Great Strides

Yesterday marked the 43rd anniversary of the first human step upon another world. I remember it vividly. It’s hard to convey now the extent to which much of the world was caught up in the Apollo program at the time. (And it would be hard to go back to that time and make people believe how little has been accomplished in manned space exploration since.)

Though the Apollo program was conceived as an American propaganda machine, the vision gradually became reshaped in the public consciousness, so that Apollo 11’s historic firsts were celebrated as a unique and inspiring human accomplishment.

Some years back I made up this image in an attempt to express the breadth of that accomplishment. The left side is a picture of the earliest known hominid footprint, from Laetoli in Tanzania. (At least, it was the oldest known at the time I made the image. It may have been superseded since.) It’s 3.7 million years old.

On the right, of course, is Neil Armstrong’s iconic footprint on the moon from July 1969 — a footprint that’s still there, and that might still be there 3.7 million years from now.

Taken together, they represent a stride that encompasses all of human development. (I know it can be argued that the Laetoli footprint is from a line that died out, but we’re talking symbols here, okay?)

These days it’s pretty easy to look at news headlines and despair. For all of our ability, we can be a pretty wretched species sometimes. But I like to look at this image and realize what we can accomplish when we put our (so far) unique minds to it, and take pride in our achievements while being grateful for our unbelievable luck. (One example of our great good fortune, out of thousands: We’ve had time to evolve and develop a civilization between major catastrophic collision events. Better luck is if we have time for that civilization to get to a point where it can get us off the planet, avert such a catastrophe, or both. Assuming, of course, that it doesn’t get too smart for its own good and wipe itself out in any number of ingenious ways.)

Great strides.

Reading @ The Rellik

The Benicia Literary Arts Organization very kindly asked if I would read at their second public reading at The Rellik Tavern in Benicia. They’ve only done poetry so far and wanted to see how it would work if they incorporated fiction into the program.

It’s weird, but I was nervous because it was a home-town crowd. For some reason I can go into San Francisco, or to a convention, and do my dog & pony show in front of a bunch of strangers just fine. (Well, not completely fine — I always get a kind of racehorse-at-the-gate nervousness before any performance.) But where I live? Whole nother ball game, for some reason.

Luckily, I’ve bombed at The Rellik before, as a DJ, so if I sucked, I wouldn’t be on unfamiliar ground.

I read two short pieces. I videotaped (I always pause before I type that — there’s no tape anymore, but what else do you call it?) both, but there was so much background noise on the first that I don’t want to put it up.

I’m really happy with how the second one, “I’m Sorry to Have to Tell You This,” turned out. There’s audio of it on my media page, but I much prefer the video. It was the best performance of the story I’ve done, and the audience was great.

Big thanks to the BLA, and to Lois Requist, Benicia’s new Poet Laureat, for asking me to read.

Channel Changer (pt. 2)

(Continuing my look at the half-dozen or so tv shows I watch, and why I watch them.)

Mad Men
Like Breaking Bad, I’d heard about Mad Men for a while before I watched it. It’s a great show about a Madison Avenue advertising company, people said.

I worked in advertising for about six years, as a temp and then full-time, mostly at a boutique agency in Pasadena. I was a proofreader and a copywriter. I grew to hate that job possibly more than any job I ever had, which is why I avoided Mad Men at first. The very thought made my stomach grumble.

But like any work of art of any depth, Mad Men isn’t really about its subject matter. It’s about advertising, all right, and the writers & researchers have definitely done their homework. I clearly remember some of the campaigns they reference (Heinz baked beans, Volkswagen, Right Guard, the Kodak Carousel). And the maneuvering to get and keep accounts (adjusted for dramatic inflation) feels pretty authentic.

The show’s production values also are terrific. Set dressing is practically a character all by itself. Again, the research here seems thorough, accurate, and authentic. The show conjures 1960 through the mid-60s almost eerily. I’ve gotten uncomfortable watching sometimes because the show’s often awkward and tense office parties so closely match my memories of my parents’ similar parties (my father was a VP at Eastern Air Lines & my mom was an executive secretary at EAL).

Period dramas often get the accessories right but the fundamentals wrong. Actors wear authentic clothes but just don’t act or talk the way people did; they’re still contemporary. Mad Men gets it right across the board.

And this gets me to what Mad Men is really about. I think it wants to show us how different the world was 50 years ago. How people treated themselves, women’s near-subjugation, men’s role-confinement, the way they looked at the future — these aren’t subtle differences, they’re profound. It’s a depiction of a generation. I’m looking at my parents here, but I’m not seeing them from outside. They aren’t old people with dated notions and unrelatable values. With Mad Men I’ve been moving along with them, feeling what they feel in all its glorious unexamined contradiction. In Mad Men, I am my parents. I’m shown who they were as people, in the context of their time, as a part of the expanding and ultimately diminishing wave front that is a generation. I’m seeing how the world got away from them, how my generation usurped them, how the next will usurp me.

I think that’s a brilliant accomplishment.

Mad Men accomplishes this through some amazing character development. The writing is great, but what makes it stand out is that it’s often opaque. Sometimes you aren’t sure why a character has done something. You get the feeling the character doesn’t know, either. Yet it fits. In a show about people who create images intended to manipulate, meaningful symbols abound. Yet, like advertising, they often exist iconically, without explanation and sometimes without context, yet never without meaning — even if the meaning isn’t readily apparent. I think that takes courage, and confidence, and trust.

Channel Changer

I used to be one of those people who took obnoxious snobby pride in the fact that he didn’t watch television. For the longest time I didn’t even own one.

That hasn’t been true for a while now. And not only will I not offer up my former excuse (“The worst book is better than the best television show”), I’ll flatly contradict it. There’s stuff on tv now that is friggin amazing. The last few years have seen some of the best tv shows ever.

I’m not going to make a case for living on your ass and devouring shows. I like to think that no one on his deathbed looks back on his life as the lights are dimming and thinks, “I sure watched me some great tee vee!” But, y’know, I talk about books & writing a lot here, and sometimes about movies, and it’s just stupid to disregard a medium in which really good things are happening. Being a DJ has taught me that no medium is by its nature good or bad, and being a DJ and being published in science fiction & fantasy have taught me that there are no bad genres, just bad practitioners.

So I’m gonna spend a couple of entries not admitting to which shows I watch, but boasting about them.¬† So nyah nyah.

Did *your* chemistry teacher look like this?

Breaking Bad
I heard about how good this show was for years, but I had no desire to watch it. A chemistry teacher who becomes a meth cooker — oh, look, Weeds on speed! No, no, people said: The writing is great, the show is really dark & gritty & interesting, and everyone’s a bad guy. Oh, look, I said, The Sopranos on speed! (I was funny about The Sopranos. Beautifully produced, written, & acted, and I didn’t care, because I wanted everyone on the show dead. I only watched a few of them.)

Then Netflix streamed all the Breaking Bad episodes and I watched the first one. I was hooked in five minutes. (That’s right, kid, the first one’s free.) The opening was one of the strongest hooks I’ve ever seen on TV. And it’s not about bad guys doing bad things. It’s about how you become a bad guy. About losing your perspective. About the incremental path to evil.

And what makes it devastatingly effective is that it isn’t moustache-twirling, vein-popping, sociopathic TV Loon evil. It’s suburban two-car-garage evil, evil across the street from you, evil that belongs to your rideshare program and cheers the little league team. Not pure evil, because that’s a fiction concocted by lazy storytellers and simplistic moralists. This is evil alloyed with good, evil where the worst traits are actually caricatures of your own ambitions and desires, commingling with your best intentions. Fuck Sauron, folks. I’m never gonna meet him and neither are you. But I’ve met Walter White a hundred times, at least — and that’s scary.

To follow Walter White’s arc is to become acquainted with a perfectly understandable evil. You’re taken along so effectively that I imagine it’s startling to watch the first episodes again to see how naive Walter seems, how relatable, compared to the alpha-male Machiavellian bastard he is now.

The writing is spot-on, the characters are laminated and contradictory and their evolution is (mostly) believable (I have some issues with the rapid ballistics of Walter’s wife, Skyler). Its worldview is sparse, Spartan, bleak, dark darker darkest.

I can’t wait for the season premiere Sunday night.

Big Media Fail (Again)

So I rented Safe House the other day. Absolutely generic film done in shaky-cam (which I loathe). It had surprisingly good hand-to-hand fight scenes, and it looked as if the DVD’s bonus material had a featurette on their choreography. Cool!

So I go to the bonus section and play the featurette, and I get this screen:

WTF? To watch this movie, I endured six movie previews, two tv show previews, an ad for a video game, a self-congratulatory ad for all of Universal’s Blu-Ray collection, and an ad for a theme park ride. And then they tell me that the version they’ve sold to Redbox is crippled in an effort to upsell me. Seriously?

This, after blocking video controls that would allow the owners of DVD players to skip advertisements; legislating that you are not allowed to duplicate an item you bought; locking it with Digital Rights Management encoding; seeing their former executives appointed to Cabinet posts related to intellectual property; furiously lobbying Congress to pass Draconian legislation; being caught red-handed gaming takedown-notice systems to eliminate competition and create de facto exclusives on artists they represent or are considering representing; having no fear of reprisal for malicious or incorrect accusations — the list goes on for miles.

Can these people still wonder why the world at large not only refuses to conform to their antiquated business model and archaic and increasingly irrelevant notions of copyright? Do they have any idea that people are refusing to adhere to their paranoid litigation and legislative efforts not because people are cheap, industry-destroying scofflaws, but because there is such joy to be taken in making the bully lose? Do they have any idea what’s in store for them now that they have gotten ISPs to collude with them on narcing on their customers?

The funny thing is, in the long run I don’t think we really have to do all that much to stop Big Media. They shoot themselves in the foot with astonishing regularity and precision. The ill will created by these drawbridge-raising, self-protective, out-of-touch, screw-you-jack-just-give-us-your-money measures is them bringing their own rope to their slow-motion hanging.

Mocking Jays

Cutesy chirpy songbird female

I really like bluejays. They’re smart (being in the crow family), brash, demanding little buggers who aren’t shy about letting you know they want something.

One of the little joys I take in my small apartment is that I’ve befriended two families of bluejays. It’s easy to do when you have peanuts. I got them used to picking them up from the rail outside my front door. Pretty soon they started landing and demanding peanuts.

One of the jays is an alpha male who just yells till he gets his peanut. The other is a smaller, scruffy-looking female who does a cutesy chirpy songbird schtick till I notice and bring her a peanut. It was cute till they started doing it at 7 a.m.

Belligerent alpha male staring through the kitchen window

Because they’re smart, they learned pretty quickly that no amount of yelling or coaxing was gonna get them a peanut at that time of day, as I generally stay up late and get up at the crack of 11 or so. They adjusted their begging schedules accordingly.

Pretty soon it got to where they’d take peanuts from my hand, or land beside me when I was reading in the courtyard. I got worried because I don’t want them dependent on me and I don’t want them to be too trusting of people. One day one of them landed on the rail behind a UPS guy when he was making a delivery.

Then one of the jays¬† figured out that the guy he saw through the small kitchen window of my apartment is the same guy who leaves peanuts out front, and he started landing on my air conditioner and banging on my window. I think he was trying to get an exclusive on the peanuts. He’d start at sunrise and go at it 10 or 20 times over the course of the day. We’re not talking tap-tap-tap here. We’re talking BAM BAM BAM, Open up in the name of the law.

My unsolicited alarm clock

At first I tried opening the blinds so he could watch me go to the front door, which could be seen from the kitchen window. I’d hold up a peanut and open the door and try to get the jay to realize that there was now a peanut out front, so stop banging on my damn window. No go. He wanted his peanut, he wanted it directly from the kitchen window (it doesn’t open because of the air conditioner), and he wanted it now.

That was when I realized that the jays had trained me.

So now I’ve set out on a campaign to unspoil my slowly domesticating bluejays before the little bastards have me renting DVDs from Redbox for them, and before I become the avian equivalent of a crazy cat lady. I’ve got them to stop with the window-banging, but seeing as how both of them showed up for peanuts while I was writing this, I clearly have a ways to go.

Of course, it’s me who needs retraining. But everybody knows that.