Never Mind the Sharks, Here Come the Crocodiles

July 30 is the anniversary of the sinking of the Indianapolis, one of the saddest horror tales of the sea. I hope it's just coincidence that this is "Shark Week" on TV. Halfway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, she was sunk by a torpedo on her way back from delivering the atomic bomb to Tinian. 900 out of 1,196 men went into the water, but only 317 survived when the sharks came in at dawn. Because it was a secret mission, her late arrival fell between the cracks and it wasn't until August 2nd that a plane accidentally spotted the men in the water.
This was not, however, the worst mass attack by animals known to history. That was the night of February 19, 1945, on Ramree Island off the coast of Burma. After six weeks of fighting with Indian and British marines, about 1,000 Japanese soldiers tried crossing 15 kilometers of mangrove swamp that was filled with 15-foot saltwater crocodiles. Of the 900 men who went into the swamp, 500 escaped to the Japanese lines and of the 400 still in the swamp, only 20 were left alive by the morning. The African naturalist Jean-Pierre Hallett, writing after the fact in his book Animal Kitabu, thinks the sound of the mortars and the sudden intrusion may have agitated the crocodiles into a killing frenzy. Nile and saltwater crocodiles are still responsible for more human deaths than sharks, though I hold out the mosquito and our own murderous impulses as the champions.

Remember What Groucho Said About Military Intelligence?

In both inner city and rural schools, there are always failing students who plan on escaping as soon as possible to embark on criminal careers. (In the inner city, where minors were used to run crack cocaine, they often flashed more money from their pockets than I had). Here's a practical question: why would someone who can't make it through an American high school, the Barney the Dinosaur of learning, think they have any talent as a criminal mastermind? Rural Michigan saves on 4th of July fireworks by watching the meth labs blow up-- why would someone who failed high school chemistry try manufacturing pharmaceuticals? More in sorrow than in anger, my advice to the amoral is practical, not judgmental: "I might not object to you being a criminal if you weren't so bad at it."
And why did a Utah National Guard officer, Captain Jeffrey Porter of the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion (sic) think he could join the whisper campaign against Barack Obama without getting caught?
The Army Times and Snopes (Hidey, Flem!) have exposed the fraud, and The Salt Lake Tribune has a follow-up on the apparent source of the spam.
Americans who vote on the basis of viral emails deserve whatever government they get, but sadly the rest of us are tied to these morons. In a better world, you'd expect the McCain campaign to renounce these dirty tricks, but McCain himself has already gone over the line of verbal shame with "Apparently Senator Obama, who does not understand what’s happening in Iraq or fails to acknowledge the success in Iraq, would rather lose a war than lose a campaign”-- not once, but three times in one day.
There is nothing in John McCain's record-- despite protestations about "honor"-- to suggest that McCain will grow a conscience. He could still win this thing.

The Professor of Desire by Phillip Roth: For Every Suicide, His Own Noose

The first quarter of this novel required some patience, as the narrator, David Kepesh, seems determined to live up to Roth's reputation for being overly fascinated with the workings of his dick. Sex bores, like golfers and new-minted religious converts, insist on sharing 12-step stories of repression, inhibition and liberation, how they discovered orgasm and its variations (like the golf bore. forever working on their stroke), and how the wicked world (parents, churches, discarded lovers) doesn't understand their need-- no, their right!-- to find things to rub their genitals against.
But all this might be set-up, establishing the character as a rake, someone who considers himself a sophisticate when it comes to sex, but naive as a goat in a tiger trap when it comes to love. The novel takes on depth and becomes quite moving when Kepesh meets his nemesis, Helen, a woman he seems matched with erotically and in the constant search for peak experiences, but utterly hopeless as a spouse. I use "nemesis" here most carefully, in the magical sense of a personal doom especially designed by fate or one's own character to cause the maximum destruction. The fidgety smoker sucks on cigarettes until he ends by taking the smoke in through a tracheotomy; the Professor of Desire finds a Helen.
At its most simple, Helen is a "drama queen", as addicted to extremes in romance-- Hong Kong, married millionaires, and opium-- as Kepesh was to gymnastics with hot Swedes. Once Kepesh becomes her husband, someone with dry cleaning and envelopes to mail, she converts him from her lover into her jailer.
The last half of the book, the part worth getting to, concerns Kepesh's recovery from the end of his marriage and Helen's burning of another Illium. This is achieved by the matter-of-fact advice of a therapist, and, no surprise, the discovery of a new love, the grounded and loving (and Kepesh being Kepesh, large breasted and blonde) Claire-- but the book ends with a cliffhanger, a worm of fear gnawing at Kepesh like Blake's worm in the rose.
Visiting with his widowed father and an elderly Holocaust survivor, two men who've lost the people they loved, the Professor of Desire is terrified that all happiness, even his contentment with Claire, is provisional and temporary. He seems convinced that he will one day fall out of love with Claire, as bored with her as Helen was with him, that instead of putting one foot in front of the other and building a substantial life as his therapist instructed him, he will go off again in search of peak experiences. The older men seem to understand by instinct how much of life requires tending your own garden and showing up for work, but David Kepesh is hypnotized by possibility and potential, chasing Maya: the illusion of desire.

Baby Bats

Here are orphaned baby fruit bats from an animal rescue center in Queensland, Australia. I met a fruit bat once, an Egyptian charmer named Indy, Stella Luna brought to life: affectionate, and (I was told) long-lived and almost as smart as a cat, fond of hanging from his mistress' shirtfront and nuzzling in her long blonde hair. Even the alien-looking Little Brown bat she'd rescued, too injured to be released in the wild, responded to treats and affection and both bats invented a game: clinging to a towel draped over a ceiling fan and spinning until they flew away drunk, a kind of bat merry-go round.

Og, Son of Fire, on the Mating Game

Og man of Stone Age. Late Magdalenian. Og live alone in cave on Dordogne River, Southern France. Og cave painter, story teller, amateur shaman. Sleep in cave many years, emerge in modern world like marmot looking for spring. Modern world frightening but not as confusing as Og expected. Og's grandmere always say, "plus ca change, plus ca meme chose."

Magdalenian Period so called because many false tears shed over cruel universe. Mortality rate not so bad as London 18th century, but still...
Og solitary. Opt out of Marriage Magdalenian Style. When Og young and pretty, barely dodged being spoiled King-for-a-Year and then sacrificed for crops. Six-mile radius for marriage choices, except in trading season or when reindeer migrate. Surprised not more inbreeding.
Women pick man who bring home biggest gazelle. Make babies with Josh Hartnett, validate uterus, marry Beastie Boy, surprised when life ruined by morons. Og miss first draft pick but "back door man" for lots of women. Og resent.
Og find this artifact, late 20th century funny book. Describe mating rituals. Not much changed. Og go back in cave, sleep some more.

Commonplace Book: Current Reading

“If there is sin against life, it consists… in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
-- Albert Camus

“The irony is that you have to be somebody before anybody listens to you,” he said. “I wasn’t an expert when I was an expert, and now that I’m not an expert, I’m an expert. It’s kind of curious.”
-- Ed Burns, on his years of teaching and police work before writing The Wire

"I’ve decided that the single worst thing about this illness is its terrible authority. I mean the way it thunders at you, 'This is the reality. This is how it is and how it’s going to be. Any memories of fun or wellness are flukes, delusions. And will never come again. Now you have 20/20 vision and see life for the dreadful mess it really is.'”
-- Dick Cavett on depression

"Mr. [Phil] Gramm said that the former chief executive of AT&T, Ed Whitacre, was 'probably the most exploited worker in American history' since he received only a $158 million pay package rather than the 'billions' he deserved for his success in growing Southwestern Bell."
-- New York Times article

"...Only 8 percent [of Guantánamo detainees] were alleged to have associated with Al Qaeda. Fifty-five percent were not alleged to have engaged in any hostile act against the United States at all, and the remainder were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee U.S. bombs. The overwhelming majority — all but 5 percent — had been captured by non-U.S. players, many of whom were bounty hunters.”
-- Jane Mayer in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals

"The approach to international affairs that has dominated the American foreign affairs community for some years is called realism. The realist view of the pressure for a new international economic order in the seventies was summarized to me this way: There has always been inequality among nations, and if we ignore this flapdoodle long enough... the subject will simply fade away. Even at the height of the interest in North-South... there was a feeling that he should stop wasting his time with such issues-- that the North-South dialogue was the sort of subject that interested 'ex-hippies and women who are worried about babies with diarrhea'".
-- Calvin Trillin in Remembering Denny

"I suppose that there are endeavors in which self-confidence is even more important than it is in writing-- tightrope walking comes to mind-- but it's a difficult for me to think of anybody producing much writing if his confidence is completely shot. In order to take a crack at the third or fourth draft, you have to hold onto an almost insane belief-- insane in that you can't think of any rational evidence to support it-- that what you're working on, by now stupefyingly boring to you, will be of interest or value to others."
-- Calvin Trillin in Remembering Denny

"puerco araña.....puerco araña......ya nooes puerco araña ahora es puerco potterr.."

Archetypes: Criminals Are a Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

Frank Miller, whatever his faults elsewhere, and artist David Mazzucchelli still managed the best version yet of this archetypal moment from Batman: Year One, the story of the friendship between Bruce Wayne and then-Detective Jim Gordon.

Grind House Gramm

In the world view of kindergarten teachers and Irish Setters, you can find something to like about almost everyone. If I ever find myself in Hell next to G.W. Bush, and there are Secret Service agents nearby, we could limit our conversation to Scotty dogs Barney and Beasley and get along fine. Ann Rule says Ted Bundy was charming in person. And now I find that McCain financial advisor and cartoon turtle Phil Gramm and I share a love for the B-movie queens.

In 1973 (ah youth), Gramm's brother-in-law, George Caton, collected a $15,000 check from Gramm to invest in the drive-in epic Truck Stop Women: "No Rig Was Too Big For Them To Handle." Aficionados will agree that any movie starring Claudia Jennings would be considered an "A" ticket so far as B-movies go.

Alas, Gramm was too late to get in on the Claudia Jennings project, but the next year he invested $15,000 in something called Beauty Queens, never produced. Instead director Mark Lester made Tricia's Wedding an R-rated nightmare involving LSD in the punchbowl at Tricia Nixon's wedding and starring renowned San Francisco drag queens The Cockettes.

Gramm invested another $7,500 in the sequel, a satire of the Nixon White House called White House Madness with a naked Richard Nixon strolling through the White House, presumably talking to the paintings with a worried Henry Kissinger at his elbow. Ah, the dreams of youth-- for me, the great scream queens of Hammer Films, for Senator Gramm, a transvestite Tricia Nixon on acid...

Let's You and Him Fight: The Obama New Yorker Cover

Who are these people who claim to be offended at Barry Blitt's cover for The New Yorker? John McCain, who couldn't be bothered to defend his own daughter against the Bush campaign's slurs in 2000, then embraced the men he should have called out for a duel, but now finds his voice to denounce a cartoon? Me, I've been an Obama guy since the New York Review profile in the fall of 2006, and ruminating over New Yorker cartoons since high school, when I inherited Doc Kerry's collection, and I thought it was funny, at least worth a wry smirk, all the no-neck whispers against the Obamas reduced to the absurd. And giving Michelle an Angela Davis haircut is a nice touch.
The "terrorist fist bump" has already been going around as ironic mockery between friends, losing any power it had, and the people being mocked are Obama's enemies. I hope the hurt feelings expressed by unnamed Obama staffers is pro forma, and if it isn't they need to rediscover the bemused tone that served them well against the Clintons. If the news agencies try to stretch this into more than a half-hour circle jerk on MSNBC, score one more triumph for triviality.

Something Sitting on My Chest

Some of the best writing on depression, both its symptoms and the little day to day annoyances that come with it, has been appearing in the essay and comments section of
Dick Cavett's blog for the New York Times.

Homeless in Kalamazoo: Michigan Organizing Project Thursday

Here's a little quandary for the homeless. Most entry level jobs in Kalamazoo are second or third shift-- but the homeless shelters don't let anyone sleep during the day. and local police are instructed to roust anyone trying to sleep in the parks. And try showing up clean for an interview or leaving a contact number with a prospective employer.
The Michigan Organizing Project is a consortium of community organizations, NGOs and churches in West Michigan that come together in a non-denominational, non-partisan fashion to choose three legislative projects every six months. There is a conscious effort to limit the scope of these proposals and then invite local politicians to either support or reject the action. This keeps MOP away from the scattershot politics of the left and keeps the politics concrete and local.
Commissioner Jack Urban, State Representative Lorence Wenke, our new police chief (12 days old!) Jeffrey Hadley and others attended the rally Thursday night at St. Joseph's Community Center. They were asked in front of an SRO crowd to answer yea or nay on the following:

-- A "Housing First" policy for the homeless in Kalamazoo County. As it stands now, homeless people are required to participate in dozens of well-intentioned intervention programs before they have a stable home base to operate from.

-- A commitment from Kalamazoo Public Safety to use "probable cause" instead of profiling when detaining citizens, and assurance that local police will not be used to check immigrant status.

Aristotle calls humans "a political animal", which I break down for my students as meaning we live in groups, like lions, baboons or meerkats, not as solitaries like tigers or grizzlies, and we might as well get good at it.

North Carolina's Standards Laboratory Penalized for Setting Standards

A state employee in North Carolina refused to lower the flag to half-staff for Jesse Helms, and chose early retirement rather than follow the governor's order. I'm a "speak no ill of the dead" kind of guy, at least in print (in person I've been known to follow Alice Roosevelt's rule "if you can't say something nice, come sit next to me).
When Helms died last week (he actually died on the 3rd, but the family myth-makers pressured the nursing home to say he died on the 4th), I ignored it as befits a man who devoted his public life to using hatred as a tool; "let his blood fall on stone and nourish nothing".
Now comes this news of L.F. Eason, the employee at North Carolina's Agriculture Department Standards Laboratory, who couldn't let it go. And the mass media seems bent on the Disneyfication of Jesse Helms, as though he was a quaint old Southun Senahtuh who was at times "controversial".
No, he wasn't. Helms was a guy who ran with slogans like "White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories?" and called the University of North Carolina "The University of North Carolina was "the University of Negroes and Communists", and not in the 1950s, but in 1993. He thought it was funny to sing "Dixie" to the first black senator since Reconstruction, explaining "I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing Dixie until she cries." And in foreign affairs, where he was supposedly above the influence of tobacco, race and politics he could be downright perverse. I've already wasted too many words on the fellow. I've no idea if L.F. Eason did the right thing, or if he should have followed the wise fool Nasrudin's advice to practice invisibility in such affairs, lower the damn flag, let the Stone Mountain rejects have their isn't-it-pretty-to-think-so, voice my dissent like Galileo calling over his shoulder, and move on.
A comment on Wonkette got it right: "I respect nothing more than someone willing to call people on their bullshit."

Society and Sociopaths

A question on a message board about house rabbits-- bonded pairs are common, but apparently bringing a new rabbit into a home where another rabbit is already established is much more complicated than adding another puppy or kitten-- led to questions about etiquette in crowded burrows, and that to this interesting journal entry on the concepts of giri and gimu in Japan.
Japan has a lower crime rate than almost any other modern country (one murder for every 100,000 people compared to 8.7 per 100,000 in the U.S.). The author wonders why Japan, with all its industrialization and alienation (the Marquis de Sade would blanch at the violent fetishism in Japanese pop culture) doesn't produce more sociopaths.

Happy Independence Day! Bush at the Olympics! Screw You, Tibet!

So Bush will attend the Olympic ceremonies and Tibet can suck hind teat, despite the empty wind rhetoric from all sides about human rights and hypocrisy. What puzzles me is that anyone (especially you, Dana Rohrabacher) can express surprise about this.

The merchants that run this country have shown an ability to swallow anything, gnats, camels, even slavery and genocide if there's money to be made. We celebrate the 4th of July and tell our children it had something to do with tea and taxes on playing cards, when in fact a bigger issue was George III's decree to keep settlers out of Indian lands and England's growing discomfort with slavery. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Dr. Johnson asked. The Indians and Africans were more thoroughly screwed than the Tibetans (who, if DNA is to be believed, are direct cousins of the Native Americans), and that crime is treated with mild regret, like tearing down a historic building for another parking lot. A character in Jim Harrison's novel The Road Home comments on the poverty of the Indians, "You only give reparations or rebuild in the economies of the like-minded as in the case of Germany or Japan."
In spite of the best efforts of the Constitution, this is a mercantile empire, with talk about the Four Freedoms saved for Sundays and Holidays, and success in money-making the primary measure of reality. We will go along to get along with the Chinese, and deplore the situation in Tibet from a safe distance.

Robert Grossman, Caricaturist

I've been a fan of Robert Grossman's ever since I first saw his work in The Beatles' Illustrated Lyrics: a drum majorette twirling a hammer and sickle for "Back in the U.S.S.R., perfect marriage of two opposing fantasies represented by the song.

Grossman's work shows up here and there (mostly "there", as in publications like The Nation and New York Observer), but I've always thought he belongs in the same ranks as David Levine and Drew Freidman. Now I'm happy to learn that he has a website up, and a profile in the New York Times.