Friday, September 15, 2006

In the Penny Press!

Lately I feel a little twinge of self-consciousness whenever I pick up a Weekly Dig. This stems from some disparaging comments my young friend Sebastian recently made about the rag.

He admitted up front that his interest in the Dig grew tepid once he'd slept with all its female employees and done coke with (and then, what the hell, slept with) all its male employees.

But Sebastian is currently out of town (the reason? Belated egalitarianism. The other day at lunch, he grew pensive and then said, "Do you realize that most of the people in this country have never done this, had lunch with me? Why, most of the people in this country have never even MET me!" He put down his wafer-thin slice of brie, and a tremor of something like determination rippled through his louche, lanky frame. "This shall not stand," he said. and preparations began immediately for an extended trip out of town. "Boulder, hmmmm. Sounds rocky. I'd best buy a pair of sturdy boots," he'd say to Fulke, the hastily-renamed elderly Iranian exile Sebastian's parents pay to do his parking, tidy up his apartment, and, um, disappear his more importunate dealers. "What are they wearing in Cleveland this season?"), so I felt psychically free to enjoy this week's Dig.

What can I say? Its intellectual merits notwithstanding, the Weekly Dig is virtually guaranteed to make me laugh out loud every week. I don't count such a service lightly.

This week's issue featured a very sharp, very snarky city-guide to the hordes of incoming college students who afflict so many of Boston's neighborhoods (here in Southie we're mercifully spared this phenomenon - nobody around here is uppity enough to send their kids to college - but I sympathize nonetheless ... I've done my time in lower Allston).

The guide lists the the pros and cons of every neighborhood, things to do there, and, helpfully, how to get killed there. So naturally I looked up South Boston!

Things to do: Drink your brains out on Broadway on St. Patrick's Day. Drink your brains out at Murphy's Law every day. While it's still nice out, head down to Sullivan's on Castle Island for hot dogs, ice cream, and humping in the grass under Fort Independence. Then drink your brains out.

How to get killed in Southie: Duck into one of those quaint little no-name dive bars that make you feel you're Really Experiencing Old Bawstin, get completely shattered, and start quoting lines from 'Good Will Hunting' at the patrons. Move the garbage can/lawn chair/baby stroller that's blocking the only open parking spot on the street - in Southie, self-defense with a two-by-four is a sane, rational response to having your parking spot taken. Be the yuppie who believes the neighborhood didn't exist before you moved in.

To which I might add one item apiece: under things to do, you might consider visiting Dorchester Heights - it's a very pretty little place to spend an hour or two. And under how to get killed, one must add 'cross the Irish mob' ... despite what the FBI would have you believe, they're still out there, and they can be mean as hell.

The Boston student experience is neatly summed up in the 'things to do' section of Allston/Brighton:

Join the other 56,389 people with the exact same idea and set off for Landsdowne Street on a Friday night in search of trouble. Find some noisy local band and attach yourself to it like a remora. Get a venereal disease. Share it with your roommates. Battle the annual bedbug epidemic. Fall off your balcony.


The guide also has a fairly funny assessment of the T:

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority - the T - is the nation's oldest subway system. It may also be the nation's worst. The trains never run on time, the stations are decrepit, the escalators are always broken, and the system shuts down at 12:30 am - way before any normal person's night should end. For generations, the state's political elite have been giving their surly, alcoholic, half-retarded cousins great-paying government jobs with the T; the result is a system that's wholly inept, and one that resents you for a) being alive, and b) expecting a mass transit system to, um, work.

The Charlie Card system comes in for this comment:

In many ways, Charlie is the T's answer to its staggering inability to keep its own employees from robbing it blind. After years of trouble, the MBTA said to itself, 'Fuck it, if we can't stop you guys from stealing money, we just won't use money anymore.' Problem solved.

Of course, this edition of In the Penny Press isn't all shits and giggles. Over in the New Yorker, for instance, the bulk of the current issue is turned over to a very long, very absorbing article by David Remnick on Bill Clinton.

The article fully justifies the unusual length given to it: it's unfailingly interesting reading. The further the nation slips into a bellicose, torture-sanctioning, fascistic mirror-universe version of itself, the more intriguing Bill Clinton and his tenure in office seem to me. The man bald-facedly lied to the nation ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman") and then tried to wriggle out of admitting it in the most weasley way imaginable ("It depends on what your definition of 'is' is"). But even his enemies credit him with being hugely intelligent and thoroughly engaged. Which is a far cry from a stupid, bigoted, vacation-taking asshole.

The difference is so salutory that I found myself all throughout Remnick's piece LIKING Clinton, even though it's pretty clear he can still lie like a marble flagstone when he wants to (he tells Remnick he has no idea whether or not his wife is planning on running for President ... says it with a straight face ... the mind boggles).

The piece makes for fascinating reading nonetheless, which made shifting from it to the issue's NEXT piece all the more jolting. Finish the Clinton article, turn the page, and WHAM! You're reading "Something That Needs Nothing," a mind-numbingly boring short story by someone who wants us to believe her name is Miranda July.

The story starts with a monolithic block of exposition. Then it moves its handful of baking-pan shallow cardboard characters through a meaningless, inconsequential semi-plot. There's a great deal of wooden dialogue. And the the thing just sort of STOPS, with no ending worth noting and no dramatic payoff. All of which raises one question:

Why on Earth would John Updike pick a dipshit pen-name like Miranda July?

Luckily, there's plenty of good stuff in this week's New York magazine, foremost of which is John Homan's sensitive review of Bruce Wagner's new book Memorial.

Wagner is one of the best writers currently working, and it's alway been a source of frustration for me that more people don't know about him. Here's a bit of Homans, to help things along:

... if the obscene is Memorial's yin, beauty is its yang. The book, with epigraphs from Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, is filled with stunning sentences, a kind of wild pop-culture nusic, though Wagner seems to pipe them in a mock-poetic voice, as if he doesn't want to fully possess them. There's an underlying question, in this book more than any of his others, as to whether poetry is appropriate in such a world, and whether the sublime can transcend the conflicted circumstances of its birth.

Also in this issue, John Leonard reviews a few of the season's new TV shows, commenting on how quite a few of them hark back to the old serials, where the entire season tells one long story.

I don't know if Leonard is just being contrary or if he forgot to take his cranky-medication, but he actually seems AGAINST such shows on principle:

More often, the compications necessary to keep a serial going are so finger-in-the-eye baroque that if we miss a week, we are confused, and if we miss two, we are so embarrassed we may give up. And don't tell me about TiVo. I watch more television than you do. If, because I was out trying to have a half-life, I missed something the first time around, when am I likely to catch up? The portal heads among us, with their DVDs, TiVos, and video streams, need reminding that most people work for a living and, when we come home, actually turn on and tune in to whatever, hoping between dinner and bed for an hour of coherent, disposable narrative, like apple pie at the Automat.

I hardly know where to start with this little bit of spleen. What's the point of that snotty little 'I watch more TV than you do' bleat if you're calling for MORE 'disposable' programs? Who the hell cares how much TV you watch if you're actually calling for the medium to be DUMBER?

If poor widdle Leonard can't manage to, you know, FOLLOW a show or two, maybe he ought to re-think his job as a fucking TV CRITIC.

"24" has never for a moment been anything but insanely enthralling TV, whether Leonard could find the wherewithal to keep up or not. The new show "Vanished" has been consistently gripping. The serial format is tried and true, based on the most fundamental underpinning of all fiction, 'what happens next?' ...

So: on the one hand, Leonard still has plenty of disposable TV - "House," for instance, or the new show "Justice." And on the other hand, a serial done well delivers better than anything else on TV (while we're on the subject, I whole-heartedly recommend you buy or rent "Murder One," a fantastic early example of how TV can do this format right).

Over in Harper's, a strong issue with many points of interest. First, Daniel Ellsberg writes a piece in the 'Notebook' section for which he's uniquely qualified.

Ellsberg released classified information about the Vietnam War to the press - the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg did what he did in the hopes of even slightly shortening the war, and in this article he urges a lot more of the same on the part of current and recent government employees.

He singles out Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert whose opinions about, among other things, Iraq weren't in line with the Bush administration. Clarke tells Larry King that if he'd have publicly criticized the president before the invasion of Iraq - much less gone public with internal evidence that the public justifications for the war were bogus - he'd have been 'fired within an hour.'

Ellsberg agrees with him:

His unperceived alternative, I wish to suggest, was precisely to court being fired for telling the truth to the public, with documentary evidence, in the summer of 2002. For doing that, Clarke would not only have lost his job, his clearance, and his career as an executive official; he would almost surely have been prosecuted, and he might have gone to prison. But the controversy that ensued would not have been about hindsight and blame. It would have been about whether war on Iraq would make the United States safer, and whether it was otherwise justified.

That debate did not occur in 2002 - just as a real debate about war in Vietnam did not occur in 1964 - thanks to the disciplined reticence of Clarke and many others. Whatever his personal fate, which might have been severe, his disclosures would have come before the war. Perhaps, instead of it.

Ellsberg calls for 'the Pentagon Papers of the Middle East.' He pre-supposes that the Bush administration is gearing up for a presumptive nuclear strike on Iran, and he urges everyone involved in the administration with any documented knowledge of that gearing-up to come forward, publish, speak out - even at risk of their personal lives.

This is stern stuff, with which I entirely agree. Our current administration is composed almost entirely of small, brutal creatures who completely RELY on the fact that most people like to act in crowds, looking out for their own interests.

The only way to deal with such creatures is to confront them directly, over and over, all the time, on every single point. 'Security' people order you to open your bag for inspection? Don't do it. Tell your friends not to do it. If EVERYBODY refuses, the basic machinery of fascism breaks down.

Certainly Ellsberg's advice is a Helluva lot better than that found elsewhere in this issue, specifically an essay by George McGovern and William Polk called "The Way out of War."

McGovern is an old nutjob who once ran for president, and for all I know, Polk is descended from the nutjob of the same name who actually WAS president. But I started their article with an open mind, I swear.

Until I got to this:

We should of course withdraw from the Green Zone, our vast, sprawling complex in the center of Baghdad... The Green Zone should be turned over to the Iraqi government no later than December 31, 2007. By this time, the U.S. should have bought, or rented, or built a 'normal' embassy for a considerably reduced complement of personnel. Symbolically, it would be beneficial for the new building not to be in the Green Zone. Assuming that a reasonable part of the Green Zone's cost can be saved, there should be no additional cost to create a new American embassy for an appropriate number of not more than 500 American officials, as opposed to the 1000 or so Americans who today staff the Green Zone.

I confess, I read this with my jaw agape. And it's about here my forebearing open mind slammed shut - this kind of daffy utopianism is only possible if the people involved NEVER WATCH TV NEWS OR READ A FUCKIN NEWSPAPER. If you're worried about the cost, why not sententiously 'advise' that when people eat, they poop money? THAT should pay for things quite nicely.

But I haven't even shared the true whammy of the piece, the perfect sign to back away slowly from these two looney tunes:

Insofar as is practical, the new building should not be designed as though it were a beleagured fortress in enemy territory.

Hell no! Why on Earth WOULD it look that way?

Sometimes, the penny press can be so damn exasperating ...


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