Monday, September 29, 2008

On the Road

Spend a weekend on your college campus, act 18 again. It happens every time. I'm still recuperating. The main way I felt 18 again was being completely cut off from the rest of the world for over 48 hours: no internet, no TV, no newspapers. I didn't see the debate, nor hear any of the incessant recaps of it. Paul Newman died? What do you know. The Northeast was drenched? Huh. It's hard, now, to believe I spent four years living in such a bubble.

An interesting offshoot of my trip was that I drove smack through the middle of Virginia, the last leg on back roads filled with campaign signs. I'm not sure what yard signs tell you, not sure how effective an indicator they are as to what will happen in November. However, the placement of a yard sign does indicate effort and dedication on the part of the person who placed the sign, and in that sense display the sentiments of at least one voter.

Rural Central Virginia must trend Republican these days. However, I feel comfortable predicting that Mark Warner will win his Senate race. Based on yard signs, the guy doesn't even have an opponent. Warner signs proliferated, yet I didn't see a single indication that there is a Republican nominee running against him. Some properties even featured both McCain and Warner signs, which was to me the real indicator that this particular race is over.

Based on signage, the Presidential race is harder to call. Crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains on Routes 151 and 6, through Afton, Rockfish Gap, and Nelson County, McCain/Palin definitely dominated. On the other hand, it would appear that the Obama campaign lacks an office in this part of the state, because I passed a number of hand-made Obama signs. Yes, hand-made, a true indicator of dedication. One sign, ok, but on the trip back I counted: 15 such signs on a 35-mile stretch of road.

Once I got to Route 29, a major north/south state highway, Obama took the lead in signage. McCain still had supporters, but the majority of yards sported signs promoting the entire Democratic ticket for that part of the state: Obama, Warner, and the Congressional candidate whose last name begins with a "P" (sorry, I was driving, I couldn't write it down).

Conclusions? It could be that the Obama campaign is correct in believing that Virginia is in play. It could also be that, in the end, yard signs along state highways only mean that a couple of crazy partisans went driving around in a pick-up one night, drinking beer and illegally posting. My main conclusion is that this remains perhaps the most interesting Presidential race in recent memory. And that it's a bad idea for an early middle-aged woman to party like an 18 year-old.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Here's a Bucket, Start Bailing

Brody and I are getting ready for our road trip to Virginia. I'm nearly certain that the Amherst Motor Inn will not feature free internet, or any internet, for that matter, so I'll be offline until Monday. I'm hoping that while I'm gone the Senate Banking Committee decides to give me a bailout. It's true, I haven't done anything to damage our entire economic system, and in that sense I'm not the most deserving among us, but I could use a bailout nonetheless. In exchange for a truly modest sum, the American taxpayers can have an equity stake in the home Countrywide and I co-own. It's a really good deal for everyone. I think taxpayers like me would be better served with a stake in my mid-century modern house (it's got central air! and a garage!) than with a percentage of AIG or some tottering investment bank. Why buy failing securities when we can buy a nice three-bed, one and a half bath with fireplace and hardwood floors? I'll even throw in partial ownership of my cat, if Chuck Shumer wants me to. He's a nice cat, and he'd be proud to be partially owned by the American taxpayer.

Come on, Senate Banking Committee. Stop talking and bail me out already.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Campaign Blues

Are you tired of the election yet? I'm getting there. I'm tired of the way this thing has degenerated. Everything that can go wrong in this country has gone wrong. Everything costs more, while wages have barely, if at all, kept up. The federal government has decided to prop up Wall Street, while struggling homeowners are left hanging. The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate and no one notices. And the candidates spend more time arguing about who represents "real" change than they do presenting "real" solutions.

I'm tired of Sarah Palin and chatter about pit bulls and lipstick. I'm tired of the word "maverick." I'm also tired of "hope," because the longer this goes on, the less hope I have. I do have one hope: to never again hear the phrase "red meat." Shut up, Keith Olbermann. I'm tired, most of all, of you and all the rest of the pundits who live with you in punditville.

It would take so little to please me. All I want is to hear some honest discussion about the actual issues that we face, and to hear some honest debate about proposed solutions to those issues. I'm not sure this will happen between now and November, not even at the "debates," which, like the rest of the campaigns, are likely to become more about style than they are about substance. What substance can be presented in highly vetted, two-minute long sound bites? Don't the candidates, and I mean all of them, not just the Presidential candidates but also Congressional, statehouse, even candidates for coroner and dogcatcher, don't they understand that voters are worried about the real state of our nation and not about which party controls which body of government?

But of course I won't be able to help myself. I'll continue reading the coverage every morning, I'll watch the debates, I'll continue to be in a state of agitation until it's all over and then I'll vow, as I do every four years, to not care so much next time, to become sanguine, to let democracy take its course, no matter how I feel about the course it is taking. After all, I only have one vote. I'll cast it, as always, and "hope" for the best.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How to Spend a Saturday

There's little better to do on a gorgeous late summer/early fall weekend than to drive around the country, go to an orchard for apples, buy produce at roadside stands, and enjoy what scenery is left around here before it's paved over into strip malls and subdivisions. This time of year, nurseries are full of "hardy mums." Everywhere we went Saturday, signs encouraged us to purchase "hardy mums," as if somewhere down the road one could find a stand selling "delicate mums." If each and every mum is "hardy," why bother with the adjective?

One friend who gardens told me "hardy" means that these are mums that can survive a light frost. Another told me that it means that you can plant them in the ground, that "hardy" mums are perennials. The internet told me that all mums are perennial, all mums survive a light frost, and therefore all mums are "hardy."

Except my mums. The sign at the stand where I purchased mine said, "Hearty Mums."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Does Lassie Twitter, Too?

Fan fiction is nothing new. Wander around the web and you can find fan-generated versions of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows, especially if you like science fiction or anything with a supernatural element. Some fans take their creative impulses beyond the written word. YouTube is filled with home-made versions of reality shows: The Real World Perkiomanville, Survivor New Paltz, etc. Marketers setting up social networking sites to promote fictional products is somewhat new, but not unexpected; finding a MySpace page for a movie comes as no surprise. What is new, and altogether interesting, is the use of social networking sites for the creation of fan fiction, and the best example of this is the use of Twitter by some dedicated Mad Men fans.

Yes, Don Draper Twitters. So does Betty, Roger Sterling, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell. Not only does every major character on the show Twitter, the minor ones do, too, including the Drapers four year-old son Bobby. They post updates, tweet one another, and will even respond to those who tweet them. The whole thing is done entirely in character, to the point where, when I first discovered the Mad Men Twitterverse, I thought, "What brilliant marketing. I had no idea AMC was so with it!"

AMC isn't with it. The entire project is the work of We Are Sterling Cooper, whose avowed purpose is the creation of fan fiction through social networking. AMC, in fact, at first sent out a cease and desist, and for a while all the Sterling Cooper Twitter accounts were suspended. Someone in the AMC marketing department finally figured out that this is ultimately a good thing, allowing the characters to Twitter away. What was Peggy doing last night? She was home alone reading, of course. Roger and Don went out for drinks. It's 1962, with Blackberries.

I honestly don't see the point of micro-blogging. If I posted occasional updates that described my actual activities, I'd end up producing a string of "writing a press release" or "drinking coffee and reading," a string of banalities. I'd want to make my updates more interesting than that, because the point of social networking is to interact with others. I'd need to make myself more fascinating than I am. I'd need to be performative rather than merely descriptive. I'd need to turn my "self" into a persona.

In that sense, all of the selves presented on Twitter are works of fiction. The line between "Elucidator" and "Don Draper" is a thin one indeed. The possibilities that We Are Sterling Cooper's project raises are, in the end, not about fan fiction, but about fiction itself. I could easily set up multiple accounts, each belonging to a different character of my invention, and create a narrative through the tweets these characters send each other. What I'm waiting for, in other words, is a novel conceived and composed this way, a novel that unfolds 140 words at a time, a novel that is performed as it is composed. It's coming, if it isn't already here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

America Was Waiting

Could anything in the world top the announcement that David Byrne and Brian Eno were at long last making another album together? Could anything top the announcement that Byrne was touring in support of the album, playing these new songs along with selections from the Byrne/Eno songbook? Could anything top the fact that the first stop on the tour was the Zoellner Center? Could anything top the amazing seats that we had? Can anything top last night's show? I think not.

The new album is really pretty good. It's currently only available for download here; a physical CD will be released November 25. I found the songs surprisingly melodic, at least in the live versions. I also found a somewhat surprising country influence to them, until I remembered Little Creatures, and then it made sense to me. The show itself was simply amazing. You can find the dates for the rest of the tour through the above link, and if you're a fan of Byrne's, or were a fan of Talking Heads, it's imperative that you attend.

I last saw Talking Heads in 1986, in another memorable show. That tour featured probably 20 musicians on stage - a horn section, full rhythm section, backup chorus, everything but the kitchen sink. This was more stripped down, but the sound was just as large. The stagecraft was simple: the lighting consisted of shifting primary colors against a backdrop, the costumes were simple white shirts and slacks, and in addition to the band the stage only contained three dancers. My happiness was probably in serivce to the fact that the Eno-produced albums are my favorites, and by limiting the playlist to selections from Talking Heads of that period Byrne performed my personal greatest hits.

The show features renditions of "Houses in Motion" and of "Crosseyed and Painless" perhaps better than the originals. If you're a fan of Remain In Light you must catch this tour, which also includes "Born Under Punches" and "Once In a Lifetime." Throw in "I Zimbra", "Heaven", and "Life During Wartime" from Fear of Music and you've got yourself one hell of a good time.

I only wish he would have figured out a way to preform more than one song from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I understand that the songs are built around vocal tracks that were sampled from random radio broadcasts and that the sound would be hard to reproduce live, but the version of "Help Me Somebody" that did make it into the show just left me wanting to hear more. This isn't a complaint, though. In fact, my only complaint was that I saw the show in a concert hall, where one had to dance standing in front of a seat. Seat dancing just doesn't do this music justice.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The One Who Stands by Her Man

I couldn't stop myself. I broke down and read American Wife. I found Prep, Sittenfeld's previous novel, incredibly readable, so I knew this would at the very least be an entertaining diversion.

My understanding is that Sittenfeld researched and wrote the book out of a fascination with Laura Bush, out of a desire to understand her. I can absolutely see that. Here's a woman who seems to be so different from her husband, and a woman who says so little about anything, that it really would be interesting to know who she is, what she stands for. In Sittenfeld's version she's not only a Democrat but a pretty liberal Democrat; she's pro-choice, she's against the war. She's not born-again, and doesn't even practice any organized religion. Is any of this true? Who knows. Sure, it's nice to think so, but this is a work of speculative fiction, and as such perhaps says more about Sittenfeld, and maybe about the book's readers, than it does about Laura Bush.

Because she's quiet, because she's private, she's, in a way, a cipher. Believe that women should stand in the shadows quietly, caring only about children and children's books? You can believe that's the kind of woman she is. Believe that she's incredibly decent, and that if she loves her husband he must be decent, as well? You can believe that, if you want. Believe that she's secretly someone who loves her husband but hates what he stands for? You're also possibly correct. Believe that she's more Rovian than Rove? Have at it.

Because I wasn't looking for real insight into the mind of Laura Bush I enjoyed the novel. It's also essentially fluff, a good diversion. I read it waiting to get to the parts everyone knows about, to see how Sittenfeld would handle them: the deadly crash, buying the baseball team, becoming born-again, etc. In the end, I was left wishing that Bush would actually write a memoir, and that if she would write one that it would be as honest as this work of fiction pretends to be. But of course that will never happen, and instead, at the end, we are left only with our own speculations and desires.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Life During Wartime

What was so immediate, so tremendous, is now, seven years later, just another thing I remember. What was momentous is now a just series of images. It's easy to recall them; it's harder to access all that I felt. How can I describe watching the first tower fall from my mid-town office? Or the way, for 20 minutes, we discussed with disbelief how odd it would look now, with only one tower, only to watch the second turn to dust? How can I describe the walk home, downtown, going against the flow of powder-coated refugees streaming toward the bridges, blank with shock? The emptiness of my neighborhood, the utter quiet that descended, the line of ambulances on First Avenue, the staging ground for triage that turned out to be unnecessary?

Can I describe my friend who perished there, her laugh, her solicitude, her youth? Can I ever communicate the feeling of my neighborhood stripped of traffic but for the fighter planes circling overhead? Even my cat knew things were off-kilter; he took, that week, to peeing in the sink.

The missing posters, the vigils, the slow sense that what could be found had been found and that everything that had fallen apart would someday be put back together. It slips away until it's something we commemorate annually and then pack away for the rest of the year, stored with our American flags, our sense of unity, our common feelings of loss mingled with pride and strength.

Today is the day we make ourselves remember what we promised, all those years ago, to never forget.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Just Put Me in Charge Already

It's Wednesday, which means that readers across the country are turning to the food section of their local paper for recipes and restaurant reviews. Everywhere I've lived, the local paper, from the NY Times to the Washington Post, from the Easton Express to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, would run weekly sections as follows: none on Monday, health/science on Tuesday, food/dining Wednesday, house and garden Thursday, entertainment Friday, none on Saturday, and all of the above Sunday. Why?

I understand publishing these sections one per day in order to get people to buy the paper during the week, so I have no trouble with the underlying theory. Publishing an entertainment section on Friday makes perfect sense: that's the day movies open, so it's the day you'd want to run reviews, and it's the day when people are planning their weekends. It's the day entertainment advertising can be sold to pay for the section. But what makes Thursday home and garden day, Tuesday health day? I can't think of any reason, and my internet search was fruitless.

Grocery circulars and coupons used to be published on Wednesdays, so there was a time when a dining/food section on that day made sense. Circulars and coupons have migrated to Sunday, though, yet the Wednesday dining section persists. Because restaurants are running their ads Friday in the entertainment section and grocery stores on Sunday, the Wednesday dining section suffers from a lack of food-related advertising. Why does the tradition persist?

As far as I can tell no one knows the answer to this. I see it as one more reason the newspaper industry is suffering, another way publishers are clinging to an outdated approach to their business. I suspect the food and gardening sections were once aimed at "ladies," who cooked the meals and tended the rose bushes, and who had nothing better to do on a weekday morning than read the paper. The home sections really belong on Saturday, when people are thinking about home improvement and gardening projects. That's when food sections should also be run, when people are thinking about doing their grocery shopping for the week. Want to sell some papers on Wednesday? Run a gossip/tabloid section featuring Brittney's latest weight gain and breakdown. Want to sell some more on Thursday? Run a section reporting on and reviewing technology, electronics, games.

It's not rocket science.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I thought I'd be experiencing withdrawal today, since the conventions are over and the US Open is finished. Thank god for this internet-thingy, where all things Sarah Palin are alive and well. For a good chuckle, I highly recommend that you follow this link to the PalinDrome, a fake Palin blog written by a dedicated impersonator. Really, it's good for at least an hour of amusement.

If you're not in the mood for humor and instead desire a dose of outrage, link over to Women Against Sarah Palin to see some of the reasons women won't vote for just anyone with a pair of breasts.

Finally, I'd like to state for the record that I will not miss Matthews and Olbermann as anchors on MSNBC. I will not miss their annoying voices, I will not miss their pontificating, I will not miss the fact that they are both so in love with their own opinions that they barely allowed the actual commentators air time. It was painful, not wanting to listen to people I tend to agree with. Thank you, MSNBC, for making the election season easier on my ears.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Thank God That's Over

My friends, that was the most boring acceptance speech that I can recall. Unbelievably, I don't even have anything to say. Well, one thing: it's interesting that the Republican candidates are running not only against the Democrats, but also against the Republican party. The only way to "change" Washington, according to McCain and Palin, is to elect another Republican administration. Right. At any rate, the conventions are over, and I get my life back.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Edited to Add...

8. I can use a teleprompter, too.

Palin did a good job delivering a good speech that some good speechwriter produced for her. Then again, I'm not surprised that an ex-sportscaster read her lines correctly. Expectations for her were so low she was bound to end up impressing, and she definitely succeeded in energizing the faithful gathered in the Twin Cities. She didn't win me over, even though she was wearing separates. I spent most of the speech marveling at how much she looked like Tina Fey, and then feeling sorry for Tina Fey, and then wishing that Tina Fey were still on SNL so I could see Tina Fey impersonating Palin.

I spent just as much time thinking about the set dressing and how it must have been planned as a stark contrast to last week's gathering in Denver. Most noticable was the preponderance of "hand-made" signs, giving a down home, grassroots feel to the orchestrated propoganda. Everything about the set was anti-slick, and meant to stand in contrast to the well–oiled image machine that was the DNC. While Palin spoke a slide show of national monuments played behind her in a continuous loop, the symbolic Greek columns that backed Obama replaced with specific images that signify nothing other than "America". "We're the party of just folks," it all intimated, "Those other guys are all high falutin. We're just a bunch of hockey moms who stayed up all night making signs with Travis Jr.'s finger paints."

One final thought: the child with Down's syndrome felt like a prop, handed off from Cindy McCain to First Dude to youngest daughter. I really hope this stops.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Campaign that Could Have Been

The more I think about McCain's Vice-Presidential pick, the more I'm convinced that a golden opportunity has been wasted. If he had been aware of my utter lack of qualifications I feel certain that he would have made me his running mate. Palin's no heavyweight, but I've got her underweighted. Here, a small synopsis of what I could have brought to the ticket:

1. Never having served as a mayor or governor, I have even less experience than Palin, and in that sense am even more of a Washington outsider. Who better to lead the Senate, or to take over the reigns once Paw-Paw kicks the bucket, than someone whose entire knowledge of foreign policy and national affairs comes from the New York Times?

2. I'm unmarried and childless, and my pets have both been neutered. No tricky pregnancies in my closets! Plus, my dog loves shaking and kissing babies, which is much better on the campaign trail than a surly, knocked-up teenager.

3. I'm not a Republican and I don't even like McCain. What a bold choice I would have made! Who but a bipartisan maverick would choose a random woman from Pennsylvania (a swing state, mind you) who has never voted for a Republican for President as his running mate? Who needs the Republican base? I can bring in a better base because

4. My breasts are bigger than Palin's.

5. I'm currently "between jobs." As such, I understand the economic pain of the American people. Palin already has a job. I also need the generous health insurance Congress provides to itself and to the administration. If elected, one more American will be insured. Adding me to the ticket would therefore demonstrate McCain's dedication to reducing unemployment and expanding healthcare. These items can then be removed from the platform.

6. I'm Jewish, and taller than Joe Lieberman. I also don't have a wife named "Hadassah." I can pass.

7. As a strong, independent woman, the words "pants suit" have never crossed my lips. I'm the post-Hillary woman, not afraid to campaign in separates.

Maybe it's not too late. Read my blog, John McCain, and pick me. I really am the better choice.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

High and Low

In today's movies one finds two approaches to comedy. On the one hand we have literate and witty characters whose banter surrounds dramatic events; the comedy is a product of character, not of plot. On the other hand we have comedy entirely driven by plot, either in the form of a genre spoof or through a series of untenable, wacky situations. This second approach features type rather than character; the comedy is produced through action or sight gag. One form is "high," descended from Woody Allen, the other is "low," descended from American Pie. Whether you prefer one or the other approach goes simply to taste. One doesn't work better than the other, in theory. Last night, I saw how drastically different the results could be in practice.

I started my comedy double-feature with Smart People, a film that had somehow garnered some decent reviews last spring. It stars Dennis Quaid as a widowed, depressed, misanthropic professor of Victorian literature; Sarah Jessica Parker as a wounded and neurotic doctor, Quaid's ex-student and love interest; Ellen Paige as Quaid's depressive, caustic, Republican daughter; and Thomas Haden Church as Quaid's "zany" brother. I wish someone had given me a call before this script was green-lighted. I could have easily explained that dumpy, overweight, arrogant, pompous, and depressed English professors are not the stuff of comedy but are instead the stuff of nightmare. A complete lack of social skills and of empathy is very hard to make funny. A love story about two people who can't communicate is not engaging. A daughter who reacts to her mother's death by withdrawing from life and becoming a perfectionist right-winger is not "zany." The film didn't succeed as a comedy, and didn't fare much better as drama, since the sum of Quaid's growth as a human was depicted as his ability to sit in the passenger seat of a car. I'm guessing that this was a big thing because his wife perished in an accident where she was a passenger, but this was one of several mysteries that were never explained.

I followed this with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Here we had no pretense to smartness, no pondering of any of life's questions. It was simply a spoof of the rock bio-pick, and it was, in parts, hysterically funny. It would be worth watching for the Dylan impersonation alone, but when you add in an animated riff on Yellow Submarine and scenes from Dewey's 70s television variety show you end up with a complete triumph of the lowbrow. If there's a lesson in all this it's that sometimes it's better to not try so hard, sometimes it's better to aim low. Sometimes, the stupid is all the more pleasurable simply on account of being stupid.

Another high/low contrast awaits me tonight, this time centered on drama: the premier of the new 90120 followed by the premier episode of the last season of The Shield. Whether 90210 will benefit from a lack of ambitions will be the question of the night.