10.31.2004

Fortune Cookie Says, "Love Truth But Pardon Error" or Why I Didn't Cover the Other Debates

I don't know if it was a Chinese, Japanese, or Asian-American fellow (or someone's redneck granny locked in a kitchen closet with nothing else to do) who invented the fortune cookie, but I love them. I'm not fond of the cookie, but the fortunes--like those wonderful, worthless prizes in Cracker Jacks. My favorite fortunes come from a Chinese buffet across the street from a mall, where the main ethnicities eating include Sudanese, Latinos, a handful of Asians, and a smattering of European mutts like myself. It's almost always packed. Maybe they're seeking their fortunes. We all look like we could use some.

The above was an actual cookie quote. It is true, isn't it? But we prefer to love error and pardon truth, no? Especially in politics.

Don't worry. I'm burnt out on politics this is my last post on the matter for a long time. I still love politics in theory but I hate it in practice, mangled by our love for error.

I just visited some folks who have a Bush/Cheney sign in their front lawn. One of their signs had been stolen. When I told them I was fasting for the election, they assumed I meant for Bush.

"You mean you're not fasting for Bush?"

"No," I said, "for peace--peace for our country during post-election blues, peace for Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel and Palestine."

Surprisingly, this upset them. How could I be religious and not vote for Bush? Of course, on the other hand of politics, some religious folk like Jesse Jackson try to tell us, you're only religious if you're a liberal--seriously. He spoke at either the Cleveland or California lectures and said that Moses and Jesus were liberals. I can see a case for Jesus (although you'll find he makes a number of non-liberal remarks like "The poor will always be with us," etc.), but Moses? He's the fellow who brought the law--all those rules that liberals love to hate.

Love truth, pardon error.

My first ever psychology course taught that those of the same ideology who only hang out with the same ideologues become more extreme. You want to know why our nation has become polarized? Look no further. We need outreach and understanding--no more trumped-up charges and deaf ears to other perspectives. As Gail Collins said in "On the Media" [http://www.wnyc.org/onthemedia/transcripts/transcripts_102204_paper2.html], "Most people are happiest reading things that reinforce opinions that they already have."

You can read my post again on Hitler's Blind Spot or watch the film yourself, but the lesson you learn--if you are open to learning--is that the problem is not ideology, but the zealots who use ideology at any cost: because I'm right, I can do whatever I choose. This is what has killed both parties for me: zealots on both sides who think they're so right they can keep Nader off the ballots because of signatures that may or may not be legitimate yet get upset when Republicans question questionable signatures. Or zealots who think they're so right that they tear up Democratic voter registrations.

Love truth, pardon error.

It's not just in this country. Why is the war in Iraq going badly? Listen to this NPR series:

http://www.npr.org/rundowns/segment.php?wfId=4114270

Someone has to let Syrians and other muslims know that this is not a war against them and their religion. If you were an atheist and felt fellow atheists were attacked, you'd probably join the fray, too. Christian, Buddhist, whatever. It doesn't matter. Every religion or atheist philosophy has had zealots performing foolish acts in the name of their belief. What we need are more moderates for outreach and understanding.

I became disenchanted by Bush--not that I was ever particularly enchanted--from the lack of removing whatever was corrupting his government: from the CIA agent exposed to Abu Ghraib, no one was even politely let go. And, according to John Zogby, Bush listened when a zealot discouraged Bush's attempt to create peace between Palestine and Israel. "Take away dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer. Take away wickedness from before the king...."

I became a Kerry fan early this year, preferring his performance at the Iowa primary debate and his online platform, most of which I agreed with. I said then that if he said something egregiously wrong, I might not support him. Science magazine reported Kerry as saying something like, "Science should not be guided by ideology." Mary Shelley? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Jonathan Swift? What did these writers have to say about such kinds of science? But it was not an egregious error, and Barth Anderson said that Kerry later qualified his statement, which put me at ease again.

Kerry was, otherwise, very cautious in his claims, infuriating loyal Democratic zealots, but endearing me. When Dean claimed that Bush caused the Spain bombing and Kerry said that that was not his perspective, I cheered.

Kerry seemed willing to wait for the truth before he made claims. His performance at the debates only reestablished my favor for Kerry. (Cheney, however, proved Edwards a liability, and the media failed to investigate Cheney's claim that Edwards had one of the worst attendance records in the Senate--how can Edwards lead if he's not there? But I would not have been electing Edwards, and Edwards could have later redeemed himself by improving his attendance.)

Love truth, pardon error.

Post debates, I thought President Bush's harping on Kerry raising taxes--when Kerry already said he would not--looked desperate, which I took as a good sign for Kerry's election. However, Kerry took a similar desperate move: He accused Bush of wanting to raise a draft.

Wait.

Who will raise a draft? Who called for more troops in Iraq? Which party's senator sponsored the two Senate bills--S.89 and H.R. 163--to raise a draft? Democratic senator Ernest F. Hollings. How can Democrats blame the draft on Republicans when they sponsor the bill?

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:S.89:

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:H.R.163:

I wanted a cautious candidate for President. Sure, if a draft is drawn, I think it would make more ethical sense for Kerry since he actually went to Vietnam, a vastly less popular war. Bush did not go, so while he has certainly the ability to do so, he has the lesser ethical claim.

But, please, let's deal the American people honestly. If there are plans to open up the draft, who is more likely to do it?

So that's why I'm fasting for peace and not for a particular president: so that peace may come fast.

Good luck to whomever becomes President but know that neither have a mandate to carry out partisan zealotry, so please don't.

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10.29.2004

The Character of Horror and the Myth of the Average Joe

I'm reviewing horror for SFSite.com, and stumbled on a common problem: character, there isn't any. Maybe I'm exaggerating, a little, but too many are written as blank slates. Some beginning writers justify this with saying they want to create an everyman so that anyone can see themselves in the character's shoes, but I think we automatically want to be in a character's shoes--that's why we read. It's not the species or race (almost anything by Hal Clement or Octavia Butler), the sex (The Left Hand of Darkness) or the age (Ender's Game unless you were a preteen when you read it), or the mental capability (Flowers for Algernon), but the logic of the character's actions. If an action makes sense in the context of the environment and capabilities at the character's disposal, the reader will identify.

There are two obvious extremes of characterization (obvious because of their extremity) that help writers to quickly sketch a vividly realized character. One is the crazy or really weird character common to the literary story. Writers do this often to get noticed by a literary magazine, to do something that hasn't been seen. The other is the object or affectation of the character's that distinguishes this character from the others. He's the thin man, the fat man, the girl with the bone through her nose, the three-legged dog, the boy who stutters.

But neither rendering has much to do with character except that they both quickly sketch what a character appears to be, but appearances don't capture the reality of a character. Actions characterize the character (or, in the case of Hamlet, inaction, which is still an act). Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy begins with an everyman who loves his daughter, who describes the love he has of his daughter's smell. It captures the sentiment of the character and, therefore, why we should follow this character through hell to chase after his daughter.

We are all characters. That is, we differ from one another. Often we may see ourselves as average, but the world sees us differently, sees us as we cannot see ourselves. We all have annoyances. Consider the divorce rate in our country. The way you hold your mouth or speak out the side of it may charm me, but aggravate the piss out of someone else. The way you crunch potato chips at volumes of a television commercial may annoy me, but strike someone else as humorous.

The protagonist in Stephen King's Bag of Bones was so unadorned as to be rendered invisible. It may be no coincidence that the ghost was illustrated in the original hardcover. She was the only vividly realized character. (This isn't to say that King can't do character, as you can see from "Low Men in Yellow Coats" from Hearts in Atlantis.) My suspicion is that King based the character in Bag of Bones too much on himself without ever having looked at himself from the outside to see what made King King.

This may be what happened to these horror stories. We believe ourselves the everyman, the average joe. But that are many layers to us that await discovery (which is why I react strongly to those uninterested in self- or character-discovery). It requires a strong constitution and a hard, honest look to peel back those layers, sometimes complex, sometimes simple: Is your character so vocally against prejudice because he's prejudiced? Is your character homophobic because he's gay? Is he cruel to her because he doesn't want to admit he loves her? Does she aggravate him to be cruel to her because she feels she doesn't deserve to be loved? Does your character walk into a coffee shop to drink coffee or to be seen? Does he attend Republican conventions and listen to Rush Limbaugh to brown-nose his boss? Does she attend liberal rallies or rail against simplified Republicans in order to look cool with her liberal friends?

The questions of life are hard to answer because they are sensitive. It may be you aren't interested in answering in them. That's cool. You may be a plot man or a big-idea man. If so, write to your strengths. Do you write cool, weirdnesses that crop up in the world? Then skip straight to them. Drop the sections where you extensively describe human relations outside the speculation. If you do plot, skip straight to the roller coaster ride.

It is possible to get just as deep as a character writer through plot or idea. Actually, idea writers are usually a little deeper in the profound questions about life and society, but sometimes the story gets neglected when the focus is only on the ideas. The important thing is to be the writer you are, not the writer people say is the cool thing to be. If you prefer reading plot-oriented fiction, chances are you should write it. Don't let anyone tell you speculatively oriented fiction is any less profound than literary because there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

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10.27.2004

Back in the good old days when television was a virtue...

"I didn't used to do things like [wax over her partner and good friend into large octagonal cells]. I used to be more patient, didn't I? More appreciative of a diverse spectrum of human possibility. More interested in sex and television."

--Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" in her new collection from Tachyon.

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10.20.2004

If you have just a little minor idiosyncrasy

you must be destined for mediocrity," writes Mark Rich in his story "Idiosynchronicity," published in the Small Beer press chapbook, Foreigners and Other Familiar Faces. Later, "I must make a practice of being a stranger to everyone."

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10.18.2004

Saving Fiction & other news items discussed

Maud Newton blogs on Ken Smith’s Junk English, which is dead-on but also can potentially be dead wrong--synonyms are not always exact matches, for they have sounds, contexts, and shades of meaning that almost never allow a 1 to 1 exchange rate.

Philip Jackson wrote in to say he has a new Robert Sheckley fan site up. It discusses a number of Sheckley stories and novels. Speaking of Sheckley's influence on others, BBC has the classic Infocom game online: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Screenwriter Ray Rhamey wrote in to say he had something further to add on the Anne Rice affair this coming Monday.

Sherwood Smith talks further about "Reader Investment": emotional involvement. Alexander Payne takes the unconventional wisdom on this matter.

Maud Newton asks, "Self-fulfilling prophecy: is fiction really dead or are publishers killing it?" Despite my love for the local bookstore which had two stacks of Through Ultraviolet Eyes by Clarion chum Stephen Woodworth (whose second novel, With Red Hands, is due in December), I wondered if chain-bookstores aren't also culpable and, thereby, singing the same old swan song: the aforementioned desire for the quick gain. I was recently informed of bookstores promising not to carry first novels in hardcover. Won't this kill the careers of the more methodical first-time novelists? Before, when the paperback came out, readers could be reminded of an author's name the second time around. Now the market appears to favor the prolific. Although the prolific certainly do write quality and slow-brewed is not necessarily indicative of quality, those who stew over works can take the time to bring in a certain quality. Perhaps this will have no effect on either type of writer, but--while I love all book stores, chain or independent--should a chain-store's descision bode ill for the fiction market, readers/customers should be prepared to respond. The Book Guys discuss ways to support the independent bookstores and to encourage reading locally--ideas that would bode well for chains as well, not to mention writers.

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10.16.2004

Che & Change

One of the most intriguing facets of The Motorcycle Diaries is how often it's almost trivially distorted by the critics (and here, too). Some will downplay its obvious political stance as "nonpolitical," presumably because of their lack of enchantment with either Che's methods or philosophy which flies in the face of their otherwise inexplicable appreciation of the film. Others will mock the movie for its commerciality (i.e. not radical Che enough) despite, according to one source, the material coming directly from Che's diary at the time. And another class of critics will overplay the movie's value as "layered" or "subtle" presumably because it's about Che, which means we must gear into automatic movie-love.

(Why do we love or hate art because of its politics? Although art can convey political beliefs, politics is not art, so those who love or hate because of politics must have a rather low appreciation of art--not to mention an amazingly undaunted ability to flaunt their vaunting intolerance.)

How can I load these attributions into their critiques? Because the film is simple. It's a story of two young men who go on a trip up the continent of South America. It's charming and humorous. The two ride through patches of snow that Alberto calls just a little frost not to be worried about, and in the next scene they're forced to push the overloaded motorcycle through a foot of snow. They chase women and get chased by the men who are married to them. Broke, they con mechanics into fixing their motorcycles by posing as famous doctors traveling through the continent.

If not beating you over the head with its political ideology is "subtle," what a sad state our politics is in. And "layered?" With what? Frosting?

What it is is a film about how a man became another man--transformed by what he saw and experienced on the road to do a medical internship at a leper colony. This is how we experience change. We do experience change. And is there anything else worth talking about?

My film companion and I were quite pensive after the film on two matters. We discussed our own life changes--changes you don't see until you're looking back at who you were just a few years before. I'd received a phone call from a college friend who described the man I was and am so unfamiliar with now. The companion described his recent changes. We conjectured that those who are settled in their ways may not change, but how interesting could their life stories be if they don't change, aren't transformed by the world?

Of course, the other matter is slightly tangential but political in nature--yet both of our minds struck upon it independently: How is it that corporate greed drives after ever larger slices of the economy? Isn't it clear that they will drive the middle class into poverty, devaluing their own wealth and the country's? Isn't it clear the larger the middle class, the stronger the nation's economy, and the more wealth the rich can accumulate, albeit over a longer time frame?

I just don't understand how they are blind to this, crashing and burning companies for hasty gains. Nobody but the envious and power-hungry care that the rich get richer, but we all care what greed does to the welfare of a nation's peoples. If the rich won't try to curb get-rich-quick lust, they're just an election away from having their money voted away. Consider this proverb:

"He that oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he that gives to the rich, shall surely come to want."

See other apropos thoughts on hasting to riches in 20:21, 28:20, 28:22. This public service announcement was brought to you by the concerned.

xxoo

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10.15.2004

I don't know how he does it & other poetic matters

Matthew Cheney's prolific observation inspires admiration and makes me want to respond but also to quit the blogging business in deference to his completist coverage. The most I can ever manage is detailed observation about a few items.

Oddly, we're almost always on the same wavelength. We both thought about the place of experiment around the same period (I was inspired by something Dan Green had written about formula, he by something Jeff Vandermeer had written). I'd pulled down Delany's collection to read and viola--Matt says he's thinking about blogging on Delany's stories. It's uncanny.

And now about the Rhysling anthology, which I'm slowly reading through for a review at SFSite.com. I hope Matt doesn't mind that I disagree, however, on a few points.

Cheney points out Blackston's review, which is quite thoughtful but at times I felt not entirely accurate--particularly in regards to Bruce Boston's poetry.

There is a connection to Stevens in all of Boston's work--that's definitely true in his unabashed use of abstraction in the concrete, a technique that Stevens developed well but is, sadly, poorly evoked by beginning poets. But "The Crow Is Dismantled in Flight" did not feel very Stevens to me. Boston is way too evocative to be closely associated with Stevens. In fact, Boston seems very Boston to me--a poet with a clear voice of his own.

Cheney also mischaracterizes Boston with "Bruce Boston... I associate primarily with an interminable series of jokey poems about famous monsters' wives."

This truly misses what Boston achieved with The Complete Accursed Wives, which is the finest speculative themed collection of poems that I've ever read. What Cheney doesn't realize is that Boston subverted the SF poetry industry. The premiere magazine of science fiction was primarily publishing joke poems of zero consequence. But it was popular with the lay folk who have not been turned on to the charms of good poetry, so maybe this helps engender interest in poetry through the back door. Boston took what he called "Populist" poetry and turned it into something meaningful, examining the married life through speculative tropes. I'm disappointed that these poems have been short-changed for their powerful subversion while under the lousy conditions of this subgenre. Like any good poet worth his salt, he works with what he's got--no matter how limiting the conditions.

Please do not short-change Boston's achievement. Sure, he sometimes writes jokey poems that never amount to much, but he can "write the insides" of poems, which this particular Rhysling anthology does not do a lot of, unfortunately. The last quote is from Dozois. Dozois was referring to Russ' complaint about Zelazny whom she felt could not write the inside of a story. This complaint can easily be pointed at SF poetry field.

Moreover, I've never seen the inside of a genre poem so incredibly well-written as the poem that finishes his Pitchblende collection. I've reviewed several of Boston's collection at SF Site:

http://sfsite.com/revus/revuboston.htm

I've reviewed several others that I never finished polishing--and now lost forever, I'm afeared, amidst several other reviews and fictions and poetries, on a computer that died on me. As Gordon Van Gelder sayeth, "Alas."

By the way, my favorite for short poems is Mike Allen's "How I Will Outwit the Time Thieves," which is simultaneously written with a speculative outside and a deeper inside. (Roger Dutcher writes a fine poem up until the end while Boston writes a beautiful end. Maybe they ought to combine forces.)

My favorite long poem so far has been Boston's precisely because he writes on the inside although I had to reread it to be certain (strangely, the poem does not finish strongly, which made think that, unlike Cheney, there ought to have been more to come--I suppose Boston could have taken the poem in either direction more successfully if inspired). Theodora Goss' is marginally better written on the outside but less so on the inside--moreover, while it makes motions toward emotion (in fact, it is specifically about the different masks of one's emotions), it isn't quite as effective at directly rendering the emotions it speaks of. Yet it is without doubt a poem of note--which is the only kind of poem I'm bothering to mention here. Sandra Lindow has another poem of great emotive quality, which seems to be her strength.

This process takes awhile since I have to read the poems enough times to get the entire poem in my head at once to see if any structural resonance occurs. Maybe I'll get done this weekend. (But don't hold your breath.)

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10.14.2004

Anne Rice Prophesy Fulfilled

According to an NY TIMES article, I correctly predicted that the Anne Rice controversy would sell more books:

Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble... said [that] "Blood Canticle" had sold 20 percent more copies than Ms. Rice's previous vampire book, "Blackwood Farm."

Anne Rice, however, goes on to elaborate her misunderstanding of what a good editor does:

"When you take home a CD of Pavarotti or Marilyn Horne, you don't want to hear another voice blended in. I feel the same way about Hemingway. If I read it, I don't want to read a new edited version."

Ah, but if the conductor notes that Pavarotti has sung the wrong note or key in rehearsal, should the conductor not inform Pavarotti of the mistake?

Hemingway is also a poor choice since he was rather ruthless about editing.

A good editor informs writers of troublesome errors, worthless tangents, unnecessary repetitions--small and large--and so forth. The voice is not to be tampered with--unless it's off-key or otherwise problematic and inconsistent.

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10.13.2004

The Cosmic Perspective

Living on Earth had an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He had a number of comments shared by the SF community (as distinguished from the more generally speculative) that makes me wonder if their perspective isn't a universal for any lover of the cosmos: to see the world from the point of view of the greater universe, which leads them to translate this idea to a human level.

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, puts this idea into present practicality in his Chautauqua lecture today. Invaluable.

***

In other, more mystical news, you can vacation in ghoulish style.

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The Big Empty

Here's an independent film worth watching for a couple or so of reasons:

1) Support new and talented directors.

2) It's quirky. Not quite up to the solid art of Donnie Darko--a first film masterpiece--yet not the usual Hollywood fare that we could use more of.

3) The talented Kelsey Grammer and Daryl Hannah are completely transformed that you ask if they're really the same actors.

4) If you're a writer, you'll want to listen to the deleted scene commentary--excellent stuff. If you're a director wannabe, you'll want to listen to the movie commentary.

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BBC and the Near Impossibility of the Representation of Nations

It's curious how much more literary the programming is on BBC. NPR has an occasional literary guest star who might have made the best-seller list, but almost never a story reading--let alone a dramatization. After all, 5% of the American public reads, so maybe a little programming could be devoted to it. There's a ton of jazz programming, which is cool, but a little disproportionate to its listenership--perhaps. Maybe, given that another station plays almost all classical music, they're trying to off-set the rock quotient on the other channels.

But if it's because jazz is an American institution of art that it's well-covered, why not the short story? Surely, the short story fills a similar role--if not SF as well. Although it began outside the U.S. and exists in other countries, it has flowered here--a curious phenomenon due to its underlying international thematic intent.

Also of note when thinking of the BBC is their portrayal of Americans. We're a mix-n-match. One show that takes place in the Northeast will play Bluegrass music. Character accents range the American geography: mixing Jersey accents with a Southern drawl.

I guess my accent is a little mix-n-match, too, having lived throughout the U.S. and ineluctably taking up the local flavors--as a joke at first, then as a part of my permanent speech. Even so it's still a matter of intensity. I will always sound Yankee to the deep Southerners--no matter that I was born in the South and have lived for extended periods in several of their sometime rebel-yearning states.

Possibly, it's impossible for an outsider to characterize a nation's biases without living inside it. For instance, locally, the town of Council Bluffs is known affectionately as Council-tucky. If you aren't aware of national prejudices towards Kentucky (Bluegrass land), then you probably aren't aware of how the locals feel about the town across the river.

For whatever reason, immigrant Sudanese have settled here, smack in the middle of the U.S. One came on the radio waves talking about the different dialects of Sudan and the misperception of their country all speaking the same. And, of course, the U.S. is probably just as laughably guilty of mixing up Australian, British, Scottish, Irish accents--let alone all the variants so charmingly elucidated in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

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10.11.2004

Derrida dies

I discussed some of his influential ideas on literature here.

Although you often hear you have to read him in French, he's great fun in English, too, which he knew pretty well--in fact, if memory serves, some of his works were originally delivered in English.

I've found some of his work logically problematic, basing his principles on ideas of, say, science that rely on misperceptions of science. I think, too, sometimes even he is snared in his own verbal trickery.

That said, I love reading his work--very clever, very slow-going but rapturous to read--which can be poweful as a tool. Unfortunately, like all criminals, some academics tranform tools into bludgeons, trying to mangle perfectly well-built edifices of art in order to reconstruct another misshapen edifice from a single tool. Imagine building a house with only a hammer. Reading academic papers, one encounters an abundance of such narrow misapplications of theory.

Derrida, though, and his further contributions to thought will be missed.

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10.07.2004

Debate Style and Other Extracurricular Activities

These things always take longer than I expect, so I'll split them in half. The medium is important to the subconscious, but it can be a mistake to put too much emphasis on style, lest it backfire later on, as I think it may have already.

On the TV I watched, I gave style largely to Edwards because I thought Cheney's tie looked like one of those sickly pale things that Kerry sometimes wears that makes him look drained of blood. Pale colors are fine if mixed with the proper colors, but not with his present suits. I'm not the only guy commenting on Kerry's attire (Daniel Pinkwater humorously discusses the less substantive points of choosing candidates), but I mention only in the hope that someone in his party just lucks across this and helps him choose the right color--someone neither fashion-impaired nor fashion-coked. Luckily, no one's wearing those obnoxious monstrosities that Rush Limbaugh was promoting back in the early nineties. It must have been a show of Republican solidarity to buy one, but it took enormous guts to actually wear the entire noon-day Amazon in office--polarized sunglasses might have dimmed the permanent retinal damage they inflicted upon viewers. Most guys were wearing ugly ties that season, anyway, I guess. But I later saw the Cheney tie on the internet in its proper color and approve of its non-paleness.

60 Minutes did a fluff piece on Edwards at the beginning of the year--the only substantive remark of which I remember was "He's not just another pretty face," from which we're supposed to think only of his pretty face, lacking any other substance from the context of conversation. I didn't think it so pretty(I somehow doubt Edwards would be offended by my judgement). He didn't land any punches at the Iowa primary debates that I saw, so he must have some kind of allure. He does have great teeth that help his winning smile, so he might smile a little more often but not so much that he comes off insipid.

He picked up his children for what looked like a photo-op, but I suspect most saw only the love he has for his kids, which translates into a net gain. More impressive, however, was what may have been not only Cheney's daughter but her lover on stage with the vice president. If Bush weren't so outspoken on the subject, it might have lost the Republican pious-pharisee vote, I mean, a few of the religious right, but it might have also have gained a few of the less polarized homosexual vote. I give Cheney several points for blurring the artificial party lines this way, but I suspect most Americans only saw the children onstage.

Kerry ought to have had his daughters on stage after his debate as well, which I forgot to mention earlier. I don't know why I feel it so important, but a family that loves and supports your candidacy ranks high on my list subconscious voting techniques.

Republicans had the opportunity to reverse the damage, if any, that "Faces of Frustration" had by putting out a video of their own: "Eyeblinks of Frustration." If you weigh debates by style alone and you're a Democrat, you'd have gotten burned for touting that video as the soles means of gauging victory. But for lack of Republican insight or their lack of stylistic interest, I didn't hear about any such video.

Yesterday, On the Media, a radio program on NPR, spoke of Kerry's "respectful smile"--even though it came out of the same emotional place as Bush's many grimaces. Otherwise, it's an informative program although one piece earlier had the same correspondent trying to talk the media out of balanced coverage by citing the problems of covering global warming--a problem easily resolved by pointing out that only 1 in 50 (or however many) scientists in the field actively oppose the theory.

Where Edwards shone was at the beginning and ending of the debate. He had little new material to add that Kerry hadn't already said, but he came out swinging which probably helped invigorate his party for a verbal spar. Even more of interest to those of us moved by fiction is his use of narrative technique to close, employing emotively charged imagery to help stamp home his positions. Cheney mostly rambled over his main points again.

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10.06.2004

Don Webb on Writers

I'll take a crack at the debate tonight, but first I'd like to quote from Don Webb. These may not be his exact views, but I've read enough similar themes towards writers, especially beginning ones, that it's fairly safe to claim Webb shares the views. He sounds almost as cantankerous as Harlan Ellison--although he can't be too cantankerous since he teaches fiction through an extension of UCLA.

My favorite Webb story so far has been "Our Novel" in the May 2002 issue of F&SF, in which a bunch of beginning writers kill a mid-list author and eat him because they realize he'd been running a con game to prey upon their hungry egos. After eating the author, the newbies co-write a bestseller together, but afterwards cannot write a single worthwhile story. I'll leave the surprise--if I haven't already given it away--for some enterprising F&SF collector to uncover.

This theme of great writing by chance returns in "The Literary Fruitcake" [from A Spell for the Fulfillment of Desire, published by FC2] wherein a fruitcake has been passed through many famous literary hands from Dickens to Burroughs, et al, only to be stolen by a burgler/graffiti artist who eats and suddenly composes works of genius on the city walls of Austin.

My favorite line comes from a vignette interestingly and at times effectively designed narrative though it doesn't pull together as a story: "One Hundred" published by Chris Drumm--it comes as a mini-chapbook bundled with the signed chapbook mentioned in the previous entry below (follow the link in that entry to order).

In this story, "you," an aspiring author--or the reader of this chapbook perhaps--has been attempting to be "a writer," mostly without writing ("You begin a journal with the theory that writing something is writing" although some poets would disagree with the irony in that line):

"You come across the May 15 entry made in the New York Public library when you went up to eight people and asked them why they were here. Six were researching for their novels, one was researching for his dissertation, and one was there to read."

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10.05.2004

The Creative Block: Mary Helen Stefaniak, Harlan Ellison, Don Webb, Fellini

I spent a few minutes chatting with Mary Helen Stefaniak after her reading last Thursday. We discussed a few of her bad reviews that showed the reviewers' lack of actually reading the novel. (Every time I thought she'd made a mistake, I'd reread to find that not only did the author say the right thing, she said it admirably. I'll demonstrate this kind of reviewer folly soon--from the Washington Post, no less.)

But this prompted her to say, "You shouldn't read reviews, anyway--good or bad." [quotes are faked approximations for dramatic effect only]

"Really?" I said. "Why?"

"You don't want to be influenced on your next novel. If someone says your work is too complex, you don't want to force the narrative into a simplistic something it's not supposed to be."

I wasn't sure if I agreed entirely--assuming the writer had some control over how such criticisms affected him--but it raises a good point. I asked if she'd seen Fellini's 8 1/2, and she laughed and said she had.

Criticism is the principle to apply after the creative process has taken its course through to the end of a story. Some people call this switching the editor (or critic) on and off. While this is important to keep in mind, I don't think one should ever fully turn either the creator or the editor-critic destroyer off. A story's mythical "soul" can be revised out if the creator isn't there to inform the aesthetics. And if you leave the creator burbling without the destroyer's presence in the distant background, you're likely ramble or circle the woods lost.

The creative block comes from giving the destroyer too much power--What a stupid idea for a story, or That story doesn't have a shred of heart or intellect in it, or...--so that you never get around to the process of creating. If you have too much destroyer, you need to tell it to take a hike, get lost, scram. You are free to write utter crap. Leslie What had a great article on writer's block in the SFWA Bulletin--highy recommended.

Another creativity-liberation method I found useful was reading Harlan Ellison. While Ellison may use words to destroy, his artistic method is pure free-wheeling imagination let loose [the creator] to be reined in [the destroyer] to make the story come together .

Don Webb can also rein in a story, especially in his professional publications, but much of his small press work just lets imagination flap at full throttle--cobbled with a last-second ending. I can't explain how freeing it is to read his work. You don't ask: Where are you going with this? It doesn't matter. Okay, so it isn't going to be remembered--big deal. Let's just see where it takes us. Let's just enjoy the fleeting sense of wonder.

Perhaps the most obvious example is "Brother B___ His Story" from the Chris Drumm [email] chapbook The Bestseller and Other Tales, copies of which you can probably still order for $5 [although the site hasn't been updated in years, the information is still accurate, last I checked].

B___ drives a streetsweeper on his routine in the shapes of various calligraphy letters, making up his own alphabet. The story minutely details the routine of his life for three+ pages and ends thus:

On the day of the accident B___ was struck by divine madness. B___ conceived a new character with flowing graceful arcs. He drove his sweeper across Avondale Elementary School lot and into one of the temporary classrooms in back. He destroyed the classroom, seven elementary schoolchildren, his sweeper and himself. B___ was 47 and will be remembered a long time in our city.

Would I give this a good review if I were reviewing it? Probably not. But it's a liberator of your creativity to shuck off the destroyer long enough to create. It empowers the creator.

Fellini's 8 1/2 had similar troubles. The director is hounded by his producers to produce, by his mistress to love and give a job to her husband, by his wife to love and make his art more accurate to real life if he's going to use real life, by his critic to produce something more meaningful, by the church to produce something with accurate religious themes, by the media to produce something without religious themes, by actors to give them jobs and tell them what to do, and by women to produce works of love, etc. Ironically, the film is all about Fellini's love, even if it isn't depicted in terms that would make anyone swoon in romantic ecstasy. One of Fellini's real life confidantes tells the audience of Fellini's wisdom: "Love, sex, marriage, and friendship are four things that have nothing to do with each other." Yet every character in the movie mixes these together and places high expectations on the director, so that his progress is stymied.

It is only by saying--on with the show!--that Fellini breaks through these expectations to produce a work of art. The flaws are a part of what makes the art art. There's plenty of irony in all these criticisms: in stating them, they become no longer valid. The weaknesses are now strengths.

I'm reminded of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"--just remembered from watching Little Black Book, a movie with all the charm of an episode of Friends or any other sitcom that thrives on silly misunderstandings that don't need to happen (read "charm" with ironic inflection). Simon sings, "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you." But if someone really thought the song was about them, they couldn't be too vain because they'd have a modicum of humility enough to acknowledge the criticism.

Likewise, the criticism of using or not using religion and the criticism of movies without love are simultaneously acknowledged by showing that the director as a boy being punished for his erotic fantasy for a hefty woman dancer, which tamps down his demonstration of love for women. He critiques religion in this regard yet continues to reconcile with and show respect for religion. It is a curious complexity that only achieves realism through seemingly contradictory but truly understandable coexisting oppositions. When embracing the creator/destroyer complexity of who he is, of what the story is--the creative blocked by too much destroyer--the director is able to celebrate with his new understanding--a consolidation of it all into one happy melee of life's divine madness.

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10.01.2004

Debate Fares Better Than Expected

Why talk about the debate here? Much of character is about subtext, and there is some interesting subtext in the debate that never got explored on the programs I watched or read about that I'll go into here.

The only way to assess the debate fairly is to step away from partisanship. If you're partisan, please don't read. You'll only get upset when I challenge your party favorite. I do have some bias, true, having decided for whom to cast my vote, yet being independent of either party, I feel free to break with that decision, especially if I hear something that contradicts my news sources which have a slight bias in favor of Kerry. That said, I hold no animosity toward Bush--a position necessary for anyone wanting to discuss the issues rationally and weigh the campaigners' statements.

I was surprised at the split screen, showing candidates' expressions as the other talked. I liked the procedure but thought it was prohibited by the rules of no response shots. It was nice to see when the candidates expressed disapproval. Bush expressed his grimly while Kerry was often stoic but sometimes seemed a little smug. Bush lost a point for being a little too eager to respond a time or two, wanting to pick up immediately when Kerry stopped. Although I may have been distracted at the moment not to notice, Kerry might have as well--the way the transcript reads.

Two polls showed Kerry leading in the "win" category although I thought it a draw overall, which surprised me. Prior to the debate I expected Kerry to come out on top with a handful of zingers--on the main debate, I agree with McCain that there were no zingers, but on one tangent, Kerry did land one that I haven't heard any place weight on--perhaps for good reason.

Post-debate discussion at ABC was more slanted toward Kerry in their approach. NBC had little bias, asking great questions, but I didn't much care for their implied approach of seeing Kerry as the underdog going in.

Jim Lehrer asked good, sharp questions. The transcript can be found here.

Neither candidate answered the first two questions. In fact Lehrer had to ask some questions twice. Instead, both wanted to get their main messages out, A.S.A.P. Lehrer ought to have just said, "Gobbledy-gook?" to let the candidates air opinions until they were ready to roll with the questions.

Lehrer: Do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?

Kerry proceeded to describe how he would have handled Iraq. It may be that Kerry did answer the question, implying that handling Iraq well will prevent another terrorist attack here in the U.S. Kerry claimed to bring in a more international alliance into Iraq although NBC quite rightly asked how he could when several nations said they would not go in. He made vague the mention of more preparations for Iraq elections, but not what. His best point was "reaching out to the muslim world." How he would do this, he did not say, but at one point he did suggest that people look at his plan outlined at JohnKerry.com.

Bush trotted out his list of success stories like Libya and friends.

Lehrer: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

Bush didn't answer this, but he did seem honest about the hardships on the American soldier in Iraq. Kerry trotted out his list of military supporters and said he thought he would have done a better job at getting bin Laden: "The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too."

Lehrer: [asking Kerry to explain a vague statement earlier] What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

Kerry mentions Bush's campaign promise to use war as a last resort, alliance was not international, Hussein was not as dangerous as bin Laden, and no more inspections. The first two are good points, and the third is a good point but hindsight is 20/20. The fourth point on inspections is problematic. I'm not sure what happened to the scandal with the oil for food program. The U.N. had no plans to enforce Iraq violations. So for my money, we ought to have been more worried about how perpetual sanctions would affect the average citizens of Iraq. Perhaps for some, there was a vested interest in keeping sanctions in place.

Bush came up with a surprise for me: "My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat." I didn't know that. So that takes away Kerry's thunder on comparing Hussein to bin Laden. Bush raised a good point about Hussein's continued deception (apparently perceived) of inspections. And the inspections had been going on for about a decade.

Lehrer: What about Senator Kerry's point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Bush made a good point--"we can do both"--and a bad verbal slip. He mixed up Hussein and bin Laden, seemingly admitting Kerry's point.

Kerry pointed out a lack of a plan for Iraq after war, cast doubt on our ability to do both by pointing that troops had to be diverted from Afghanistan (although a general should verify whether this diversion prevented our capture of bin Laden). Another good point was about families having to buy "state-of-the-art body gear" for their sons. Why should that be? Nobody pointed out Kerry's verbal slip--at least I hope it was a slip: "we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border [of Iraq presumably from context] every single day." Does he believe WMD are still out there?

Lehrer: [politely rephrasing his first question] As president, what would you do, specifically, in addition to or differently to increase the homeland security of the United States than what President Bush is doing?

Kerry said increasing cops, firehouses, better tunnels and bridges, and inspections at ports.

Bush said he has increased border patrol, changed FBI's priorities toward the threat of terrorism, and made a offense as important as defense. Bush touted the Patriot Act.

Here opponents seemed to want to talk about taxes.


Lehrer: What criteria would you use to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq?

Bush said when Iraq had control of its country. A free Iraq does wonderful things for security in Middle East and U.S. NBC reported that Bush's figure of 100,000 Iraq security forces was off by almost half due to having to turn some candidates away, presumably operatives of the opposition.

Kerry did not mention his exit strategy although he has campaigned on this issue. Presumably, it's at his website, but I didn't find it with an admittedly cursory look. A search function might be helpful. He talked about bringing in more allies and the need to be more vigilant about guarding sensitive areas in Iraq: "We didn't guard the nuclear facilities. We didn't guard the foreign office, where you might have found information about weapons of mass destruction. We didn't guard the borders." I've already pointed out a similar interesting statement two questions above.

Lehrer: [Comparing Kerry's experiences of Vietnam to Iraq] Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

Kerry: No. Saddam was a threat, but a series of things should have happened before entering the war. Bush should have listened to his Army chief of staff about more troops and to Secretary General Kofi Annan when he offered the United Nations.

Bush mentions the Iraq war was more than just unilateral with 30 nations involved. Kerry says that their involvement is not nearly that of ours, but then when isn't UN forces mostly composed of the U.S.? Which is not to denigrate the UN's involvement which would be more of a show of unanimity.

Throughout Bush brought up the worry of sending a variety of mixed messages. I don't think Kerry has mixed agendas, but I must admit thinking that he had changed his mind. I suspect this comes from tailoring your message to specific groups that later get broadcast to the general public. I don't think the flip-flopping allegation stuck well in this debate.

Lehrer: [to Bush] You have said there was a, quote, "miscalculation," of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq. What was the miscalculation, and how did it happen?

This didn't get the candidates to say much of interest except what I said about Kerry's assessment of alliances in the question above, moved up for comparison.


Lehrer: You've repeatedly accused President Bush -- not here tonight, but elsewhere before -- of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

Kerry repeats his message from the question about "the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein." Bush did do some interesting turning the tables on the question--giving no new information, but reversing the question so that Bush does not think that Kerry was misleading on whether we should go into the war in Iraq. The transcript reads as though maybe Kerry had tried to rebut Bush a little early, but I may have been distracted to notice as it played out on screen. Either that or Lehrer had assumed Bush was finished before he was.

Lehrer: Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?

Bush and later Kerry both turned this potentially difficult question into a touchy feely one about nobility and sacrifice. I was a little worried about Kerry's response regarding faster training for Iraqi security. I'd heard some experts suggest that their security hadn't been getting enough training. I liked the ring of his statement "it is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors," which I take to mean we the people taking our frustrations with the war out on the troops as happened with Vietnam although I could be mistaken. But it had a ring that rolled around in my head for a minute.

Lehrer: [to Kerry, perhaps returning the favor of asking the same question he put to Bush] Can you give us specifics, in terms of a scenario, time lines, et cetera, for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?

Kerry: "I didn't say I would bring troops out in six months. I said, if we do the things that I've set out and we are successful, we could begin to draw the troops down in six months." I liked how Kerry suggested we let the Iraqis know we have no long term designs on Iraq, but I'm not sure this is an impression that can be erased by any reassurance of an invader, no matter how well intentioned. He pointed out the design of bases giving the wrong impression to some. Departing a little, he said we ought "not back off of the Fallujahs." I've heard some Iraqis wanting swift action taken on this issue, but others wanted more diplomacy.

The only new point Bush made worth mentioning was "One of his campaign people alleged that Prime Minister Allawi was like a puppet." The Kerry campaign probably ought to keep its mitts on Bush and his campaign and away from people Kerry may have to work with.

Lehrer: [to Bush but follows up with a similar question to Kerry] Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?

Both agreed that it may be important for the security of the nation. Otherwise, not much here except two moments of being less candid:

Bush: "When I was running -- when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that. " I was under the impression that that was one of the priorities of his administration--to curtail the fear of Saddam's determination to develop WMD.

Kerry: Bush "just said, 'The enemy attacked us.' " I didn't find where Bush said this.

Kerry did make a good point: "Thirty-five to forty countries in the world had a greater capability of making weapons at the moment the president invaded than Saddam Hussein. And while he's been diverted..., North Korea's gotten nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous."

Lehrer: Do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran?

Bush: Multilateral talks
Kerry: Multi- AND bilateral talks
Bush: Bilateral talks will let North Korea walk away from the multilateral table.
Kerry: No, it won't.

I wondered why sanctions and diplomacy couldn't have worked for Iraq as well, but then it had gone through a decade of such.

Lehrer: neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops.

Kerry: Army is overstretched, but we can offer logistical support.
Bush: Impose sanctions and U.S. is leading donor of aid.

Here's something much of the media isn't talking about: Kerry spoke of increasing active duty and special forces but enrollment I'd heard was down. Bush in his closing statement said he wanted only an all-volunteer army. Does that mean that Kerry would require a draft and not Bush? or that Kerry believes an active ad campaign for more troops for the young will be productive? Or is Bush not being realistic about military need for troops?

Lehrer: Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?

Here comes Kerry's unexpected zinger. Bush really relaxed during this question that he let his guard down to say something that Kerry capitalized upon. Is it important? It will depend upon the woman.

Bush was generous with Kerry's character as a soldier (unlike one analyst at ABC said, Bush has had kind words for Kerry before), as a father, and as a politician although he disagreed with his policies. (I think he was hoping for a laugh from the audience, but they were silent as instructed although Kerry did grin when Bush said, "I won't hold it against him that he went to Yale.") The character criticism was a repetition of the mixed messages mentioned above.

Kerry was also kind. Although he only specifically mentioned admiring Bush's wife, he admitted chuckling with(?) his daughters. Kerry's criticism was of Bush's certainty, to which Bush responds that certainty coupled with tactics that shift as necessary.

The zinger?

BUSH: I'm trying to put a leash on them.
KERRY: I've learned not to do that.

This was a joke although what Bush wanted to put a metaphorical leash on his daughters for is unclear. If you watch the footage, you see Bush's humor and relaxation evaporate. What women will load into this statement could be telling. Some will dismiss it as a joke, some will hold on to it as a gender-charged issue. But I think it does show a difference in both's parenting styles. What does that mean? This little unguarded moment may tell more than most of the rest of the debate. But I would hate to hear people make too much of it one way or another.

Lehrer: If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?

Kerry had absolutely no hesitation on this response: nuclear proliferation--although he did later include WMD to match Bush's more general concern. He's worried about Russia's weapons falling into terrorist hands and our developing bunker busters which also use some nuclear material although it is supposed to be somehow more focused in effect. There was an article on this Popular Mechanics (or Popular Science?).

Bush said WMD in the hands of terrorists and that missle defense was necessary.

Lehrer: Did you misjudge [President Putin and Russia] or... do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?

Both oppose. Bush commends Putin for being a valuable ally against terrorism. Kerry seemed a little more critical and tails back off into his position on North Korea. (I forget whether this was repetition or his wanting to get a word back in on the subject.)

***

A final criticism of both debaters is that sometimes a sentence was all that was needed to rebut, especially after already having had one rebuttal. I suspect both these guys as students would fill all white space offered for their essay questions. Sometimes the succinct, well-put sentence is worth more than watering it down with other words. Since it is an oral medium, it may pay to repeat the statement once if the debater felt it necessary.

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