Marta's Journal

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30 june 2003

C has taken offense to my journal entry of 18 june 2003 and specifically to the sentence "He told me that everything was fine; what he waited to tell me (not wanting to spoil the New York trip) was that the scan shows three lesions on his liver, each about 3cm in size." He is of the belief that this implies that he lied to me.

Let me therefore make it clear that I did not mean to imply (and don't think I did imply) that C lied to me. C is not a liar. Nuts, yes, and borderline obsessive as a side-effect of the medication, and often coming this close to being dope-slapped, and periodically manic, and about as exasperating as a human being can become and still walk abroad on two legs, but as truthful, as a whole, as the day is long.

And damned lucky to have a patient wife. 


Endless complications 27 june 2003

We now learn that the (shudder) Tumor Board doesn't meet until next Monday, at which time C's case will be presented to him. So another week-end of nail-biting, but this time I think we have a definite timeframe, and that makes it somehow easier.

He's handling all this well, being wonderfully optimistic (they say that attitude makes a tremendous difference), and helping the Incomparable B tear the house apart in an effort to finish repainting same. Somehow, repainting the bathroom has turned into:

(a) removing the sink and vanity so that 
(b) the plumber could replace valves and pipes in the shower, and 
(c) we might as well get rid of the old medicine cabinet 
(d) and the mirrors, while we're at it, and 
(e) also the towel racks etc. 
(f) and replace everything with new stuff that 
(g) has to be 
     (i) installed, 
     (ii) hung, 
     (iii) screwed into place, 
     (iv) etc., which will happen either 
(h) after or possibly in some cases 
(i) before the bathroom gets 
(j) repainted. 
But when it's done it will be gawgeous. Just wait and see. And in the meantime, it helps to keep the mind busy and engaged, for which I am duly grateful. 

18 june 2003

C had his monthly appointment at UCSF on the 11th, while K and I were in New York. He also had a CT scan that day. He told me that everything was fine; what he waited to tell me (not wanting to spoil the New York trip) was that the scan shows three lesions on his liver, each about 3cm in size. His doctor is going to present his case to the Tumor Board (horrible name, but it's a group of 12 specialists) when they next meet, on Monday or Tuesday, and let us know what they say. I am reminded that C's liver was in trouble before he started the Interferon-Riboviron treatment, so this news shouldn't shock me as much as it has. 

It's ridiculous to speculate. We'll know more on Tuesday, and more about our options. Maybe by then I will have stopped being so scared. 



17 june 2003

While waiting for K to wake up this morning, I went downstairs and bought a couple of cups of  coffee, and brought them back. K says that NYC coffee tastes "like ass." This phrase has startled me from the first time I heard it some time ago, because it conjures up an unpleasant mental image – but walking back from the coffeehouse, I replaced the word "ass" with "shit" and liked the phrase better, then laughed at myself. "Like shit" conjures just as nasty an image as "like ass" (if not nastier) but because I am so used to the phrase, I don't see the image any more. Which is, I think, the point of new "bad" phrases – they force us to collaborate by making us co-create an image that another, more common phrase can no longer invoke.

The shuttle picked us up at 11:00 am and flew out of Manhattan: we ended up spending hours waiting for the plane at La Guardia, to add to the hours spent in the company of what ATA thinks is an acceptable airline. SFO by 8:00 Pacific, home before 10:00. 

On the flight back, of the three on-board lavatories, the one up front wasn't working at all, and the sink was out of commission in one of the remaining two. The sound went out on the entire starboard side of the plane. We were in the air for seven million hours. The plane hit an airpocket just out of La Guardia and I had to self-medicate with a Screwdriver to stop hyperventilating (K told me I was nuts.)

The only flight I can remember as being worse than this, was a Freddie Laker special back in the 70s – Oakland to LA to Newark, a redeye on which the seats were jammed in together, the air blower didn't work, the over-seat light didn't work, the seat-back was frozen upright, and the tray table listed to one side. No food service, but we knew in advance about that. The guy next to me was an advance-man for a rock band and smoked doobies from coast to coast, so I just breathed deeply and ended up not minding the flight that much at all. ATA could have used some of that.

Barami, Studio Shoes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daffy's, Henri Bendel, Saks, Helmut Lang,  Bloomingdale's, Michel's Bags, numerous street vendors, the Intrepid, Rue 57, the Plaza, Patience & Fortitude, the lobby of the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station. Cabaret, Chicago, Frieda (these last two on t.v. – I want to live in the house Kahlo grew up in).  Edward Whittemore's Sinai Tapestry, Alain deBotton's The Art of Travel, Hilary Clinton's Living History, Martha, Inc. by Christopher Byron. 

Glad to be home. 



A12 Blackbird
16 june 2003

A late start, then off to the Air & Sea Museum on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, so that K could faunch over the A12 Blackbird, mach 3.5, crossed the US in an hour. K was disappointed that she couldn't see (let alone sit) inside it. Then back to pack, and dinner at a Thai restaurant (New Yorkers have a strange, strange idea of what "hot and spicy" is supposed to mean. Here's a clue, guys: It doesn't mean that one ingredient was, at some point in history, in the same building as a chili pepper -- but they are forgiven because we ate more soft-shelled crab), and some last-minute shopping. I'm amazed that I was able to pack everything into the luggage that we came with. 



 

Patience. Or maybe Fortitude

15 june 2003

Brunch at the Plaza with D, two hours of nibbling and talking and nibbling more. K was served her first public illegal alcohol – a mimosa and a glass of champagne – and I remembered that my son also had his first public illegal drink in D's cosmopolitan company. After brunch, D napped while K checked her email and I caught up on teaching duties, then K and I walked down 6th through a street fair, headed for Lexington with a stop at the public library to introduce K to Patience and Fortitude, dinner at La Mangianette for pretty good Italian food. I'm convinced that the table next to ours was occupied by a commingled group of Italian and Mexican Mafiosi – much Italian, much Spanish, continuous cell-phone calls, much waving-about of bundles of $100 bills. K wore her Jean-Paul Gaultier suit and turned heads all over midtown.



14 june 2003

The Met, for an exhibit of designer fashions based on Greek clothes, and a stroll through the European gallery (I'd forgotten how much the early Renaissance painters loved to paint the Virgin's tits). Bloomingdale's on Saturday – a nightmare. Daffy's again. Rain coming down so hard it bounced up from the pavement and got us from below. Shoe shopping. Chinese dinner (ordered spicy, got well-flavored but very, very mild.). Movie in our hotel room (Chicago – same time frame as Cabaret, entirely different experience). 
 

Dior - Galliano

1924 BMT subway map 13 june 2003

Lunch down in Chelsea with my old friend JH. We took the subway downtown – I hadn't been on the subway for at least 25 years so my memories were of dirt, grunge, drunks, danger, graffiti, piles of garbage, and the stench of piss. All this is apparently long gone: the stations and cars were well lit, clean, and patrolled. Luckily, on the ride back we did encounter one old drunk who cursed K when she couldn't tell him the name of the upcoming stop: as she said, it's not a real NYC subway ride without at least one abusive old drunk aboard. It may be a Manhattan regulation. 

It was great seeing JH again, in whose company we had our best cup of New York coffee (K was right – most of the coffee we drank there tasted sour) and good food. We found a Helmut Lang sale of samples, and cruised some of the trendy designer shops in the area, so K was happy. At dinner that night, in a Japanese restaurant on Lex just down from the Chrysler building,  we had soft-shelled crabs, and found successful shopping before and after, so all in all another successful day. 



12 june 2003

Back to the Internet café to take care of my teaching obligations, then up and down 5th Avenue, in and out of Saks and Henri Bendel (where a makeup person put stuff on my face, and I liked it). Ended the evening at Studio 54 (many pre-show coke jokes in the audience) for a production of Cabaret. My son had suggested that instead of getting mediocre seats for a few productions, we blow the entire wad on excellent seats for one, and further suggested Cabaret. It was very fine advice. The orchestra is set up with small tables and they offer food and beverage service, so that the audience becomes part of the cabaret itself. We shared this section with, among others, a group that I decided was the Associated Chevy Dealers of Flummox, Iowa, here in the big city for their annual Big Event. They were very jolly and convivial before the show, somewhat subdued during intermission, and filed out silently at the end (although they all performed the obligatory Standing Ovation, which seems to great every stage effort these days – ovation inflation). 

We came out of the theatre into a pounding thunderstorm and took refuge in a restaurant on Broadway. The storm hadn't let up by the time we left and, of course, there were no free cabs in sight, but we were rescued by a man in a pedicab, who tucked us inside his cab, used binder-clips to cover the open front with clear plastic, and brought us back to the hotel via a series of hair-raising maneuvers. Visibility wasn't that great, but I'm pretty sure we ran at least one red light, and I know we wove through a zillion taxis and busses, him pedaling away with his shirt plastered to his body, K and I whooping it up behind the plastic sheet. It was great – the high point of the trip for me and worth every exhorbitant penny. 



11 june 2003

This begins our walking and shopping tour of Manhattan, and my search for reliable Internet access.  We've been paying ten bucks a month for years, for AT&T Worldcom dial-up access, but it refused to let me on and their tech help department refused to help because our subscription was a cheap one, but they did give me a number where I could get help at $17 a pop. Never mind – we found an Internet café that was cheaper and served decent coffee.

Late afternoon coffee with Alex and Andre from Gotham Writers Workshop: articulate, intelligent, funny. 

We had been directed to a store called Daffy's at 57th & Lex, where K found a bunch of good stuff and I found a Bill Blass suit for $80.00. If there's something wrong with it, I haven't discovered it. Then dinner with our dear friend D who has lived in Midtown since forever. She's in her mid-80s now and slowing down a bit, but at dinner that night she tried sushi for the first time, and decided that if I was having something called a "Campari and soda" that she would too, and liked all of it.

Before she retired D sold expensive apartments in Manhattan, to people like Luciano Pavarotti and the Nixon daughters. She tells a wonderful story about watching Dick Nixon put his hand up a chimney to see if the flue worked, then absentmindedly wiping his hand across his forehead. She got up the courage to tell the ex-President that he had soot on his face; as he rubbed it off he said to her, "I've done it again, haven't I?"



10 june 2003

America Trans Air (aka ATA) to New York for a week's vacation with K. Never, never, never take this airline. Ever. Even if the alternative is walking. The flight is over 7 hours, with a brief layover in Indianapolis. Despite the length of the flight they don't feed you and they don't tell you in advance that they don't feed you. Luckily I had a small stash of energy bars in my carry-on, and we were able to sample fine Indiana cuisine at the airport: hamburgers, greasy fries, and a counter-girl (term used advisedly) who stood by the cook to cough and sneeze and complain about how she was coming down with a cold.

ATA uses 737-800s. These planes are about the size of my desk, with 3x3 seating, which means that even for someone like my size-4 daughter, the seats were tight.  I had requested a window seat for K, but it turns out that on the 737, the window at row 10, port side, doesn't exist. Nothing. Zero. You expect a window and you get ... zilch. Sort of like a Ken doll. If you go to the website and look at the little outline of the plane with all the seats marked, it doesn't tell you about Ken doll row 10. Or Ken doll row 12. 

There are two legs to this flight: SFO-Indianapolis and Indianapolis-La Guardia. The in-flight entertainment on each of these legs is identical: a handful of music videos (starting with Disney and going down hill from there); a couple of sitcom episodes, a couple of drama-show episodes, and the safety video again, in case you missed it the first time. 

Because the tickets are cheap, the flight is full of what a friend (kinder than I) called "amateur travelers." Screaming children, mostly, and parents who have no idea what to do about it. I considered taking over the PA system to yell "Give them gum! Nurse the babies! Do something to equalize their ear pressure and they'll stop screaming!" But then I probably would have been thought a hijacker, wrestled to the ground, and had to spend the rest of my life in jail in Indianapolis scraping cough-spittle off greasy hamburgers.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

2 june 2003

Filoli. Hmmm. Well. Filoli. 

Went there on Saturday with two friends, N & M. It's a long ride; most of my long rides are done alone, so it was a pleasure to be in good company as the miles rolled by (about 71 miles each way -- it's down in Woodside, in the broad canyon created by the San Andreas Fault). It's a great ride, too: down through Marin County's rounded and wooded hillsides, along the skirts of Mt. Tamalpais, over the hill above Sausalito and across the Golden Gate Bridge. N taught me a new way through the city to Park Presidio, which involves going through the Presidio itself to 25th Avenue (a ride full of trees and sunlight and bicyclists and spectacular views); then out 19th and past S.F. State, my old alma mater; onto the Junipero Serra freeway and along the spine of the Peninsula, mostly paralleling the San Andreas and the series of bright reservoir-lakes that sit along its top. 

Filoli is a Stately Home and a bunch of Stately Gardens, "built [starting in 1915] for Mr. and Mrs. Bourn, prominent San Franciscans whose chief source of wealth was the Empire Mine, a hard-rock gold mine in Grass Valley, California. Mr. Bourn ... arrived at the unusual name Filoli by combining the first two letters from the key words of his credo: ‘Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.'" (Thus the website, Filoli.org

It's pretty damned stately, the house is, what they let you see of it: the servants wing and the entire second floor is off-limits, so what you can see is limited to the humongous public rooms and a few smaller (size being, after all, relative) "family" rooms like the library and the smoking room. You do get to see the kitchen, which is about as close to gritty reality as the place gets -- the kitchen is actually a series of rooms and includes the tremendous built-in full-room-size safe where the silver is kept. 

The house was lived in by the Bourns until 1936 when they both died (cause unspecified) and the estate was bought by the Roth family, who owned (inter alia) the Matson shipping lines. Mrs. Roth was interested in gardening and maintained the formal gardens (all 16 acres of them; the estate lands total 654 acres). Upon her death in 1975, the place was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust has undertaken to furnish the place as the Bournes or Roths would have furnished it: lots of antiques tastefully set out, the original room treatments restored as much as possible, everything carefully coordinated, everything very formal. 

I hated it, at least the house part. There were perhaps two or three bits of art that I would have given house-space to, but for the most part the place just shrieked "money money money money money." 

Well, so does San Simeon, aka Hearst Castle, which I didn't dislike half so much as I disliked the Filoli house. I've been thinking about that: Filoli is to San Simeon as a roadside attraction is to Disneyland. If Filoli shrieks "money," then San Simeon hires a 76-piece brass band, with amplifiers, and parades through downtown at noon. If Filoli reflects the kind of "tasteful" decoration that the moneyed matrons of New Yorker cartoons would appreciate, then San Simeon was decorated by Unca Scrooge McDuck. 

And that's it, I think -- there is a tasteless, gimme gimme gimme exuberance to San Simeon, an over-the-top, over-the-edge, teetering-on-the-brink-of-insanity, glory of sheer excess to Hearst's castle that Filoli, with its prim corners and precisely placed furniture and moralistic name, simply can't approach. There's no energy to Filoli, just rigidity and a sense that somebody, somewhere, was paying waaaay too much attention to the Proper Tasteful Way of Being Rich and Powerful. I can't imagine anyone laughing aloud while staying at Filoli, but I can imagine the guests at San Simeon roaring with emotions of all sorts, and sliding down the bannisters. 

The gardens are beautiful, the plants themselves providing a sense of freedom within exacting order that the house entirely lacks. The docents inside (a collection of pleasant, doddering folk) are friendly and knowledgable, but the only docent I spotted outside was a frantic woman who screamed that we should get off the grass, and was entirely unable to identify a tree for us (a dogwood, I think it was). The cafe provided a fairly tasteless quiche and an equally bland gumbo at a charge in excess of their value; the Garden Shop was filled with pretty gardening doo-dads and cute aprons and reeked of potpourri, and the plants for sale were wildly overpriced. 

Go. It's a great example of how the nouveau-very-rich believed they should live, especially if they lacked a sense of humor.


K 20 may 2003

Today my youngest, my bright, level-headed, kind, and beautiful daughter, turns 18 -- or, as she puts it, she can now vote and buy porn legally. 

Happy birthday, K. I’m immensely proud of you, of who you have been, and are, and are becoming. I could not have ordered up a better daughter had I been able to work from a “Great Person” catalog; I’m curious and eager to see how you shape your life, and very happy to be a part of it. 

All my love, 
Mom 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Emperor Penguin

18 may 2003

I've been reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. In it, Cherry-Garrard describes Robert Falcon Scott's last, fatal try to be the first to reach the South Pole (Roald Amundsen beat him by 35 days). Cherry was the youngest of the expedition's members and almost wasn't taken because his eyesight was so bad. But take him they did, finding in him a cheerful and willing worker both on the long, difficult voyage down, and during the years spent in Antarctica. 

During their first winter, the party determined to gather eggs from Emperor penguins. The Emperor is the largest of the penguins and breeds only during the Antarctic winter: they build no nests, instead resting the eggs on the feet of the male penguin (the Scott party didn't know that it was the males who did the incubation) on the ice, in the dead of winter. Scientists believed that a study of Emperor embryology would yield data about the moment when scales, in the reptile ancestors of birds, became feathers. The only Emperor rookery known to the men was at the far side of Ross Island, on which they were camped, where the sea ice met the slopes of Mount Terror. So three men set out to cross Ross Island at the end of June 1911, in the heart of the winter. Cherry was one of them. 

It was dark all the time, except when there were no fogs or blizzards and the moon came through, but this happened rarely. They hauled two sledges carrying 757 pounds of food and gear; often they could not haul both sledges at the same time, so hauled one for a while, then came back and hauled the other. Some days they made a mile and a half by covering four and a half miles; other days they made three miles by covering six. The temperature started at -47° and went down from there, warming up only during blizzards. At times it dipped below -70°. Straps and lines and buckles had to be managed by hand, but an unprotected touch raised huge blisters along the lengths of the fingers, which filled with liquid and then the liquid froze. It took half an hour or more each night just to get into the sleeping bags, prying them open, inserting a bit of oneself, waiting for the bag to defrost a little, then pushing more of oneself into the bag. Cherry describes night after night of sleeplessness, shaking so hard with the cold that he thought his back would snap. Their body heat was enough to melt the ice but not to disperse it; they lay in their bags in ice water, and at the start of each day's march they had to bend their bodies into the shape needed to pull the sledges, before their clothes froze them in a less useful position. It was so cold that Cherry couldn't wear his glasses, and stumbled along blinded by dark, snow, and near-sightedness. By the end of June there was enough light at midday to see some of the crevasses into which they would periodically fall, to be hauled back up by the others. They were often lost. When they reached the nearest point to the Penguin rookery, they built a hut which was torn apart in a hurricane that nearly killed them all: Cherry reports thinking that he could easily and happily die, were he assured that the process would not be too painful. He did not, of course, discuss this with his mates. 

They secured five penguin eggs, of which three broke. They put themselves at risk to help each other out; they suffered unimaginably, and did not complain. They sang when they could. They made it back. 

As we began to gather our gear together to pack up for the last time, Bill [Wilson, the team leader] said quietly, "I want to thank you two for what you have done. I couldn't have found two better companions – and what is more, I never shall." 

I am proud of that.

No more whining.


16 may 2003

"You know, Mr. Hemingway, in chapter 13 you mention a horse, and I think that this would make a great three-book series about this guy and his horse, and if he -- the guy, I mean, not the horse -- if he wore a ten-gallon hat we could sell it as a Western. I mean, you've really aborted your story with all this business about the war and fishing and stuff, because you don't follow through about the horse. Now as I see it, his horse is really a great racehorse except that nobody knows it yet ... " 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

poppies
 
 
 
 
 

 

11 may 2003

Driving north along Highway 1, the coast road, is like driving back in time by a few weeks. Near Bodega Bay the road is thick with tourists and although the hills are still green (unlike slightly inland, where brown patches are already crawling down the slopes) the wildflowers are fading. But as I drove north, up to the mouth of the Russian River and toward Fort Ross, the hills become festooned with bright orange California poppies, yellow wild mustard, blue or yellow lupines (the blues interdigitated with white and held on waving bushes; the little yellows just visible in the roadside grasses). I passed one entire slope of Indian Paintbrush, blood red, draped like a length of cloth over the Pacific cliffs. The wild grasses are mature enough to have pale seed heads but are still green in the stalk, and as the wind blew through them they moved in waves along the hills, a sheen of silver over the green. 

Past Fort Ross, the landscape seems more North Coast to me, the fields of grass and wildflowers giving way to stands of trees and, in the more protected hollows, short redwoods (a short redwood is 40 feet high or so, unlike their taller and more northern sisters). The road runs inland here, but the coast itself, when the road comes down to it, is still a series of tall headlands falling into surf-breaking hunks of rock; between the headlands are small rocky beaches which only those of good spirit and good knees should attempt to reach. The Pacific was, today, a collection of improbable blues, from a steel-dark near the horizon through every shade of blue and aquamarine near the coast; decorated with small whitecaps, frothing around the foot of the rocks and cliffs. Where the Russian River comes into the ocean the water is a creamy blue-brown before merging into the aquamarines. The road swings and turns, cliff to one side and either rock or meadow to the other, the steering wheel smooth between my palms and the scented breeze, just slightly cool, blowing through the open windows. 

The crawling tourists were mostly gone by the time I passed Jenner and entirely gone by the time I reached Timber Cove. A few miles later I turned the car around and came back, but couldn’t stand the idea of creeping through the traffic (every car seemed to have a tiny, white-haired woman in the passenger seat, being taken out for a yearly airing at 14 miles per hour), so came inland at the mouth of the Russian River to the Bohemian Highway, and followed that through Occidental, thence to Sebastopol where the creeping tourists caught up with me and poured slugs over the road. So off 116 at Bloomfield Road and through the back country until I reached Bodega Avenue again, and then back into Petaluma. 

Newborn calves and colts. Baby lambs white and black and brown, wobbling in the meadows. More Jerseys than I remember seeing before, scattered among the herds of Holsteins (which produce more milk, but less rich milk than Jerseys do). Scotch broom blooming over the hillsides, advertising its triumph over the lovelier native ceanothus, with their cascades of blue flowers. But there’s the problem, you see: native plants have slotted into the ecological landscape, finding their own level in the balance between enemies and friends. The newcomers have no stake in the landscape, few if any enemies, and muscle their way in, pushing aside the natives. Scotch broom is bright and brash, and taking over even faster than is the cursed pampas grass. 

A few more housing developments (hiss) and a few less stands of eucalyptus. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Blue gum eucalyptus are definitely not natives but grow fast and used to be planted in bulk as windbreaks. They burn easily and shed with the enthusiasm of a mangy dog. And their silhouette is all wrong for the California hills. The hills are rounded and mounded and sinuous, like the native oaks and walnuts that grow on them, but the blue gums are tall and upright and messy, like Burt’s hair. They are stupid looking trees. But they are trees, and trees are preferable to yet another outbreak of builded acne on the face of the county. 

But the wildflowers are in bloom along the coast, as they are every year. The scotch broom has not yet reached the cliffs above the Pacific, nor has much of the junk-house disease (bless the California Coastal Conservancy and the State Parks system). 

That makes up for a lot. 



9 may 2003

A recent walk through the local Walden Books (the only bookstore close to the office in downtown Oakland, with the exception of deLauer's News Stand with its racks upon racks of strange magazines and shelf after shelf of evanescent mass market paperbacks and shoulder upon hip of strange people who don't smell good) ... as I was saying, a walk through Walden Books brought me to the table where they push a tasteful selection of remaindered books. It reminded me of one of my favorite of all poems: Clive James' The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered. A delight -- follow the link and enjoy. 



8 may 2003

It's a Brassia. The orchid, I mean. Aka "Spider Orchid" which seems appropriate. I think its Brassia Brassanova. No snide remarks, please. 

My feeling that April was a miserable rainy month was more than just me being grumpy, it turns out. Normal rainfall for April here is 1.67 inches: this April we got 4.76 inches. More rain forecast for this afternoon. My head hurts. Back to bed. 


Media Rant 7 may 2003

K, I got to thinking this morning, on the drive in, about the paper you are writing about the effects of media and of celebrity-worship. There must be something very powerful behind the thing that, for example, drives women to starve themselves in order to resemble gaunt mannequins, or to hate themselves because they cannot attain the impossibly air-brushed perfection of super-models. 

So here's what I came up with. As usual, it's a three-hour answer to a two-minute question, but I hope it gives you something to think about and helps your essay. 

We start with the idea that a culture's values are expressed through its public literature and art -- that is, through popular entertainment. For the sake of argument, we'll define "popular entertainment" as entertainment that appeals to the majority of the people in a given society, embodied in stories, music, theatre, art. 

Historically, popular entertainment has expressed & supported culturally approved values or lessons: patriotism, family, religion, history. The lessons, in turn, represent individual virtues that are seen as promoting the strength and continuation of the society, so that (for example) the idea of the importance of family includes loyalty, honesty, self-sacrifice, courage, etc. These are core values, the building-blocks of the society as a whole. 

These lessons are generally wrapped in forms that appeal to the human fascination with story values: so (for example) there are plenty of stories that discuss battles (Beowulf, the Iliad); murder (the Orestaia, MacBeth, folk songs like Barbara Allan); betrayal (the Judas story, Othello); adventure (Sinbad, the Odyssey). Such stories serve both to excite the popular imagination (guaranteeing that people pay attention to them) and to inculcate core values. 

The expressions were also filtered through both popular acceptance and the approval of the society's formal structures: that is, they became part of the religion or mythos of the culture (for example, church rites), they were approved by the government (state-sponsored celebrations of historic victories), they appealed to a version of history or culture shared by the society (in other words, they escaped cultural censorship and attained the nod of approval). For better or worse, they were woven into the fabric of the culture and used story values to capture their audience. 

The medium of television (and to a certain extent of radio) changed all that by short-cutting through the larger cultural filters and narrowing them to express one predominant value: who will pay for the technology it takes to bring these stories to the society. In some structures, the paying party is the government (the BBC in England, for example). In others, the listeners or viewers directly sponsor the technology in return for a promise of non-commerciality (PBS, except that this promise is disintegrating under the force of economic pressure and the insistence of commercial sponsors). In the U.S., generally, the sponsoring parties are private companies: the quid pro quo for their money is the chance to beam their message directly to the members of the society. That is (and this is at the heart of this rant): advertisements. 

For the most part, advertisements are aired with almost no cultural supervision. There have been laws seeking to curtail the most egregious of commercial blandishments as defined by the society -- for example, blatant representations of sex or advertisements for tobacco hard liquor have at various times been banned by the government -- but these restraints are either disappearing or being crippled (think about the perfume ad showing a man undressing a woman, or the "pro-sobriety" whiskey ad that shows liquor being poured (in loving and lascivious detail) over ice while purporting to tell viewers that they shouldn't take advantage of what is being so enticingly portrayed). For the most part, though, there is little control over the sub-text (the message below the message) of advertisements. 

What, then, is the subtext of commercial media, and how is it different from the "cultural values" expressed in, say, the Old Testament or Gilgamesh or etc? 

Humans are clumping animals: we get on as a species by forming alliances with other humans for protection and progress. Because we are clumping animals, we tend to be very vulnerable to suggestions that we are not like the others; as the Chinese put it, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Conformity is a survival tool; because of this, the urge toward conformity is very powerful. 

Previous to the world of electronic media, the values expressed in popular culture were those that encouraged individuals to be together in some schema that promoted the society generally: don't be a coward, don't betray your family or clan, don't kill others of your kind, don't break the rules. However, there's not a lot of money to be made from promoting courage or loyalty or trust, hence there's not a lot of incentive for commercial sponsors to look to those values in order to make their messages stronger. 

Strip away the cultural values from the strong message of conformity, and you are left with the stick that emphasizes the carrot: "There's something wrong with you. You are outside of the group." What defines the group? The answer, in the world of modern commercial television, is: the values that commercial sponsors, using the human requirement for story, sub-text, and inclusion, decide will garner them the most profits in return for their sponsorship of the media. 

The message of commercial television is: "there is something wrong with you but you can be saved. You can be saved if you will change yourself to become part of the group as it is defined by the commercial media. Remember that the commercial media is driven by the need to make the greatest amount of profit from the largest number of people, and the biggest profit is to be made from convincing people that they must change into something that they can never hope to attain, so that they will keep buying more and more in an effort to attain it. Be impossibly slender, with perfect teeth and skin and hair: Our product will make you so. If it doesn't work, then try more of it, or a different product -- but you must try something because otherwise, you're outside of the group. 

The whole thing is, at bottom, built not on cultural values that promote the health of the society in general, as in the old media (stories, songs, art). The whole thing is, at bottom, built on barely restrained greed. We are being told that we stick out from the group and hence are unlikely to survive because somebody wants to sell us something. We are being told, subtly, that we will never fit in with the group, because there is no end to greed. 

Your own research has brought up statistics showing that television, just as a medium itself and regardless of what is broadcast, tends to mainline passivity and belief into viewers: it is a hypnotic medium. Couple that with the greed of advertising, and it's no surprise that we live in a culture in which people in general, and women in particular, are taught to loathe themselves to the point of injury. 

Kill your television. 


Orchid 6 may 2003

C gave me an orchid for my birthday -- an orchid plant, that is. This is my first orchid, so of course I am eager to find out what it is and how to care for it, but it came with no identification and, C tells me, the woman at the florist's shop didn't have a clue. So I pulled out the Sunset Garden Book -- no luck. I went on-line -- no luck. Turns out that the species is just huge and there are hybrids to beat the band. So far, I've determined that this one has a sympodial growth pattern, but cannot otherwise determine whether this is a hot-humid orchid or a medium-temperature orchid or a cool temperature orchid (although I think not) or what. I have done what any right-thinking bibliophile would do at this juncture: I have Ordered a Book.

Whatever it is, it is beautiful. And if I can't find a name for it, it means I get to name it myself, right? 

The bidding is currently open.

Orchd 2



3 may 2003

This is the kind of week it has been: on Friday, I was afraid to look at the newspaper for fear it would tell me that it wasn't Friday, but Thursday say, or (worse) Tuesday. One of those days that go on for a week, ending a week that went on for a month. 

This despite some high points. A new permanent (we hope) secretary/receptionist started on Thursday. She's a pro with a decade's experience in law offices and a willingness to learn, so after the training period is over, I'm hoping that my work load cools down a little. Trying to do all of my job and three-quarters of the secretary's job all the time was ... tiring, despite some very good temporary help. Except for the OCD lady, who scared us. Nice lady, but strange. 

Had a long talk with a prospective agent about Mapping Winter this week. She said many good things, among them: not genre, textured, complex, Umberto Eco. Of course I lapped this up. Things now progress, with the glacial slowness that has become normal for this book, to the next stage, which is – who knows? Bulletins as events warrant. 

Ellery Queen's bounced my short mystery story, "Gophers." They'll be sorry when it is published to huge fanfare and made into a movie starring expensive actors. In the meantime, more eyetracks on it, and off to Zoetrope

C's side-effects have become pretty awful this week. He says it feels like the kind of tharn anxiety he went through last January, except that this time he's not fighting it. But it is a disappointment, after the two splendid (well, by comparison) weeks after the good news of April 1. 

K continues to tear through schoolwork. We've been too busy to make further New York plans, aside from suffering disappointment that we'll miss Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. That's okay, though. We are cool with planlessness, but are anxious to be off. Is it time to leave yet? No? Damn. Back to work.