Monday, December 30, 2013

Sooner Swim Club

All coaches quickly learned never to put my brother with me in the same lane. We would race each other and then try to pass each other, grabbing an ankle and pulling backward, or pushing down on the flat of the other’s back and swimming over.

I was a competitive swimmer with all heart and no talent.

My brother was a swimmer who was forced by my mother to join in the interest of weight control and hygiene.

No matter how hard I tried, my sister and brother breezed their way to ribbons and medals and “A” times, while I immersed myself in “The Physics of Swimming,” watching swim meets, and fantasizing about going to a transformative swim camp in Florida, and hopeful fictions of growing my petite hands and feet into retractable flipper-like appendages.

Needless to say, I was not able to genetically or biomedically engineer myself, but I did learn how to deal with disappointment, and how to lose races – gracefully and ungracefully. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Little Red Wagon

My brother was back at our parents’ summer cabin in northern Vermont.  He was unable to walk on his leg after being in a terrible bicycle accident that resulted in the handlebar going through his knee. He was rushed to the Lancaster, New Hampshire hospital and spent two weeks there, in a semi-private room, shared by an older gentleman who died one night. I remember when it happened. It was tough on a 12-year-old to witness such an event:

“Mother, Mr. Glandeville died last night,” he said, muffled voice.
“Oh, that is sad. Well, that sometimes happens,” said Mother.
“But he was my friend. We played checkers,” said Paul. Mother continued hunting in her purse for something and did not really pause.
“He’s in a better place, probably,” she said.

He was finally released from the hospital and deemed well enough to stay home, but he could not put any weight on his knee. Paul was glad to be back and camp, and to sneak into his stash of C-rations and start to work on regaining the weight he had lost in the hospital.

It was not to be.

His only way to get to the cabinet where the C-Rations were stored was to use our little sister’s little red wagon as a wheelchair. When I realized what he wanted to do (and my parents were out), I rolled the wagon across the room, then in full view, opened up the cabinet, extracted a pack of C-Rations.

“Hey! Those are mine!” he shouted.
“I am hungry and want something,” I said.
“You can have the four-pack of cigarettes, but that’s all,” said Paul.
“I don’t want the cigarettes, and I don’t want the Kleenex packet either,” I said. “I like the fruitcake and that’s what I’m eating.” I said as I pulled out the can and prepared to grab the can opener.

Unfortunately it was precisely at that moment I heard the crunch of wheels on gravel and the return of adult supervision. I hustled the materials back into the cabinet, wheeled the little red wagon back to Paul’s bed, then left him to stew on his own new set of revenge fantasies.

If only I had been able to carry out my designs – grab, devour, gloat – right in front of him, it would have been great practice for the future. I would have been a much better wife and mother, and potentially even a captain of industry.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bicycle Races

Here’s the scene: Racing to bicycles the minute the final bell rings in grade school to jump on and pedal as hard as I could so I could beat my brother back to the house.

“I have a head start! I’m going to beat you!” shouted Paul. Unfortunately, I knew this to be true. His classroom was nearest the bike racks. I had the further impediment of being unable to resist the siren’s call of teacher flattery / compliments. If my teacher wanted to say something to me, I immediately brightened and stopped. It was almost always on my excellent work in reading and science. There was only one nine week period in which I earned “Needs Improvement” on behavior. I think it was for sketching and writing in my diary instead of paying attention to student presentations.

On the days my mother volunteered at Bethel Baptist Church library, my brother and I had a bit of freedom to raid the refrigerator and eat whatever we wanted. The winner would run inside and lock the other out of the house.

“You lost!”  Raspberry PopTarts are my favorite!” He taunted me through bay windows and patio doors.
“You cheated!”
“You are slow!” laughed Paul as he opened a second pack.
“I need to eat! We have swim practice in 2 hours!”
“Mother will be back in an hour. You can eat then,” he said.
“I’ll get stomach cramps!”
“Haha – isn’t that too bad,” he continued. “Now I’m going to eat my Chef Boyardee macaroni and cheese.”

Like 99% of the other times, I lost. I finally learned to bring money with me and to simply ride my bike down to the Li’l Red convenience store on the corner, where I would buy Butterfingers and Chick-o-Sticks.

Salad and fish fillets were better fuel for swim practice, but I did what I could.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Barbies and Army Men

My brother and I both played with dolls.  Of course, he would not like to see it that way. After all, I had a very elaborate collection of finely wrought dolls garbed in mid-Victorian and
American antebellum dresses which I arranged carefully in the window seat of my bedroom. I also had a collection of Troll Dolls, along with Barbie and Midge, whose little high heels and metallic cloth dresses made me jump up and look into the mirror and wonder what I would look like when I was 25.

Paul’s dolls (okay, “action figures”) were not very elaborate; they were formed of molded plastic, probably a low-density polyethylene, and they were designed to position in strategic formation. So, while I was busily arranging my dolls and ordering their worlds for battle on the dance floor and for the attention of men in the beau monde, my brother was busy unpeeling Black Cats (small firecrackers) to harvest their powder to make something powerful enough to blast out an entire battalion and launch dirt clods into the air. The tiny figurines were expressions of our inner lives, and an opportunity to enact games of omnipotence, or at least explore all the ways why you could just never know everything, nor could you predict how, why, and when things might fall apart.

His improvised explosive devices were often unpredictable. The could be duds, or they could blow up. There were times when he was lucky that no one was around except me, and obviously I did not count, having had my own frustrations and disasters with my dolls, my little proxies, whose hair did not grow back after I cut it, and whose outfits were limited to my fledgling skills with a small sewing machine and a great imagination.

Perhaps we should have changed places and I could have experimented with tunneling and blasting and my brother could have role-played social scenarios in Barbie’s Beach House rather than the mass carnage “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” types of bravado-infused stories and enactments.
Hard to say.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lightning in the Clouds, Antique Golf Clubs, and the Whitey Bulger Trial

I've been reading a lot of Wodehouse these days, and enjoy most of the works. They are amusing.

I am in Tulsa watching lightning in the clouds.

The other day, I caught a glimpse of my neighbor in Norman, the quadriplegic who was paralyzed after an accident at some sort of moto-cross race. I was worried he had died. I wonder if he got sort of close to death. He looked very wasted.

This weekend is a retreat weekend in the woods of northeast Oklahoma. I think it’s a stone’s throw from where three little Girl Scouts were murdered in June, 1977. The murders were in the headlines, which made me think of summer camp at Camp Cimarron for Campfire Girls, Camp Kickapoo in Kerrville, Texas, and Camp NunnyChaHa in the Arbuckle Mountains -- all summer camps I had enjoyed when I was young. It was very sad. Later, I worked in Tulsa at the Amoco Research Center one summer when I was an undergraduate majoring in engineering.

Post Oak Lodge always makes me think of the murdered Girl Scouts.

I am pigging out tonight. I’m sort of in the mood for it. Full moon. Foul moon. Storm  and all. Have been enjoying P. G. Wodehouse novels. They make me laugh out loud.

I’m reading The Clicking of Cuthbert now. I like the way that golf reveals one's inner landscape and brings to the surface the true self. Tennis is the same. I discovered all kinds of things about myself -- things I would prefer not to know. One, I hate confrontations, and don't really like playing in matches. I freeze, and feel weird about the opponent's emotional flow (usually negative) and the overt competitiveness. Consequently, I play at a much lower level in matches than in practice. I was somewhat better with doubles, where potential reprisals and anger of teammates forced me to really scramble. Nevertheless, I become tentative when playing matches. I suspect I'd be a poor boxer as well.

I have a hankering to take up golf and play with antique clubs. I love the names of the clubs – my favorites are the “Mashie Niblicks.”

On a different tack…

I think that libertinism is a shortcut to a passionless Puritanism. Abstinence driven by desensitization.

What can one think of the Whitey Bulger trial??? He murdered a Tulsan, Roger Wheeler. What is interesting about this is that Wheeler was a neighbor of the woman I rented a room from in 1978. So, I lived almost next door to Wheeler, and it was possible that I may have unwittingly rubbed shoulders with underworld types.

What intrigues me about the Whitey Bulger trial is Bulger’s perverse adherence to some sort of code, as though it matters and anyone really cares. The Mexicans and the  Russians ruined the old Opera Buffa routine for everyone.

On another topic…

I hate the idea of useless, heartless libertinism, and I would rather run away from it. The utter senselessness of all of it just makes me sad.

I want meaning in life. However, nothing in life can withstand too much emotional pressure. Life itself starts to crumble away, when it's pressured to much. In that case, one's idea of life reveals itself to have been all about sensation-seeking.

No one should have to wake up with their pillow wet with tears.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Boy and His Dog

Rex was the runt of the litter of black German Shepherd pups on a farm east of Norman that housed a clutch of screaming women and water moccasins under a rowboat. The screaming women turned out to be peacocks, but the water moccasin was indeed a venomous snake, only about a foot away from my hand as it flipped over the rowboat while I hoped for a quick spin around the pond. I’d like to say that Rex melded the finest attributes of screaming women, peacocks, and water moccasins, but he was his own dog, so to speak, and, as my mother was to find out, much too intelligent to obey simple commands. He had to do everything his way. She tried to “yard train” him so he’d poo only in one tiny corner of the yard. He would, but not in the tiny corner she designated, but one on the opposite end.

She tried to discourage him from digging under the gate to get out and menace the mail carrier. Instead, he learned to climb chain link, and rather than simply greeting the mailman at the porch, he took to jumping into the mailman’s truck. Finally, after the neighbors complained about the dilatory and infrequent delivery of the mail, she electrified the chain link fence.

The five-foot high electrified chain link fence enclosed the back yard, and it represented a substantial investment, given that the lot was just shy of an acre, and the fenced-in part around three-quarters of an acre.

Encircling the yard with wire that buzzed, hummed, and made your hair stand on end as you approached it certainly worked as a deterrent to intruders.  I’m not sure what it did to discourage canine (and adolescent) malfeasance, but it soon became clear that subjecting oneself to a daily barrage of electric shocks would do something to a dog’s personality. After five or six weeks of daily electroconvulsive electric fence shock treatments, Rex would amble about the yard, and bark nonsensically at airplanes passing overhead and the occasional squirrel, who was staggering in its own right after a jolt from the fence.

Rex would get shocked at least twice a day. At first, it seemed he would get shocked in the pursuit of freedom.  But, if you observed him closely, you’d start to see that he was lining himself up for a shock when things started to get a little bit boring.  No squirrels? No airplanes? No meter readers? No visitors?  That meant it was time to run to the low part of the fence where the buzzing and vibrating was the loudest, and where he’d race along the side of the fence and the brush the shiny, matted fur over his rib cage along the fence.  He’d emit a little yelp, more like a “Yelf-YIPE!” and gallop along the fence. Then he’d double back and gallop the other direction and get a charge on the other side of his rib cage.

I do not think my mother had any idea of what was happening with Rex. She did, however, start to wonder if the settings were too high. Each day brought a new harvest of stunned and temporarily paralyzed birds, squirrels, and even a lizard or two. I had been shocked a couple of times, and I was surprised that we did not see the occasional playmate of my brother, knocked out cold on the ground, after having been “accidentally” pushed into the fence. Young boys can play rough.

For some reason, my mother expected Rex to bond with her after her huge investment. She also expected him to respect her as his master.
It was a dream doomed to disappointment.

The truth was, Rex had no master. Rex was Rex. He would continue to be a loud and a very bad neighbor. But, for some reason, my brother loved him, and it was a good thing he did. Never a sleek show dog, Rex’s appearance was taking a turn for the worse. It was probably due to toll that electroconvulsive therapy (even though he practiced it as something of a hobby) was taking on his body. His matted fur was becoming even more matted, and very thin in spots. His tail was half-bald with crusty mange, and one side of his face drooped and one canine incisor was perpetually bared in a half snarl, half drooling pout.

Paul was blind to Rex’s hideous appearance, or, perhaps he liked the contrast: Rex’s “Beast” was foil to Paul’s “Beauty.” Well, perhaps not. Neither one paid any attention to their appearance, much to my mother’s chagrin.

After a few years, the constant upkeep became a headache. My mother de-electrified the fence. I do not think she ever really contemplated the potential liability. It simply no longer met her personal risk-reward metric.

Did living in a yard surrounded by an electrified fence exact a toll? Undoubtedly so, but it might take time to tease that out from all the other mediating influences in one’s childhood.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Scary Pet Zone

Pets had a dismally poor life expectancy once they crossed the threshold into the house on the park-like three-quarter acre lot that adjoined the wilds of Imhoff Creek. One might wonder why we needed pets at all, given the number of “freedom pets” that lived around us. There were cardinals, robins, thrushes, sparrows, squirrels, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, frogs, box turtles, “horny toads,” snakes, and even the occasional rumor of an alligator snapping turtle or coyote.
No. I wanted a pet I could cage and control, who would love me and I would love it, unconditionally and forever (or at least until it met its inevitably premature death). I had the requisite gerbils and hamsters, all with names, which I tried to expunge from my memory as soon as I could after yet another met a tragic fate. Gerbils had a way of plunging to their deaths after I thought they’d enjoy scampering on the top of the piano, and another gerbil lost his battle with the vacuum sweeper as I tried shortcuts in cleaning the litter from his cage.

Fish fared no better. Neons, goldfish, etc. usually died within the first week or so from some shock either brought in from the pet shop or inflicted upon them as I attempted to decorate their tanks.

Perhaps the saddest were the Easter chicks, gaily dyed and jammed together in little crates at the TG&Y store on Main Street. They were cute, and I bought pink and green ones. No one spoke of avian flu, but I can’t even begin to imagine how these conditions could be anything but ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and the cute little chickies were perfect vectors of pestilence.

Now for the big question: Why were people buying the sad little things in the first place? We weren’t exactly an agrarian community: in Norman, Oklahoma, the main employers were the state’s largest research university and the state’s largest mental institution. Well. Perhaps I answered my own question. Our house was so close to the university we could hear the marching band practice and also the cheers of the crowd in Owens Stadium on game days. We were far, far from Central State Psychiatric Hospital, which was on the east side of town. That was the side of town where many of the chimps lived who were being raised by professors to learn sign language, or to consider themselves human beings and part of a human family (University of Oklahoma psychology professor Maurice Temerlain’s tragic experiment with Lucy was well documented on radio and in a book)...

I never wanted to have a chimp. Gerbils were fine until I became consumed by a sense of the tragic and decided I did not really like to have “pets.”  It was just too painful to see their innocent little faces as they looked out of their cages, their sad, meaningless little lives punctuated only by the raw fear (and bruising) of a ten-year-old girl’s ungentle man-handling as she dressed her gerbil in a Troll Doll dress, or taught the neighbor’s cat to drink whiskey from the tiny little airplane-issue bottles my dad would bring back with him from trips.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Post- vs. Neo-Industrial Cities: Beijing

The facial recognition software makes going through immigration and passport control a breeze, and the “nothing to declare” door opens smoothly without a single ripple in the flow of people.

I’m on the road in a taxi at 1 am, and I’m heading to a place at least an hour away in the foothills, so pollution should be at a minimum. But, the cottony “fog” is smog, and it has a vaguely plastic smell. It makes me wish I could time-travel and visit Pittsburgh around 1950, when it was an industrial hub, and nowhere near the “Best Place to Live!” award winner it is today.  Industrialization, job growth, and job obsolescence have high price tags. De-industrialization has its own high price tag, but that’s a meditation for another day.

Smooth sailing through the airport was not exactly what I was expecting in Beijing, although I was prepared for neo-Industrial newness, and a reshaping of identity, self-reconstituting in response to the push and pull of purchasing publics on other sides of the globe.

I have been conditioned to think of Chinese manufactured items as being nicely packaged and high-tech. Now I see the best is dedicated to export; much of the cheaper, poorer quality material stays in the country for domestic consumption. Makes sense. After all, everyone will earn more in exporting things.

Walk, wait, watch.

I don’t have much to say at this point. It’s my first encounter with Beijing.  I love the energy and then sense of potential and promise. Yet, the question is, how far will the balloon actually stretch? Are there limits to market growth? China seems to test all the assumptions of sustainability.

I remember when Happy Faces first came out. They were on everything, ranging from t-shirts to stickers to notebooks. I loved them, and bought Happy Face stationery around Christmas at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City. My dad would take us to a mall where we would go shopping, and I remember the way the shining merchandise, the music, the sense of the eternal “new” (and the sense that “out of fashion” was constantly nipping and biting at one’s heels), all had an impact on my sense of identity, and compelled me to think that I should always be in a state of transition, of emerging, and in the best of all possible worlds, of self-shaping, self-fashioning.

At times I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as vampiric. That's a western view. Question: Can China actually live without the lifeblood of external markets?

At other times, I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as the ideal (ironically) of the Hamiltonian, Federalist model of economic governance; they protect themselves with a wall of adroit protectionism, while counting on Most Favored Nation status, etc. from trading partners. At the same time, I notice how well the government invests in infrastructure, and also creates conditions for growth. In addition, the government acts as a partner in corporate growth, and encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. The government also encourages outside investment, but limits the rights of the investors.  It’s smart and it has worked.  The only question is how long?

To give Jefferson his due, I do think that local control and “states’ rights” can work, and they can encourage innovation (along with a lot of quackery). Extreme individualism is appealing, at least to those who rate high enough on the social order to be considered a fully franchised individual (in America’s South, that meant land-owning, male, citizen, “white,” etc.).

The view from the Sinopec Center was impressive – it was on the edge of a mountain overlooking Beijing. The view from the “Climbing Mountain” just behind it, through brass gates, was even better. You could climb the 400 steps up to a little weather-battered pagoda, and then follow a trail along the hogback, to another set of small steps down the steep side of the mountain.

I found going down harder than going up, but I think that’s something in my brain that tends to see all inclinations as level after I’ve focused on them enough. Clearly, the vision issue also applies to my overall take on life, and on perception itself.

Do all brains work that way? Well, I digress.

Friday, November 29, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse's Heroes: The Perfect Courtier's Sprezzatura in A Damsel in Distress

P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress is one of my favorite Wodehouse novels. In it, the disenchanted and disheartened composer (for musical comedies) George Bevan has an encounter in London with Lady Maud, who is attempting a rendezvous with a man she has fallen head over heels in love with the useless Geoffrey Raymond, much to the disapproval of her family. She happens upon her brother, and attempts to elude him by jumping into a taxi, and into the arms of George, who defends her from her attacker (her brother, the absurdly snobbish Percy Wilbraham Marsh, Lord Belpher).

Wodehouse often makes references to Shakespeare, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the quixotic nature of love, and the possibility of falling in love at first sight (as though pansy juice were sprinkled in one's eyes). There is also a kind of Tristan and Isolde energy in much of Wodehouse -- the love potion is quite strong. For me, the fact that there are mistaken identities, doubles, and absurd encounters, makes me think of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and also Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

A Damsel in Distress has the elements I enjoy -- the kind-hearted, not snobbish Earl of Marshmoreton, a very determined aunt, Lady Caroline Byng. There is a plucky heroine (Lady Maud Marsh) and a romantic, wry, enterprising, and upwardly mobile American (George Bevan), a decent, lovable but rather useless young peer (Reggie Byng), and lots of golf, in the form of George Bevan, Reggie Byng, and also Lady Maud.

Alice Faraday, a born caretaker and reformer, excessively involved and maternal, is a perfect match for Reggie Byng.

Billie Dore, a stenographer, then stage actress and star, loves roses, is American, kind-hearted, expansive, and energizing -- perfect match for Lord Marshmoreton, whom she initially mistakes for a gardener.

Lady Maud Marsh, hopeless romantic who pines away for her knight in shining armor, whom she thought she met in Wales; little did she know he would turn out to be a womanizing bounder who promised (in the guise of another person) eternal love and affection to an actress, whom he then jilted, and little did she suspect that he would become almost obese in the year he spent wandering the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on a yacht equipped with a top-flight chef. She is a perfect match for George Bevan -- composer for musical comedies, and extremely successful; his songs are played on Victrolas everywhere. Further, he is a romantic and utterly knightly.

There are other Shakespearian characters, who act as catalysts: Keggs, the butler -- wily, self-interested, petit-dictator, the perfect butler. His greed leads him to set up a kitty to gamble on who will marry whom, and the behind-the-scenes machinations advance the action of the story.

Albert, the page -- young Machiavelli, preternaturally quick, whose desire to get ahead in the world make him the perfect rascally "picaro" in the genre of the quick-witted Lazarillo de Tormes or Huck Finn. Necessary catalyst.

Lady Caroline Byng and her son, Percy Marsh, Lord Belpher, are a perfect pair - they hate any perturbations to the social order, at least as they might relate to the aristocracy.

Favorite scenes:

Traveling with Reggie, who is meeting Percy, back from Oxford, Maud flies off to London in a rush, hoping to meet Geoffrey Raymond, the man she fell in love with in Wales, who is, in theory, back in London with his uncle Wilbur. Maud is spied by Percy, so she plunges into a cab, which just happens to hold George Bevan, who rises to the occasion and defends Maud by crushing Percy's hat. Percy reciprocates by hitting George; Percy is arrested and spends the night in jail.

Obsessed with upholding the "family honour," Percy, Lord Belpher decides to follow Maud and prevent her from meeting the American (presumed to be Geoffrey) at the Platt's Cottage. He follows her, but to avoid detection, walks in an English drainage ditch, and becomes coated with mud. Quick-witted Maud leads him to a vicarage, where the curate in charge takes seriously Maud's claims that a vagrant is stalking and menacing her. He tricks Percy into coming into the vicarage, where he locks him in a closet. He engages the help of the local blacksmith to open the door (and quell any desires to punch the curate). The curate hands him a shilling and a pamphlet on the evils of drink, and tells him to go one his way.

Albert's meddling -- his attempt to be the catalyst to bring together Maud and Reggie; all the pamphlets and advice letters are employed by Reggie to good effect -- on Alice Faraday. Alice, who has never had much to say about Reggie until she thought he needed protection and nurturing, looks at him with new eyes.

Percy's 21st birthday party -- Reggie drinks for courage, but ends up thinking he's pickled his brain when he thinks he sees George as a waiter (he does, in fact); George gets a job as a waiter (thanks to Albert's quick thinking); Albert quick-wittedly ties Reggie's sheet in knots to create a climbing rope to extricate George from the balcony from which the historical legend, Leonard, had dove to protect a lady's honor.

Echoes of honor, knightly behavior, and self-delusion -- Cervantes's Don Quixote and the knights of the round table in Mort d'Arthur. One can't help but thinking of Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. In fact, most of Wodehouse's heroes demonstrate perfect sprezzatura (innate grace, coupled with prudence, continence, magnanimity). In clumsy hands, they may seem to mock. But, they are much too kind-hearted to do so. They are perfect courtiers in a rather rough and quickly changing (confusing) world marked by shocking changes of fortune.

Thursday afternoon at the Castle: George thinks Lord Marshmoreton is a gardner, gives him a letter to deliver to Maud; Billie Dore thinks he's a gardner and shares tips for getting rid of rose aphids and thrips. There are echoes here of She Stoops to Conquer, and also Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The point of the action and mistakes is to strip away the mediating influence of title and social position, to look regard individuals in terms of their own character and merit. In the context of the times -- socialist and communist dialectics abounded, and there were major social order upheavals -- Wodehouse's approach was neither reactionary nor conservative. His was an approach that focused on humor in order to restore diversity and re-admit "characters" and eccentrics into a society that was pushing everyone into small, labeled boxes.

The trajectory of Lord Marshmoreton's travel toward psychological independence from his snooty sister is fun. He's a great character -- obsessed with roses and gardening; and also very alive when he meets a woman of similar interests. They are so perfect for each other, it's a delight. It's also fun to see that he judges a person based on character, not social rank, and instantly likes George Bevan.

George and Reggie on the golf course; Deeply impressing Reggie, George did not "foozle a single drive" and admirably got out of the bunker at the fifteenth hole in a masterful way.

The afternoon in the London tea-shop, Ye Cosy Nooke, where Maud and Geoffrey unite after a year of not seeing each other. Geoffrey has read the notice of Maud's engagement to George. Maud is lucky because she does not have to generate the rejection - she is horrified by Geoffrey's obesity and his obsession with food; it does not help that a process-server comes in and presents Geoffrey with notice of a lawsuit for "Breach of Promise of Marriage" -- Geoffrey has mascaraded as a "Mr. Spenser Gray" to woo an actress, Miss Yvonne Sinclair, even presenting her with a gift of a signed photograph, "To Babe from her little Pootles" --

The final scene is a lot of fun -- as George is packing to return to New York, Maud calls him from the lobby of the same hotel (the Hotel Carlton). She asks him a series of questions (how much does he weigh? how much did he weigh last year? has he ever been to Florida? what does he think of the fish called the pompano?) to assure herself he's not at all Geoffrey-like, and finally to ask him about wallpaper for his den...

It is a very engaging and satisfying way to accept a proposal of marriage ... I love Wodehouse's female characters, who are spunky and independent, while maintaining kindness and a great sense of humor.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day on the San Antonio Riverwalk

The first thing you notice is that the water has been dyed a bright shamrock green.

The next thing you notice is, after you take your eyes off the proliferation of strollers and women with lace-patterned tattoos peeking out of their low-cut “wife beater” tank tops, are guys stretched out in a prone position, their lace-tattooed significant others holding down their ankles, as they become human grappling irons, arms plunged shoulder-deep into the thick green, fishing for wallets or other lost valuables.

What will they find? A wallet? A toy? Coins? Bones?

It’s probably not as much as one might hope. After all, it’s March 17, and only a month and a half after the annual draining and cleaning in which all the detritus left by revelers and unfortunate disequilibriated (not a word, I know!) ones … equilibrium lost, potentially for an entire span of a weekend, by a need to lose cares in a constructed Fiesta-space – a mindspace that is both escapist and grounded in history and historical longing.

I firmly believe that there are ghosts here.

It’s a perfect setting for a murder mystery, with brightly ornamented tour gondolas with tour guides telling about the history of the place, replete with legends and facts selected to flower in one’s imagination.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, though, and the ear-splitting keening of bagpipes are precipitously accompanied by mariachis playing polka-inflected “rancheros” with huge bass guitars and accordions. What else do these flat-bottom boats purvey? In a word, everything.  Everything under the sun.

Melange usually refers to the jumbled up rock, ice, and snow at the foot of an avalanche.

It’s the word that occurs to me now – a rapid cultural avalanche has deposited its mélange in the San Antonio River, and I’m only half-buried by it, consequently, I’m still half alive, half sentient. I’m not sure quite what to think – my independent thoughts are trained on wishful thinking and romanticism, and I love to think of ghostly apparitions of elegantly clad women from the time of the missions, and then later, during the 19th century, when mills were constructed and Germans, Irish, English, Spanish, and Mexican populations blended and awkwardly co-existed. I’m not sure about the Native Americans, so I do not mention them now.

I am pulled away from my thoughts by another group of kilt-clad bagpipers. They are clearly feeling the heat, but soldiering on, red-faced. I smile and spontaneously enjoinder, “wonderful!” and one grumpily visaged bagpiper scowls at me.

Bagpipes on the Riverwalk: St. Patrick's Day

I guess I’m just too touristy. I am wearing green, but not really in any kind of purposeful way. I pulled out a sleeveless Dri-Fit shirt and put it with jeans and hoodie and comfortable walking shoes as I commit myself to serious “ambulation” in an attempt to heal feet crushed in a car-pedestrian accident (I was the pedestrian) that occurred a month and a half earlier.

The bagpipers debark and haul their instruments on their back, catch their breath, and ascend the stone steps to street level. Their kilts remind me of policemen in Fiji, where the skirts seem tough and masculine. If feminine, the closest neighbor would be pleated skirts used in lacrosse, a lady sport with weaponry. Unlike tennis, softball, and other ball sports which require smacking a ball with something, lacrosse sticks can and should be used to intimidate.

The skirts are not wool. A cotton-poly blend, I suspect, or perhaps a new, crisp, “smart” fabric. I am impressed with the plaids.

Later, as nightfall approaches, the avalanche reactivates itself. This time, it clatters downhill with an obliterating focus on sports; college and professional. I find this to be highly depressing, but what else can be expected if so many individuals in our culture are not active participants in the life of the mind, but find ways to amuse themselves or feel emotional connection to a concept at a time when religion has been problematized, and it’s no longer very easy to achieve social mobility via education, technical skills, or entrepreneurship.

Evelyn Waugh’s novels set in early 20th-century, post-Empire England come to mind, specifically Decline and Fall, as I think of ways in which our country has been distracted from the reality of a lack of production and de-industrialization. War is one distractor, since it employs people and gives the illusion of employment security. Another distraction offers itself through the Faustian bargains of disability and other attempts at securing a government sinecure, which is, in point of fact, a go-nowhere proposition, but as yet, there are no dynamic alternatives, since re-industrialization as yet is not economically viable.

My hopes back in 2008 in the height of the economic collapse, revolved around a wisely-administered Stimulus Bill that would rebuild our infrastructure and re-invigorate industrialization and entrepreneurship. Perhaps that happened, but it is hard to see how or where in terms of macro scales.

At the micro level, ingenuity and creativity are alive, but they are often in anoxic environments, buried deep beneath the avalanche, in need of a positive environment and cheap, available credit and other ways to leverage time to have time to build productive potential and serve the needs of markets.

So what gave rise to Empires in the first place? Creativity, innovation, trade, positive institutions, available credit, educated workforce, supportive legal framework.

Which of those are missing today?

I’m not much in the mood to think in terms of dirges, but bagpipes play in more than funerals, do they not? They accompany wars, and inspire warriors to feats of valor and blood-driven sacrifice. I’d like to think of such things in metaphorical terms, even as I’m considering the avalanche of culture and global political economic events.

So I return my gaze to the green shamrock waters of the river that flows along the edge of history, of the Alamo, which in itself, hearkens back to the Anglo-Saxons’ Battle of Maldon, where heroic sacrifice meant a turning point in a nation’s conception of self. For the Alamo, it meant becoming Texan. For Maldon, it mean becoming resolutely English.

It’s always the same people who ask all the questions. I am one of those annoying ones, I fear.

For me, the idea of retreating to history and living in a tree-shaded home with a veranda and an extensive library, where I spend my time writing and overseeing the sundry activities of a working ranch (with extensive mineral resources), draws me in.

I’d like to find old manuscripts and translate them. I’d like to publish meditations drawn from my own metaphysical and intellectually-triggered avalanches, where the humanistic studies are part of a larger mélange of technology, business, and art. In the end, the ice and snow-elements of the mélange melt away, and the remaining rocks have space in the interstices for creative thought and generative impulses.

I am relieved to hear the bagpipes recede and the splash of water from fountains surge forth.

Baudrillard’s Proxy: Disney and the Deterrence of the Production of Awareness

Baudrillard says it is too simple to say that Disney is a simulacrum of our world. Disney – the idealized experience – gives us a way to deter the production of awareness.

The deterrence of the production of awareness occurs in several ways:
First, you’re able to focus on the appearance of things and the world of phenomena, rather than introspecting and considering your own inner landscape; and
Second, you’re able to put off awareness conceivably indefinitely by reaffirming and perhaps even replacing your own beliefs, values, and assumptions with the embodiments of those you see externalized in the gorgeous and satisfying manifestations of Disney productions and artifacts.

Disney is simply the car with the hood up where you can actually see the engine of the production and transmission of a set of the idealized “real” and a belief in truth.

In most fabrications of reality, or productions eminating from the Matrix, the hood is resolutely slammed shut so that you cannot glimpse or peer into the inner machine.

Toto pulls back the curtain.

The Wizard was the first layer of production, but of course, there’s something behind the Wizard.

What lies behind the Wizard?
            Barthes would suggest Desire.
            Baudrillard would suggest distraction.
            Others (Nietzsche, etc.) would suggest production of the antitheses, antipodal, and oppositional relations (but not, it’s useful to observe, in a dialectic)
            Nietzsche would also suggest a set of juxtapositions that engenders a postmodern knowledge of self.
            Foucault might suggest that Disney exists as a Rosetta stone to our culture – a litmus test of which narratives have positive or negative valence in the world at large.
            Others might look at Baudrillard’s stance (the skin of reason, a “produced” reality, a privileging of the false) as an opportunity to import geomechanical paradigms and hyper-effective metaphors.

For metaphors and discourses of explanation, let’s look at a hardness and brittleness of the culture itself.

            What is our cultural Poisson’s ratio?  Young’s Modulus?
            What is the fundamental strength of materials and brittleness?
            How strong are our constructions?
            How brittle are they?  Can they be hydraulically fractured?
            How pliable are they? Do the fractures self-heal? Do they self-seal?

I’d like to look at the essential permeability of a culture.  Let’s think of ourselves vis-à-vis an idealized vision of how a utopian society would or should be?

            What is the ultimate ontological permeability?
            Penetratability of influences and substances?
            How well do outside values flow through our own values? What is the flow quality?
            Where do things swell and block the transmittal of ideas?  Is swelling all about emotion?
            Diagenesis:  under what condition does the original matrix alter? Where do our original values start to alter? Do they imitate the future?
            Where and when do we feel extreme heat? Hydrothermal alteration?

Baudrillard regards Disneyland as a machine that generates metaphors and mirrors.

Hence, its efficacy of a deterrence to people seeking to posit that there is, in fact, a “real” or any “meaning” in the world we now inhabit, with the minds we currently socialize into conformity with what will allow us to feel a part of a community (even the community as a whole, or a community of resistance, which is always problematized by dependency on the original essence, making resistance ultimately futile; it’s actually simply an outgrowth or an unwitting reinforcement).

If someone were to feel sad at Walt Disney World, I would wonder if what we’re seeing is a re-animation of the Sublime – the great “awe” (and “awfulness… awe-full-ness) – and a sense of loss at the constant contact with that. An ultimate awareness of one’s essential Fallenness – that it’s not possible to stay hooked into the Sublime given the consciousness available today, given today’s ideas of consciousness, spirituality, mind, and cognitive / numinative structures.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Post-Postmodernism: Technocratic Cultures?

I don’t think we’ll ever completely separate ourselves from postmodernist notions. After all, some postmodernist ideas have been percolating around in discourses of consciousness and meaning-making processes at least since Dante’s 13th-century Letter to Cangrande della Scalla in which the author (presumably Dante) discusses the fact that his work is polysemous. He expounds upon that notion and discusses four types of meanings which result in multiple strategies for interpreting texts.

Further, if postmodernist expanded the notion of “text” to include signs, natural phenomena, and more, well, we’ve had that in our consciousness ever since early Babylonian astrologers. In terms of creating patterns and developing codes / numerical strategies for text interpretations, we’ve certainly had that since Jewish gematria, and then also Kabbalistic practices.

This is not the place to develop a genealogy of postmodernist thoughts. I would love to do so, but I don’t want to deviate from the central idea, which is to say that for the last 10 or 20 years, theorists of all sorts have been attempting to declare postmodernism has declared officially “over” – and have proposed a wide array of alternative theories, many of which have to do with culture, technology, gender, and ethics.

There are aspects of postmodernist thought that I find very useful and I would not want to give them up. For example, I don’t want to give up some of the more interesting notions of reality and reality construction.

Perhaps it’s not productive to say that the world is completely an illusion, but it’s fun to think so. I also like the social constructivist ideas, especially when connected with power. For example, I have to say that I agree when Foucault and Baudrillard suggests prisons exist not only to enforce behavioral norms, but also to delude us into thinking that there is a “free” world and that “freedom” is an absolute, when in reality, there are all kinds of constraints to our freedom, beginning with language itself, and ending in behaviors, beliefs, and values that may be, in essence, coercive.

I think it is interesting that many of the new ideas of post-postmodernism have much to do with new technologies and the impact on identity (digital communities), selfhood (genetic engineering), privacy (Internet, surveillance, UAVs), communication (communications technologies), understanding the world (computing, Big Data), and more.

In fact, once one uses technology as the primum mobile of consciousness and global epistemological constructs, it’s easy to see how a next logical step would be a preferential shift to technocratic social organization, from individual communication to bodies politic. The implications could pretty scary. Technocracies are notoriously dehumanizing, especially when combined with command economies or oligopoly-tending capitalistic economies.

Here are a few recent ideas:

Pseudo-modernism / digimodernism: Digital technology can dismantle persistent postmodern issues such as “existential uncertainty” and “artistic anti-essentialism.” Kirby argues that the post-postmodern generation reverts to modernism, at least in the sense that there is a renewed belief in agency and in individual ability to influence others (by means of technology).  See Kirby (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture.

Automodernism:  Robert Samuels argues that new technology allow a new level of neutrality to emerge. At the same time, postmodernist identity “flux” is supplanted by new, hardened identity politics.

Complexism:  Philip Galanter has created a fusion of technology and the arts; it has been suggested that he echoes and updates the Russian and Italian Futurists (who were certainly pro-technology, with the idea that technology helps establish a coherent New World Order. Some of the enthusiasm died in WWI and in the early Soviet Union.

Hypermodernism:  Hypermodernism, coined in the 1990s, is a chaotic, high-intensity, fast-paced world of rapid and always evolving identity and social relationships. The hypermodern is not characterized by indeterminacy (as would the postmodernist world), but in quick moments of stasis, followed by discrete, lenticular “pods” of culture / socioeconomic / socio-political ontology.

Altermodernism: Nicolas Bourriaud embraces alterity and takes it further, suggesting that the creolization of our cultures in the global context will create a universal aesthetic. Multiculturism is worn out. The next stage is the “creole” (which will probably change, given the colonialist overtones implicit in the word itself.)


Alighieri, Dante. Letter to Can Grande della Scala. Accessed November 13, 2013

Awet (2013). Other Post-Postmodernisms: A Glossary. Heterodoxia. April 2013. Accessed Nov 15, 2013.

Kirby, A.  (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture. London, NY: Continuum Publishers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

May Oil Rain Down on You! is the business world’s Facebook. As social media goes, it’s pretty useful, but it has a few attributes that I find utterly creepy. One of the little “features” is the fact it automatically generates a notice to all the members in one’s “network” when you achieve a 5 or 10-year work anniversary. asks your contacts to  “Congratulate So-and-So on their Work Anniversary!!” I suppose some people like this, but I most assuredly do NOT. I have looked for a way to keep it from sending out notices to people in my network, but I have failed.

So, consequently, when I reached the five-year mark at my current job, I received a number of congratulatory emails and “likes,” including one from a poet friend I have known for many years, and through that time have been condemned by for being associated with the oil industry: “Congratulations! May oil rain down on you.”

It does not seem like much of a congratulatory message to me – seems more like the old Chinese curse, “May you have an interesting life.”

The mental image his “congratulations” invoked is that of big vats of boiling oil being poured down from the turrets of a medieval castle as I attempt to scale the walls. Attacking the fortified castle is, in my own mind, a gesture that is partly heroic, as I seek to connect with whatever is inside the castle, and partly a “conversation” with all the fantasies and narratives of adventure and romance that involve risk and a grand vision. 

If I’m storming a castle, I’m in the service of a grand vision of “the new.” Officially, my vision involves trying to determine how to use new technologies to improve petroleum exploration and production efforts. In reality, it’s a quest for the “new” – and it’s probably, at least on one level, a deliberately Pollyanna-esque quest.

My vision is my ostensible subject. In literary critical terms, we can say I’m manifesting an example of the Bakhtinian dialogical imagination.  Mikhail Bakhtin, if you may recall, was a Russian philosopher, literary critic, and linguist who wrote The Dialogic Imagination in which he points out all utterances and conversations have intertextuality embedded within them, and it’s impossible to extract them.  The intertextuality has to do with references, allusions, and concepts that come in from texts that are either in the general zeitgeist are in a specific context.

Bakhtin’s view of embedded intertextuality extending far beyond the text itself was evoked as well in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) in which literary critic Harold Bloom seeks to show how deep intertextuality in poetry not only invokes previous ideas and authors, but also seeks to subvert or re-envision them.

“May oil rain down on you” invokes voices: his, mine, and all the works of literature, philosophy and art that intrude with their fragments, phantasmic energies, ghosts, and the “trace” of ideas and intellectual histories. These are intellectual repositories I interact with even if I’m not completely aware of them.

I respect the fact that my poet friend actively protested the construction of a pipeline near the south New Jersey shore where he lives. He rode out Superstorm Sandy from his high-rise apartment on the beach that had, as I understand it, inadequate electricity, water, and worse for weeks and weeks.

“May oil rain down on you.”

The same oil he wishes on me will rain on him as well. There is no way to avoid it.

I see his note as a desperate, last feverish hope for a restoration of a world that is essentially dualistic, rather than the place it really is, where everything is interpenetrating and interdependent.

There’s no real differentiation in our roles; we’re just in different places on a continuum. No really goes without consuming petroleum products, and the “moral high road” is largely an illusion.

In fact, in Baudrillardian terms, there is no moral high road in terms of one’s choices. Further, a unique, differentiable “footprint” is a fiction created to inspire the creation of a “virtue yardstick” and the possibility that one might be saved by means of his or her actions.

The reality is the socially agreed upon construct, the “virtue yardstick” which one uses to measure one’s environmental footprint.

So, although no one really avoids consuming the world’s resources, people are social animals and they like to organize themselves into groups, and they like to rank them. There will always people willing to set themselves apart as the priest class (closely related to the madman class, where madness & divine visions are potentially interchangeable … the old “vates” or prophets of Plato’s days).

But even if you manage to place yourself in the priest class, it’s not as comforting as a dualistic vision of reality, which gives you neat, easy moral clarity and “either/or” decisions.

Yet another intrusive thought distracts me with images of large vats of boiling oil being poured down on the heads of hapless warriors. I wonder where the high road is in this scenario.

If you’re the one pouring the oil, are you guilty of murder? You can argue that you were simply defending the castle, but what did your castle represent?  You’re trying to keep your own ideas intact.

Or, perhaps you’re protecting your own intertextuality and trying to keep it free of outside invaders. You don’t want the ideas of the general zeitgeist to intrude your own, or at least you’d like to control them.

Well, all I can say is, “good luck with that.”

Controlling what influences your own message is about as easy to accomplish is controlling the automatically generated messages, the “Congratulate so and so on their work anniversary!” messages your social networking site sends out.