Monday, October 31, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Close Standing Man at the 7-11

Dear Close Standing Man,

There are a lot of mysteries in this world. Atlantis. The second shooter on the grassy knoll. Why I can have 7 socks, and no matches. How you can always eat a little bit of ice cream, no matter how full you are. If anyone ever transmuted lead to gold. Where Genghis Khan is buried. And so on.

But one things that is so mysteriously mysterious is why you have to stand so close in the check-out line.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It has come to my attention.

So, loyal readers ( And a half?), I do not usually use this blog to talk overmuch about political things. The reason being that discussing politics usually reduces me to a blob of inchoate, quivering, foaming-at-the-mouth rage.

I used to think about politics a lot, way back when I interned at a non-profit and was on a gazillion e-mail lists and regularly wrote to my senator and was in general not quite as worn-down and sad as I am today. You know, back when I thought the anger could actually generate some sort of useful outcome. (Nope! Ulcers.)

Now, my political strategy is this: I will put my head in the drawer of my desk, and you will close the drawer repeatedly on my neck until I no longer have to think about it.

But. But!

Talk radio, right? Funnily enough, my radio dial is tuned to 630 WMAL. Yes, that 630, home of Sean Hannity, who just a few weeks said that he totes gets what single mothers are going through, then in his next breath promulgated getting rid of every social support network for them. Which...what?

Anyway. 630 is also the home of Rush Limbaugh, who I do not listen to, because I am at work when he is on the radio, and if I did - well, see head-neck-desk-slamming thing above.

But. This.

So, about a week ago President Obama authorized sending 100 U.S. military troops to Uganda to help in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army.

The LRA, led by a charismatic, sadistic madman named Joseph Kony, has been terrorizing Uganda for twenty-something years. Kony has proved wickedly difficult to capture, and the LRA has killed, maimed, tortured, brutalized, raped, and otherwise traumatized countless Ugandans, mainly children.

In fact, if you were holding auditions for the Antichrist, Kony is the guy you'd want to cast. This guy makes Charles Manson look like an Eagle Scout. The LRA replenishes its numbers by raiding Ugandan villages and kidnapping children, then forcing them to later return to their villages and murder their family members and neighbors as a way of proving their loyalty to Kony and the LRA.

The LRA has ranged over Uganda and Sudan, leaving thousands dead and disfigured in their wake. For over twenty years, they've carved a bloody wound into Uganda's flank, and the Ugandan army and government have been unable to stop them.

But, gentle reader, I am but one miniscule speck of dust in this vast wasteland. Let us now turn to Rush, for his take on the subject:

According to Rush, the LRA are Christians, and Obama, that big meanie, is sending troops to murder poor innocent Christians who are just doing their holy duty by fighting the evil Muslims in Sudan:

"There's a new war," said Limbaugh. "A hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda." According to Limbaugh, the LRA is not in fact a murderous core group headed by a madman and trailed by hundreds of shattered children, it is in fact a Christian group fighting Muslims. In Sudan.

Right. Which is sort of like saying, this pile of rotten vegetables covered in manure and flies is in fact a delicious four-course feast.

Except not, at all.

This is perhaps not all that surprising, since Limbaugh may have indeed been in another one of his prescription-drug induced hazes when he made the above pronouncement. But it is indicative of another rather disturbing trend among today's Presidential candidates (all, what, thirty-something of them?), that is, the proud and gleeful declaration of complete ignorance of, well, pretty much anything.

Which is, what's the word...alarming.

Take, for instance, from that same Salon article, this quote from Herman Cain: “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?’ … Knowing who is the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world I don’t think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going.”

Er. I invite you to check this out:

See this? This is a map of Central Asia. You can see Uzbekistan, the vaguely boot-shaped yellow country below the big green blob of Kazakhstan. Take a look at what Uzbekistan borders.

That's right. Afghanistan. And Iran, which last time I checked, was not in the habit of waving tiny American flags. Here's another fun fact: when you have boots on the ground in a country, those boots need things like fuel, bullets, food, water, electrical equipment, medical supplies, chewing gum, and pictures of Betty from back home to keep their morale high.

Guess how we get stuff from the U.S. of A into Afghanistan? Through Uzbekistan. So it actually is kind of important who the president of Uzbekistan is.

See, there's this thing called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN for shortsies). The NDN is a vital supply line for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan is a major hub for the NDN, because of things like "geography" and "where countries are in the world" and "hostile neighbors." There are a lot of concerns about the NDN - namely, Uzbekistan has a horrendous human rights record, and the NDN is quickly becoming a source of cash for some bad actors - but the fact remains that we have stuff at point A (here) that we need to get to point B (Afghanistan) and because of that whole pesky geography thing and not having invented teleportation yet, we're kind of stuck with moving stuff through Uzbekistan.

So if, for example, one were interested in applying for a job where a major component would be doing things like directing what happens to troops in Afghanistan, it would actually behoove one to, in fact, know who the president of Uzbekistan is.

I don't even have a degree in International Relations! I just used the good old Internet to find all that stuff out.

So, you know, call me if you need a strategist or something. Because I have this dynamic head-desk-drawer-slamming thing that is going to totally blow your mind.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Came To Testify

PBS' series Women, War, and Peace launched with the first part, I Came To Testify. You can watch I Came To Testify here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Esquire, On the Occasion of Choosing Rihanna as "Sexiest Woman Alive, 2011"

Dear Esquire,

I am not quibbling with your choice of sexiest woman alive - Rihanna's pretty sexy - but I am extremely confused as to your choice of styling.

She appears to be wearing...kelp? A deflated balloon? A bit of trash bag? And also Michael Jackson's hair, but hey, I totally get that whole awkward-growing-out-stage (solidarity!).

I thought I would get some answers in your feature, but alas:

  Seriously, what is this stuff? Is that...waterlogged beef jerky? Someone else's skin? The mystery was compounded with a blurry shot of her wearing nothing but what appeared to be mulch. Mulch. I would think that draping oneself with mulch would only appeal to a very small subset of the population, usually found lurking on ill-advised online forums.
However, Esquire, I bow to your superior knowledge of what is sexy - I shall pass along the word to those perpetually dazed-looking Victoria's Secret gals that they can dispense with the Stupidly Sexy and So Sexy It's Seriously Criminal In Most Southern States bra-and-garter getups and start draping themselves with things like used coffee filters and orange peels.


Thursday, October 20, 2011


Clearly my feelings about my hair are more complicated than they should be.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hillbilly heaven

Anytime you have a blend of backwoods, booze, and blood, comparisons to Flannery O'Connor inevitably follow, which I've always found kind of strange. Sure, O'Connor is probably best known for works like "Good Country People," but many of her stories are set in cities, not the country. But it's not surprising that Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel, The Devil All The Time, is being compared to O'Connor and William Faulkner, although he lacks O'Connor's knifelike precision and Faulkner's feather-light touch.

The Devil follows Pollock's short story collection, Knockemstiff, and Pollock seems determined to thoroughly inhabit the dreary ghost town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, as Faulkner inhabited Yoknapatawpha County.

Knockemstiff is an actual town, though, a ghost town in northeastern Ohio, where Pollock was born. Pollock spent the first half century of his life as a truck driver and laborer at the Mead Paper Mill before publishing Knockemstiff as a student at the Ohio State University creative writing program, so he perhaps has more in common with his characters than most of his readers - something his publisher is pretty gleeful about. Knockemstiff won the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award, so The Devil All The Time was a highly anticipated follow-up.

For the most part, it delivers, until the unrelenting brutality becomes overwhelming. Both O'Connor and Faulkner had an unerring sense of just when too much was too much, which made their stories all the more cutting - by pulling back just when the reader would start getting numbed. Pollock hasn't mastered that yet, and The Devil starts feeling like an exercise in masochism about three-quarters of the way through.

The Devil opens in 1945, with Private Willard Russell heading home to West Virginia from the Pacific. Sick of war and trauma, Russell ends up at a shabby diner in Ohio and falls in love with the waitress, a beauty named Charlotte. Russell and Charlotte wed and end up living in the dreary hamlet of Knockemstiff (population 400) with their son, Arvin, when Charlotte is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Determined to save her, Willard spirals into a particularly religious flavor of insanity, making blood sacrifices to his "prayer log" in the backyard and spending hours pleading with God to spare his wife. Charlotte dies anyway and Willard soon follows.

Young Arvin ends up back in his father's hometown of Coal Creek, living with his grandmother Emma and her brother, Earskell, and Lenora, the girl that Emma adopted after Lenora's husband, a sham preacher with a wheelchair-bound sidekick, failed to revive her with prayer. Since "failed to revive" is roughly the same as "murdered," at least legally speaking, the grotesque duo high-tail it out of Coal Creek.

The rest of the novel alternates between the dreariness of Knockemstiff and the equally depressing Coal Creek. Pollock introduces us to the loathsome Sandy and Carl Henderson, a husband-and-wife team loosely based on the murderous Charles Starkweather and his teenaged girlfriend Caril, who romped around the Midwest in the early 1950s shooting people. Sandy alternates her time between tending bar at the local dive and dabbling in prostitution to take "vacations" with Carl, a failed photographer, driving around and scouting for hitchhikers to torture and kill. Sandy's brother, Lee Bodecker, is the town's requisite crooked sheriff.

Meanwhile, in Coal Creek, Arvin and Lenora are growing up. Despite his whackadoo childhood, Arvin seems remarkably well-adjusted for a Pollock character, which means that he saves the violence for people who at least seem to deserve it. However, because Pollock never sees a garden without needing a snake, he introduces the lecherous Preacher Teagardin, who veers over the line into caricature, with his voracious appetite for young parishioners, slick suits, and illiterate child bride.

On the run from Coal Creek, Arvin heads back to Knockemstiff, only to intersect with Sandy and Carl, on the road and looking for victims.

Pollock has the squirmy stuff down, a knack for deadpan humor, and an ability to conjure up disturbing characters, from the fanatical preacher duo of Roy and Theodore to the denizens of a traveling backwoods carnival. However, his touch falters when he tries to transcend his work's grotesqueness, and The Devil All The Time staggers under its own weight.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Open Letter Mondays, Sick and Tired Edition

So I'm late again on the open letter Monday, which I'm just going to blame on being tired and jet-lagged (although with only an hour's difference, I don't see how I could have been jet-lagged? But it happened.).

An Open Letter to Everyone Who Thinks Poetry is Dead

Dear Everyone Who Thinks That Poetry Is Dead,

The Library of Congress' welcome to Philip Levine, the new poet laureate, had at least 400 people there. So there!


But seriously, the reading was great - Levine is the kind of hilarious, sort of crusty old guy you wish could be your grandpa.

In other news, I just found out via The Hairpin that the Society of Memories Doll Museum in Saint Joseph, Missouri, closed. This is notable only in that I happened to be driving past the exit for the Doll Museum in St. Joe on Sunday morning and saw the sign. Doll museums - victim of the economy? Or actually really just incredibly creepy?

Anyway! I have a book review coming up shortly, as soon as my brain manages to reorient itself to being back in Washington. Seriously, I was only gone for two days. I'm like yogurt and fine china - I don't travel well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sexual harrassment isn't funny...

...except when it's hilarious.

So, I watched Horrible Bosses last week. Late to the party, I know, as usual, but I was watching it at a second-run cinema where you can sprawl in a comfy, battered office chair, drink beer, and eat fries. Nothing makes a comedy funnier than liberally applying a few pitchers of Yuengling.

Also it just took me four tries to properly spell Yuengling.

I have a complicated relationship with comedy because I love it when it's done well, but I think it's one of the trickiest genres to get right, as a legion of recent flops - and anything with Ryan Reynolds - will tell you.

Horrible Bosses features a trio of indescriminate white guys, Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis).

Nick, Dale, and Kurt meet to quaff beers and complain about their horrible bosses, respectively being: Dave, one megalomaniac played by Kevin Spacey; Julia, a nympho dentist who likes spraying Dale with the Water-Pik and molesting the patients (Jennifer Aniston), and Bobby, played by Colin Farrell sporting a bald-cap/combover combination as the cokehead wastrel son who inherits the business from his saintly father and promptly starts spending the profits on hookers, blow, and (I imagine) a lot of Ed Hardy-brand bedazzled clothing.

My voice is deeper than this guy's.
Day's Dale steals the movie as a weird combination of delicate hipster/Elmo doll, with perpetually wide eyes, a voice that sounds like it never got past adolescence, and a scrubby goatee. The unapologetically over-the-top Julia gropes Dale, greets him in her office wearing a lab coat and not much else, and threatens to e-mail pictures of an unconscious Dale sprawled naked in the dentist's chair to Dale's winsomely adorable fiancee.

I'm not sure why they skipped completely over "report her to the state licensing board" and went straight to "hire some guy to kill her," but whatever. A running gag about Dale's inability to find another job because he's a sex offender (for drunkenly peeing on an empty playground at midnight) is either a clever statement about the flawed American justice system or a particularly tasteless joke - I can't decide which.

Of course, Bateman plays the straight guy here, with that exasperated clenched-jaw, hands-on-hips pose he does so well. Of the three, his boss is the most literally menacing, a sociopath whose abusive relationship with his wife is played for laughs.

The hapless trio try to hire a hitman off of Craigslist, with predictably zany results, then wander into a bar and hire the first tattooed, trench-coated thug they see: Jamie Lee Foxx's motormouthed felon, the memorably named Motherfucker Jones, who agrees to serve as their "murder consultant."

Hijinks ensue, someone actually does get bumped off, identities are mistaken, male bonding is had, and because this is a black comedy but still a comedy, it wraps up pretty well for everyone involved. Much of the movie's hilarity - of which there is a lot - is due to Spacey, Aniston, and Farrell's willingness to go all-out and push their characters beyond the realm of believability, turning them into oversized caricatures. The movie drew a lot of flak for jokes that veered into misogyny, racism, and homophobia - the bar scenes with Foxx are wince-inducing and Kurt is routinely busted for trying to pull the fist-bumping "My man!" routine - but the movie is also larded with enough silliness to defuse its crassness.

Perhaps what makes Horrible Bosses so weirdly palatable - so bizarrely refreshing - is that, whether by accident or design, it has a thumb on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. Nick, Dale, and Kurt can't get new jobs (a run-in with a friend, formerly employed by Lehmann Brothers and now reduced to turning tricks in the bar bathroom, underscores that point) because the economy sucks, so they're stuck where they are, with sadistic bosses who growl I own you and threaten them with blackmail.

Unlike a rash of movies that badly misjudged what viewers were willing to tolerate - the absolutely odious and disgusting Confessions of a Shopaholic and recent flop I Don't Know How She Does It (does what? Tolerate having a high-paying job, sweet New York townhouse, and wealthy husband? God, what a row to hoe), among others, Horrible Bosses hits the nerve of desperation and at-least-I'm-employed-pathos that's so prevalent right now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Makers of the Coobie Bra

Dear Makers of the Coobie bra,

It is quite possible that your bra is, as you say, "the most comfortable bra." However, I am not sure I can buy a bra that sounds like something in which I'd keep my beer can cold.


P.S. I guess it's better than the latest collection from Victoria's Secret. They've completely run out of synonyms for "sexy" over there and just threw in the towel and named it the Very Sexy Seduction collection. I predict the next one will be the Seriously, Guys, This is SEXY collection or Our Advertising Guy, Faced With The Prospect Of Finding Yet Another Way To Say "Sexy," Hanged Himself collection.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The night road.

So, to quote a certain failed Congressional wannabe, I am not a witch, nor have I ever been one. Right? Because they're all, we're going to meet over here at midnight, and I'm eh, no, I go to bed at 9:30. The supernatural life is not good for morning people like me.

And anyway, I'm not sure what exactly is useful about being a witch. Flying around would be fun, I suppose, if you're not prone to motion sickness, but the traditional witchy things - withering crops, spoiling milk, generally being a nuisance - seem more trouble than they're worth.

Sheri Holman's witch is a beleaguered, poor Virginia mountain woman named Cora Alley, and she's simultaneously the most real and most fantastic character in Holman's mostly excellent but sometimes spotty novel Witches on the Road Tonight.

Witches hopscotches from rural Virginia just as World War II is ramping up to the 1980s to present-day New York, unspooling a narrative between a father and daughter who have a reservoir of secrets and a lifetime of hurts. The book is at its strongest in the backwoods of the Virginia mountains and falters when it moves to the present, but is filled with strongly evocative detail.

Witches opens with a suicide note from Eddie Alley, a weary and sick old man, to his daughter Wallis, a television show host. Eddie worked in TV, too, as "Captain Casket," the corny host of a horror movie show. Eddie finds a bitter humor in comparing his hokey show to Wallis' newscast, musing that her show delights in terrifying viewers.

From present-day New York, Holman pulls us back to the fall of 1940, where photographer Sonia and write Tucker are on a WPA-funded trip to write a travel guide to rural Virginia. The assignment is a cruel joke - in a nation still reeling from the Depression, who can afford to travel? - and the trip has taken on an odd combination of honeymoon and funeral. Tucker's been drafted and is mere weeks from having to report. He and Sonia, the more worldly of the two, perhaps inevitably begin an affair that unspools as they travel through the backwoods of the Virginian mountains.

Their fragile idyll is shattered when Tucker hits a young Eddie Alley with his car. Eddie's not badly hurt, but Tucker and Sonia take him to his cabin, where they meet his mother, Cora, a woman with a spooky reputation in Panther Gap. Sonia and Tucker let themselves be talked into staying for a few days, with ambiguous but perhaps fatal consequences.

The novel skips several decades, and when we catch up to Eddie again, he's escaped Panther Gap, married, and fathered Wallis. His marriage, already fragile, is strained to breaking when Eddie brings home a young runaway, Jasper, who hangs around the station cadging odd jobs. Wallis become infatuated with Jasper, but there's a flinty edge to her affection, and Jasper's intentions are murkier. When Eddie's marriage to Wallis' mother Ann finally implodes, Eddie, Wallis, and Jasper find themselves back at Panther Gap, facing their own ghosts.

Holman deftly weaves the supernatural into her narrative, creating a night-riding witch and a possessed man with an aplomb that renders them completely plausible. Her writing shines at detail, particularly evoking the natural beauty and scrubby poverty of the mountains, lighting on details like Cora's two dresses and stained nightshirt resting on nails in the wall, or her rolling out exactly four biscuits.

Witches' opening is strong, but the narrative loses steam as it jumps around and the fragile magic of the first chapters is lost. Holman sometimes strains to find the connections between Wallis and Cora, and the first-person chapters narrated by Eddie are meandering. The book ends with one wishing to return to Panther Gap's witch.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Gene Simmons, Frontman of Kiss

Dear Gene Simmons,


That is all.