Friday, March 30, 2007

Every Woman Loves a Fascist (Architect) 

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Instant Message Transcript:
Patron: Hi, I am high school teacher from Germany. I am studying a lot about America at school and would need access to the newspaper database to get articles. Right now I am doing a project on the 1992 race riots ... which means I would need original newspaper articles from back then. Is there any way to be allowed access to your databases from Germany?

Librarian: I apologize, but those databases are accessible only to our library card holders, whose tax dollars pay for them. (I provided her with a link to our cardholder eligibility)
Best regards!

Patron: Is there a way to get a card even from abroad? Through friends in the city or something? Is there any way you can make a special case for me? I need these articles.

Librarian: I apologize, but no. That violates are terms with the databases. It would be illegal for me to do so.

Patron: Illegal such as your country’s war in Iraq?

GRRRRRRAAAAAAHHH. Believe me, I loathe this neocon quagmire as much as the rest of the world, but I will not have a GERMAN getting on her high horse with me, especially for reasons so petty and self serving.

This reminds me of a New York Times article I read about piracy and intellectual property rights in China. When the journalist asked a Chinese publisher about rampant piracy in China, the publisher "plunged into a polemic about my exterminating the American Indian, angrily stabbing his palm with his finger.” Marriage counselors call this "everything and the kitchen sink" fighting, and highly discourage against it. Instead, they encourage couples to stay on the topic at hand and not drag the past into the current discussion.

Don't you just, in spite of yourself, love this Nazi propaganda poster here? I hate to admit it but this sort of fascist architecture - so sheer, so sleek, so streamlined - has always made me a little weak in the knees.

Pynchon is incomprehensible to me and previous attempts to tackle his works have led to tears of frustration but I might have to revisit him after I read sentences with brilliant similes like this:

"With his own private horrors further unfolded into an ideology of the mortal and uncontinued self, Brock came to visit, and strangely to comfort, in the half-lit hallways of the night, leaning in darkly in above her like any of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture." Thomas Pynchon, Vineland.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fragile Patrons 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comA patron called and wanted to know the details of Adam Walsh's disappearance and murder. As my colleague read her an account, the patron began emitting these huge, choking sobs .

"S-s-sorry. It's just so suh-uh-ad!"

I think we can all agree it was a sickening tragedy, but how does such a sensitive soul cope in this world? A lot of our patrons seem this way. Blake put it best:

"Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night."

(This is my one of my other favorite fragments of poetry)

"Sweet is true love though given in vain, and sweet is death that taketh away pain."

I was riding my bike the other day and I spotted two silver haired gentleman, obviously a couple, slowly strolling arm and arm on the sidewalk. They were both dressed quite elegantly in classic summer suits. The were like two elegant old queens off to some grand Southern social event - Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams on their way to the steeplechase races. One of the men was frailer than the other and shuffled and leaned on his friend for support. It was then I noticed that he had the vacant stare of someone completely lost to senile dementia. Something about the gentle and patient way his friend escorted him, and the special care that he took dressing him for their evening walk, made me burst into tears.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Suffering for your Art 

From the NYT's review of Vollman's latest:
"For decades, and at great personal risk, Vollmann has made a calling and a career of mixing with people whom most of us avoid and of listening, at length, to the unheard, whom he typically, and appropriately, pays to speak to him."
This is especially true while he was researching The Royal Family and Whores for Gloria. He immersed himself in San Francisco's Tenderloin, went native and smoked crack and paid prostitutes to have sex with him. And not just once but many, many, many times, just to be sure what if felt like so he could write with the authenticity of experience. What selfless dedication to his craft!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Very Hungry Caterpillar 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comPoor, poor Spoon was not invited to the little girl next door’s party. She spent the day sighing heavily as she watched the little dressed up girls run around the yard and eat cake.

Spoon really needs a stripping. She now resembles an extremely fuzzy, extremely poisonous caterpillar. When she walks her hair ripples and undulates just like the stinging hairs of a caterpillar. If I catch her out of the corner of my eye for an instant I’ll get a panicked, insane urge to smash her with my shoe.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI had a similar problem with some oven mitts E’s mother gave us for Christmas last year. They were yellow and black, the exact same color combination of yellowjackets, a particularly vicious, territorial species of wasps that infested my home town. (One of the high school’s mascot was even named the Yellowjackets). We hung the mitts up next to the stove and every time I walked by and caught that flash of yellow and black the primitive part of my brain would scream, “DANGER, AGONY, STINGING, RUN” and I would jump out of my skin. They were great mitts but they upset me so much we finally had to give them away.

Spoon on blender cleaning detail:
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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe other night at dinner the conversation somehow turned toward pigs. Pigs’ appetites are legendary, but something we certainly can’t fault them for since humans are the ones who have selectively bred them that way. At time their voracity can be put to productive use, like at my grandmother's farm property. One of the ponds had became infested with water moccasins, a very aggressive, territorial species of poisonous snake that has been known to chase 'trespassing' humans onto dry land. The pond, once a delightful swimming hole, had become a seething cauldron of snakes. My grandmother was discussing the situation with her neighbor. “Let my pigs take care of that. Pigs will eat anything.” The pigs were set loose on the property and in less than a week the pigs had devoured every single snake. They then started swimming out to an anchored styrofoam and wood raft in the middle of the pond and taking huge bites out of the Styrofoam until they sank it. They ate everything in sight and thank God no children wandered onto the property because the pigs probably would have devoured them as well.

E's uncle used to keep pigs on the family farm outside of Nashville. One night during a terrible rainstorm the pigs escaped their pen and the entire herd galloped across the highway to the neighbor’s yard on a foraging raid. E’s uncle got a phone call in the middle of the night from the panicked and furious neighbor. “You better get out here right now! Your pigs – sob - are digging up our grandpa!” The pigs had broken into the family plot and were trying to get at the body of the family’s recently deceased patriarch which their snouts could smell through the earth like a mouthwatering truffle. What a scene that must have been, all of those pigs squealing and rooting and tearing up the grave in the driving rain, backlit by flashes of lightning. It must have been like something out of a horror movie. E’s uncle had to drive up all the way from Nashville in the middle of the night to go round up the lot of them. That was the last year that E’s uncle kept pigs.

Suggested reading: The Good, Good Pig. Naturalist Sy Montgomery beautiful memoir of a pig she adopts. An ailing runt that her pig farming neighbors don’t have the heart to take back behind the barn and brain with a shovel, Christopher Hogsworth is adopted by Sy and her husband. He grows into a loveable 500 pound monster who alternately delights and terrorizes her small town in Vermont. Warning: May put you off your bacon. It did for me for the most part, but I still like proscuitto. I'm like the loathesome Walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. I'll still eat it but feel really, really bad about it.

Drag Envy 

The Bikram studio I attend recently acquired an industrial humidifier which, during class, sits in the corner and hisses and spews a column of steam like a chained dragon. The studio is now as sultry and steamy as Danang, a big improvement from the searing, dry, pre-humidifier days. The owner used to be in the HVAC business and installed this system that could probably roast every student alive if the instructor got careless with the settings. Before the humidifier I had to be careful not to wear earrings made out of conducting metals unless I wanted burned earlobes. The floor would burn my feet like I was standing on coals and I would have to hop around. One time I had my feet next to one of the vents and it was like my soles were being hit by a hairdryer, like some especially cruel form of bastinado. The woman lying next to me caught my eye and we both burst into amazed laughter.

I adore the heat, though. I feel like I sweat out so much toxic crud and it gives me a high like no other, like I’ve just slammed a bunch of primo heroin (or so I’ve read). When I stagger out of class I often have to step over all the nodding junkies that congregate in the alley next to the studio, a popular stop for needle exchange. “HA! Higher than you, suckas!” I thought to myself as I passed them. Of course, as it so often happens, my petty superiority instantly and karmically bit me in the ass because immediately afterwards I collided with this neighborhood drag queen street walker whose beauty and fashion sense I find extremely intimidating. She is always dressed to the nines, and that day had a beautiful shawl she had probably crocheted herself wrapped fashionably around her 20 inch waist. She glared at me and strutted past, waggling her hips like a runway model. This particular drag queen always stirs deep feelings of inadequacy in me about my feminine allure and overall appearance. She puts me to shame and makes me feel like I’m not ‘working it,’ that I’m frittering away my God-given attributes. When I look at her and see what she’s doing with what she’s got I always feel like I’m lazily squandering my feminine allure. After our run-in I slinked away, covered in sweat, my hair a greasy mess and my face all ruddy and inflamed from the heat. I caught my reflection in a store window and realized that my bright red face resembled those of my alcoholic patrons who acquire those exposure sunburns from passing out face up in the sun for hours.

To console myself, I stopped at my favorite cheese shop to investigate their new cheeses. I like my cheeses sweaty, oozing and pungent, the varieties that smell like something the dogs dug up from the yard, the kind that are prohibited by law from carrying on public transportation. Among their dazzling array of foul cheeses I discovered an awesomely putrid new one, The Stinking Bishop, that was so good it made me gag. (Wouldn’t The Stinking Bishop also make a good pub name?) While I was sniffing and poking more cheeses these two impeccably dressed, fashionably emaciated French girls joined me at the counter. And it must be true that those bitches don't get fat because they gorged on about a pound each of samples. They looked like they had just stepped out of the offices of French Vogue and I looked like I had just crawled out of a sewer. Anyway, I felt real good about myself yesterday. The French and the drag queens have shamed me into putting more of an effort into my looks. I have become quite lazy about my appearance, so I guess I'm lucky to live in a town teeming with both types to give me a good kick in the ass when I need it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Pox on You 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI finally finished off Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. As fascinating a read as it was, even a morbid gorehound like myself who likes to curl up before bedtime with books like this could only handle all the chronicles of suffering in small, carefully timed chunks. Before I read the book it never really dawned on me how profoundly significant syphilis was from a historical standpoint, and how it caused as much societal upheaval as the Black Plague. As much as I hate to agree with the Religious Right, promiscuity is one hell of a vector for disease. Syphilis' effects on sexual mores linger today, and is as much an argument for safe sex and monogamy as there ever was.

During the first major European outbreak in Naples in 1494, before the disease burned down and worked out a more agreeable arrangement with its host, the symptoms of of syphilis were immediate, horrific and virulent. Mortality often occurred in as little as two weeks.

From Rats, Lice and History.
The ulcerations which often resulted from the eruptions covered the body from the head to the knees. Crusts formed and the sick presented so dreadful an appearance that their companions abandoned them and even the lepers avoided them. Extensive losses of tissue in the nose, throat, and mouth followed the skin manifestations, and in the train of these came painful swellings of the bones, often involving the skull. In survivors, emaciation and exhaustion lasted for many years.

I also read in Pox that infant rape, that barbarous home remedy for AIDS you hear about going on in Africa, also occurred in the early days of the syphilis outbreak in Europe. It turns out that ‘virgin cure’ for venereal disease isn’t something just currently being promulgated by witch doctors in Africa.

The complexity of the disease and its varying horrific manifestations are truly mind boggling. Syphilis is knows as the Great Imitator because during its decades long progression it mimics an amazing number of other painful conditions and diseases. Malaria, gout, insanity, clinical depression, heart disease and conjunctivitis are just a taste of the diseases syphilis can mimic and be misdiagnosed as. The needless agony that those doctors allowed in the Tuskeegee Experiments makes me believe that those responsible should be made an example of and hanged Nuremberg style.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHistorians believe that this figure from the Isenheim Altarpiece, the unparalleled masterpiece that Grunewald created for hospital chapel of Saint Anthony's Monastery, is suffering from syphilis. St Anthony is the patron saint of skin diseases, and the monastery served as a hospital for those afflicted with both ergotism and syphilis.
I wonder if the agony of the syphilitics inspired Grunewald's truly grotesque painting, “Dead Lovers.” Note the clammy toad suctioned on to the woman’s genitals, the ghastly rictus of their faces, the snakes whipping and writhing through their corpses. Witnessing the terrible toll that venereal disease could enact must have made quite an impression upon Grunewald.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ain't it a crying shame 

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I lost patience with one of our patrons the other evening and I feel a bad about it. I believe that this patron is a transient who blew into town couple of weeks ago. Since then, he's in the library from the time the doors open until security hustles him out at closing. He has an asymmetrical bowl haircut, the buggy eyes of someone suffering from a thyroid condition and a garbage bag filled with all of his earthly possessions slung over his back. Although he seems nice enough he has the disconcerting habit of slouching up to the desk right before we close and reciting:

“Yellow and green strings come out of sores. You can always tell that the pope has blessed it because a recognizable string, sometimes green, sometimes yellow will be coming out of the weeping sore. There are sores all over the bodies of believers and that is proof that they have been blessed by the pope. Check your body for these sores so you will see if you have been so blessed. Pus and strings, strings and pus.”

I had heard the speech four nights in a row so when he approached the desk the other night and took a deep breath I pointed my finger at him and said, “NO!” He drew back like I had slapped him and then glared back at me indignantly. "God! I wasn't going to say that! You didn't know what I was going to say!" He then lurked by the side of the desk giving me the stink eye until we closed. I don't know why I just didn't let him say his piece. In these cases I usually just grit my teeth and internally recite, “There but for the grace of God” but there is something unseemly about his little speech, as if he’s a flasher, showing me something nasty from his brain and getting off on it. I get the feeling that he enjoys the shock value and the look of revulsion his words cause.

I must be suffering from a case of compassion fatigue. Since the city uses as (unofficially, expediently, cynically) as its mental institution/homeless shelter we get so many lost, mentally ill people in libraries. Often we become the only ones who will listen to them. Usually I just let them run their script and smile and nod, but I just wasn't in the mood to hear his gross delusion for the fifth night in a row.

How cruel to have your mind turn on you like that, what a special walking hell it must be. The brain is such delicate, daedal piece of machinery. It seems so tragically easy for something to go haywire, and once it does your entire personality, who you are - your soul, your essence - can be altered into this grotesque caricature of yourself.

I read a heart wrenching, devastatingly honest piece in Harper’s a few years ago about a woman who chronicles her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the most perversely cruel disease that exists. She described how, before the disease, the sound of her mother calling her name used to be the sweetest sound in the world. After her mother got sick she would follow the author around the house repeating it until she couldn’t stand the sound anymore, until it made her want to tear out her hair in rage and frustration. “This person looked like my mother, sounded like my mother, but she was becoming everything that had been anathema to her: intrusive, complaining.”

She expanded the piece into a book called Death in Slow Motion which I will never, ever have the guts to read.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comIn my public internet class the other day I demonstrated the power of using quotations in a search by having my pupils type "the woods are lovely, dark and deep" in their Google search fields.

"Does anybody recognize this phrase?" I asked.

"Yeah! They said it in that Chuck Bronson movie!!!” an elderly African American man from Georgia sitting on the front row shouted.

“Actually, it’s from the poem by Robert Fro - YOU'RE RIGHT! Telefon! About all of the sleeper cells!”

I hadn't thought of that Chuck Bronson classic of Cold War paranoia in years. In the move, these seemingly all-American ordinary citizens, going about their day, making a pancake breakfast for their kids, for exacmple, receive a phone call.“The woods are lovely, dark and deep” a silkily but sinister voice (Donald Pleasance) on the other end of the line tells them.

Then their eyes glaze over and they stumble out to their car to go blow up the local military installation and themselves along with it.

This brainwashing idea has been spoofed many times, most memorably in the Naked Gun. Here's a great New Yorker article on brainwashing and popular culture.

Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine-gun.
Raymond Chandler

Times may be scary now, but I still think it was much more terrifying growing up with the threat of global nuclear annihilation. It didn’t help that a high school teacher of mine, one of those types that goes into teaching to push their little agendas on impressionable minds, had me convinced that nuclear war was imminent. He assigned all of this material to scare the hell out of us and supply us with a lifetime of radioactive nightmares. We were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. I remember wishing, rather selfishly now that I think of it, that the Reds would drop the bomb and just get it over with so I wouldn’t have to write my gigantic final term paper that I had procrastinated even getting started (typically) until the night before it was due.

Mr. Harmon's reading list to scare the shit out of young ladies:

A Canticle for Leibowitz
You think you’re reading a charming little story about a Medieval monastery full of manuscript illuminators until it dawns on you that this is actually the post apocalyptic future, the 26th century to be exact, and the manuscripts the monks are illuminating are bomb blueprints that survived “The Great Burning.” (You can guess what that was).

By the Waters of Babylon
Short story of a young aboriginal tribesman on a vision quest who travels to a mysterious and perilous place called the Island of the Dead. I wonder if this is story is where Miller, the author of Leibowitz, got the idea.

Alas, Babylon
Survivors in a small Florida town deal with the aftermath of nuclear holocaust.

On the Beach
Australians survived the initial blast, but they soon realize that they're doomed by a radiactive cloud headed straight for them. The book revolves around how the characters spend their last time on earth before they take their government supplied cyanide pills.

How are we humans ever going to get past our death drive? Even that Frost poem, when you get down to it, is a hypnotic love poem to death. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, for sure. As the Abbot Dom Zerchi so poignantly asks in A Canticle for Leibowitz, "Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix, in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again."

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