Thursday, 21 August 2008

Is the semicolon girlie?

Writers and Salon book critics debate the idea that some punctuation marks are more feminine than others.

Aug. 21, 2008 | Recently someone asked me what my favorite punctuation mark was. I did not even hesitate. The semicolon. Duh. To me, the semicolon has a certain elegance, like a vodka martini; I don't whip it out every day, but on occasion, and with great relish. So it was with shock that I read a recent Boston Globe article suggesting that my favorite punctuation mark is ... girlie? An excerpt:

The credit probably belongs to Trevor Butterworth, who in 2005 -- citing Truss as partial inspiration -- wrote a 2,700-word essay on the semicolon in the Financial Times. Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme's sense that the mark was "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly." His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.

Ben McIntyre, writing in the Times of London a couple of months later, added to the collection of semicolon snubbers: Kurt Vonnegut called the marks "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, "wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don't use semi-colons."

And Kilpatrick, in a 2006 column, restated those sentiments at a higher pitch, calling the semicolon "girly," "odious," and "the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented."



Well. I asked our Broadsheet writers -- and our eminent book critics Laura Miller and Louis Bayard -- to chime in with their opinions. -- Sarah Hepola

Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.

Catherine Price: I'd never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.

Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?

Judy Berman: The em dash actually has feminine connotations for me. It could have something to do with Emily Dickinson, or my former boss (a woman), whose em-dash habit I eventually picked up. Either way, semicolons do tend to result in longer sentences, and I think those have long been seen as the "feminine" answer to short, abrupt "masculine" sentences. Generally, though, the attempt to declare any type of punctuation masculine or feminine seems pretty reductive to me.

Kate Harding: Seems to me they're arguing that complex thoughts and nuanced self-expression are chick things, and I'm not touching that one.

Katharine Mieszkowski: Confidential to the Boston Globe: The semicolon is so not "girly." It's obviously transgender. It's neither a colon nor a period, with its own unique significance. Have these people never heard of "America's Next Top Model"?

Laura Miller: I love semicolons. They represent a certain development of thought, however, and a degree of emotional nuance that I would not associate with the writers [in the above block quote], especially with the superficially stoic but actually sentimental Hemingway (and, to a lesser degree, Chandler). To the degree that a writer is crude and relatively simplistic in the representation of psychological states and emotions, I can see why he would eschew the semicolon. None of these guys are especially precise in that department.

Nicholson Baker, on the other hand, wrote a whole essay on the colon-dash and semicolon-dash, two now obsolete forms of punctuation that he thought should be revived.

Louis Bayard: Not only do I use semicolons, but when I see someone else use them (correctly) I elevate that person to a private pantheon. As Laura says, it's a very nuanced thing -- a test of ear and eye -- but delightful when done right. I haven't read it in 20 years, but in "The World According to Garp," I believe Garp warms to another character when she uses a semicolon in her letters.

Lynn Harris: Wait. And the period is manly?


This article first appeared in Salon.com

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Saudi accused of having six wives

That's just like cheating at the Olympics..:)

A member of the Saudi religious police has been accused of having six wives at the same time - two more than allowed under religious laws, reports say.

The 56-year-old was detained in south-western Jizan province, according to the Saudi newspaper al-Watan.

Three of the women involved were Saudis and the other three were from Yemen, just over the border, it reported.

The accused denies the women are all currently his wives and says he has divorced two of them.

Muslim men can keep up to four wives at a time under sharia, or Islamic law, which is applied in Saudi Arabia.

Members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are expected to enforce the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam, particularly regarding relations between the sexes.

Last month, the Saudi authorities were reportedly considering introducing compulsory pre-marriage courses for engaged couples in order to cut the kingdom's growing divorce rate.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

If you ever doubted Batman was gay

Le Destin


In news arguably more germane to the subject of this column, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, the leading figure in Arab cinema, died in Cairo on Sunday, at age 82. Chahine's story is both one of tragedy and triumph, and given his cultural and historical surroundings, it could scarcely be otherwise. When Chahine began his filmmaking career in 1950, Egypt was still a British colony; he had the distinction of making movies that appeared to criticize virtually every current in his nation's recent history: Western imperialism, pan-Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism and religious intolerance (Chahine himself was a Christian), and the autocratic post-Sadat regime of Hosni Mubarak.

He also made movies in almost every genre you can imagine; I've seen only a few myself, and most remain hard to find or totally unavailable on North American DVD. His most famous work is unquestionably "Cairo Station" (1958), a neorealist classic in which Chahine himself starred as a disabled newspaper boy obsessed with a pretty lemonade seller. His better-known work also includes "Saladin" (1963), a left-leaning biopic about the 12th-century sultan who defended Jerusalem against the Crusaders; the Aswan dam documentary "Once Upon a Time on the Nile" (1978); and two films sharply critical of the Sadat era, the murder mystery "The Choice" (1970) and the oft-banned political drama "The Sparrow" (1973).

A Roman Catholic and an eclectic sexual adventurer in a puritanical Muslim country, Chahine grew up as an upper-class kid who spoke French and English better than Arabic. All over the Western world, people who have seen few or none of his movies will write respectful obituaries today; one can only hope the response in Egypt is not the official silence that greeted so much of his work. Chahine is but one more example of the universal rule that real artists are exiles from their own culture, by choice or by force. The man or woman who offers to show society its true face, rather than flattering its vanity, is never welcome.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Numbskull


Mark Kilner created this phenomenal sculpture, titled Numbskull. It's a plastic skull covered in 630 tablets of paracetamol (aka acetaminophen).

The Goop Scoop


This Swiss goop ("Cyber Clean") is a viscous slime that you roll around on your keyboard, so that all the food particles and fingernail parings are swept away, while the germicidal surface de-germifies your icky, filthy, disgusting keyboard.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Carpe Dien in Tel Aviv

By H. ALFORD

I’m riding bikes along the beach with my friend James. James is 12, and moved to Tel Aviv from New York with his Israeli mother two years ago.

“That’s the separated beach,” James tells me matter-of-factly, pointing at a group of some 30 Orthodox men on the edge of a placid, gorgeous Mediterranean not far from the Hilton. I read a sign that states: “The Separated Beach. Bathing days for women: Sun, Tues, Thurs. Bathing days for men: Mon, Wed, Fri.” Then, pointing at a different group of men just 50 yards down the sand, James adds, “And that’s the gay beach.”

A couple of hours later, eager to see what other strange bedfellows I’ll find huddled on the edges of the water, I conduct an informal census: I walk the two miles or so of beach from the Orthodox section all the way down to Jaffa, the old Arab port of Tel Aviv. Just south of the gay section I find a stretch of sand-and-sun worshipers that I instantly dub the Ambiguous Male Friendship beach; just south of that I find the I Hate What I’m Wearing beach. I walk farther, and proceed to find concentrations of, variously, surfers, young families, volleyball players, Ethiopians, hippie drummers and irritable girlfriends.

I’d earlier been told by the illustrator and author Maira Kalman, who was born in Tel Aviv and still has an apartment there, that I’d find “old men in their underpants” on the beach in front of the Dan Hotel (“Old men in their underpants: what can be wrong with that?” she’d said with some excitement). So, in front of the Dan, I search for boudoir chic; I find only one such exhibitor, but many examples of dermal creping.

Down toward the southernmost part of the beach near Jaffa, the population turns increasingly Arab, and I see more and more head wraps on the women. On the beach’s edge, I sit on a park bench and fall into conversation with a warm, bearded 54-year-old gentleman who tells me he’s an imam and a muezzin. We discuss the auspiciousness of the date — the day before, on Independence Day, Israel had celebrated its 60th anniversary with a semi-terrifying dazzle of air force maneuvers over the water — and the man tells me: “Peace is good for us all. Jews, Christians, Muslims. ...”

Just then a young beachgoer zooms by us on his Vespa, his surfboard ingeniously strapped onto the side of the motorbike, so I add, “... and surfers.”

The man exults, “Everyone!”

Tel Aviv is a home at the end of the world. Celebrating its 100th year in 2009, the capital of Mediterranean cool has been getting more and more practice at being a host over the years, and it’s starting to show.

First came the brain trust: many say that the Israeli economy’s growth of 5 percent a year since 2003 is a result of the million or so highly educated and entrepreneurial Russians who immigrated in the early 1990s and buoyed the country’s auspicious high-tech sector. (Ms. Kalman says, “Babies had cellphones in Tel Aviv before the U.S. did.”) And then came the builders: current or recent construction in the city has brought a small swirl of brand-name architects and developers like Philippe Starck, I. M. Pei, Donald Trump and Richard Meier (and meanwhile the foodies of Tel Aviv are already buzzing about the projected 2010 arrival of a Nobu restaurant and hotel in the suburb of Herzilya).

All these new people and buildings add to the city’s fundamental charms: good flea markets, terrific food and lots of witty and complicated natives. As Ms. Kalman would say, What could be wrong with that?

But if the intermingling of many different kinds of people is what gives Tel Aviv its pulse, it’s the clash of old and new that still gives this city its surprising and slightly uneven gait. On trendy Sheinkin Street, a store called SeXso Jeans is cheek-by-jowl with the Kabbalah store; on the edges of Neve Tzedek — the first neighborhood the Jews started when they left Jaffa in 1887, and now the loveliest and most villagelike part of town — a 44-story skyscraper looms like a gangly, unwanted bodyguard.

The modernist feeling you get from walking around what is the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings in the world is unmoored by the realization that you are just a mile or two away from the ancient port of Jaffa, from which Jonah sailed en route to his intimate encounter with a whale. Or consider Agenda, a restaurant devoted to the age-old practice of skewering meat. A sign hanging on its facade — “Agenda: The Shawarma” — sounds like a Tom Clancy book about some very, very dangerous pita.

Tel Aviv is “half Iran, half California; it’s a synagogue meets a sushi bar,” says the writer and lifelong Tel Aviv resident Etgar Keret, whose mordant and hilarious short stories in books like “The Nimrod Flipout” have often won him the encomium “the voice of young Israel.” The son of Holocaust survivors — his father saved his own life by living in a hole in Russia for two years — Mr. Keret is party to his own dichotomy: his brother is an extreme left-wing anarchist who is head of the Israel’s movement to legalize marijuana, and his sister is an ultra-Orthodox mother of 11 who formerly lived in a settlement.

“This is a country that on the one hand is so conservative that we don’t have public transportation on Saturdays, but on the other hand is so open that we sent a transsexual to the Eurovision Song Contest,” says Mr. Keret. “Israel is full of contradiction. In Jerusalem, this contradiction means separation. But it doesn’t in Tel Aviv.”

For Israelis, the 45 minutes that separate Jerusalem from Tel Aviv are a fitting metaphor for the cultural gulf they see between, on the one hand, the hidebound, pious cradle of world religion and, on the other, the libertine, nightclub-filled Mediterranean idyll. But for us visitors, the proximity of the two cities is a huge boon — it’s rare that you can pair a beach vacation with 5,000 years of history. And while the memories I developed during the course of my weeklong, first-ever trip to Tel Aviv are pleasant and strong, the ones I concurrently made during my eight-hour-long, first-ever trip to Jerusalem are permanently scarred into my brain.

You don’t have to be devout, or even a believer, to be moved to tears by a visit to Jesus’ Stations of the Cross or to the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem. At the latter, the Children’s Memorial is a single room in which five candles are reflected in 500 mirrors, creating the impression of an infinity of candles; meanwhile a voice slowly intones the individual names and nationalities of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by Nazis. The effect is bone-chilling.

Tel Avivans are quick to point out that their city is less suffused with history than Jerusalem, and that that is what makes their city so hospitable to newcomers and to people who don’t fit in elsewhere. Perhaps, like others in the Middle East, Tel Avivans must perforce set their gaze on the present.

“People always say, ‘Live every day as if it’s your last,’ and in Tel Aviv it might actually be true,” says Mr. Keret. “The fear of the future makes the present more vibrant. But you cannot ignore that your existence is fragile.”

Indeed, when I contacted James’s mother, the former fashion editor Ricky Vider, to tell her that I was going to Tel Aviv, she wrote back that I better hurry “before they push the button.”

A single mother — Ms. Vider lost her husband, James’s father, on 9/11 — she says she moved back to Tel Aviv with her son because “I needed some sunshine and a change”; the move also put her back in close proximity to her mother and sister. For Ms. Vider, this home at the end of the world is one filled with golden-hued restaurants offering wonderful, innovative Mediterranean cuisine (Herbert Samuel, Toto), hip places to meet for a coffee or drink (Brasserie, Coffee Bar) and a city safe enough that she can let James ride his bike for hours unsupervised in certain areas.

Ms. Vider trafficks in the ambivalence so endemic to the region. She says, “James and I are only here temporarily,” yet when I ask her to show me her favorite part of town, the unstated theme of our tour quickly reveals itself to be Landmark Buildings I Have Tried to Buy Into.

We start on the leafy, Bauhaus-lined pedestrian walkway in the middle of stately Rothschild Boulevard, and hang a right on becalmed Nachmias. Ms. Vider says of one building: “This beauty was bought by a son of the mayor. I snuck in while they were renovating.”

On this same block we also see Ms. Vider’s favorite building in the city (No. 25, where episodes of the Israeli version of “In Treatment” were shot), its immediate neighbor (“I call the architect daily”) and a building with interiors by Andree Putnam (“I’ve tried to get in. It cannot be done.”).

Perhaps an intense connection to real estate and its attendant comforts is only logical in a region where the threat of uprooting looms. In fact, some of your best experiences in Tel Aviv may very well be real estate based. It was thoroughly heartening, for instance, to come back to the balmy, sun-dappled roof deck of the Cinema Hotel after a day of sightseeing or beachgoing. The Cinema, a handsome Bauhaus building from 1930 and a former cinema that offered the first central air-conditioning in Tel Aviv, provides its guests with a lavish spread of teas and cakes every afternoon; to sip and snack on the walled rooftop terrace is to know a wonderful and high-caloric form of succour.

AN equally relaxing way to spend an afternoon is to poke around the tiny, space-starved boutiques and cafes that have sprouted up in the Greenwich Village-like Neve Tzedek, a tranquil area of about a dozen tiny streets. I tell a woman who is selling jewelry in the ground floor of the building that she lives in that I am impressed that she doesn’t work in her pajamas, as I would do in her situation. She tells me: “I have to be dignified. For jewelry, dignity.”

On the eve of Independence Day, Ms. Vider takes me to the building in the basement of which James’s surfing instructor, Shay, and his girlfriend, Naamah, live. On arriving at the building, Ms. Vider and James and I gaze over a sunken garden filled with impossibly good-looking 20-something surfers and hipsters — Shay and Naamah and their friends.

Ms. Vider says: “There are two parties going on in this building. Upstairs will be dinner and fireworks-watching. And this ...” — she casts her eyes downward, where we see the stirrings of a hootenanny featuring two guitars, improvised singing and the mournful tones of the didgeridoo — ”... will be a den of iniquity.”

Mr. Keret says: “It’s a city where the dominant age group is 20 to 40. Most people don’t realize that it’s a city that many people just pass through. Very few people are born and die here.”

This impermanence can be an intensifier. I think of the hour I spent at a club called Levontine 7. Started by three musicians (including Ilan Volkov, the Israeli-born conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), the dark and underdecorated two-level club is in Gan Ha Hashmal, Tel Aviv’s former unofficial red-light district, which is sprouting those kinds of hyper-groovy stores — one was selling a lamp made out of forks and spoons — that fascinate but baffle. For the recent national basketball finals, Levontine 7 hired two groups of six musicians who each improvised music to go with one team’s movements, in the manner of a silent movie.

The night I went to the club I lasted only an hour — it had been quite an exhausting afternoon lording over the baked goods on the Cinema roof deck — but somehow the fact that I wasn’t hip or hardy enough to last till the 11:30 p.m. offering of difficult, John Zorn-like noodling only made my one hour that much more potent. I felt like a very happy, twittering bird in some other species’ nest.

The other comfort-providing commodity that one attaches oneself to in Tel Aviv is, of course, food. Ms. Kalman had told me about a restaurant directly on the beach called Manta Ray. (“It’s where Madonna ate,” she’d said. My brain instantly brought forth Madonna’s Hebrew name, and I said, “You mean, Esther?”)

Like a haut beach shack on stilts, Manta Ray is a fan-shaped pavilion that opens onto the sea. One of the five mezzes that we order is an elegant column of four layers of ingredients that sound all wrong for each other — crabmeat, feta, dates, harissa peppers — but are in fact Il Divo of food. I order a gin and grapefruit juice, and the juice is fresh-squeezed. Happiness trickles through my body as my companion and I watch the sun slowly slip over the edge of the Mediterranean; I contemplate having a T-shirt made that says, “I’m with Esther.”

Eager to see what other unlikely ingredients would be served with seafood, I order calamari on subsequent trips to Toto and Herbert Samuel. At Toto, it comes with red and yellow cherry tomatoes, chick peas, slivers of onion and radish, mint and cilantro; at Herbert Samuel, with white beans, mint and tahini. The next time I see a plate of tumescent, foreskin-like calamari shrivelings, I will laugh knowingly in the manner of a French prostitute. Because I can.

In Tel Aviv, you hold onto what you can hold onto. Which, when I go bike riding with James, happens to be my dear life. We zoom over the dips in the wooden boardwalk up in the Old Port area, where the recent addition of restaurants and kid-friendly shops — all in vast hangarlike warehouses — has given the area a South Street Seaport kind of feel and made it popular with the local tzfonim (yuppies, or, literally, “Northerners,” since the affluent neighborhoods are in the north of the city and the poorer in the south). The pedestrian traffic is thick, and at one point a mother with a double-wide stroller almost clips me. I whoop with alarm, and James counsels, “Dude, trust me — you’re not going to get in an accident.”

I ask James if he wants to stay in Tel Aviv or move back to New York, and he says: “I want both. When I think of the surfing, I want to be here. But most of my friends are in New York.”

We whiz past a cafe, a sporting goods store, a jazz club. I ask James, “And do you feel like an Israeli, or do you feel like an American?”

“I feel like this is home,” he says. “For now.”

AT HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD

GETTING THERE

Continental, Delta and El Al fly direct to Tel Aviv from Newark Liberty and Kennedy airports. A random Web search in July for mid-August flights turned up a $1,502 nonstop on Delta.

WHERE TO STAY

Cinema Hotel (2 Zamenhoff Street; 972-3-520-7100; www.cinemahotel.com) is a short walk from the beach and well situated near the center of town. Bikes are available free. This 82-room hotel, converted from a theater, is decorated with movie posters and equipment from its previous incarnation. Doubles from $163.

Nina Cafe Suites (29 Shabazi Street; 972-52-508-4141; www.ninacafehotel.com), wonderfully located in the heart of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, is a newer hotel that is long on charm but short on efficiency. There’s no front desk per se — you walk into the cafe and then they lead you back to a desk inside the crammed space full of espresso sippers. The décor is a little Greenwich Village-basement-apartment-circa-1972, but you’re a five-minute walk from the Suzanne Dallal theater, 10 minutes from the beach and the Manta Ray restaurant, and 20 from the Jaffa flea market. Doubles from $270.

WHERE TO EAT

Herbert Samuel (6 Koifman Street; 972-3-516-6516; www.herbertsamuel.co.il) is just across from the beach at the southern end of the city near Neve Tzedek. The high-ceilinged space manages to be warm despite its spare, minimalist look. Mostly new Mediterranean cuisine, with lots of fish. Seats by the windows are booked well in advance; if you sit at the bar, you can still look out at the sunset. Dinner for two about 300 shekels (about $90 at 3.35 shekels to the dollar).

Toto (4 Berkovich Street; 972-3-693-5151) is behind the art museum, and offers Mediterranean cuisine with an Italian influence. Dinner for two about 285 shekels.

Manta Ray (972-3-517-4773), is right on the beach behind the Etzel House Museum. Plenty of fresh fish, but it’s possible to eat only mezzes. Dinner for two, about 295 shekels.

Abu Hasan (also known as Ali Karavan), at 1 Hadolphin Street, is a hole in the wall that serves the best hummus in Israel, according to Food and Wine magazine and every cabdriver you talk to in Tel Aviv. Some opt for the masabacha — crushed chickpeas and tahini, with spicy sauce on the side; dishes come with pita, raw onions and a zippy lemon-garlic sauce. Abu Hasan opens at 8 a.m. every day except Saturday and stops serving when the food runs out, usually in midafternoon. Lunch for two, about 30 shekels.

WHAT TO DO

The Bauhaus Center (99 Dizengoff Street; 972-3-522-0249; www.bauhaus-center.com) offers tours of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture in English on Friday mornings at 10. The tours last about two hours and cost $15.

The Jaffa flea market is the only remnant of the bazaars that surrounded Jaffa’s clock tower in the mid-19th century. This blocks-wide hagglefest is better for tchotchkes and effluvia than for treasures, but it’s great fun to browse, and to see women trying clothes on directly over their clothes. Local lore has it that vendors, first thing Sunday morning, like to make a quick and not-to-their-advantage sale to give them good luck for the coming week.

This article appeared originally in the New York Times.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Remembering Disch


In his many dark, satirical, heretical books, the pioneering science fiction author contemplated death with elegant despair.

By E. Hand

Few people make a successful career of contemplating death and suicide; fewer still approach the subject with the genuine ebullience and elegant despair of the prolific, criminally underappreciated writer Thomas M. Disch, who shot himself in his Union Square apartment, in New York, on the Fourth of July. Disch was a seminal figure in science fiction's New Wave, the iconoclastic 1960s movement that gave the genre a literary pedigree and popularized the term "speculative fiction." His books influenced writers such as William Gibson and Jonathan Lethem; his dystopias "Camp Concentration" and "334" are considered science fiction classics, along with his greatest novel, "On Wings of Song," a beautiful, dark meditation on the power and limits of transcendence through art.

An openly gay man for most of his working life, Disch wrote mysteries, historical novels and neo-gothic satires; children's books, including "The Brave Little Toaster" and its sequel; at least five collections of short fiction; 15 volumes of poetry, always as Tom Disch; plays and libretti; four volumes of nonfiction; screen adaptations, novelizations and one of the first interactive computer games. He edited anthologies; he wrote book reviews, theater reviews, art reviews, music reviews. He wrote collaboratively and pseudonymously; he kept a popular blog, Endzone, in which he shared new poems, some unpleasant post-9/11 screeds, and witty discourses on the meaninglessness and minutiae of life. In his most recent novel, he wrote in the voice of God, and on his publisher's Web site answered questions from readers. He wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, for the sheer joy of it and for an even more primal impulse: to tell a story to the dark.

"Storytelling is just absolutely natural to me. It's my way of getting along with people, I guess," he told an interviewer at the Web site Strange Horizons in 2001. He'd call friends and, after an exchange of pleasantries, ask, "May I read you something?" The answer was always yes and his voice would lift as he read a sonnet or villanelle, or perhaps the section from "The Word of God" where Disch's deity wonders whether His father was in fact Thomas Mann.

He had a wonderful speaking voice, fluid and seductive. He sounded like John Malkovich, and he looked a bit like Malkovich too, in his prime. I grew up reading Disch's work, starting with "The Roaches" as a 12-year-old and devouring the novels as I got older. I first met him casually in the late 1980s, but only got to know him and his partner, poet Charles Naylor, during the last eight years or so -- far too brief a time. Tall and physically imposing, in public Disch could project a slightly threatening aloofness, with his shaved head, impressive tattoos, bodybuilder's mass. The silken voice that emerged from that intimidating form made him seem even more dangerous, one of those wizards who is subtle and quick to anger.

But then he'd dissolve in laughter and it would all suddenly seem to be a pose, a disguise, part of a vast elaborate joke that you were in on -- maybe. He could be irascible, scathingly dismissive; he held grudges and burned bridges. In recent years he'd put on weight, which exacerbated other problems: diabetes, sciatica, neuoropathy, depression. He had difficulty walking and was almost housebound.

And since the turn of the millennium he'd endured a Job-like succession of personal tragedies, beginning with a fire that severely damaged the apartment he shared with Naylor, his partner of 30 years; frozen pipes that caused a mold infestation at his house in Barryville, N.Y.; Naylor's long illness and eventual death from colon cancer; and, finally, eviction proceedings begun by the landlord almost immediately after Naylor's death.

During this siege Disch struggled with crushing grief and depression -- only a real deity would not -- yet he also had a humorous resignation that seemed very close to valor. He once said, "I am certainly a 'death of God' writer," and much of his work seems fueled by the rage and sense of betrayal of a former believer, as well as a refined sense of the ridiculousness of religious institutions, and the ultimate, absurd realization that we all die alone. His best work builds on Eugene Ionesco's dictum: "We are made to be immortal, and yet we die. It's horrible, it can't be taken seriously."

Death was the subject Disch returned to again and again, in his fiction and his poetry. Sometimes it was murder, spurred by passion or twisted religious or political fervor. Sometimes, as in his early novel "The Genocides," or his later satirical novel "The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft," it was simply a detached, clinical adjustment of the biological status quo, with untidy or unnecessary humans disposed of like irksome insects. He wrote often about suicide, nearly always without melodrama. "Laughter is just a slowed down scream of terror," he told Joseph Francavilla in a 1983 interview.


... thoughtful minds are free of pain
To the degree that they can think
And alchemize their thoughts to ink.
Happy the man who can declare
His angst with any savoir faire.

-- Tom Disch, "Waking New Year's Day, Without a Hangover," 1986


Born in Iowa in 1940, Disch spent his childhood and early teens in the Midwest before moving to New York, where he attended Cooper Union and New York University. He held the usual spate of desultory writers' jobs, most memorably a brief stint in "Swan Lake's" corps de ballet, where he encouraged the other male dancers to sing "I am, I am, I am a swan" under their breath while Margot Fonteyn expired as Odette. In 1962 he wrote his first story in lieu of studying for an NYU exam and promptly sold it to the science fiction magazine Fantastic. He subsequently dropped out of school to devote himself to writing.

A number of beautifully crafted stories date from these early years. Among the best: "Descending," in which a man steps onto a department store elevator that only goes down, forever; the much-anthologized "The Roaches"; and the Kafkaesque "The Squirrel Cage," in which a writer works feverishly, endlessly, on a horror story he cannot even see, and which no one will ever read: "The story has gone on far too long. Nothing can be terrifying for years on end. I only say it's terrifying because, you know, I have to say something. Something or other. The only thing that could terrify me now is if someone were to come in. If they came in and said, 'All right, Disch, you can go now.' That, truly, would be terrifying."

In the mid-1960s he knocked around Europe and North Africa before touching down in London's Camden Town around 1967, where he became part of that movable feast of Anglo-American writers and artists associated with the New Wave: Michael Moorcock, John and Judith Clute, John Sladek (a future Disch collaborator), Pamela Zoline, M. John Harrison. "The Genocides" was published in 1965, a vision of Earth as an agribusiness run by extraterrestrials who sow the planet with a single vast plant crop, then methodically exterminate the human pests who infect their harvest. It ends badly. As Disch cheerfully pointed out in a 1990 interview published in the British journal Foundation, "Let's be honest, the real interest in this kind of story is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out ... My point was simply to write a book where you don't spoil that beauty and pleasure at the end."

His next major work, "Camp Concentration," appeared in 1967 in New Worlds, the New Wave's flagship magazine, and a year later was published in book form. Now regarded as one of the greatest SF novels, at the time "Camp Concentration" was overshadowed by Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon," which shared some themes and narrative structure. Inspired by the Faust legend, the novel unfolds as the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a schlubby poet interned at an American concentration camp for being a conscientious objector. There he and the other prisoners are injected with an experimental drug that boosts their intelligence even as it erodes their life span.

Samuel R. Delany wrote that "Camp Concentration" was "the first book within the s-f field I have read for which my reaction was simple, total and complete envy: 'I wish I had written that.'" It remains in print and is probably Disch's best-known book, though Disch was dismissive of it in the 1980 Foundation interview: "I think it was probably not strong enough to stand on its own outside the genre. Not as a work of literature."

"On Wings of Song," his 1979 masterpiece, is a work of literature. William Gibson called it "one of the great neglected masterpieces of late 20th-century science fiction"; Robert Drake named it part of "The Gay Canon." A savage, politically charged bildungsroman, the novel presents the American Midwest as a fundamentalist police state where air travelers are forced through security checkpoints, books and works of art are considered seditionary, and Daniel Weinreb, a 14-year-old from Amesville, Iowa, is imprisoned for possession of copies of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. After his release, he makes his way to Manhattan, a secular paradise, and struggles to become a bel canto singer.

The book's defining metaphor is a form of virtual reality that enables practitioners to experience ecstasy. Not everyone achieves this transcendence, and the attempt can be dangerous: disembodied souls, nicknamed "fairies," can be trapped and destroyed, their host bodies left in a vegetative state.

"Beauty is probably the antidote to evil -- in practical terms for an artist," Disch once remarked. "Because art is one of the routes of access to joy, and joy is always problematical the moment it stops happening. You're always asking, 'Where is it? Why can't it be brought back?'" It was the essential question for Disch.

Later books explored the nature of evil in more satirical terms. Raised Catholic, Disch took the heretic's glee in attacking church hypocrisy in works like "The Priest: A Gothic Romance," which featured pedophile clergy and murderous antiabortion protesters, and his play "The Cardinal Detoxes," which the Archdiocese of New York attempted to shut down. In Disch's version of hell, the suicidal poet John Berryman is forced to haunt Minneapolis. He talked about writing a career guide for young girls titled "So You Want to Be the Pope"; the Supreme Being he channels in his just-published "The Word of God" is sensible and gossipy, as demonstrated by the answers He gives to readers on His publisher's Web site:


Dearest God,

Since food is the most recent topic: Why have you made the pit in avocados so infernally Large? And along the same lines, what's up with your pomegranate invention?

-- Norman

You must have been kibbitzing with Proserpine. Her and her pomegranate diet. But as to avocado pits your guess is as good as mine. But did you know you can grow whole avocado trees from those pits? It takes a lot of patience, but they will grow all the way to the ceiling if you let them.

-- God


Disch was an often brutal satirist who wrote a beloved children's book about sweet-natured household appliances, an ironist who would cheer up a visitor by reading aloud poems ostensibly penned by Paddington the Bear, in Paddington's voice. He reveled in coincidence, in life and art. With Naylor, he wrote a marvelous historical novel, "Neighboring Lives," that explored the web of connections between Victorian thinkers and artists in Pre-Raphaelite London. Naylor gave him joy; "On Wings of Song" was dedicated to him.

Almost exactly a year after Naylor's death in September 2004, Disch began writing a sequence of poems, an extraordinary efflorescence of grief he shared on his blog. Eventually there were 31 of them. He titled the sequence "Winter Journey" after Schubert's lieder cycle "Winterreise" (a work Naylor loved). The poems are tragic, bitter, bleakly funny, romantic, heart-rending -- and also accessible. I can imagine, by some divine fluke, the book becoming a surprise, posthumous bestseller -- an irony Disch would have appreciated.

"The song does not end," Disch wrote in the closing pages of "On Wings of Song."


... and though he had written that song before he'd learned to fly himself, it was true. The moment one leaves one's body by the power of song, the lips fall silent, but the song goes on, and so long as one flies the song continues. He hoped, if he were to leave his body tonight, they would remember that. The song does not end.

This article appeared on Salon.com.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Here come the Muhajababes!

Not especially well-written, but it's emblematic of the kind of interest the West has taken in my part of the world, post 9/11.


How sex, booze and heavy metal fit into the world of hip young Arabs today.
By L. Miller

"Rewish," or "al Rawshana," is a colloquial Arab term that means "hip" and also "distracted or confused," according to Allegra Stratton's "Muhajababes," a lively (and rewish) exploration of youth culture in several Middle Eastern nations. One of the many people Stratton interviewed for her book -- a bike-glove-wearing female member of a dance troupe that inexplicably describes itself as "an R&B band" -- told Stratton that the region's booming under-25 demographic is being made ever more rewish by their exposure to two seemingly opposed forces: racy pop music videos full of gyrating, pulchritudinous singers like Haifa Wehbe and what Stratton calls the "piety trend," which has more and more young Muslims heeding the call of TV mullahs to abandon smoking, drinking, displays of flesh and premarital sex.

The result is a new breed of mermaid-like creatures, spotted by Stratton all over the streets of Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Dubai and Damascus. These are "muhajababes," from "muhajabe," a term for the veil. Zina, a girl Stratton met in a Cairo cafe, is a classic example. Her hair was covered with "a flower-patterned headscarf" but she was also wearing heavy makeup and jeans so tight she couldn't fasten the top button. When Stratton asked Zina why she also smoked (widely considered "haram," or forbidden, to observant Muslims), Zina grew "frosty." Then she explained: "If I smoke and wear the headscarf you know that I'm not one of them [that is, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group]. You know that I'm Islamic. That I am devout. But I'm also different ... If you know what you're looking for then you'll see being a Muslim these days is a different thing."

Stratton, a British journalist, didn't begin her research knowing quite what she was looking for, but she had a thesis, taken from Western scholars of the contemporary Middle East. These professors are predicting a major sociopolitical shakeup in the region, based on demographic patterns resembling those seen before in upheavals in Western history, such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution. "What creates unrest," Stratton writes of this theory, "was not just an increase in the numbers of young people but also in the numbers of educated young people with no increase in jobs." (Yes, that sentence is grammatically incorrect, as are many in "Muhajababes." Chalk it up to a combination of Stratton's attempt at an easy, casual style and the bad habits engendered by the low editing standards in British publishing. Be warned: Participles dangle as plentifully in these pages as vines in a jungle.)

Having spent her own post-collegiate years sharing a big, ramshackle East London house with a bunch of idealistic pals (they dreamed of setting up a printing press in the basement), Stratton decided to wander around a handful of Mideast cities, in search of the "Arab Haight-Ashbury," where the coming revolution might be brewing. Mark LeVine, author of another new book, "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam," also went looking for glimmers of social change, but he took an approach at once more and less comprehensive than Stratton's. LeVine, who is both a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and a profession rock musician, traveled to more countries (including Pakistan and Morocco) than Stratton, but he seems to have hobnobbed with a much narrower range of people.

There's something irresistible about the idea that LeVine, who according to his author bio has played with such luminaries as Mick Jagger and Dr. John, not only interviewed rock and rap artists from all over the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA, as he calls it), but also put down the notepad and got up onstage to jam with them. The folio of photographs at the center of "Heavy Metal Islam" features a few shots of him rocking out with his subjects at festivals and in nightclubs. Yet LeVine's account of Muslim rock culture is strangely colorless, mostly because he's only interested in two things: the music itself and the degree to which a band's lyrics explicitly criticize the political regimes in their home countries.

Most heavy metal lyrics are aggressive and doomy, and the lines LeVine quotes -- "This land is barren, it does not feel/ Our self-made slaughte / by our own hands/ Here lies the orphaned land" from the Israeli band Orphaned Land, for example -- can be interpreted as speaking of anything from, say, the conflict over Palestine to environmentalism to free-floating teenage social angst. The people LeVine interviews have ample cause for complaint; besides the general authoritarian, undemocratic nature of their governments, they often come in for extra harassment as a result of their appearance and musical taste. Metalheads in Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt have even been arrested for practicing "satanism." But their counterparts in the democratic West are often just as disgusted with the adult world for entirely different reasons.

Complaining about their governments isn't what makes Islam's metalheads unusual -- practically everyone in the Mideast does that (to the extent they can get away with it). What's interesting is the fact that they've chosen heavy metal in spite of its Western roots, and the ways they reconcile this with their own regional and nation identities. Several of the musicians LeVine interviews are religious, even devout, and the author has hopes that rock fans will unite with young Islamists against their authoritarian rulers. To his great disappointment, a meeting he facilitates in a Cairo hotel bar between members of a band called Wyvern and the editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's Web site turns out to be a dud, mostly because the metalheads don't seem to believe the Brotherhood's recent protestations that they are now interested only in political reform, not policing cultural virtue. "So many Egyptians -- and Arabs more broadly," LeVine laments, "prefer to continue dealing with the devil they know (corrupt and autocratic regimes) than to risk the even less appealing alternative of a religious state."

It seems churlish to reproach politically vulnerable people for a prudent refusal to accept the enemy of their enemy as their friend. It's true that many young Arabs increasingly see their religion as the ideological basis for political change while at the same time rejecting the extreme Wahhabist puritanism of Saudi Arabia. But even tolerant cultures tend to give metalheads a hard time, partly because metal -- like other forms of what LeVine refers to as "intense" popular music -- is fueled by a rebellious spirit. Sure, the Islamists might want to harness that energy now, while they're rebelling themselves, but they're unlikely to appreciate this particular manifestation of diversity should they ever come to power.

Another problem with "Heavy Metal Islam" is that virtually all of the subjects LeVine interviews in any depth are either musicians or professional scene-makers (promoters, producers, etc.). What's glaringly absent from the book is any substantive consideration of the fans, their numbers and the role of the subculture in their lives. After all, in the West, it means one thing to be a heavy metal musician and another thing to be a fan; the audience who go to Metallica concerts doesn't live like the band's members, even if they might want to. Besides, people rarely become musicians because they want to be activists. (Even the exceptional Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, as LeVine finally gets around to admitting in his epilogue, were persecuted by their repressive government into becoming an inspiration for the Velvet Revolution of the late '80s.) Professional musicians, like most artists, are few in number and largely preoccupied with their work. Little wonder that so many of them told LeVine that they just want to be left alone.

"Heavy Metal Islam" works best as a tip sheet on the hard rock of the Muslim world. Most of the bands build their fan base via MySpace pages and Web sites. The book's bibliography and list of links lead to acts ranging from the Kordz of Lebanon, whose sound, according to LeVine, "blends together hard-rock and funk-guitar riffs, with a Gnawa (Moroccan blues-style Sufi music) bass line and vocals, Lebanese-inflected melodies, and a hip-hop beat" to the fabulously hypnotic (and subcontinentally iconic) Junoon, who combine rock with "the complex scales of classical Indian music, which offer twenty-two intervals to choose from in constructing the that or raga scale of a particular song."

Stratton, by contrast, can't really articulate why she thinks a Lebanese "ethno-techno" musician is "really good" or a Jordanian painter's work is "very bad," but she can give you a sense of how their work fits into the average Middle Eastern life. The answer is: barely. The painter, who mostly does nudes, has to keep them locked away in his home/gallery for fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the musician can't really compete with the sexy pop hits that monopolize audiences throughout the region thanks to heavy TV rotation given over to "video clips" (as music videos are called). A single company, Rotana, owned by a Saudi prince who mainlines money into the business, dominates over 80 percent of the music industry and its specialty is writhing bombshells in skimpy outfits. (It makes a nice favor to one's girlfriend of the moment to turn her into a star -- which explains why so many of the company's singers have such weak voices and such stunning figures.)

Rotana's video-clip floozies are wildly popular in the Arab world, even among the fashionably devout; Stratton witnessed a flock of veiled girls mobbing the singer Ruby at a Cairo shopping mall, unperturbed by the fact that she shakes it on-screen with a bared midriff and a python. A member of Ruby's entourage floated the idea that the girls regard the videos as a rare glimpse of the sexual life that they otherwise won't taste until their wedding nights.

Stratton had by then learned enough to doubt this picture of the muhajababes as "sexual ingenues." One of the girls she interviewed, a single mother at the center of a media circus surrounding the paternity suit she'd filed, told the author of her "urfi marriage," a kind of semiformal, provisional wedlock contracted by young Egyptian couples who want to have Islamically correct sex. The girl, Hind, got pregnant, and refused to comply with her TV-star boyfriend's request that she get an abortion and hymen-reconstruction surgery (!) to restore her virginity, combined with a 10-camel payoff and 60-day fast that a sheik assured him would cleanse their souls of the sin of the abortion. According to Hind, such practices are fairly routine among Egypt's middle-class youth.

Later, Stratton found out that Hind's ex, Ahmed, had been hanging out with an Egyptian televangelist named Amr Khaled, a man who becomes the Keyser Soze of "Muhajababes," an influence the author detects everywhere but whom she never gets the chance to meet. A potent combination of Billy Graham, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, Khaled is a regional superstar. "Absolutely bags of money," an unveiled Palestinian girl told Stratton. "Pop star friends, internet sites, television programs. People -- both girls and boys -- are so into him he's like a heart throb." So much so, in fact, that in the early 2000s, the Egyptian government, apparently seeing his popularity as a threat, told Khaled that if he wanted to stay in the country he'd have to stop preaching. Instead, he went to a university in Wales while the sales of his videotapes skyrocketed and his appearances via satellite and Internet went on as usual. (Khaled has since made several return trips to Egypt.) Satellite television and the Web, Stratton notes, mean that effective state control of the media, once a given in the Middle East, has become more and more difficult.

"He doesn't shout at us. He talks. Softly," the muhajababe Zina told Stratton of Khaled. Unlike the usual run of fire-breathing mullahs, this preacher, a former accountant, is clean-shaven, speaks an informal dialect rather than classical Arabic and wears Western-style suits. He encourages women to take the veil, but not by scolding them. Instead, he retails the stories of teenagers who felt depressed or incomplete until they renew their faith by putting on head scarves. This is a confessional mode familiar from countless American talk shows, and audiences eat it up. Zina, who dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood, took from Khaled the self-help nostrum that "the only way to change society is by changing yourself first," and went off to start a photocopying business. Later, Stratton meets a member of the Brotherhood who praises Khaled for denouncing domestic violence and calling for women's suffrage. The Brotherhood, which had once accused Khaled of selling a watered-down, moderate religion they call "air-conditioned Islam," eventually changed their tune (no doubt sensing a shift in public sentiment) and berated the government for banning him.

In other words, Khaled, like the head scarf, is newly fashionable, an affirmation of Muslim pride but also a cultural fad, like the Kabbalah or yoga in Beverly Hills. "I can list many female actors Amr and Ahmed hang around with," Hind told Stratton, explaining that her ex and his cohort turned to Khaled when gripped with a kind of existential despair about the absence of faith in their lives. The women are, like Ahmed, prone to what Hind calls "religious black moods"; sometimes Ahmed would "need to be alone in his penthouse and nothing could console him." The women celebrities who seek comfort in Khaled's circle are often referred to as "veiled-again," in reference to their resurgent interest in Islam.

The closer Stratton looks at the lives of these young Muslims, the more they resemble those of their Western counterparts, from pop stars thanking God for their Grammies to Bible Belt residents with their pro-life politics and whopping abortion rates. In Kuwait, a university student in a spotless dishdasha speaks scornfully of "Bedouins" in the social science departments, men wearing similar outfits, but with shorter hems indicating that they can't afford many changes of clothes and need to keep them well off the ground and away from the dirt. "Bedouins" -- for this boy, it's less a tribal term than an epithet much like "rednecks" -- gravitate toward disciplines that don't require them to learn English, "because they are not the most clever students and this degree never reveals that." They also tend to be more conservative religiously and opponents of liberalizing policies like women's suffrage. Still, there are limits to the militancy of these unsophisticated young men. Even the Hezbollah member Stratton met in Beirut expressed nothing but contempt for the "freaks" of al-Qaida. Her Cairo translator, a former jihadi, said of the bin Laden crew, "These guys want an international caliphate. Who else wants that? Egypt is difficult enough to sort out as it is."

The relatively small numbers of hardcore militants, however, is exactly what drives them to terrorism. Stratton got a firsthand taste of their rage on July 7, 2005, when she walked out of London's Tavistock Square moments before a suicide bomber blew up a bus there. Rumor had it that Amr Khaled had signed on as an advisor to the British government after the attacks, but Stratton could never get this confirmed; it would have made him unpopular among Muslims there. She found herself once again asking if the Mideast's secularists were right in claiming that Khaled's "trendy piety" is no more than "a rebranding of religious conservatism." Then, the next thing Stratton knew, she was hearing that Khaled was allowed to preach in the sanctum of the holy city of Medina (a "serious privilege" bestowed by the Saudi Arabian government). Later, he was Johnny-on-the-spot during the "cartoons crisis," urging Muslims enraged by Danish depictions of the prophet Mohammed to "move from protesting to starting a dialogue." Meanwhile, Khaled was recruiting ideological heirs and founding operations like the Life Makers project, designed to foster and fund entrepreneurship in the Arab nonprofit sector. All this, Stratton concludes, is "enabling the region's more moderate Islamists to ready themselves for power."

Should LeVine's metalheads and other nonconformists in the region go on worrying about an Islamist takeover? It's hard to say. Stratton thinks that the effect of the Amr Khaled and muhajababe phenomena is that "the Middle East appears more religious," while Arab youth covertly take an "eclectic mix-and- match" approach to their faith. They are not, she believes, very likely to abandon "smoking, make-up, plucking eyebrows, tight trousers, revealing swimwear, having sex." Besides, even a sincere trendy piety is still a trend, which means it comes with a built-in expiration date. Only one thing is certain when it comes to the fixations of youth culture: They don't last long.


This article appeared in Salon.com

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Inside A Fake Iraq

Welcome to the military's Iraq Simulation, where the townspeople are Arab actors, the insurgents come from Arkansas -- and things tend to go horribly wrong.

By A. O'Hehir


Khalid al-Khafaji, an Iraqi role player in the U.S. Army's Iraq Simulation, plays a Shiite imam in Medina Wasl, one of 13 mock villages in the simulation.

On the day United States troops arrive in Medina Wasl, an undistinguished village with a mixed Sunni-Shiite population at the center of a desert province, anti-American insurgents kidnap and murder the son of the town's deputy mayor. The American battalion's commanding officer, a thoughtful, bespectacled colonel who encourages his subordinates to be respectful and culturally sensitive, arrives with high hopes of winning hearts and minds in this remote area, but spends most of his time managing an explosive situation that is spiraling toward civil war. Even the battalion's public information officer refers to the colonel's outreach efforts as "all that 'salaam alaikum' shit."

On their first night in their new barracks, the arriving troops are attacked by insurgents who fire a mortar into the camp and briefly penetrate the perimeter wire, shooting several soldiers before escaping. A few days later, jittery U.S. troops fire on a vehicle at a checkpoint, killing several unarmed civilians. As the local population turns ever more anti-American, a local Shiite imam orders the expulsion of all Sunnis and the deputy mayor's henchmen conduct a freelance assassination campaign. The colonel orders payments to the bereaved families and promises the mayor aid in rebuilding the local water and sewer service, but the ceremony to award the contracts is ambushed by insurgents and turns into a chaotic firefight, with U.S. forces taking heavy casualties.

Then, after the debacle of Medina Wasl, the officers, men and women of the 5-82 Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, get on a plane and go to Iraq. Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss' wrenching documentary "Full Battle Rattle" has all the tension and urgency of a vérité-style nonfiction film about the life-and-death choices faced by American troops in the current war, but all its shooting, bloodshed, propaganda and rhetoric are a dress rehearsal. Medina Wasl is a cluster of plywood huts near Fort Irwin, in the Mojave Desert of California, populated by a few dozen role-playing Iraqi-American immigrants. The anti-American forces are themselves U.S. soldiers learning to emulate insurgency tactics; the TV reporters following the troops around are actors.

Early in the film, when the "insurgents" make a video to display their coldblooded execution of the deputy mayor's son, one of them lifts the scarf from his face to ask, in what sounds like a rural Texas or Arkansas accent, for help in pronouncing "Allahu akbar!" After that's cleared up, the officer holding the camera smokes a cigarette, checks the view-screen, and says, "Yeah -- that's the spooky look we're lookin' for." Bassam Kalasho, a beefy, phlegmatic immigrant who plays the volatile deputy mayor of Medina Wasl, turns out to be a family man who runs a corner market in San Diego. The town's "police chief," Nagi Moshi, is an illegal immigrant who traveled from Iraq to Turkey to Greece to France to Colombia to Mexico to California, and is now waiting to learn whether he will be granted U.S. asylum or deported.

Such are the oddities of life in the Iraq Simulation, an enormous military facility also known as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Combat brigades scheduled for deployment to Iraq are sent there for immersive, unpredictable two-week exercises designed to prepare them for the military, cultural, linguistic and physical environment they will soon face. Each of the 13 towns and villages within the simulation poses different challenges, and the outcomes are not scripted in advance. You could compare the Iraq Simulation to improvisational theater or to a video game; each action by U.S. forces leads to a response (or "inject," in military argot) dictated by simulation planners, and Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin and the soldiers of the 5-82 had a shot at either "winning" or "losing" Medina Wasl.

Gerber and Moss were embedded, you might say, within the simulation for two full weeks, and followed the 5-82 from its arrival to its withdrawal. To this ground-level "war footage," they added interviews with officers, enlisted men, Iraqi role players, simulation planners, and the commander of the entire Fort Irwin facility. (During the Cold War, it was used to simulate U.S.-Soviet tank battles in Eastern Europe; it is now apparently being rebuilt to include several "Afghan" villages infested with Taliban fighters.) On one level, "Full Battle Rattle" captures one of the most peculiar (if conceivably most sensible) elements of the massive U.S. war machine. On another, it simply illustrates that the distinction between reality and fiction -- and the question of which one emulates the other -- is never entirely clear.

In response to the most obvious question about this movie -- why did the Army allow two documentary filmmakers from New York inside this training facility, unfettered and uncensored, for two full weeks? -- Gerber and Moss have observed that the military is proud of the Iraq Simulation, perhaps more so than of the real thing. "It is one aspect of the war effort that has gone according to plan," they write. Indeed, as the likable but bewildered McLaughlin and his troops lurch from one blunder to another, and the violence accelerates in this plywood Iraqi town (where the casualties are latex dummies with gruesome, photo-realistic wounds), the simulation comes to seem like an eerily effective replica of the real war.

If "Full Battle Rattle" begins as surreal, almost goofball farce, with a bunch of beefy guys playing a fancy-dress version of laser tag in the desert -- aided by a bunch of rented Iraqis who'd rather be watching TV in suburbia -- it ends on an ambiguous and haunting note, much closer to tragedy. The soldiers of the 5-82 head back to Fort Bliss, Texas, for a few pensive days with their families while they wait to ship out for a year-long deployment (from which several will not return). The Iraqi role-players go back to their lives on the nervous margins of American society. Nobody talks much about what went wrong in Medina Wasl, and what that might mean in the real world. It was just a game.

This article appeared on Salon.com

Friday, 4 July 2008

Gonzo goes Beddie-bye


Alex Gibney talks about his Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" and his new look at Hunter S. Thompson, American hero.

By A. O'Hehir

Gonzo journalism pioneer Hunter S. Thompson and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney don't seem like the most natural pairing, at least at first. Gibney's films, including the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" (which has produced an ugly dispute between Gibney and the film's distributor) and the Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," essentially present old-school investigative journalism, filtered through a pop sensibility. Gibney himself has compared his research-intensive work to archaeology, and I doubt anyone has ever described Thompson's work in those terms.

Without question one of the most influential journalists of the past 50 years, Thompson was both immensely talented and immensely undisciplined. His bookend masterpieces "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," permanently changed the relationship between the reporter, the self and the subject in American journalism. Even in his best work, Thompson walked a thin line between honesty and fatal self-indulgence, and over the last 30 years of his life he gradually slid into booze-hound, gun-crazed, paranoid self-caricature, closer to the Uncle Duke of "Doonesbury" than to the lacerating wit who ripped through the mendacious superficiality of American political and civic life.

Gibney's immensely funny and sad new motion picture "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" -- the "Dr." was a mail-order divinity degree -- is principally intended to rehabilitate Thompson and introduce his work to a new audience. The primary focus of Gibney's mixture of interviews, archival footage and imaginative re-creation is the years from 1965 to 1975, when Thompson rose from obscurity to become a highly paid Rolling Stone correspondent and counterculture hero and wrote almost all his best stuff. Yet even at the end of his life, as Gibney reminds us, Uncle Duke had his moments of seeing through the charade and glimpsing the machinery grinding away beneath it.

In the fall of 2001, when the towers fell in Lower Manhattan, Thompson was writing an online sports column for ESPN. Of course he couldn't be expected to stay on topic, and while his column published on Sept. 12 is full of inaccuracies -- he estimated that more than 20,000 people were killed in the attacks -- it has weathered better than most of the mystified, pseudo-patriotic drivel written in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Gibney has Johnny Depp, who appears throughout the film as a narrator cum Thompson impersonator, read excerpts in an early scene:


The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives ... It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.


We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them.


This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won't hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.


I think that stands among the most lucid and penetrating passages of Thompson's entire career. If he had been able to write and think that clearly most of the time -- possibly by staying off the Scotch and the coke for longer than a day at a time -- he might not have ended up shooting himself at his Colorado home in February 2005. (Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists have contended that Thompson was working on an exposé about the World Trade Center attack and was murdered to hush him up. Thankfully, Gibney does not go there.)

It probably took someone as professional and level-headed as Gibney to get this movie made at all. He got full cooperation from Thompson's widow, ex-wife and son and unearthed treasures from the author's collection of audiotapes and home movies. We see early and late Thompson TV appearances, and interviews with Hells Angels, former presidents and candidates, political friends and foes, reporting colleagues and rivals. It's an amazing all-star cast, from Jimmy Carter and George McGovern (perhaps the only two politicians to evade Thompson's wrath) to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, unlikely drinking buddy Pat Buchanan, and "New Journalism" competitor Tom Wolfe.

There are snippets about Thompson's unhappy early life in Kentucky and his semi-depraved later life in Rocky Mountain isolation (in a 2003 interview with Salon, he called himself "an elderly dope fiend living out in the wilderness"). But most of Gibney's material is meant to celebrate the meteoric and unlikely rise of a logorrheic autodidact who made his own flaws and excesses part of every story he wrote and who loved America so passionately that he felt the need at every opportunity to "piss down the throats of these Nazis" who ran the place.

Between 1965 and 1975, Thompson published his breakthrough book "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," a mordantly funny and insightful work that nearly got him killed; a derisive article about the Haight-Ashbury that made the San Francisco neighborhood internationally famous; the article "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," with which the gonzo tradition was born; the mind-bending memoir-novel "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which probably did more to make drug abuse seem cool than anyone or anything else since Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and the Merry Pranksters (coincidentally or not, the subjects of an upcoming Alex Gibney film); and the epoch-making "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," a book that reshaped political journalism in its own image. As Gibney captures hilariously in the film, in 1970 Thompson also ran and nearly won a patently ridiculous "Freak Power" campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colo., where he lived.

Especially in the '70s and '80s, Thompson spawned legions of journalistic imitators, and it was almost always a bad idea. (The same could be said about Stanley Booth's book "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones," probably the best thing ever written about 1960s rock 'n' roll culture -- and a massively terrible example for younger rock journalists.) Most of that emulation was a matter of run-on sentences and substance abuse, when what today's journalism really needs is a fraction of Thompson's unjaded ferocity and righteous anger. As Gibney has said, Raoul Duke's spirit seems to live on largely among comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, not among the so-called professionals.

I recently joined Alex Gibney for breakfast at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, one of those media-centric whoremonger power lounges that would have fascinated and appalled Hunter Thompson, and where he might have needed "two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers [and] laughers" just to start the day. We had none of those things, sad to tell, and I had to begin by quizzing Gibney a little about his teapot-tempest dispute with ThinkFilm, the distributor of "Taxi to the Dark Side," which recently prompted a front-page story in the New York Times. (Listen to the interview here.)

I don't want to eat up too much of our time talking about your last film instead of your new one, but "Taxi to the Dark Side" has been in the news lately. So let's review: You won the Oscar for best documentary, but then the film failed to return the dividends that everyone involved was hoping for. You ended up grossing less than $300,000, which I'm sure was a big disappointment. And now you're in arbitration with ThinkFilm, trying to get the distribution rights back and also some payment for damages. You're actually arguing that they mishandled the film to the point of fraud?

Well, I would divide it into two parts. I think they did a reasonable job up to the point we won the Oscar. And the whole strategy, which was a sensible strategy for a film about such a difficult and dark topic, was to win awards and capitalize on those awards, which give people permission to go see the film. But after we won the Oscar, nothing happened. In fact, the Web site was taken down and we didn't know why. We were mystified, and then over time we learned that they hadn't paid any of the vendors. They hadn't paid the labs, so they couldn't manufacture more prints. They hadn't paid the Web site people, so the site was taken down. All the publicists didn't get paid; one single mom was owed $100,000. Clearly, they weren't putting anything in advertising. One week when the movie was playing in New York at the Quad Cinema, I looked in the New Yorker, New York magazine and Time Out. Never mind the fact that there weren't any ads. There weren't even any listings.

So the only way that you knew about the movie is if you happened to walk by the marquee, and generally speaking, that's not a good strategy -- to rely on foot traffic for advertising. Our view is that ThinkFilm didn't disclose their financial condition to us, and they certainly didn't disclose it to us as we're coming in to Oscar time. I don't want to get too much into the weeds with this, but [ThinkFilm president] Mark Urman was quoted saying how he tried extra hard to move the film to HBO at great cost to Think. How was it at great cost to them? HBO paid them a large sum of money in order to delay the DVD release, and ThinkFilm demanded that they be paid instantly. Like, they had to be wired the money within hours of signing the contract, probably so they could use it for another film.

So it was very disappointing. You know, I respect Mark's taste in films, but he should have said to his financiers, "Look, you're gonna have to pay all the people we owe all this money to." It was embarrassing, because there were a lot of people who gave breaks to the film because they believed so strongly in the message. To see them get stiffed, that was a bitter pill to swallow. We are trying to compensate some of the vendors. It's ThinkFilm that owes them money, and we're trying to help them out. So the idea that we're somehow being greedy is ridiculous. We're looking for a businesslike relationship, and we don't feel like we got it.

This whole affair seems like unfortunate testimony to the problems the whole independent film business is having right now. We've got an Oscar-winning independent filmmaker and a respected indie distributor, most likely with similar political and artistic visions of the world, at each other's throats.

Well, Hunter Thompson put it in perspective. Let's see if I can get this right. He said the entertainment business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. There was also, said Hunter, a negative side.

Yeah, let's turn to Thompson and "Gonzo," which you premiered at Sundance to a very strong response, and which opens in a whole bunch of cities on the Fourth of July. Is it a patriotic film?

Absolutely. We're celebrating American independence.

For people who know your work, not just "Taxi to the Dark Side" but your hit film from a few years ago, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," this might seem like a departure. It's lighter subject matter, at least in some ways.

Well, look, someone in Australia described "Enron" as a comedy that turns to farce and ends in horror. Because it was a story about fraud and illusion, it had a certain amount of laughs in it, even though it ends rather darkly. I think of "Gonzo" as a dark comedy. There's certainly a lot of political content, but there are also a lot of laughs in there. I needed those, and Hunter -- I think his great talent was to take this anger he had and to turn it into comedy. That was his weapon.

Yeah, it's a dark comedy about somebody who was clearly a revolutionary writer and journalist and also somebody who wound up...

Blowing his brains out.

Yeah, a dysfunctional alcoholic, drug addict and suicide. What drew you to Thompson in the first place? Were you a fan?

I was a fan, but let's say I wasn't one of those people that read every semicolon. I read "Vegas." I read "Campaign Trail." And I read the reprint of "The Derby." But I hadn't dug into Thompson in a long time. I had read a lot of his later stuff and I was always amused by Garry Trudeau's version in "Doonesbury." I followed the exploits of the good doctor from time to time, but this movie gave me the opportunity to kind of dig in.

As Frank Rich pointed out in a piece not long after Hunter committed suicide -- you remember that guy Jeff Gannon, the sometime male prostitute who was somehow, mysteriously, given a White House press badge? Whenever Scott McClellan or anyone else would get into trouble, Gannon would wave his hand and say, "I think it's terrible. These people are running down this administration. They're trying to do such good." They were getting actors to pose as journalists, and at a time like that, you need somebody who's going to ruthlessly start goring some sacred cows.

I definitely felt, when I watched the film, that Thompson provides an instructive example to today's journalists. Maybe both a positive and a negative example.

A lot of positive and a lot of negative. You can't really imitate Hunter. He was unique, but there were times when he got it dead-on. What was it Frank Mankiewicz [who directed George McGovern's 1972 campaign] said in the film? Hunter's coverage of the '72 campaign was the least factual, but most accurate coverage.

Yeah. At his best, he was able to do that. Highly personal commentary that captured the spirit of things better than objective reporting.

Sometimes even flying into fantasy is useful. Ed Muskie was a peculiar guy, and he had this kind of stone face that would occasionally erupt into rage, or in one famous incident, crying. Hunter's way of dealing with that was not simply to say "Mr. Muskie, with his long, drawn-out face," but was to imagine that somehow Ed Muskie was hooked on this strange Congolese hallucinogen called Ibogaine. He had all the hallmarks of Ibogaine addiction! Rage, a stone face, you know. They said he was deep into it. And then some people in the media picked it up and actually treated it as a story, and I think if you read it in the original, it's pretty clear it's a tall tale in the Mark Twain tradition.

As Hunter says in the movie, when somebody's asking him about it, "Well, I didn't say he was taking anything. I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was taking something, and that was true. Of course, I started the rumor in Milwaukee." So he was playing with all sorts of conventions and having a good time.

Yeah, it was almost like the Onion before its day. Newsweek or Time picked up the story and ran it as if it was for real. And suddenly Ed Muskie was a drug addict.

Right. "It's trouble on the Congo for the senator from Maine!"

Your approach to storytelling, to documentary film, is closely based on hard-hitting investigative journalism. It's really different from Thompson's approach, which is highly personal and deliberately outrageous.

It is different, but it's liberating to think about. And there are moments, I would argue, when my work exhibits, in a formal way, the playfulness of Hunter. In "Enron," there is a moment when we're talking about the enormous risks these guys were taking. And then we cut to this skydiver falling through space. Well, that's not Ken Lay! That guy doesn't work for Enron! We had fun with all these wacky Motocross and extreme-sports things that they were doing. We used bits from horror movies as a playful way of saying, of expressing, what is supposed to be expressed in monotone, third-person narration that dutifully explains the facts. Sometimes if you cut to a guy in the basement of some horror film, pulling these levers, that says more about what these loonies at Enron were saying or doing than describing the details of mark-to-market accounting.

In the Thompson film we also tried to have fun with the tall-tale thing, in a formal way. We found this audiotape of Hunter and [longtime sidekick] Oscar Acosta at a taco stand, where they ask this woman, "We're looking for the American dream. We don't know where it is." And she says, "Well, I think it's over by the psychiatrist's office on State Street." We have the original audiotape, which is fantastic. It was a great find. It's published in the "Vegas" book verbatim, which I didn't even realize. He was tripping, but that was true. But the way we filmed it was, we got some actors and we made it look like a home movie. At first, it plausibly could be. Then suddenly the scene opens up and you're seeing the taco stand from three or four different angles -- inside, outside -- and it's clearly a movie, it's fiction.

Early on in the film, you see this photo of Hunter pointing a gun at a typewriter. We zoom in to his hand holding the gun, and then suddenly the hand becomes real and the gun shoots. It was a way of saying we're going to have some fun, a little bit like Thompson did. I approach this stuff by playing with the form, but being straight about the facts.

Here's one question that I come away with after seeing this film: How much of Thompson's wild-man persona was an act, and how much was it real? You know, he writes about staying up all night in a San Francisco motel, doing crank and typing out the manuscript of "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72." How much is he kind of fronting and playing with that, and how much is he recording what really happened?

It's hard to answer that. I mean, I think he was doing speed in tremendous amounts and going on these binges, but earlier on it was more of an act and less of the real McCoy. He kind of descended into his own character later in life. He was doing all the drugs and all the alcohol all the time, and it started to slow him down. Rather than pretending that he was always on speed, maybe he was on speed a lot of the time. He used to have this big pill bottle. Tim Crouse [Thompson's Rolling Stone reporting partner] talks about how he would gently say, like a father figure, "Don't go for too many of those gray ones, Tim. Those are for people like me, not for you."

So there's no question that he was doing the drugs, but I think there was an act to it, too. He was creating a kind of action-hero figure for himself, and he was pretty serious about the writing. If you look at his output from '65 to '75, it's extraordinary. Somebody who was high all the time just can't crank it out like that.

You know, when I went back to Thompson's work after seeing your film, I read "Campaign Trail" for a piece I was writing about this year's campaign. And one thing that surprised me is that, on the one hand, he's totally spoofing the traditions of campaign journalism and ridiculing his fellow reporters, and on the other hand, he's capable of some remarkable feats of completely mainstream reporting.

Like at the Democratic convention.

Right, that's played completely straight. And sometimes he'll startle you with the things he pulls off. You remember the episode in 1968, when he somehow gets himself into the back seat of a limousine with Richard Nixon and they talk about football the whole way?

Sure, and that was a great credit to Hunter. Unlike a lot of the bloviators on TV today, Hunter was always interested in talking to people outside his tribe, to anybody really. So he pestered Pat Buchanan to get a ride with Nixon, he got in the limo, and for an hour he talks football with Nixon.

And as much as Thompson clearly hated Nixon, he gives him credit: Well, he did know a lot about football!

He describes these little details that Nixon clearly knew about the game, where certain pro players came from, and where they had gone to college. He was impressed.

Speaking of Pat Buchanan: He's in your film, and you might not automatically think of him as one of Thompson's friends. They were diametrically opposed, at least politically, but it's clear that Buchanan respected and liked him.

No question. He loved Hunter. They used to battle it out late at night over a bottle of Wild Turkey.

I bet Buchanan could put it away, too.

I think he could. They would get hammered together and scream at each other about the Cold War. Buchanan's a smart guy, and I think he really was amused by Hunter. He loved him. He also points out that while Hunter was of the left, if you want to put it that way, he leveled some of his hardest hits on liberals, people like Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. He was a pomposity deflater. He went after everybody. Well, he was pretty gentle on George McGovern. Buchanan really liked the way Hunter captured how ridiculous the whole process is. People who are inside the process really do, at heart, understand what a ridiculous thing this political pageant is.

You're right in saying that Thompson arguably had a lot more distaste for mainstream liberals than, in some cases, for right-wingers. He hated Hubert Humphrey so much. Many Democrats felt very wounded by that. You know, Humphrey was a civil rights leader in the Senate, a loyal party soldier. And you have Thompson writing that he was addicted to some exotic kind of speed.

Wallet, he called it. He said they should stuff Hubert Humphrey in a bottle and let him float out in the Pacific Ocean on the Japan Current.

Thompson never stipulated whether there was any truth to that one, but it probably belongs in the same category...

As the stuff he wrote about Muskie. Again, though, it kind of captured something. If you see Humphrey, he's kind of artificially perky all the time.

I felt like we badly needed Hunter this year. I don't know what he would have made out of Clinton vs. Obama, or exactly what outrageous lies he'd be spreading about John McCain. But they'd be merciless.

I agree, but we needed the early Hunter, not the late Hunter. A guy operating at the peak of his powers.

That's right. Your movie is clearly an appreciation, but it's not a hagiography. You depict the decline in his later years, and it's not pretty. Was it the drinking and drugs finally catching up with him, or do you think those things were symptomatic of something else?

At the end of the day, the drinking really did him in. Whether it was the image that he had become obsessed with -- everyone was counting on him to be this gonzo character -- or whether he was afraid he was going to lose his muse if the drugs and drinking stopped, I'm not sure. Because I do think the drugs early on kind of loosened him up. You can see the writing change after the drugs start -- in an interesting way, in a good way. But at the end of the day, he couldn't kick the booze. It was destroying him. His health got worse and worse and worse, and he wasn't ready for that. It wasn't pretty at all.

I can come up with all these rationalizations for him. People are amused by you for keeping it up, for getting up at one o'clock in the afternoon or whatever with your tumbler of Chivas Regal and your little packet of cocaine. It is amusing, but living that life every day takes its toll.

One of the most upsetting things in your film is this moment when you see the wheels fall off for Thompson. It happens when he goes to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman fight in 1974. Such a delicious subject for Hunter Thompson, such a strange cultural event and enormous athletic event. The conflict between the wily veteran and the young giant, with an ending that shocked the world. A fight that itself became the subject of a great documentary.

"When We Were Kings." Which we quote in the film.

And he never wrote anything about it, not a word. What the hell happened?

Well, I think he'd already become something else, you know. It was like when we hear athletes talk about themselves in the third person. Hunter had become more important than the story. He was clearly high as a kite, snorting coke the whole time. They had these huge duffle bags full of marijuana. While the fight was going on, he playfully emptied one into the pool and just watched the dope go through the drains while he was sipping his Scotch. So he was high, way high, and there was a mixture of narcissism and a growing disability, where he was just having too much fun not doing his work.

But I also think something weird happened there, and this is just a guess. But by all accounts, he loved Muhammad Ali, and he was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. He was thinking, you know, about all these people he had backed, all the noble losers who had lost. And coming into the fight. everybody said Foreman was just going to take Ali apart. Here was a guy who was so big, and so brutal. He had demolished Joe Frazier. So maybe Hunter decided that this is not going to be any kind of fight and so screw it.

And after the fight happened, it must have had a peculiar effect on his psyche. It's like, once you stop believing, and then what you formerly believed in wins -- it's like being a Red Sox fan for 20 years and thinking, Oh, I'm so tired of this now. And then you start rooting for the Yankees, just so that they'll win. Right? And then the Red Sox beat the Yankees? Well, you can't take any pleasure in that anymore. It's kind of debilitating. It shows a loss of faith, and I think Hunter had that. There was a moment when he just lost faith, and that was hard for him to reckon with.

So he got fucked up there. And then he didn't recover from that, I think. Not only did he not file anything -- I mean, zippo -- but I think he had also undermined his own sense of commitment to the other side of the American psyche. To the sense of possibility, rather than the fear and loathing.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Pulp Orwell


Jason Lundberg just blogged about a wonderfully lurid and pulpish book cover for Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1954 by Signet, that he happened to randomly find on Amazon. Significant is the artwork and over-the-top copy on the back, which is quite different from almost every other edition of this novel that I've seen.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Shipping children by postal mail: illegal since 1913


From the Smithsonian's Flickr stream of historic, public domain photos, a shot commemorating the end of being able to ship your children by postal mail:

This city letter carrier posed for a humorous photograph with a young boy in his mailbag. After parcel post service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service. With stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination. The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples.

Monday, 16 June 2008

I Can't Sleep Because


Because my brain has trouble getting rid of bad memories. They could be old memories or new ones, if they pop into my head, I experience the same anxiety (or close to it) as if that thing had happened recently. When that happens, I feel a slight tightness in my chest and that cascading sense of worry begins to grip me, making sleep very difficult.

For days after that, going to bed comes with a similar sense of foreboding, even if the memory has gone away. In a sense, my psyche has "learnt" to associate falling asleep with the anxiety of the bad memories. Every night I don't fall asleep perpetuates and strengthens that learning.

The key is to break the chain and unlearn this anxiety. But how?

Another issue I'm dealing with right now, is a dislike of situations where life is celebrated on any spontaneous level. It's not a suicidal tendency per se, it's more an eschewing of any situation where people are excited by something, and seem to be enjoying themselves. I don't begrudge them their excitement, nor do I envy it (though, interestingly, I'm aware I should be envious), but I am anxious to get away from it, in order to go somewhere quiet and non-invasive.

I'm also finding people harder and harder to deal with. I can do a phenomenal job engaging with people, genuinely and naturally, but in terms of forming a bond or initiating a connection, I favor isolation every time. I crave companionship, but I can't stand people with their demands and their noise and their cluttered lives. It feels like such a burden.

For the most part, I function well with people, and even enjoy myself without really trying. I mean, despite the sourpuss connotations of this post, I am a lively, engaging and entertaining person. I'm just concerned that as time goes by, my taste veers more towards isolation than integration.

I know I've said this many, many times before...but the next few months should be telling.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Being a Man


Human males have yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm like some animals, but their biological imperative for sex has made them into the creatures they are today.

By T. C. Flory


The animal kingdom is crawling with kink: threesomes, sadomasochism, spontaneous sex changes, and coital decapitation, for starters. There are also male ducks with corkscrew-shaped penises and sea creatures that shoot acidic semen leaving their partner pregnant and covered in burns. Nature even has its own date rape drug: the Great Barrier Reef's yellow slug delivers a sedative to its desired mate with a quick penile stab.

It's all in the name of successfully passing along genes -- much like these creatures' human counterparts. The male of our species has yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm, but their biological imperative to sow their seeds has led to similarly mind-boggling behavior, like paying $2,150 for seduction seminars. Faye Flam, a science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, charts this carnal quest in "The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man," and details the trade-off experienced by most males: They invest less than females in reproduction, but pay for it (among humans, sometimes literally) by working harder to have sex in the first place. After all, some male mammals need only ejaculate, while the female is responsible for gestation and nursing.

In addition to engaging in pop-culture discussions (like Christopher Hitchens' assertion that women aren't funny) and scientific meditations, Flam also infiltrates a pickup artist's boot camp, tours the world's only penis museum (Iceland's Institute of Phallology), and grills experts on the sex lives of our Stone Age ancestors. There's very little that escapes her survey of men's sexual selves, including pornography, monogamy, parenting and homosexuality.

We spoke with Flam by phone from her desk in the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom.

In your book, you mention the idea that everybody -- including animals -- wants to be the male when it comes to sex. Why is that?

It has to do with a couple of common male traits that run through the whole biological world. One of them is that the sperm are smaller than the egg and for most male animals that translates into not having to invest as much energy or work into the babies. Everybody wants to do less work. It's a universal laziness.

You really only have a chance to see that sexual choice play out in these crazy sea worms that can be either male or female. Before they have sex, they fight it out, and the winner always plays the male role. Most other animals don't get the chance to fight for the right to be the male during reproduction.

There are a few animals that turn the tables and the female sticks the male with all the work. More often than not, though, the females not only have to either incubate the babies or create the eggs, but they also end up stuck with more of the work. The males can pass on their genes without investing quite as much.

What about the question of pleasure. Does that play into the male sexual advantage?

It's hard to say what is going on in animals' heads when they're having sex. Who knows whether it's any more pleasurable for these sea worms -- if they feel any pleasure -- to be the male during sex, and that's why they fight over the position or whether it's just an instinct.

One of the funny things about sex is that we have an urge to do it, we want it, but it doesn't always turn out that well. You can chase and chase after someone, but it doesn't necessarily mean the sex will be particularly pleasurable. That may be something that's going on with a lot of men. But they chase it anyway.

Your book mentions the idea that sexual anticipation, rather than realization, might give us greater pleasure.

They're doing a lot of research in an area called neuro-economics where they're looking at what really gives people pleasure and why we spend our money the way we do. Apparently, an animal's brain really reacts and the pleasure centers turn on during the period when he's anticipating a reward, not when he actually gets it. That's a growing area of research right now and it applies well to sex.

Pickup artist Mystery's "Venusian Arts" -- which you point out should technically be called "Venereal Arts" -- loom large in your book. Does it have a biological basis?

The pickup artists illustrate a couple of things really well. First, they illustrate the idea that because males invest less in offspring, their success in evolutionary terms is more tenuous. Males are more likely to get completely frozen out of reproduction. So they are likely to end up evolving to chase after sex in a way that females might not. The pickup artists illustrate the way that men are likely to invest a lot of their money and time in going after plain old sex.

Second, there were some things they did that psychologists believe might really work -- and they would probably work for females, too, in some cases. Their concept of playing hard to get was tested in a lab. There was a speed-dating setup in which people pretty successfully guessed how picky their opposite-sex counterparts were. The participants they liked the most were the ones they thought were the pickiest. So, projecting that you're picky could actually be helpful.

The pickup artists also attempt to play on people's tendencies to copy each other. They would show up somewhere with a lot of female friends, so that women would look at them and think, "Wow, he must be popular. Those women must see something in him." That's also something that works on some animals. A researcher actually surrounded male birds with fake female birds, and the real females went for the males surrounded by decoys. The females were attuned to thinking they had to have what everybody else wanted.

You mention some people's desire to return to the "simple" days of hunting and gathering, when men and women had strict sex roles. How accurate is this popular perception of those times?

I had a long interview with an archaeologist, James Adovasio, who co-wrote a book on the topic called "The Invisible Sex." He exploded all of these myths. From what we know from archaeological records, and modern people that hunt and gather, women were pretty independent. They could get fish, small animals and plants on their own. They really weren't dependent on men -- at least to eat, anyway. The idea that somehow in the old days the men's hunting was so terribly important is a myth. Our picture of prehistoric man was built up during the late 1800s, so it was a reflection of what men thought life should be more than what it really was.

That opens the way for a lot of interesting evolutionary forces. If women aren't dependent on men then they can afford to be picky, they can decide to only mate with the men who are skilled singers, attractive or good fathers. It puts men under an evolutionary pressure of a different kind.

It's a commonly made assertion that testosterone is "poison." How has that idea been challenged?

I traced the term "testosterone poisoning" to Alan Alda, of all people. He used it in an article for Ms. magazine and it really caught on. Subsequent research suggests testosterone simply needs to be balanced. If you shoot yourself up with lots of testosterone, that's probably going to really hurt your health, but if your testosterone gets too low, it can also be associated with health problems and depression. It looks like there is a healthy amount for men.

The level of testosterone a man has ebbs and flows over the course of the day and his lifetime.

Speaking of testosterone, why did risk-taking evolve in men?

That's the subject of a lot of speculation in evolutionary psychology. A lot of it comes down to showing-off behavior. It's a peacock type behavior -- among peacocks, the male with the best tail gets all the females. It's possible that over the long history of humanity men who did incredibly risky things and survived would be like the peacock with the best tail. They would be the heroes, whether it was for beating up someone from an enemy group or hunting a dangerous animal.

Males are under more evolutionary pressure than women to stand out from the crowd. Every study shows that men are more likely to do risky things of all kinds. Women simply have a little more common sense when it comes to drinking, driving, guns -- that sort of thing.

What are we to make of the fact that the Y chromosome is actually shrinking?

I've talked at great length to the first scientist to propose that the Y chromosome was shrinking, and she was shocked that people got so up in arms about it. It would take millions of years or maybe hundreds of thousands of years for it to completely disappear -- in any case, it won't cause males to go extinct. We know of two other mammals that have actually lost their Y chromosome and, somehow, they keep making males and females. Scientists aren't sure what they're doing, but there must be some new genetic switch that creates males.

Do alpha males exist in human society as they do in the animal world?

In animals like gorillas and chimpanzees and dogs, it's much more clear-cut -- the alpha male has to beat everybody else up. Then he gets access to all the females. You can see similar stuff happening with humans, but instead of the tough guys, it's the artists, rock stars and actors who get all the attention.

Some animals have alpha females, but it's not too common. The bonobos, one of our closest relatives, have alpha females. They're actually more powerful than the males. The females dominate the whole group.

What inspires monogamy and fatherly behavior in animals?

It can have something to do with how much care the offspring actually need. If you're a male bird and all of your offspring are going to die if you don't take care of them, then your genes will not pass on to the next generation. You will be a Darwinian failure. In that case, only males who stick around to help will manage to pass on their genes.

In some cases, like in some fish, the females just abandon the eggs, and if the male doesn't take care of them, they won't survive. Sometimes the female turns the tables.

And humans are somewhere in the middle when it comes to sex and commitment?

Currently, yes. There's a lot of monogamy and paternal care, but we're not quite as monogamous as birds and some other animals. Women can have sex, have babies and get by without a man. Monogamy depends a lot on social groups and whether you have help in raising offspring. Humans are so flexible. There are ways women can work around the need for fatherly care.

In a lot of groups, there is serial monogamy. In a lot of cultures around the world it's pretty common that people go through a couple relationships in their lifetime. People can be monogamous but not mate for life.

You raise the possibility that DNA paternity testing and contraceptives could, respectively, change men and women's sexual drives. Can you explain that?

It goes back to the common themes that run through males and females. One of those is the uncertainty of paternity: Females know which baby is theirs, males don't necessarily. Paternity testing might make men more afraid of certain types of sex, like sex with women they would like to never see again. It might not make them less interested in sex, but rather more circumspect about whom they have sex with.

On the other hand, it could be that women have traditionally been more circumspect about sex because, until more recently, ending up pregnant was an ever-present possibility. Birth control takes away some of the risk.

What might cloning and artificial insemination mean for men's and women's sex drives?

Both would probably have a similar effect in that they would amplify men's perceived risk of not having any kids. It might make their evolutionary existence even more tenuous. Women could have reproductive independence. A man can't use cloning to have a baby but women could, in theory.

It seems it could make men even more competitive. I think it makes men insecure, the idea that in the future they could be left out of the equation completely.

This article originally appeared on Salon.