Saturday, June 26, 2010

New arrival.

So, this was sitting at the end of the driveway yesterday morning.

I don't know where it came from, and I'm not sure what kind of animal it is - it's too big to be a squirrel and it's lacking all the front teeth. A cat?

Trying to take the picture was funny, since my poor camera kept trying to autofocus on the eye holes and going "where are the eyes??"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why you need a proofreader.

The following from the November - December 2008 issue of Military Review, by Thomas Odom:

The article is a classic case of making reality fit academic theory by cloaking reality in hyperbole and doubtful analysis. I would summarize by offering my own questions to resurface the reality of Rwanda.

* Genocide as an act of 'frenzy"? You don't kill 11 percent of a population of 7 million in 100 days using small anus and machetes in a "frenzy." The Rwandan genocide was a coldly calculated act of political murder applied on a massive scale.

You can't rely on spellcheck for everything.

Variations on a Theme, part 2.

In 1995, a year after the genocide, Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker went to Rwanda. He wanted to see, he wrote, how the Rwandans were "getting on" in the aftermath.

And getting on, they were. Rebuilding, returning. Not to normalcy, because to return to normalcy would have meant returning to the environment that had made the genocide possible. But even in the wake of the unimaginable, the human mind has the remarkable ability to scab over what it has seen.

Which is how Gourevitch ended up talking to a woman named Lourencie Nyirabeza, a Tutsi who had survived and returned to her home, only to find herself living next to the man who had murdered her family, slashed her with a machete, and left her in a ditch to die.

Gourevitch's writing is simple, spare, almost elegiac. Ranging across Rwanda, he speaks with Hutus and Tutsis alike (although, now I think it's better to say just Rwandans), those who killed, those who survived. He interviews Paul Kagame, Rwanda's President, and Odette Nyaramilimo, Paul Rusesabagina's sister-in-law (the man who managed the Hotel des Milles Collines, the subject of Hotel Rwanda), and Paul himself.

Most heartbreaking are the stories of the survivors struggling to find a place in post-genocide Rwanda. Distrustful of the Tutsis who returned from exile in Burundi and Uganda, feeling ignored in the speed to rebuild and put the past away, the survivors feel that the rush to reconstruct is being used as an excuse to pardon those who participated in the slaughter.

Gourevitch's interviews are the stars here, from the intense and frightening Paul Kagame (now being criticized for political repression as Rwanda readies for another election) to the Tutsi and Hutu survivors.

If Gourvitch's writing is spare, Louise Mushikiwabo's is dense, layered, tumbling with adjectives and twining branches of imagination and history. Rwanda Means the Universe is an imagined historiography of the country, a country with no written history and a false 'history' created by colonialists. Traveling back to the courts of the Rwandan kings, the mwamis, Mushikiwabo tugs the reader along with the first ill-fated European expeditions up Rwanda's rivers into the forbidden land, the establishment of a Belgian 'protectorate' consisting of two malarial white guys, and the eventual calcification of the false concept of 'ethnicity', built on an European mania for racial science and eugenics.

Mushikiwabo's musings on the mindsets of those few Europeans who made it to Rwanda in the heyday of colonialism are often hilarious (finally, an answer to what were they thinking?,) and her blending of imagination and history is masterful. Mushikiwabo brings the reader along in what is essentially a reimaging of Rwanda's national narrative before and after colonialism takes hold, from the crocodile-choked rivers, the fierce reputation that kept slave traders from reaching Rwanda and so preserved it, to the treacherous, cruel and stately court of Rwanda's notorious queen, Kanjogera. Mushikiwabo's pre-colonialism Rwanda is orderly, hierarchical, cruel, and beautiful. Before you realize it, Mushikiwabo is infiltrating the upper echelons of the Hutu government of the early 90s as they plan the decimation of Rwanda's Tutsis.

Meanwhile, Mushikiwabo is in Washington, working as a translator, letting her mind fill the horrific gaps between spotty transatlantic phone calls, when before you know it, the family whose history she is bringing to you is hers, and now it's personal.

If your country is the universe, where else can you go when it doesn't want you anymore?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Variations on a Theme, part 2

Is Romeo Dallaire a broken man?

To be sure, there's plenty of blame to go around, from a homicidal government to an apathetic world to a cowardly and bureaucratic United Nations, but as the head of the UN's peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in '93, Canadian Lieutenant General Dallaire clearly feels that he - outnumbered, outgunned, underfunded, hounded by desperate families and dependent upon bureaucracy so intransigent and complex that basics like food, fuel, and ammunition were never to be counted upon - is also to blame for UN's and global community's failure to keep Rwanda from plunging into chaos.

Lt. Gen Dallaire begins at the beginning, taking the reader back to his childhood in Canada as the son of a military man and a Belgian war bridge. Whether all this autobiographical verbiage is necessary is questionable, it does provide insight into why Dallaire tried so hard and felt so deeply about the failure of the UN and his mission to stabilize Rwanda.

In a few short chapters, Dallaire goes from a man who has no idea where Rwanda is other than somewhere in Africa to a man who feels a deep connection to the people and tenuous peace he's been charged to protect. When it falls apart, Dallaire is one of the few who remains, as his few trusted colleagues are removed from Rwanda (or crack under the pressure). Backed by a woefully unprepared and shaky multinational force, Dallaire scrambles for support from the UN, before realizing that none will be forthcoming, and the most he can try to do is protect a few small groups from being murdered by their neighbors.

Shake Hands with the Devil provides a valuable insider's look into how the peacekeeping mission was actually structured, revealing a bewildering bureaucracy with unclear lines of command and no group prepared (or willing) to take responsibility or swift action. Instead, Dallaire's requests for mundane supplies take weeks, even months to be acknowledged or answered. A 'coalition' of troops from Belgium, Ghana, Bangladesh, and elsewhere can't communicate or coordinate. Soldiers arrive without basic provisions or supplies, refuse to accept Dallaire's orders, and in some cases, deliberately cripple their APCs so they won't have to respond to reports of fighting in and around Kigali.

Dallaire's prose is sometimes muddy and overblown, and the lengthy introductory material unnecessary, but as he says himself, he's a soldier, not a writer. Particularly moving is his return to Canada after being relieved of duty under questions about his mental stability, which he freely admits began crumbling. Back in Canada, a suicidal, deeply depressed Dallaire begins drinking heavily before the summons to testify before the world council tribunal on war crimes gives his life focus again.

Dallaire's research assistant, Sian Cansfield, committed suicide before the book was published. Dallaire also attempted suicide, almost successfully, after his return from Rwanda. He now sits on the Canadian Senate. If you watched the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics, you would have seen Dallaire carrying the Canadian flag during the opening ceremonies.

In contrast, in Shaharyar Khan's world, the UN hums along fine, UN officials are, without exception, wonderful, kindly, learned people, UNAMIR is going swimmingly, and since we're just here to watch, we've already fulfilled our mandate!

Marred by factual errors and mislabeled photographs, Khan's book is more of a hagiography of the various UN bureaus and offices than a work of historical record. Khan attends ceremonies and diplomatic events, dutifully files report after report, and dances around mentioning that oh and by the way the streets are paved with bodies. Shallow Graves does provide some of the historical context of Rwanda and it's relationship with former colonial powers France and Belgium that Dallaire's book leaves out, and it introduces the reader to a dizzying and ultimately forgettable array of diplomats, desk officers, minor functionaries, deputy assistants of every stripe, and the rest of the elements of the vast and ponderous UN bureaucracy.

Good for Khan, though, he manages to get his daily one-hour walk in as Rwanda drowns under an ocean of its own blood.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Not quite kith.

Oh, thank God. A phone that manages my social life!!

My social secretary, Ms. Penelope Ersatz-Titelbaum, was getting SO tired of addressing all of those envelopes.

City of Ashes

Most people have one or two really, incredibly, annoying habits. Habits so annoying that you only find out about them after you move in with them, and you're like, why are you not required to wear this printed on a t-shirt so that everywhere you go, everyone will have due warning of your incredibly irritating habit?

I am, of course, speaking of my habit of watching DVDs at double speed with the subtitles enabled, so I can get through them faster and read instead of having to listen. This habit is probably enough to drive most people to homicide, and I can't imagine any jury would convict them.

That being said, I love subtitled films, because I prefer to get information through text than any other way, and my tiny brain tends to get confused and overstimulated when I try to watch movies. I also like to watch movies on mute and just read lips. In fact, if all movies could just be a black screen with the screenplay projected onto it, I would be happy, and Michael Bay would be out of a job. Win win win, all around.

So. I like to read graphic novels, because it's sort of like TV, but, you know, without the TV. And with words. And when you like graphic novels, it's hard to tell people that, because they usually roll their eyes and assume you mean anime (no) or the Sandman series (sort of, I thought the quality of the artwork veered all over the place and was unfortunately distracting to the narrative, instead of supporting it). Sadly, even with the publication of the excellent Maus and Berlin: City of Stones, graphic novels still don't get the respect they deserve.

Persepolis is one of those great graphic novels, and when it was turned into a movie, it was with some trepidation that I finally watched it. Fortunately, Persepolis' author and illustrator, Iranian Marjane Satrapi, jealously controlled her work, and the film, also titled Persepolis, benefits.

Persepolis the graphic novel is the story of Satrapi's childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran, observation of the fall of the shah and installation of a fundamentalist Islamist regime, adolescence in Europe, and eventual return to the stifling Iranian regime as a young woman. Satrapi, the only child of indulgent, politically astute, left-leaning parents, rides the initial wave of euphoria during the overthrow of the shah. Euphoria turns to horror as the new Islamic regime begins tightening control over Iran and its citizens.

Marjane, fluent in French, is sent to Vienna by her parents to escape. Her misadventures in Europe are alternately hilarious, horrifiying, and sad. Bounced from a convent, Marjane falls in with a group of disaffected, posturing teenagers who adopt various radical political positions. However, Marjane's friends have the freedom to sneeringly dismiss capitalism and bourgeouise aspirations because they have parents who support them; Marjane ends up homeless and returns to Iran after being hospitalized with a lung infection following a winter on the Viennese streets.

Although Marjane is eager to return to her parents and beloved grandmother, Iran's regime has become even more stifling, and eventually Marjane has to choose between a life under the grip of fundamentalism, or a return to the relative freedom of a Europe where she remains forever a foreigner.

Persepolis the movie was hand-animated by a small studio in France, a departure from the computer-based animation that has become standard. In the entertaining and enlightening interviews with Satrapi, she explains why Persepolis would not have worked as a live-action film - the drawings maintain an abstract aesthetic that prevents the film from being pigeonholed as an ethnic film and instead emphasizes that the events in Persepolis can happen anywhere, not just in the Middle East.

The animation style stays true to the book, but cuts out a lot of the content and adopts some stylistic flourishes, such as showing the shah and ayatollah's forces as jerking hand puppets that look like they're cut out of paper. Wisely, the movie doesn't try to animate the frames of the graphic novel, but keeps the same aesthetic and adds an enaging musical score (the rendition of "Eye of the Tiger," sung in English, is rather jarring).

Seeing Marjane Satrapi in the flesh during the movie's various interviews is weird. I have the same feeling when I watch Seth Mcfarlane talk, because my brain is trying to juxtapose Brian's face onto Mcfarlane's, but the interviews are not to be missed - Marjane's bouyant personality is clearly the force behind the film.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Variations on a Theme, part 1.

Readers could be forgiven for thinking Scott Peterson has a death wish.

I don't think he really does, and he is not a man without fear, but someone who has learned to shove it aside and keep moving.

Me Against My Brother is divided into three parts: Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda, with a thick sheaf of pictures in between that Peterson took while in each country. Some of the pictures are expected-starving children, queues for UN food aid-and some aren't-pictures of American troops on top of tanks, a truckful of bodies, the dust covered in people killed outside of Rukara, a accidental cross formed by two severed arms in the dirt.

Peterson does a commendable job of providing enough history and political analysis to explain to readers without much background how the explosive situations in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda developed, and fortunately includes a lot of information on the maneuvering of the UN, the US, and the role outside forces played in the conflicts. Fortunately, though, Peterson never lets his book get high-level enough to shield the reader from the violence playing out a finger-tip away.

Peterson has a gift for capturing the textures, smells, and sounds of violence, from his descriptions of the guns of the killers clogged with the "thickening paste" of the blood of people shot at close range, to the intimate damage done by machetes to the living and the dead. Peterson himself faced near-fatal encounters several times, including a particularly harrowing attack by a mob on the day that Dan Eldon, Hansi Kraus, and Hos Maina, American, German, and Kenyan (respectively) journalists and photographers who were beaten to death in Mogadishu. Peterson identifies Dan's death, and describes the blend of idealism and arrogance, the mentality that makes people like Eldon and Peterson go into zones the world would prefer to ignore: "this was not supposed to happen, no story was worth this, though it was a real risk we so regularly dismissed...we lived with death every day here, but not our death."

What makes Peterson leave Somalia for Rwanda and Sudan? He doesn't ever really explain it, and his narrative is refreshingly absent of the idealistic-speak of other visitors who think that a few pictures to "show the world" what is happening may make a difference.

Instead, I think Peterson is facing the challenge that so many Holocaust survivors and historians faced. How to communicate the unspeakable? How to frame in words something that the mind rebels from, runs from, attempts to plaster over to save itself from trauma? Peterson's refusal to run and unwillingness to spare the reader's sensibilities is extremely admirable, but even in this narrative is the sense that at the moment the reader arrives at the heart of the horror, words suddenly cease to be able to communicate the sheer agony.

Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN's doomed 'peacekeeping' force in Rwanda, perhaps described it best when he said the horror of Rwanda had been directly grafted onto his cortex. Although Peterson's words will always be at one remove, his book does remarkable job of trying to transmit something that can't, perhaps ever, be caught in words.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Weapons of Mouth Destruction.

They say that the first step towards overcoming addiction is admitting that you have a problem.

Clearly, this is not going to work for me, because when I gathered up and laid out my 21 lipsticks, 13 lip glosses, 6 lip stains, 2 lip liners, and 2 chapsticks (for a grand total of 44 - wait, I just found another one hiding under my dresser, make that FOURTEEN lip glosses), my first thought was, oh, hey, that's not that bad.


That's sort of like an alcoholic being like, oh, jaundice, AT LEAST IT'S NOT CIRRHOSIS, drinks are on me this time!

Anyway, I thought that there should be some good to come out of this, so, henceforth, and ergo, a comprehensive review of all the stuff in the picture.

Korres Pomegranate Lip Butter: Great scent, very berry-y, but oddly opaque when you put it on, and a tendency to get sticky and clumpy.

CVS brand lip butter, Pomegranate Apple and Strawberry Banana. The pomegranate apple smells incredibly edible, to the point where I like to eat it, which is why I don't have much of this stuff left. Great texture, slippery enough that it doesn't get gooey, and cheap. The strawberry banana smells, oddly enough, like strawberry Pez. Lighter than the pomegranate apple, to the point where it's pretty much clear.

Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer in Fig and Merlot: Smells kinda minty. Good texture. Wears out quickly. The Fig color is kinda too brown for me, but the Merlot is a fairly dark berry.

Smashbox Pout: The exact color of cotton candy in the tube. Weird, sort of synthetic honeysuckle-y smell. Too gooey, but fortunately isn't as Barbie-pink as it looks. Faintly shimmery.

Rimmel Lip Plumping Gloss in Parade and Breathless: Goopy, kind of cleaning-fluid smelling stuff that makes your lips sting. Parade is dark red and more opaque than you'd expect from a gloss, but goes on kind of streaky. Breathless is Malibu Beach-pink with chunks of glitter. Better suited to an eight-year-old.

Givenchy gloss in 04. Strong, weird, fake-fruit smell, like candy. An interesting rose color, with silvery glitter that's too chunky for subtlety.

Rimmel Sweet Jelly Gloss in Delicious: The idea of smearing sweet jelly on your lips is kinda gross. Likewise, Sweet Jelly gloss has a nauseatingly sweet smell, like bubblegum, and a habit of glooping out of the applicator and attacking your face.

Patricia Wexler No-Injection Lip Plumper: Clear. Cinnamon-y scent. Ouch.

Kiss My Face Sheer Organic Shine in Garnet: Brownish-red glitter. Tastes really strongly of mint, which is weird for someone whose brain is programmed to expect fruity lip goop. The color comes out very streaky, necessitating a lot of smearing around to get it even. Wears off in about two seconds.

Von Nature Red Gerbera Lip Stain: Really waxy substance, like a runny crayon. Turns orange. Smells like a crayon, too. The color is more opaque than most lip stains. Will end up making you look like you just ate a crayon.

Revlon Just Bitten Lip Stain in Cherry Tart Goes on runny but dries fast. A good, deep true red, but has a tendency to wear off everywhere but the edges of your mouth, and reapplying later makes it goopy.

CoverGirl Outlast Lip Stain in 425 and 420: Has that Magic Marker-ish smell that a lot of lipstains have. 425 is surprisingly vibrant and red. 420 is a very wearable, basic pink. Both have a tendency to dry out and become hard to get out of the applicator, but go on evenly and last a long time.

WetSlicks Fruit Spritzers in Strawberry Splash: Seriously? Fruit spritzer? I'm wearing crappy alcoholic drinks on my mouth? Smells like rotten strawberries and has sparkles. Sticky, gets goopy.

Elizabeth Arden Colour Intrigue in Stop Traffic: The quintessential old lady brand. It even has that weird, old lady lipstick smell. Too dry to get on evenly out of the tube. Doesn't turn orange like so many other red lipsticks.

Rimmel Lasting Finish Lipstick in Drop of Sherry and Bordeaux: Smells like a mint-scented crayon. Surprisingly moist texture, goes on evenly, lasts for a long time. Drop of Sherry is an eighties pink with a weird opalescent finish, Bordeaux is a nicely matte dark plum.

Maybelline Color Sensational in Red Revival, Nearly There, and Plum Perfect: Ew. Gross crayon scent. Red Revival is a pretty true red, but explosively bright. Nearly There is a gross tan-gold. Plum Perfect unremarkable plum.

Benefit in Frenched: Great red color, but the lipstick is as moist as a gloss, and runs. Practically scentless, which is nice. Has a pretty tube, but pretty much unuseable unless you rub in it to stain or wear with with lip liner.

Vincent Longo in Dakota Red: Faintly vanilla scented. Nice dark red, but too dry.

Tomm Hilfiger, unknown color: My favorite red lipstick, so, ironically, I rarely use it since you can't find it anywhere, and I don't know what color it is. Beautiful dark red color, nicely squishy, super-opaque.

Neutrogena Soothing LipSheer in Plum: Nicely squishy, unscented. A weird tendency to get goopy. Moderately opaque.

Rimmel Volume in Screamer: Odd mint-chemical scent. Feels like menthol when you put it on. An orangey-red.

CoverGirl Continuous Color in Bistro Burgundy and Vintage Wine: What, no Salad Nicoise Sand or Cordon Bleu Cherry? Nice texture, almost no smell. Both are weirdly brown.

Maybelline Wet Shine in Cherry Rain and Wine Shine: Sounds like something that would be in a porno (wet shine? Really?) Cherry Rain is a bright, screaming fuschia. Wine Shine is too brown. Both have a nice texture but a tendency to feather, and you have to wipe them off before you reapply or it gets gluey.

Maybelline Moisture Extreme in Midnight Red: Faintly watermelon-y scent, not overwhelming. Great dark, clear red, good texture. Wears beautifully. Probably the best red lipstick you can buy, which is why I have five tubes of it.