regard Obama's sentiment with unspoken dread--these characters are real, their directives are real, and Obama, a million miles away, is only an image on TV.

The movie never endorses torture, though it never suggests that its wholly wrong, either. Maya (played by Jessica Chastain, strangely modulating the tone of her performance from one scene to the next) and the rest of her CIA interrogators never receive meaningful information while torturing a detainee--though they learn much exploiting the threat of torture. If the film says anything about torture at all, its that these CIA operatives truly believe in its worth. No American in the film, Obama aside, seems at all conflicted about the use of torture on captured members of al-Qaeda. No plot lines explore the emotional or psychological effects of torture on Maya, or other American torturers. Somewhere in the long middle of the film, after Obama's administration has ended torture, the pace of incoming information (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the pace of the narrative) slows to a crawl. Maya's frustration is obvious. A CIA executive responds to State Department skepticism of his evidence's veracity by barking, "who am I supposed to ask?," suggesting that the only problem with his evidence is that it could not be confirmed through torture. Through it all Maya, and her cohort, remain sympathetic to the audience. They are beset on all sides by what they perceive as evil, and they're using any means they can to fight against it.

ZDT commits to empathizing with its (American) characters without necessarily condoning their beliefs. In this way the movie has succeeded as art: its made us understand characters who do things we might find reprehensible. Lolita comes to mind as a point of comparison, or Dexter. I'll admit to having read little about the controversy surrounding ZDT and its depiction of torture. I'd venture, however, that ZDT's empathy is what makes the movie so difficult to take. It is neither for nor against torture, but it's certainly for humanizing torturers. A torturer is not only a torturer in ZDT, but a person first. And, perhaps most difficult, torturers are Americans, just like us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My haul at the swap meet

A shirt, two ties, a pair of shoes:

I'm especially stoked about the whale tie. Up close:

I found some good stuff, but Emily was the real winner. She found a rad mustard yellow dress from the 20s for a good price.

Monday, March 11, 2013

On floating through words

It's funny how pieces of advice stick with you. I read the following a few nights ago and it's been on my mind since:
While I like poetic and/or complicated language, too much of it can drag a story down and I want a story where the reader can float through the words, emerging changed from that immersion.
From Cat Rambo, in a June 2009 Clarkesworld article about what editors of short fiction markets want to see in submissions.

Perhaps it's the lovely image of a reader floating through a story that made the passage stick, or maybe my mind is wired to think anything written in italics is automatically important. Either way, I've been editing my sentences with the above in mind, and it really helps as a guiding principle. Wherever language gets in the way, it's got to go. Language is in service of the story's immersion. Where the story is overwritten, and the language is something like a brick hurled toward my floating reader, a rewrite is in order.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Marriage and emasculation

I realized something last night. The jokes and stories men tell each other about married life--about emasculation, about being "whipped," about how wives boss husbands around, about how marriage is an assault on manhood--suggest rather plainly that marriage is incompatible with this conception of masculinity.

A necessary condition for successful marriage (though not a sufficient one) is that married partners respect each other. If men believe that respecting a woman is to be whipped by her, or that becoming equal partners with a woman in the construction and maintenance of a family is degrading, then the marriage is doomed. Consider the following commercials. I've selected beer commercials because they tend to speak directly to/from the male id.

This is a common theme in beer advertising, which can be described as: men outwit their girlfriends/wives to hang out with their male friends and drink beer. The joke, of course, is that they have found creative ways to enjoy their lives and their masculinity within marriage, which otherwise would emasculate them.

Consider the following ad for Jim Beam:

This conception of partnership turns women pretty explicitly into sex slaves. If the ideal partner for a heterosexual man can never actually exist because her defining characteristic is enjoyment of her status as a sex object and object of manly scorn, perhaps we might want to think hard about what that means for men, women, and marriage.

As I've prepared to get married this summer, I've thought (and talked) a lot about what a marriage is. I don't think there's a right answer, but it seems clear that no relationship can survive if frustration is the baseline emotion for one of its partners. In the case of the commercials above, that frustration is a man's reaction to the concept of equal partnership between husband and wife. Yuck.

A final video, though not a commercial, in support of gay marriage. This is a worthy cause. However: to support gay marriage, the heterosexual men in the video show contempt for women (women who, presumably, they love). There's no small amount of irony here: the video is a response to the idea that gay marriage will degrade straight marriage. But if these men are any indication, further erosion of marriage hardly seems possible. They already hate their partners. What could be worse for marriage than that?

Sunday, March 3, 2013


"Fidelity," my first published short story, has just appeared in my email inbox.

That's pretty cool.

If you feel compelled, head to Daily Science Fiction's facebook page, where there's a thread for discussion of the story.

Lunch today

Prepared by Steve:

Lamb chops, fried potatoes, and steamed veg. Yum. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

What I read in February

Tenth of December by George Saunders. This collection of stories blew me away. A very few of the stories are hopeful--the title story, for instance, finds hope in an otherwise hopelessly cruel story. But the overall effect of the stories is one of overwhelming, crushing, mundane horror. I'm thinking of the inner monologue of the would-be rapist in "The Victory Lap," which reveals a motivation all the more terrifying for its banality. I'm thinking of "Puppy," in which a privileged choice of principle about whether or not to adopt a puppy leads directly to suffering and death. A similar privileged choice has fire consequences in "My Chivalric Fiasco."

I liked the stories best which switched back and forth between perspectives. Many of the stories do this. Saunders is some kind of genius of empathy. He consistently made me understand a world through the eyes of one character, and understand and care about that character's choices, before achieving the same for another character in the same story. Then, when those characters (who I knew well individually) came into conflict, it was heartbreaking when they couldn't communicate with each other.

The Black Box by Michael Connelly. A detective novel in a long series about LAPD detective Harry Bosch. I don't typically read books like this but, on balance, I enjoyed this one. The prose is simple--the sort one's eyes can pass over quickly. The typical paragraph doesn't have very much important information in it--they're easy to skip over without missing much. It's all very easy to read, and almost completely about the plot, kinda boring scenes about Bosch's relationship with his daughter notwithstanding. And the plot is pretty good. A (white) journalist was murdered in LA during the Rodney King riots. Bosch ends up on the case after 20 years have passed, and eventually discovers a conspiracy to cover up war crimes from the Gulf War. The pieces fit together just right, though I'll admit I didn't think about them very hard.

One of the threads running through the first part of the book is the political pressure Bosch feels to drop the case before he solves it. The thinking goes like this: it would be politically imprudent for the LAPD to solve none of the murders from the riots (almost all of which, we presume, are of people of color) except one of a white person. Connelly seems interested is responding to that criticism through Bosch, but never does a convincing job. Does Bosch gravitate towards this case because the victim was a white woman? (Ditto for Connelly?) So, maybe the book is kinda problematic from that perspective. But it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Believing is Seeing by Errol Morris. I have such a huge crush on Errol Morris. The book's subtitle is "Observations on the mysteries of photography," and Morris writes about the famous discrepancy between the two Crimean War photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the images from Abu Graib, WPA photography during the depression, war photography in the Gaza strip, and an unidentified dead man clutching an ambrotype of his children at Gettysburg. Each essay begins with a photograph (or two), but quickly broaden. Morris asks: what can a photograph actually tell us? What does "truth" mean in the context of a photograph? What can any historical document or object tell us about the past? These are compelling questions that Morris doesn't quite answer. But answering them doesn't seem to be his goal. Instead, he sketches out the parameters of the questions as clearly as he can, so readers can make up their own minds. This is really quick, compelling reading. The Black Box and Believing is Seeing are both detective stories, in a sense. But Morris' book is a high-concept detective story.

A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee. A not-much-longer-than-magazine-length profile of Bill Bradley as a student-athlete at Princeton. It's obvious from the beginning that McPhee regards Bradley as something like the platonic ideal of a basketball player. McPhee can't help but gush. He describes Bradley's greatness stemming from a sort of heightened self-awareness--or, using McPhee's phrase, Bradley's sense of where he is.

The writing here is strong, and the subject interesting. One gets the sense from McPhee that Bradley was great at basketball almost because he couldn't help himself. The book succeeds when it is a straight profile of Bradley, describing what makes him special. It works because his genius is at once transparent and completely inaccessible. Bradley can describe, in straightforward language, the simple mechanics of why he missed any given hook shot, for example. But his ability to intuit or measure those mechanics separates him for nearly everyone else.

The NBA and body consciousness

Wesley Morris wrote for Grantland about the short-sleeved shirts worn by the Warriors during a game against the Spurs last week. He's on point in his criticism, as usual. The problem with the jerseys, in practice, is one of size and tailoring. They looked about as baggy as the t-shirts I wear to pickup basketball. The jersey above looks great. It looks sleek, lithe, fast, and strong. The jerseys below look dumpy.

Perhaps the fabric stretched during warm-ups, but I'd wager that the players selected (or were given) shirts a size too big. Does that suggest the players' aversion to any restriction of motion in the chest and shoulders? Maybe.

Or, perhaps, the choice is a symptom of the larger basketball culture whose fashion, recent trends in post-game attire notwithstanding, has become baggier and baggier as time has gone on. Are the athletes able to perform better in larger uniforms? Or are they simply more body conscious than their forebears?

Even though the short-sleeved shirt is a novel concept in NBA uniforming history, then, it represents a throwback in how it presents the athletes' bodies. The image of Oscar Robertson above is something of a celebration of the male body. But it captures not only his athletic grace and power, but also the thousands of spectators watching him. Over the years, players have reacted to that gaze by wearing longer shorts and baggier jerseys, hiding their bodies under folds of fabric. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised the Warriors wore their shirts a little loose the other night.