Saturday, January 23, 2010

Goals 2010

The pic is me at Chichen-Itza at the top of the pyramid. Thought it would be a good picture to use for a posting about goals. I've spent a little time trying to come up with goals for this year, something I haven't done since 2007 (I think). So far, here's where I'm at:

1) Athletics/Wellness
- Go to Hapikdo 12 times a month.
- Lift weights twice a week.
- Get a massage once a month.

2) Life Experiences - Do something fun/new/enriching once a month. So far....
- January: Saw Pierre Boulez conduct the CSO through Ravel's Le Tombeau De Couperin. Main floor seats!
- February: We'll be seeing Lisa Lampanelli live.
- March: TBD
- April: Virgin Islands
- May: TBD
- June: May go down to Austin to visit Paul

3) Financial - I'd like to have a more structure monthly budget that I keep and track.

4) Activism - Get back to writing at least one letter for Amnesty International each month.

5) Art - Take a ceramics course and see if I'm any good at it.

6) Zen - Get back into meditation on a regular basis. At least once a week?

7) Reading - Always be working through at least one book. I have also been reading more about world events, and I'd like to keep that up.

So that's it. For now. Rough list; not final. But a good start.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Herman Melville - Moby-Dick (1851)

It took me a while this time around, but I've finally finished Moby-Dick. This is my third time reading it, and I'm probably going to need a couple entries to deal with it.

Anyway, I am now six novels deep into my attempt to read all of Herman Melville's novels in the order they were written. The scourge of high school students everywhere, Moby-Dick is probably one of the most written about and discussed books in world literature (certainly US literature). It's certainly the novel upon which Melville's reputation largely rests. So let's start unpacking what I think about this monolith.

First things first. My issue with Moby-Dick has always been my uncertainty as to whether the thematic depth of the novel is truly the result of careful and ambitious craftsmanship on Melville's part, revealing his absolute genius; or is it that the book was never quite 'finished' and that this patchy product ends up opening a lot of tantalizing doors that ultimately lead nowhere and add up to nothing, creating a thematic hall of mirrors for the reader to painstakingly make sense of. I'm not saying the book has nothing to say or is devoid of a theme (I think it has a very clear theme). However, I believe there is a lot of 'junk' - for lack of a better word - Melville left lying around or included for no particularly good reason. These red herrings and dead-ends are, at minimum, annoying and, at worst, make you question whether the book - and Melville - really deserve the accolades they have received.

From Melville's statements at the time and his reactions to meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne, it's pretty clear he was trying to craft something deeper in Moby-Dick than he felt he had done in his two prior novels (Redburn and White-Jacket). Since his last overt attempt at something 'artistic' was a hideously pretentious mess (Mardi), no one should be blamed for approaching Moby-Dick with scepticism (regardless of the hype).

Moby-Dick starts off as Melville's most atmospheric work to date. The story of Ishmael, who seems very much like the main character in Redburn in terms of situation, seeks out a whaling ship and comes upon the Pequod. Everything about his arrival in town and what he does there is full of drear foreshadowing. Humor, as well as Melville's always bracing narratives about sailors and the sea, breaks up the mood at times, but you never get away from the sense that something mysterious and dark is lurking under the surface. There are paintings that vaguely display destruction at sea, eulogies for dead seamen, warnings from madmen, dark shadowy figures on the Pequod. The mood Melville weaves is a spellbinding additional layer to his traditional storytelling, and is so well done that you clearly feel you are in the presence of a great writer.

Part of this beginning includes the much discussed two-men-in-a-bed scene between Ishmael and Queequeg. While I'm the first to argue that Melville was at least bi, I think people make far too much of this scene. Sure it's homoerotic, but there are other passages in Melville's writing that far more convincingly suggest the direction of his sexuality and that he was trying to communicate under the radar to any reader who could pick up on gay code. Anyway, now that the elephant in the middle of that room is dealt with, let's move on. The main purpose of Queequeg, in my mind, is an extension of Melville's theme of civilization versus 'the natural man'. Since Queequeg is a non-character once the Pequod goes to sea, I think it's safe to say that's where he begins and ends. Again, this an example of Melville starting something and then going nowhere with it both in terms of characterization and theme. What was the point of developing Queequeg as a character in such detail only to completely ignore him for the remaining two-thirds to three-quarters of the book?

For all this, Moby-Dick initially moves pretty well. At the same time, you can pick up Melville's theme starting to take shape like an evil fog just at the edge of your field of vision. This heightens the dread to a sharp edge. However, about 24 chapters into Moby-Dick, the Pequod sails. At this point, Melville shifts tone, focus, drops his storyline, and even kicks his structure to the curb as he enters into dozens of chapters that may or may not have anything to do with anything.

He has several opinion pieces (e.g., C.24 'The Advocate'). Some of them are interesting, of course, but others (C.32 'Cetology') are excessive and stultifying drab. There's a few chapters introducing the remaining main characters: Starbuck, Daggoo, Stubb, Tashtego, Flask, and ultimately Ahab. But Melville only gets back to his story around C.36 ('The Quarter-Deck') with Ahab's ever famous speech of intent to hunt the White Whale because the whale took off his leg. It's clear Ahab hasn't got both oars in the water (like my nautical imagery?) but most of the crew goes along gleefully with his vendetta which is sealed with an almost demonic religious rite, of a consecration. It's a very powerful scene that deserves its hallowed place in literary history.

Then you kiss the story goodbye for the bulk of the book. There's loads of Melville's little vignettes of seafaring and his pompously penned airy-fairy musings on...whatever. Frustratingly, for the reader, some of these chapters contain little glimmers of symbolism, and you think "Okay he's got a point in here I guess." For example, at the end of C.35 ('The Mast-Head'), there is a dark warning to those who meditate too deeply on one idea, as it may lead to their destruction. This warning fits the tone of the early chapters and seems to build into the theme of seeking, which we know will take it's most complete shape in Ahab chasing his White Whale. But too often these passages lead nowhere. They do not connect to the thread of the story or theme in any way and, as a result, they strongly suggest Melville was either a very poor editor or was just not in control of his material (and possibly both).

It's not until nearly a hundred chapters go by (in the vicinity of C.119 'The Candles'), that the story comes back to the foreground and the dark majesty of the first 24 chapters is somewhat revived. The narrative flow is largely unbroken through what's left of the novel, but that means Moby-Dick contains an awfully large amount of dead space and poorly conceived passages to slog through. Even if I accept that this is a masterpiece with a amazingly complex theme, did Melville really require all those pages to convey what he wanted to say? Was there no way to integrate it into his story? As it stands, the structure of Moby-Dick amounts to 24 chapters of narrative, 100 chapters of various odds and ends, and the concluding chapters which complete the story begun in the first 24. Such a lack of integration is the sign of either a bad writer (which Melville really isn't) or a writer who just didn't take (or have) the time to polish his work.

Even when the narrative returns, I can't say that the writing measures up to Melville's start. And it isn't until the last page, that Ishmael returns as the narrator. I think we're supposed to assume he's the narrator throughout, but the voice of the character just isn't there, and we're really dealing with an omniscient third party narrator. There seems to be little point in this shift (although I'm sure a clever Melville groupie could concoct some brilliant intent behind it), and it kills the immediacy of the story.

Melville further errs by toying with playwriting devices. He introduces characters and settings at the beginning of several chapters, not in his text, but as bracketed comments you'd see in a screenplay. This reaches a head in C.40 ('Midnight, Forecastle'), which is completely laid out as a play, rather than as narrative. While this may have eased his ability to display the famed 'microcosm' of the Pequod's multi-racial/national crew, it would not have required much effort to get this across in narrative form. To me, this is two parts laziness and one part gimmick. Doesn't add up to brilliant writing at all.

In fact, I would have to say that this encapsulates my ultimate opinion about Moby-Dick. It's got some brilliant writing in it, and some tremendous themes (to those in another post), but it's terribly underwritten and contains too many ideas that Melville played with, didn't develop, and left half-baked in the novel. The result is a continual sense of being interrupted or having to suffer digressions or losing the thread of where Melville is going. As a writer, he's like a tour guide who is charged with taking you to see the Empire State Building, but who ends up taking you to seventeen uninteresting and wholly unrelated stops along the way. You start to wonder if you will ever get to the Empire State Building at all or whether the guide even knows where it is! In short, Moby-Dick is brilliant in places, but frightfully amateur in others (many others).

Some critics call this 'modern' and praise Melville as being ahead of his time stylistically. While I agree some modern writers intentionally create disjointed and convoluted prose to get their point across, the difference is that I find them to be in control of what they are doing and why. I do not get this from Melville at all; he just seems messy and unfocused. Maybe Melville was ahead of his time, but that doesn't excuse a lack of craft. Personally, I do not believe he was ahead of his time; I think he just didn't work hard enough honing Moby-Dick (despite the fact he apparently drove himself to drink over it). In many ways, after reading six of Melville's novels, my feeling is that he is a talented, but very lazy, writer. He's big on ideas, ambitious in vision, but he isn't up to the effort required to edit himself or hone his craft in order to create art out of his big ideas.

Melville's masterpiece received some good notices, but just as many poor ones. Few people in the reading public were interested one way or the other, and Melville was pretty much irrelevant and forgotten at this point in this career. Not counting, Billy Budd, which I have never yet read. Melville write three more novels after Moby-Dick and all of them were ignored and, when reviewed, ridiculed. I can relate to his public from the time as, despite my desire to read all his works, I have little interest in tackling these last three.

Maybe later in life I'll pick up where I left off.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Guitar Hero? (Not)

Last night we celebrated a late Christmas with our close friends. Larry and Kelly are married and they and Jim have known each other since high school. They have two kids: Miranda and Lia who Jim is godfather to and who refer to us as Uncle Jim and Uncle Pete. As usual, we had a great time. Also, as usual lately, our visits have been partly spent trying out all sorts of Wii games. I really enjoy the Wii!

This time is was Guitar Hero. I did pretty good on the drums (90% on my first go), was absolutely useless on the guitar, but it was my stint as lead singer that is destined to go down in lore as a viral video worthy moment of embarassment. First of all, I cannot sing. At all. I'm not being coy or modest. I have taken lessons, and I cannot do anything but hit one note that's always flat. I am the anti-Susan Boyle.

The song selected for my vocal debut was "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I'd heard the song once years ago, disliked it, and never thought about it again. The lyrics to the song are a little...odd. It starts off...

Pack up
I’m straight
Oh say, say, say
Oh say, say, say
Oh say, say, say
Oh say, say, say
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you
Wait, they don’t love you like I love you
Wait! They don’t love you like I love you......

I obviously just didn't get it...and I was stone cold sober (really). When I got the alert Kelly had posted a clip of my performance to Facebook, I have to admit I was pretty scared. I knew it was going to be bad. But would it be funny-bad or I-need-to-move-to-another-country-bad? I think it's very funny-bad, so I'm trying to post it for posterity. Kelly thinks it has viral potential.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Xmas Present From Work

In what is a nice gesture in these times of cut backs, everyone where I work was given a $100 gift card for Christmas. From my earlier post, you know I love me my gift cards! I haven't spent the whole thing yet, but here's what I have purchased so far:

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. This sea adventure is a piece of romanticist literature in the tradition of Dumas and Sienkiewicz. Sabatini wrote a bunch of adventure stories, and I thought this would be a good place to start to see what he's got.

The Zen Teaching Of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine. You know I like this guy! See my zen entries to find out why. This book contains translations of the four 'sermons' attributed to him. It's a bilingual edition, which is kind of neat. Even if I can't read Chinese at all. (I know it must be hard to learn Chinese, but being a visual person I wonder if I'd had any easier of a time with it?).

Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco. Slowly, slowly, slowly I am coming to the end of Moby Dick. Can't believe how long it's taking me this time. Okay, I admit that I got distracted by Kathy Griffin's 'memoir', which Jim got me for Christmas. She makes me laugh, and I love her. So poor Hermie has to suffer yet another indignity...being placed on the backburner for a D-List comedian. Anyway, this is a biography and literary analysis of Melville and his work. Should be intriguing to read after plowing through six of Melville's novels this past year.

Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester. I believe this is one of the more popular books of the Horatio Hornblower series. Another sea adventure. If I like it, maybe I'll snag some of the other books in the series. I had tried Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander a while back and found it a bit dry. Hard to find books that strike that golden balance of literary merit and the taut writing and pacing needed for a great adventure novel. Hopefully this one's a keeper.

The Transcendentalists by Barbara L. Packer. Analysis and history of the movement that spawned and influenced some of the greatest writers and thinkers in early American literature. Could be an interesting read.

Roadhouse Sun - Ryan Bingham. I do not like much country music, and I'm not sure Bingham is really country. I file him under 'roots' on my ipod, where I put denim and leather jacket music that is sung by guys who sound like they've lived an awful lot of life. Ryan's raspy voice is exactly how I'd like to sound if I could sing, and he writes great songs too. Loved his first album Mescalito, and I hope this one's just as good.

Great to kick of 2010 with lots of new stuff to explore!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Meaning Of Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle's debut album entered the Billboard charts at number 1 and has stayed there for five weeks. Each week the album has sold over 500,000 copies, which is the amount required to go gold. This is an unprecedented achievement in the history of the Billboard music charts. Here's another interesting fact. According to Billboard, 2009 saw 374.6 million in album sales, 13% lower than for 2008. As moaning recording industry execs continually remind us, album sales have been slumping for years.

So, my question is: how - in a down economy rife with illegal downloads - does an un-'kewl' woman way past 20 with no sweet ass to shake or a half-baked reality show manage to shatter sales records?

The answer is that Susan Boyle represents what the record industry should be doing more of if it wants to save itself. Now I'm not saying she's my favorite singer or that I'm head-over-heels for her album. But I sure did respond to that viral video of her. In a jaded sea of calculated marketing, it was refreshing to see someone so artless. Plus, somewhere under that unibrow there had to be a hell of a lot of guts and courage. People connected with that - and with her - because of it. Beyond that, I think of how comic legend Betty White once explained why young audiences tuned into The Golden Girls, an 80's sit-com about four senior citizens. She said: "Funny is funny." In the same way, good singing is good singing. People buy talent. Now it's definitely true that people also buy crap (and sometimes in really large numbers). However, crap has a distinctive odor and people tend to catch on (and move on) before too long. With talent, you have a chance at getting them for the long haul. Talent has a better shot at enduring.

Look at the music industry. For 13 or 14 years, it's been a revolving door of hair-extended, breast-augmented sluts: Britney Spears, Christina Agulera, Jessica Simpson, Brooke Hogan. As time goes by, each new 'girl' is sluttier and her voice is weaker than the one who came before. None of these women have anything to say. In fact, Simpson and Hogan flaunt/ed their stupidity on weekly reality shows and positioned that stupidity as a character strength. Seems like artists used to worry about being exploited by record labels. Today's 'shrewd' artists do it to themselves. Against that lot, what music buyer wouldn't ultimately gravitate towards Susan Boyle? At the very least, she's something different.

Now, I don't mean to deify Susan Boyle. I don't know how smart she is, whether she's been through anything difficult in her life, or whether she's capable of writing a song. But I do know that I respect her and what she brings to the table, and I sense that she respects herself. I also like that she doesn't 'oversell' her voice by doing vocal acrobatics every time she opens her mouth. She lets her talent speak for her. She can take a good song, sing it sensitively and sincerely, and let that carry her. I don't care that she isn't 98 pounds or that she has kind of weird hair or that she looks her age. I don't have to want to sleep with the people whose music I buy.

What does the success of Susan Boyle mean? I think the record industry should consider it a wake-up call. The majority of Americans are over thirty. Few of us - and not everyone in the under 30 set either - are interested in hearing Brooke Hogan sing about her peesh in an autotuned voice while flashing her tits. We're certainly not going to pay money for it if we can download it for free! Stars like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Madonna are no better. In fact they may be worse because by the time a woman reaches her 40s or 50s - regardless of whether she's still got a body or not - she should have something on the ball besides T&A. It's pathetic to watch a powerful woman like Madonna sing, dress, and act like a teenage slut. The teenage slut doesn't know any better, a woman like Carey, Jackson, or Madonna certainly does (or should).

And it's not like there aren't sisters out there doing it for themselves. How about Mary J. Blige (who's at #2 on Billboard this week)? She sings way better than Susan Boyle and, in spite her fab stylin', is no bleach-blonde prom queen. Blige's aura says: "I'm Mary J. Blige and you will respect me". And that is cool. Plus, Blige has been through stuff and she sings her heart out year after year. Again, I have an emotional connection with a singer like her that is hard to break even when she occasionally puts out an album I don't feel. Why aren't record companies signing more artists like this? I mean, there will always be pop and R&B crap that appears and vanishes each year. I'm not saying don't milk a fad. But it seems like, for over a decade, the music industry's focus has been on milking the same fad and not signing or developing any actual talent. What do A&R people at labels even do these days?

The bad news is I don't think even an atom bomb like Susan Boyle will register with these douche bag record industry executives. My cynicism, surprisingly, comes in part from Susan Boyle's album. If you listen past her singing, the first thing you notice is that the arrangements behind her are not particularly good. It sounds like the music was tossed together rather indifferently. I'd seriously be willing to bet that the industry views Boyle as the flash in the pan while they plan to out their serious support behind Brooke Hogan (does anyone think her 'use by' date is after 2011?). Well, maybe not Brooke Hogan; they probably have some new slut of the moment waiting in the wings. Hmmm, maybe Miley Cyrus will want to 'grow up' on her next album by entering the fray and trying to be a bigger whore than Paris Hilton?

Mr. Executive: If that's your focus, how can you be surprised consumers aren't interested.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hot Tub In The Snow

There I am at the right (with a friend holding his cup strategically in front of my equipment) enjoying my first hot tub experience in the cold. To get to this little oasis of warmth, we had to go outside and strip down in the cold snowy outdoors.

I love a hot tub, but it's extra awesome to be in one when you are surrounded by freezing cold and ice. In fact, we kept our drinks cold by placing them on a ledge off to the right of this picture. The ledge was covered with a four inch layer of snow, and we just reached over and scrunched our drinks into the icy snow to keep them cold.

We were out there chatting and watching random bits of frost come floating down. I put my arm outside the tub and watched it steam like it was on fire. After being pruned to perfection, there was the daunting prospect of jumping out into the cold freezing air and getting dressed before darting back into the house to dry off.

In a way, I kind of liked that we had to do that. It reemphasized the warmth we had just been enjoying. Back inside was the poker game we'd come for and plenty of cookies. It doesn't get any better than that!