Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Waltzing in the Sauna

Burnet Road, my nomination for the ugliest street in the universe. The developing clouds in the north make me wonder if I've chosen a bad day for an outing. To the immediate left is the Yard Bar, a new place without a roof: people buy beer from a small concession stand and drink it at picnic tables. Dogs are allowed, which makes the place ideal for people who love both canines and beer. I'm generally drawn to innovative places, but the economy of beer garden leads me to fear how people will behave when the beer is that cheap.
Ichiban was my first stop on this outing, and the journey to here was the longest part of the walk. I had just missed the lunch special, but I was in time for happy hour, my waitress told me. Yet I was in no mood to drink. I had massive quantities of both water and iced tea.

I had my favorite waitress again today. She's a bright conversationalist (but understandably too busy to talk much) and an excellent waitress who knows how to strike that harmonious balance between caring attention and dining distance. I visited Ichiban in a restaurant search back in April, and I mentioned it in a blog from a day when I needed to eat near the Village Alamo Drafthouse (so I settled on Shabu). I thought I had written about Ichiban on an earlier date and included this picture, but I can't find it. Do you remember?
This is a lovely plate of what I call "polite calimari" because they look like onion rings and there are no tentacles visible. I like calimari so much that I'll eat them this way.
But I'd much rather eat a plate that looks like this. You can see that the onion rings—which come from the squid's essentially tubular body—but you can also see the tentacles, which reach out beyond the head. The tentacles actually comprise the tastest, sweetest, and most squid-dy-ish part of the squid. If you're not sure about Greek restaurants in your town, find a Greek Orthodox Church. They tend to hold fund-raisers, and they tend to raise lots of funds selling squid. At the fund-raiser in Denver they sold cleaned but otherwise whole squid, breaded in a seasoning mix, and deep-fried, and it was so delicious that I became the calimari lover that I am today. If you can't find a decent Greek restaurant, check for Spanish (as in Spain—there are a Walking Dead's mass of zombies out there who don't know the difference between Mexico and Spain: don't be one of them). Spanish restaurants tend to offer calimari as an appetizer, and they tend to include the tentacles. Chain Seafood and Mediterranean restaurants like Red Lobster and Olive Garden, if you ever eat there or get pressured into eating there by your group, will offer calimari as an appetizer, though it will be of the onion ring kind. On the other hand, the appetizer might be designed to share, so it will make a substantial main plate for you, especially if you order it with Olive Garden's bottomless salad bowl.
A delicious bowl of tofu and seafood soup (Sundubu jjigae) served bubbling hot in the Korean tradition. On the left is my bowl of steamed rice (bap) and in the background are little bowls of banchan or assorted, usually fermented, Korean veetables, including (in the front row) kimchi, cucumbers, and bean sprouts.
This is bulgogi, a sauteed beef dish served on top of a bed of onions. I erred in ordering this much food, though: I was thinking in western terms of the soup as a kind of appetizer before the main course, but in Korea a bowl of soup is a meal in itself. I ate and enjoyed all I could without stuffing myself, but I did leave a lot of the soup and most of those delicious grilled onions untouched. I did find an oyster, like a little buried treasure at the bottom of my Sundubu jjigae.
After lunch, I walked two more blocks up Burnet Road to the bank, which was the central item of business in this excursion.
After the bank, I cut through what was once Northcross Mall. Now there is a strange office complex and a skating rink there. I take this shortcut not only because it is shorter but also because it is a long stretch of air conditioning in the now bland corridor of what was once an interesting shopping mall. The heat wasn't as bad as it has been—it was only in the 90s instead of the usual 100⁰—but still every possible avoidance of the heat is necessary. In this long corridor through what once was a mall designed to attract people, there are no places to sit. People waiting for classes at the skating rink sit on the corridor floor. There is seating inside the ice skating place, but that's for people who have business in there.
Woman with sleeping child in arms watching her young son skate.
I wanted to cool off before going into Walmart, so I ducked into Tea Haus for some lemonade. This is a popular spot with Asian students—I imagine that there is some back story there to explain it all. I wonder how I can find out the story.
This is the lemonade, which, as lemonade goes, was near perfect: in the words of the singing coach in The Sound of Music, "not too sweet, and not too tart,"
Walmart, usually so full of redneck antics, was tranquil and sparsely populated. One thing that I wanted was curry paste because a fellow G-plusser has impressed me with her chicken curry, so I thought I might try to make some, and I did find a sauce mix, but not before Walmart's selections on the shelves had impressed upon me how they narrowly target a redneck clientele. It turned out there are a few Asian foodstuffs in a fraction of an aisle—much smaller than what HEB has­—but even Bubba eats a Ramen noodle soup now and then. I was really surprised to find the curry mix though. In this Walmart there is a grocery surfing aisle where you can read the overhead signs labelling the contents of each aisle before diving in to find what you need, and along this surfing aisle there are many displays of candy. HEB at least tries to cater to a healthier eating crowd, but Walmart has massive stockpiles of discounted candies in the aisles to appeal to my suicidally addictive impulses for sugar and fats and compulsive eating. So I didn't stay in there very long. I didn't scan the aisles for things that I need or want but that aren't on my list. I found the Asian section, grabbed the curry, some soups, and some Pocky sticks, then found some Saran Wrap, which is necessary in my house, and I allowed myself some dark chocolate, which one of my YouTube dietary consultants actually recommends the way others recommend kale and quinoa.
The loot from Walmart.
At Walmart I discovered that my phone was down to 30% on its battery, and that I had forgotten to bring an extra battery. I was very conservative with what was left of the phone because I use the Capital Metro app to buy a bus pass that will save me from walking all the way back. The Burnet Road bus line now has an express route that keeps me from waiting as long as I usually do for an Austin bus, and when I got on board I told the driver I had to buy a pass on my phone and I'd be right back with him. He was an understanding sort, and the app let me buy the pass, but it would not let me display it. I wrestled and finagled but made no progress, then I realized that my stop was next, so I told him what had happened and showed him what I had, and he nodded and said it was OK. Well, it was the sort of problem that's probably a bug in the app, so I doubt it was the first time he's seen it.

This bus stop was right by the HEB, and I decided to go inside and use the restroom and avoid any sort of embarrassing disasters on the way home. And I buy a bottle of Vitamin Water to keep myself hydrated on the relatively short trip home now. It was just a little after 6 pm when I got home—it had been a four-hour trip. After I sat under my ceiling fan, which serves to greatly amplify the air conditioning, I moved to my computer, where I have been ever since, and it's now 12:30. So it took me six hours—50% more time than the trip itself—to write this modest summary. I am not a fast writer.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Study in Pink

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (left) and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. The London Eye is in the background: this is a clever rendering of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories in the present day.
There are just a few random notes from Episode 1.1 of the BBC's wonderful production of Sherlock, which is available on Netflix.

Scotland Yard holds a press conference to announce they are investigating three suicides that are apparently linked, so they're calling them "serial suicides."

PRESS: You can't have serial suicides.
POLICE: Apparently you can.
SHERLOCK (somehow simultaneously texting everyone in the room and publicly embarrassing the police): Wrong.
SHERLOCK (last text): You know where to find me. —SH

This was funny, and it sets up the rivalry between the police and Holmes. It's definitely a burr to the cops that they need him as much as they dislike him. The police woman Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) tries to warn Watson off of Holmes because she thinks that Holmes does these investigations because crime turns him on and, she predicts, one day he will be the person who put the body there. That brings us to one of the interesting things about Holmes: since this is all he does, and he doesn't get money for doing it, he must be independently wealthy. But the more interesting thing is that there appears to be an element of truth about Holmes deriving a perverse pleasure from his work.

The displays of deduction are fantastic. Early on, in the scene in the cab with John Watson, Sherlock spreads his deductive abilities like a peacock spreads his tail-feathers, and this establishes his powers for later on. I like it that Watson wasn't yet associated with Holmes when the story begins. With a few deftly drawn strokes—the combat flashback nightmare, the scene with the therapist—we get a thumbnail of Watson's characters. Sherlock is of course able to deduce much more about him. It's an interesting coincidence how both men have brothers from whom they're not quite estranged but certainly alienated. Yet they share something else in common that Mycroft brings out: Mycroft talks so poetically about how Sherlock sees the city as a battlefield, and that, with Sherlock, Watson can see the battlefield as well. Mycroft deduces from the steadiness of Watson's hands after the violence of the evening, that Watson isn't just some PTSD-afflicted soldier trying to forget the war but, rather, he is trying to get back to it. So we see Holmes and Watson leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of the taxi and enjoying it. Watson, significantly, forgets his crutch for his psychosomatic limp (which Holmes had deduced earlier and which Watson has no inadvertently proved correct). Watson's suitability as a sidekick seems more rooted in his perversely morbid humor than in his technical capabilities, which are icing on the cake.

Holmes contentedly sets himself apart from the people around him, and he sometimes wonders aloud out how dull the average person's life, as a stream of consciousness, must be. Sally Donovan radios to her colleagues that "freak" is here—their codename for Holmes, apparently, and that is in character as a Philistine label for "an egghead." There's a scene in a restaurant where there is some misunderstanding, and Holmes assures Watson that he's flattered but not interested—meaning, in other words, that if Watson is gay, that's nice, but it's not his cup of tea. But, no, neither of them are gay, nor do they seem particularly interested in the fairer sex—if anything, they're both, though in different ways, leading asexual monk-like existences. There's a pathologist at the morgue who has obviously put on lipstick for Holmes, and he remarks that it doesn't look good, so she takes it off for him because "It wasn't getting the results I wanted" (i.e. Holmes), but then Holmes says that her mouth is too small. She's doing her best to get his attention, and he's pushing her away every time. So we have a curious asexuality in Holmes and Watson that, in this sex-obsesssed age, might strain credibility. In the 19th century people spoke of a "confirmed bachelor," i.e. a man who never married. Revisionists have come to assume this means that the confirmed bachelor was very discreetly gay, but I'm not convinced. Some gay men may have used the "confirmed bachelor" label as a cover, but I think marriages of convenience (like that between Paul and Jane Bowles, who were both gay) were more common. (There are other varieties of this: there's the Boston marriage between two spinsters who basically serve as life partners to each other; they can be gay; or they can have an asexual but romantic relationship; or one or both can be in complete denial about the nature of their relationship. The important thing to remember is that life partnerships form in many ways besides the romantic and sexual heterosexual couple.)

Yet just as Holmes is asexual, he might also be amoral. He doesn't solve a crime because it's the right thing to do or because good people have been offended by bad people who must be punished. He solves crimes like puzzles, and he's truly happy when "the game's afoot!" The lead detective remarks about Holmes and his amorality that he is "a great man. And one day, if we're lucky, he'll be a good one." Sherlock is one who finds such difficulty believing humans because of their limitations that he can never feel a full member of humanity, and, as such, he does not feel bound by humanity's mores, including its moral system.

These notes are drawn from watching only the first episode of the first series. It's a wonderful program, and I'm looking forward to all the others. Each episode is about 90 minutes long—just shy of a full-length feature film. Each season (which the British call a series) comprises three episodes, and there have been three seasons plus a stand-alone episode. So, in all, ten episodes. I'm looking forward to them, and I'm sure I will blog more about them when something particularly exciting happens.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Manhattan; quick notes: The Night Of & BBC's Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes during filming of Sherlock. Photo by RanZag. Licensed by CC by 2.0.

I've enjoyed watching the first season of WGN's TV show, Manhattan, which is a fantasia on what it must have been like among the geniuses that contributed to the building of the first atom bomb as they worked under both tremendous pressures and petty conflicts. First, there is the mounting death toll of the Second World War, so there is a sense that time off even to rest a day costs lives.

WWII-era Los Alamos resembles the scientist's prison in Alexander Solzehenitsyn's In the First Circle—the scientists are effectively trapped in what from a safe distance resembles an unknown town in the New Mexican desert, but from the inside of the carefully guarded barbed-wire perimeter, among its shabby housing, inadequate power, and trickling supply of discolored water, it's a bell jar. This nuclear boomtown is overseen by an authoritarian Big Brother that constantly looks over the shoulder and breathes down the neck of each resident.

The residents are a bizarre mix of highly pressured people and of bored people—like the spouses of the scientists—who have little but futile hobbies challenged by isolation, gossip, and trysts. Internally Los Alamos reminds me of The Village in the 1960s spy show The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. The Village constantly stages mock elections, fairs and festivals, and other events to make the residents feel at home and enfranchised. Los Alamos stages its small political farce with their "town council," which has little more power than the PTA of an elementary school. Yet the most salient quality of events staged in The Village and in Los Alamos is that they feel so obviously ersatz, and they succeed only in making people long for the kaleidoscopic happenings and the chaos of cities of the real world. People need the feeling of unpredictability and a grace note of chaos because a lack of disorder belies a society under tyrannical control. (This has a lot to do with why I cannot trust someone with an orderly desk.)
Key cast from WGN's Manhattan.
There are many conflicts among the scientists themselves. There are two groups, intentionally set up to compete, with two different methods to build "the gadget," as the euphemistic code calls it. One involves "shooting" a chunk of Uranium at another chunk in a gun-like arrangement, and the other is the implosion model, in which a sphere of fissionable material must be made to collapse upon itself in order to start the reaction that creates the stellar fire of the gadget. On top of the conflict between techniques, the scientists accuse each other of plagiarism, of spying, of incompetence, and all sorts of other nastiness. The two groups are "compartmentalized," meaning they mustn't share information between themselves, and policing the no-man's land between the groups is this terrifying monster of a G-2 man whose mere interrogation feels like psychological torture.

Finally there is the natural conflict between educated "egg-heads" and military Philistines. Some of that conflict comes from just being different. Some comes from the resentment smart people have when their lives are governed by idiots, and of course an idiot believes that an egg-head's every demand stems not from legitimate need but from over-education—from being spoiled, from getting paid ten times as much just for sitting at a desk without breaking an honest workingman's sweat.

With some things, like a properly working stove or a bath tub, people put their feet down and demand necessities not from the impotent town council but from the Army, whose Never-Never Land this really is, and the Army begrudgingly yields only after a great deal of pressure. Naturally this creates a black market, which is more dangerous than it would be in the real world because of the 1984-ish security. The need for total secretiveness dictates surveillance everywhere—every affair is known, every departure from the ordinary is questioned as potential espionage or sabotage. More than once we see a troupe of MPs swarm a house, drag the man out and stuff him in the back seat, while the wife seeks to comfort her terrified child as still more MPs shake down the house for contraband and signs of espionage. I don't know if this is really how the first bomb got built, but it seems likely.

The characters in Manhattan are largely fictitious. We do briefly meet Henry L. Stimson (Gerald McRaney), Roosevelt's Secretary of War, and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), but the drama between them is intense but brief. Most of the characters and their many dramas are fictional but highly plausible.

Manhattan is one of the wonderful shows that has come out since television has shed its wasp-waisted girdle and deconstructed ridiculously unreal worlds built out of pablum. I won't say we've gotten as real as, say, the world of Ingmar Bergman's films, but at least it no longer feels like television's first goal is not to offend anyone. Not just television, but any art should offend, not gratuitously but purposefully when it serves to wake an audience lulled by their cultural overlords. One advantage of television that feels closer to reality is that it can deal with the crippling constructs that people carry around in their heads, particularly expectations of women and of non-white people. So, for example, when a scientist finds himself alone in a room with another scientist's wife and runs his hand up her skirt, we see what unbridled bastards men who dehumanize women can be. Before this honest epoch of television, such things never happened on television, and as such, we had less occasion to think about it in real life.

The lead scientist's wife, Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is a scientists in her own right, but the men around her persist in treating her like Dr Winter's "little woman." It is only after some battling that she persuades people to call her Dr Winter instead of Mrs Winter. She attempts to do some science on her own by setting up a bee hive, but the hive collapses because of a mystery that, at the end of Season One, remains unsolved—but for a while she suspects that the Army might have poisoned her bees. And there is a woman physicist contributing as meaningfully as any man to the project, but again and again she is overlooked or discredited.

The first season of Manhattan, which I finished tonight, has received a 90% Certified Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and the Second Season, did slightly better with 92%. In this review I've given scant attention to the actors who did such a fantastic job, and critical acclaim has also called attention to the fidelity of the recreation of the period—every detail contributes to the early 1940s setting. Overall the show had excellent critical reception, but it did not find the audience that WGN hoped, so with regrets, they cancelled it. There is a clue for that lack of audience in the show itself: the conflict between the Egg-heads and the Philistines is not merely a phenomenon limited to Los Alamos but a conflict that defines the world, and that definition is reflected in who would watch this show and who wouldn't. It's a challenging show that demands attention and a little thinking, but it rewards the close viewer. It looks as though Season 2 will eventually make it to Hulu, where I streamed the first season, but I might have to wait awhile (join me on Hulu and get two weeks free). Currently it's available on Amazon Video for a small charge.

Amara Karan as the attorney Chandra in The Night Of.
The other show that I finished watching tonight was HBO's gripping The Night Of with Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, and Amara Karan. HBO adapted the BBC's limited series, Criminal Justice, which does not appear to be available on my ROKU, but with HBO's success, I would think someone would hasten to snatch that up. (In the past I thoroughly enjoyed watching both the original Australian version of the limited series, The Slap, on Roku, as well as the American remake, because the differences between the shows highlighted American and Australian cultural differences. Both were based on a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, and both versions are available on Hulu.)

So, at least until Hulu comes up with Season 2 of Manhattan, two of my weekly viewing hours have just opened up. A friend, with clairvoyant timing, has just recommended that I take up with this recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock. The show is set in the present day, but it has all the wit & genius of Holmes, and the comedy seems to be turned up just a little bit, but of course there is nothing funny about solving the case of a serial murder, so the show promises to be quite involving. The manner in which the stories forward in time also appears to be clever. I'm looking forward to getting into it. This is good timing to get involved with the show too because there is a fourth season set for January 2017. Each episode tends to run about an hour and a half long—the length of a feature film—and each season (what they call a series in Britain) comprises three episodes. Seasons 1, 2, and 3 were released in 2010, 2012, and 2014. There was a special episode released on 1 January 2016, and Season 4 is set for January 2017. I've really only peeked at Episode 1.1 without watching it through—I was so tired that I fell asleep, no fault of the show itself. If this is as good as it seems to be, you'll be reading more about it here.

Cheers, everyone.

Martin Freeman as Dr Watson during filming of Sherlock. Photo by RanZag. Licensed by CC by 2.0.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Road to Puerto Escondido

Photo by NicolasAlbuquerqueWolf. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Suddenly we smelled the ocean in the air, and we smelled it for an hour before we saw it. The sky was so blue and warm and salty and alive, and the hills were covered with big towering jungle trees, and we had beer and everything we needed, and we were getting somewhere. So when we came over the top of that one last big hill and saw the ocean spread out to China, we started laughing, and Sue just about yanked my head off so she could kiss me hard on the lips.

Down there at the ocean's edge we could see a border of white where the waves broke, and just in from that was a big city with a few big hotel buildings. It turned out it was like the Americans were playing Monopoly up and down the Mexican coast and this was their Boardwalk—except this was Acapulco. We never did care much for the resort towns, but then we didn't know what we were in for.

We drove past a statue of a naked lady or mermaid or goddess, and she had green brass dolphins all around her, and someone had put a bra on her to cover up her titties—out of modesty or a joke. We parked in a big hotel parking lot and walked along the beach to stretch our legs. We felt as though we were in an ark of happiness coming off the ocean in waves. We bought lime popsicles from a vendor pushing a cart along the beach, and it was the most real popsicle we ever ate because it had the pulp and the seeds and, I swear, a zest of the peel too. It was getting pretty late in the day, so we went back into the hotel to see about something for dinner. There was a fancy restaurant off the lobby, but there weren't many customers in there, and those who were there were in suits and ties.

—Shit, Dwight, I don't know if they'll let us eat in here.

—Why the hell not? We're Americans, ain't we?

—Not anymore. Besides, we're just wearing jeans and smelly old T-shirts.

But the guy in charge treated us like we'd just walked off a yacht and took us to a nice table in a private corner like we were going to make romance, and the staff put big potted plants around us so we had our own jungle. Then in quick order, one man, who wore a suit just to carry a pitcher, poured us some water, and another man brought us menus and said "Good evening" in excellent English.

—This evening the chef's specialty is huachinango al horno.

Sue blurted laughter, and I kicked her lightly under the table because we were supposed to be in a serious place. The waiter's face darkened.

—That's red snapper from the kiln.

He went away, and we decided he meant the fish was baked in an oven. People were staring at us, so we hid behind the potted plants and our menus, which had English on one side and Spanish on the other. I listened to the people at the other table talking.

—Dwight, have you noticed the prices in here?

—Yeah, don't panic. They're in pesos.

—Well, let me do a little translating for you. If I'm doing my arithmetic right, a hamburger costs around ten dollars.

—Ten dollars American?


—Deer rifle's in the truck...

—Don't even think about that down here. You gonna hold 'em up for a burger an' fries?

—Well, maybe a shake, too.

She looked sad. Sometimes it frustrated her that I was a Boggs boy and there was nothing that could change what I was.

—I'm just kidding, Sue.

—So what are we gonna do?

We walked outta there and found us a mercado in the Meskin part of town. We had some fish stew in a little diner and bought ourselves some blankets, and then we drove down the coast until we were in wild country again. We stayed on the beach that night.

In the night the water was filled with tiny glowing blue dots, and whenever we walked on the wet sand, those dots glowed in our footprints. We spread the blankets on the sand and slept there. The water slapped the beach hard a few times in the night and woke us up, and we made love, but mostly we slept like soldiers after a war.

There was no bridge over the Rio Bravo, and men lashed Franklin's truck onto pontoons and ferried it to the other side. They took us across in a little motor boat as if we were an afterthought. All that cost us about five bucks. The coastal highway took Sue and me up and down hills along cliffs on the ocean, and we were suddenly among a bunch of little buildings alongside the highway—a Pemex station, a restaurant, a farmacia. Down below was a main drag on the inland-most part of the beach, and the road was made of sand. Along that road were shops with roofs of corrugated tin; restaurants with floors of pounded earth, open sides and varnished smooth tree trunks holding up thatched roofs; a couple of motels like castles of whitewashed adobe with flattop turrets; a campground full of trees pregnant with coconuts; and fruit & vegetable stands. There were some houses between the main drag and the highway, and some more up in the hills above the highway. That was Puerto Escondido, and that was where we landed.

There was something muffled about the place. I mean the ocean waves were always rolling in, wave after wave, and you could smell marine life in the air, and sometimes you could smell hints of what life just gave out on the beach to rot, but too there was a quiet in the sounds of the place, and even in the slow deliberate way that people moved.

It was like a bunch of lead had been taken off our necks because we felt light and happy in a way we never felt before.

There was a barracks of Federales in Puerto Escondido, and sometimes a soldier in his fatigues with an M-1 rifle in his hands would stand there at the barbed wire fence around the campground where we stayed for a dollar a night, and he would stare at people in the campground. We didn't take it personally because they watched everyone and not just us.

We bought a couple of hammocks and suspended them between coconut trees and just laid there for a long time. Late in the afternoon we went for a swim in the ocean. When we got back to our hammocks Sue fought with a comb  in her long blond hair.

—I can't get out these snarls.

So we bought ourselves a pair of scissors at the farmacia. We sat on the beach that night by a campfire we made, and Sue cut off all my hair, which was pretty easy because it wasn't all that long. Then I cut off Sue's hair, which was really hard because I loved Sue's hair. We buried our hair in the sand. We laughed and cried at the same time together, so we were like four people in one person.

In the daytime people brought all sorts of things into the campground to sell, and we got quesadillas and tamales, but the tamales were different from the kind we knew back home because they were square and wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn shucks. Instead of the reddish chili gravy sauce that comes with tamales in the north, they were richly coated with mole sauce with all those pulverized chilis in it so that it tasted so earthy. That earthiness was so appropriate because I felt like I was in a fertility cult of one and Sue was my goddess. Near the barbed-wire fence was a water facility with toilets, showers, and a big sink where you could wash clothes. Sue and I took showers together because it was the only private time we got to be naked together. In my arms with the chilled water running over us she felt softer, warmer, and more delicious than ever, and changes were happening to me too because I had never left so much of myself behind in a woman before. She complained about how I was keeping her dripping wet until lunchtime. The people in the campground didn't pay us any mind, but sometimes the Meskins would give us dirty looks like we were doing something wrong, but we didn't care. We didn't make much noise—our expression happened in the many liquids coursing over us and between us.

This is an excerpt from a novella that I started in grad school and that I might yet bring to a new stage of completion. Thank you for reading it. —mw.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Modest Proposal about Islam

According to Web site, during the last thirty days, there were 188 Islamic attacks in 22 countries, in which 1358 people were killed and 1519 injured. That's nearly half the death toll of 911.

Yesterday I watched a video (supposedly) of IS soldiers placing living people in a trench then systematically shooting them. I'm still in shock. I'm still assimilating the imagery of not just one person getting killed but fifty. This slice of the Holocaust served up on YouTube will change my thinking because there's no way I can watch that and stay the same.

I'd like to know more about the US-IS link, if it exists. Julian Assange is promising to pull Clinton off her high horse no later than 26 September, and even muttered something about ISIS. If Assange is blowing houses down instead of smoke up our asses, I might get my wish about knowing what the US-IS deal is.

I am happy that Assange has stuck his neck out with a promise of a 26 September deadline. Most politicians make promises that I forget about before they come to fruition, and I assume that it's pure demagoguery: I hear the promises, but I hear very little about any of them coming true. If Assange delivers on or before his deadline, he will have proved himself something sturdier than political rhetoricians, and he will have delivered something that will cut one tumor out of the tissue of lies that compose the American body politic.

I have seen the following range of ideas for what created ISIS and what their relationship with the US is:
  1. ISIS came into existence because the US created a power vacuum (the Hydra theory); or
  2. ISIS, no matter how they formed, are funded and armed by the US because the US and ISIS share a common enemy and are therefore "friends" in some bizarre fashion; or
  3. They are a CIA operation from start to finish.
The complexity of the theory increases from 1 to 3. According to Occam's razor, when the situation is equal among all theories, then I should choose the simplest theory to explain what I see. At present, there is no readily accessible evidence to support theories 2 and 3, and people who assert these theories with any measure of confidence are indulging in a perverse sort of wishful thinking. However, if, for example, new information from WikiLeaks shows some sort of accountability of ISIS to the CIA or—as Julian Assange seems to be promising—to the US Department of State during Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary, then the situations of the three theories are not equal.

Said Qutb.
There is in wide circulation an historical theory that explains the violence of militant Muslims even as it preserves the idea of pacific Islam as a whole. That theory is built around the story of two good friends, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who eventually became the President of Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, who wrote a seminal book called Milestones (Ma'alim fi al-Tariq). This theory labels political, militant fundamentalists as Islamicists as opposed to plain and simple Muslims.

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb were lifelong good buddies and fellow leftists. However, much to Qutb's dismay, when Nasser ascended to the presidency of Egypt, he became something of a lapdog for the West, which petted the leftism right out of him.

The conflict over Nasser's weakening commitment to the Left, reminiscent of the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More, led to Nasser eventually imprisoning then executing Qutb.

During his imprisonment, however, Qutb rejected Marxism as a viable means for throwing off Western colonialism because it was in itself an essentially western ideology. He decided then that Islam should be used as a political doctrine to throw off the shackles of the West because it had the advantage of being a Mideastern product immediately accessible to people of North Africa and the Middle East. His book, Milestones, provided a central text to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and to Al Qaeda. I don't know how ISIS fits into this scheme, if at all.

If you look at it this way, this is an important distinction between traditional Muslims and anti-colonialists who have adopted Islam as a unifying doctrine to fight the West. A lot of people use the terms Muslim vs. Islamicist.

The sloppiness with which the US has conducted itself in Iraq and Syria has created a power vacuum that fostered ISIS. Yet I have heard from not necessarily reliable sources that ISIS is a CIA creation. All of these are possible. After all, Osama bin Laden was the liaison between the CIA and the Mujahideen, the resistance group that in the 1980s fought against the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan.

I lean toward the more extreme model because, after living two years in Latin America, I am keenly aware that the US's Will to Power freely murders and has committed a long list of atrocities in the name of profit.

But let's take the simplistic view that ISIS is just another group of religious fundamentalists (like George W. Bush, for example), who really do believe they are doing their best for God on Earth. If that's the case, should Islam as a whole be asked to take responsibility for their errant brethren? Instead of blaming a few sick individuals for the crimes they commit against humanity in the name of Allah, why not take the bombers' seriously? When they say that they have killed people not in the name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example, but in the names of Allah, his messenger Muhammad, and for all Islam, shouldn't the response take the provocation seriously? Respond not in kind but punitively and in a way that obliterates piece-by-piece the infrastructure of Islam. For example, Muhammad is buried in Medina, and his tomb is in Al-Masjid an-Nabawī, the Prophet's Mosque, at 24.468333°N and 39.610833°E. 
The Kaaba, which is at 21.4225° N, 39.8262° E, is in an Islamic sense the best symbolic address for Allah on this planet.

There are thousands of ultra-conservative Jews in Jerusalem who would delight in seeing the Temple Mount at 31.7781° N, 35.2360° E razed so that they could begin construction of the Third Holy Temple. Indeed, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christians who would cheer the clearing of the Temple Mount because they imagine that the construction of the Holy Temple is part of their eschatological agenda as well.

The cave called Hira, located on the mountain called Jabal an-Nour, near Mecca, where Muhammad received the beginning of the Quran from the Archangel Gabriel is another site that could be on the list. Draw up a list of twenty such holy sites in Islam, and deliver a message with an ample margin of warning so that responsible people have time to rein in their violent children: "These are the places that will cease to exist, one by one, with each attack that Islam makes on the West. Take responsibility for your people, or we will do it for you."

The biblical injunction of an eye for an eye wasn't intended to be interpreted literally. It means simply that damages should be paid after injury. It does not mean that if I pluck out someone's eye that my eye now must be plucked out—that is a ham-handed interpretation for idiots. What good will my eye serve my victim or his family? Satisfaction? They will be much more satisfied if they are paid in a way that costs me but that helps them, particularly if that help allows them to overcome the hardship I've introduced. I pay in some manner that helps my victim and his family. And with that understanding, those who attack in the name of Islam should be punished by a systematic dismantling of Islam. Since no literal eye-for-eye exchange is called for. If the Kaabah is now at the top of the target list, then the rings and rings of pilgrims fulfilling the requirements of the Hajj by circling the building become both not only regrettable collateral damage but also martyrs to the cause of peace.

This raises some interesting questions.
Between the World Wars the theory of bombing was invented to target civilians. The idea, in a time of conventional (as opposed to terrorist) warfare was that bombing the enemy's civilian population would demoralize them, weaken their support for the war, and stimulate an apathy that would lead to defeat. The theory was wrong, and bombing turned out to have the opposite effect: it strengthened the resolve of the enemy civilian population to defeat their enemy. Britain, which suffered terribly from nightly poundings from German V-2 rockets during WWII, is the most often cited example. I am of course relieved that bombing civilians is now illegal in the same way that other forms of weaponry like gas and biological agents are illegal.

Yet war has changed. Terrorists consider instruments like the Geneva Convention, which limits weaponry and war and which limits cruelty to prisoners, a folly among Westerners to which they are not beholden. Indeed terrorists invariably employ their own civilians as shields, and their targets almost invariably include civilians.

For example, of the four planes involved in the 911 attack, two struck civilian targets. One struck the Pentagon, the Bull's Eye of military targets. And the fourth, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, is typically said to have had the US Capitol or the White House as its target. That's a 50/50, civilian/military target ratio in terms of weapons (the planes), but in terms of casualties the civilians drastically outnumber the military.

It would be nice to eliminate civilian casualties, but war is hell, and civilian casualties are unavoidable in a war against an enemy using terrorist tactics. The US usually speaks in euphemisms and refers to killed civilians as collateral damage. The terrorists seize every opportunity to show off their dead children without mentioning why these children were used as shields by a cowardly military force in the first place.

But if anyone takes me so seriously as not to see my tongue in cheek, they should bear in mind that long after the ant's nest is destroyed, there will still be a lot of angry ants with nothing to do but sting. As I just noted, bombing does not weaken but strengthens the resolve of a people to survive. I can envision a world devoid of Islamic holy sites, and a whole lot of angry Muslims who weren't smart enough to stop bombing while they still had a Kaabah or a mosque left on earth.

Friday, August 26, 2016

My Unresolved Childhood Crush on Hayley Mills

Paul Chabas. September Morn (1912). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I am searching for my gestalt with Hayley Mills. When I was a kid, I had a potent and heavy-hearted crush on her even though she was nearly ten years older than I. And of course she lived completely beyond my sweltering province: she wasn't merely English but an ethereal being of the movie screen.

It's fundamental to the psyche to distinguish between those personages who are real in our lives and those who are the Olympian gods of our time—celebrated actors, athletes, politicians, and now we have people who are famous just for being famous. In Greek mythology the gods have generally not fared well when they sought the company of mortals, and mortals do well to keep their heads down altogether and not display such hubris as to seek the attention of the gods. Odysseus's voyage home should have taken a fortnight but it was stretched out by angry gods to ten years.

With an attraction to a real person I evolve and commit or marry, and maybe I could live happily ever after. Or perhaps a funny thing happens on the way to the altar: conflicting gravitational forces tear my would-be partner apart, and she explodes in the manner of certain stars in which the outer rings of mass create a pretty but vacuous ring nebula, and the inner mass collapses into a white dwarf, a feeble remnant of the great star that she was—much Sturm und Drang leading into the bathos of fizzling nothingness.

I outgrew all my other movie star crushes. I expect that somewhere in the massive ouvre of Freud, or perhaps in the work of some Kübler-Ross of love and heartbreak, there is some natural course for adolescent and pre-adolescent crushes like:

  1. Infatuation,
  2. Obsession,
  3. Frustration & Depression,
  4. Boredom, and
  5. Disinterest.

However the natural progression of a crush goes, it is a painful working-through, at the end of which I don't feel so much pain but perhaps a bit of embarrassment for what, in retrospect feels like foolishness.

And don't I still get crushes as an adult? I hide my crushes and their foolishness better, but if I'm alive and engaged with the world, I notice people and take a special interest in some of them. With those crushes that are on real people in my life—as opposed to the mythological characters seen only through a device— it's always possible that stage three could turn out to be 3. Discovery & Reciprocation, in which I find that the feeling is mutual.

But I work through most crushes, and they become quiet, poignant, and private memories. For some I will never lose my fondness, and from time to time I turn them over in my mind like old photographs from happy times. Yet somehow I did not work through my crush on Hayley Mills, and it has stayed with me, dormant, but unfinished. I haven't had my gestalt with that one.

What really killed me was when Hayley Mills came of age, I was still a child. She made her transition from the Disney films to films made for adults. Although these films for adults made in the late 1960s were, by today's standards, extremely mild, I was nevertheless not permitted to see them at the time. As a result, Hayley Mills moved out of the mythic world that I was allowed to visit, and that's probably how that crush went into suspended animation. I doubt the same thing has happened to fans of Emma Watson as she moved from her Harry Potter career into a career of her own. I'm no expert on her films, but those I have seen have allowed her to hang on to a surprising amount of modesty for a young woman in a Hollywood film.

Most actresses who are new to the film industry are apparently put in a position of having to expose their breasts in the movies if they are going to survive in Hollywood. Almost every big-name Hollywood actress has nude scenes in films early in her career. It's only after she builds an audience that she becomes immune to requirements for gratuitous nudity. So a lead actress in a typical movie has enough experience and audience backing, that she won't provide the film's erotic content, but a lesser known, supporting actress will take up the slack. However, Emma Watson's fan base follows her from the Harry Potter days, so she has managed to avoid these requirements.

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna (1960).
Hayley came from an acting dynasty. Her father was Sir John Mills, who appeared in over 120 movies, and her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, was also an actress as well as a writer. Hayley's older sister, Juliet Mills, has also enjoyed a long career on screen.

Hayley first appeared in a British film, Tiger Bay (1959), with her father, and that performance earned her not only a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer but notice at Disney that led to her getting the part for Polyanna (1960), and that made her a star in the US. In The Parent Trap (1961), she played a pair of twins, which demands a lot of an actor and often raises their skill level a notch or two. For example, when Jeremy Irons won an Oscar™ for starring as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (1990), he thanked not only his director, , but he also thanked David Cronenberg, who had directed him as a set of twins in Dead Ringers (1988). "Some of you will understand," Irons said of his gratitude to Cronenberg, and what I understand is that the playing of twins under Cronenberg's direction made Irons a better actor.

In all, Hayley Mills made six films for Walt Disney before she moved on with films for more mature audiences. In seeking out my little gestalt, I've set out to watch some of these. Last night I saw Take a Girl Like You (1970)—by which time Mills was 24—based on a novel by Kingsley Amis. The movie is a sex comedy, but Mills's character, Jenny, is virginal and determined to stay that way until marriage. The setting predates any semblance of feminist consciousness, so Jenny gets incessantly browbeaten for not "putting out" by her piggish boyfriend Patrick, played by Oliver Reed. Patrick really doesn't seem to enjoy any aspect of Jenny's company other than the potential that one day she might give in. Both Jenny and Patrick teach school, but they have a friend among the landed gentry, Julian, played by Noel Harrison. Julian shares Patrick's view that women should join the party, for this is the age with the Pill and no disease that couldn't be cured by a shot of penicillin in the butt, but he is much less crudely spoken about it than Patrick.

Take a Girl Like You is the second English movie I've seen in which a north-south cultural rivalry is apparent. In this case, the South is synonymous with London and its environs, and it implies all the sophistication that comes with living in one of the world's great capitals. Consequently the southerners have an exagerated perception of northerners as a simpler, less-refined folk. Conversely, northerners perceive southerners as puffed-up over an overrated status. The movie opens with Jenny, a northerner, on a train to the south, and her sexual conservatism is repeatedly associated with her northern origins.

In A Hard Day's Night, the first Beatles movie, Ringo out on his own in London brushes up against some rude locals, and he yells at them with a derogatory tone in his voice, "Southerners!" (A Hard Day's Night is for not extra charge on Hulu, and if you join me on Hulu, you can get two weeks free.)
Wikipedia says an article in "The Economist (15–21 September 2012) argued that the gap between the north and south in life expectancy, political inclinations and economics trends was growing to the extent that they were almost separate countries" (Wikipedia), so this north-south distinction appears more serious than comedy movies make it appear.

As for me and my unresolved crush and the frustration of the movie gap, watching Take a Girl Like You was a small step forward. It isn't jealousy that compels me to see these movies that I missed over forty years ago, but the need to partake of the vision of the beloved. I'm reminded of the time that I babysat a trio of labradors, one of which, Tina, went into heat. One day a German shepherd somehow got onto the property despite my best efforts to keep the perimeter secure, and by the time I caught them in flagrante delicto, they had bonded enough to make several litters. The neighbor's dog, Morgan, desperately wanted to get in on the action as well when I drove through the main gate, and I managed—almost at the expense of getting bit—to thwart him. So Morgan went to the yard of the neighbor on the other side, where he had a much better view, and wept loudly with a cry that sounded disturbingly human as he stared at the newlyweds who were now stuck together like an eight-legged pushmi-pullyu.

My reaction to Mills's perfunctory and demure nude scene was nothing like Morgan's frustration. It's more like a simple, dispassionate almost to the point of disinterest, need to see. Instead of feeling denied as Morgan did, I feel vicariously within the experience. That is what film does: a movie is a montage of several shots (or short pieces of film) with an accompanying soundtrack that creates and sustains a dream state in its audience. (A typical film comprises 1250 shots of about 5.5 seconds in duration. A tightly cut action film will have more shots with a shorter duration—Resident Evil 2 (2004), for example, has an average shot length of 1.64 seconds, meaning that there's a cut, or a jump in position, every two seconds or less. Yet whether a film features long slow mise en scène shots or an almost stroboscopic series of scenes, the desired end result is the same: the sustaining of the dream state.)

By watching this film that I was denied because of my youth when it came out, I begin to work on the closure I would have had years ago. Mills's nude scene is brief and demure—no more than upper back, really. Likewise, the sexuality isn't seen but implied by the before and after blocking.

My therapeutic plan to bring this primeval crush to a close lies in watching what 1970s, post-Disney Mills films I can find, then I will transformed her from a boyhood crush into just yet another actor whose work I admire and whose screen presence I enjoy. That sounds like a come-down, but it's the working through that we really need. That's how we grow with the mythological system that we enjoy in the 21st century.
Hayley Mills and Firdous Bamji, her partner in career and life, at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, May 1997 (detail). Photo by Virgil1966. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Noodles and Oodles of Food from Everywhere

  • My new desk lamp from Taotronics is a wonderful LED lamp with adjustable color, brightness, and position. It has a sleep timer and a built-in night light. There's a USB plug in the side of the base that will charge my phone at that fast rate.

The question of the day is what do I write about when I have no idea what to write about. I am by nature garrulous, and sometimes I'm able to channel my babble into writing. Professionals who peer into my eyes and ears and who analyse the strange chemistry of my blood dread my appointments because I incessantly rattle their ears with my jawbone. It's fair to say I've brightened the day of a few bored store clerks with my round-the-world gonzo-babble, so I'm not equally off-putting to everyone.

Noodles, cooked and drained,
receive extreme unction.
There is nobody around right now except for my mother, who is watching television in the back of the house, so the solution seems to lie in cooking some pasta, on which I plan to drizzle a little olive oil, which, they tell me, is more likely a fraud made from grape seed oil and rapeseed oil:

Journalist Tom Mueller has investigated crime and adulteration in the olive oil business, publishing the article "Slippery Business" in New Yorker magazine, followed by the 2011 book Extra Virginity. On 3 January 2016 Bill Whitaker presented a program on CBS News including interviews with Mueller and with Italian authorities. It was reported that in the previous month 5,000 tons of adulterated olive oil had been sold in Italy, and that organised crime was heavily involved—the term "Agrimafia" was used. The point was made by Mueller that the profit margin on adulterated olive oil was three times that on the illegal narcotic drug cocaine. He said that over 50% of olive oil sold in Italy was adulterated, as was 75-80% of that sold in the US. Whitaker reported that 3 samples of "extra virgin olive oil" had been bought in a US supermarket and tested; two of the three samples did not meet the required standard, and one of them—with a top-selling US brand—was exceptionally poor (Wikipedia).

I'll lightly season my fraudulently annointed noodles with some oregano, maybe some dill, pepper, and salt. I've been wanting to do this for a long time because pouring on the marinara out of a jar makes such a heavy concoction, and I want to eat something light. I never have the seasoning, but tonight I do.

I tell my mother I'm going to cook some pasta, and she looks at me as though I'm speaking Greek again. I try the word noodles, but that doesn't help, so I go get the bag to show it to her. She's moved the noodles, so I have to look for a while. It hasn't occurred to her that I buy food too. I don't mind her eating the watermelon chunks that I buy, but she eats the food that I buy for myself and leaves untouched the food that she buys for herself, so I'm going to start making her shopping list look more like mine than hers. At least I know what she likes now—not pasta though. I stood there five minutes waiting for her to answer my question: do you want some pasta? Some noodles? Am I cooking for one or two people? I finally get it loud enough that she can hear me, which upsets her because it seems like I'm shouting at her. She says, "No," and heads off to her room for bed. Sometimes she makes me feel like Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Noodles seasoned with garlic powder, oregano, and a little bit
of dill. I didn't use any salt or any chili sauce, which they needed,
but I tried doing without.
So when I went to the store Friday, I picked up a handful of seasoning that I thought would be appropriate. I like to use fresh seasoning when I can—fresh basil leaves among the produce are the freshest, best tasting thing in all the grocery store—but I didn't know when I would be doing this simple drizzle-and-season pasta, so I bought little jars of dried seasoning that would keep.

So is there a logical loop between writing about noodles that I cooked and eating those noodles while I write? I cooked noodles that I ate while I wrote about cooking the noodles that I ate while I wrote about cooking the noodles that I ate while I wrote about...

They were a little bland because I decided to get by with the seasoning and without the salt. Perhaps a splash of lemon juice would have helped. Some Cholula would have helped, but I have reached that age when even conservative and flavorful sauces like Cholula set my panties on fire, so I not only eat less hot sauce, but I envy people who eat spicy things like chilis with joyous abandon.

Mark Wiens is one such indiscriminate gobbler of spicy curries and chilis, which he eats as nonchalantly as apples. He gobbles them down like Shaggy in Scooby-Doo. I'm a fan of Wiens, as anyone who has been reading my blog surely knows by now. He is based out of Bangkok, Thailand, and his beat has traditionally ranged all over eastern Asia, but lately his horizons have widened to cover the whole planet.

The official tourist bureau of Jordan invited him to come over and eat, so with an official guide and translator, he spent several days traveling all over the country eating in fancy Jordanian restaurants as well as in Bedouin tents. That was an adventure I could only envy—there are restaurants in Austin that serve Mideastern cuisine, but I feel they would be so far from what I saw Wiens and his wife eating in Amman that I can't muster the spirit to go try it.

Not long after the Jordan trip, I noticed that Wiens's videos and his Twitter- and Instagram-trail diverged—on YouTube he was taking a wonderful culinary tour of South Korea, to which I could relate because I lived in Korea, though in only a short time he knew more about the cuisine and tried more things than I did in the two years I was there. Meanwhile his tweets and Instagram photos were reporting amazing dishes from European capitals as well as a massive Reuben from a Katz's Deli in New York.

(Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem called "C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization," which mentions Katz's Deli in an unappetizing light. I'm a Ginsberg fan of such proportion that I have to read everything, even if ... Well, even if, but if you're stomach is delicate, you might want to refrain. There was for a while in Austin a Katz's Deli, which got away with its name because its owner was named Mark Katz, but those big-name New York restaurants do have a vague awareness of what's happening beyond the Hudson River: a place on Larimer Street in Denver calling itself The Little Russian Tea Room got a cease-and-desist letter from their namesake back East: they ceased and desisted by mutating into a linguistically droll but still enticing Little Russian Cafe. I understand they're gone altogether now.) 

Here's a cross-section from Wiens's delicious-looking Reuben at Katz's (his Web page and enterprise is called Migrationology, by the way):

A photo posted by Mark Wiens (@migrationology) on

So finally the other day Wiens posted a short video that left me drooling for good food and trembling with wanderlust. He told everyone to sign up for his channel to get ready for The Food Trip of a Lifetime. The reason his fans were getting videos from Korea but photos from literally around the world became suddenly clear. "39 days, 9 countries, 11 flights, 131 meals," the video crows at the end. Wiens's trip was sponsored by Star Alliance, which, without a lot of research, seems to be a global consortium of airlines. Star Alliance sponsored seven travel bloggers and blogging couples, each with his or her own interest. The topics they covered are a romantic journey; diving; architecture; wine; the cultural arts of design, technology, style, travel, art; the wonders of the world; and of course Wiens's world food. These are all going to be great to watch, and I'm going to subscribe—with notifications—to their respective YouTube channels.

You should sign up to Wiens's channel if you like to eat. I realize there are people who live on gruel because they consider fueling the body as a necessary evil, but I advise everyone—you, my neighbors, and the joyless stoics living empty and painful lives—that they should celebrate life in its most fundamental essences, and the most rudimentary way of doing that lies in reverently eating good food and in celebrating that food with the fellowship of friends.

You see, there are two blogs in one here: my bland noodles and Mark Wiens's culinary adventures. That's what's happens when I sit down before the great tabula rasa, roll a blank piece of paper around my typewriter's platen, and open a vein. At first I get just the lymph fluid before the blood really starts to flow. When I was in graduate school I'd throw  those first several pages away, but now I'll publish anything.