Saturday, December 30, 2006

Qurban, 12.29.06

Please see post on 12.29.06.

That despicable bastion of left-leaning journalism, the New York Times, leads its online edition of 12.30.06 with the following headlines:

Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence Is Hanged for Crimes Against Humanity.
Obituary: The Defiant Despot Oppressed Iraq for More Than 30 Years.
Here, I become a pedagogue, a rogue, a crackpot with high-speed internet: where is the investigative journalism that examines the causal links between a fraudulent occupation of Iraq by the U.S. military and the execution of the deposed Iraqi dictator? In U.S. jurisprudence, a suspect is freed if the evidence condemning her or him is illegally obtained; might this same right have been bestowed upon Hussein, given that his incarceration was a result of fraudulent occupation1?

Thank you, and good night.

1Yes, of course he was brutal. Yes, of course he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Iraqisa. Does this make his capture, imprisonment, and execution "right" according to U.S. jurisprudence and morality? As Marcellus Wallace states in Pulp Fiction, "Not by a damn sight."

aNow, exactly how many Iraqi civilians have died as a direct result of "U.S. military involvement in the region"? As of December 2, 2006, one month ago, the minimum number of reported Iraqi civilian deaths equaled 52,060, with a maximum reported death count of 57,628. If one averages those numbers (oh, for the skeptical among us, let's knock 10,000 off the bottom end!), it kind of makes that time in Dujail, 1982, seem like a misdemeanor....

Friday, December 29, 2006

Iraq Does Not Learn from the Mistakes of Zidane: a Red Card Is No Way to End a Career

When many Americans remained vigilantly awake late into the night on Election Day 2000, a night when both Democrats and Republicans were united in their gut-wrenching emotions as network news maps flickered like holiday bulbs gone haywire, no one1 imagined the outcome of those events would lead to a night like tonight, when the world holds vigil over the impending death of Saddam Hussein, former leader of Iraq and convicted war criminal.

In the United States, the week between Christmas and New Year's is normally a psychological vacation—a foreshortened work week with the balm of kith and kin bookending one's mailed-in efforts. No one schedules important project due dates during this week; no Microsoft Project milestones are assigned to one's Outlook calendar. While as a culture we lie dormant this week, and those with the means gorge on leftovers and "bowl week" in college athletics, we turn our minds from calamities and atrocities in this world. If we think of war at all, and if we paid attention in middle- or high-school history courses, we might remember the story of the Christmas Cease-fire of 1914, or if we do not remember the whole story, we might remember the feelings the story evokes—community despite differences, tolerance among sworn enemies.

The Christmas Cease-fire story functions to imbue Christmas with even greater majesty than the religious narratives alone. In fact, the story of the Christmas Cease-fire serves as ideological a function as stories about Betsy Ross, Crispus Attucks, and a certain felled cherry tree. Part of the message seems to state that although we fight fervently, we fight reluctantly; that we wish the world allowed us to drop weapons and shake hands with one another; that basic human decency does not die within the abominable dynamo of war.

Like all such stories, the ideological work is largely separate from fact. This holiday season, the world peace many of us anticipate based upon this very story from World War I is torn asunder, and the truth about war (and about humanity with regards to war) is writ large as Iraq2 prepares to execute Saddam Hussein.

One's belief in capital punishment aside, the speed with which Iraqi officials intend to accomplish this execution shakes the foundation of U.S. due process. Hussein was sentenced to death on November 5, 2006, and that sentence was upheld on December 26, 2006, and (according to U.S. mainstream media's coverage of events since December 26) the Iraqi government is trying to expedite the execution in order to avoid Eid ul-Adha 3. In an America context, no one (even pro-death penalty citizens) wants to hold an execution on Christmas, so the desire to avoid Eid is logical. The arguments used to justify the speed of the process, however, are not.

Sunni muslims celebrate Eid this Saturday, while Shiite muslims celebrate Eid on Sunday. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni muslim, is rumored to be scheduled for execution early Saturday morning, or during the Sunni observation of Eid. This seems to be a violation of the law forbidding executions during Eid, until one considers the rhetoric of one Muneer Haddad, a judge on the Iraqi High Tribunal. Consider the following passage from the New York Times:

Mr. Haddad was dismissive of those concerns [about an execution on the Sunni Eid], injecting some of the sectarian split that is ripping this country apart into his response to a question on the subject.

“Tomorrow is not Eid,” he said. “The official Eid in Iraq is Sunday.”

As for Mr. Hussein’s being a Sunni, he said, “Saddam is not Sunni. And he is not Shiite. He is not Muslim.”
While Hussein was derided for (among many other things) intolerance4 to Suni muslims, U.S. efforts were said to be in the spirit of spreading an inclusive democracy. Parse Mr. Hassad's comment how you will, but you will not find a single shred of inclusion. In fact, one begins to suspect that because of U.S. actions in Iraq, Shiites are in for a very difficult time.

Hussein's lawyers, meanwhile, are attempting to get a temporary stay of execution while another appeal can be formulated. Mr. Haddad has called this filing "rubbish" (

Anti-war supporters and anti-Bush partisans have gotten staggering amounts of mileage from the President's premature claim of "mission accomplished," yet Mr. Hassad's claims seem to justify them all, if not their often ad hominem spirit. In these few remarks, Hassad shows how deeply divided the Iraqi people remain (at least those who hold office) and how religion and retribution6 remain motivating factors in the Iraqi "democracy."

Without U.S. intervention, a move that would undermine our own stated goals of "turning Iraq over," it seems likely that sometime during the evening of December 29th or in the early morning of December 30th, Saddam Hussein with be hanged in Baghdad, in an area known as the Green Zone. Already, a judge, a cleric and a physician, three mandatory attendees at a legal execution, are on standby at the site.

The execution of Saddam Hussein, which might alternatively have stood as the apex of U.S. achievement involving Iraq7, will stand as a tragic reminder of U.S. failure in the region8. For this and many other reasons, Hussein's execution should be a source of remorse and sadness, a call to renew efforts to correct (as best one can) the problematic situation the U.S. has created in Iraq, and a tragedy.

When his body is lowered from the gallows, prepare for Hell to break loose.

1No civilian in the viewing public at large, I mean; reports demonstrate that various soon-to--be high-level officials in the incoming administration had designs on a night like tonight.

2No disrespect intended to the memories of the 148 Shiite men and boys from Dujail who were executed at Hussein's order in 1982, who Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refers to as "the martyrs of Iraq," but it is hard to see Hussein's execution as an Iraqi-determined action. While the country cannot, even with U.S. "help" (i.e. leadership), guarantee electricity to those parts of the country that enjoyed electricity before U.S. occupation, Iraqi officials claim, “It just goes to show that the Iraqis call the shots on something like this” ( Few citizens of the world will view this execution as anything other than the final exercise of the U.S.'s will against Husseinb.

aThe very fact that it is "easier" to execute someone than to establish a power grid suggests just how dangerous the power of the death penalty is.

bAnd we thought economic policies encouraged terrorism....

3An execution during Eid would be against the law unless a fatwa is issued, but apparently kicking off Eid with the execution of a former world leader is generally a-ok.

4"Intolerance" meaning everything from prejudice to execution.

5And let's maybe not even talk about the U.S.'s anti-theocracy stance, the rampant fear of a caliphate, etc. These ideological beliefs make us look bad as builders of a nation where judges feel free to determine one's religion and the quality of one's allegiance to it.

6From "'I would have wished for this [execution] to happen in Sadr City, where he [Hussein] has killed the most people,' [Baha al-Araji, a member of the Iraqi parliament] said."

7That hurt to write.

8Though when Mr. Maliki claimsAnyone who rejects the execution of Saddam is undermining the martyrs of Iraq and their dignity,” one thinks that he might have learned the current U.S. You're-For-Us-Or-You're-Against-Us lesson of democracy perhaps too well (

Santoro, Marc. "Iraq Prepares to Execute Hussein." The New York Times. 29 Dec 2006. 29 Dec 2006 <;amp;amp;amp;en=a4dd74427c9014a9&ei=5094&partner=homepage>

"Hussein execution imminent, sources say." 29 Dec 2006. 29 Dec 2006 <>

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Though Selected, I Will Not Serve

'Tis the season for Of-the-Years—the sexiest, the most influential, and Time magazine's long-standing Person of the Year. This year, pickin's were slim, and if one were inclined to wonder about who would be chosen, one would have to wonder quite a bit—Bush and Blair seem most-accurately portrayed by Steve Bell, new conflicts in old wars spread across the globe like Britney Spears' up-skirt pictures, and Bono is busy touring. Hell, even Miss USA is acting like a stereotypical country girl dropped in the big city for the first time.

Yet as desperate as these times may be, I'm not sure I'm quite up to the job that Time has bestowed upon me (and you, too; you'd better check your OutlookTM calendar and clear some space!). See, calling you and me Person of the Year is just a confabulation of the Burger King marketing slogan, Have it Your Way. While Burger King serves up the same bland food as every other burger shop1, we are supposed to feel excited that BK allows us, the consumers, to actually order what we want to eat. Now, I'm no Zagat-toting gourmand2, but I consider "having it my way" to be an unalienable right at a restaurant, yet BK is able to turn what is a given into an example of unique democracy in action: At Burger King, your voices are heard! One wonders, What kind of a kingdom is this if the peasants are in charge3? Time, in an attempt to invert our expectations, is masking the real issues ("real " meaning "pressing" and "of great importance") that result in a year after which no recognizable world leader can be given Time's ultimate honorific.

By selecting me (and you) as Person of the Year, Time is passing out sugar pills at medication time. What better way to assuage the collective anger at the utter leaderlessness of the past year than to stroke egos, make "you" master of your own destiny when evidence increasingly points to the contrary? As a newly-crowned Person of the Year, I wonder how my accomplishments outstripped every govermental/religious/business leader that makes a large and tangible impact on a culture (big or small). Frankly, if I'm as good as it gets, it is time to riot4.

One does respect the decision to avoid conflating the case for any of the marginal figures with whom we are already familiar—no one looked forward to grinding his or her teeth through an article extolling the qualities of W or Steve Jobs. But "we" did not really earn the title; we received it by default. Consider the opening of Time's Person of the Year article:

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.

Here, Time has tipped its hand. "We" have been let down5. However, instead of addressing this fact, Time acts like the parent who insures that every child wins a prize in musical chairs: Time has crowned us the winner to presumably stave off what would otherwise be a bummer.

A more appropriate solution to this mass failure on a leadership level would have been to pull a Yale Younger maneuver, circa 19976not award a Person of the Year. Imagine the all-black cover, a huge headline that reads: "Person of the Year, No One." Imagine the article that would continue where this year's article diverts from indictment to candy floss.

Now, this hoodwink becomes even more perverse when one learns the criteria behind his or her selection as Person of the Year:
It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. [...] It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Sounds good so far (you have to be pretty jaded no to get behind "wresting power from the few"), but watch out for the change in direction:
The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. [...] Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.
A rhetorician is easily pleased at discovering that all of "us" (or "you") are Internet users, as well as new-media auters:
You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television. And we didn't just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software7.
Read the whole article here.

Now, it is perhaps ironic to register this complaint via a blog entry, but "you" did not win Person of the Year if you were on the wrong side of the Internet Gap. Let's try to remember a major causal factor that creates the Internet Gap (Ludditism and technophobia notwithstanding): socio-economic status. If one has the resources for a home computer, if one has the resources for connecting that computer to the internet, if one has the education to understand how to operate the computer and GUI-browsers, if one has the leisure time to spend blogging/video-editing/Amazon-list-making, and if one is so inclined to "work" on projects of this sort, one is a winner.

If you fall short of this normative "you," (which let's say unscientifically a massive amount of human beings do) you are not a winner, and we all know what a non-winner is here in America8.

Well, this winner declines his ascendancy to the throne. When my books and poems are quoted by stateswomen and -men, when the President includes me on the weekly conference call, when I do more than teach my classes and shake my head at the morass our government creates throughout the world, maybe then I'll say thanks, Time, for the nod. For now, as a veritable Person of the Nominee once sang, "I decline," and I respectfully request that Time (and other major media outlets) stop making the news and get back to really reporting it.

1Yes, I know they technically taste different from McDonald's and Sonic, etc., but if I had unlimited resources and could go get a good burger, I wouldn't become a vassal in the kingdom.

2This is an outright lie used as an ethical appeal—it seems fitting w/r/t context, no?

3Cue Monthy Python and the Holy Grail.

4And this is without even mentioning your own contributions that earned you such a title.

5Because 537 of those in contention for the title are U.S. elected officials, one might argue that we have not only been let down, but outright betrayed.

6In 1997, the Yale Younger Poets prize, the nation's oldest literary prize dating to 1919, was not given because the judge deemed no entry to be worthy of the prize. While this is a bit of a double-cross (Yale Series of Younger Poets pockets reading fees from all its entrants), it speaks to and puts faith in a standard.

7And we are operating on the assumption that is both good news and a valid comparison. I haven't watched many lip-sync videos on YouTube, but if these are the objects by which we measure American culture I would assume quite a bit of extrapolation is taking place. Also, in material excised from this passage for this specific quotation, Time takes a shot at major media sources in what is one of the most dizzying, head-asploding criticisms you're likely to read today.

8At least I beat out CNN's Larry King, that non-Person of the Year, whose knowledge of the internet amounts to this: "What do you do? Punch little buttons and things?" [According to Wired magazine.]

[Author's Note: In defiance of all evidence that this blog is utterly unread, I will adopt an authorative, my-opinion-matters tone in this post, for which I truly apologize.]

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Running with Stallions

Of men and woman and boys and girls who still feint and bob, a butterfly sickly batting in their stomachs, each time TNT broadcasts a Rocky marathon1, there are legion. Of that legion, many will tell you that Rocky is the greatest sports movie of all time, simply because Rocky simply wants "to go the distance." Balboa does not prioritize victory; he prioritizes holding his own. Few sports movies envision so humble an outcome for the protagonist, and those that do hold Rocky (1976) in their debt.

Despite critical indifference or hostility to the newly-released Rocky Balboa, I could not, as a devotee of the first four installments of the Rocky series, bypass this sixth and ostensibly final episode in the Italian Stallion's history. Others have reviewed the film, synopsized the plot, and placed judgment2 upon both Balboa and Stallone, but few have answered the question, What is Rocky Balboa?

Between Rocky V (1990) and Rocky Balboa (2006), Stallone co-produced and co-hosted the reality show The Contender (NBC 2005), a show which pitted aspiring pugilists against one another for a shot3 at a million-dollar prize. In a 2005 interview with Daily Variety, Mark Burnett, one of Stallone's co-producers, claims that The Contender is about restoring lost dignity4 to the tarnished sport of kings: "[boxing is] the highest-paying sport, yet no one believes in it anymore. What happens when we make it transparent and clean?" Stallone adds that the show "is not about boxing. It's about people who box and that's a big difference" (ABC7 Chicago).

And so was Rocky, and so is Rocky Balboa.

In Rocky Balboa, boxing sequences are few and far between, with Balboa avoiding the ring until the main event itself. In fact, Balboa does not begin to train until the final third of the movie5, and he never puts on gloves until he is in the dressing room at Mandalay Bay. So, with little boxing, what is this film all about?

While mourning Adrian's death by revisiting their old haunts, Balboa (now the owner of Adrian's, an Italian restaurant) discovers an old acquaintance, Little Marie, and his generosity toward her and her son occupy a considerable amount of screen time. Not a racist himself, Balboa still broadcasts prejudices when he tells Little Marie that her son looks just like her, only to discover that he is mistaken: Little Marie's son, Steps, is dark complected, as his father is Jamaican. Embarrassed by his assumptions, Balboa backtracks, yet in what is supposed to come off as a punch-drunk Rocky mistaken in his geography, Balboa says, "A European!"7. Interestingly, Balboa declines Little Marie's offer to meet Steps, but reconsiders as he approaches his van, returning to meet Steps and beginning a course of action that will entangle their lives; Steps receives a role model and a chance to earn his own way, while Balboa is allowed to give of himself in a way that is initially rejected by his own son.

Prior to the climactic fight between Balboa and Mason Dixon (this name is significant, please remember), this didactic film works to join two worlds of boxing—the closed community of purists (i.e. racists) who consider the heyday of boxing to be Rocky Marciano (whose avatar is and has always been Balboa) and a couple of non-threatening (in a cultural sense) minority fighters (Ali in retrospect, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis at their times), and the current cast of heavyweight fighters whose culture seems to be largely influenced by Tyson-era image making and hip-hop6.

When Balboa decides to re-enter the ring, thinking about smaller, local fights, he is immediately confronted with an opportunity to fight in an "exhibition" against Mason Dixon, the current heavyweight title holder. (Let us not forget the significance of the Mason Dixon line; in fact, Dixon's boxing sobriquet is "The Line.") Dixon, taking his fashion cues from urban culture (and in fact we see him recreationally shooting baskets outside while his "posse" lounges in his sumptuous living room) is plagued with image issues—fans are appalled at his string of lollipop opponents (yet fans still loved Rock-o when he was downing easy fighters between Rocky II and Rocky III, presumably) despite his great success. The consensus is that Dixon has not been tested, and the public wants a boxer who has been tested and has bested the obstacles before him or her. Dixon's managers perceive an exhibition with Balboa as a panacea for all Dixon's (and their own) ills, so they arrange this fight8.

What is presented as a has-been's attempt to rekindle who he is and a newly-emerged champion's attempt to earn self-respect also connects to another concurrent operation in the film. Rocky films are always about clashes between cultures, either racial, national, or socio-economic, and Rocky's position always emerges as dominant, until now. As the first bell rings, one may expect Rocky to eventually reign triumphantly, thus validating his work ethic and his morality while simultaneously devaluing the ideology Dixon represents (we've seen this with Clubber Lang). Yet Stallone seems to keep the purpose behind The Contender in mind, and the final fight between Balboa and Dixon becomes a torch-passing (from fiction to reality) and an attempt to restore boxing's lost luster.

Rocky Balboa works hard at making both sides (the traditional and the modern) emerge as victors. Some examples: Balboa approaches the ring to the accompaniment of Sinatra, while Dixon approaches to the accompaniment of hip-hop9; Balboa has both his son and Steps in his corner, the latter who is steadfastly in support of Balboa but unable to refrain from headbobbing to Dixon's music. The two fighters give one another their measure, and in what amounts to a moment of respect before the final round a debilitated Dixon tells Balboa, "You're a crazy old man," while after the final bell and before the referee's decision a bloodied Balboa tells Dixon, "You're a great champion." Balboa, losing in another split decision (see Rocky and a slow start against Apollo Creed), "wins" because again he has gone the distance against all odds, while Dixon has displayed the heart of a champion, has beaten narrowly the all-time great, and has learned to respect the tradition that affords him his lifestyle. Balboa is halfway down the tunnel before the ring announcer begins to give the decision; the empirical outcome is of no use to him.

As the final credits role, one sees a montage of Rocky-inspired runs up the stairs by a heterogeneous cast of characters, followed by a final run by Balboa himself as the snowy daylight bleeds to darkness. Here, Stallone seems to remind the viewer about the Rocky legacy (if only Paulie had a dollar for every pair of black Chuck Taylors that have ascended those stairs at an attempted gallop) and offer a farewell. The fictional legacy is left to Steps, while the real-world legacy is within all of us who feel stirred at the opening fanfare of the Rocky theme. Stallone has offered a final helping of Rocky, and while it might be compared to comfort food more easily than haute cuisine, the film succeeds by its own standards, which, again, is all Rocky ever hoped to do.

These marathons mercifully conclude with the Italian Stallion downing Drago and (as Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy says) ending the Cold War with his plea for understanding and demystification—"If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change"—not with him clobbering some punk in a back alley.

2Rocky Balboa falls victim to a trend in film criticism that first became apparent to me during the release of Star Wars' episodes I, II, and III—critics more often criticize the director or the main actor than the film itself, speculating on motives and intent, placing the film in context with that figure's oeuvre instead of evaluating the film itself. Now, I firmly believe that we must historicize when criticizing a work of art, but when a critic's impulse to historicization obliterates or obfuscates the work itself—its technique and its idiosyncratic system—then criticism has failed and the critic becomes little more than a pundit.

3"You want me to take a shot?! I'll take a shot!" Rocky to Mickey,
Rocky (1976).

4 Tyson's famous altercations, incarcerations, and mastications among the contributing factors, although at his prime Tyson was a god in the ring. With each first-round knockout, I gloated at the imagined consternation of those seated ringside, who'd shelled out a solid G-plus for one minute's action.

5Featuring homages to past training sequences, most notably chugging a glass of raw eggs (which likely caused a rash of salmonella cases in late-70's America) and running up the staircase to the Philadelphia Art Museum (once again adorned with the Rocky statuea).

aThe Rocky statue was given as a gift by Stallone to the city of Philadelphia (you might know it as the other city in Pittsburgh), and was place at the top of the stairs to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where it had been placed in
Rocky III (1982). After public outrage—i.e. after wealthy patrons of the arts complained—the statue was moved to the Spectrum sports arena sidewalk, where it remained until a brief revival on the stairs for the filming of Rocky V (1990) and to the base of the stairs for the 30th anniversary of Rockyi.

iIt is ironic that the statue is located at the base of the stairs while, when asked informally about the contributions of modern Philadelphia to the world at large, Philadelphians often mention Rocky Balboa with what one assumes is a blurred sense of reality.

6See Allen Iverson w/r/t unfair image issues despite a near exemplary mode of conduct at the professional level as compared to the wide-grinning, HIV-acquiring Magic Johnsoni or the wide-grinning, problem-gambling Michael Jordan, etc.

iAbout Magic, consider this from the
LA Times, Friday, November 8, 1991:
Q: How did Johnson contract the virus?
A: Neither Johnson nor his physician offered any explanation. But Johnson seemed to imply that he acquired it through heterosexual activity.
Remember, Magic's wife does not have HIV.

7In the scene, Rocky does then demonstrate tolerance and acceptance, but his Europeanization of Jamaica still speaks to the problem.

8Somehow this happens, although Dixon storms out of the training ring when his managers suggest this bout, claiming that he is going to his old gym. I may be wrong, but I believe the conceit is that the managers own the rights to Dixon's fighting schedule, so they are able to book this bout without his full consent. Again, see Tyson w/r/t mismanagement.

9I'm a no-good bum, but I recognize neither the artist nor the song.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Neck is One Gargantuan Monkey Fist

Once known as the sitcom about nothing, Seinfeld is now notorious. While millions of viewers once tuned in to watch the seemingly benign banter between Jerry, George, Elaine, and Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld no longer seems to be the vehicle for light-hearted fare. In fact, viewers of syndicated reruns are left with the vexing problem of attempting to decipher one character and actor's subtext—the enigmatic J. Peterman, John O'Hurley: new father, dog lover.

In the Life section of the Monday, December 18th edition of USA Today, this unsuspecting coffee-shop patron encountered a three-column color photo of O'Hurley and his family1—wife Lisa Mesloh (deliciously listed as age 34 to O'Hurley's 52), newborn son William Dylan, and Scoshi and Betty, O'Hurley's white maltese and dachsund-black lab mix (one becomes dizzy with wonder). The photo was capped with the headline "O'Hurley is just doggone happy" and sub-head "Arrival of new baby eases the inevitable departure of a pooch" (3D).

Now, each of us at birth has his or her own burden bestowed upon too slight shoulders, and in a culture that produces astonishing tales of child-cruelty and atrocity2 this may seem to be an overstatement, but William Dylan is on the receiving end of a special degradation—few births are announced as a palliative for the father's hypothetical grief for a soon-to-be-departed maltese. While O'Hurley's childhood dogs were all "disappeared" by his father, O'Hurley bravely states that he will be by Scoshi's side as he approaches the final hydrant in the sky3.

What strikes the reader most about the article is not the cognitive dissonance of statements like "But the dogs are a part of my family, too. I just have to open my arms bigger and hold them all" or O'Hurley's forthcoming children's book (under contract) tentatively titled Before Your Dog Can Eat Your Homework, First You Have to Do It, which features a sage Scoshi instructing young William and is described by O'Hurley as a "'lesson on manhood from a dog to a little boy who barely knew him4'"; no, what really strikes the reader is the incredible amount of real-estate this story and photo occupy in what is presumably a major newspaper.

Granted, this hapless coffee-shop patron sat at a bistro table that was adorned with this discarded Life section, and this patron understands the "artificially sweetened fruitcake5"-type articles one finds in the Life section; thus he knows he brought this onto himself, but O'Hurley (Peterman, for God's sake!) seems to be such an unlikely choice for this type of candy-floss profile that the day took on a surreal quality as if in an underwater dream in which you continue to respire normally and think nothing of it. Considering the smiling faces of the O'Hurley-Mesloh family, posed like any good family who sits still for Sears portraiture (perhaps with a better backdrop), and chewing on my corporate scone, this patron was "convinced [he] was on the receiving end of the oldest baker's grift in the books6."

So this patron prepares to write an essay that positions the O'Hurley story as Exhibit A in his trial of contemporary media, an institution that regularly pulls the bag over the public's collective head and punches it in the collective solar plexus. So I started poking around the web for some research7, only to discover something more bizarre than equating a human birth with a balm for the wound left by a dying dog8.

Many Seinfeld fans familiar with the Peterman character also learned that there was, in fact, a real J. Peterman, an eclectic haberdasher with a flair for the verbose who ran an eponymic store upon which O'Hurley's character was based. It seems that Peterman (the real-life haberdasher) experienced a downturn in his entrepreneurial luck and had to sell J. Peterman (the corporation) to an outside source, who also continued Peterman's (the man's) trend and further devalued J. Peterman (the corporation). Thus, Peterman contacted O'Hurley (Peterman's Seinfeld-ian avatar), who with his own capital enabled Peterman to buy back J. Peterman, of which O'Hurley is now a part owner. While O'Hurley's love of dogs is well documented, his appreciation for eclectic fashions and goods was not, so this whole turn of events seems more like Seinfeld fan-fiction written by a Baudrillardian post-grad.

Or, more coincidentally, this development resonates with a sub-plot in "The Muffin Tops" episode, in which Kramer develops the Peterman Reality Tour9. Discussing the Peterman Reality Tour, the cast debates the rift between reality and fiction with respect to representation:

George: I think I understand this. Jay Peterman is real. His biography is not. Now, you Kramer are real.
: Talk to me.
: But your life is Peterman's. Now the bus tour, which is real, takes people to places that, while they are real, they are not real in sense that they did not "really" happen to the "real" Peterman which is you.
: Understand?
Truly, as George attempts to comprehend and as the coffee-shop patron attempts to reconcile O'Hurley as Peterman as part-owner of J. Peterman, "abstraction is no longer of the map, the mirror, the double, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. [...] It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory" (Baudrillard 1).

Where does this leave the coffee-shop patron? The complex is enough to make him wish for some "White Lotus. Yam-yam. Shanghai Sally10." And more importantly, where does it leave you?

That is the fundamental question one faces when reading a celebrity profile about the birth of a son and a pack of family dogs—what is this supposed to mean to me? Ultimately, you may find the birth of William Dylan less interesting than the strange intersection of O'Hurley and Peterman, and you may puzzle at the overlapping levels of signification in the representations of reality and fiction that are realized when you view O'Hurley's ownership of J. Peterman through the lens of the Peterman Reality Tour w/r/t the Kramer's Reality Tour. But the writers of celebrity profiles and publications that print them rely on your interest; they certainly won over the coffee-shop patron, who spent a large part of his day puzzling over the questions it raised.

Granted, the coffee-shop patron's attention is not perhaps the ideal kind of attention that USA Today hopes a reader pays to its articles, but if this coffee-shop patron were to remember a single advertisement that choked the adjoining columns, then those hopes would be secondary to the reality tour of the newspaper industry. And as Jerry Seinfeld (the character) opines after Kramer asks George if he finally "understands" the premise of the Peterman Reality Tour, the ultimate meaning is "$37.50 for a Three Musketeers" ("The Muffin Tops").

1Perhaps O'Hurley might contact the Cruise-Holmes publicist upon the birth of a second child—William Dylan enjoyed none of the dramatic buildup to international revelation, and he will likely suffer the torment of his meteoric introduction at various Hollywood Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties. And let's maybe not say anything about the money.

2Lately of the microwavable, caged varieties.

3Maybe it's better not to mention the assumptions upon which this statement is based, namely the fragility of one's own mortality, but with specific reference to pets' seemingly innate ability to develop cancers, require extensive surgeries, play in traffic, etc.: i.e. perhaps Betty is first for the slab.


5"Artificially sweetened fruitcake" is a term used in reference to "Perfect Day," the made-for-holiday-TV Rob Lowe vehicle, in a review of same artificially sweetened fruitcake in the selfsame Life section; presumably the editor has either no or an extremely-heightened sense of irony and perhaps a dash of career-suicidal impulse.

6Quotation lifted from Seinfeld, "The Frogger" episode during which J. Peterman/O'Hurley condemns Elaine for eating his $29,000 piece of cake purchased from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor auction.

7Yes, a risky proposition, but a venture that can be successfully negotiated with patience and judgment.

8In bold sub-head, remember.

9This plot-point itself a spoof of the Kramer's Reality Tour in NYC, run by Kenny Kramera, the self-confessed basis for the Cosmo Kramer character on Seinfeld. A handy bit of cashing in.

aStrangely, a recent post on Kenny Kramer's website addresses the "Michael Richards Incident" and explains:
In no way do I condone or endorse what Michael Richards said or did. It is really annoying, and sad, that people are saying that Kramer is a racist. Michael Richards ceased being Kramer eight years ago.I would hope that the public would be smart enough to make the distinction between a character on a show, the person playing the character, and me, the person the character was based oni.
iExactly who is confusing character, actor, and real-life model again?

10Peterman explaining traces of opium in Elaine's urine; has anyone who watched that episode eaten a poppyseed bagel without considering?

The title of this post is dialogue spoken by Peterman in the Seinfeld episode "The Foundation."

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Be All that You Can Be: Find a Super-limb in the AR-MY!

Originally posted Thursday, February 24, 2005.

According to the Tuesday, Feb. 22, LiveScience section of, the “[U.S.] Military aims for better limb replacement.”

Perhaps prompted by the media attention phantom statistic in modern warfare, the disabled soldier, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is setting an aggressive agenda for its prosthetic limb research—the development of “advanced prosthetics that look, feel, and act like the limbs they replace” (Than).

While it is certainly noble for the military to develop methods to “restore some of the lost functionality” to the men and women injured in service, the ultimate goal (”to have a prosthetic device that looks and feels like a real arm, that can respond to the whims and thoughts of its user, and that blends seamlessly with the body”) certainly raises many questions, problematizing the body, especially the U.S. Army’s take on it (Than).

In April of 2004, I sat in a conference room at Emory University. The MLA was holding its first national conference on the topic of Disability Studies, and during the first plenary session, one of the leading scholars mentioned theories of the “cyborg.” It seemed a prognostication of all I hoped the conference would not be: charlatanry, the kind of thing relegated to a distant sideroom at the National Popular Culture Conference. It turns out, the only charlatan in the room was me–I thought I knew something about disability, about being disabled, but I found out I knew very little.

Science and technology has moved at such an alarming rate that “discoveries” are made and made available before we have time to fully evaluate their impact. Prosthetics and other devices are connecting the body with machinery in what is almost a Cartesan nightmare–what was once a metaphor for the body is becoming the body. Or the body is becoming it. Or, when one utilizes a prosthetic limb that “blends seamlessly with the body,” the dividing line is unmarked and meant to be unremarkable.

I suppose I have a bias—I am anti-prosthesis, and I have been my whole life. Born with a congenital amputation of my left arm at the elbow, I never took to prosthetics. They got in the way of the things I had learned to do without them. I have a shoebox of them (I was young; they are small) that I still move from home to home, but I treat them as curiosities, artifacts from some other time1.

Who can say what I would think if I were to lose an arm after having learned to do things with two hands—Oliver Sacks suggests that a “phantom” limb would make use of a prosthetic easier to learn, would allow the prosthetic to be more “seamless” with my body. And for soldiers returning from combat, this might be a better solution than what is available today.

Regardless, this program begins to raise interesting questions. If a machine is connected to the body and controlled neurologically, in what real ways is it any different from a transplanted organ? How is the person still “human,” and does our sense of humanity change? And how can we eventually keep Skylab from building the Matrix? That last question was a joke, but it was half-hearted.

I suppose, though, worse things could happen: any initiative that inspires a DARPA researcher to say “‘our soldiers [should] be able to play the piano. […] Not chopsticks, but a classical piece, like Brahms,’” well, they could be training them on far deadlier instruments.

1Mike Simpson, the writer, calls this my "Lobster Box."

Than, Ker. “Military aims for better limb replacement.” 22 Feb. 2005.

Pushing Forward Back

Perhaps I owe an explanation to my as-of-yet non-existent readership.

While not invisible began in December of 2006, I plan to pull old posts from old blogs and backlist them here. Yes, this adds "new" content with minimal effort and feels like cheating, but the real reason I choose to add old material is to create a more comprehensive blog (while continuing to use this blog as a sandbox of sorts, working on ideas for scholarly articles and creative non-fiction), for whatever that's worth.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Meditations on the Western Haiku

Jack Kerouac wrote San Francisco Blues, his first published collection of poetry, in 1954. In those seventy-nine choruses, Kerouac develops what he calls his "blues poetry form"; Kerouac's title for the form is misleading--one only need compare Kerouac's blues poetry with Langston Hughes' own blues-inspired poems--for Kerouac's poems were really in the spirit of jazz, improvisations on a theme, the only limit (a limit that would famously be used in the 1951 composition of the On the Road scroll manuscript) being the size of the "small page of the breastpocket notebook in which [the SFB choruses] are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus" (PJK 453).

Readers who know Kerouac's poetry are perhaps more familiar with Kerouac's Western Haiku poems--Kerouac's love of haiku are immortalized through Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder's Matterhorn climb in 1958's Dharma Bums, as well as through the recent publication of new collections of Kerouac's verse, such as Book of Haiku (2003).

In preparation for Dr. Audrey Sprenger's cross-country Kerouac course on a train, I have begun thinking about Kerouac's poetry for the lectures I have been asked to deliver while on board. The students will be using On the Road and The Portable Jack Kerouac as their primary texts, so I have been studying the poems in the PJK. As an ardent Kerouac reader, I have only recently considered Kerouac a skilled poet (although I have always considered him a prose-poet, as Kerouac himself did, defining prose as "an endless one-line poem"), and upon consideration of the poems in the PJK's, I have come to understand why--poor selection (PJK 451).

Until the publication of Book of Haiku, which provides a reader with the full breadth of Kerouac's haiku output, including the "clinker," readers relied heavily upon editors to cull handfuls of poems from the hundreds of possible pieces. In the selection in The Portable Jack Kerouac, few of the selected haiku live up to Kerouac's more restrictive definition of a Western Haiku, which states that "above all a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella" (PJK 470)1.

For example, consider the haiku:

Nodding against
the wall, the flowers

In these three lines, Kerouac commits two instances of the act of poetic trickery known as personification--here, the flowers are capable both of nodding and of sneezing. Throughout his work, Kerouac uses "nod" in multiple ways--nodding affirmation, nodding off as in sleep, or being on the nod in junk-related parlance--so here the reader is lead to several possible interpretations, none which are indicated by the actual attitude of the flowers Kerouac perceives, nor is the action of sneezing. Both of these instances of personification prescribe a limited range of readings from which the reader may choose. Here, Kerouac (intentionally or unintentionally, it does not matter) imposes his will on the reader (to say nothing of the flowers, the things themselves).

One need look no further than "nodding" and "sneezing" to see Kerouac violate his own restrictive precepts2. Here, the dominant critical position would be to call Kerouac a poetic charlatan (although he rarely was afforded such a gentle moniker), as I have done in the past. But if one were to look at the examples Kerouac uses to preface his own haiku, and if one continues to cull Kerouac's most exemplary haikus from the collection at large, one would see a learned and capable writer of the western haiku, a poet who can capture both the spirit of the eastern haiku in the loose form Kerouac claims for western practitioners of the verseform3.

Such a selection, however, runs counter to Kerouac's belief in his own work and in contemporary poetry and prose, so the editor is left with a dilemma (if dilemma is not too strong a word to use when writing about the selection of poetry). In The Portable Jack Kerouac, Charters practices ethical scholarship by including so many obvious "clinkers" in the selection of haiku, a practice that in many ways buttresses the negative reputation Kerouac's work still engenders.

The dilemma of the contemporary Kerouac scholar rests in her or his willingness to continue this practice of comprehensive publication4. One wonders at the ramifications of honoring the dying wishes of Emily Dickinson (few would argue that the best outcome would be to have burned her papers), yet Kerouac's devotees slavishly promote the chaff alongside the wheat. I think it is time that so-called critics and intellectuals shift focus--instead of honoring Kerouac, we should be honoring literature and his contribution to it. That contribution is ample and it is profound--one hardly imagines the state of American literature had Kerouac not urged William S. Burroughs to write or helped him type and arrange Naked Lunch, had Allen Ginsberg not borrowed some key phrases from Kerouac for "Howl," had Kerouac himself not worked slavishly at his craft over decades, opening a multitude of doors that American literature is still discovering and tentatively stepping through5.

1 While these rules might not seem particularly "strict," one might compare it to his more nebulous proposition "that the 'Western Haiku' simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language" (PJK 469).

2 Although in a sympathetic moment one might think of George Orwell's edict at the conclusion of "Politics and the English Language," when he implores writers to break rules if it will eliminate the "barbarous" (Citation forthcoming; I'm on vacation and away from my Orwell).

3 It is perhaps not coincidental that the haikus that come closest to Kerouac's own vision of the western form also adhere to the fundamental precepts of the eastern form--minimal language, unadorned ("objective," if such were possible in writing) description, a reference to the natural world, a reference to the seasons. For example:

This July evening
a large frog
On my door sill.

4 Perhaps lessons might be learned from studying this practice with respect to popular music--we would do well to ask what is ultimately gained by the release of boxed-sets of demos (as in the case of Nirvana) or re-mixed "mash ups" of iconic tracks (as in the case of the Beatles' Love). As counterpoint, however, one might look to Daniel Johnston for an example of the benefits of releasing otherwise "unrefined" tracks to the public (one imagines that Kerouac might enjoy Johnston's work, if not the high-brow renditions of his work on Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered).

5 One thinks of the "revolutionary" David Eggers, but when one looks closely, one sees the transcriptions from Visions of Cody in Eggers' fictional Real-World tape in A Heartbeaking Work of Staggering Genius (let alone the plot and development of And You Shall Know Our Velocitya as a tracing of On the Road via airplanes).

aOr whatever title the novel currently enjoys.

Kerouac, Jack. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Ann Charters, ed. New York, Penguin: 1995.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Erving Goffman, at My Service

This morning I'm reading Goffman's Stigma on the bus, commuting to Boulder via the RTD from Denver. Specifically, I'm reading about the unstable social interactions between "normals" and the "discredited" (I'm thinking about representations of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road and wondering if one might read Dean's manic behavior as an overcompensation for his social status). And so when later I buy lunch at a Subway Subs in the CU UMC at Boulder, the older manager-type who is always behind the counter and who has talked to me every day for the past 3.5 months asks, "so was your arm wrapped in the [umbilical] cord?"

So I wrote this poem. It's rough as a cob and will be reworked like copper wire stripped from the house inside my head.

En Plein Air

Chinook winds can’t speed
The slate-straight cloud
Across the Flatirons’ face; all afternoon
Thin sky crescents blue between
Snow-scourged peaks and heavy
Weather. Walkers stand
Dumb as queued cattle in arrhythmic
Winter, warm and dark at the last
Cusp of the prairie. Southward, agents
Raid meat-packing plants, hundreds
Of handcuffs dangling from belt
Loops, and soon scores of illegals
Will be processed and deported.
Up north, those who look
Skyward wait for the cloud’s
Stark margin to shift, admit
Sunlight, or hope the sun’s evening
Arc will soon drag it into the blue
Lapse. The late editions claim
Another minister; his congregation
Commences healing. Air smells
Of snow while widows plow
Aisles in groceries, cornering
The white-bread market. In parking
Lots, complacent men become
Impatient, feel torn between
Two useless spaces. Pearl Street
Vendors chew toothpicks, addressing
No one; a lone guitarist tunes
In a doorway, his case
Is closed. When the man selling
Beads asks you if your arm
Was wrapped by the umbilical
Cord, you nod although you know
It wasn’t. Fines will be levied,
Prayers given. Shelves will be restored.

The End Is the Beginning

It is December and the engine of the academic semester is about to seize.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, my students have long been wearing the hangdog faces of exhaustion, despite their work getting better, more mature. In this dichotomy we find the seeds of the great myth--the self-immolating spirit that destroys itself in order to create. Artists, mathematicians (those most clandestine of artists), first-year composition students--they suffer, and then they achieve.

Rosanna Frechette, a performance poet and yogi, told me she vowed to avoid that self-immolation as an artist, that she chooses joy. At the short end of a long semester, joy is hard won.

As an academic, as a teacher, I know that the "end" of the semester is the beginning of another life, the life of one's own work that is often subordinated to the demands of the syllabus, the grading rubrics, the lecture notes.

This winter, the work will be Kerouac. There will be a book, and there will be a train, and there will be a proposal. Hopefully, this blog will be a refuge, a single gem among the primary sources. Hopefully, the right words will come. If they do, you will read them here.