Friday, January 30, 2009
Books, Musical Comedians, Dead Comedians, and Upcoming Changes
I've been putting off posting. Not for lack of subjects, but rather because at the moment, my subjects are just a random assortment without any connection other than their cohabitation inside my head. I ask your indulgence.
I want to talk about books. Not any specific books, but books as a general concept. I've happily discovered that spending much of my time unhappily surrounded by books hasn't diminished my love for the books themselves in the least. It hasn't even diminished my love of bookstores, although I'll always be a little more circumspect in them now. But handling books all day every day has led me to one sad conclusion: the vast majority of them are crap.
Again, I don't mean the contents of the books -- a lot of that part is crap, too, but that's not what I'm getting at. I mean, the physical objects themselves are poorly made and badly designed. Every book, of course, is more than the sum of its physical parts, but often the parts are woefully unworthy of a book's contents.
What I'm saying is, why is it so hard to find a beautifully made, beautifully designed book? Even among the expensive hardcovers, the actual structure of a book seems to be an afterthought. All of the effort is put into designing a flashy dustjacket (and I still don't understand what the physical point of a dustjacket is -- it certainly doesn't do much to protect a book from dust) and almost none into making the book itself anything special.
There are exceptions. The various volumes published under the McSweeney's label are always interesting, and they put a lot of effort into design. Around Christmas I picked up a copy of Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me
, and it's one of my favorite books this year. I still drool over the detailed design of Chris Ware's bigger releases
, which to my mind are what every book should aspire to be. I understand that some books are only designed to be practical, and I certainly understand that people are less and less willing to fork out much money for books. But these days a full-color dustjacket has replaced any effort to create really handsome, well-constructed books. And so many books deserve better.
I think about this against the backdrop of declining book sales and the presumed rise of electronic books (eventually, anyway.) I've gotten to play around with all of the current electronic reader type thingies, and so far they've got a hell of a long way to go. But I'm certain that before much longer someone will finally figure out how to do it right, and more text will be read on electronic devices. They make a lot of sense for some things -- for reference texts where a search function would be a key benefit; for cheap, light reading where the paper-and-glue book itself is merely a disposable medium; for reading newspaper and magazine articles, etc. And a lot of people, given a comfortable electronic device from which to read, would probably do almost all of their reading that way. But I have trouble believing that electronic readers will really spell the end of paper books. Digital music, after all, is simple and portable and cheap; and yet vinyl record albums are now the medium of choice for people who really love and care about music.
It seems to me that the rise of electronic readers could similarly provoke a resurgence in fine publishing -- of really beautiful books designed and built for their own aesthetic appeal as well as a housing for their content. If I were a writer with all options available, I think it would obviously be a smart move to release books in any viable electronic format, and ideally with an option for cheap, disposable paperback editions. But for readers who really care about books, it has to be hand-printed, hand-bound volumes.
Hey, look: here's a really good blog about book design
So, remember that Tim Minchin piece I linked to a couple of weeks ago? The one with crap audio quality that disappeared almost immediately afterwards? Well, he's recorded it properly, and here it is
, complete with jazz-esque musical accompaniment. Something about his meter reminds me of Philip Larkin.
I don't go for the "funny musician" school of comedy. A dude with a guitar singing humorous songs is one of the things I typically turn off about thirty seconds in. And yet it's so in the ascendancy right now it's hard not to catch a few who aren't completely hopeless. I'm not on the Flight of the Conchordes bandwagon -- they're fine, and they do what they do well enough that I can appreciate the joke. But I can't call myself a big fan. I'm all but required by social obligation to be up-to-date on Jonathan Coulton references, but it's my choice to associate with nerds so I don't complain. And Zach Galifianakis -- does he even count?
Regardless, I do like Tim Minchin, though I like him a bit better when he's reciting rather than singing. Singing creeps me out a little.
Finally, with the arrival of February I'll have been living in this house for ten months of the twelve I originally promised, so it's time to decide whether I'll stay here or pick up and move somewhere else. There's a lot to like about this spot, but there have been issues -- only minor issues, but enough of them that I don't much care to stay on. So it looks as though over the next couple of months I'll be moving again. I have a friend, Liliana, whom I've known almost as long as I've lived in Portland, who's roughly my age and of a similar philosophy when it comes to what makes a pleasant household. So she and I are going to be getting a place, probably in approximately this part of town. I'm both dreading it and looking forward to it -- I hate the physical act of moving, but it would feel really good to finally live in a place that's my home as much as anyone else's. That was the idea when I moved in here, but the dynamics of moving into a space that's been occupied by your roommates for a long time just doesn't allow for real sharing of space -- they're too entrenched to make much room, and the room I'm allotted isn't quite enough.
Mostly, I don't want to stay here, but contemplating the stress of moving in with another group of strangers exhausts me. I don't regret any of the strangers I've lived with so far -- they've all been good people, and we've always gotten along. But Liliana is a quantity well-enough known that the prospect of yet another household negotiation isn't too daunting. She's a little more loud where I'm quiet, a little more outgoing where I'm reserved. But she's stable, grounded, disinclined to take bullshit, we agree on all the major details of sharing a house, and we're friends, with many other friends in common. So I'm not worried; we'll work it out. PS
: One other way to know that the world has finally begun to head back in the right direction: David Letterman finally aired that old Bill Hicks segment he cut all those many years ago, and publicly apologized to his mom. Part 1
, Part 2
, Part 3
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The Old Chief Is Gone; Hail To The Chief
I've spent the whole day today trying to think of something insightful and witty to write about President Obama's inauguration, and have come up empty. Perhaps one of the definitions of an historic event is that there isn't anything to be added to it -- it simply happens, and the only commentary possible is the way we change as a result.
I can say that I got what I wanted from the address. I was looking for some hard truth -- that our country is a mess, that the way we've been conducting ourselves is no longer tenable, and that hard work and sacrifice will be necessary for us to recover. But I also heard a determination to get things back on track, and most important of all, a promise that no more time will be wasted. Because that, ultimately, is how I view the Bush years in retrospect: valuable time wasted. Lives wasted. Energy wasted. Effort, goodwill, and credibility, all wasted.
Dubya didn't look like he was having a good day. What with booing crowds, his final escort from office, and the barely-tempered public rebuke from his successor, I would imagine that today was a sharp slap of reality for him. It would be enough to earn my sympathy, if he hadn't so thoroughly earned every bit of it.
I know for a fact that I will frequently disagree with Obama -- I already do on a number of points. The presence of Rick Warren, while I understand the thought behind it, leaves an icky taste in my mouth. And seriously, Aretha is great, but she should be living in graceful retirement from public performance, at least on that scale -- she started out fine, but a 66-year-old voice hasn't got the flexibility to warble the way she insists upon warbling. (Personally, I think Mavis Staples would've been the perfect choice, but nobody asked my opinion.) I was irritated by Obama's decision to defend telecom immunity; I hope in coming months he'll be more aggressive about investigating wrongdoing by the exiting administration. Those who do not remember the past, etc.
But for now, all I want is to be able to read tomorrow evening that during his first full day in office, Obama did something constructive. It doesn't even matter what it is -- just that will be enough for me, for now.
Here in Portland, it seems we are newly embroiled in a mayoral scandal, not even three weeks after our new mayor was sworn in. This is a little discouraging; there's something about this city that seems to inspire our mayors to get skeezy with people who are too damn young. The funny thing is, from what I can gather, the first guy to do this
was one of the most influential mayors the city has ever had, largely shaping what Portland has since become. And this new mayor appeared to have the potential to be the next such influential mayor, except without all that icky having-sex-with-a-borderline-minor business. Except that, well, ewww.
Oh well... politicians are just politicians, after all. Even the once-in-a-generation ones.
Congratulations to everyone on surviving the Bush years. I'm a long, long way from Canary Wharf Underground, where I first learned from an Evening Standard barker that he'd been installed in the White House. The dejection I felt that day has finally found a happy resolution. PS
: Today, incidentally, also marks twelve years(!) since I met my lovely Christopher. He is still, after all this time, one of my best friends. Much love to Smithers.PPS
: See? Didn't even have to wait until tomorrow -- the Obama administration is already in action
. And this as well
what I voted for.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Even How You Choose To Waste Time Matters
A few days after New Year's, I took a semi-illicit trip to Texas. Semi-illicit inasmuch as I had to lie to my employer to take it; having worked clear through the holidays, it was still forbidden to ask for time off to visit our neglected families back home until nearly February. In fact, a friend of mine had been essentially given an ultimatum to either quit her job or give up a five-day trip to see a close relative's newborn visiting from overseas. So, with that scenario in mind, when I got an opportunity to take a quick jaunt to Dallas for a twice-a-decade family reunion, I decided to just not tell my bosses about it at all and call in sick for a couple of days instead. (They don't read this blog, so there's not much danger of being found out here.)
The only point of telling you all that being, you know you've got a shitty job when doing things by the book actually makes it more
likely that you'll end up losing your job.
Anyway, this is how I came to find myself in a hotel room in a far-removed suburb north of Dallas for a few days. Although I'd lived in Dallas for a couple of years as an adolescent, I found myself completely lost in what should have been at least vaguely familiar surroundings. Even driving around the neighborhood I used to live in, I couldn't recognize anything
. I recognized the exact house we lived in, but if you'd dropped me a block in any direction I'd have been at a total loss. I told my mother, "maybe this is what it feels like to have Alzheimer's... I know I should remember this stuff, but I just don't."
To be fair, Dallas is an especially nondescript city outside of its inner core. Every intersection and neighborhood block looks pretty much like every other. Dallas is brown and scrubby, with few trees and the only variety in its architecture described by terms like "mid-century" and "ranch-style." It's a city built primarily for cars, with its widest vistas shaped by parking lot, and where even standard residential arteries are six lanes wide. So it's a typical latter-20th-century southern American city.
And there I was with no car. My mom had driven from Memphis, and she and my stepfather and I toured the old neighborhood(s) for the one full day we had together. But we were staying near my uncle's house in a newer outer suburban enclave, one of the recently-constructed bedroom communities that have grown up miles and miles outside the actual city. Our hotel was positioned on the edge of a massive outlet mall near the freeway, a ring of stores that had a circumference of a mile and a half or so (based on a lap of its perimeter I walked one day), filled in the middle by an enormous lake of concrete. It was a place constructed for people who weren't likely even going to walk from one store to another if it was more than a few doors away -- customers were clearly expected to drive from store to store within then mall itself. Which, it's worth pointing out, was probably a half mile across -- but the fact that any developer thought it was reasonable to construct a shopping center so wide across that the average consumer would be hard-pressed to walk across it, or at least wouldn't be inclined to bother, is getting to the heart of this post: without cars, most of America would be completely fucked. And I don't mean long-term, generationally fucked -- I mean immediate, instant, what-are-we-supposed-to-do-now? fucked.
Across the "street" from my hotel -- if by "street" you mean twelve-odd lanes of freeway traffic -- was a cluster of restaurants. Nothing spectacular, just the usual corporate chain steakhouses, nothing that would've normally been very interesting. But given that the only other place nearby was a Quizno's, the logistics of getting to them became a little more pertinent than it normally would've been. The problem was that even though these restaurants were no more than a quarter-mile away, walking to them was all but impossible. There were no sidewalks, no crosswalks, and a cluster of high-speed freeway ramps to navigate on foot. A pedestrian would've had to either make the choice to give up and Get Toasty yet again, or set off across a landscape that was ridiculously hostile. There had been apparently zero thought given to the idea that anyone from the hotel might want to walk to these restaurants -- and maybe reasonably enough, since anyone who actually made it to the hotel in the first place would've had to have gotten there in a car. We were miles and miles from anywhere you might've been able to get around on foot; the drive into Dallas proper was easily 25 miles one-way.
And the landscape was nothing but corporate, big box chains for everything
. These were places like the "Corner Bakery Cafe" (of which I saw at least four in different places), designed to look like small-town Americana but on a scale big enough to be noticed from a car doing 80 mph on the freeway. The whole of Dallas seemed to be made up of things that wanted desperately to look like other things -- small, quaint, welcoming things -- but were in reality the absolute negation of those things. This was an economic model which assumed that people would be happy to drive forty, fifty, sixty miles in their cars to buy patio furniture or leather recliners or pool table accessories. It was treated as the most natural thing in the world, and it sort of freaked me out.
If the price of gas were to climb to, say, eight dollars a gallon, what would happen to these suburbs? It seems like a remote possibility at the moment, but it's not an unreasonable idea over the course of ten years. What if fuel became so expensive that driving was no longer a tenable day-to-day means of transportation? If you were stuck out in one of those "neighborhoods," how would you get by? Where would you work? Where would you get food? Where would your kids go to school? This isn't even like living in the country -- you're surrounded by infrastructure and consumption, but you can't gain access to any of it. I don't mean to raise the peak-oil issue (although obviously it's built in to all of these questions) -- my "what if" isn't about some Mad Max future where all the cars are gone, but just about what life would be like in a place like this if you didn't have a car. Without wheels and an engine, how could you ever live in outer-suburbia?
I grew up this way, and for much of my life I took it completely for granted. There was definitely a hint of reverse culture shock involved. My life in Portland is lived on foot, on public transportation, and on bicycle wheels -- the idea of traveling more than five or six miles for anything
has become ridiculous. And that's exactly why I came here. There are adjustments that have to be made, but the benefits so vastly outweigh the costs that I have a little trouble imagining why so many people settle for far-flung McMansions orbiting real cities. Why create bogus facsimilies of places worth caring about
, when the real places are still within reach? I understand the appeal of living in the country, but if you're not prepared to make the trade-offs necessary to do it -- and that means giving up most urban conveniences -- why not just go ahead and live in a city? And if you don't like the cities you live in, move to a new one -- or better yet, work to make the one you've got more the kind of city you'd like to live in.
Anyway... I don't make new year's resolutions, 'cause they're stupid and they strike me as nothing but a way to set yourself up for failure early on. But if there were something that I wanted to, y'know, casually work on during the coming year, I think it would be this:
I really want to improve the average quality of the information I spend my time on.
I don't watch much TV anymore, and I rarely miss it. There are a few things I like and still make some effort to see now and then --the Daily Show, a few select British shows, a few favorite programs. But as long as I have broadband, it's not an issue. The rest of TV's temptations I'm much better off without. What is reality TV but a sucking void for time, enthusiasm, and intellectual energy? And yet I know it's a void into which I can too easily be pulled, and on the day I die I won't really give a shit who got voted off the island or whatever the current pointless variant is. Seriously, this shit kills your soul and makes you stupid in the process.
But that doesn't mean I don't still waste as much time on trivial bullshit as the average American. Between this site
and this one
, I can dispose of an entire day if I'm not careful, and with absolutely no benefit of any kind to myself. There are occasional worthwhile things to be found on both of them, but the signal-to-pointless bullshit ratio is excrutiatingly high, and even the best material I've found on either isn't worth the time I lose. So that has to stop.
At the same time, I want to replace those sources with new, more beneficial ones. I've got my Arts and Letters Daily, my Harper's Monthly, my Lapham's Quarterly -- stuff that, if I spend an hour reading, I'll come away with some new ideas or at least not having completely wasted my time. Anyone know of anything else I should check out?
(Of course, I say this, but just two nights ago I spent good money to see two grown men
dance around a stage in shiny gold bodysuits so tight one could clearly see their nipples, singing about diarrhea for ten straight minutes. But hey, life can't be all Ovid and Proust 24-7, right?)