Monday, March 30, 2009

Nice, but where's my f***ing profanity?

I was an early and unlikely fan of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Normally I go in for hard-nosed crime fiction where at least five people die horribly before the denouement. In Smith's books, a very kind and overweight woman goes around solving mysteries of a less-menacing nature. People do occasionally die in these books, but never at the hands of depraved serial killers. If you like curling up with a writer like Thomas Harris, A.M. Smith takes some getting used to.

He has a finely tuned ear for West African English, which makes every character sound both simple and profound. Even the antagonists can be charming. This charm comes across very well in the HBO series of the same name, which we watched last night. The series is perfectly cast and perfectly written -- which is to say it matches the expectations of longtime readers like myself. As in the books, the pacing is pleasantly sedate, driven more by character than plot. If you have HBO, it's definitely worth a look. Smith now has 10 books in the series, each as good as the last, so we're assured of good writing for this debut season at least.

As an aside, during last night's show I was struck by another thing: This is an HBO series, but not one character referred to another as a m*****f****r. What's up with that? In fact, I'm pretty sure the writers didn't deploy any f-bombs at all, neither as verb, noun, adverb, adjective or interjection. Ditto the C-word. After years of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Deadwood, this is a jarring omission. I predict a writers' strike at some point: Think how much harder you have to work when you can't pad the dialogue with obscenity. There were places in The Wire where the only words that didn't start with F were the conjunctions.

It's kind of refreshing, but this could be a risky route for HBO. After the suits fine-tune it we may yet see Precious Ramotswe beating up hookers and cursing like a drunken sailor with Tourette syndrome. What's the point of an HBO show if its scripts could pass muster on network TV?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A morning without power

Guess it's a storm after all. The power went off at 3:30 a.m., and didn't come back on until around 10 a.m. In the meantime, our good friends were good enough to have us over for a nice hot breakfast. Thanks, D & D!

Now everything is covered in ice and certain branches are hanging dangerously low, and wet snow is coming down hard. But the furnace is on and I'm going to take a nice hot shower while I can -- day like this, you can't take continuous power for granted.

As the picture at left suggests, we won't be barbecuing for dinner tonight. Good Lord willing, we'll be tasting wine and eating pizza instead. Speaking of which, here's a poem I wrote at the request of tonight's hosts, in praise of tonight's featured grape:

I think that I shall never know
A wine so useful as merlot,
A modest grape that won't offend
When crowds of people must attend.

Though other wines may have more fame,
The alcohol is much the same;
It's not too heady, nor too light,
And usually the price is right

And though we gather just to taste,
To spit it out would be a waste
And though it's just a tiny pour,
It's never wrong to have some more.

But so that you will not seem dumb,
Pretend to note "a hint of plum"
And give your lips a thoughtful purse,
Allowing that you've tasted worse.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stocking up and hunkering down

The big news here is that a major blizzard is on the way and it's going to hit this city but good. Forget Fargo and its 112-year flood; we've got a half-inch of snow on the ground and now it looks like some sleet. This could be rough. I expect to see CNN vans on every block of this city by the close of business today. It doesn't look too bad in the picture, but just you wait.

People here love bracing for a winter storm, particularly at this time of year when tornadoes are more likely than a foot of snow. I love it too, monitoring the situation from the relative safety of command central. I left the house just once today, to pick up some stew fixings at the grocery store. Evidently I was the last one to think about stocking up: there wasn't much left in the meat aisle and all they had for milk was some 2 percent that was very close to the sell-by date. Would have picked up some guns and ammo too, except you can't find that stuff around here either, what with Obama in the White House. I just hope the snow is deep enough to deter all the looters and cannibals.

Of course, it could happen that the blizzard doesn't quite meet expectations. The magnitude of events often correlates inversely to the hype about them beforehand; if the forecast is for a Force 5 tornado, for example, you can pretty much count on light wind and partly cloudy skies. Remember that Y2K catastrophe? Neither do I. Perhaps because it never came to pass.

Then again, this really could be the big one. We'll see. Whether we get two feet or two inches, I guess we can be grateful that it's only snow.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hits, twits and falling idols

Here's a grab bag of items on a day when nothing in particular rises to the fore. Such days seem entirely too frequent.

* Just finished reading Hit and Run, Lawrence Block's latest in his series about the hit man J. P. Keller. These days I rarely finish a book on the same day I acquire it; when I do, I have to give props to the author. Block is no literary genius, but he's a master at crime fiction. He keeps you believing the story and turning the pages. That's what good fiction is all about, and it's a lot harder than he makes it look. Particularly if the protagonist is a hired killer who collects stamps, and not all of the people he kills have it coming. If you haven't checked out his Keller series, do so. Just don't expect a warm and fuzzy feeling to result. This is not the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

* I mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago that I'm a fan of American Idol. I'm pretty close to demanding a retraction. I skipped last night's episode, not because I was otherwise engaged or the DVR wasn't working; I just realized I wasn't up to another evening with the four smirking judges. These people are phoning it in. Their repertoire of criticism has devolved into a tired assortment of catchphrases. They are each as banal and predictable as any of the contestants on any given night. Give us a show called American Talent Show Judge, and every one of them would be going home by round two.

Of course, I'm not so off the show that I skipped reading the recap in the Washington Post. Glad to see I didn't miss much.

* A few more thoughts about Twitter, since nobody else has anything to say about it. I'm kidding. Over the last few months, I got a Twitter account, quit in disgust, then got on again. Nowadays I mostly lurk, following 20 people I actually know. As far as I can see, they're having the same experience as me: you post some thought you deem to be clever, describe some activity, link to some picture, and presto! -- the comment is universally ignored. Presumably we're all reading each other's tweets, but it's like we're sitting in empty rooms, tapping our little missives into the void. It's called social media, but it sometimes seems the opposite.

Twitter couldn't exist without the proliferation of handheld devices on which to tweet. For all the talk about networking, I think its popularity is more about having something to do with our new toys. I'm constantly updating Twitterrific on my iPod Touch, just because I can. Without that, I'd be forced to check my e-mail twice as often, or look up the local weather again in lieu of actually stepping outside.

No doubt everyone's already seen this, but here's a video that lacerates the Twitter fad pretty well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The time for mourning is over

I'll tell you what: I'm getting tired of all these sob stories about newspapers shutting down. Not that I have anything against newspapers, which until recently afforded me a life of unimaginable luxury. But I cringe at the poignant and somewhat accusatory tone of stories bemoaning the demise of yet another big-city rag. You'll all be sorry when we're gone, they say; you won't have the Daily Bugle to kick around any more. And beware: If you don't have a newspaper, you don't have a democracy. Who'll afflict the comfortable without the Bugle's crack investigative team sniffing out corruption?

Then again, the investigative thing and the corruption thing kind of fell by the wayside over the last decade or so. Surveys revealed that what readers really wanted were anecdotal trend stories, whimsical lifestyle pieces and 20-minute recipes. So newspapers went that route, realizing too late that the readers who answered the survey were already getting all that crap online. And the reason they were was because the Bugle and its brethren were putting all that crap online. Absolutely free. But they all reasoned that you'd continue to pay for the print product because it's good for democracy.

I sometimes wonder where the industry would be today if all the big players had conspired, sometime in the late '90s, to boycott the Internet. In court, probably. But in retrospect, it might have been worth a try. It might have bought some time. I might still have a job. As it happened, the tipping point arrived about a year ago. In another year ... who knows? I have a few friends still working in newsrooms, and I hate to write anything that will make their lives even more miserable. But a year from now, I doubt many will still be feeling that slight tremor, nearing midnight, that meant the presses were starting and the next day's paper was on its way, with all its flashes of genius and avoidable errors. Talk about poignance: For me, that tremor also meant the end of another shift.

Now, of course, all the shifts are ending. Just a matter of time, which marches on. Let's not get weepy about it. Let's not pretend that something precious is going away. If it were truly precious, people would want it. It appears they don't.

Adios, Bugle. Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out. If there is anything indispensable about newspapers, let's see what arises to fill the void. For now, about all we can do is pray it's not Twitter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Take this yard and shove it

Blogging is no piece of cake, what with the need to motivate the research staff, root out cliches and watch the profanity, but after all is said and done at the end of the day, it's as simple as pie compared to yard work. Which has again reared its ugly head.

I started the morning wandering around with a landscape guy, who didn't take long to figure out I'm a lot dumber than I look, at least where it comes to planting things and keeping them alive until his pickup is out of sight. He made some notes and promised to come back with a plan even a chimp could follow, but I'm not optimistic. Look, it's like Zarathustra said: I am become death, destroyer of gardens. Also trees and ornamental bushes. I have good intentions, but my skill set swings between criminal neglect and lethal pruning, with nothing in between.

The guy we bought the house from loved roses. He had a nice bed of them and they were a beauty to behold that first year. Now they're all brown canes and wicked thorns, withered and mutated as though we'd been mulching them with spent reactor fuel. I'd take them out pronto except those thorns discourage interaction. For now, I just brood at a safe distance, and slowly lay my plans.

I can't be sure, but I think the lawn used to be nicer too. It used to be green, for one thing. Now it's dead bermuda grass punctuated by strange weeds, and patches of bare earth where the dog
performs frenzied maneuvers without regard to aesthetics. How did it get this way? Does it need water or something? Fertilizer? My impulse now is to carpet-bomb the whole area with a foot of cedar mulch and be done with it, but no doubt that would create a different set of problems.

Ah, spring. Young men's hearts turn to love, and older men's hearts turn to Roundup.

Monday, March 16, 2009

These downfall stories don't quite do it

If there's a bright spot in the economic meltdown, it's all these stories about the formerly rich who are now living with their parents and trolling for job offers on Craigslist. Here's the latest, a CNN piece about an out-of-work banker bemoaning the loss of his fancy cars, expensive suits and extravagant vacations.

I was really enjoying the story at first. There's nothing better than seeing venal swine get what they have coming to them. Then I got to the part about how much the guy made during his "high-flying" days in the banking industry: $70,000 a year. Can that be right? How fancy could those cars have been, how extravagant the vacations? Was he driving to a reservation casino in a 3-year-old Hyundai? I'm going to guess CNN dropped a zero there at the end. If not, I feel kind of guilty about my initial chortling.

However, I was still happy to read that real estate has tanked in the Hamptons. New York Times Magazine has a story about it, leading with an anecdote about a home initially priced at $2.2 million, now under $1.7 million and still languishing on the market. Hard times indeed. Then I read a little more and realized that's still twice what it sold for in 2003. And it's still the owners' second home. Don't cry for me, Argentina. Only New York Times Magazine could wring pathos from that.

I guess I'm still looking for the definitive riches-to-rags story, the one that will prove America has learned its lesson and that all greedy crooks eventually end up pushing their belongings around in shopping cart. Yeah, Bernie Madoff is going off to jail, but what about everybody else? Shouldn't his wife be reduced to turning tricks in Queens? Shouldn't the geniuses at AIG be collecting aluminum cans instead of drawing bonuses? The occasional stories about fatcats getting thin are gratifying, but they're no substitute for justice.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Two worth watching. Or not

Here at the Warehouse, I watch out-of-date Netflix movies so you don't have to. Here are a couple of oddball gems I've found in the past couple of weeks:

Brick, released in 2005, is a strange blend of two genres: classic film noir and teenage angst. Imagine if Pretty in Pink (1986) had been written by Mickey Spillane. Brooding loner Brendan Frye finds his girlfriend dead, and spends the rest of the movie finding out how she got that way. The clipped, hardboiled dialogue is straight out of Double Indemnity -- no kids talk like this, and you're never quite sure if Brick is taking itself seriously or is nothing more than a sly sendup.

Either way, it kind of works and kind of doesn't. In one scene, our protagonist is meeting with a dangerous drug dealer when the dealer's mom wanders in to serve the boys orange juice and cookies. See, it's her house, and her son runs his drug ring out of the veneer-paneled basement. In another scene, Brendan cuts a deal with the authorities -- not the police, but the assistant vice principal at his high school. Funny stuff, but it's still film noir: People get killed and beaten and betrayed, and nobody comes out ahead.

Brick might not be for everybody, but it might be for you. Dave Bob says check it out.

Primer (2004) is another strange movie, unfolding mostly in a series of conversations between two young engineers who are working out of a garage to invent something -- anything -- they can sell for a lot of money. The two stumble on to a puzzling phenomenon that, on closer analysis, appears to be nothing less than the secret of time travel. Naturally, they put this amazing discovery to work enriching themselves in the stock market. Complications ensue.

It's more complicated than that, of course. Way more complicated. After a couple of viewings I still don't understand half of what happens in the film, but the low-budget visual style and earnest, barely-comprehensible discussions between the two protagonists make it all strangely believable -- and therefore engaging. Check it out sometime with a very smart friend in the room -- and keep your hand on the rewind button.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Small-town Minn., small-town Mont.

What I'm reading: Liberty, by Garrison Keillor. Basically it's another extended "News from Lake Wobegon," and that's not a bad thing. Community pillar Clint Bunsen, 60 years old and unhappily married, is sorely tempted by the young and beautiful Angelica Pflame. Nobody does small-town intrigue and midlife angst better than G.K., and every character here is someone you know. Consider this wonderful description of Clint's old man:

"He like to pretend to pull his thumb off and then hold out his little finger and when you pulled, he let out a fart. He loved the Sunday comics, Jiggs and Maggie, Little Iodine, Gasoline Alley, and he smoked a pipe like the dads in the comic strips and he had a mustache too. Daddy was a deacon of the Lutheran church but he was no more Lutheran than Roman Navarro was. He used Jergens hand lotion and Swank cologne. He came home from church on Sunday and sang "It Ain't Necessarily So" to irritate Mom and fixed himself a gin martini and a plate of Ritz crackers with deviled ham and put Frank Sinatra on the turntable and got a dreamy look in his eye."

Swank cologne. Ritz crackers with deviled ham. I love that kind of thing. After all these years with his Lake Wobegon people, Keillor may be phoning it in by now, but that's all right with me. Keep 'em coming.

Nails, by Peter Bowen, also meanders among the foibles of small-town folk, these in the fictional town of Toussaint, Mont. When the nude body of a young girl is discovered at the side of the road, Bowen's series character, Gabriel Du Pre, is on the case. Chief among the suspects: a clan of Christian fundamentalists recently arrived in the area.

This is the first Bowen novel I've read, but he's written more than a dozen Du Pre books. He's been compared to Tony Hillerman, and the reader reviews I've seen are all positive. He must be an acquired taste. I found Nails to be tough sledding in the early chapters. The mystery takes way too long to set the hook, lingering on quirky and not-quite-plausible scenes involving peripheral characters. Those familiar with the series may enjoy this more than I did. Secondly, the colloquial dialogue among Bowen's characters -- salted with improper pronouns, random commas and odd contractions -- takes some getting used to. No doubt it's an accurate representation of the way these people talk, but it sometimes required a second read to divine the meaning. It did get easier as the book went on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The good news: Profits are unchanged

It's tax time here at the Warehouse, so we've been busy pulling together records for the accountant. Basically, it looks like gross income will again be zero for the year, resulting in a net income of, let's see ... also zero. We do have another year of depreciation on the coffee maker and the Herman Miller Aeron chair we bought in more prosperous times, but we suppose the lack of income renders that moot.

Readership remains at about 30 hits a day, although closer analysis reveals 20 of those hits to be ourselves, checking to see if there are any comments. Comments, which we've been accepting in lieu of cash, have declined slightly from minimal to statistically insignificant. But that's probably because we're no longer juicing the numbers by replying to our own posts. So it is the opinion of the board that the Warehouse is weathering the economic meltdown pretty well.

Our Twitter initiative has not performed to expectations, producing even fewer comments than the blog. Our smart, amusing updates are frequently garbled due to the tiny iPod Touch keyboard, and so far have been universally ignored. The board has often wondered if the damned thing is even working.

Going forward, the board is considering a number of strategies. Most of them involve shutting down the blog and seeking employment with the lawn-maintenance crew we've noticed working across the street. We've also considered posting pictures of nude celebrities, but can't find any. The other option -- timely, insightful analysis on a topic people actually care about -- yeah, right. We'll get right on that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

She's many things, but not a pit bull

As the owner of a dog who resembles a pit bull, I guess I can live with Wichita's new animal ordinance. The requirements -- microchip, spaying and a limit of two -- shouldn't greatly compromise my active senior lifestyle.

Especially since I don't have a pit bull. The dog currently occupying the recliner downstairs does possess some of the characteristics spelled out in the city's ordinance: "deep brisket, well-sprung ribs and slightly-tucked loins"-- but then, so do I. No, our dog is bull boxer mix, or, if you prefer, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. She's not a collie. She's not a chocolate lab. And she's definitely not a pit bull. Just want to put that on the record.

Because people always ask. Yesterday in College Hill Park a guy walking his own mutt assumed a defensive stance 20 yards away and shouted, "what kind of dog is that?" The tone didn't convey friendly curiosity, so I shouted back: "Pit bull!" I was just pulling his chain. I thought he was going to pick up his little dog and sprint in the opposite direction. Bull boxer mix just doesn't have the same impact.

My dog Bella doesn't have any of the aggressive characteristics people associate with pit bulls, probably because she isn't one. That's too bad, because if she were a little less submissive I might be able parlay her appearance into a lucrative dog-fighting franchise. Instead, the only benefit I get is the exercise from the long walks she has come to expect. She does a few tricks, although rarely for free. I'm trying to teach her to poop less frequently, too, but that's not going so well.

Which brings me to my only real beef with the new animal ordinance. When I walk Bella, I always take a couple of plastic bags to pick up after her. Judging by the sea of glistening dog turds that is Cypress Park, I'm the only person in east Wichita who practices this quaint custom. How about a law mandating draconian fines for the slobs who don't? It needn't be breed specific.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Not the way the world ends

You have to love WorldNetDaily. Since its founding in 1997, the site has emerged as the nation's premier source of information about the coming apocalypse and, more recently, secret plans by the Obama administration to steal your money and crush your soul. Where else are you going to get that kind of content? Diane Rehm? Wake up and smell the coffee! Bookmark the site now and refresh it every few minutes from your safe room down in the basement. At least until the power goes out.

Which should be any time now. On Sunday, WND posted an "exclusive" warning that global catastrophe is imminent. It came from Pastor David Wilkerson: "An earth-shattering calamity is about to happen. It is going to be so frightening, we are all going to tremble – even the godliest among us."

Presumably that would include him. Think about it: If even the godliest are trembling, then it's only a matter of time until the least godly start rampaging through the streets, screaming and rubbing their own feces in their hair. It's going to be that bad, people. The good news is that it should only last 30 days. According the the Rev. Wilkerson, that's how much food you'll want to stockpile. He doesn't mention firearms and ordnance, but when buying ammo one rule of thumb is to estimate the number of godless people in your area and multiply by 20.

I have some familiarity with predictions of the End Times. I was still a newlywed in the early 70s when my then-mother-in-law first thrust a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth into my hands. In the years that followed, she never missed an opportunity to proffer more books, and pamphlets and personal studies. All declared that doomsday was nigh. As each specific date quietly came and went, she always wrote it off to slight errors in Biblical interpretation and cheerfully set a new one a year or two down the road. As a prophetess of doom, her failure rate remains at 100 percent. Somehow, so does her faith in eventually nailing it.

But then, the same could be said for Hal Lindsey and David Wilkerson and the thousands of others who have been predicting the world's end for the past couple of millennia. Some people make a nice living doing that kind of thing; others just alienate their families and friends. All of them seem fascinated by the idea of the godless perishing in a rain of blood and brimstone -- while those with the foresight to heed scripture and hoard food are spared.

Someday, maybe, someone will get it right. Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn. But I'd put my money on T.S. Eliot before Pastor Wilkerson: When this world ends, it probably won't be with a bang. And the amount of groceries in your basement is unlikely to pertain.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Haven't they suffered enough? Not really

During these trouble economic times, what we really need is a good scapegoat. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Madoff are happy to oblige. Just when public outrage over Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme begins to subside, his lovely wife Ruth comes forward to claim that the mere $62 million she was able to salt away during the good times has nothing to do with Bernie.

See, he had his business, systematically robbing charities, and she had hers -- systematically counting the money as it arrived at their Manhattan penthouse bundled on wooden shipping pallets. Completely separate! Should she be penalized for Bernie's errors in judgment? That would be un-American, your honor.

You can only shake your head. Crime of the century, and the Madoffs remain free, rich and unrepentant. At worst, they're facing a reduction in status from billionaire to millionaire. That's a little too subtle for my taste. But it appears my recommendation of public flogging and lifetime poverty has fallen on deaf ears.

I know, it wasn't just the Madoffs who ruined this country. But as scapegoats, they're looking better and better.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Diane Rehm on the radio: Why?

Moving now to media criticism, I would like to respectfully suggest that NPR move The Diane Rehm Show to some time slot when I'm not listening. Let's say 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. As it stands, I'm forced to curse and make pained facial expressions during the two morning hours she's on KMUW here in Wichita. And that's not always convenient.

Look, I know about the spasmodic dysphonia, the vocal condition that makes her sound like somebody's dotty grandmother trying not to slur her words after a second bottle of white zinfandel. That's a tough break and she can't help it. Far be it from me to criticize someone's disability. On the other hand, since there aren't many slots open for radio personalities, you'd think they could find one with the minimum qualification: a voice that does not evoke fingernails on a chalkboard.

You'd also think they could find one with a personality. That's my real beef with Diane Rehm: the personality. She has no sense of timing, she interrupts knowledgable guests to interject inane non sequiturs, and worst of all, she has no discernible sense of humor. Don't ask me why she's smiling in the picture; maybe she's imagining a deadly strain of ebola that infects only Republican males. That's another thing about Diane: she eschews any pretense of objectivity. Fine, there are plenty of right-wing ranters out there too. But couldn't she at least make a joke once in awhile?

The prosecution rests. Except to add that Diane Rehm's familiarity with world events doesn't appear to extend much past 1997. All in all, it's a crappy radio show and I'm at a loss to explain its purported popularity.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Maybe Sin City isn't much of a muse

OK, I've plunged back into crime fiction, but I seem to have started at the shallow end of the pool: Murder in Vegas, a 2005 anthology of short stories edited by Michael Connelly. I found it at the library a few days ago and I was in a hurry.

I like short stories, even though it's rare to find a really good one. The yarns here -- set, as you might imagine, in Las Vegas -- are entertaining enough but only one ("The Sunshine Tax") is close to memorable. The rest all seem a bit derivative and predictable and lean heavily on violence to resolve plot complications -- which is the sort of thing I'm perfectly capable of writing myself. I read short stories for fun, but also to gain insights about the craft, and these didn't yield many.

They didn't yield many new angles on Vegas, either. We were there in December. While the city remains a glittering petri dish of vice and weakness, it has a pathetic air about it now. You walk the sleazy Strip and don't think much about heists and high rollers and hit men. You occasionally think about noirish lascivious ladies, but only because of those stupid pamphlets always being thrust at you. These stories are all set in the present, but they seem to reference a time when Sinatra and the Rat Pack were boozing it up on stage -- a time when Las Vegas was, in fact, unique and maybe a little dangerous. I guess that's why none of them seem particularly relevant.

This isn't a review, of course -- what kind of an idiot reviews a four-year-old anthology? Mostly it's just another reflection on what makes a decent short story. And it's a challenge to myself. I've long thought about doing a yarn set in Vegas; now I'm going to try to write one. Talk is cheap; let's see if I can do better.