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Dave's Fiction Warehouse

notes on a life of crime

Updated: 2015-01-11T11:17:58.794-06:00


Wandering away to Wordpress.


Starting today, I'm putting all new posts (and there aren't that many of them) on my news Wordpress site, also known as Dave's Fiction Warehouse. I hope the five or six people who look in here periodically will also start looking in over there. Comment early and often. Thanks.

At play in the fields of Pandora


(image) I finally saw Avatar. My short review: Fabulous effects, pedestrian story. James Cameron has certainly set the bar at a great new height for all future action movies, but he hasn't broken much new ground when it comes to sophisticated writing.

Not that it matters. This is not a boring movie, and you won't rue the price of your ticket. It's the first 3D film I've ever seen, and I'm glad I waited this long. For the first few minutes, the 3D effect seems a distracting gimmick, but as the movie unfolds it becomes much more natural. I considered only one scene gratuitous: a machine gun barrel protruding out of the screen. Elsewhere Cameron showed admirable restraint. In the Pandoran jungle, the judicious and subtle use of 3D makes the alien flora and fauna seem vividly real.

My only problem with Avatar is that every character is a stereotype drawn from other films. Remember Vasquez in Aliens? She's back, as Trudy Chacon. Wind in His Hair from Dances With Wolves? That would be in Tsu'Tey in Avatar. And so on. David Brooks has a smart column in the New York Times where he illustrates this quite well. But you don't need to read it recognize this latest incarnation of the White Messiah theme in Avatar.

No, that's not the worst thing in the world. As they say, there's nothing new under the sun. But when you're invoking such an oft-used narrative, it's probably a good idea come up with a few surprises. From the moment you meet each character in Avatar, it's possible to guess the story arc and status of each one by the movie's end. If you haven't seen the movie, try it. Avatar disappoints because the only surprises are visual.

Larry King and his cast of liars


(image) You know, I don't even blame Richard Heene any more. He's just a terrible human being, and sometimes you have throw up your hands and accept that a person's shortcomings are so comprehensive that he just can't help himself.

Heene, of course, is the guy who lied about his son taking flight in a homemade balloon, finally plead guilty to perpetrating the hoax, and then on "Larry King Live" lied again, saying his earlier lie was not really a lie, and ... well, you get the idea. Heene evidently hopes his awfulness will at last reach critical mass, and, like Rob Blagojevich, earn him the coveted spot on "Celebrity Apprentice" that is his by birthright. I'd say his chances are good.

Awful people show up on "Larry King" all the time, don't they? Somehow they are multiplying. I guess if we want to blame anybody for that, Larry himself is a good place to start.  Larry doesn't discourage venal, self-serving bullshit, nor does he draw the line at turpitude of any kind. Far from it. The greater the depravity, the better he likes it. If Jeffrey Dahmer were still alive, he'd probably be on Larry once a week hawking his cookbook.

This old man has much to answer for, and not just for those stupid suspenders. Yes, so do the people who watch his show in droves, but I don't have their names handy. So Larry will have to do. Remember, any place Americans are behaving badly for the cameras, they're not just doing for themselves. They're doing it for Larry. 

Having tea with Ms. James


(image) One of my Christmas gifts this year was P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction. At less than 200 pages, it might be the shortest thing she's ever written. But for anybody who enjoys crime-writing in general and British crime-writing in particular, it's a fun, illuminating look at the evolution of the craft over the last 150 years.

The title doesn't exactly grab you by the throat, does it? But it's accurate. It's like having tea with Ms. James as she warms to her subject -- which, as she puts it, "was one of the few on which I felt competent to pontificate." She talks about Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, but also discusses her own work and those of the modern masters like Ian Rankin. I gather she's not a big fan of Christie, and her view of the Golden Age writers on this side of the pond -- Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, say -- may be something short of unalloyed admiration.

Which is another reason I like this book. I hate the book jackets where one famous writer is fawning over  another, knowing that a return favor is part of the deal. P.D. James is near 90 and past that now, and has nothing to gain by doling out insincere praise. When she says something she means it. And because of that, I also take heart from her line near the end: "We may well be at the beginning of a new Golden Age."  As someone who loves to read detective fiction and aspires to write it, that's good news indeed.

Decamping to a site more complicated


 Because nothing is ever good enough, I've decided to migrate Dave's Fiction Warehouse from good old Blogger to my own domain and Wordpress. The domain is

Why? That's an excellent question, since I've burned numerous hours learning the intricacies of the new system, and will probably burn a lot more before I know what I'm doing. In the meantime, I'll keep posting here and use the new one as a lab site. I'll experiment and fiddle incessantly there, then put the word out when I feel it's ready for my seven or so regular readers to have a look at it. Just so you know.

One of the best things about Wordpress (I hope) is this theme called Thesis, which allows for a huge amount of customization without the need for learning a lot of code. That's also one of the worst things about it, since the sheer number of choices and non-intuitive menus make for a steep learning curve.

Should aulde resolutions be forgot?


(image) January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, who looks into the future with one face and into the past with the other. That's kind of where I'm at, too. On these dark days following the winter solstice, I look at the year ahead and resolve to be better in some small way, even as I look at the year past and realize how unlikely that is.

Was it just 12 months ago I was standing in front of this same mirror, vowing to hit the gym five days a week, cut down on the fatty foods and take it easy on the wine? I think it was. Those vows are too easy to make after the excesses of the holiday season. Suddenly the waistband is a little too snug and you've got some acid reflux going on, and a little headache just behind the eyes, and you realize that in a whole year all you've achieved is another trip around the sun with everybody else. It really is time to make a change, you think, and this time the change will extend beyond the first week of February.

Which no doubt why the Romans invented old Janus, god of gates and portals, god of transitions. In 21st-century America, the transition most sought is the one from fat to slender, or from obscurity to fame, but the idea is the same: If you want to be good-looking and get your own reality show, once a year it's a good idea to take a few minutes and see how things are trending.

Thus are born New Year's resolutions -- the temporary triumph of hope over experience. I make fewer of them than I used to, but I still do. They're mostly mundane: gonna get fit, gonna get better on the guitar, gonna be nicer to everybody. I don't write them down anymore, since it's better not to leave a paper trail, but I still try to convince myself each January that this time it will be different, that I will end the year a better man than when I started.

We'll see about that, won't we? For now, let's drink to the end of an odd year -- and the end of a decade that seemed not so great, even by my lowered expectations. Things can only get better, right? Happy New Year, all.

Check your dignity at the gate


(image) As long as they've got a limitless supply of credulous young males who don't mind cramming explosives into their underpants and trying to kill everybody around them, we're not going to prevail in this airport-security thing. Because all we've got are 50,000 TSA employees who are most concerned with preventing your grandmother from getting through security with an artificial hip. If you're a radical young Muslim returning from Yemen, don't have any luggage and are on a terror watch list, basically you're good to go.

(image) If there's a bright spot in the Flight 253 incident, it's that one al-Qaeda-inspired idiot is today having trouble urinating, as the result of a badly burned schlong. Sorry, Umar Farouk Abdul-whatever: That's what happens when you don't pay attention in suicide-bombing class. If permanent disability is too much to hope for, then I wish you a long and painful recovery. Good luck with the 70 virgins. I guess we can also hope that this will be a setback for al-Qaeda recruiting.

Presumably, this means the rest of us will soon be exposing our privates, in one way or other, as a condition of boarding an airplane. Personally, I can't wait. But I wonder: At what level of indignity will travelers finally decide they really don't need to fly to that business meeting in Duluth? Sure, it's a long drive, but at least nobody's frisking you at rest stops, or deciding you've got too much styling gel. And usually you don't have to sit beside some mouth-breathing fanatic with a suspicious bulge in his BVDs.

Look: The terrorists are definitely winning. OK?  Their army of mind-numbed robots is apparently bigger than ours. And certainly more committed.  Anyway, they really don't have to blow up any planes; they just have to make us all disrobe and bend over at the command of somebody making $13 an hour. So far, that seems to be working.

The climate outside is frightful


(image) This morning in Wichita, in the pale light of a low-rising sun, the temperature's not so far above zero. That's pretty darned cold for these parts, though it is December and the news stories today about winter storms "crashing" into the Midwest and "hammering" New England seem a little overwrought. People forget from year to year that a certain amount of cold and snow, in the few weeks surrounding the winter solstice, is not really remarkable. At least if you live anywhere north of Texas.

I've seen worse. I'd be happy to share anecdotes about the winters in Montana, the times it got 50 below and your spit, if you were a spitting person, would freeze before it hit the ground. It was way too cold to take a leak outside or start any kind of engine; you bundled up like the Michelin man to grumble through your chores and then you hunkered close to the stove and argued about who was going to bring in some more wood. By the way, if anybody needs advice on unthawing frozen pipes, I'm an expert on the subject.

Most of my weather stories are lies, of course, magnified and distorted through the murky lens of several decades, but I still say they don't make winters like they used to. Which brings me to the subject of global warning, and the idiots who weigh in on the comment boards of newspaper Web sites. Today on the Wichita Eagle's site, the daily weather story has devolved into the usual impassioned diatribes between left and right. One cold snap apparently proves that global warming is a sinister fraud perpetrated by the Trilateral Commission, or somebody. On the other side, it proves that people unsure of the science are creationist morons. As with all discussions among those who prefer to remain anonymous, it's a debate characterized by mindless certainty. Just a matter of time before the Nazi metaphors start flying.

A not-so-great man once said, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" I'll field that one, Rodney: The answer is no, as long as nobody's using their real name and every disagreement becomes a matter of faith rather than reason. Look, there can be no question that climate change is occurring, just as it has from the dawn of time. The question is the extent to which mankind causes it, and the extent to which mankind might make it better. There's also the question of weighing the cost of mitigation efforts against the benefits that can be expected to accrue.

Those are complex questions, and way beyond the ken of a man sitting in his bathrobe on a cold winter's day. I have my own opinions on the matter and I will vote accordingly, but at the moment I don't feel like trying to convince some other idiot in his bathrobe that my view is the only one with merit. I suppose that's why I never sought public office. I know it's why I don't attend church regularly. On Planet Dave, there are just too many things that can't be known.

Fortunately, the weather outside right now is not one of them. In a few minutes I'll have to go out in it. Nothing like a wind-chill factor of zero to clear the mind of extraneous details.

Hundreds of candles in the wind


(image) Every year I get more of these ghosts of Christmas past in the room. They don't say much. They don't have to. I already know that the best Christmas in middle age cannot match the least one of childhood. Then it was about things yet to come. Now it's about memory. But I have a feeling those ghosts expect me to pretend otherwise.

I think of them every year when my neighbors and I come forth to set out our luminaries. It's a tradition in my Wichita neighborhood: one weekend in December, we grudgingly honor a pact to line our ordinary streets with points of light. I thought it a little goofy when I first moved here, and kind of burdensome to keep those candles lit in a freezing drizzle. But I'm a true believer now.

You take one paper bag with a candle in it, it's not really much to look at. You take hundreds of them and put them in a row, and the effect is magical. That well-worn way to work becomes a runway to heaven. I guess it's that way with acts of kindness too. A single one can get lost in the shuffle, blown out by a passing truck. But multiplied they change the world.

I know; it's a cliché. Peace on Earth, and all that. But our time here is short and contrary to popular belief, our opportunities to do the right thing are not infinite. If you've ever lost a loved one, you know this is true. Last year at this time I was talking to my sister on the phone. She wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to make it home for Christmas. I made a joke or two and told her I'd see her in the spring. And I did – at her funeral. It wasn't the first time in my life I thought of all the candles I'd left unlit.

So, yeah: Do the deed. Put out your luminaries, and not just at Christmas. You're not going to get a pat on the back for each one, but maybe kindness without publicity is the most sincere kindness of all. And certain candles will burn all through a long December night. Maybe yours will too.

(This is a variation on a post I submitted to Do The Deed, a Wichita campaign promoting small, and great, acts of kindness. Check it out. And Merry Christmas. -- Dave)

Give me that remote control


(image) I've been watching more TV lately. I suppose it could be another sign of creeping, slack-jawed sloth, but I prefer to think it's because there are better shows now -- even though I concede that crap like "Real Housewives" and "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to be a Publicity Whore?" remain depressingly popular.

But doesn't it seem that TV sitcoms are finally reclaiming some of the territory so long despoiled by reality TV? That's my thesis. In a tough economy, a few good jokes can defeat a whole division of vacuous and venal blowhards. Paula Abdul's ouster from "American Idol" is a good metaphor for this. Market pressure hasn't yet killed the show, but it did force the replacement of one dim bulb. Let's hope it's a trend. America will be better for it. Sorry Paula. Sometimes, just being yourself is not quite enough.

My favorites at the moment are "Community" and "30 Rock." I still watch "The Office," although recent scripts have veered well afield of the milieu that made the show great. Now that the gentle tension between Jim and Pam is gone, the writers are forced to rely on increasingly bizarre and implausible behavior by Dwight and Michael. The best humor is rooted in recognizable reality. Take that away, and all you've got is slapstick.  "The Office" deserves credit for leading the sitcom revival, but it's gone on at least one season too long. Even so, I'd still watch the worst "Office" episode over the best "Everybody Loves Raymond."

(image) I regularly watch one other show, although I'd prefer you didn't tell anyone. It's "Glee."  I like it not for the writing -- since the scripts rely mainly on each cast member developing a crush on every other cast member on a rotating basis -- but for the dance numbers. I love those dance numbers, love the choreography, love those lithe young bodies leaping through space. It's like "American Idol," only with high standards and a lot of rehearsal. You can't call "Glee" a sitcom, since Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is the only funny thing about it, but it's great eye candy. And yeah, the music isn't that bad either.

A very "Seinfeld" reunion


(image) In the annals of crappy television, nothing is crappier than the reunion show. And in the annals of crappy reunion shows, there can be no competition for "A Very Brady Christmas," wherein the kids come home for the holidays and Mike Brady ends up getting trapped in one of his buildings. (Nice job on the architecture there, Mike.)

Then again, "The Brady Bunch" was pretty bad to begin with. "Seinfeld" wasn't, and Larry David's mustering of the original cast for a fictional reunion show, in this season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is as good as it gets. Shows you what good writing, adequate rehearsal and great comedic talent can do in the fullness of time. It also shows, by comparison, how tired and lame the real "Seinfeld" finale was in 1998.

Speaking of comparisons, Larry David's current show begins to look kind of crass and clumsy too. Instead of honed scripts and comedic timing, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" relies on situations that are increasingly crude and implausible, with David and his cast barely containing their smirks while they ad-lib through each scene. The bit about the little girl's rash was just too much. Contrast that with the table read and the few scenes we saw of the fictional "Seinfeld" reunion, and you long for a return to a more sophisticated time.
That said, I loved how they handled Michael Richards' little problem with the racial epithets a few years ago. If Richards lost his mojo then, he's got it back now. The scene where he opens the door the guy in the Louis Farrakhan outfit is best in show.

Fun in America: "Modern Warfare 2"


(image) We've got modern warfare going on all over the place, but we still can't get enough of it. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has now made $550 million in about five days. That's a record not just for video games, but for anything ever offered by the entertainment industry. Suck this, Harry Potter. Last I checked, Half-Blood Prince, the biggest cash-machine in the world, had barely exceeded half that.

No, I'm not going to bemoan this American fascination with killing virtual people and blowing up virtual things. Or, in the case of Grand Theft Auto franchise, beating up virtual hookers. Fact is, violence is pretty fun when you factor out all the real-world misery, death and permanent disability. But when a video game devoted exclusively to military mayhem so completely eclipses any movie, book or long-running TV series, I suppose you have to ponder what it means.

Unfortunately, I have no idea. For me, the bigger mystery with games like this is why I suck so completely at playing them. There's an episode in The Office where Jim has his avatar stuck in a corner, trying to deploy a smoke grenade. Karen's avatar strolls up, waits until he turns around, and shoots him in the head. It's one of the very few ways I'm like Jim Halpert: not so adept on the virtual battlefield.

I do wonder if Call of Duty buffs don't occasionally speculate how they'd do in, um, the real thing.  You know: real guns, real carnage, real friends really dead. Really crapping your pants when it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Probably not. Video games have been around about 30 years now; most people are keenly aware of the vast distance inserted between reality and the monitor.

Maybe the popularity of Modern Warfare 2 isn't a great reflection of who we are as a society, but it does highlight a nice reality we tend to take for granted: As a population, we have no experience in war. None. Closest we came was Sept. 11, 2001, and like a video game the vast majority of us experienced it entirely through the small screen. We don't know much about war, and so we tend to view it as an athletic contest in which even couch potatoes might excel. 

Thanksgiving approaches, and we can enjoy all the combat we want in the comfort of our homes, without the mess or the mortality. Now that's something to be thankful for.

Just a little unfriendly advice


(image) Now that the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen unfriend as its word of the year, I guess it's official: all nouns are now legitimate verbs, and by extension so are their opposites. Like you, I somehow overlooked the intermediate delineation of  friend as a verb, but there's no sense being pedantic about it. Language constantly evolves. You  get on board or you get the hell out of the way.

New words arrive because there's a need for them. The concept of unfriending has been with us for centuries, but the explosion of social media has forced us to formalize and streamline the process. Used to be, if you became tired of a relationship, you had to be cagey about it: You'd see the person's number on the caller ID and not pick it up. You'd make up an excuse not to attend their dumb President's Day party. You'd be fortunate enough to spot them first in the frozen-food section of the supermarket, and you'd lurk in housewares until they were safely out to the parking lot. It was all about managing the gradual transition from friend to total stranger, and no ploy was too subtle.

Facebook and Twitter have rendered all that quaint and meaningless, not to say horribly inefficient. If you had to hone strategies for getting rid of every Facebook blowhard who came down the pike, you'd be tapping away at your iPhone 24 hours a day. (To those of you who already do that, I mean no disrespect.) Things are much easier now. If someone is posting too many random celebrity links, or is too frequently crowing about their Farmville accomplishments, they can be gone with a single tap. If somebody is re-Tweeting Rainn Wilson or marveling over the weather every few minutes, presto: they're banished for the foreseeable future. Unfriend and Unfollow: two essential tools for the busy online lifestyle.

It may sound cold, but it isn't. In the new calculus of social media, one physical friend who might have to use the bathroom is the equivalent of about 17 Facebook friends who won't; on Twitter, the ratio expands to one and 432. It's one thing to LOL at someone's retweet, quite another to feed them supper and laugh at their jokes and share with them your medium-quality wine. So don't be too reticent about it. In any garden, weeds will emerge. When they do, they're best pulled early.

Of course, unfriending is a two-edged sword. At some point, when you're conducting your weekly inventory of social-media buddies, you may notice that some of them have quietly decamped into the ether. Don't take it too hard; like you, they have a vast stable of contacts. Maybe you LOL'd at an update meant to be poignant. Maybe you misspelled the word lose too many times. Maybe that last "Which Horse's Part Are You?" quiz pushed them over the edge. No matter. Let them go. Facebook friends must be free, like Mediterranean fruit flies. Anyway, they're a dime a dozen.

When bumper stickers become books


(image) I have two rules in life: I never order the shrimp special and I never buy books written by former governors who would like to be president. So it's not really an ideological statement to say that I won't be standing in line tomorrow for a copy of "Going Rogue: An American Life." That Sarah Palin remains pretty easy on the eyes, but at this point I feel I know everything I want to know about her. Maybe a little more. In the parlance of our times, it's getting late in the day and it's time to move on, Sarah Palin-wise.

But every time such a book comes out, I always wonder: Who buys stuff like this? Who are these millions of people who immediately spring for the hardcover and propel it to the top of the New York Times nonfiction list?  What do they hope to learn from people like Newt Gingrich and Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck and Al Gore and Kate Gosselin? Do they not know that if they just wait a few months, they can acquire these tomes, unopened, for about 50 cents a copy on yard-sale tables all over town? And that the insights thus obtained will therefore be priced just about right?

I don't know. At a time when nobody's buying good books, it sure seems there are a lot of people buying crappy ones. They buy them despite knowing in advance, through blogs and infinite talk shows, every essential point the book might contain. In Palin's case, we can probably reduce it to a paragraph: "I'm quite a bit smarter than I seemed just a year ago. McCain's people and the Mainstream Media screwed me over big time. I'm an ordinary person who would prefer to remain extraordinarily famous -- with my own talk show, say, or the presidency.  And 2012 is coming right up."

Then again, I haven't read the book. And won't. Being an ordinary person myself, I guess I don't find them all that fascinating.

Mac vs. PC? A pox on both their houses


(image) I've never gotten sucked into the hoary Mac vs. PC debate. As far as I'm concerned, they both suck. They both keep us perpetually off balance, technologically speaking, and both leave a trail of obsolete peripherals in their wake.

This morning my wife got on the laptop I'd just loaded with Windows 7 and reported (I'm paraphrasing here): "This *&$^% printer doesn't work." I checked it out and was able to confirm her findings. Microsoft's own support site tells me that my little printer, about two years old, is not compatible with their latest and greatest OS. No apology, no hints on how to make it work. Basically, if I want to print anything from Windows 7, I'm going to have to take that 2-year-old printer to the curb and get a new one.

Just for fun, I checked on Apple's site, to see if a Mac running Snow Leopard might have better luck. Maybe it was time to switch. But nope. My printer's dead to Apple, too. But they'd be happy to sell me a new one that would work.

Home computers are wondrous machines, able to Hoover up hours of vitality and convert it seamlessly into useless butt time. You can play amazing games, watch streaming HD video,  play JibJab mashups and organize millions of crappy photos and videos into convenient libraries you will never use. But try to print a single black-and-white document after an OS upgrade, and things can get difficult.

I get it, OK? It's cutting-edge technology. The idea is that we upgrade everything on the same cycle and send our perfectly good stuff to the landfill with every incremental advance. But I've been doing that too long. I've owned computers since 1984 (the first was an Apple IIe) and I shudder to think of all the functioning hardware I've disposed of since then: printers and modems and headphones and monitors and mice and scanners. I love tech as much as the next guy -- maybe more -- but those landfills can only hold so much.

A family without grownups


(image) OK, I'm going to recommend that Richard Heene, part-time "scientist" and full-time twit, be horsewhipped. And I'd be happy to throw in a good spanking for little Falcon Heene, the foul-mouthed brat who might have benefited from an actual balloon ride straight to Camp Cut-Me-A-Switch, where children learn not to curse at grownups and otherwise waste the valuable time of their elders.

(image) Corporal punishment may seem harsh, but remember that the balloon stunt wasn't the first of their transgressions. There's also the matter of their "Wife Swap" appearances, where they took the show's unvarying theme -- free-spirit vs. control freak -- and drained it of even marginal interest because viewers hated everyone involved. The Heene clan came across as precisely what they are: pre-adolescent narcissists who will do anything -- anything -- to get on TV. Richard is the dad only by virtue of his age; it can't have anything to do with maturity or judgment.

Was the balloon thing a hoax? Who cares? The man named his son Falcon, for crying out loud, and that's a crime right there. Besides, anybody who calls the NBC affiliate before calling 911, as Heene did, clearly has bigger fish to fry than securing the safety of his son.

But this is what a decade of reality shows has brought us: A national stage for every quirky buffoon willing to up the ante in outrageous behavior. One of these days somebody's going to get hurt. Let's just hope they get it on tape.

Now that's some writing


(image) I keep meaning to enter the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest, but I also keep forgetting to get my entries in. Still, it's always worth a look when the year's winners are announced. Yes, I know the announcement itself was several months ago, but that's in keeping with my general record of procrastination and partial recall.

Anyway, read this from the 2009 Grand Prize winner and see if it doesn't make you want to take pen in hand:

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."
David McKenzie
Federal Way, WA

The runner-up is also inspiring, for those of us who like to make people laugh:
"The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor--the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn't use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride."
Warren Blair
Ashburn, VA

The doctor will not see you


(image) All this ink and air time being burned on the intricacies of health care in this country, and I'm no wiser on the subject than I was five years ago. I don't even care any more. Maybe all we really need to know is that nobody wants to make less money, and health care can't be cheaper unless somebody does make less money. Since the most influential voices in this debate are the corporations that make a huge amount of money, and the politicians who rely heavily on the trickle-up, and the dopey masses who can be mesmerized by a bumper sticker, I think we can see where this is heading: Things will stay pretty much as they are. If anything changes, it will be this: The usual cohort of scammers and venal swine will end up making even more money than they do now. I guarantee you that no insurance company will make less.

This is a cynical view and I apologize. But let's face it. The truth is, if you're worried about health care, your only realistic option is staying healthy. I suggest you work out, eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, quit tapping the little keyboard on your mobile device while you're rocketing down Highway 54, look both ways before crossing the street, floss regularly, avoid trampolines, lock up your firearms, get that mole looked at, and buy nothing under the warming lights at Quik Trip. Oh, and knock wood. Because Dr. Sanjay Gupta does not make house calls.

If you're already indisposed, if you're morbidly obese and your primary means of getting around is a power scooter with an oxygen bottle on the back, well, good luck. Have another Marlboro and remember what a great time the '60s were. If you have a weird growth on your neck, consider it benign. If you have symptoms of fibromyalgia or Crohn's disease -- hey, who doesn't? If you have leukemia or pancreatic cancer, take the long view: It'll be over before you know it.

And it'll be over way before anything gets through Congress. These people have little sense of urgency; they all have nice insurance plans and they all have supper waiting. The people they heed the most -- the corporate oligarchs -- prefer the precise opposite of urgency. The oligarchs' best strategy is to run out the clock. Fortunately for them, that's not so hard to do in a town like D.C. Even the charismatic Obama is a politician, and politicians don't get any points for falling on their swords.

What's to be done? Beats me. If I had any clue, I'd be having lunch with Sen. Max Baucus as we speak, maybe sharing my genius with Anderson Cooper. As it is, I must content myself with watching CNN and hoping I stay healthy for a good long while.

In Riverdale, there's no need to choose


(image) As a kid, I envied Archie. He had the easy life: the clever friends, the car, the adoration of beautiful girls. The number one hit song in 1969. He never had to grow up. The only thing I didn't envy was the stupid hair, but at 12 years old I guess that's a price I'd have paid.

Archie was different from my other comic favorites: Green Lantern; Flash; Sgt. Rock; Turok, Son of Stone. He was always in his street clothes, for one thing. Maybe that made him easier to identify with. He never faced down any fiends, never killed any Krauts, never tussled with any pterodactyls. The only problem he ever had was which nubile maiden would win his affections in the end.

Turns out he didn't even have to worry about that. Archie finally married Veronica in May, but next month he'll marry Betty too.  Archie Comic Publications is framing the story as an alternate history, calling it a meditation on Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Never mind that Frost was talking about the singular, irredeemable choices we make in life; in Archie's hometown, you get to have your cake and eat it too.

No mystery why the story line has brought a whole bunch of new fans to the redhead from Riverdale. We're tantalized by the idea that diverging roads at major intersections lead to distinct destinations -- and if only we'd taken that other one ...

But really, the few big milestones matter less than the thousands of small ones that multiply over decades. You stay too long at a party, you have another donut, you pick up an Archie comic when you could have picked up Dickens. You tell a lie or you text while driving. Or, in the case of Archie himself, maybe you shrug amiably and string the girls along for another issue, secure in the knowledge that none of you are getting any older. Or any wiser.

The places in the road that matter aren't really forks at all, just gentle curves in the yellow wood. Each step along it is a choice in itself, toward a destination you realize only when you reach it. Unless you're Archie, you have to live with that. But why he didn't pick Betty in the first place is beyond me.

Trapped in the trite? Try these:


Facebook and its mildly retarded cousin Twitter have unleashed a huge demand for pithy remarks, single sentences so clever and incisive that they are instantly echoed around the globe. If one's worth is measured by the number of followers one has, then the exponent of that worth is the number of one's pithy messages that get re-Tweeted. Alas, the supply of cleverness has not kept pace with the demand.

Maybe this accounts for the proliferation of the phrases "Go figure" and "Just sayin'." If a tweeted observation seems particularly banal, just add the ironic eye-roll "go figure" and you've got the sophisticated air of one who's seen everything. "Just sayin'" works much the same way: It implies an amused exasperation with this absurd world, a touch of whimsy that is not immediately apparent in the trite thought that preceeds it.

If those don't work, there are always the "LOL!" "OMG" and "Snort!" These handy interjections -- employed in front of the re-Tweeted or linked item, not after -- show that your discerning eye has discovered something incredibly amusing. Almost as amusing as if you'd thought of it yourself.

The Count abides


(image) Can any book be considered truly frightening these days? Maybe not, what with an entire generation now conditioned to equate horror primarily with power tools and torture porn. But there was a time when certain books kept a lot of people awake at night, alert for a subtle creaking on the stairs, a scratching at the window. That time started in 1897, with the book Dracula.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was the first really scary book I ever read. I was 13 or so. I picked it up again a couple of days ago, since my wife bought a copy -- her book group has selected it for October in a nod to Halloween. I can report that the book is less terrifying this time around, possibly because its style and structure have been appropriated and diluted by so many imitators since. Stephen King, for example, in his first novel Carrie, used Stoker's idea of presenting the story as a series of journal entries, letters and news reports. It's a good trick, and it must have seemed doubly so in 1897.

So many other authors and filmmakers have based their work on Stoker's prototype that the original now seems trite. Stoker didn't invent vampire lore, of course, but he was the first to invest it with such authenticity. I can imagine how horrifying the book must have been 112 years ago, when science and folklore remained equal competitors. It's too bad readers new to the book won't get that.

Somehow, I don't think the ladies will like it. Bram Stoker was no Amy Tan. The characters, especially the female ones, might seem a bit one-dimensional. And the book, in 2009, seems longer than strictly necessary.

The newest edition of Dracula has a long, scholarly introduction, the usual claptrap about Victorian sexuality and repressed longings and the obligatory hints of homoeroticism. I say, who cares? If you read the book, forget all that. Forget Bela Lugosi, forget Dark Shadows and Anne Rice and especially forget the execrable Twilight series. Imagine a time when only guttering lamps lit the darkness. Imagine discovering the Count's true nature through a series of reports from those unfortunate enough to encounter him. In short, suspend your disbelief. You might find it a little frightening yourself, even all these years later.

Autumn and algebra


(image) Autumn cometh. Snow in the mountains, leaves in the wind. Just kidding about the snow, since we're in Wichita and there are no mountains within several hundred miles. But the leaves really are beginning to drift up at the edge of the yard and and we've run the furnace a couple of times. Something about fall: this is the time of year some of us ponder the middle distance and reconsider our old best dreams.

My dreams never involved taking introductory algebra again. About 40 years ago I was happily certain I'd left that subject behind for good. And yet here I am, sitting a classroom every day, struggling through the little tricks involved in graphing polynomial equations. I don't hate it as much as I expected to. Algebra has an elegance of its own, not least because the correct answer is not a matter of subjective judgment. After working exclusively with English words for nearly all my life, with all their unruly ways, it's kind of refreshing to learn the precise language of mathematics. 

Anyway, that's what I've been reading lately: Introductory Algebra, 10th Edition, by Marvin Bittinger. The plotting is wooden and the characters nonexistent, and the used paperback version I bought cost $85 -- about three times what Dan Brown is getting for The Lost Symbol.  Let's just say it's not for everybody.

The dusty streets of Blog City


(image) It's remarkable how quickly the blogging craze came and went. For awhile we were all out there panning the stream, sifting every aspect of our mundane lives and collecting page views and comments like flecks of gold. Some of us, I think, secretly fantasized that it might turn into something that would be beat working.

A year or two later and most of the personal blogs are ghost towns, the wind sighing down a dusty street, the occasional tumbleweed rolling by. That includes this one: Until today, the last update was about six weeks ago. I didn't make a conscious decision to pull the plug on it; it just happened. To belabor the ghost town analogy, the rail line never made it here, veering instead toward the more vibrant community of Facebookville.

Not hard to see why. You can only read a blog; on Facebook, you can take a quiz and easily determine which make of car or mythical creature you might be. And with a blog, you feel like you should write several complete sentences; with Facebook, a single pithy phrase will suffice. Good thing, too, since it's tiresome to do more than that on an iPhone keyboard.

Life hurries on. But you wonder what will become of all these abandoned blogs. Because they're mostly free, people have no incentive to take them down. I guess they'll last as long as the Internet infrastructure does, silent scrapbooks of days gone by. Look at these 2D pictures of frolicking children who are now adults, these quaint dinner parties from an earlier age, these reviews of long-forgotten books and movies. Ah, the days before the holographic monitor and the neural interface; I remember them well.

Raised on guns and dynamite


I was on the treadmill yesterday watching Rio Bravo on AMC. It's been called Howard Hawks' finest film, and that may be, but sweating through my fifth mile I was struck mostly by how cheaply life was regarded in the glory days of the Western.In one scene, John Wayne and Ricky Nelson gun down three outlaws who have been distracted by a flower pot tossed out a window. The poor saps are just standing there, and then they're dead in the street without so much as a "drop your guns." When the Duke notices another man trying to flee on horseback, he kills him too. Fifty yards out and a moving target, that's pretty good shooting. But the guy was running away. Might want to review your guidelines on the use of deadly force, sheriff.So we've got four men dead in about 15 seconds of screen time. By way of comparison, the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral resulted in three fatalities, and we're still aware of it 128 years later. I swear, I watched dozens of movies like Rio Bravo during my formative years and I sometimes wonder today why I don't use more gunplay in my daily routine.Or more dynamite. In westerns, dynamite appears only slightly less often than Colt revolvers or Gatling guns. Rio Bravo has a sequence where Walter Brennan is hurling sticks of it at an outlaw hideout. John Wayne and Dean Martin then detonate the sticks by shooting them as they land on the porch. The house gets blasted to kindling, of course, but the surviving outlaws stumble out with limbs somehow intact. Message: Dynamite is not just for contractors.Dynamite has a starring role in another Western I viewed on the treadmill: Two Mules for Sister Sara. This one, starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, also has a body count that seems a bit jarring in a movie billed as a comedy. As part of his scheme to steal a chest full of gold, Eastwood enlists the aid of Mexican peasants who hope to get rid of their French oppressors. In the climactic firefight, about 140 of them die horribly -- a fair number by running mindlessly (as extras so often do) into the business end of a Gatling gun. That's a lot of fatherless families to think about. But it's all good, as Eastwood and MacLaine ride wisecracking into the sunset.I like old Westerns as well as the next guy -- maybe somewhat more than the next guy -- but I have to agree that movie-making has come a long way since then. Today even bad movies attempt to consider the consequences of gunshot deaths, if only to show how messy they are. And yet, somehow, guns get used in real life a lot more now than they did when the Western ruled the screen. Dynamite, thankfully, has been slower to catch on. I guess it's possible to overestimate the influence of pop culture on human behavior. It doesn't form us, after all; it only reflects.[...]

Showing "Twilight" how it's done


(image) I've grown disgusted with vampire movies over the past few years. Now that the simpering Gap models of "Twilight" have taken over, with their finicky diets and childish crushes, I'm about ready to put a stake in the heart of the entire genre. Bela Lugosi must be rolling in his crypt right now. Assuming he's still in it.

And yet, I come to praise a recent vampire movie that also blends romance and horror. Unlike "Twilight," it succeeds. It's moving, it's horrifying and it's somehow believable. "Let the Right One In," a Swedish film released last year, is the most engrossing movie I've seen in many months -- and that includes quite a few that didn't involve the undead.

Briefly, it's set in 1982 Stockholm, where the misfit boy Oskar has become the target of bullies. You can see why: He's a pale, sensitive lad who seems barely strong enough to lift his own limbs. He goes out at night to role-play some revenge, jamming his little knife into a tree and reciting the litany of insults his tormentors have just inflicted on him. When he turns around, there's a girl watching him from the jungle jim. It's snowy out, and bitter cold, but she's not wearing a coat. More importantly, she doesn't seem to need one.

Oskar's new friend is Eli, who turns out to be quite strong, quite a climber and quite adept at solving a Rubik's cube. On the downside, she can't stand daylight and can't enter a dwelling without being invited. When her true nature begins to dawn on Oskar midway through the film, he asks if she's very old. "I'm 12," she says. "But I've been 12 for a long time."

If the movie were only about vampire puppy love, it would get old a bit more quickly than Eli. But director Tomas Alfredson creates a cold, dark Stockholm where despair and foreboding seem to haunt every shadow. And Eli isn't one of those vampire vegetarians, like the dopey Edward Cullen in "Twilight." She needs to feed, and it isn't pretty. That's another thing I like about this movie: It remains true to the conventions of genre even while giving its vampire some sympathetic qualities.

Even if you don't like vampire movies, you might like this one. It's subtitled, but that doesn't matter, right? Dave Bob says check it out.