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Friday, July 21, 2006

ABF Friday Bonus Edition

Because we have not done enough traveling already this summer, Jamie and I are off to Syracuse to meet the author of this book and see what she says about his communication skills.  I will therefore postpone the next installment of Irish Blogging (Beckett’s Murphy is on tap for Monday) and devote the day to promiscuous linkdumping and an installment of our ever-popular Arbitrary but Fun stuff.

Link number one: Tony Judt with a provocative essay in Haaretz on the crisis in the Middle East.  Judt is quite critical of Israel’s conduct in recent years, and he even argues that

today, now that the history of World War II is retreating from the public square into the classroom and from the classroom into the history books, a growing majority of voters in Europe and elsewhere (young voters above all) simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to license or condone unacceptable behavior in another time and place. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that the great-grandmother of an Israeli soldier died in Treblinka is no excuse for his own abusive treatment of a Palestinian woman waiting to cross a checkpoint. “Remember Auschwitz” is not an acceptable response.

. . . And so, shorn of all other justifications for its behavior, Israel and its supporters today fall back with increasing shrillness upon the oldest claim of all: Israel is a Jewish state and that is why people criticize it. This—the charge that criticism of Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic—is regarded in Israel and the United States as Israel’s trump card. If it has been played more insistently and aggressively in recent years, that is because it is now the only card left.

. . . But Jews outside of Israel pay a high price for this tactic. Not only does it inhibit their own criticisms of Israel for fear of appearing to associate with bad company, but it encourages others to look upon Jews everywhere as de facto collaborators in Israel’s misbehavior. When Israel breaks international law in the occupied territories, when Israel publicly humiliates the subject populations whose land it has seized—but then responds to its critics with loud cries of “anti-Semitism”—it is in effect saying that these acts are not Israeli acts, they are Jewish acts: The occupation is not an Israeli occupation, it is a Jewish occupation, and if you don’t like these things it is because you don’t like Jews.

In many parts of the world this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling assertion: Israel’s reckless behavior and insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe and much of Asia. But the traditional corollary—if anti-Jewish feeling is linked to dislike of Israel then right-thinking people should rush to Israel’s defense—no longer applies. Instead, the ironies of the Zionist dream have come full circle: For tens of millions of people in the world today, Israel is indeed the state of all the Jews. And thus, reasonably enough, many observers believe that one way to take the sting out of rising anti-Semitism in the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Jakarta would be for Israel to give the Palestinians back their land.

As they say on blogs, read the whole thing.  My humble opinion is that it’s exceptionally thoughtful and judicious.  His remarks on the difference between 1982 and 2006, with regard to the general public awareness of Palestinian dispossession and the status of the occupied territories, are especially interesting.

Link number two: you’re surely familiar with the brilliant techno-video performance of All Your Base Are Belong to Us.  If you’re not, why not?  And if you are, please welcome this brilliant techno-video performance of All Your Snakes Are Belong to Us. Another important sign that we are now in the mature phase of the period cultural theorist Amanda Marcotte has designated as post-post-postmodernism.

You know, I love this here medium sometimes.  I’m a bit sad that all this “snakes on the Internets” stuff is going to prove to be much more enjoyable than the movie, but hell, that’s just the nature of post-post-postmodernism, I suppose.  Post-post-postmodernism:  the period that precedes itself.

Link number three: many thanks to the world-renowned skippy the bush kangaroo (who, it is rumored, may have coined a famous word of some kind) for continuing to read and recommend this blog even though it has fallen out of favor with the people who showed up on Monday to denounce its logorrheic anrcissism and its liberal moral cowardice.  Thanks, pal!  I truly appreciate it.

And speaking of anrcissism and cowardice, it’s time for the Arbitrary But Fun part of ABF Friday!

Before he contributed to yesterday’s comments with a fine reading of “Sailing to Byzantium,” Matt of the Tattered Coat replied to my last post by putting up a YouTube clip from The Big Lebowski.  Which (as I noted in his comments section) was quite strange in a lattice-of-coincidence kind of way, because I had just ordered a plate of shrimp, ah, I mean, rented The Big Lebowski earlier this week.  I had not seen it since it first appeared, and I never liked it.  That’s right, I never liked it. You may begin denouncing me for this precisely one half hour after the usual suspects get through denouncing me for quoting Tony Judt.  But I thought The Big Lebowski was, unfortunately, the film version of the exquisitely silly “I Just Stopped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In” (you remember, from the second Dude-dream sequence) spiced up with quirky-but-contrived vignettes here and there and a couple of mildly fun but sometimes tiresome rewrites of things like Chinatown.  Anyway, I watched it Tuesday night, and it was much better than I’d remembered.  Still too cloying, and the ending is just terrible, but on the whole, more than tolerable, with some very very fine moments.  I don’t know why I was quite so pissy and ungenerous the first time around.

But that’s not the point.  The point is that the local Hollywood video store didn’t have The Big Lebowski in the comedy section.  They had filed it, instead, under “Cult Classics,” a category so fascinating and internally various that I spent fifteen minutes checking it out—and eventually deciding that it was a good time to see Repo Man again after twenty years.  (The interval is due not to the fact that I didn’t like it the first time around but to the fact that I practically memorized it first time around.) Sure, Repo Man falls apart completely in the final twenty minutes, but who cares?  It is iconic.  It is cult.  It has the Circle Jerks.  And I would so pay twenty dollars to see it on the big screen in a double feature with Liquid Sky.  Just let me know when and where.

OK, then, The Big Lebowski and Repo Man.  Cult classics, even though Lebowski was a major-studio release. Donnie Darko, right.  Eating Raoul, good to see that old chestnut in there, with its delightfully strange performances from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov.  Speaking of Bartel and Woronov, Rock and Roll High School.  Memory lane, that one.  And, of course, the transvestite granddaddy of them all, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But then my eye fell upon Napoleon Dynamite.  A lovely and often hilarious little film, no question, but is it really a cult classic already?  I mean, what about the test of time and all that?  Shouldn’t Napoleon Dynamite have to wait at least five years before it is inducted into the Cult Classic Hall of Fame?

You see where this is going.  I speak of aesthetic brilliance one day, and now I’m demanding that works of art be measured by the test of time.  Next thing you know, I’ll come out in favor of Western Civ courses, and then I’ll never be able to show my face in the Cultural Left Café again.

Oh, right, I’ve already come out in favor of Western Civ courses eight or nine times already.  Never mind.

So here are this week’s ABF questions.  How long does a movie have to wait to become a Cult Classic?  Underlying that question is the deeper question: what makes a Cult Classic Classic?  What’s the difference between a Cult Classic and a just plain charming indie release that finds a stable audience over a decade or more?  And why wasn’t Liquid Sky in that bin?  Or Run Lola Run?

See you on Monday with some thoughts upon rereading a novel whose first sentence is “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Posted by Michael on 07/21 at 12:48 AM
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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dolphin-torn, gong-tormented

By popular demand, folks (remember, four million readers can’t be wrong!), I’ve decided to begin my hour-by-hour history of the Bérubés in North America.  You see, it all began in 1671 when Damien Bérubé, born in Rocquefort, France, came to settle in Rivere Ouelle, Québec, about 100 miles up the St. Lawrence River from Québec City.  “Il fait froid,” said Damien as he looked around for stuff to do.  Eight years later, he married Jeanne Savonnet, and eventually, thanks in part to the passage of the Corn Laws, their issue led to the Esquire Lounge Incident of 1994, which we’ll cover in a later installment.

Now to more important matters!  Lindsay Beyerstein, a.k.a. Majikthise, guest-blogger extraordinaire and good soul, is celebrating a birthday today.  Moreover, she is being visited by one Amanda Marcotte, who is visiting NYC for the first time on her way to the National NOW Conference in Albany.  As you may recall, long ago when Pandagon was the home of Ezra Klein and Jesse Taylor, Lindsay did a guest-blogging gig there (in March 2005), and Jesse introduced her like so:

Lindsay Beyerstein from Majikthise, who in addition to being seven kinds of smart, is also an eighth, previously considered theoretical kind of smart that was thought unsustainable outside of sealed laboratory conditions.

Another of the guest Pandagonians back then was one Amanda Marcotte, who wound up staying there full-time.  But apparently, these two titans have never met—until today.

And you know what we think of Ms. Marcotte here on Le Blog Bérubé.  We consider her pretty much infallible, at least by recent Papal standards, and not merely because she guest-blogged here in May or because of her French-Canadian surname, which plays a minor role when the Bérubé legend gets to the 1970s and I have to write about hard-skating Boston Bruins left wing Donny Marcotte.  So what this means is that if Lindsay and Amanda are in the same place, the people of New York are now experiencing a kind of bloggy Syzygy of Smart, and all the better for them.  Please welcome Amanda to New York, and wish Lindsay a happy birthday.


Now to the Yeats blogging.  The moment I awoke from my post-transatlantic flight nap on July 5, Janet gathered me up and took me and Jamie to the Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland.  The first item in the exhibit is a small octagon-shaped, room-like installation (with benches) called “Verse and Vision,” in which six Yeats poems are projected onto walls and read aloud by six different Irish poets.  I came in for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which was kind of unfortunate, since I’ve never particularly cared for that one, and it was read by Yeats himself in a strange, angry, gravelly voice that suggested someone was doing a “Pirates of Innisfree” parody. 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Now, I have nothing against this Celtic Twilight sort of thing.  On the contrary, I love the final stanza of “The Stolen Child,” particularly “the kettle on the hob/ Sing peace into his breast,” and goodness gracious, that one’s even got faeries in it—as the poem’s speakers, no less! 

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than you can understand.

Even still, as I listened to Yeats read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” I thought of Ford Madox Ford’s brutal non-twilighty rewrite of it.  If you’ll open your copy of Michael Levenson’s A Genealogy of Modernism to page 112 (I’ll wait), you’ll find a very crabby Ford saying, “I didn’t like his confounded point of view.  I hated, and do still hate, people who poke about among legends and insist on the charms of remote islands.” And the result is this:

At Innisfree there is a public-house;
They board you well for ten and six a week.
The mutton is not good, but you can eat
Their honey.  I am going there to take
A week or so of holiday to-morrow.

You just can’t get any more prosaic than that.

And yet, as the mysterious and elusive Janet Lyon remarked in the margins of page 112 twenty years ago when she and I were reading Levenson’s book for the first time, “for Chrissake—the poem was written 21 years earlier.” It’s a fair cop: by the time Ford got around to demystifying Innisfree, Yeats himself had gone through about two or three major shifts in confounded points of view.  After all—and let’s get this much straight before we go any further—when you talk about Yeats you’re talking about the greatest English-language poet of the twentieth century, and speakin’ literarily, Ford Madox Ford doesn’t have the chops to stand in the same bean-row with him.  Not least among Yeats’s marvels—that is, quite apart from his vast emotional range, his technical brilliance as a poet, and his stunning experiments in modern drama—is the fact that his fifty-year career is full of twists and turns and fresh starts and rethinkings like those of almost no other modern artist in any medium.  Picasso maybe, but then if you pair Picasso’s late work with Yeats’s you’ll get a sly old horndog doodling to himself over against an artist still plumbing the uncanny depths of his gift, returning again and again to the deep heart’s core, to the foul rag-and-bone shop from which he constructed all his many masks.

And then suddenly, under the cold and rook-delighting heaven, “Sailing to Byzantium” appeared on the walls.  The poem is practically shorthand for middle-late Late Yeats as “Innisfree” is for Early: as “Julia” is to “This Boy” in the Lennon corpus, say.  I gather that this here blogger might have something to day about the poem, since his blog takes its name from the second stanza.  In fact, reading over the second stanza is a little like reading Hamlet—both are so full of quotations!  Check it out:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

But this is just warmup, folks, for the devastating third stanza:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

You just can’t get any more incendiary-yearning than that.

In fact, when I heard that stanza, particularly its second four lines, I broke out in a cold sweat.  I could slip my way down the sinuous slant-rhymes of wall, soul, animal, but I got stuck on “fastened” and couldn’t get loose. Fastened to a dying animal.  Jesus H. Christ.  Next to this, T. S. Eliot’s evocations of old age (which, of course, he began writing at about the age of nine) look thin and watery.  And fastened: how much more evocative, and more powerful, than a cognate like “tethered to” or “burdened with”: it says “held fast,” sure, and it merely tells us what we already knew, namely, that this sublunary sphere and all its flailing fleshly creatures are impediments and worse.  But as Viktor Shklovsky would say, it renews perception, it makes the stone stony.  It’s almost impossible, I think—no matter how old or young you may think you are—to read that line without becoming sick with desire—and viscerally aware of the dying animal that houses the desiring.  Remember “The young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees” from the poem’s opening lines?  Yes, well, now you know why your poet referred to them not as emblems of burgeoning life but as “those dying generations.” For as Yeats sails east, sick with desire, he speaks of a most Buddhist wish to be free of all attachment, not least to the dying animal in which his soul is temporarily encased.  No, that’s not quite right: to which his soul is fastened. 

I lingered over “fastened” partly because I have some idea of how painstaking a poet Yeats was, how assiduously he worked and reworked every last line.  The famous passage from the middle-early early poem “Adam’s Curse” --

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

-- is basically a gloss on the man’s entire career of stitching and unstitching.  Later in the exhibit (though we’re not quite there yet) I came across a draft of “Byzantium” in which Yeats had actually scratched out “Those images that yet/ Fresh images beget” and, for “fresh,” had written “more.” OK, so that was a bad call, and of course Yeats knew it too, because he re-freshed that line before committing it to print.  But that’s what stitching and unstitching requires: lots of pains-taking unstitching along the way.

And no sooner had I stopped meditating on “fastened” than I began again on “artifice of eternity.” If “fastened to a dying animal” makes the stone stony, “artifice of eternity” loads every rift with ore, partly because of its evocation of the eternal in the artificial (Yeats will manage another series of brilliant riffs on this in “Lapis Lazuli”) and partly for its suggestion that eternity is itself an artifice, dreamed by souls sick with desire and fastened to dying animals.  And to be gathered into the artifice:  no other word will do.  These are not faeries stealing a child.  These are sages standing in a holy fire, and either they gather us or they don’t, but we pray, we pray that they will.

It really is a goddamn sublime stanza (as opposed to a beautiful stanza).  The only moment that doesn’t transport me is “perne in a gyre,” which sounds kind of cool on its own (someone like Hart Crane might have liked it too, what with his love of thick, textured words like “calyx”) but (a) is syntactically set off from the rest of the stanza as a kind of gloss on the sages in the holy fire and (b) like the opening line of “The Second Coming,” inevitably makes me think of A Vision, which I’ve read in its entirety, which in turn reminds me that when it comes to combining jawdropping artistic brilliance and jawdropping batshit nuttiness in the same persons, no literary period can hold a candle to modernism.  Really, postmodernism is only a pale fire by comparison.

After all that, though, the final stanza is actually something of an anticlimax.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

It’s almost like the exposition, the action plan after the harrowing cri de coeur: right, then, once out of nature I will go to Innisfree, where for ten and six I will be such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make. . . .

So after hearing “Sailing to Byzantium,” I got up and wandered around the rest of the exhibit in a more scholarly temper, checking out drafts and early letters and such things, stopping for a long time at the wonderful installation “Poetry in Process: Building the Tower,” which includes not only an illustrated map, so to speak, of the publication history of each of the poems in The Tower (1928) but also (get this!) a terrific line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza recounting of how Yeats wrote and rewrote “Sailing to Byzantium.” I was interrupted a few times by a couple of noisy student groups, dying animals all, being herded through the exhibit, but I managed to get enough of it to compose a moment’s thought.

My goodness, I said to myself.  I’m having a Sailing to Byzantium Day.

And then I came upon a textual note that reminded me of something I think I might once have known: in 1930, Yeats’s friend T. Sturge Moore (who designed the original cover for The Tower) wrote to him,

Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies.

Whoa, I said, like unto Keanu Reeves in at least eight different movies.  Now I am having a Sailing to Byzantium Lets Me Down in the Fourth Stanza Day. And with that, I headed straight to “Byzantium,” the poem Yeats wrote in response to Moore’s criticism.  We are now fully in the realm of the uncanny, where even the poem that strives to find the terms for the uncanny has to unwrite itself as it goes.  “Before me floats an image, man or shade,/ Shade more than man, more image than a shade”; “Miracle, bird, or golden handiwork,/ More miracle than bird or handiwork”: each time, only the least tangible not-thing thing will suffice . . . but even that doesn’t quite suffice.  And “A mouth that has no moisture and no breath/ Breathless mouths may summon”?  Never mind who or what is doing the summoning here (the mouth or the mouths); this is terrifying stuff.  This is much, much stranger than any goldsmith’s bird or any golden bough.  This is, quite literally (and therefore paradoxically, as the poem well knows), unreal.  And as you make your way through the unreal, thread, if you can, the asyntactical structure of those last five lines.

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

I now feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.  That is all.

Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 12:36 PM
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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Auto Americans

It’s been a great week for George Bush!  You’ll recall that in early 2005, the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon proved that Bush was right.  Well, this week the Israeli bombing of Lebanon also proved that Bush was right!  Though I worry that he may have gone too far in appeasing Iran.  Still, no matter—whatever happens with Israel and Iran and Syria and Gingrich/Kristol’s World War Nine, Bush will have been right.  And let’s not forget how deftly he’s been easing international tensions at the G8 summit!  The man has a spine of steel . . . but very soft hands.  And that’s why we love him.

But we’re not here to talk about world affairs.  Screw world affairs!  This is, as you’ll find in yesterday’s comments, the blog of a “anrcissistic, banal, logorreac, self-obsessed, ill-informed and narrow-minded professor,” so today we’re gonna welcome our four millionth visitor (woo hoo!) by writing about Driving in Europe.

Now, when last we left this self-obsessed etc. blog, I was dealing with gum in my shoe in the Nice airport.  Once I had de-gummed my footwear to my satisfaction, I joined Janet on the line in front of the National/ Alamo counter.  We might have chosen National/ Alamo to indicate our support of the history of American jingoism and imperialism, but in fact, we did so because our previous adventure with Europcar in 2004 was such a complete disaster.  Back then, we’d chosen Europcar for the same reason we’d chosen Air India and EasyJet: it was discount.  And when we arrived in Nice, we learned that thousands of other tourists, most of them British, had chosen Europcar for the same reason!  And after we’d waited an hour at the counter, we boarded a jam-packed shuttle bus, along with thousands of other tourists, that took us to the Europcar lot, where we joined thousands of other tourists who were being served by not one but two Europcar representatives.  Total time from luggage pickup to key-in-ignition, two and a half hours.

This time, we fared much better, being second-timers—and being willing to plunk down another $50 for the week.  The counter line at National/ Alamo was only one hour long, because only five people were in front of us, and the National/ Alamo representative did a fine job scratching the critical clauses of the rental documents onto vellum parchment and then turning them over to scribes for copying.  Jamie waited patiently on a bench, twirling his hair and listening to his iPod.  But most important, we fared much better because this time, we’d rented a car with an automatic transmission.

For some reason, two years ago Janet insisted that you can’t get automatics in Europe, so when she contacted Europcar she asked for a standard that seats four people (with luggage).  This meant, of course, that she would be doing all the driving, since her New York City-born husband never learned to drive a stick.  We got something that looked like a large dustbuster, which would have been fine except that the narrow mountain road that accounts for the 3km between Seillans and our rental house involves a number of hairpin turns on steep grades.  The last of these so flummoxed the dustbuster that Janet, one of the world’s finest drivers of automotive vehicles, was reduced to cursing and flailing as she tried desperately to downshift around the hairpin without losing too much speed for the hill.  After only eighteen or twenty tries, she was successful.  But she had determined that we now had very few options for our little French vacation: (a) stay in the house for the remainder of the week rather than attempt the hill again; (b) keep a large supply of bourbon on hand for her nerves; or (c) return to the airport in Nice, to the mass of humanity at Europcar, and try to negotiate for an automatic.  We chose (c), thereby shooting another half-day of vacation as we struggled with Europcar and its mass of humanity, all of whom seemed to want the same car we wanted.  Europcar informed us that we would pay a steep price for the switch, and demanded to know why we were returning a perfectly fine car.  “Cette voiture,” I ventured, “ne marche pas dans les montagnes.” My French is such that I sometimes wind up saying that I have to dry my horses after I shower, but this time I made myself perfectly clear.  “You mean,” said the Europcar representative in perfect English, fixing me with an icy stare, “that you can’t drive it in the mountains.” And I would have said no, actually I mean that my wife can’t drive it in the mountains, but that would have been unfair, coming from someone who couldn’t drive it out of the parking lot.

So at an exorbitant rate that defeated our entire pro-Europcar rationale, we got ourselves an automatic in 2004.  And as the Driver of Automatics, I was promptly rewarded with the assignment of driving the “scenic route,” first to Monaco in the east and then to Le Lavandou in the south, because Nick thought it would be cool to go to l’Isles d’Hyères.  Monaco via N7 took about three hours, Le Lavandou more than four, though we stopped on the latter journey to let Jamie swim in the Mediterranean (I went in up to my knees.  The water was azure and beautiful and about ten degrees Celsius).

By that point we had reached a Family Crisis.  It was clear that two different travel ideologies were at work: mine, according to which we’d just landed in a beautiful region in southern France and should relax and enjoy the surroundings, and Janet’s/Nick’s, according to which we should attempt to cover as much square kilometerage in one week as our little Dustbuster would allow.  When Janet suggested we go to the cathedral in St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume so that we could see the skull of Mary Magdalene (and Janet assures me that this had everything to do with her fascination with the Magdalene Cult of weird-ass modernist/ avant-gardists and nothing to do with certain Dan Brown novels), I finally protested.  We saw the damn skull anyway, whosever it was, but not before I’d driven the wrong way down a tiny street in St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume and gotten the emphatic and deeply shaming finger-wagging tsk-tsk from local pedestrians.  (I made a crafty seventeen-point U-turn in response, all in less than half an hour!) And I was allowed to rest the next day.

This time around, sans Nick, we did more Jamie-friendly things, like renting paddleboats with waterslides in the Lac de St. Cassien and dropping a bunch of Euros at the “Marinepark” in Antibes.  Jamie and I, we are men of simple pleasures.  But we also drove, mostly via mountain roads, to Aix-en-Provence, where we stopped in at Cézanne’s atélier:


Hey, who knew it was forbidden to take pictures in Cézanne’s atélier?  Not us!

But our most vivid Driving in Europe experiences were probably our first, when, in June 1999, Janet won a teaching award and decided to spend the cash by getting us a week in a Tuscan villa near Siena.  Janet did all the driving (standard, natch), and I did all the readings of road signs.  Janet is largely deaf in one ear and has no sense of direction whatsoever; I mumble and speak quickly and cannot read Italian.  And yet, after a week of driving under those conditions (along with a 13-year-old Nick, newly prone to motion sickness, for whom we had to stop the car repeatedly on mountain roads to allow him to get out and throw up), we were still married! Amazing but true.

On our last evening in the Tuscan villa, we were greeted by the couple upstairs, who, we believed, owned the place.  “Buona sera,” I said to them on their balcony, only to hear a strange voice reply, “And good evening to you too.” It turned out that the real owner of the villa was an Italian businessman who’d since moved to Canada and was visiting his relatives (our upstairs neighbors) briefly before he returned home in his private jet to . . . wait for it . . . attend game six of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabres!  Yes, that game, the famous five-hour, triple-overtime “No Goal” game that Sabres diehards (and they do die hard) remember to this day.

“You know Darryl Sittler?” he asked me, two minutes into a conversation that, for me, was getting weirder and better by the second.

“Do I know Hall of Famer and career Maple Leaf scoring leader Darryl Sittler?” I replied.  “Uh, yeah, I’ve heard of him.”

“He’s my business partner,” the man said.  Something having to do with car dashboards, if I remember correctly.  Well, we talked hockey for a while, and he filled me in on the Finals, about which I had heard no news since arriving in Italy.  The next morning, our upstairs neighbors, no doubt impressed by our connection to their relative, invited us upstairs as we packed the car for Rome.  We sat down in their kitchen, graciously but fumblingly trying to explain that we had to leave by eight to return the car by noon.  “Ah, sì,” the husband replied, pouring us two glasses of heavy, retsina-like wine.  “Ma se avete amici. . . .” and he began to explain that he and his wife would be willing to rent to us (and our friends) without an intermediary, at about two-thirds the cost of the $1000/week we’d paid.  (Why didn’t we ever follow up on this, I wonder?) Sotto voce, Janet said to me, “I can’t drink this and drive—you’ll have to do it,” and I replied, “I don’t suppose throwing it in the potted plant is an option,” so, while our host was looking elsewhere, I dashed off Janet’s glass while politely continuing to sip my own.

At that point the man’s wife entered the room, asking her husband heatedly what he thought he was doing (that’s as much as I understood) and gesturing at the wine. Whew, I thought, already looped, I’m not going to have to finish this stuff. But it turned out, instead, that she was chastising her husband for serving us wine without biscotti, and so we were treated to two more glasses, thank you very much, and some delicious baked goods before we hit the road.

And that, dear friends and assorted detractors, is the story of how I met a hockey fan and friend of Darryl Sittler in the rolling hills of Siena and was compelled to drink four glasses of wine before 8 AM the next morning.

Tomorrow, Yeats.

Posted by Michael on 07/18 at 09:58 AM
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Monday, July 17, 2006



Here I am with the elusive and mysterious Janet Lyon in a pub in Sandycove.  (Nice work by Jamie, n’est-ce pas?) So I finally went to Ireland for the first time in my life.  Even though I’m actually Irish on my mother’s side and would be hailed by all the Clarkes up and down the West, I’ve never set foot in the country.  “You really should acknowledge your Irishness more often,” Janet said one night at dinner.  I replied that the whole hockey thing does tend to tilt the field in favor of the French-Canadian wing of my family history, and that, by contrast, I know nothing about hurling or Gaelic football.  But yes, I’m half Irish, and once upon a time and a very good time it was, I seriously considered becoming a Joycean.  Even worse, I was a budding narratologist at the time, and I remarked to my advisor, Michael Levenson, that I wanted to do for Ulysses what Gérard Genette had done for Proust, namely, a meticulous sentence-by-sentence parsing of temporality and narrative.  “Um,” Michael replied, “you might want to hold that thought.” And so I have, all this time.

Janet had been teaching in Ireland since early June, spending her first two weeks in extremely remote corners of the island.  How remote?  “I don’t know,” said the Druids, some years ago, “this place looks too weird for us.” That’s how remote.  Then she moved her class to Dublin for the next two weeks, and Jamie and I met her after her students departed.  More precisely, Jamie and I wandered around downtown Dublin trying to find her after her students departed: Janet explained that she had to see them safely off, since it would be a Bad Thing for the Penn State study-abroad enterprise if professors lost some of their students along the way, so Jamie and I took a cab from the airport all by ourselves.  We arrived at 7 am, and we had only the sketchiest information about where Janet was staying, because it’s just more fun to travel that way.  Now, keep in mind (if you would be so kind) that Jamie and I had just come from Vancouver to Pittsburgh on a red-eye in late June.  Then he and Nick and I went to New York for the long July 1-4 weekend.  Then Nick dropped us off at JFK for our 8 pm flight, and headed off to his own Nick locations.  I flew over Long Island watching random fireworks explode over Brooklyn and my boyhood home in Flushing, Queens.  And then Jamie and I got a few hours’ sleep before arriving in a foreign country and giving sketchy directions to a cab driver.  So we were fairly addled, is what I’m saying.  And yet, we somehow managed to bump into Janet as she returned from her local café carrying coffee and Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

We spent July 5-7 in Dublin, which, in retrospect, was not nearly enough time—especially for a first visit.  Then, gathering up the proceeds from Janet’s summer-teaching gig (which involved mountains of work on her part), we flew to Nice for a week in the same south-of-France house we’d shared with one of my college friends and his family back in 2004.  Two years ago, when I returned from our first-ever French vacation (part of the record of which can be seen on the “family pix” page of this here web site), I refused to blog about it, except to deliver myself of my theories about soccer and hideous French pop music.  “Somehow,” I wrote, “it feels too self-indulgent, even for a blog, where one always asks oneself, ‘self-indulgent as compared to what, exactly?’” But that was the Era of Blog Reticence, when I had a mere five hundred readers a day.  This is the Era of Blog Expansion, in which one’s bloggedy self-indulgence increases proportionally with one’s readership.  Besides, I have returned with many blogworthy tales and profound experiences and a couple of cool pictures.  I was even sitting in a public square in Fayence for the World Cup final, I’ll have you know.  But I missed the overtime, because it was after 10 pm local time and we had a sleepy child (not mine) to take care of.  Did anything dramatic happen?

So, dear readers, for the foreseeable future, this blog will try to serve as a respite from the End Times, which, as I learned upon returning to the United States, have officially begun in Lebanon.  I must admit that the shock of re-entry, at such times, can be quite severe.  Over the weekend, as I caught up with email and bill-paying, I discovered that most European nations (including the ones we’d visited) had judiciously condemned Israel’s disproportionate and profoundly counterproductive response to the latest Hamas-Hezbollah outrages, whereas the warbloggers, hatemongers, and assorted End Timers on these shores were condemning those European nations for appeasement of terror, etc.  Nick filled us in on the details as we drove back from JFK through central Brooklyn.  Janet, who’d managed to avoid all news of the dying world for six weeks, became numb.  She had asked me, as we walked up and down our mountain on our last day in France, for a small dose of Wingnut News so that she could try to re-acclimate to the U.S., and I told her about David Horowitz’s advanced-dementia campaign against the Travel section of the New York Times.  But even that tidbit, which sent her briefly into anaphylactic shock, was inadequate preparation for the crisis in Lebanon.

“Holy Mother of Moloch, Nick,” I said as I weaved through Atlantic Avenue traffic.  “What part of ‘disproportionate and profoundly counterproductive response to terrorism’ don’t these lunatics understand?”

Nick looked askance at me, silently.

“Oh, yeah,” I murmured.  “The all of it part.  Right.”

I will begin the week, accordingly, with something small and inconsequential.  Because our travels involved a level of planning that made the Apollo-Soyuz mission look like a casual get-together for tea, we had to fly from Dublin to Nice at 6 am on July 8, which meant that we had to “wake” “up” at 3:30 after meeting friends for a few pints in Grafton Street.  All went well, even though the Dublin Airport had had not one but two bomb scares in the previous week.  But when we touched down in Nice, I discovered to my dismay that a previous passenger had decided to deposit a wad of gum on the floor under my seat—and I made this discovery not by picking up the gum with my sneaker but by picking it up with my unshod sock, for I had foolishly taken the liberty, in trying to catch a bit more sleep, of discreetly removing my shoes at some point during the flight.  I therefore walked all through the Nice airport (and customs) with a most unpleasant sensation in my left foot, as my sock began to adhere to the inside of my sneaker.  When at last we retrieved our baggage and I was able to obtain a replacement sock from my suitcase, I excused myself, and retired to the bathroom to de-gum myself while Janet and Jamie made their way to the rental-car desk.  But alas!  The gum in question turned out to be an adhesive of extraordinary tenacity, such that the sock was now chemically bonded to the lining of the sneaker: as I slipped off the sneaker, the lining remained attached to the ball of my foot, dangling from the damaged sock.  Indeed, the wad’s remarkable staying power suggested not only that it was a virulent strain of gum I was dealing with, but also that it had been deposited on the floor of the fuselage not very long before it found my foot.  For even after I managed to rip the sock free, the gum-residue on the sneaker lining was sufficient to mess with the new sock, thereby requiring me to take off the shoe again, this time to try to scrub the lining with hot water in the hope of counteracting the powerful adhesive properties of this most vexatious gum.

I’ll carry on with still more glamorous and exciting tales of travel abroad tomorrow, when I will ask you to experience with me the excitement of renting a car in Nice.  Until then, here’s a shot of Janet with the very worldly (and very tall!) Jamie in the Dublin Zoo.


From June 26 to July 12, folks, Jamie went to the Vancouver Aquarium, the Bronx Zoo, the Dublin Zoo, and the Musée Océanographique de Monaco.  Which must be some kind of world record. 

Many thanks to Lindsay and Chris for wonderful guest-blogging!  Reading your entries was one of the few enjoyable things about coming back.  Thank you so much for tending this lonely blog with your grace and your wit.

Oh, and by the way, French pop music still sucks.  On the radio, for my torment as I hauled my Citroen up the mountainside:  a techno remix of “Eye of the Tiger” and a techno remix of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” It’s as if they’re daring us to do something about it, really it is.

Posted by Michael on 07/17 at 10:45 AM
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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Name that Fourth Horseman

Sure signs that we are living in the End Times:

Name the Fourth Horseman.

[x-posted at Majikthise.]

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein on 07/16 at 04:43 PM
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Prostitution and unemployment benefits

Lately, I’ve been hearing a very odd argument against legalizing prostitution, namely, that women on unemployment insurance might lose their benefits if they refuse to sell sex.

This argument is thoroughly unconvincing. First, there little evidence to suggest that this actually happens in countries with legalized prostitution, let alone that the problem is widespread. Second, the theoretical possibility only arises if you allow businesses to hire prostitutes as employees, and if the UI system requires people to take any job available. So, at best, the argument applies to countries with German legalization models and German-style unemployment insurance systems, neither of which we have in the U.S.A. Finally, the cost/benefit analysis doesn’t work because the status quo forces more unwilling people to sell their bodies that the proposed alternative.

Rumor has it that since Germany legalized prostitution two years ago, women have been losing their UI benefits for refusing to take jobs in brothels. Trish Wilson points to a Snopes report on the subject which concludes that the story is more urban legend than reality.

According to Snopes, the English-speaking world started worrying about German women being forced into prostituiton in 2005 when Clare Chapman published this article in The Telegraph about an unnamed 25-year-old German woman who sought work through a job center and got a callback from a brothel.

Chapman does not claim that the authorities actually threatened the unnamed jobseeker with benefit cuts for refusing the job. She merely points out that, since German unemployment insurance laws require employable adults to take any available job. She notes that since there is no specific exception for the sex trade, it is technically possible for a German citizen to lose UI benefits for refusing a job at a brothel that recruited through the state-run job offices.

There is no evidence that any German worker has ever lost UI benefits for refusing to work as a prostitute.

Yesterday, Robin from 3QD left an excellent comment dispelling some common myths about unemloyment insurance benefits and active employment policies:

No one is denied UI because they don’t decided to post signs offering to mow lawns, paint houses, offer moving services. If the stipulation for UI was that you take a job, any job--and practicably what does that mean? that you’ve applied for every available job that you have a possible chance of getting? that an unemployed engineer must take a job at a fast food restaurant? (which would quite a waste of considerable social investment in skill--or go freelance, and that UI would be disbursed only if neither of these panned out, no one would get UI.

Even the active labor market policies of Sweden (which at their height from its adoption in 1951 to the mid-1980s), in which the state found you a job, and if you didn’t take it benefits were cut for 90%+ of wage to 0% did take into account factors such as skill matching, location, etc. And that’s were the state found a job for you.

One has to show a reasonable attempt to find a suitable job for UI, which is all that can be asked. Going into self-employment first is not a condition.

I don’t know exactly how the American unemployment/welfare system works, but it doesn’t seem that the technicalities of the German system are directly relevant. So-called welfare reform pushed a lot of people into bad jobs. However, these welfare recipients were pushed into the workforce because their benefits were time limited, not because their benefits were conditional on not having any viable job offer. If any policy wonks want to explain in more detail, please do, the aisles are yours.

Germany’s form of legalization allows businesses to hire prostitutes as employees, but there are other legalization options. Here in the U.S., we could strike down the laws that criminalize the exchange of sex for money without decriminalizing brothels or corporate pimping.

It is important to legalize and regulate the sex trade in ways that enhance the autonomy of sex workers. There are many good reasons not to let sex work become another service sector job.

It seems only fair that the world’s oldest profession should be granted the legal status of other self-regulating profession. Sex workers should have professional organizations that license and certify members according to the standards of their peers. Doctors and lawyers have a similarly sweet deal in which the state agrees to impose a monopoly on the supply of healers and advocates in exchange for quality assurance. If the law said that you had to be a registered member of your State Prostitute’s Guild in order to legally sell sex, then only people who actively sought to qualify themselves would be eligible to work as prostitutes. (That would solve the UI problem, even if we moved to aggressive active employment policies.)

Even in countries where legalization could threaten UI benefits, this seems like a relatively trivial legal technicality that’s unlikely to affect anybody’s life. Compare that to the status quo in which criminals have the monopoly on the sex industry. Human traffickers and other pimps force people into the sex industry routinely. They reap huge profits because they don’t have to compete with legitimate businesses. They also get away with outrageous abuses because the victims won’t seek legal protection. As long as prostitution is illegal, pimps can extort from sex workers with impunity. Since prostitutes can’t organize and demand better compensation, they are also more likely to be trapped by poverty. No doubt, many stay in the life because they are too poor to retrain or retire.

If we want to save unwilling participants from the sex trade, our first priority should be to legalize prostitution and eliminate the criminal middle-men who thrive in the black market. The UI concern is truly a red herring.

[x-posted at Majikthise]

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein on 07/16 at 01:11 PM
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