Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Essays

What I read and wrote this summer

Not pictured: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Motherless Brooklyn

Those of you who have followed the WordPress site, and the fewer of you who have followed the Tumblr site, know that I’ve written many, many things over the past few years. The one thing I’ve been bad at is bringing them together in any sort of cohesive way, and I’m going to change that. This is a list of everything I’ve read and written this summer as defined by Memorial Day through Labor Day, because that’s how I’m defining it. I’ll start with the books I’ve read, in the order in which I finished them:

As you can see, I spent a lot of time in the classics, new and old. I picked up Kavalier & Clay because it was one of those books I hadn’t read but every friend of mine had read and liked. Oscar Wao was the same deal, and I actually put a copy of it down at the bookstore to pick up K & C, only to have a friend lend me a copy later in the summer. I had never read Moby-Dick, despite growing up on Martha’s Vineyard: mistake. Somehow I hadn’t read Of Mice and Men, either. Ben got me hooked on David Mitchell, first on his new one—the first half of which probably changed my writing style forever—and later, Cloud Atlas, which I finished yesterday to meet the unofficial deadline for writing this post.

You can probably see the progression from Moby-Dick to Heart of Darkness to Things Fall Apart, or at least the second part of it. Hitchens I picked up because I’ve seen several interviews with him since he fell ill, and realized that I’ve been delinquent. I wasn’t disappointed. Are We Winning? was a review copy based on the interview I did for Leitch’s last book, though I have yet to write any sort of review. I tore through Motherless Brooklyn in less than 24 hours on M.V., during which time I also managed to sleep for eight hours and paint two ceilings. It helps that it mostly takes place within three blocks of my Brooklyn home. Finally, I was iffy on A Visit from the Good Squad until a single paragraph mid-book ratcheted the awesome up to 11 and it didn’t stop until it was over. Highly recommended, especially if you like music.

What I’ve written

I spent the majority of the summer writing imaginary conversations, which I enjoyed immensely. I really liked fitting all the dialogue together, which I had never tried before. It was a little exhausting, though, which is why my production plummeted in August.

  • Sports
  • Baseball busts the barometer; a mistake shows how big the game has become (WordPress)
  • Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (WordPress)
  • LeBron, the Knicks, the Nets, and the red pill (WordPress)
  • If I was LeBron James (WordPress)
  • Chris Bosh, -$28 million man; David Stern, superstar (WordPress)
  • If everyone always did the safest or most popular thing, the world would be a shitty place (WordPress)
  • A few more LeBron thoughts (WordPress)
  • Oosthuizen (Tumblr)
  • “Superteams” (Tumblr)
  • A-Rod at 599 (Tumblr)
  • David Tyree and David Patten (Tumblr)
  • Pet Peeve (Tumblr)
  • Mad Men Recaps
  • Episode 1: Betty’s Alive. Yay? (Tumblr)
  • Episode 2: Enough Foreplay (Tumblr)
  • Episode 3: “You know what’s going on here? Handjobs!” (Tumblr)
  • Episode 4: I’m the asshole (Tumblr)
  • Episode 6: The cure for the common Mad Men season (Tumblr)
  • Humor
  • We’ve changed our name to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard (WordPress)

It is my intent to “drop,” so to speak, a post about the 2010 Patriots on Thursday morning. We’ll see how it goes.

Moves of the Decade, Good and Bad

This is adapted from an email.

Recently Aram asked a bunch of us to conjure up our “top movies of the decade” list. There was some talk as this project started about whether we were to rank our “Top 10” movies of the decade by the “amount we liked them” criteria or the “how good they were” criteria. Any such list being subjective, I see fleeting differences, but insofar as they exist I’ll leave the second one to Ebert. These are the brain droppings straight from my mind about the movies I liked over the last decade for the reasons I liked them. As you’ll soon understand, the movies are neither in order nor are there only 10 of them, nor are they only movies I like, nor did I list Love, Actually, which I do like. Let’s rock.

1.    Ocean’s Eleven/Casino Royale

Both the first film in a series, both eminently rewatchable, but for almost completely different reasons. I’ve probably seen Ocean’s Eleven more than any other movie this decade; its narcotic qualities have landed it on HBO and TNT, and roped me in, too many times to count. (I mean, we could have counted, but I was probably high a bunch of those times and would have forgotten.) The movie’s long but doesn’t feel that way: it’s like a Clipse album, devoid of excess material to stay on its crackling, stylish pulse. As one set piece flows into another, you (or “I”) flow with it, losing time completely to grasp the narrative with an ending that’s satisfying because it’s known ahead of time. It’s also got the best last shot of a movie in the last 10 years, with a wordless guitar jam playing the heroes off into the sunset… a jam that usually gets pre-empted by TNT flashing right back to the first minute for its second, third, or fourth showing of the day. Some routines are cumbersome; the Ocean’s Eleven recursive loop is wonderful.

Casino Royale is equally narcotic, but in a different way. As Sasha Frere-Jones (yes, I’m really doing this) initially contrasted the Clipse’s terse, waste-not style with Ghostface’s EVERYTHING MUST GO approach in a 2006 review, I’ll do the same here. Casino Royale is long, feels long, and has dizzying highs and painfully monotonous lows. But it works but as a re-invention of the Bond franchise in the Bourne vein, even if its follow-ups are sure to disappoint in comparison. (In our lifetimes, the Bond franchise has had a very running back-like career path with its stars: great first movies, with diminishing results. You can say I wasn’t all that down with Quantum of Solace, maybe because it felt like a tacked-on addendum to CR rather than its own film.) Tapping into Bourne’s badassness, the poker craze (even if it’s peak has passed), insider Bond shit (with the title) and pulling off the Bond-Eva Green combo makes the good times obscure the dull ones. A movie like Star Trek did a great job of combining the strengths of both these films, but I sort of like the tipping to either side that they did, because if I wanted to watch something in the middle, I would never choose Star Trek over…

2.    The Bourne Ultimatum/Supremacy/United 93

The Bourne Ultimatum is the real headliner here, and I think it’s my favorite movie of the decade, by far. (I can hear Marc now: “MATT DAMON!”) I only have one minor quibble with the movie, which I remember every time I watch it but can’t recall now because it concerns a plot point so minor that my attention to it probably reveals the extent of my devotion. Actually, I also think the ending is kind of blah, and it’s still easily my favorite film of the decade.

Here’s where the “it’s a better movie” vs. “I liked it” thing rears its head, because I actually think The Bourne Supremacy might be a better movie. Ultimatum has the payoff, but Supremacy moves the Bourne story from Point A to Point B in such a compelling, brutal, and honest way that it’s the spiritual successor to the brooding The Empire Strikes Back. The difference between the films is that Empire led straight into the weakest of the Star Wars films, whereas the Supremacy moves from the weakest (and I’m grading on a Flozell Adams-sized curve) into the most satisfying. What do the Supremacy and Ultimatum have in common that the Identity does not? They were directed by Paul Greengrass, and it would be pointless to talk about these films without throwing United 93 in here as well. United 93 was the case of a movie that could have so easily been maudlin, disastrous, poorly-executed or you-name-it and wasn’t. The plot known from the very beginning to absolutely everyone (and for that same reason, the movie probably avoided by many people), the movie is pretty damn near a masterpiece. I still prefer the Bourne films, but I’d rank any Greengrass film above pretty much anything anyone does in the action genre—and most other genres.

3.    The Science of Sleep/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Synecdoche, New York*

I don’t need to spill any more virtual ink on Eternal Sunshine. Either you like it or you don’t, and that’s okay. I do. A lot. But I remember when I left The Science of Sleep, I told Ryan, to his surprise, that I preferred it to Eternal Sunshine, and I still do. Everything that Eternal Sunshine does, The Science of Sleep does better. Eternal Sunshine’s effects are impressive and thought-provoking, whereas The Science of Sleep’s are even more bare-knuckled and continuously more visually stunning. Eternal Sunshine is, at heart, about its plot, its metaphysical ruminations, whatever… The Science of Sleep is about grabbing the viewer by the lapels and forcing them to pay attention to the sheer power of the visual medium. If Eternal Sunshine is Gondry making a great film (and it is), The Science of Sleep is Gondry making the best Gondry film. I have no problem with that.

* A late edition on the Charlie Kaufman tip. Thought provoking, epic, utterly terrifying. If I can absorb the lessons of this movie without ever thinking of the movie again, that would make me happy.

4.    There Will Be Blood/No Country For Old Men

These two films are almost impossible to separate. They’re dark, atmospheric Westerns that came out in the same year, both to heaps of critical acclaim and one or two pricklebushes trying to take them down. Those who discount No Country do so at their peril; whether it’s a great film or not, it is certainly an iconic one. To get too heavily into nitpicking, in this case, is to miss the point. Having just seen Once Upon a Time in the West for the first time, No Country is the only other movie I can think of that sets an idea of place so firmly and so consistently—with wide, beautiful tracking shots devoid of talk—that what happens there is almost of secondary importance. If the idea of the Western is the human folly/inevitability of setting up shop in an inhospitable, ultimately unsustainable environment (is it? I’m just guessing), I think No Country nails it.

There Will Be Blood turns the Western on its head, to a degree, by focusing on the villain—the man who feeds off the barren land, rather than succumbing to it. In fact, having eventually raped the land of its natural resources through good-old-fashioned American evil, Daniel Plainview eventually escapes to a mansion, living off servants and booze having alienated or killed anyone he ever knew or loved. It’s a perverse meditation on the American Dream and that’s both bizarre and wonderful on each viewing, especially the final scene, which gets more baffling and amazing every time and is well worth every minute of its lead-in. Taken together, There Will Be Blood shows how Americans have the opportunity to transcend these unforgiving landscapes through the perverse, peculiar, and often corrupting power of capitalism. I guess.

5.    The Royal Tenenbaums/The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most recent addition to this list; I saw it two weeks ago. I would say it was a pleasant return to the Wes Anderson filmmaking I liked the most, except the only movie I really liked before now was The Royal Tenenbaums. I think even a gentle misapplication of his style ruined other movies for me, including Rushmore, which I found too mean-spirited to thoroughly enjoy. Tenenbaums, however, dealt with serious and silly subjects in a way that was basically a romp, and I like romps. Maybe there’s some sort of inverse correlation to the number of minutes Bill Murray’s hangdog mug appears onscreen and how much I like the movie, but all I know is that by the time The Life Aquatic came around I was done with it. Mr. Fox changed all that: This was the perfect medium for Anderson to express his “dandy” self, as Charlie Rose called him, in a compelling high-tech/low-tech way. You can choose to heed the lessons of the film if you want, but you can’t say it isn’t a good time, thanks largely to its Royal Tenenbaum-esque protagonist. I think having a mischievous, childish adult in charge perfectly showcases Anderson’s highfalutin sensibilities without pushing the movies too much into the realm of human droopiness, which isn’t all that fascinating or memorable.

6.    Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby/Wedding Crashers
– and –
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby/Team America: World Police/Idiocracy
– and –
Zoolander

I think Talladega Nights is the best “Will Ferrell movie” of the decade for a few reasons, which is not to say I hate Anchorman or anything. As far as “Comedies that are phenomenal at the beginning and have some laugh-out-loud jokes in the middle and chaotically wrap up the plot with no real regard for the audience” go, I’d cast my lot with Talladega Nights and Wedding Crashers over, say, Anchorman and Old School. The end of Wedding Crashers may in fact be a complete mess, but it’s such a mess that I actually find it funny, as if it was banged out in 10 minutes at a bad improv show and everyone’s just trying to get to the next movie that’s funny at the beginning. Don’t forget: The start of Wedding Crashers is fucking hilarious in a confident “We know how good we are at this gimmick” way that only loses its floor when the gimmick becomes unsustainable. But that doesn’t undermine the gimmick. Similarly, the first 30 minutes of Talladega Nights happen so fast and the jokes fly so quickly that I’m almost ready for things to slow down by mid-movie.

It’s also worth pointing out that Talladega Nights does more to satirize and undermine the George W. Bush Administration than any of the dozens of documentaries and hit-piece liberal-bent fictions that we were served at the time.* Ferrell is quite literally playing Bobby as Bush, and his journey from lucky asshole to king to down-and-out loser realizing how everything he knew was based on very simple lies and misunderstandings gave hope that Bush’s reign of stupidity was an isolated incident from a man who hit the jackpot of life to the benefit of no one. Team America: World Police satirized Bush some, but it also gave, via a very simple, scatological analogy, the only honest and possibly convincing explanation I’ve heard for the Iraq War, and managed to skewer the Bush-hating left without drawing its ire. Say it with me now: MATT DAMON!

As for Zoolander, it’s a masterpiece, and the best comedy of the 00’s. Not a hair out of place, literally or figuratively, and it’s the best work of everyone involved. One tremendously long night in college, Ravi and I were in search of a friend and we ended up at house where a bunch of stoned-ass kids were watching the badass end sequence of Unforgiven. When the credits started to roll, the overbearing, obnoxious kid who put the movie on immediately broke the silence with a declarative statement: “Flawless film. FLAWLESS film.” You disagreed with him at your own risk (Ravi and I just left), much like you disagree with me about Zoolander at your own risk. Flawless film.

* Idiocracy does a great job, too, and I forgot it until was about to send out the email.

7.    Borat/The Hangover

I put these two movies together not because I thought they were gut-bustingly hilarious—I’m uncomfortable with the meaner aspects of comedy verite, and much of The Hangover was too silly to care about—but because they were both moviegoing experiences unlike anything I’ve ever experience. They both flipped conventions on their head. My whole office was talking like Borat for a full three months before the movie came out, and we gobbled down every second of leaked footage like it was free beer. When the movie did finally open, we all left work at noon and headed over to the theater, still in our bad faux-Kazakh accents. Once the movie was consumed, we left, and no one did a Borat impression any more. Having finally seen the movie, the obsession was completely over for every one of us when it normally would have just begun, but it would be impossible to ignore how charged everyone was for those few months ahead of time. As far a movie release “events” go, I think it’s the bigget one I participated in since The Phantom Menace. Yeah, I know.

As for how The Hangover got here: I’ve never seen a movie where the first 98 percent of it was a setup for the last two minutes. I laughed at times during the movie, but during the final camera-discovery scene I laughed as hard as I ever have for the duration. That counts for something.

8.    The Class/Wall•E

Kids have to learn. That’s a given. The Class takes a reality-show-type look at a French classroom. The movie is written by and stars a former teacher who cast his former students as students, and many of the goings-on are improvised. It’s a cousin of the 1990s film La Haine, which I just saw, which is basically Kids in Paris, only better and darker. Yes, darker.

Wall•E does everything it does so well that it’s hard to believe the animated short that preceded it was just as good. I’m not a big fan of animated movies, but this one is good maybe because of the long stretches of silence, and maybe because Pixar wrecks shit.

9.    Once

Pretty much the most honest movie you’ll see about love or music. Definitely the second one.

10.    Donnie Darko/Crash

Let me say this straight off to fend off the torch-wielding trolls: I don’t actually like Crash, but I don’t hate it either. Yes, it’s an overwrought racially-motivated fantasy that doesn’t deserve to be within a freeway-length of any Best Picture discussions. No, its very existence doesn’t throw my world off-kilter. Most people I’ve talked to, though, fall into the category of loving or hating it (mostly the latter), and it’s got one of the most curious stories of success: Somehow winning the Academy Award, then becoming the most-rented movie on Netflix for the next three years and counting. It’s the Netflix reason alone that I eventually watched it and earned the wrath of one particularly angry friend, who wrote me virtual reams of vitriolic prose against its perceived racially and Scientologically tinged lunacy. It was a great email, and I agreed with almost all of it. But mostly, I was happy just to be talking about movies on a supercritical level, and Crash’s text is so ready to be ripped apart at a moment’s notice that I’m happy it exists.

Donnie Darko offers the same opportunity, but on a different level. With its themes of determinism and time-travel, it was Lost before Lost was invented, leastwise before it “became” Lost. I was surprised that it was from this decade, because it seems older than that: Lost and other media have done a good enough job of expanding on the themes contained in DD that I don’t see the need to go back, but ignoring the effect it had on me at the time—and the discussions it provoked—wouldn’t be doing it justice.

Honorable Mentions

•   Blood Diamond

Expected to hate this but really, really liked it. Sounds strange to say it, but great accent work by Leo, and I’m dizzily in love with Jennifer Connolly in this movie.

•   Rocky Balboa

Another one that was surprisingly good. Some real touching stuff, and the way they inserted a new female lead without going all the way and pushing it romantic with Rocky lent the whole thing an air of restraint that may or may not have been missing in, say, Rocky IV.

•   A Walk to Beautiful

A “shit is real” film about Ethiopia. Shit is real.

•   Gone Baby Gone

A Boston cop drama like The Departed or Mystic River, but really, really good. You think Leo and Sean Penn are badasses? Watch Casey Affleck (yes, Casey Affleck) in this movie. He will ruin. Your. Shit.

•   Burn After Reading

Another Coen brothers movie that I was told I had to see multiple times before appreciating. Well I put it on my iPod and have watched it twice on planes, and now I appreciate it.

•   Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgot this until Moacir scolded me in the comments but it is added out of joy, not out of guilt.

•   Infernal Affairses

Thought these were in the 90s until Marc put them on his list. Amazing.

Dishonorable Mentions

1.    Cloverfield

A great idea with trash execution. The characters are loathsome people, and not in the It’s Always Sunny vein, where we like them when we’re not supposed to. I want these people to be the first people to die, and when it happens after a scant 80 or so minutes, it’s not soon enough. Apparently they’re planning a sequel; I hope it’s a mulligan and not a follow-up.

2.   Transformers

You already know what I think.

3.   The Departed/Mystic River

The Departed is a travesty that I liked enough to see twice in the theater but gets worse with every viewing. Oscar-begging aside, Alec Baldwin and Marky Mark carry the movie, and they’re about six deep on the star list (Okay, Leo’s pretty good too). Also, if you’re going to remake one of the best movies of all time you might as well have the best part of the original, which is the tapping-on-the-window in the warehouse meeting scene. And I haven’t heard worse Boston accents in any movie, ever. Not even Mystic River, which is another Eastwood piece of crap. You can tell when outsiders make movies about Boston. They’re the bad ones.

4. Batman Begins/TDK

They suffer from the exact same problem: Both are two movies in one, and I love the first half of both of them. The Batman-in-China shit is awesome, and the Batman/Joker shit is also great. But the second acts seem so tacked on that they simply drag along to the point I don’t care anymore far before they’re over. And that fucking voice.

5. The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions

After The Phanthom Menace, I had no real hopes for the following two Star Wars movies, so I’m leaving them off. Before The Matrix Reloaded, I told friends that I had never been as excited to see a movie. I didn’t watch Revolutions until long after it had entered the cable rotation. That’s probably all you need to know.

Bill Simmons, Heel

Bill Simmons has always been something of a heel to non-Boston Sports fans, a category I don’t belong to. They often tire of his Boston-themed columns, and if they don’t, they often scrape away enough of the good feelings that a misplayed pop culture reference finally breaks them. It’s understandable, but it never affected me. I enjoyed reading Simmons, and even as I type this, I’m enjoying his book, the absolute litany of copy editing errors contained therein aside.

But in two short weeks, Simmons has lost at least one 10-year reader and listener in the day-to-day, at least for the day-to-day. I’m sure I’ll come back some day, and it might even feel like it’s the same as it used to be, at times. It won’t be. It never is.

As regular readers of this blog know, it all started with his intellectually dishonest column about Bill Belichick’s 4th-and-2 decision; it’s not that he hated the decision that bothered me, but that he spoke so disingenuously out of both sides of his mouth. He argued that he did not take issue with the statistics showing that it was the technically correct choice to go for it, then took issue with the numbers. He argued that numbers don’t always apply to football situations, then created his own numbers, as if from thin air, and applied them to the situation. It was an argument built like an inverted house of cards—he undermined his own argument so quickly that the rest was all smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that there was no “there” there, so to speak.

That alone would have been one thing, but he preceded these arguments by engaging in a podcast whereupon he somehow argued simultaneously—as many do—that Belichick was both “arrogant” and “didn’t have confidence in his defense,” and, like many others, didn’t even attempt to reconcile the contradiction. He also repeated a theory, hatched earlier, that since Belichick is 57 years old, he is likely “losing it” and that this is the first sign of said senility, lack of energy, whatever. I wouldn’t have a problem with this argument individually, even if I don’t agree with it, but piled on top of everything else he’s written it infuriates me. On top of that, it violates his own anti-statistical code. He’s busy scouring the history books and saying that 55 is the last good year for a coach… well, if that’s true, shouldn’t the Pats be looking for a younger coach? If that’s what Simmons is arguing, he should just come out and say it. If he thought people were angry about 4th-and-2, I’d love to see the reaction to that one. It’s the smart thing to do!, he’d probably say, make a pre-emptive strike based on the numbers!

That would, for obvious reasons, make me laugh.

That’s all, and was, water under the bridge until I saw one of his tweets today, which called the Pats “dead.” Take a look at their schedule and tell me what you see. I see 12-4. You know what the Pats’ record was when they won their first Super Bowl? 11-5. You remember who they played? A clone of the Saints from this year, or the Pats from 2007. There are details of which I’m obviously aware that could mitigate this: the 12-4 Pats wouldn’t likely have a bye and the Saints looked fairly unstoppble the other night. But to declare the Patriots “dead” is something in the spirit of Simmons’ supposed arch-enemy, Dan Shaughnessy. Yes, the Pats don’t look like the best team now, but if 2007 taught us anything, it’s that you only have to look like the best team on the last day of the season for it to mean anything. Do I believe then can, even if I don’t believe they will? Yes.

That’s what it comes down to: hope. If you hope your team does well, and you see one of its biggest cheerleaders raining on your parade, it’s time to disengage. If Bill Simmons can’t enjoy first place, and yet another awesome season, maybe he needs to re-read some of his columns from 1999 and 2000 to show how far we’ve really come. Will it help him get back to a positive mindset? Maybe, for a little bit, but never completely. Like my love affair with his columns, that part of him is probably gone forever.

My Sporting Clothes

Since I haven’t posted anything in a while, here’s a short essay I wrote that I’ve cleaned up for publication here. Hope you like it.

In the mid-1990s, tearaway pants were invented. They looked cool and had buttons on the outside of each leg, so basketball players could remove their drawers with a flick of the wrist. One second, the pants would be there, and then — POOF! — they would be gone, folding away into the air like origami.

I cannot tell you where I was when I first learned of this product, but I was floored. I could tear away my pants. Soon, I was at the store buying a pair. They were made by Nike and cost $30. This was it: this was the future. This was the new me.

I still own a pair of tearaway pants. I wear them to bed and to softball games in which I play. I do not like them.

They will unbutton during a hasty trip from first to second base, or on a more leisurely journey from one side of my bed to the other. They, very much, do not want to stay on.

In the rare cases that I am able to see this creation to its apotheosis, it comes with a stinging depression. If I want to wear them again, I will have to re-button them. I can never find all the buttons, and almost always snap them in the wrong places.

Given my druthers, I will usually stick to the take-your-shoes-off-before-removing type of athletic wear that has work for, you know, decades. If I’m going to expel labor in the name of sports clothing, I’ll do with for a product that doesn’t let outsiders get the occasional sneak peek at my boxers. That’s right: not only is this worthless product difficult to assemble, everyone can see your undies.

I have two pairs of athletic pants that I really like. One is a pair of “traditional” wind pants, and the other the American sweatpant. I bought each of them for $10 and could not be happier with them.

After running through these guys, I will turn to shorts, longjohns, old jeans or khakis before I will call the tearaway pants into duty. Despite having been scrupulously buttoned prior to their stowing three months earlier, several of the buttons will be unhinged when I put them on, and, when forced to bend over and re-button them, a few more would pop off. It is maddening. If NBA players had to re-button the pants themselves, this entire species of pants would go extinct in an instant. We could send them to a museum. Our nightmare would be over.

Instead, we find them on clearance racks across the country, beckoning to shoppers in faux utility. The tearaway pants never really caught on after their high-profile launch, which is why they are the most plentiful items on the sale racks at athletics stores everywhere. You can find them in every size and every color. I can match my alma mater’s maroon, the Patriotic colors of Foxboro or the black-and-gold of the Boston Bruins. Which leads me into temptation. And before you know it, there I am, against my judgment, buying another pair.

Chickens

In The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the authors describe the nightmare conditions of the American chicken industry, focusing on chicken giant Tyson foods, animal cruelty and its commercial pollution of the “Delmarva Peninsula” — the tract of land composed of Delaware, parts of Maryland and Virginia. The conditions are horrible enough that Tyson Foods did not cooperate with the authors, nor did most of the large meat processing corporations profiled in the book. This code of silence is driven, it seems, out of self-preservation: the mode of production is horrifying enough that the company fully understands the consequences of exposing its operation to the world would be catastrophic. Yet, they seem fine with this arrangement. Why? Because you like cheap chicken and they like money. That appears to overwhelm any ethical concerns they have for the livestock they are raising and killing, often in spectacularly incompetent fashion. The authors, quite refreshingly, don’t recommend vegetarianism as the only ethical solution to this dilemma: they simply implore the reader not to buy chicken from these people, and cite some producers who operate their farms under humane conditions.

The “big” chicken industry looks, to me, a lot like the Chickenhawk industry that roosts about 100 miles away from the Delmarva Peninsula, inside the Beltway. There’s bloodletting, a lack of simple decency and a code of silence that protects the structure — even though those at the top of the pecking order they know what they are doing is wrong, and opposed to the fundamental values of our government. They just don’t care. Worse still, they have an army of bird-brained Chickenhawks who think they’re part of the plan, and they get treated well — plenty to eat, comfortable life — right up until they step out of line. Before they realize, their throats are cut, and they’ve been replaced. A few of them actually survive the throat-cutting process — much like, horribly, many chickens survive the throat cutting process and are left to bleed to death — and they also bleed to death on the grandest stages, giving ineffectual testimony before an astonished Congress that, like the small number of ethics-conscious food consumers, is powerless to stop the bloodletting.

Actually, that description may not be fair to the Bush Administration. The administration and its cronies are far more effective at silencing the troublemakers than big chickens, which resorts to such wonderful measures as electrocuting them, scalding them, and when that doesn’t work, “stomping on them, beating them, running over them on purpose with a fork-lift truck, and even blowing them up with dry ice ‘bombs.'” Sounds lovely. Now listen to what happened to Russell Skoug.

In an incredible, eviscerating article for Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibbi describes “The Great Iraq Swindle,” the grab-bag of millions upon millions of dollars in defense contracts gathered and executed by the most incompetent people this side of the Washington Generals. In fact, we ought to call them the Washington Generals. The Washington Generals, according to Taibbi, were so callous with their disregard for American taxpayer money that they used $100,000 in rolled $100 bills as a football. (And that was one of the confirmed accounts). He estimates America has spent $500 billion on the war and $44 billion on the Iraq recovery effort, an effort so botched that the tally is embarrassing to completely recall. “And what did America’s contractors give us for that money?” he asks. “They built big steaming shit piles, set brand-new trucks on fire, drove back and forth across the desert for no reason at all and dumped bags of nails in ditches.”

But that’s not all they did: they also fucked Russell Skoug. Taibbi recalls how Skoug, working for the private contractor Wolfpack, was tasked with fixing Humvees as part of his duties on the ground. It is beyond the point of our story that Skoug had no previous experience repairing Humvees: one day — actually, September 11th, 2006 — Skoug set off across Iraq to find repair parts when the U.S. Army vehicle in which he was traveling was hit by a bomb. He was airlifted to a hospital in Germany and back to the United States, whereupon his employer tried to deny him the medical insurance claims to pay for his injuries. Nevermind that Wolfpack was required to provide medical insurance in a war zone, Taibbi writes, Wolfpack CEO Mark Atwood let Skoug go with some pittance payments and scolded his wife when she tried to recoup the hospital bills, which totaled over $500,000. Confronted with this, Atwood refused to speak to Taibbi, saying, “I just want some peace.” And you thought they were cruel to the chickens.

The worst part about all this is that, despite this callous regard for their own followers, Cheney, Bush, et al. have no shortage of hens clucking away at their heels. Last night, I was watching The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Judy Woodruff was conducting a debate on the Alberto Gonzales “legacy,” a hilarious ludicrously-phrased topic, with Michael Greenberger, a former justice department official in the Clinton Administration, and Noel Francisco, a partner at the Jones Day law firm (which represents R.J. Reynolds) and former associate counsel to President Bush. Over Greenberger’s polite objection, Francisco painted a rosy picture of the Gonzales era, saying that history would judge him fairly:

I really do think that, once we have the distance of history between us, the American people and history will look at the attorney general and look and see that he made the right decisions and the president made the right decisions in combating the war on terror and combating this new and dramatic threat to our country.

He was saying this about Alberto Gonzales. Just a reminder from the Think Progress blog:

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who fired attorneys for political reasons.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who gave the White House political team unprecedented power to intercede in the affairs of the Justice Department.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who allowed his department to illegally hire attorneys based in part on their loyalty to the Republican Party and the Bush administration.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who dissembled and misled about the administration’s spying activities.

– It was Alberto Gonzales, not Congress, who lied in stating that all Bush appointees would be Senate-confirmed.

Oh, did I not mention that Francisco, like former White House spokesman/part-time Nantucket resident Ari Fleischer, blames Congress?

I don’t care who the attorney general was. I think you would have seen the similar thing going on regardless of who the attorney general was. The issue might have been a little bit different, but they’d still be trying to come out with a scalp.

Just repeating the party line: it’s the Democrats’ fault. Always the Democrats’ fault. That’s how you move up the pecking order. You can be as smug as you want (watch Francisco or Fleischer for examples), callous (Rumsfeld teasing reporters who challenged him during the beginning stages of the war) or plain incompetent (recall Gonzales’ “I don’t recall” fiasco from his Senate testimony), as long as you keep moving forward and, never, ever deviate from the plan, and you will be fed. This is classic chicken behavior. In The Ethics of What We Eat, Singer and Mason describe how egg-laying hens “are like fans at rock concerts in that they have a mob mentality. They will crowd all over each other to get into a particular nesting box, although the one right next to it—which is identical as far as he can tell—is empty.”

The worst part about this war, as filmmaker Charles Ferguson said on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago to promote his incredible film No End In Sight, is “the emotional and intellectual blindness of the people that did this;” the inability to see the error of their ways, and the chance to fix things through a slight change of course. They won’t go to the other nesting box. Jon Stewart recently said that the worst part about this war is that the people who are least responsible for it feel the worst about it, and vice versa. As you go through the massive the pecking order, it’s shocking how few people have broken with the administration for the far easier path of telling, and acknowledging, the truth. Like the men in charge of “big chicken,” it’s not that we’re actually dealing with chickens. We’re dealing with cowards.

Fiction And The Personal Essay (largely unedited)

I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker last night about the Ransom Collection at the University of Texas Library. It is, by the account of the author, the single biggest repository of the collected papers of fiction writers in United States and probably the world. It includes the papers of Don DeLillo, Normal Mailer and Ezra Pound, among thousands of others, many of them British (It was something of a big deal in British literary world when native archive materials began retiring in Texas). The author, D.T. Max, focuses helpfully on the extensive collection from DiLillo, a contemporary author who uses a typewriter, and who thus creates far more printed material than most writers. He uses the typewriter to create single paragraphs which he pencil-edits on the page, typing the “corrected” paragraph immediately below it. He sometimes repeats this process for four or five pages until the paragraph is, in his mind, ready. His entire thought process is recorded on sheets of 8 ½ by 11 inch paper.

Tom Staley, the director of Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, studies the minds of literary “masters” the way some people study law or, say, podiatry. The difference is that in law and podiatry, there is a right and a wrong answer to every question (insofar as he have mastered the study of foot medicine), whereas in literature the rules are created by each individual author. The study of literature is not one text compared to another; it is the study of each text itself. At some point, every book, newspaper or magazine you’ve read was a dead tree. To see literature as a science, and not as a form of entertainment, is to see how the human mind creates stories. Does the perfect story exist? In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel,” the central character, the librarian, is searching through the infinite space described by every possible letter combination in every book. There are books that vary from each other with only one keystroke, and books composed of nothing but gobbledygook. He searches because in the library, there is said to be one book that perfectly describes all the others. The study of how literature is created — the author’s search for the perfect story — is the search for that book, but with the prior knowledge of what’s in it. The book describes the search for the book itself. The study of literature is without end.

For this reason, the process of creating fiction differs decisively from the creation of non-fiction. As someone who has never had a fiction class, and has spent a life writing non-fiction, the immediate differences between the two processes are striking. (Or, at least, DeLillo’s process is far different than mine.) DeLillo first molds the sentence like “Look at the kid with the with the empty pockets”; it becomes “Look at the kid with the lively eyes,” then “glimmerglass eyes,” the “shine in the eyes”, then he completely changes its emphasis. “He speaks in your voice, American, and has a shine in the eyes that’s half hope, half fear” he writes, and “half hope, half fear” eventually becomes “halfway hopeful”. The process we are witnessing is his search for the perfect sentence, the sentence that will get his reader one step closer to Borges’ fictional perfect book.

This is the mystery of fiction. It’s unpredictable, dangerous and sexy. The danger in non-fiction has already passed, no matter how compelling the situation (Non-fiction on a life-threatening basis is ‘journalism’.). In non-fiction, every sentence is the author’s attempt to describe in something that happened in the right words; the process of creating a non-fiction document is the process of combining words with research and memory. In fiction, words describe both one’s imagination and one’s process. The study of non-fiction is similar to the study of law; it can be done correctly or incorrectly. Fiction certainly can be done poorly, but nothing is ever wrong. None of this is to be an assault on non-fiction. I read mostly non-fiction. When it comes to fiction, I’m picky. I only read novels that are recommended to me, or ones that garner such critical acclaim that they cannot be ignored (The Bonfire of the Vanities would be a great instance of these two lines intersecting). I’m learning when I read non-fiction. When I read fiction, I’m doing something else.

Which leads me, at last, to the third type of writing. The rules of fiction are not 100 percent different the rules of non-fiction; in both fiction and non-fiction, the writer is attempting to describe something external to the narrator. The world that is described has a place and time, be it real or imagined. Underworld or White Noise, though created in DeLillo’s head, occur in a place and time, just as Into Thin Air or Krakatoa, works of non-fiction, occur somewhere outside our brains. Fiction’s antonym is, instead, the personal essay. In the personal essay, noting is external to the narrator: it’s all about what happens in our heads. Fiction is the fruit of the writing process by way of imagination; the personal essay is the direct connection between the mind and the page. Stripped of outright lies about oneself, the personal essay is a perfect reflection of ones self-awareness .Your personal essay will only be as good as you can make it. Stripped of lies, it will be a perfect reflection of how well you are able to describe yourself and of how well you know yourself. If fiction is the search for the perfect book amongst a universe of imperfect ones, the personal essay is the fruit of constantly finding the perfect book to describe oneself. Once you find the book, it’s not perfect anymore. You’ve grown. Time to write again. I’m intrigued by fiction, with its incredible degree of difficulty and the enormous imaginative capacity involved, and in awe of non-fiction writers like Robert Caro, who have written works like The Power Broker, that are literally monuments to human work ethic and the printed word, but at the moment, I see no purer piece of writing than the personal essay. I’m not yet ready for fiction, the endless science, or non-fiction, its diligent cousin. I have too much to do here first.

Feel free to leave comments and editing suggestions. All help is appreciated.