Friday, December 30, 2011

Oh Heck, I'm Going To Be Political Again

I don't do this very much.

No, seriously, I don't. Look back at my archives. I mean, there was this one about voting...but before that? Not a lot. And for good reason: I don't want this to be a political blog, because I am lazy intellectually. I don't want to have to think hard about politics. It's too much effort.

But tonight--

The topic du jour is the New York Times' questions to Republican candidates about their views on the limits of presidential power. I think this is a great idea: it forces the candidates to publicly define their conception of the limits of the office they aspire to hold.

My uninformed opinion of the candidates responses are below. Keep in mind that this is MY opinion, and that it's my OPINION. I'm not trying to make absolute statements about the candidates. If you, adoring masses, disagree with me, that's fine. Comment and let me know your thoughts.

  • Newt Gingrich speaks in sound bites. Does he think in sound bites? Or is the brevity of his answers calculated, to pander to the short attention spans of readers?
  • Jon Huntsman loves to talk precedent.
  • Mitt Romney repeatedly references the past.
  • Rick Perry does the cookie-cutter thing: he used the following sentence to begin his answers almost 50% of the time. "The Constitution clearly vests in the President full executive authority, and an absolute duty, to protect the nation when vital American security interests are at stake. "
  • Ron Paul continues to cement his legacy as one of the most consistent presidential candidates in a long while.
  • Paul's answer to the "Interrogation and Surveillance" question cracks me up.
I still don't know which of these candidates will receive my vote--if any of them do. Paul's answers are perhaps the most reassuring, however: he seems to have a firm conception of the boundaries of the office of President.


Long live impulse!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Out of the Canyon: An Essay

The following is an essay I wrote in the fall of 2010. I recently unearthed it, and it expresses so fully some of what's been on my mind recently regarding the West and creativity and all that--I just decided to post it. It's a bit of a long read, but I'd appreciate feedback.

Out of the Canyon
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, July 8, 2010

The Coleman lantern perches on the the bench of the picnic table beside me. The mantles, tiny suns the size of quarters, fling their incendiary glare into the darkest corners of the primitive mountain campsite in which I sit. I hold my book angled to catch the pale yellow rays. On an adjacent mountainpeak, a coyote sings the blues. I lift my head at the hollow howl, then return to my book.

--my book! It is a deep ocean of narrative. Currents of plot seize me, overpower me, enthrall me. Characters surface, as mysterious and foreign as the shark from Jaws, grip me, carry me away with them. And booming like the bass song of the surf, attacking then receding, are the waves of what I call the Glory. The Glory--everything in a book that touches me. Perhaps they are splashes of theme, or swirls of literary device. Symbolism. Parallelism. Point of view. Every stylistic brushstroke, every intoxicating emotion, all the elements that catch hold of my heart and will not let go. I have been dragged far, far below the surface of my novel. Not even the contemplative passage of a raccoon through the campsite can bring me to the surface. The raccoon continues on its amiable way towards the dumpsters, and I swim deeper into the ocean that is The Big Sleep.

The blunted roar of flammable gas from the Coleman--it catches, hesitates, and then resumes. Then it falters again, and apologetically expires. The not-darkness of a full-moon night dissolves onto me. I pull myself, dripping, out of the murky depths. I shake my mind's fist at Raymond Chandler, Creator of those depths, author of their intoxicating allure. I stretch, I yawn, I look around me.

and then


I feel the open-handed slap of that otherworldly something I cannot even begin to describe. Sometimes I feel the slap when I see the snow skirling into its drifts down by Lake Michigan. Sometimes I feel the slap when I sit in class and watch the world lurch on its axis--out of sheer boredom. Sometimes I feel the slap when I stand at the top of one of the dozens of old fire towers that dot Wisconsin's natural forests, and I see Autumn's chuckling match set to the green summery leaves, and they ignite.

When I feel the slap--when I see the world lurch and rearrange itself subtly--something happens to me. Perhaps I make a resolution to change my ways and be a better man. Perhaps I write a poem which I will never revise. Perhaps I only plan to write a poem...or a short story...or a novel...or a cycle of novels...

If I plan, though, and I do not do--if I only plan, I never do.

I feel that slap now, on the mountaintop in Colorado. I pull my cell phone from my pocket, grimace at the cracked screen, and peer at the display. No signal. It's shortly after midnight. I am here alone. The Big Sleep bends forgotten on my chair. I look out over the short scrub around the campsite, and suddenly I see my America, stretched out beneath me. The country, the whole country, in four dimensions, its history as real as its height, its width, its depth.

Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective (and why do we call Philip Marlowe hard-boiled? is he an egg? No, he is a piece of jerky, lean and tough and salty and unprepossessing and somehow very endearing) is my brother. He drives through torrential rains outside Los Angeles to right wrongs, a fedoraed white knight riding a mechanical steed. And I sit in the back seat of his car, 71 years later, breathless as his dramatic life continues to unfold so unassumingly and honestly.

Was Philip Marlowe a real man? Well, technically speaking, no. But speaking technically is speaking unimaginatively--and speaking emotionlessly. "So did Philip Marlowe exist?" I ask my conscience. And my conscience grudgingly admits, "Yes. For the last two hours he existed. For the last two hours you looked over his very real shoulder as he found the tacks in the road, uncovered psychosis and perversion, crossed and double-crossed and triple-crossed. You saw him win--you saw him lose. You shared his secret thoughts. You know him. You are his brother."

As I lean back, still stretching, and stare at the Jackson Pollock sky, I realize what the slap is telling me. The universe that Philip Marlowe inhabits: it is mine as well. I have partaken of his story, just for this evening, and we now share this plane of existence. The cast of characters in my universe grows with every book I read: Samwise Gamgee, Holden Caulfield, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes, Anne Shirley, Randall Flagg, Jack Reacher, Laura Ingalls Wilder, David Webb (but everyone knows him as Jason Bourne), Sam Spade, Nicholas Nickleby, Jack Ryan, Hercule Poirot, Lady Macbeth, Lennie Small, Lord Peter Wimsey, the poor hapless Baudelaires: all of them wander somewhere in my universe.

I am what I read.

--and, like a puff of wind, my muse flees.

The sage palisading the campsite smells like untamed lavender.

That's it. What did you think?

Long live dredging!

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Slack-Jawed "WHAT?"

I have friends, believe it or not, friends who are In Touch with popular culture (or, as I believe the kids are calling it these days, "popped culture", though I might be wrong about that). I myself am not particularly culture-savvy. I mean, I know that the Spiderman movies are the hot new superhero thing, what with Tobias Macguire (son of Mark Macguire, famous football player). And I hear that Mr. Marshall Mathers has been releasing several new songs to the public, some of his rappings. But I'm not...In Touch with popular culture the way a lot of people are.

In all seriousness, I'm rather interested by the bug-eyed, slack-jawed "WHAT!?!?!!!" reaction I get when I:

a) announce that I'm unfamiliar with some apparently pivotal part of American popular culture.

HER: Just like in Jaws!
ME: I never actually saw Jaws.
HER: WHAT!?!?!?!!!
b) announce that I don't appreciate an apparently pivotal part of American popular culture.

HIM: Listen, it's a Michael Jackson song!
ME: Yech, I really don't like Michael Jackson.
HIM: WHAT!?!?!?!!!
I have actually begun to predict when the WHAT!?!?!?!!! will happen. Some things are WHAT-worthy (I never saw The Big Lebowski. WHAT!?!?!?!!!), and some things are not (I don't really like the little-known John Carpenter-penned sci-fi film The Philadelphia Experiment. *crickets*).

The WHAT!?!?!?!!! is beginning to get to me. It's a knee-jerk reaction, of course, but the underlying mentality is rather disturbing. It betrays this conception that there is a certain pool of experience from which everyone usually drinks, and if you don't drink from it, you're...weird. While I accept the existence of the pool, I don't appreciate the judgement.

I try to follow my own tastes. It doesn't always work, of course: I am more likely to see a film if it receives approbation from critical observers. But I'm trying to develop my own critical palate. It's depressing, every time I hear a WHAT!?!?!?!!!, to remember that the majority of consumers in America (and possibly worldwide, but I'll only stretch my uninformed opinion so far) willingly drink from the popular pool of experience, and don't think about what they're drinking.

Long live semi-independent thought!

UNSPOOLING: Yellowstone Kelly

I'm nothing if not opportunistic, some of the time. (Perhaps that means that the rest of the time, I am nothing, but that's a monologue for another day.) I was cruising the darkest reaches of Netflix last night, searching for something new to watch, and I found a '50s western called Yellowstone Kelly that was only available for streaming until January 1. Naturally, I watched it.

Boy, am I glad I did.

I'm not sure if I love the Western genre or if I despise it. There's plenty of room for creativity: with the colorful, varied history and the variety of scenery the American West provides, there's no excuse for formulaism. Regrettably, too many studios churned out cookie-cutter lawman flicks in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, with the result that the market became oversaturated. Today, many consider the Western a dying genre.

Either way, Yellowstone Kelly was not cookie-cutter. It was unique. It was different. It used some traditional cliches, especially narratively. Its characters were fairly well-drawn. The cinematography was excellent.

A few positive points stood out to me, in particular. First, the fistfights: any Western worth its salt will have at least one fistfight. Audiences expect it, and it's a good way to build tension between characters without seriously injuring or killing any of them. My problem with most fistfights, especially in the heyday of the Western, is that they're more like boxing matches: the fighters seem to think that leg strikes and other grappling techniques are forbidden. And honestly? Nobody boxes in real life. If it's a fight, you're mad, and you'll do whatever you can to hurt the other guy. You're not going to just punch him.

Thankfully, Yellowstone Kelly broke the mold. I noted with approval that the titular character used elbows, knees, kicks, and even a clothesline to take down his opponents. It was fresh, it was new, and it was appreciated.

There was also a nice bit of parallelism, parallelism for which I saw the potential fairly early on, but didn't expect to be fleshed out. I won't give it away, but it revolves around two similar relationships focused on a single MacGuffin. I was very pleasantly surprised by the literate nature of the parallelism.

Perhaps I enjoyed Yellowstone Kelly more because it's set in my favorite part of America, the Northern West (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho). That fact, coupled with the glorious cinematography, may have biased me to enjoy the film more than I would have otherwise. Full disclosure here, people.

I give Yellowstone Kelly 4 Reels on Ian's Totally Subjective Film Rating System.

Long live gems!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Quick 'Un

Hello, friends!

Want to be smooth and suave and awesome?

Google the following text.

sqrt(cos(x))*cos(200x) +sqrt(abs(x))-0.7)*(4-x*x)^0.01, sqrt(9-x^2) from -4.5 to 4.5

My jaw dropped. Did yours?

Long live innovation!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Delete Friend?

I promise, this isn't going to be a Ludite rant.

So I use the Facebook, and I tweet the Twitter (by the way, can we please agree that snarkily adding definite articles before popular social-media websites is just the worst?). I am Involved on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes, "friends" annoy me, usually by being idiots or consistently spelling "consistently" wrong.

So I block them.

And then I feel like this:

Great success.

Let's put aside the question "is it right to feel this way toward your fellow man?" We're putting it aside because we already know the answer: "No, most certainly not." The question I'm interested in is "why do I feel so happy when I block idiots?"

Some answers:

  • I don't have to look at their misspellings any more.

  • It gives me a feeling of power--I can dictate who's in my life and who isn't.

  • There's a remote chance that they totally idolized me and now they'll see that I'm gone from their lives and that'll force them to change their ways and before ya know it, they'll be back on the straight and narrow, and I just set some kind of record for Most Contractions Used In A Sentence.

  • Wait, what? Look back at the second answer I gave.

I can dictate who's a part of my life and who isn't.

Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, provides me with the power to kind-of-absolutely-control my existence. I can even delete people from my life if I want, if "life" here is equated to "profile" or "brand" or "online presence" or whatever it is to be called. The point is that I can erase people from my universe.

That's not a form of--of murder, is it?

If in real life I find someone annoying, there are a few ways I can remove that annoyance from my life. I can physically remove myself from their vicinity (analogous to deactivating an account). But that's a retreat. That's an admission that the annoyance has defeated me.

I can seek to avoid them, ignore them, analogous to "un-friending". But they're still out there, and they tend to turn up like bad pennies when I least want to see them or hear from them.

So what remains?

I dunno. Now I feel guilty about blocking people.

Great success, conscience!

Long live maundering...

Sunday, December 18, 2011


What the HECK did I just watch?

The simple answer is "Pontypool, a 2009 Canadian horror-thriller".

But things aren't that simple.

Is it a sermon preaching the gospel of postmodernism?

Is it the most innovative zombie movie of the last decade?

Is it a triumph of low-budget filmmaking?

Is it a story that absolutely defies definitive interpretation?

Is it a masterpiece of experiential fiction?

It's all of those things, and it's none of them.

This one will take a while for me to fully unpack. It's not a movie everyone will enjoy. It has quite a bit of language and some fairly gory gore. It's a movie for discerning viewers.

There are too many thoughts whirling through my head right now, too many to comprehend, too many to enunciate. Pontypool is one of the best films I've seen in a long time. And for that, it gets 5 Reels in Ian's Totally Subjective Film Rating System. See this movie! You won't regret it.

Long live slack-jawedness!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unforgivable Arrogance

I read Agatha Christie from time to time. Yesterday was one of those times: Death on the Nile. I began reading it, and as soon as I realized that it is a Poirot novel I experienced a peculiar sinking feeling, an interesting decline in my interest in the book.

Not that I won't finish it--oh, no. But I sighed, inwardly, and said to myself somewhat regretfully, "Alack. Another Poirot."

I think the reason I don't like Hercule Poirot as a detective begins with his method. Poirot is the ultimate psychological detective; he solves cases by understanding personality, behavior, etc. He is no Holmesian examiner of cigar ash.

I can accept the concept of psychological detection. One of my favorite detectives is Father Brown, who says that the way he solves crimes is by "becoming" the criminal. Why, then, my distaste for Hercule Poirot?

It's the arrogance. It's an element of his character, of course; and bravo to Christie for humanizing her lead in such a potentially crippling fashion. In my uninformed opinion, though, the way Poirot solves crimes is sloppy. He consistently employs fallacies of sweeping generalization. And he doesn't care, because he succeeds.

I've long been a proponent of allowing recurring detectives to fail. Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most recurring of all recurring detectives, failed on more than one occasion. And that made him a richer, fuller character.

Poirot's arrogance, his blind belief in his own ability, annoys me. And that's why I'll look at Death on the Nile with a touch of resignation blended with my enjoyment.

Long live personal taste!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

There Is No Lesser _______

I'm excused this one, right? I mean, I'm not usually political all up in here. This blog tends more to the philosophical, the artistic, the sophisticated, right?

(N.B. by "philosophical/artistic/sophisticated" I mean "lazily posting links to songs I happen to enjoy".)

A friend of mine recently announced his decision to support Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican primaries. And he phrased his decision thus: "Reluctantly, Romney 2012."


Since when do we have to be reluctant about our vote? 

I don't like this idea that I have two options. I don't like thinking that I have to choose between (gulp) two evils. Why not? Because when I vote for the lesser of two evils, in essence I'm not casting a vote for anyone. I'm casting a vote against someone. I'm saying "Okay, Candidate1 is bad, but Candidate 2 is worse. I don't want worse, I want just regular bad." The choice is not motivated by appreciation for the ostensible principles of Candidate 1. It's motivated by disapproval for Candidate 2.

And I don't think that's quite how things should work.

My reluctantly-Romney-supporting friend seems more enthusiastic about removing Mr. Obama from the White House than putting Mr. Romney in it. This is a problem, in my uninformed opinion. It's a problem philosophically, and it's a problem practically.

The philosophical problem is simple. If candidates devolve into a contest of "At least I'm not that guy", then the likelihood of actual intellectual and principial honesty decreases drastically. If voters only want reassurance that "I'm not that guy", politicians everywhere are let off the hook. They no longer have to be consistent (or have the appearance of consistency). They no longer have to be principled (or have the appearance of principle).

As for the practical problem, well, start by reading what Dave Begel has to say. Personally, I try to avoid bringing up problems unless I have a possible solution in mind. Because a problem without a solution only fosters discontent. 

If my friend's intent is to cast a vote against Mr. Obama, he's trying to solve a problem when there isn't a real solution available, in his opinion.

Don't cast a negative vote, this upcoming year. Cast a positive vote, one you can get behind. Or don't vote at all.

Long live Variety.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

UNSPOOLING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Sometimes when I watch movies I have thoughts about them. Weird, right? I'm probably the only person that ever happens to. Ever.

(The above is sarcasm, Bueller and adoring fans.)

I watched Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time tonight because I was in the mood for something corny and popcorny and fast-moving and not too hard to grasp. Also because I have a level three man-crush on Sir Ben Kingsley. (I'll have to create a post someday about my levels of man-crush. It's an interesting topic.) And while the film met those expectations, it exceeded my expectations in other respects.

One positive I specifically noticed was the introduction of some fairly weighty thematic elements. While fate/destiny, family, and following the heart are all well-worn Hollywood tropes, PoP's use of these classic (read: often overused) themes is subtly unique. Family, for instance, is central thematically to the film. The lesson "Family is important" is hardly new; but the way that lesson is communicated in Prince of Persia is unique.

Of course there is a Heroic Moment Of Family where formerly squabbling family members cooperate to achieve something Heroic. In contrast to that, however, PoP sets a broken family relationship, an example of what happens if Heroic Moments of Family don't happen. The implication is not merely "cooperate or good things won't happen", the implication is "cooperate or bad things will happen".

These concepts were not treated in great detail. They merely functioned to serve the film, to deepen it and give it a dimension I frankly did not expect.

I thought I was watching a movie for fun. But Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time actually made me think. And for that, it gets 4 Reels in Ian's Totally Subjective Film Rating System.

Long live practicality!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Incarnation By Any Other Name

Keep "Christ" in Christmas.

Or not. It doesn't really matter.

Every year, the campaign: the bumper stickers, the yard signs, the angry blog posts, the "OMG REPOST THIS OR YOU ARE EVIL" Facebook status updates. It has come to annoy me.

Keep "Christ" in Christmas.

Does it matter?

At bottom, this is an issue of semantics. Does anyone really believe that continuing to call Christmas "Christmas" and not "Xmas" or "Santamas" or "Buymas" will change anything?

I understand, some celebrate the holiday as a remembrance of Christ's incarnation. And bully for them. It was a n amazing event that deserves remembrance. More frequent remembrance, actually.

For others, the focus of Christmas is family. It's a time when squabbles are (superficially, at least) set aside, large gatherings are planned, and a big ol' fashioned fam'ly dinner is eaten.

A vocal minority of the incarnation-rememberers wish that everyone would stop talking about Santa and buying stuff and remember "the reason for the season". So they come up with a perfectly-tailored controversy to fit their agenda.

Keep "Christ" in Christmas.

But honestly, what will that do? Will a secular family start hanging stockings and suddenly say, "Oh hai, to heck with commercialism, let's celebrate Jesus' birth!"? If "Xmas" replaces "Christmas", will those incarnation-rememberers look around in confusion asking "What is this all about anyway?"

The answer is No. The Keep "Christ" in Christmas push is a sop. It's an opportunity for conservatives to win at something, to take the moral high ground and use it to their advantage. It's easy to get behind. It's uncomplicated. It's not an intellectual challenge.

What the holiday is called changes nothing about it. Some will remember Christ on December 25th. Others will enjoy family. A good many will obsess about how they'll pay for all these presents. No matter what it's called, those things will still happen. Squabbling over a name is a shameful waste of energy.

That's all.

Long live Fruitless Expenditures of Intellectual Energy.

Soldiering On

I have been away recently, adoring masses.

But now I return, and there just so happens to be triumphant sunlight shining around me as I ride down an impossibly steep slope on my conveniently white horse at the head of a whole eored of warriors.

(Lord of the Rings reference? Anyone? Bueller? Guess I have to spell this one out with a picture.)

I'm somewhere in the middle. On a conveniently white horse.

I have written the first draft of the next Great American Novel, so that's where my ostensibly boundless but actually all-too-humanly bounded creative energy has been directed. If you made it through that last sentence with your patience intact, go ahead and get yourself a congratulatory enchilada from the enchilada dispenser. I'll wait here.

I participated in NaNoWriMo this year. For you unwashed who are not privy to the secrets (and by "secrets" I mean "things which actually aren't secret at all"), NaNoWriMo is the cool people's in-slang for National Novel Writing Month. I could explain all about it, but linking to the description is much easier.

Ignore the part where it keeps harping on how terrible the finished product is. Mine isn't terrible. It has actually been called "the next Great American Novel" (DeJong, 2 Paragraphs Ago). Critics would be calling it "mindblowing" and "splendid" and "rad" and "bully" and "tearjerking" and "the potato pancake to my lobster souffle" except I haven't let them read it yet. I have to tone down the awesomeness before I let anyone read it. Also, there might be a character whose name changes a couple of times.

Anyway, that's where I've been. In all seriously, it was a great experience. My finished product is actually nowhere near "finished", but I've already started looking at it again. I have a list of immediate fixes that I need to effect, and then I'm putting it away for a month. Not going to talk about it, not going to think about it, not going to work on it. I'm going to pretend as if it never happened.

Oh, and grad school apps are in. Here's hoping someone makes a mistake and accepts me this year.

Long live the Triumphant Slope!