Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Oh look, it’s 2014. The future has arrived! Happy New Year. Yay. Last week it was 27 degrees below zero around here, and the past month has furnished a graphic demonstration of why they stopped insulating houses with horse hair. Unfortunately they didn’t stop until a few decades after our house was built in the 1860s. On the bright side, the refrigerator rarely comes on.
Sorry about November. I foolishly accepted an invitation to be the Guest of Honor at some hinky Wodenfest up in the UP, and ended up fleeing from bio-engineered dire wolves chasing me across a frozen hellscape of burnt-out strip malls and abandoned Bitcoin mines. I finally took refuge under the old abandoned UMich campus in a cave occupied by a clan of elderly, un-tenured and very disgruntled adjunct profs who lent a new dimension to “bitter cold.”
Yeah, that’s all I’m gonna say about November. Dreadful month. Always. It’s pure twisted genius that they put Thanksgiving near the end of a month consisting entirely of endless bleak, gloomy days punctuated by icy rain. Me? I’m thankful for me boils, Sir. I’ve named ev’ry one, Sir. This one ‘ere is Nigel. Say ‘ello, Nigel.
December was a blur, probably because it seemed that every time I went outside I managed to fall down. I’m about ready to give up on this whole walking business. I was carrying some groceries in from the car last night when I tripped for no good reason and landed on our concrete walk, nearly bashing my brains out. I am now under strict orders not to go outside without first notifying Management, lest I turn up as a lawn ornament with the Spring thaw.
In any case, I am profoundly grateful for the wonderful folks who have so generously contributed to our upkeep here at Downscale Abbey, where every crisis is welcomed as an old friend and all the servants are played by cats.
By the way, I’m going to have to stop watching that show. We were perched on the settee with our microwave scones and marmite, cats in their little tiaras, all set for the season opener, when we heard Laura Linney say, “And now the two-hour season premiere…” and we both fainted dead away. Actually we just shuddered, but that was enough, and we clicked off. Two hours in that suffocating cultural coat closet? A few days later we watched the first hour of the thing, during which nothing even remotely un-totally-predictable happened, and I, personally, threw in the towel.
Downton really seems to be aimed at the sort of people who get all tingly when they see a Ralph Lauren commercial, a cohort from which I am gladly absent. I actually had occasion to proofread Ralphie’s rather baroque last will and testament many years ago, so I feel a sort of remote kinship for the guy (I surreptitiously wrote myself in as a nephew, in fact), but enough’s enough with the WASPstalgia.
But life, which is to say, of course, television, must go on, and here at Word Detective World Headquarters we’ve been catching up with Homeland. I must admit that the first season was better than I expected. The second season was a bit incoherent, and the shocking finale produced more consternation than shock. We’re just now getting started on season 3, and the whole shebang definitely seems to be coming apart at the seams. Hope I’m wrong.
There does seem to be a problem with cable series reaching a point where all the interesting characters are randomly expunged; I’ve always thought that the Sopranos killing off both Richie Aprile and Big Pussy early on was a huge mistake, and if I’d ever really liked Downton Abbey I’d say that not having the central actors nailed to long contracts was the show’s doom. Now there’s quite literally no one interesting left.
Onward. I’ve been hearing for years that HBO’s The Wire is the best TV show ever made, so I’ve been watching that in small bits here and there. I think they may be right; it is an amazingly well-made show. The second season in particular is a slam-dunk masterpiece. And there’s always Omar. Omar is awesome. I hadn’t realized that Richard Price, one of my favorite novelists (his excellent Clockers was made into a so-so film by Spike Lee), was an advisor/contributor to the show (he actually appears early on in a scene set in a prison library). At the rate I’m watching it, the five seasons may take me ten years, but that’s OK. It beats watching TV.
I imagine that it sounds as if we watch a lot of TV, but we actually log way less than the national average. Name your favorite show and I can practically guarantee I’ve never heard of it. And I like it that way, dagnabbit.
Bookly-speaking, I finished Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge. and I would give it three Mehs on a scale of five. Some nice bits but it never reaches escape velocity. I’m starting to think that his future reputation will rest entirely on Gravity’s Rainbow, a definite outlier in his oeuvre. Hey, outlier and oeuvre in the same clause. Not bad for someone surrounded by frozen soybean fields as far as the eye can see. Anyway, at the moment I’m reading some John LeCarre. I don’t remember the title. Good books with forgettable titles.
So here’s January. Please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to our survival. And now, on with the show….
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
It occurred to me the other day that I’m going about this whole monthly update thing wrong. I usually babble on about books or TV or cats for a thousand words or so, and then, in the last paragraph, ask folks to either subscribe or donate to this site. So this month I’m just going to reverse the routine and ask for help up front.
So here’s the deal: about seven years ago, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. At the time I was glad they had found an explanation for the strange symptoms that had suddenly appeared (although some of them were apparent 20 years earlier), but, apart from my left leg not working right and intermittent vision problems, I figured it it must be progressing very slowly and wasn’t going to amount to much. Wrong-o-rama. I had apparently failed to fully appreciate the “progressive” part, and, for whatever reason, it has sped up. It’s only six years later and I have serious trouble standing, can barely walk, can’t really use my left hand, and my vision only works right about half the time. There are more bizarre and debilitating dimensions to the whole tiresome business, which can be perused at the Wikipedia article. My favorite glitch is that if I do manage to pick up something with my left hand, I have enormous trouble letting go of it. Yes, it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, and it proved inconvenient the other day when I was using a match held in my left hand to light our broken stove. Bad idea. I couldn’t put it down after the burner lit, but I couldn’t raise my arm to get it close enough to my mouth to blow it out. I ended up prying it free with my right hand in a desperate imitation of Dr. Strangelove. Never a dull moment. Perhaps I should rent myself out for children’s parties.
When I first started this website, I sold email subscriptions mostly to pay the hosting fees, etc. My columns ran in several newspapers, I wrote books and articles for other outlets frequently, and I was getting by. Since 2001, newspapers have atrophied (to put it mildly) and book publishing has been remade in Jeff Bezos’ image, which is to say that living on advances and royalties is a thing of the past. So this website and subscriptions have become a far more important — uncomfortably vital — part of my income. Unfortunately, our readers have not escaped the ravages of our new minimum-wage economy, and lately those vital doubloons have been thin on the ground. And it shows. Our house is full of things we can’t afford to fix, including the stove, water heater, bathroom floor (it’s collapsing), the water softener and my teeth. Our 16-year old car (bought used) needs serious work.
So please consider subscribing or donating. Any amount will help; if you have a spare ten grand lying on the piano, that would be awesome, but even $15 is more help to us than most people wanna think about.
Oh yeah, the TV report. There’s been an interesting epilogue to the conversion of OTA (over the air) TV from analog to digital. Many local stations have established digital sub-channels and filled them with old movies and low-cost syndicated shows, mostly from the 1950s and 90s, providing something to watch for folks who can’t afford cable (which is a lot of people). Around here we get, in addition to some really bad movies and horse operas, many of the shows I watched as a kid, including Mister Ed, Sea Hunt, Twelve O’Clock High and my absolute favorite then and now, Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford. Apart from the weirdly addictive charm of these shows (cop cars with huge tail fins!), they’re notable for the number of major stars who appeared in supporting roles early in their careers. I’ve seen Leonard Nimoy, for instance, playing criminals in at least two Sea Hunt episodes.
So there you go. Please remember to subscribe. And now, on with the show….
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
So there’s this spider who lives by the light over the door to our house that we use most of the time. (There are three doors to our house, which is not surprising, given that there are six — count ’em — doors into the kitchen.) Anyway, this is one very ambitious spider. Every evening she spins an elaborate, perfect web to catch bugs coming to the light. In contrast to the resident spiders in previous summers, who were satisfied with compact webs in the corner of the doorframe, this one spins webs that cover the top two-thirds of the door, so to enter or exit after dark requires crouching down to nearly knee-level, which is even less fun than it sounds.
Every morning the remnants of the web hang in tatters, torn by the larger insects (moths, mostly) who are caught but then break free, and I knock the whole thing down with a broom. The spider at that point is elsewhere, probably asleep in the doorframe. Then, as evening falls, she’s suddenly there again, sitting in the center of a perfect new web. The door itself is mostly one large glass panel in a wooden frame, so if there’s nothing on TV I can wander over there and wave to her.
Like any red-blooded American boy, I actually dislike and fear spiders, but living in the country has made me very reluctant to kill anything. There are millions of assorted creepy-crawly things living within ten yards of this house, and there’s a good chance they all know each other. Besides, she’s just a little spider with one little spider-life.
Onward. I’m still in the process of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which is not surprising since it’s 760 pages long and I read maybe 15 pages a night. Then I think about it, and often re-read bits. Occasionally I have dreams based on parts of the book. It’s an exceedingly odd book, often somewhat hard to follow because Pynchon shifts narrative viewpoints, frequently without notice. But I’ve found that the best approach is to just keep going, because things usually become clear (or clearer) down the line. Pynchon is a remarkable writer, and between the jokes and digressions are passages of truly amazing beauty. Reading him is a bit like listening to Bach; every so often you finish a section and find yourself wondering How in the world does he do that? The story of Franz Pökler (an engineer on the project developing the V-2 rocket) and his daughter, who is allowed to visit once a year and may actually be someone other than his daughter, perhaps a different child every year, is both deeply disturbing and hauntingly sad. Much of Pynchon’s work, not just this book, has a subtext of elegiac sadness to it.
Anyway, having read a few of his later books, I definitely prefer GR, as it’s known among the Pynchonitarians, of whom there are useful thousands online maintaining wikis, timelines and very handy glossaries. (One of my favorites is a guide called “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow.” That says it all right there. You can never be absolutely sure.) I keep reading people saying they gave up on GR halfway through, but I think I’m the sort who finishes it and then reads it again.
By the way, not only does my little b&w Nook let me make the print bigger, but it completely removes the intimidation factor from huge books.
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