Archive for April, 2011
Okay, for what it’s worth–I agree with Robert.
The use of the word “traditional” for the third kind of detective story on my list is problematic.
The problem is, I can’t think of another term, and the distinction is important.
I would say, by the way, that both Conon Doyle and Stout wrote soft boiled mysteries–private detective, first person, concentration on that detective and what he does (not on the suspects and what they think and do), and a relative lack of blood, gore and cynicism.
And you can complain about Raymond Chandler all you want, but ask any 50 private eye writers who best exemplifies the hard boiled, and Chandler is the first name they’ll come up with. In fact, the term “hard boiled” was invented to describe Chandler.
Sayers was soft boiled in every respect but one–her detective was an amateur.
But traditional in my definition from the last two posts describes virtually all of Christie’s Poirot and Marple series.
If you don’t believe me, go back and look. Once you start paying attention, it’s remarkable how little of any of Christie’s Poirot novels concern Poirot, and that is most especially true of her most famous ones–Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In the Marple series, the concentration on everybody and anybody aside from the detective is blatant. In a couple of those cases, Jane Marple isn’t ever present on the scene.
The distinction is important because, when all is said and done, that last category gives detective fiction its widest possible scope.
In the traditional detective novel as I have defined it, the detective novel comes closest to doing what a novel is supposed to allow a writer and a reader to do–get into the heads of people different from ourselves and let us live in them for a while.
And it’s an old tradition, too. It may postdate Sherlock Holmes, but not by much.
And it does, in the end, make a book more interesting to me, both to read and to write.
I think a book about Gregor Demarkian would be interesting to write–but only one book, not twenty-four. There isn’t a character on the face of this planet that could remain honestly unforcedly interesting for twenty four books.
And then, for me, the interest in crime is in the psychology and operations of criminals–not any criminals, but criminals of a certain type.
The vast majority of criminals are, let’s face it, monumentally boring. A great deal of crime seems to be committed out of stupidity.
I mean, for God’s sake, exactly how dim do you have to be to get arrested for DUI twice in one night? Or to call the bank and tell them to get the money ready, because you’re going to be over there in ten minutes to rob them?
And yes, those are both true stories.
And the really sad thing is, they’re not as stupid as stupid gets. I mean, what do you do with some idiot who responds to a baby’s collicky crying by picking it up by the feet and smashing its head into the wall?
There are plenty of stupid people in the world, and plenty of people who are never quite introduced to civilization–people born into families so dysfunctional they never even figure out how to run a personal schedule, people born with true mental illnesses like schizophrenia, people who (for whatever reason) live on the edges of normal life in street gangs or drug running operations or prostitution.
When people like that commit crimes, it does not surprise me, because in a way their lives are defined by crime. If you run with a street gang, I don’t see that anybody should be shocked if you end up killing somebody.
The kinds of crimes and criminals that interest me are those who seem, at least on the surface, to be part of that very civilization the street gangs have rejected–the ones who hold down ordinary middle class jobs, have middle class marriages and families, have middle class lives.
I stress middle class because I think that extremes of wealth and poverty both produce a lot of people with distorted ideas about the world, and that they also tend to produce people with very little interior organization.
When I was still teaching my remedial kids, the thing I noticed most about the absolute bottom of my classes was that lack of organization–kids who had grown up in houses with no schedules at all, no settled wake up times or bed times, no settled times from breakfast or lunch of dinner, no sense that on Tuesday they were supposed to go to soccer practice and on Sunday they were supposed to go to church.
A lot of those kids and their parents had gotten into a lot of trouble for truancy in elementary school and high school, but I don’t think truancy was really what was happening. I think there was just no schedule, and because there was just no schedule–well, it got hard to remember what day of the week it was. Among other things.
My kids were among the best in their neighborhoods. The worst never got near one of my classes. But I was never surprised when I picked up the local paper and found that one of them had been arrestedfor holding up a convenience store or soliciting or breach of the peace or any of the other myriad petty crimes that seemed to regularly punctuate their lives. They weren’t bad. They were just drifty.
(And, I want to point out here, they were by no means the the entire population of their neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods there were families with schedules, single mothers singlehandedly imparting all the organization and work ethic you could want–but those kids never ended up in remedial classes. They got all expenses paid tickets to Storrs and better.)
The problem with the other extreme is more complicated, but not as complicated as you might think.
People at the top of the economic pyramid who commit crimes–and especially who commit murder–tend to have that same lack of interior organization. It’s a product, I think, of having parents, teachers, coaches and servants to create schedules for you and then see that you stick to them.
Most very rich criminals–violent criminals, to be specific–are pretty much the same as most very poor violent criminals.
They’re very simply thugs.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m deficient in not being able to work up an interest in people like that, but I’m not able, and that’s it.
What does interest me are people who have all the earmarks of the straightforwardly normal, who do all the things normal people do, and yet who decide that killing is the logical next step in getting what they want–killing for the insurance money, or so that their wives can’t take the house in the divorce, or because if he can’t have her nobody can.
If there is a drug addiction involved, I no longer care. I think drugs just seem so monumentally stupid to me that I can’t work up the energy.
And the money angle always interests me more than the others, maybe because it seems so bloodless.
Think about the woman who just died in prison–okay, it’s still early, I can’t remember her name–who calmed “befriended” and then killed off a dozen elderly men in order to go on cashing their Social Security checks.
I am also interested, I’ll admit, in facades, in people like Scot Peterson, who manage to function in the world and be perceived as normal when they are anything but.
And that, for me, is what a detective story is for–it’s why I like to read them, and why I like to write them.
What I want is some insight into how such people think, into what drives them, into how they get to be what they are.
And no, I couldn’t get that from a psychological study. Most of the psychological studies I’ve read about this stuff have seemed to me to be absolutely clueless. They begin from assumptions about human nature that are largely false, and then try to cram the reality into the theory.
Maybe that’s why the social science track record on things like predicting who will reoffend if they’re let out on parole–or curing addiction–is so abysmal.
No, what I want, from any work of fiction I read, or watch, or listen to, is that insightinto other people’s heads.
And that’s what one entire, long established branch of the detective story can give me.
It’s also, by the way, what some true crime tries to give me these days.
Which is why I’m nearly as addicted to the ID channel as I am to the tea.
And tea is waiting.
Every once in a while, I screw up a blog post so badly that I have no idea where to start to correct the misimpression I’ve caused, and that turns out to be true today.
It seems as if most of you took me to mean that “hard boiled” was anything with a lot of gore in it and “soft boiled” was another name for “cozy.”
The first and most important thing to understand is that “the basic forms of the detective story” are not the same thing as “the basic forms of the mystery novel.”
There are all kinds of mystery novels that are not detective stories–police procedurals, action adventure, thriller, serial killer, Carl Hiassen…
Detective novels are specifically novels about detection.
Hard boiled is best characterized–in the historical form–as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In the modern era, think Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshavsky and, at least arguably, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar.
Hard boiled detective novels are: about professionals, almost always private eyes; usually in the first person told by the PI himself, and if not in third person SINGLE viewpoint from the PI’s point of view; and characterized by a cynical outlook on the corruption levels of local police and government, corporations, and rich people.
To be fair, however, the cynicism often varies its targets in more modern examples of the form.
Soft boiled is also a form of PI story–professional private investigator; first person from the PI’s point of view or SINGLE viewpoint third person from the PI’s point of view; much less cynicism and blood.
There’s lots of good soft boiled fiction out there. In the Golden Age, both Nero Wolfe and the original pulp Perry Mason series would qualify as soft boiled.
Sue Grafton’s alphabet series is soft boiled. So is most of Spenser’s Parker, although he tried really, really hard to be hard boiled instead. Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlisle series is soft boiled, too.
Diane Mott Davison, however, does not write soft boiled novels–she writes cozies.
I didn’t include cozies on the list of basic types because they aren’t basic. They’re derivative.
Cozies are what you get when a writer wants desperately to be Agatha Christie but doesn’t actually get what it was Christie was doing.
In that way, they most resemble category Regency romances, where writers who want to be just like Jane Austen pick up on all the superficial exotic stuff and miss the point entirely.
That said, there are good cozies. I give you Charlotte McLeod’s Peter Shandy series, for instance, and Joan Hess’s Maggody.
I’m told that Georgette Heyer does excellent Regency, although the last one I read was thirty years ago, so I don’t know.
Traditionals have to have a detective, but he or she does not absolutely have to be a professional.
Other than that, they are characterized by the number of points of view they offer the reader–third person MULTIPLE viewpoint, with significant stretches of the novel devoted to the points of view of various suspects, NOT the detective’s.
You can see that in Agatha Chritie if you look–in Cat Among The Pigeons, for instance, the entire book is given over to points of view of suspects, and Hercule Poirot doesn’t even show up until the last fifth of the novel.
There’s plenty of traditional being published today–everything P.D. James does is in the traditional form, with huge amounts of every novel being devoted from points of view of people other than any of the detectives.
And, yes, Gregor Demarkian novels are traditionals.
You may read them to get news of Gregor and Bennis, but if you look at the books, you’ll see that at least half of every novel is given over to points of view other than Gregor’s (or anybody else’s on Cavanaugh Street, unless they’re also suspects, as in Bleeding Hearts).
Hell, in Somebody Else’s Music, I could have cut out all of Gregor’s chapters and still have had a perfectly coherent novel.
Plenty of other people do traditionals, though–the Barbara Vine Ruth Rendell standalones, Scott Turow at least some of the time.
I think all I was trying to say was that soft boiled seems to generate hundreds of volumes a year, and very few of them are Sue Grafton. Mostly they seem to be this sort of mushy adventure maybe when we’re not talking about stuff and then somebody will solve it and it’s over.
And I just don’t see the point.
A long time ago–around the time I first met Bill–I came up with a kind of schema for classifying detective novels, a way of sorting them out for the purposes of talking about them.
The schema used to drive Bill nuts, because, as he said over and over again, “nobody else uses that.” And nobody else does.
But I found that schema very useful to me, and I still use it.
It goes like this: there are three basic kinds of detective stories.
There’s hard boiled, which is a book that concentrates on the life and adventures of the detective and that is gritty and often dark.
Then there’s soft boiled, which is a book that concentrates on the life and adventures of the detective and that is not so gritty and not dark at all.
Then there’s traditional, which is a book that concentrates on the crime and the suspects and where the detective functions more as an organizing principle.
I bring t his up at the moment because I’ve spent the past day reading a little light mystery of a kind I rarely read anymore. I’m not going to give the name of the book or of the author, because the author is somebody I rather like as a human being, and what I’ve tgot to say not only about this book, but about the entire category, is not necessarily positive.
And what I have to say is this: I don’t understand why anybody reads this kind of thing.
You’ve got to understand. There’s nothing in particular wrong with this book, or with the dozens of books like it that are published every year. The writing is solid enough. The basic underlying mystery isn’t too shabby, either, although in this particular case it’s a bit obvious.
The obviousness may clear itself up in a book or two. This is a fairly new writer. She just may not have figured out how to throw enough confetti around the room to mask her real purposes.
The problem is that although there’s nothing really wrong with the book, there’s nothing really right with it, either. Since it’s written in first person, we get very little insight into the characters involved in the mystery.
That’s always a danger with first person, although it can be compensated for by giving the book a narrator with insight into the other characters. That’s not here.
But what also isn’t here is much in the way of insight into the narrator herself.
If there’s one thing you can do with first person narration, it’s explicate quite a lot about your narrator’s interior life. There is literally none of that here, and the narrator, although pleasant enough, comes off as sort of dead flat.
The other thing you can do with a first person narrator in a detective story is to concentrate on the detection–to show the way the detective unravels the mystery.
But in some weird and indefinable way, that isn’t here either. The detective gets clues and follows up on them, but there’s no sense that solving the mystery is at the center of the narrative. It’s just sort of there.
By now, half of you are out there thinking that I’ve got it all wrong. This really is a bad book, and I don’t want to think so because I like the author.
But that’s really not it. Everything that ought to be in this thing is here. All the basic elements of a good detective story are present and accounted for.
It’s just that they lack–I don’t know.
I have no idea why I care about some characters when I read and why I sometimes don’t–but I usually care, even in very bad books indeed.
And with this, it’s like there’s no there there.
To steal from Gertrude Stein, who is one of those writers everybody steals from.
And, thinking about it, this is how I generally respond to soft boiled mysteries. They lack some essential power source for me.
But it’s me they lack a power source for. Soft boiled is probably the most popular form of detective novel available these days. You can go to Barnes and Noble and find the mystery section literally overrun with them.
Which means there must be people out there who are buying them and reading them, over and over and over again.
It’s getting to the point where I am less and less able to understand why people read what they do, and I don’t think it’s because I’ve got some Seven Sisters snob thing going on where I turn my nose up at the “accessible.”
I used to joke that I read books the way other people watched television. I meant that I read them constantly.
The only thing that makes sense to me is that some people really do read the way they watch television–on autopilot, without really paying attention.
Because if you pay too much attention to this kind of thing, it disappears.
Okay, I couldn’t help myself. This
appeared on Facebook yesterday, and I’ll admit it so completely floored me I couldn’t respond to it right away.
In fact, it had been so long since I’d seen something quite this idiotic, I’d actually started to thing we were past all this now.
Since we seem not to be past all this now, I’ve got a few comments to make.
I’d like to point out that I make them as part of a “marginalised group,” a phrase the writer of this thing seems to thing she’s got a trademark on.
If you haven’t read this thing, none of the comments that follow are going to make any sense, so go ahead and read it.
Let me start with something that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written: no conversation of this kind would ever reach the point of using any of these “ploys” if you were having the conversation with me.
That’s because I reject the premise in its totality.
“Oppression” is a word with a meaning, and the meaning isn’t “being put down by a jerk once in a while” or “not liking the stereotype of some group I belong to in the media” or even “condescended to by an ass with half your IQ.”
In China this past week-end, Christians attempting to celebrate Easter were rounded up and taken off to jail, where the chances are better than pretty good that they’ll be physically tortured–and with “torture” as it was defined in WWII, not in Iraq. That’s oppression.
When Saddam Hussein had his functionaries put a woman in the cell next to the one where her infant child was and then had those functionaries drill through the infant’s skull until the mother couldn’t stand the screams any more and gave away the locations of her fathers and brothers working for the resistance–that’s oppression.
Hell, even life in a Muslim state as a dhimmi is oppression, because you are legally (note the LEGALLY) prevented from openly practicing your religion, or proselytizing for it in any way, and are required to pay a special tax simply because you are not a Muslim.
There has been oppression in the United States–there has been slavery, for instance, and Jim Crow, and lynching.
But I’m sorry, the Constitution says you have the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to have everybody approve of your pursuit, and certainly not the right to be comfortable all the time.
In fact, I reject the entire concept of “human rights.”
I DO accept INDIVIDUAL rights–which are the rights individuals have that prevent the government (note: government, not everybody on earth) from interfering in certain activities and decisions.
Freedom of speech is an individual right. Freedom of conscience is an individual right. The government can’t stop me or punish me for either.
But that doesn’t mean my fellow citizens can’t hate me for both. That’s an individual right, too.
I also accept a moral obligation to other human beings: to treat them as individuals, NOT as members of a group, marginalized or otherwise.
And this means no double standards–the standard I apply to person A I must also apply to person B, period.
And those two things are what I except every other human being has a moral obligation to extend to me.
And that, the writer of this essay does not do.
There is, for instance, the implication that insisting on evidence and facts is wrong and oppressive, because I should be giving a privileged place to “lived experience.”
But if I give a priveleged place to “lived experience” in the case of “marginalised groups,” then I must give that same privileged place to the lived experience of everybody else–and sorry, no. Not going to happen.
I know people who tell me sincerely that God has spoken to them and told them to wipe homosexuality off the face of the earth–that’s their “lived experience,” and without some good, solid evidence behind it, I’d say it was bunk.
I know people who say they have been kidnapped by aliens, too. No evidence–sorry, I just won’t believe it.
So if your lived experience contradicts what factual evidence I have, I’m not going to accept it.
Oh, and by the way–I also happen to think that if something is true, that’s the end of it. Prove to me it’s not true and I’ll stop saying it and believing it, but don’t just tell me how you feel about it. Truth is its own defense. See above.
But the kicker here comes in the section called “But I Know Another Person from Your Group Who Disagrees” and it goes like this:
This one is fantastic to bring out if you feel at all backed into a corner. If, for example, the Marginalised Person™ is making sense and you’re beginning to get the unpleasant feeling that you were wrong about something, just whip up your friend – your black friend, or your trans friend, your friend with a mental illness, or your friend who is a sex worker, and vehemently express how they completely and stridently support your opinions on these issues.
Of course, you must make out as though you are entirely oblivious to internalised stigma and how your friends may have been adversely affected by discrimination wielded by the Privileged®.<<<
Take a look at that for a minute.
Do you know what that says?
That says that a white middle class guy has full control of his mind and his intellect, and the free choice and free will to decide to be a Baptist or a Libertarian, to be for or against affirmative action, to hold any opinion at all–
But I don’t, because I’m from a Marginalized Group. I’m a woman, and therefore if I report my “lived experience” as anything different from–or antagonistic to–the ideas held by that author, well, it’s not because I have a mind, it’s not because I can make up my own mind, it’s because…well, I’ve been “adversely affected” by my “oppression” and so I’ve been so addled I just think I think unlike the herd.
Forty years ago, I got myself thrown out of a consciousness raising group for saying what I thought about this particular line of argument.
I called it what it actually is–bigotry, pure and simple, that assumes that biology is destiny and I am a slave to whatever my genetics randomly produced in my mother’s womb.
We’ll be past real bigotry and discrimination when everybody–marginalized or not–is accepted as having a mind of her own that she actually thinks with.
In the meantime, I’m going to go let the men in my house cook me dinner.
In general, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for converts. People who go from left to right or from right to left tend to be more Catholic than the Pope in every ssense of the word, and they also tend to be more apocalyptic. I get tired.
However, today, I found this
at Front Page, David Horowitz’s site. Horowitz, in case you don’t know, is a former New Left SDS radical who has gone very conservative indeed. Mostly, he just makes my head hurt (about as much as what’s his name, who left the Republicans and founded MediaMatters).
But the article above is not by Horowitz himself, and it gives a very unusual explanation of why so many people on the right buy into, or partially by into, the birther nonsense.
I thought I’d risk posting the link and keeping my fingers crossed that forty of you don’t decide that I must be a birther myself.
Then I’ll go back to wishing that people would notice the obvious.
The child of an American citizen is an American citizen at birth.
It doesn’t matter if he’s born on the moon.
And I know this because my younger son was an American citizen at birth in spite of being born in London.
But that’s a lament for another day.
It’s Sunday, and the first thing I have to do is apologize to some of you.
It is the case that when things go wrong I tend to disappear for a while, but that’s only when things go very, very wrong, or when they entail a lot of getting up ridiculously early and running around.
When things go sort of standard catastrophic wrong, I tend to be more in evidence than ever, because I get all revved up and can’t sleep and can’t concentrate, so I write. At least I write blog.
I am much more likely to disappear into the mist when things that have been going wrong start going right. Once I feel I can relax, I do things like fall asleep on the love seat or zone out for three hours in front of silly television programs.
When you’ve been running on adrenaline for a long time, it’s hard to move once the adrenaline dissipates.
All this is being by way of saying that Greg is fine–the condition that turns out to have predated his cataracts is mild enough, and what we’re left with now is that he has the vision he had before the cataracts started.
This is, admittedly, not as good as the perfect vision we were hoping for, but it’s not in the least catastrophic. After all, before the cataracts, Greg had vision that was only borderline for needing distance glasses.
So, we’re doing well.
I just don’t seem to have the energy to do much of anything sensible.
With all that said, however, we come to the book I’m currently reading, and an issue that is far bigger than it alone.
I know I said I was going to read At Bertram’s Hotel this week-end, and I may still get to it.
But yesterday, when I first sat down on the love seat to listen to music before being able to watch a full season of America’s Next Top Model, I was at one end of the love seat, and At Bertram’s Hotel was at the other end of the love seat, and in order to get hold of that book I would have had to lean way over and stretch.
Okay. Yeah. I get that bad when I get really tired.
This book, the book I’m reading now, happened to be on the love seat halfway between to two ends, so that all I had to do was put my hand out and I had it.
I don’t know what it was doing where it was on the love seat, because usually the only books on that particular piece of furniture are the one I’m reading, the one I want to read next, and a few general reference things I think I need to look at.
This book was on the coffee table with the rest of the TBR pile, and from what I remember, it was pretty far down in the stacks. I had no particular interest in reading it any time soon.
Or, possibly, ever.
I hadn’t bought it for myself, and it sounded, from the title, like a kind of book I have no patience for.
The book is by a man named Michael Knox Beran, and here’s the title: Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.
Now, let’s be honest here: the assumed subject matter of this book is one in which I have a deep interest.
I don’t really mind social programs per se. I never have minded them, and I even tend to think they’re a good idea.
What I do mind, however, and more than mind, is the expansion of bureaucratic social control that often comes with them–if society is going to pay for your health care, society ought to get to tell you how many calories you eat, how much you exercise, what you weigh, and whether you smoke cigarettes or not.
Unlike some people, I do not believe that the existence of social programs necessarily results in an expansion of bureaucratic social control. We have been able to run Social Security and Medicare for decades without allowing either to devolve into that kind of thing.
I do think, however, that the existence of such programs provide an opportunity for bureaucratic power grabs that must be carefully and explicitly defended against.
And we rarely do that kind of defending.
But if all the above is the case, you’d have thought that I’d be interested in this book, rather than thinking that it’s something I’d rather eat nails than read.
And that’s how we get back to the title.
Look at that title.
Titles always signal something serious about books, and that title says: this is a bunch of catch phrases and cliches strung together for an audience who doesn’t want to read anything it disagrees with or anything it would be too much work to understand.
There are a lot of books like that out there, and they come on the left as well as on the right. The big difference is that the ones from the left tend to have larger vocabularies and to revel in their commitment to “science” and “evidence,” while the ones on the right are more obviously written for people who do not read as much and who think that most of what they’ve been told is “science” is crap.
But although I am happy to read books on both sides of the political divide, and although I go out of my way to make sure I read some at least that disagree with what I believe, I draw the line at the self-congratulatory exercises in partisan groupthink.
Listening to somebody repeat the same 57 cliched arguments I already know the counterarguments to–while pretending that those counterarguments don’t exist–does absolutely nothing to cheer up my day.
So this book lay around on my coffee table for weeks, and I didn’t touch it, because that title says that this book is just that kind of thing.
And then, yesterday, I actually sat down and read it.
And it wasn’t.
I don’t know how to stress the extent to which this book is not what its title makes it sound like.
It is, instead, a series of essays about a number of different things–Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, the relationship of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Calvinist tradition–that I am finding very interesting, but I’ll absolutely guarantee that most of the people who will buy this book will not.
Most of the people who look at this book and at this title will buy it expecting to see the kind of thing they got in Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death or anything at all by Ann Coulter.
In the meantime, the sort of person who would like this book–like, for instance, me–would never even bother to pick it up in the bookstore.
In the end, this book will be read by fewer readers who will like it and look for another from the same author, and by lots and lots of readers who will complain about it in public forums and thereby make this writer’s future work even less saleable.
To my mind, at least, absolutely everybody loses.
And yet, I can’t say the practice isn’t common in all publishing these days, not just in the publishing of ideologically oriented books of either side of the debate.
Books are promoted as whatever the hot seller is at the moment–as action adventure, as cozy, as sexy, as whatever–whether or not they fit the category, and the result is almost always what the result will be for this one.
And I don’t get it.
Even in the brain of the most obtuse of the suits, there must be some glimmer of the fact that this sort of marketing is enormously counterproductive. To the extent that it “sells books” at all, it sells them to the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and in the long run it actually reduces the money everybody makes.
There must be some explanation for this sort of thing, I just don’t know what it is.
I start to wonder, after a while, if there are publishers who are out to sell as few books as possible, or maybe to discourage people from ever reading anything ever again.
Given the sort of mess this kind of thing creates, it’s as good an explanation as any.
Here is something to know about me, assuming you want to know anything at all: there is something seriously wrong with me on any morning when I prefer to listen to Beethoven instead of Bach.
It’s not that I don’t like Beethoven, because I do, in spite of the fact that he seems to have loved the piano while I don’t usually like the sound of it at all.
And it’s not that I don’t listen to Beethoven out of choice. I’ve even gone to a a great deal of trouble to hear specific symphonies play specific Beethoven programs.
There is just something about Beethoven in the morning that doesn’t exactly work for me, most of the time. I’m that way about jazz, too. I can listen to jazz all night long, but for some reason, jazz in the morning just makes me crazy.
Well, it’s six thirty in the morning, and what’s playing behind my head is the Eroica, Beethoven’s 3rd.
Granted, the Eroica is less jarring in the morning than, say, the 5th, which is sort of like being shot out of a cannon and commanded to Emote Strongly. I don’t Emote all that Strongly in the middle of a good day after a full night’s sleep.
Needless to say, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep or anything like it. Greg’s second surgery was yesterday, and things did not go as well as they did the first time. There seems to be something else wrong with the eye besides the cataracts. Whatever it is is not supposed to screw this up perpetually, but it made the operation longer and it means that getting full function back in that eye will take a few extra days.
If I sound like I’m blithering here, it’s because I am. I don’t know enough about this stuff to produce a coherent explanation of it even for myself, never mind in print.
And I’m assured everything is going to be all right in the long run. I just don’t do “relax and wait for the long run” all that well.
We’ve got a follow up appointment in about an hour, and I will, I hope, know more after that.
But I’m sitting here listening to Beethoven, and that says something.
The good news is that, unless what I hear in an hour is very bad, there is sort of a short term end in sight–I’ve got the week-end, and all I have to do is watch America’s Next Top Model and read light mystery novels. I’m not even going to do Easter.
And maybe, when I’m less tired, I’ll be less cranky.
So, here I am, sitting in a classroom where I am giving an exam, meaning I have nothing to do for an hour and a half except sit here and let them ask me questions, which mostly they don’t do. I’m giving the exam today because Greg’s surgery is tomorrow, and I know I’m going to be distracted. Two weeks ago, on the day before the first surgery, I had a hard time concentrating in class, so I thought that since I had to give this test anyway, I’d do it today. If I’m distracted, nobody knows but me.
And you, if you’re reading this.
But I’m not so much distracted as tired. We buried my mother yesterday, with a short Greek Orthodox service at the gravesite, on Tuesday of the Greek Orthodox holy week. It was cold and wet and dismal in general, and made even more so by the fact that I had to see a lot of people I didn’t want to see, and would be happy never to see again as long as I live.
On top of that, I had a really odd reaction. It turns out that my niece and nephews, my brother’s children, have been going down to Florida and stopping in on my mother for years, and some of my cousins from her side of the family as well, without ever telling me anything about it. They’ve also been trying to contact her guardian (he wouldn’t talk to them) and her medical people (they wouldn’t talk to them either) to get information about…well, everything.
And part of me thinks that this was of course well meant, and that it did my mother good to have visitors on occassion (true)–but my gut reaction to all this is to be absolutely furious. I am not sure I have rational reasons for the fury. Part of it is the fact that some of these people didn’t like her at all, and said so–and unlike me, who didn’t get along with my mother either, can’t claim being her child as a reason to feel they had a right to her.
Some of it is a reaction to the reality of what happened after my brother’s divorce, when neither his children nor his wife got in touch with my family for eight solid years. During that period of time, my father died and my mother sank so deep into dementia that she no longer recognized anybody. Then suddenly, all this, bustling around, going to look at the house my father built to see if it had been sold, trying to find out…oh, damn. On and on and on.
And, okay, part of it is my sneaking suspicion that for some of these people, the sudden interest is mostly about my mother’s money, which, given Florida law, passes equally to me and to my brother’s heirs.
But mostly it’s just the effrontery. She’s my mother. You can call me up and tell me you’ve been to see her.
All right, maybe I’m just being idiotic here.
But I’ve calmed down some, and now if I could calm down about the surgery, I’d be good.
Or maybe not.
I look at the two sides of my family and I’m just flabbergasted. On my father’s side, it’s full of sane people, albeit sane people who are workaholics with a mania for becoming overeducated. On my mother’s side, the atmosphere is so poisonous, I find it hard to understand how they manage to get through the days without self-destructing. It’s like half of them have turned pettiness, jealousy and spite into Watchwords for Living, and the other half have accepted the flak because…I don’t know.
Ack. This is probably just me being wound up for the week.
The week-end will come, and I will cocoon for three days. I’m not even doing an Easter dinner this year, since Greg tires easily the first few days after he does these and we don’t want too much going on around him.
And I’ve got my cheerful book–At Bertram’s Hotel, one of my favorite Marples, found miraculously last week when I hadn’t seen it in a year.
There’s even an America’s Next Top Model marathon on Saturday.
Some days, I will admit, my mind just sort of wanders off. Right now, it has wandered off here:
I don’t actually know if you can get there by clicking on that, but what you should find, if you can, are images from Bodh Gaya, the Place of Enlightenment, in central India.
Bodh Gaya is, at least theoretically, the place in which the Buddha achieved wisdom. The tree he is supposed to have sat under while doing it is no longer there, but the tree that is in the same place is supposedly a direct descendent (via a cutting that went to Sri Lanka and then came back).
What interests me about this place is not the tree, however, but the temple, that enormous pyramidal thing with the intricate carvings all over the outside of it.
I have a rather complicated mental relationship with the arts of India, and especially the Hindu and Buddhist arts. The Islamic stuff is largely what you’d expect if you’ve seen Islamic architecture in other places.
What came out of Hinduism and Buddhism is a lot more complicated, and I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of the day trying to figure out why.
First, a disclaimer: I am not an admirer of Hindu painting or sculpture. Too much of it is primitive in a technical sense–it lacks sophistication in the best sense.
This is obviously not a matter of “development” or evolution over time. The French cave paintings are more sophisticated than most Hindu statues or paintings of, say, Ganesh. They are more finely detailed, more realistic, more compelling in almost every way.
Hindu and Buddhist architecture, however, is something truly astonishing. And it gets more astonishing the longer you look and it, and the more you think about it.
The Hindu temples, at least, make a certain amount of sense to me. There is so much elaboration here, and so much ornamentation. Every surface is carved, and the carvings are elaborate and repetitive and varied all at the same time.
And that is what Hinduism is like as a religion, at least as it is viewed from the outside. There are gods everywhere, except that they aren’t really gods, they’re all avatars of the one great god.
Hinduism always seemed to me to be an expression of the multifareousness of the world, and Hindu temples are like that, filled with realities and imaginings and the products of both, procreating.
But Buddhism, as I’ve always understood it, is supposed to be a very different thing. It claims that life as we see it is an illusion, and that wisdom (and peace) come from understanding that and detaching ourselves from the chains of the particular.
Well, go back and look at that temple for a moment. It’s one of the busiest pieces of architecture ever created. Every inch of it is carved, inside and out. There are forms upon forms, endless different kinds of forms, moving up and down and back and forth, in repeating shapes and evolving shapes, going everywhere, doing everything, never resting, even for a split second.
I have a vague understanding, at least, of how Christianity in its Medieval phase was a set of ideas that produced the Gothic in architecture. I know a little about the theory of drawing the eye upward to God, and expressing the majesty of God, and encouraging interior silence in order to hear the voice of God.
And probably my confusion about this temple, and the many others like it, comes from the fact that I know so little about Buddhism.
But I still find myself endlessly puzzled about how you get from a religion of denial–denial of self, and of the world, and of individuality, and of multiplicity–and end up in these elaborate places.
But I like looking at them.
I was in India many years ago, in Kolkata for a while, and in New Delhi. I took a train across most of the country from the Pakistan border back in the days when a young woman could do that without getting acid thrown in her face.
I never saw Bodh Gaya, but temples like it–if less spectacular–are dotted across India, and I did see some of those.
I could get lost in those place for days and never notice the time.
But I would like to understand what it is in Buddhism that inspired them, since they are temples, after all.
All this week end, I ‘ve been having one of those periods when I wake up in full remembrance of Very Odd Dreams. Sometimes I wake up three or four times a night, always to be faced with sorting out what is real and what is not.
These are not necessarily bad dreams. And, to the extent that dreams are only bad if they make you feel bad while you’re dreaming, they haven’t been bad dreams at all.
I had one where I made it to my mother’s funeral–set for this Tuesday, finally–and started worrying about what had happened to my father, because, since he wasn’t dead yet, I was going to have to locate him before the service was over.
Of course, my father has been dead since 2006, but it took me a good couple of minutes after waking up to remember that, and stop the mental mechinations about what to do next.
I had another dream about a little section of my upstairs bathroom floor suddenly being made of an entirely different material than the rest of the floor and then falling off–and that one was oddly comforting, because all I could think of was that since it was only this part of the floor with the different wood that broke off, the rest of the bathroom was probably safe.
The next one I remember with any clarity had to do with interviewing Christopher Reeve, in his wheelchair but without the physical disabilities that went with it. He took pictures of me in the process–or had somebody else take them, since he was in them–and he gave me one where I was leaping through the air like a dancer in Swan Lake while wearing this little black and white house dress thing I sometimes put on when I’m entirely alone.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks dreams tell us something serious about ourselves, these are going to be disappointing. I can see where the one about my mother’s funeral actually taps into my day to day anxieties, but the other two are just odd for the sake of being odd, at least as far as I know.
All of this should be leading up to something, but I’m not sure what. It’s Sunday. My usual “take the week-end to cool off so you can think” mode isn’t working. Sometimes my brain just goes into overdrive and there’s nothing I can do to stop it except get somebody to hit me with a two by four, which they are oddly reluctant to do.
And there’s no America’s Next Top Model marathon on Oxygen, either. There was one yesterday, but it’s of the cycle I like the least, and I didn’t bother.
What’s worse, I have this terribly distinct feeling that I got a lot accomplished yesterday, but I’m just not sure what.
I mean, really, if I’m going to run myself ragged doing stuff, the least I owe myself is remembering what it was.
But if I’m going to be this floaty about whatever and everything, I might as well throw out two things I’ve been thinking about that I don’t really know yet how to finish, and we’ll see where they go.
First is this–I think we do our federal budgets backwards.
Instead of starting with what we’ve got and seeing what we can cut–either really cut (as in make less than last year) or fake-cut (as in make less than we wished for this year)–what we should do is throw everything out, make a list of the core functions of government that we must deal with, fund those, and then figure out what we can and want to afford from the wish list.
I am not, of course, unaware that the real problem here would be determining what amounts to the core functions of government, but for me they would comprise those things without which we could not have a government at all.
That would, on the federal level of the United States, include things like Congress, the Presidency and the Federal courts, the military, various policing operations (FBI, CIA, parks service rangers, air traffic controllers, the SEC), and keeping the stuff maintained (repairing buildings, roads, dams, etc).
It would not include “social programs,” because we did exist as a country–and many countries exist even now, without them.
If we want them, we can add them in phase two, after phase one had been taken care of.
And, in fact, we are going to want them–or some of them, at any rate. We’re going to want Social Security and Medicare, certainly.
The point would not be to eliminate social programs, but to: a) drill it home that such programs are the luxuries of a rich society and b) get us to have a conversation about what of such programs we actually want to have.
This ought to get rid of the thousands of tiny programs that exist mostly because some Congressman somewhere wanted to say he’d brought something home to his district, and that eat up tiny but accumulating amounts of money in staff and material.
And that, almost always, end up alienating more members of the public than benefiting any.
Trust me, the Tea Party is going to like the federal government a lot more when it’s not hectoring them about their weight and telling them they can’t have a cigarette in their favorite bar after work.
Of course, to really put an end to this kind of divisiveness, we’d have to go back to letting states and municipalities make their own rules about the way they want to live, but that’s for another discussion.
Second–what always bothers me in discussions about the progressive income tax, or “taxing the wealthy,” or whatever, is that they entirely leave out any consideration of a necessary consequence of such taxes, and that consequence is very important.
The consequence is this: if I place very high marginal tax rates on upper level incomes, what I essentially do is to privilege those people who already have money against those who do not.
Look at it like this: let’s say John and Stephen both earn $100,000 a year at Megacorp Financial. John’s family was lower middle class when he was growing up. He’s got a ton of college loans and other debt, and no working capital at all. If he’s careful, he’ll be able to build it up over time. In the meantime, he puts aside a down payment and takes on a hefty mortgage, and generally struggles along to get himself going.
Stephen, on the other hand, came from a rich family. He has no college loans, because his father was able to write a check. He didn’t sweat his down payment, either, because his grandparents left him a five figure trust fund he could tap as soon as he wanted to buy a house.
What a high marginal tax rate does is insure that John will never catch up to Stephen–even if Stephen does less well at work over time. A high marginal class rate protects Stephen’s upper class standing from challenges from people like John.
Before you start saying that today’s rich aren’t happy with those marginal rates–no, they’re not, but the upper 1% of American wealth at the moment is almost 60% self-made. They are, in fact, exactly the people who ought to be antagonistic to such rates.
Back in the Fifties, I grew up among other people–the 1% of their time, they might privately complain about high tax rates, but they did absolutely nothing to actively advocate them. They knew that those rates–along with metatastizing regulations that automatically privilege existing large corporations over upstart smaller ones–were almost all that was keeping their half baked children in the social class to which they’d been born.
And if you don’t believe me, I’d like to point out that virtually none of the people who were in the 1% in my childhood are there now. And even those people who are there as heirs tend to be there as heirs to self made made–the Waltons, for instance, and the Krocs.
One of the things that makes it hard to talk about progressive taxation, though, is one of those “the two sides aren’t talking about the same thing” moments.
One side says that social programs do nothing to lift people out of poverty, and the other side says they do–but they’re using entirely different definitions of “poverty.”
The second side–the one that things social programs lift people out of poverty–defines “poverty” as “having all the stuff you need to live decently.”
The first side–the one that thinks social programs don’t–defines “poverty” as “being able to live decently by your own efforts without needing government support.”
And that’s why that discussion never goes anywhere.
I’m going to go wandering off and do something.