August 26, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 9

Palimpsest, by Gore Vidal

I have to begin this post by confessing my inability to remember much of what I read. What I retain, instead, are imagined thoughts about a book. This makes my recollections profoundly unreliable, and it means that when I compare a book to another I read a while ago I'm stepping onto thin ice.

I would feel worse about this if Nick Hornby hadn't confessed to the same thing in one of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for the Believer. Don't ask me which one. I only remember him confronting his inability to remember what he'd read and asking, "If I'm not going to remember any of what I'm reading, what's the point?" I sort of feel that way.

All of which is a long way of introducing Gore Vidal's memoir "Palimpsest" by saying it reminded me of "The Education of Henry Adams," which I read a few years back. "The Education" is a classic, the delightful autobiography of the comically detached Henry Adams, who keeps himself at arms' length throughout his narrative by writing about himself in the third person. Adams was born into wealth and privilege (he was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of founding father John Adams). Yet he seems not to have had much of a knack for wealth and privilege. He bounced around Harvard, Europe, and Washington, never knowing what to do with himself, even as every opportunity lay open to him, all the while seeking education in all its forms, until, as I remember it, he suddenly realizes that he's always been a writer.

You might think of Gore Vidal as a writer who writes about himself in the third person without formally employing that point of view. The comic detachment that Adams had to achieve with the third person is there in Vidal's memoir, even when Vidal writes in first person about himself. It's one of Vidal's great talents.

"The Education" doubles as a history of 19th Century America, but "Palimpsest" takes place in the milieu of 20th Century American writers and actors, and the Kennedy-Gore clan. Which, to Vidal, amount to the same thing. History itself is barely present.

So it gets a bit gossipy, but Gore Vidal is nothing if not entertaining. Anais Nin, Truman Capote, and the Beats all come in for various degrees of Vidal's patented comic disdain.

Vidal seems to understand that "Julian" was his greatest book, and it easily could be. I haven't read a smarter or more entertaining fictional treatment of the Roman Empire, and "Julian" will always be one of my favorites. "Creation" -- a kind of sequel -- is also well worth the time.

Sheesh . . .

If you want to be reminded that, despite everything, we are still in the infancy of the internet age, try modifying your Blogger blog to allow expandable posts that jump to the full text on a key word such as "continued . . .", so that readers fascinated by, say, the intricacies of street parking in Washington, D.C., can read all about it on a separate page, but those with less interest in the subject (freelance photojournalists in Bavaria, perhaps, to take one hypothetical example) can read the first few paragraphs, decide they are not interested, and be on their way to the post about my virtual heartthrob Vienna Teng.

I tried to make this change today because, you know, I try to be accomodating here. It's the least I can do.

I thought it would be a simple thing to fix, but soon I was down the rabbit hole, in a land of help pages and HTML code as frightening and inscrutable as any episode of H.R. Puffenstuff. There weren't any talking flutes, but it was almost as terrifying.

(Maybe this will reveal my Luddite tendencies, but the blogs devoted to computer code are at least amusing. In the main post, Code Wizard will say something like, "I've developed a fix to create expandable posts on Blogger, using CSS style sheets to modify the Beta layouts version," (at which point I'm already lost) and then, in the comments, Bat Girl will say, "Great, Wiz! But have you tried using a recursive betaflecker, to make the fix optional on each data post entry?" And then will follow about 150 comments that seem to reflect an intelligent, thoughtful, problem-solving discussion that would be helpful if I could understand any of it. I would laugh if the writing on these blogs wasn't so concise, and the comments so admirably to the point. It's like listening to brain surgeons. You might think it's funny they're speaking nonsense, but you can't laugh because, well, these are brain surgeons. Another thing: You never see posts on computer code blogs veer off into tangents and personal attacks, like they so quickly do on the political blogs. Make of this what you will.)

Anyway, you would also think it would be easy to explain how to make an expandable post on Blogger. I can get to the HMTL template of my blog and make changes to it. I actually know what a style sheet is. All that I need is a simple "find this code, add this, now find this code, now add this, boom, voila" type of thing.

I finally found a page that took this approach, on a blog titled, ominously, "Make Money on Your Blog." But the person who wrote the helpful instructions also wrote, as a conclusion: "This will direct people to your page and make money for your blog." I don't believe this, and it's not exactly why I wanted to break up the posts on my blog. And doesn't this last line sort of destroy the author's credibility? Because how could someone so misguided about the reason for making an expandable post be a reliable source?

But whatever. I made the change, and it worked. The problem was that the fix, which is apparently the standard fix on the Blogger site, puts the tag ("continued . . ." or, if you don't modify it yourself, the embarrassingly enthusiastic "Read more!") at the bottom of every single post.

Meaning that you, my readers (all four of you), would be led to believe that my one line posts directing you to my latest self-absorbed Nervous Breakdown essay were just teasers when, in fact, no, those posts are only one line long. This is not what we need, since I'm embarrassed enough to be writing those essays and directing people to them from here. Tricking you into twice reading my one-line post directing you to the essay I've written about MYSELF -- well, that's where I draw the line. Yes, I've drawn the line pretty far down the field, but still, that's where the line is for me.

This expandable post thing on Blogger must be a common problem, by the way. It would explain why you can find about 500 web pages devoted to the subject, and why Eric Spitznagel's posts on his blog, for example, are never broken up with jumps marked by key words.

The short of it is, I gave up. Until I figure this out, you'll just have to read every word of every post, or do a lot of scrolling down through material about street parking in D.C. and the frustrations of working with Bogger to get to the pocket book reviews and Vienna Teng videos.

By the way, this was meant to be a post comparing Gore Vidal's memoir "Palimpsest' to "The Education of Henry Adams" and reflecting, wistfully, perhaps, on the genre of detached comic memoirs of alienated children born into wealth and privilege.

Hopefully I'll get to that later today . . .

August 24, 2007

The Parking Gods Always Provide

It's an axiom of urban living that everything works fairly well, even if you have no idea how it will. Or maybe I just lead a sometime-charmed life.

Take, for example, my current parking situation.

When I moved back to D.C. last spring I rented a studio apartment in a building with a parking garage. Last fall I found a bigger place to move into. It was perfect, except that it had no dedicated parking space. I had no idea about the street parking situation -- I knew I would need a residential parking permit, but I didn't know whether street parking would be easy, or even possible -- but I took the new place without investigating the situation. I trusted urban fate, figuring the parking would somehow work out.

The first thing I discovered was that, except for a few hours on late Friday and Saturday nights, street parking in my neighborhood is abundant. This was a shock. I live in D.C.'s U Street neighborhood, one of the places everyone in D.C. goes to party, even George Stephanopoulos. I expected the parking to be competitive (hordes of women abandoning their cars in the street, running after Mr. Stephanopoulos, trampling everything in their path, casually using up all the available parking in the process), but generally, at any given time of day, there are vast open spaces on every block. Unless it is late Friday or Saturday night, you can park wherever you want.

The second thing I discovered was D.C.'s street cleaning program, something new since I last lived here. Once a week each block gets swept by a street cleaner, and never are both sides of a street swept on the same day. This means once a week you must move your car for the street sweeper. Sometimes you have to move your car twice. If you parked along a curb swept on Tuesdays, for example, and on Monday you move your car across the street, you've likely moved it to a curb that will be swept on Wednesday, which means that on Tuesday night (or early Wednesday morning) you must move your car back to where it was Monday.

You get the idea. It's basically a fancy way of freeing up parking spaces by making everyone move their car every week. It's probably why there's so much parking in my neighborhood, for those with permission to park here. But it is a mild pain in the neck, and a burden for absent-minded people like myself.

I should say, for the record, that my friend Doug thinks there are no actual street sweepers, and it's true I have never seen one.

Anyway, I also learned that if you forget to move your car the city doesn't actually tow it. Another shock. When I went to law school in upstate New York, you had to move your car across the street once a week and if you forgot, you had to take the bus out to the remote fenced-in lot with the attack dog that charged the fence and tried to kill you, and the huge bald guy with tattoos, who sort of resembled the dog, now that I think about it, and who mightily restrained the dog while he accepted your cashier's check for $100 and returned your car. I wanted to tell the huge guy with the murderous dog that this whole move-your-car-or-get-towed-and-pay-$100-to-get-your-car-back thing seemed like a giant state-sponsored scam, but I thought better of it.

But in D.C. they slide a $30 ticket under your wiper and call it good. Which ticket, you can pay on-line.

Civilized, right?

I was relieved to discover this, because I had looked into renting a space in a garage. Not only are there no garages in my neighborhood, but the monthly fee was several hundred dollars, much more than the $120 monthly cost if I ignored the street sweeping signs completely and let my car collect weekly $30 tickets (although presumably at some point even the D.C. government's patience would be exhausted and they would tow it, but I am not so absent-minded as to let that happen and anyway I digress).

Stick with me, dear reader, for I am about to make my most magical discovery about parking in my neighborhood. It turned out that I didn't need to park on the street at all, because on the other alley on my block (my block has two alleys, one on either side of the historic theater that fronts U Street) there is an apron of asphalt against the wall of the fancy new condo building that, I discovered, unknown to anyone, was owned by the city. Just that small patch. Because it had no signage, you could park there without fear. The city couldn't tow you, or issue a ticket, because parking there had never been prohibited. And the condo building couldn't move your car because they didn't own the land.

For months after this discovery I had luxury parking in one of D.C.'s most popular neighborhoods, a secret space in an alley on my block that no one else (it seemed) knew about.

Of course it didn't last. Too soon after I discovered the secret parking on my block, it disappeared. The chili dog stand next to the historic theater put up signs, threatening to tow anyone that didn't obtain a permit from them. No more secret free parking.

But then another magical thing happened. I discovered a nearby block (I'm not saying where) along which the street sweeping signs have disappeared. Probably because there are no signs anymore, on this magical block the D.C. police don't ticket cars during street sweeping days. It can be difficult, but if you find a space you can leave your car there forever and not get a ticket. I tried it during my recent 2 1/2 week vacation. Sure enough, when I came back, my car was right where I left it, no tickets fluttering under the front wiper.

I guess the other rule of urban living is that nothing lasts. Soon, I'm sure, signs will appear along the magic parking block and my secret no-hassle long-term parking will disappear.

But by then I'll have figured something out, even if it's only how to remind myself to move my car on street sweeping days.

August 23, 2007

Trying, Trying . . .

I have a new essay up at the Nervous Breakdown.

August 19, 2007

Pocket Music Review # 1

"City Hall" by Vienna Teng

"City Hall," the fifth track on Vienna Teng's 2006 album "Dreaming Through the Noise," is a moving and beautiful piece of songwriting. It does so many things: tells a heartfelt story, memorializes an historic event, and raises a chorus for a political cause, all within the form of an infectious pop song.

Vienna's albums, "Warm Strangers" and "Dreaming Through the Noise," are a blend of jazz, pop, chamber music and folk. She's like a more jazzy Sarah McLaughlin, with classical training and better lyrics. (There's nothing inscrutable and wildly romantic about vampires striking suicide poses, for example.) I'm sure her first album is also fine, I just can't vouch for it because I haven't heard it yet. You can also find, on YouTube, some glamorous and often hilarious footage of her life on the road, taken on this summer's tour by Vienna and her friend, the underwater marine photographer Eric Cheng. It all looks remarkably like driving cross-country with a buddy to change jobs or go to school, except that every other day you put on a show.

Here is Vienna Teng performing "City Hall" at the Living Room in New York:

August 17, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 8

Babylon and Other Stories, by Alix Ohlin

"Babylon" is a fine, fine collection of stories propelled by Alix Ohlin's deadpan, offbeat humor. The stories fit her style perfectly; they all seem to be about things flying apart. And there is a wonderful combination of absurdity and drama in them. What's strange but also compelling about Olin's stories is the way the comedy doesn't release the tension, but tightens it.

In "Land of the Midnight Sun" a Russian boy named Yuri just shows up one day on the front step of the house of Maxine, a high school student home alone doing her trig homework. She answers the door, a car honks and drives away, and there he is.

"I am exchange student," Yuri says. "I live in your house one year." Yuri explains that, after one year, Maxine can live in his house in Russia if she wants. "It is glasnost program," he says.

"It's like nobody tells me anything," she says.

She shows him around the house. When she explains that everyone calls her younger brother Bat, because his room is like a cave, Yuri says, "You are talking of the mouse with wings."

What follows is a charming coming of age story that ends with Maxine, years later, visiting Moscow, married and struggling to remember the encounter she and Yuri shared at Carlsbad Caverns, where they went to see the bats fly out in droves before sunset.

She remembers how she and Yuri "had walked up the hill out of the darkness of the Caverns," Olin writes, "his fingers brushing against hers, furtive, barely there, yet electric. They emerged into the sudden, blinding desert sun and it shocked her, as if they'd been expecting midnight."

August 16, 2007

Doomed Story Sketch # 1

Lesser-Known Facts About Casablanca

On the surface Casablanca tells the story of a doomed love affair between a casino owner and the wife of a French resistance leader. At its heart, however, the movie is a complex allegory about the ennui of small business ownership in Morocco in the late 30's.

While the film starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the producers' original choices for the roles were William Holden and Shirley Temple. Holden, however, was only 24, and therefore too young to be credible as a former Ethiopian gun-runner and Spanish Civil War combatant. Temple, who was also 24, was long past her prime and anyway there were no dancing numbers.

The "world war" that provides the backdrop for the story is not the actual world war fought in the 1940's between the Axis and Allied powers, but a fictionalized account of that war that is identical to it in every respect.

While many people know that the airplane on the runway in the final scene was made of cardboard, and that the airplane attendants were played by midgets to keep the scene to scale, fewer know that midgets also played the parts of Sam, Victor Lazlo, Ugarte, Louis Renalt, Major Strasser, and all the casino patrons.

Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick Blaine, keeps a Russian dancing bear in his apartment above the bar. In one scene cut from the film just before its release, Ilsa walks in on Rick as he is teaching the bear to stand upright on a wooden circus ball. Rick, more than a little embarrassed, asks her to please leave him alone. The scene ends with the bear tilting its head and offering Rick a sympathetic pout.

Unsure of how to end the film, director Michael Curtiz shot alternate endings in which: 1) Ilsa starts toward the plane but changes her mind and doubles back, then decides she will get on the plane after all and, flustered, apologizes for being so indecisive; 2) flat-out refuses to get on the plane and throws a screaming tantrum; 3) gets on the plane but has a panic attack, thereby forcing the plane back to the terminal; 4) happily announces that she'll be glad to get on the plane and thanks Rick for his understanding; and 5) writes down her address for Rick and asks him to please visit after she and Lazlo are settled in New York.

In Lisbon, over cocktails on a beach veranda, struck by the close call he and Ilsa have just had, Victor has a sudden change of heart about devoting his life to the French resistance. Ilsa admits that, to be honest, she is also very tired, and that Lisbon is not so bad. They repeatedly postpone their flight, sleep later each morning, and after a week cancel the flight altogether. Victor uses the money to make a deposit on a small bungalow. They find a restaurant in the city that they like and begin to dine there regularly. Ilsa takes a small job to pay the rent. Slowly, over time, Victor loses touch with his contacts in New York. Years later, on a vacation to Casablanca, Ilsa runs into Rick, at his cafe of all places. He is with another woman and treats Ilsa as a casual acquaintance; embarrassed, she pretends she cannot quite remember who he is.

August 5, 2007


I write in Praise of Stephen Elliott's Poker Report.

I interview Roy Kesey for Hobart.

I am quoted in Esquire: How About a Little Hope?