Sunday, January 30, 2011


So I've fallen off the blogging horse once again, and this time it's half-excusable. I started a full-time restaurant job last week that sapped a lot of time and energy, and (more notably) I've been looking for lodging and, for the past couple days, have been couchsurfing.

That's all stabilizing now, and so posting will hopefully resume. Hopefully. I really hope I don't have to resort to a precommitment device to motivate myself to write.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bacon Traces

Tonight I finished reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's a terrific read, an epic story of the origins of superhero comics with generous dashes of Jewish culture, romance, escape artistry, horror, childhood, parenthood, World War II, tragedy, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and more besides. Rather than traipse the well-trod ground of the book's many virtues, I'd like to focus on the one that I keep coming back to: the characterization of Tracy Bacon.

Bacon is the voice actor for the radio incarnation of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay's superhero creation the Escapist. A closeted homosexual--his section of the story takes place in 1941, in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor--he immediately zeros in on Sam as a kindred spirit and the two begin a clandestine romance. It ends in misunderstanding and heartbreak when, just before the two are to move to Los Angeles, police raid a gay getaway that they've attended. Sexually humiliated, Sam decides that burying that part of himself is preferable to undergoing such shame again and ends their relationship. He never again sees Bacon, who enlists in the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor, and is killed in battle over the Solomon Islands.

Bacon inhabits only one of the book's six parts. He enters halfway through the story, yet his role is vital. His relationship with Sam, for one thing, provides the narratively useful function of providing a love interest for the second of Kavalier and Clay's titular characters. The humiliation Sam undergoes because of their love not only resurfaces in the Senate hearings on comic books toward the novel's end, but also motivates him to 'play it straight' and marry Joe's girlfriend Rosa and raise their son as his own after Joe abruptly joins the Navy.

This would all amount to so much melodrama, were Chabon's characters not so deftly drawn. Bacon, perhaps because I'm predisposed to like a charming gay love interest, is to me both one of the most and least defined characters in the book's cast, in the best ways possible.

Here is Chabon's description of his entry into the story:

Bacon was such a perfect Escapist that one would have thought he had been cast to play the role in a film, not on the air. He was well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with a dimple on his chin and glossy blond hair fitted to the top of his head like a polished brass plate. He wore an oxford shit unbuttoned over a ribbed undershirt, blue jeans, and socks with no shoes. His muscles were not as large, perhaps, as the Escapist's, but they were distinctly visible. Clean-favored, thought Sammy, and imperially slim.

I immediately thought of Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and all of Bacon's lines I heard in Hammer's (if you'll forgive the gushing) sumptuous basso profundo. It's one of the more vivid character visualizations I can remember having.

Bacon sweeps Sam off his feet without Sam even realizing it, but it comes with a palpable sense of desperation. In their first meeting he is quick to rehearse a rich biography of travel and cultivation, which prompts Sam to observe that Bacon is in fact quite lonely and very possibly bullshitting him. This is, of course, partially because Bacon is courting him. Their relationship, though, is genuine, with Bacon making the most astute, penetrating (pardon the term), and succinct appraisal of Sam in the entire book: "It's not comic books you think are inferior, it's you."

Their romance provides some of the novel's standout episodes, particularly an almost literally electric first kiss atop the Empire State Building. Chabon's depictions of the joy of gay self-discovery--the clashing impulses in a first encounter, the thrill of covert love-making--are so finely observed that one could understand his earlier fear of being thought by his readers to be gay. (Such a concern is misplaced, for to think he was gay for this reason would constitute the highest praise.)

In spite of Tracy Bacon's earnestness with Sam, the sense of his putting-on never entirely goes away. His forwardness, the way he actively seeks out unsafe or restricted areas to explore, are brazen enough that one begins to wonder if it isn't all just a distraction for others, and himself, from matters he would just as soon forget. A passage describing Bacon's immediate brawling with the cops hints at this:

As for Tracy Bacon, he did not give the question of fighting or not fighting the police a moment's thought. Without revealing too much of the true history that he had so assiduously labored to erase and reconstitute, it can be said that Bacon had been falling afoul of the police since the age of nine, and defending himself with his fists since well before that. He waded into the writhing knot of knight-sticks and broad-brimmed hats and cowering men, and began swinging. It took four men to subdue him, which they did with considerable brutality.

This is the closest we ever get to learning that "true history." Bacon is shortly thereafter dumped and later killed off-page. Only the book's author knows the full truth, and even that is not certain.

The term 'well-drawn characters' does not necessarily denote exhaustive detail. Tracy Bacon is adamant that not even his lover know his past, and Michael Chabon's restraint in making this true of the narrative--we know of Bacon only what Sam knows--makes the character's impact all the more acutely felt. An elaborate portrait can show and tell us many things, but just as effective, by way of intimation and suggestion, are the few and well-placed lines of an effective sketch.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tucson's Reluctant Hero

Barack Obama got all the media attention at the Tucson memorial service last night, but the real, and reluctant, star of the night was Daniel Hernandez Jr, lauded as a hero in the days since the attack on Gabrielle Giffords that killed six and wounded several more. There was a back-and-forth on Hernandez' hero status throughout the night. It was first conferred, gratefully declined, and then foist upon him once more by no less than President Obama.

I felt a little bad for him.

When he went to work last Saturday, Hernandez was just an intern. Five days before, he was barely that. He had already done great things, yes--getting the nursing assistant certification that would later help save Giffords' life and being a member of Tucson’s city commission on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues at age 20 (20!), are great indeed--but these were part of the normal order of life, the beginnings of a career in public service. Administering life-saving care for your boss in the midst of the attack that brought her down is a complete derailment of all such normality.

The Giffords attack is traumatic enough on its own. For Hernandez, being all over the news for doing what to him was the only thing that made sense at the time (and this is what makes him indeed a hero) and then being applauded by 13,000 people, including the most powerful person in the world, is a lot to take in. An explosive situation just propelled Hernandez into the public stratosphere, and it was obvious by his humility and stoicism that he's still trying to get his bearings.

No doubt great things lie ahead for Daniel Hernandez. But the man just survived a massacre and has been violently jolted out of the subtle comforts of routine. We'll hear of him again, when he's good and ready.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Eyes Undimmed by Cynicism and Vitriol

As is often the case, President Obama had to pull off a great deal with tonight's speech. Not just because of the subject at hand, the shooting of Gabriel Giffords and several of her staff and constituents, but because of all the meta-commentary on discourse and root causes that's led up to the speech, climaxing today with Sarah Palin's "blood libel" whine.

It ran a bit long, yes, but it served its purpose of honoring the fallen and rather ingeniously pivoted off of the most famous of them--Christina Green, the nine year-old 9/11 baby who attended Giffords' Congress on Your Corner meet-up to see government in action--to implore the nation to live up to our expectations, and hers.

It's an ambitious call to action, if perhaps fuzzy; there's no objective way to measure the quality of our discourse, after all. But it is important, and gets at something that's been bothering me for a few days now.

I'm basically ready to retreat from the argument that a charged political atmosphere contributed to Jared Loughner's killing spree. The man's "brains are scrambled," and his fixation on Giffords seems to have stemmed from an exchange he had at one of her constituent meet-and-greets. Moreover, having pushed back against the idea that violent entertainment is to blame for school shootings, I don't think it consistent or fair to make such hazy arguments about "political climates." I still think Republican rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible and could prompt actual political violence, but this simply wasn't a case of it.

This isn't the first time I've backpedaled or changed my mind after making too hasty a judgment and it certainly won't be the last, but I'd like them to become less frequent. I've realized lately that reading and writing about politics tends to bring out the worst in me (such as writing about the Giffords attack without once expressing any concern or sympathy for its victims), and that most of it is superficial pith anyway. Without any wonky specialty, all I have to bring to the conversation are curated prose and punchlines. (And hopefully some clear thinking, but clarity without expertise is a pretty, empty package.)

This isn't to say that I'll stop completely writing about the news--I'm too egotistical to keep my opinions to myself--but I'd like to shift focus, or rather get a focus. There isn't any particular topic this blog singles out, and I'm not yet sure what that would be; the most popular pieces here are almost without exception the ones in which I'm getting scammed or physically attacked, and as interesting as they are I would just as soon not have to write another one anytime soon. But I do enjoy writing about my own experiences and actually doing some kind of original "journalism," so maybe that's the tack I'll take.

In any case, I'm finally starting to figure out life is too short to be constantly and impotently bitching about politics. I'll still be something of an ass--it's in the name, after all--but perhaps a new, constructive ass.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Further Thoughts

Facts are painting a clearer picture of Gabrielle Giffords shooter Jared Loughner. Instead of a Tea Partier he's just a deeply disturbed individual. Jim Fallows provides some useful historical comparisons with other assassinations, attempted and successful, and their often political murkiness:

1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades some people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

I still stand by much of what I said before. Republican rhetoric of the past two years have been overheated and fantastical. We should not be surprised, then, when a man with a tenuous grip on reality should react to the unreal and hysterical climate with violence. Crazy ideas make crazy people do crazy things.

They also coarsen the lucid:

I hear one of the women say, “Well, that’s to be expected when you’re so liberal.”

And the other woman says, “Ohh, so we get to appoint a Republican?”

In any case, Giffords had already had a rock hurled through her office window, and a handgun brought to one of her town hall events. I can't speak to the mental well-being of the perpetrators in those cases, but I also don't think it wise for Republicans and Tea Party groups to wait to change their rhetoric until someone is directly harmed because of it.

Republicans are Responsible for the Giffords Shooting

I don't mean that. Or do I? How seriously should I be taken when I say Sarah Palin or any grinding, screeching cog in the Right-Wing Noise Machine has the blood of ten people, including a Congresswoman and judge, on their hands?

The answer, in question form: How seriously should we take the Republicans?

The soundtrack to the past two years has been a cacophony of fear-mongering about Socialism, Fascism, Terrorism, Death Panels, Totalitarianism, and any other number of menaces to civil society supposedly foisted on America by Obama and the Democrats. These were not scribblings by marginal nutters who live in isolated cabins with shotgun boners. They were said, loudly and often, by high-profile public figures and members of Congress.

New Speaker of the House John Boehner:

“If we pass this bill, there will be no turning back. It will be the last straw for the American people.

“And In a democracy, you can only ignore the will of the people for so long and get away with it.

“And if we defy the will of our fellow citizens and pass this bill, we are going to be held to account by those who have placed us in their trust.

“We will have shattered those bonds of trust."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

"By preventing the accumulation of excessive power, the Constitution is designed to reduce the risk of tyranny or abuse at either the Federal or state levels," McConnell told the audience of conservative legal scholars. "The health care bill would remove an important bulwark of this protection."

Representative Michelle Bachman:

“What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t pass.”


“This is slavery,” Bachmann said after claiming many Americans pay half their income to taxes. “It’s nothing more than slavery.”

Former Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

If these figures are to be believed--and many people do believe them--America faces the prospect of undemocratic, tyrannical, evil slavery. You don't vote tyranny out of office or write it a letter of disapproval. You don't go to a tyrant's town hall meeting, unless it's with the intention of opening fire on the dastard and his enablers. Sic semper tyrannis.

Ezra Klein wrote about the consequences of dire rhetoric last night. And people are actually surprised this happened? Words have meaning. Either the Democrats or tyrants or they are not. If the Republicans did not actually think the nation is at risk of creeping tyranny, then they are not credible but empty and cynical actors, unfit for elected office.

Boehner and the rest are currently mouthing horror and condemnation in the most serious of words. But people have been taking them and their words seriously for awhile now, with Jared Laughner, the suspected gunman, the most serious of all.

(Follow-up here)

Information Superhighway Robbery

Pinning the decline in street crime on the decline in cash usage is an interesting and plausible idea, but this article only hints at the larger implications:

There's no question, though, that shifting away from a cash economy would increase the burden on street criminals. At the same time, it would shift the opportunities for malfeasance toward more sophisticated electronic crime, like hacking and e-mail scams. Some high-tech muggers can already steal your money with an ATM keypad that detects your PIN number, a card skimmer, or an entire fake ATM. And the folks designing these high-tech scams won't be former street dealers. They'll be people with more education and higher income. Indeed, as street crime has dropped over the last two decades, white collar and online crime has gone way up, according to the National White Collar Crime Center. In a cashless world, the crime gap will be even wider. "Essentially, the rich will have stolen crime from the poor," says Wright.

This is to say nothing of corporate malfeasance. Enron made millions by engineering an energy crisis and falsifying information. The financial crisis and Great Recession were caused by arcane housing market trading schemes (that were perfectly legal) which grew completely out of control, an economic meth lab that blew up the servants' quarters and charred the rest of the house. The greed and negligence at work in these puts muggers, hustlers, drug dealers, and petty thieves to shame, but since no one's getting robbed at gunpoint we don't think of the grand larcenists as thieves. We should.

Friday, January 7, 2011

As Heard in DC

If you want to work with poor people, you've got to work the 'I want to save the world' angle.

- girl, to her guy friend, at the Chinatown Starbucks, yesterday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


I arrived at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro shortly before 2 o' clock yesterday afternoon with the intention of dropping off some resumes. It had been slow in getting there, as the first train I had gotten on from Georgia Ave.-Petworth was dysfunctional and spent ten minutes start-stopping before hurrying up to Columbia Heights, dumping its passengers, and speeding away.

This would have been the most interesting thing to happen to me that day, but after getting off the train and riding up a couple escalators, I entered the circular tunnel that led to the station's exit gates, where I saw a man on his back, and standing and leaning over him another man, holding him down and yelling at him, while hitting him in the face.

Though I can't be certain, I'm pretty sure three thoughts entered my head in quick succession:

1. My brother got a concussion two years ago for trying to break up a fight.
2. This isn't a fight, it's a beatdown.
3. Am I really going to walk by as someone gets the living shit beaten out of him?

So I and two other people already present went up and started yelling at the guy on top to let it go. We pulled him off, and as he rose back up the victim started grasping at his legs. This struck me as unusual.

Both of them got to their feet. The aggressor, wearing a dark blue jacket and black beanie, continued to yell at and try to get at his white sweatered quarry, who stood his ground and seemed to have no interest in ending the dispute. I would like to reproduce some of the dialogue of their exchange, but the things they shouted at one another were unremarkable and strangely non-sequitor, with no point but aggression for aggression's sake, so these "quotes" are more impressionism than journalism.

"I'm telling you, man!"



"You know what?"

You get the idea.

The attacker came at the other again, and I stepped in between them, putting my arms out to try to push or hold them apart.

"Come on, guys, just give it up," I said.

At this critical moment my memory fails me: I may have tried to pull the attacker away, or I may have just looked to him after looking to the other guy first. In any case, the aggressive one and I were sharing gazes as he brought his fist-balled right hand back and drove it full speed head-on into my left upper lip and nose.

I recoiled bloody and wondered: jesus fuck, did I lose a tooth? My tongue did a quick circuit around the inside of my mouth and found nothing amiss. I leaned forward to keep from bleeding all over myself, and reached into my left jacket pocket for some tissues originally intended for the snotty vestiges of last week's cold. This is not the first time I've been attacked or hit since I came out here, but it's the first time the assailant has very intentionally drawn blood.

The fisticuffs ended with that.

"I will pay for this man's medical bills," the attacker, now my attacker, said in calm and lucid tones. A policeman arrived and in short order put both of the men in handcuffs. At first he sat them down against the wall next to each other, but they were wont to renew the dispute and so the cop moved the aggressor to the opposite wall.

"I have no problem with paying this man's medical expenses."

After that, there was a lot of clean-up and procedure. A medic checked me out and I was free to leave thereafter. The other man was strangely uncooperative, making me wonder if he's some underling who was "paying the price" for screwing up or something. The offender already had a warrant for his arrest and he was probably going to plead guilty for assaulting me, so there wouldn't be need for a trial. I'm supposed to be get a call today from an attorney to make a statement, but that should be the end of my involvement.

(Also, I might be able to get a copy of the CC video of the incident. I've a morbid curiosity to see how it actually looked--if only to have a McLovin moment to call my own--and might take steps to acquire it.)

I would have gone home then to take it easy, but I had planned to meet a friend at the National Portrait Gallery in a couple hours, and I don't like cancelling plans. So in the meantime I walked and sat around Chinatown pressing some frozen Chinese pork meatballs to my lip. I even filled out a job application.

A day later there is surprisingly little damage. Aside from the scrapes on my lower lip the only visible sign of the attack is a small purple welt on the inside of the lip above. My nose is still a bit sore, but that's about it.

I wanted to have a pithy closer for this story, but my wit seems to be running dry. I'm a little exhausted right now--there's more going on behind the scenes, much more--and I am frankly looking forward to a little boredom.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite, A Decent Actor

Pete Postlethwaite is dead of cancer at 64. A terrible loss. Rarely am I inclined to expostulate on the passing of a celebrity, but rarely have I actually come in contact with one, especially of such class as he. So I’ll make an exception, for an exception.

It’s perhaps inaccurate to call Postlethwaite a celebrity. He didn’t have the star power of some of his other peers of the English stage, of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. He rarely played the lead, at least on film. Yet no one could doubt his skill. Postlethwaite had the goods: presence, conviction, and that “warty, whiskery, pustular, rubicund, infinitely lived-in face.”

Such were his talents that while my casual moviegoing friends didn’t know him by name when I've mentioned him before, as soon as I rattled off some of his many key supporting roles their faces would light up in realization: Oh yeah! That guy!

Yes, that guy. The first time I saw Alien3 as a teenager I recognized among all the other bald-shaven English convicts, “that guy.” Roland Tembo, the game hunter from The Lost World, who had the good sense to exit the film just before it reached its absurd T-Rex-running-through-San-Diego nadir. Postlethwaite was put to far better use as Giuseppe Conlon, the titular character of in In the Name of the Father, and the mouthpiece of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, and he was one of the few actors running around Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet who actually knew what he was doing. Most recently I saw him give weight to a rote archetype among many as the dying CEO father in last summer’s Inception (a perhaps fitting penultimate role for the eventual cancer casualty). The through-line for all of these characters are the quiet dignity Postlethwaite brought to them.

His strength as an actor and the usually secondary nature of the roles he played were what interested me when I read he was going to play King Lear while I was in London two years ago. How would he fill out such a titanic figure, given his normal reserve? Pretty damn well, actually. Postlethwaite’s Lear was by turns proud and pathetic, venomous and vulnerable. The heath scene was a bust thanks to director Rupert Goold’s decision to have him carried around yelling his lines through a megaphone, but the Poor Tom scene and the “trial” that followed, were masterful.

But now we come to the reason I’m writing about Pete Postlethwaite. After seeing Lear I came out of the theater and sat down at a table and sketched my surroundings. This was in the Young Vic, which has a two-storey bar in the theater lobby. I was just in front of the actors’ backstage entrance, from which exited John Shrapnel, who had played Gloucester. Sensing an opportunity, I decided to wait out Postlethwaite and ask for his autograph. I did some more sketching and writing, and bought and finished a Hoegaarden in the meantime.

At least twenty minutes passed, after which I half gave up. But then, out stepped Pete. I approached him, babbled some stuff about my sketches, loved the show, been looking forward to it, could I get his signature.

“Of course,” he said with characteristic British warmth. He asked me where to sign, and I pointed to my sketch of his Lear as he had appeared in Act IV, Scene 6, in a flowery Japanese robe with a parasol, a take on the character being fantastically covered in wildflowers, and also giving a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. “All the best, Pete Postlethwaite,” the signature read.

Here then was the mild-mannered figure I knew from the movies, without an ounce of hesitation or relish, annoyance or ego. I therefore mean it in the best possible sense when I conclude that, in all those many portrayals of decency that I have seen Pete Postlethwaite in, he wasn't acting.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Into the New Year

Having spent my Christmas Eve and day evenings watching the Star Wars trilogies late into the morning, I've been paying the price with a wicked cold this past week, and so I haven't been inclined to write much.

That doesn't mean I've gotten to miss out entirely on New Year's festivities. I was out last night working and planned on going home afterwards, but since I didn't finish until 11 anyway, I figured I would stick around for the Kennedy Center's year's-end shindig.

It was fine for what it was. The food and drink that was at least a dollar too expensive, but given the $100+ price tags on other parties in the area, I'm not going to complain. On either of the Grand Foyer's side stages were classical players providing background music.

No one started a 10-second countdown before the great changeover, though the entire gathering did spend the last few minutes of 2010 building itself into a cacophony of noisemakers the likes of which no one will ever hear at the Kennedy Center any other time of the year. As we entered 2011 hundreds/thousands of balloons were dropped from the ceiling. The noise of their popping, magnified by the Foyer's acoustics, sounded much like fireworks, but without the gaudiness and smoke.

That was all I needed, along with lots of sleep. I'm still working on the sleep.

[Edited for detail]