well yeah, I guess it’s obvious, I also like to write

This post sounded a lot different in its first draft.

This post would have been all about how I want to take part in NaNoWriMo, but I think the concept’s silly*, so I’m going to do my own thing instead. It would have been called MyNoWriMo (get it? because I’m a clever guy. I’ll explain it to you if you want), and it’d be about how I’m writing a novel in the month of October. The post would have closed with an apology for infrequent posts over the next thirty days, but I would be sure you’d understand. Because you’re supportive.

And then I took on two new projects at work. So, with regret, I’m not going to try writing a novel in one month.

I’m going to write a novel in three months.

Sixty thousand words. I already have the entire thing outlined, from beginning to end. I feel better about this one than any project I’ve started in the last few years, because it excites me. The other two novels had exciting parts, but I felt I had to pad the word count out to get to them. Not this one. Cliffhangers left and right. It’s almost a formula. Hell, it is a formula. And I think I have it figured out.

So, again, bear with me if posts grow scarce. I’ll be busy.

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* Briefly: (A) I believe that reliable, professional work comes from a dedication to the practice of writing, not relying on bursts of inspiration and sudden sprints; as such, while I don’t sneer at people who try NaNoWriMo – I applaud all attempts at writing, seriously – I’d be much more impressed by someone who writes five novels over sixty months than one novel in one month; and (B) if you’re going to pick a month to challenge people to write 50,000 words, don’t pick a month which has the busiest American travel holiday in it. That’s just poor planning.

they’re quite aware of what they’re going through

La Barilla, La Barilla
On Saturday I drove to Marlborough to see my friend Serpico’s batizado – the annual promo / demo / dance party held by his capoeira school. Outsiders would recognize elements of a religious festival or a block party: the older mestres in the back, strumming rhythms on their berimbaus, while people take turns singing lyrical, pulsing chants into a mic. The casual circle of friends and strangers, watching and clapping to the beat. Then, one by one, the students step in and start doing flips.

Capoeira may not focus on self-defense, but there is no doubt that it is a martial art in the literal sense of the word. Consider the tremendous conditioning it takes to drop to a one-hand stand and kick someone in the head with your foot. Now consider the tremendous training it takes to do all that without kicking someone in the head. Capoeira blends the exciting elements of violence with the communal joy of dance. When practiced well, watching it live is a treasure.

And even when practiced haltingly it’s fun, too. Serpico’s capoeira school teaches a small herd of children, ranging from the mestre‘s curly-haired daughter to a tow-headed kid with thick glasses who could pass for me at age 8. The instructors “play” with them at a diminished tempo: shifting from one foot to the other, lowering their heads to allow the children to try at a sweeping kick. At the end of each circuit, the official batizado, or baptism – dropping the younger student on the floor to teach them humility – is done with gentle affection: scooping them up, wheeling them like an uncle playing Airplane with a nephew, and grazing them across the tile. Always the consciousness for the newest generation – for capoeira is an oral tradition, passed down by the descendents of Brazilian slaves, and the heritage of the dance keeps it alive.

capoeira

Professor Coldheart Fails at Anarchy
Walking down busy Arsenal St. yesterday to meet Vickie Victoria for lunch, four kids on bikes buzzed by me. They wove around me on the sidewalk, rattling inches past my elbow or onto the thin strip of grass between me and roaring traffic.

My first thought: Shouldn’t you kids be in school?

I said nothing aloud, though, waiting until I had Internet access to uncover my error. Apparently Boston public schools get Yom Kippur off. Is this typical of public schools? I went to Catholic school for all but two years of my education – and you see how well that turned out – but I don’t recall getting anything other than the typical federal holidays when I went to a public school. Also this is the second time in five days that I’ve forgot about Yom Kippur (had I remembered it when I wrote my post about forgiveness, I would have mentioned the propinquity). Clearly the Jews in my life need to lecture me more.

Anyhow, these children had every right to be where they were. They rode past me, heading toward whatever pleasures Watertown Center could offer thirteen-year-olds on a balmy Monday. Biking against the flow of traffic (as the Boy Scouts teach), they weaved in and out of the cars parked outside the Toyota dealership. Leathern men in silk suits paced between the leaves on the sidewalk, murmuring urgently into cell phones.

“Hey!”, one of the kids yelled to his compatriots. “Stay off the fucking sidewalk!”

sommes nous les jouets du destin, souviens toi des moments divins

Le Samourai: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) isn’t quite a samurai film, and it isn’t quite a gangster film. It tells a story that touches on both – three days in the life of Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a syndicate hit man who has no life outside of the job he’s hired to do. But the characters are all ciphers, and the city, anonymous. The movie is not about the people in it.

samourai

Le Samourai is about procedure. France in 1967 was a much more bureaucratic country than American audiences might recognize, and the movie tells the tale of two warring bureaucracies. Costello has his procedure, and we follow him as he executes it: lying fully dressed on his bed until it’s time to act, then rising to steal a car outside his apartment, switch the plates at a suburban garage, acquire a gun, visit a girlfriend and some poker-playing comrades to obtain an alibi, and then slip into a nightclub (through the restroom) to assassinate the owner. The police have their procedure as well. The superintendent (François PĂ©rier) orders 20 men arrested in each of Paris’s twenty precincts (“what’s 400 men in a city of ten million?”). He files them onto a stage, four at a time, for the nightclub employees to identify. When Costello is on stage, he produces an airtight alibi: his girlfriend’s apartment, between 7:00 and 1:45. He gives the Superintendent his girlfriend’s number; the Superintendent lifts his finger just so; a subordinate dials the number at a phone on the wall. Always, the emphasis on procedure.

It’s not merely enough to know that Costello’s syndicate and the police are at odds, but how they go about waging their battle. We see a two-man detective team break into Costello’s home to bug his apartment. One man jimmies his lock (using a ring of keys identical to the one Costello uses to steal a car), while the other pads from door to door in the building, listening in on Costello’s neighbors. Inside, the older detective mounts one bug, rejects it, then plants another. The two are about to leave when a neighbor comes down the stairs; the cops withdraw and hide. Why are they hiding? They’re the police, aren’t they? Yes, but they are intruders just as much as Costello is – interlopers in foreign territory.

This parallel focus on procedure, for both Costello and the cops, sets the two on equal ground. This illustrates the second theme: Le Samourai is about war. Costello displays such care in establishing an alibi and concealing his identity, yet he does not discard his most distinguishing feature: the tan trenchcoat he wears when he leaves the nightclub. In fact he wears it fully buttoned up the entire time the police have him in custody, removing it only when he gets home. Why? Because it is his armor, as essential a part of his identity as the heavy lamellar of a Japanese samurai. The Superintendent knows, with the mythical certainty of a fictional detective, that Costello is his man. So why not just take him? Because the rules of engagement do not allow that. The Superintendent must catch Costello – nailing him in the act with evidence of his crime.

Combine these two: Le Samourai is about a war carried out by procedure. Two bureaucracies – the syndicate that employs Costello and the police – butt heads over the death of a nightclub owner. Between the two of them, they grind up several lives and leave disillusionment in their wake. Costello recognizes the futility of the war he wages – the penultimate image of the film indicates that – but he chooses to fight anyway. Possibly because the code of le samourai gives his life meaning, while the two great powers (law and crime) discard the people they’re supposed to protect. That’s speculation; the movie’s four decades old, and foreign, so my attempts at critiquing it are largely guesses. But I think the text bears it out.

you can’t always get what you want

A friend of mine recently brought up some repugnant treatment they’d received at the hands of someone close, a long time ago. When the villain reached out to them recently, this friend speculated if it’d be worth their time to forgive.*

I said, “Maybe, but not for the reasons you think.”

Even as a humorless atheist, I place a lot of value on forgiveness. I don’t do this because I think everyone’s flawed (“flawed” compared to what?). Or because I think no one should be judged (even the most tolerant moral code condemns stragglers). And especially not because I think we’re all beautiful children in the eyes of a god. I have more practical reasons for forgiving.

Forgiveness is great because anger hurts.

Someone does something terrible to you – breaks a promise, loses something you lent them, lies about you to a friend, steals from you, strikes you. In the moment, it hurts terribly. But after the moment, how does it feel then? If thinking about the crime still hurts, then you’re being hurt by memory, not by additional action. And if the memory of this person hurts you, then you’ve let that person take up a significant space in your head.

Forgiveness means evicting that person from that space. You acknowledge that what they did hurt, at the time, but you’re not going to keep dwelling on it. If you keep letting that anger surge back up every time you’re accidentally reminded of their sins against you, you’ll get mad at the oddest times and for reasons you won’t be able to explain to those around you. To the extent that you can choose happiness and reject anger, you’ll be better off.

Now just because forgiveness is helpful doesn’t mean it’s easy. For instance, the person who hurt you might already have a lot of space in your head to begin with. A boyfriend who cheated on you, a girlfriend who stole and wrecked your car, etc. There’s no easy way around that. But if you’re planning on keeping this person in your life, then your first step should be to admit to yourself, and to them, that their crime cost them a lot of trust. You’re not evicting them from your head, but they don’t get the same real estate they had before.

I don’t advocate forgiveness because it brings people together in the brotherhood of humanity. I advocate forgiveness because it makes the wounded party stronger. My symbol of forgiveness isn’t embracing the person who wronged you; it’s giving them a dismissive shrug. Oh, him? Yeah, he screwed me over once. Whatever.

It’s not easy. There are some wrongs so hurtful that it would take an amazing level of psychic control to let them go. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t forgive someone. But if you can, the feeling of serene strength that results will amaze you. Few things make you feel better then denying your enemies the power to hurt you.

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* This post should not be read as my verdict on whether or not to forgive this particular criminal, as I’m too much a stranger here.

that’s why I say hey man, nice shot

A drive-by media blow at high speeds:

The Confusion: I liked this more than Quicksilver, its predecessor. Perhaps because it dealt in greater depth with two subjects that fascinate me: the growth of credit markets and pirate swordfights. It introduced the same baffling array of characters as the first novel did, but gives us more convenient hooks on which to hang our memory: El Desamparado, Bonaventure Rossignol, Jean Bart, Lothar von Hackhleber, Edouard de Gex. Stephenson also proved himself a sport in tidying up several loose ends I thought he’d wait until the third novel to resolve: Eliza’s vengeance upon the men who enslaved her, for one. I enjoyed it tremendously, and hope The System of the World continues in the same vein.

Invader Zim: A delightfully subversive cartoon. Masquerading as a 12-minute zany about an alien invader who disguises himself as a 10-year-old boy in order to conquer Earth, Invader Zim has more depth than its sponsors – Nickelodeon, and thus Viacom – could have expected. It’s really about the secret fear of any adolescent: that the private fears and ambitions he nurtures make him an alien. Zim speculates constantly about what the “Earth filthies” might think of him, even as he plots to subjugate them. Consider particularly Zim’s fears in “Bestest Friend” or “Parent Teacher Night.” But beyond adolescence, Invader Zim also comments on the suburban willingness to conform, ignore the unusual and buy the oddest things.

Plus there’s GIR.

Mad Men: “He’ll never golf again.”

I won’t say anymore (though feel free to bandy about spoilers in the comments), except that Season 3 has been my favorite season so far. This holds true for so many of my favorite shows: The Simpsons, The X-Files, 24, The Wire, etc. A good show needs two seasons to build its characters up and place every piece on the board. Then, in Season 3, it gets to change all the rules.

I’ve got that rock and roll; I’ve got that future flow

We’ve Got The Beat That Bounce
Watching the video for “Boom Boom Pow” this weekend – just because, okay? – raised the obvious question: what do the other two guys in the Black Eyed Peas do? Why are they there? You’ve got Will.i.am producing the songs – and as little as I like their songs, “Boom Boom Pow” has a really catchy beat to it. You’ve got Fergie on vocals and eye candy. While the latter trumps the former in most pop acts, she has a good voice in her own right.

But then there’s the other two guys: the ugly one and the guy with the samurai topknot. What do they add? They’re not very talented rappers. I can’t imagine they have a lot of female fans screaming over them. Now that the Black Eyed Peas have become world-class superstars, why are these guys around?

The world seems to have answered that question for me, in that Will.i.am has made tentative crossover steps (like his role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Fergie has a solo career. Whereas no one cares about Taboo’s aborted solo projects, or his role as Vega in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. So, asked and answered.

Of course, it would be rather mercenary for a band to drop its less attractive / useful members once it achieved superstardom. And since pop music isn’t known for its mercenary attitude, I suppose we’re stuck with those two until the end of time.

Things Not To Say, Even At A Whisper, In A Conference Room Full of Coworkers When You Realize You’ll Have To Present First
“Balls.”

Have You Come Here For Forgiveness? Have You Come To Raise the Dead?
U2 played at Foxboro Stadium, south of Boston, this past Monday. I did not go to see them, though I had ample opportunity. At least three friends e-mailed me, forwarding along info from friends who were trying to offload tickets. One of them needed to get rid of a dozen club-level seats (private bathrooms, free snacks, etc) at $250 a pop.

I like U2 as a concept; I’m glad they still exist. But I have no real desire to ever see them live. Certain bands generate an energy when heard live that trumps any of their albums. I can’t imagine what hearing U2 live would add, other than “more fireworks” and “Bono’s face on a Jumbotron.”

Here’s some anecdotal data: I’ve gone to karaoke probably one hundred times in the last three years. My favorite haunts all have very extensive songbooks. But I have never heard anyone sing a U2 song from later than 1996. And if we exclude the one time somebody covered “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from the Batman Forever) soundtrack, no one goes more recent than Achtung Baby. That’s eighteen years of irrelevance.

I Guess I Thought You Had The Flavor
In conversation with a friend recently, I realized how much the question, “Why do I always want what I can’t have?” answers itself. You want what you can’t have because you don’t have it. If you had it, you wouldn’t want it any more – because you’d have it. This is true whether you’re talking about romantic partners, careers or a 42″ plasma TV. Wanting what you can’t have doesn’t make you weird or broken or hopeless – it’s part of the human condition.

“Why do I always want what I can’t afford?” is an interesting question. But wanting what you can’t have is normal. There’s a reason Buddhists say not wanting is such a big deal: because it’s really, really hard.

I know you want me; you know I want you

The Lion in Winter: yes, yes; a classic for generations; brilliant performances, pristine dialogue, etc. It’s a phenomenal movie. We know that. Rather than give it a review, which would be silly, I’ll attempt some critical analysis in the style of Todd Alcott (albeit not as well).

Here we go:

The Lion in Winter is about the faces we present to the world: both the literal composure of our face, and the facade that we present. The movie starts tight on Henry II’s face (Peter O’Toole) – “Come for me!”, he challenges: fifty years old but still hale enough to practice swordfighting with his youngest son, John. We see these same wild eyes and hear this same challenge in the climax of the film, when Henry faces off against three opponents at once. In that fight, as well, the camera stays tight on their faces rather than backing up to take in the footwork: Henry’s snarl; his opponents alternately terrified or stoic.

Richard, Henry’s eldest son, rides a joust in full armor when we first meet him; only after unhorsing his opponent does he remove his helmet, showing us his sweaty and driven face as he contemplates killing his fallen foe. Jeffrey (the schemer, the middle child) sits atop a beachside cliff, conducting war games. His face isn’t obscured, but it’s not his face that indicates his actions: it’s the men below, charging and wheeling and dying on his nod. These pawns are his body; the mailed form attached to his neck is just a vehicle.

(Also note: each of his sons is summoned in the same way: Henry’s steward has to call their name at least two or three times to break them from some reverie, signified by a crown-to-chin closeup. These men constantly scheme behind the masks that are their faces; when called to interact with the real world, it takes them a second to break free)

When we first meet Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), Henry’s wife, it is at a great remove: she sits by a window in her sumptuous prison cell as a herald near the door announces the Christmas court in Chinon that starts the story. She arrives via river longboat, a grand slow shot that starts with the boat distant and ends with it passing right by us. We do not have many close shots of Eleanor’s face until she and Henry have begun to spar, and even then no extreme close-ups (as Henry had) until her plots have fallen apart at the end of the first act. She regards herself in a hand-held mirror, her coiffed hair pulled out of its pins, and despairs. She is eleven years his senior; age has been worse to her than to Henry.

Age is another recurring theme of the movie, though that’s not much of a stretch. People refer to their ages multiple times. “I’m the oldest man I know,” Henry laments at one point. “I’ve got a decade on the pope!” Age in The Lion in Winter is a currency, a system of accounts for a pre-banking economy. Henry’s the oldest male, so he schemes and maneuvers with great success. But Eleanor is older than he is and frequently puts him on the wrong footing with one clever word. The sons triumph in proportion to their age – Richard, the “constant soldier” and great conqueror; Jeffrey, the schemer; John, the sniveling weakling.

And yet Philip II, King of France (Timothy Dalton)*, is younger than all of them save John, and he’s able to turn the tables on the entire family with little effort. Why? Because while the whole family craves the respect of age, they want the vigor of youth. Jeffrey wants Philip’s armies. Richard wants Philip in the carnal sense. And Henry wants peace with Philip: he (at 50) knows that Philip (at 18) can afford to start a war that France will take ten years to lose. In accounting terms, Philip’s youth gives him a great deal of credit and modest assets. Henry has substantial assets, but has leveraged himself into tremendous debt to get them.

(And don’t underestimate that debt. When Henry threatens to father another heir and disown his sons entirely, Eleanor invokes as strict a margin call as you’d ever find on the NYSE. “Suppose I hold you back for one [year]. I can; it’s possible. Suppose your first son dies? Ours did; it’s possible. Suppose you’re daughtered next? We were; that too is possible. How old is daddy then? What kind of spindly, ricket-ridden, milky, wizened, dim-eyed, gammy-handed, limpy line of things will you beget?” Henry has borrowed too much time; he’s now in too great a debt to build any further)

One last theme to touch on: the recurring presence of animals. Chinon is a Christmas court. The massive feast that Henry holds there to welcome his family and Philip requires peasant infrastructure to support. Livestock and domestic animals are always underfoot. When Henry and Eleanor emerge to greet Philip, they have to step around dogs and chickens to do so, while the trumpets sound their procession. Entering for dinner, the King and Queen pass through a pack of dogs lounging by the fire. As Henry lurches down the stairs from a confrontation with his sons, a lone dog scampers out of his way.

No one pauses or complains about, or even acknowledges, the animal presence in the castle. The animals belong there as much as the humans do. But it’s not that the animals are human (none of them have personalities); it’s that the humans themselves are animals. Eleanor calls her children “piglets.” She evaluates people like animals, examining their parts like a haggler (Richard’s eyes look “small and piggy”; Henry’s first mistress, Rosamund, had “fine teeth”). Everyone in the royal family is a wolf, constantly circling. There’s no scene which does not see the balance of power shift at least twice, if not four or six times.

And all that’s communicated through dialogue – some of the finest I’ve ever heard. Every single spoken line in the play, without exception, is an arrow pointing to the heart of the speaker or another character. There’s not a word that could be taken away. This is one to watch.

Ultimately, The Lion in Winter is about the continued evolution of humanity. Human beings share common ancestry with other mammals, yet it’s galling how little distance we’ve made from the pack and the struggle. “Of course he has a knife,” Eleanor says of her bloodthirsty son Richard. “We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” She means it as an invocation of distance – it’s eleven centuries since the time of Jesus and we’re little more than animals. Animals with human faces that we wear like masks, but animals nonetheless. And that statement creates a paradoxical reflection to the audience – it’s eleven centuries into the “Christian” era then, but it’s twenty centuries now. What progress has the species made?

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* A James Bond, reviving a role originated on stage by a Bond villain (Christopher Walken)