Commentary Journal

Cats, Hemingway, and Me

I was catching up on on blog posts I’d bookmarked, things that caught my eye on busy mornings or late nights to which I had attended to return long ago, when I came upon this one from Millie Ho about Art, Edward Gorey, creativity in general and–if you read between the lines–a whole lot more.

The post reminded me instantly of Hemingway, and not just because of the prominent photo of the artist Gorey reclined, asleep, and half-covered in his beloved cats.  It is easy to mistake this for a photo of Hemingway, as I initially did–and as many others on the internet have done, because along with the deceptively simple syntax and precise word vocabulary, the long line of marriages and adultery and more marriages, the fishing and the hunting and the boxing and the bullfighting, Hemingway is sort of famous for his cats.
tumblr_lmyfhszSUf1qiu5e6o1_400My first pet was a cat–a fierce, possibly deranged, copper colored striped cat that maybe weighed eight pounds which I named Amber, because I was a kid (geek) who knew what amber was, what it looked like, and that was what color she was.  This led to a lifetime–she would live to be 23 years old–of “that’s a stripper’s name” jokes, which none of us appreciated very much. Amber loved me, slept most of her life on my bed, and tolerated my mother and sister. She waged war on the rest of the world, dominating all the other cats and dogs in the neighborhood via sheer, hostile tenacity.  She twice ventured  to our neighbors’ yard and thrashed their miniature collie–a silly, lazy thing called “Boots” and cornered it on it’s own porch, then came home to sit in my lap, a tiny, purring little Genghis Khan.Literature Personalities. pic: circa 1940's. Author Ernest Hemingway watched by his wife Mary, feeds tit bits to the cat at dinner. Ernest Hemingway, (1899-1961) US writer of novels and short stories and Nobel Prize winner, also a keen sportsman. He was p

When the neighbor, in all her bright red-dyed hair and perfume-drenched glory marched down to our hovel to confront us, and pounded on the door, the cat launched herself at the screen door, from the inside, growling and hissing as she did to most visitors, the mailman, meter readers, extended family, and innocent passers-bycat on screen door. It was a little embarrassing, especially to my mom.  It was also a little bit awesome, in both the colloquial and literal senses of the word.

We never worried about locking our door–my grandmother couldn’t get past this snarling beast.  Forget some burgler–not that our house wouldn’t have been the last house of the block to draw the attention of n’er do wells, unless they were looking for warn rugs or a shabby old flowered sofa.

I never appreciated the cat.  I was a boy, and I wanted a dog, and when I got one–a stray German Shepherd puppy that started sleeping on our back porch one summer evening and couldn’t be convinced to go home–well, nothing really changed.  The cat loved me because I let her alone, I’m convinced, and she ernesthemingway_narrowweb__300x4700worked out some sort of deal with the dog.  She let it sleep on her porch, after all, and eventually shared her bed with him (after already sharing the antique double with me).  This was a dog she could work with–smart, respectful, quiet–except for his love of fetching things (tennis balls, rubber bones–he even carried a neighbor’s beagle puppy back to me one evening, perfectly gripped–unharmed–in his mouth.  That really was embarrassing.) Amber would never have degraded herself by fetching, though she did bring me the requisite corpses of small rodents and birds, but not as tribute mind you–but as a reminder, like the horsehead in The Godfather.

It seems ironic, in retrospect, that I under-appreciated the value of such an interesting companion probably because she demanded so little of me besides the occasional scratch behind the ears, the opening and closely of doors, some water and food.  Do we love based on the effort we’re required to make?  Perhaps not exclusively, but it’s something to think about.1.55811_image.jpeg

You expect a dog to provide companionship, but a cat–I’ve learned to expect, if not quite settle for, something called “affectionate disinterest.”  Psychologically, this is genius on the part of the cats, who could provide excellent advice on human relationships.  I had to learn that keeping my distance and moving (seemingly) reluctantly into relationships, more often than not, is a far better strategical approach than, say, the emotional equivalent of marching headlong into the brink.  064b

We’ve all seen Black Hawk Down, right?  In love, Tom Sizemore and a column of Pakistani mechanized infantry aren’t going to rush in at the last moment and save your ass when you crash and burn.

Better to be the tentative Pakistanis, biding their time.

But there weren’t any cats in that movie…

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Does Anyone Prefer the “Improved Posting Experience?”

I thought I was alone, but that just shows how presumption can make fools of us all.  I noticed today that Renard Moreau over at Renard Moreau Presents has been pondering the same notion:  is their anyone who thinks that the New WordPress Editor is actually an “improved posting experience?”  It’s certainly not simpler–I despise when options are hidden behind menus–give me the whole smorgasbord right where I can stick my fork in it, please.  I’ve also had a heck of a time getting used to the new-for-the-sake-of-being-new method of scheduling posts to be published later, or saving as drafts.  I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, by why?

What is the fascination tech geeks have with making something simple and good into something needlessly opaque and convoluted?  It reminds me of a few wildly popular authors I know who, since they’re now cash cows, have transformed from writers of taut, efficient barn burners into evil geniuses popping out ponderous thousand-page 3-book series monsters.  I’m thinking of Firefox, the slick little browser that could has been force fed functions like caged goose that it is now a ponderous, frequently crashing monolith–or Windows 8, which managed to take the most intuitive piece of mainstream software in the history of geekery and turn it into something dark, utterly impenetrable, and totally divorced from the very elements that made it so wonderfully simple to use.  I still can’t spend five minutes on my daughters Win8 machine without wanting to cry.

So, what’s the verdict.  Anyone else have strong opinions?  Thoughts?

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D.A.H.O.F. Enshrines Kevin Sorbo

<> at Grimaldi Forum on June 9, 2011 in Monaco, Monaco.Hercules was half god.  Kevin Sorbo, the actor who famously played him for years on syndicated television, is not half god–he’s half mortal.  The rest is all dumb ass, and in recognition for this he is the latest candidate to earn a place in the storied Dumb Ass Hall of Fame.

A vocal self-proclaimed conservative, Sorbo is a regular contributor to right-leaning internet publications, but has never been known for the sort of breathless anger and disregard for fact that characterizes most opportunistic wingnut commentators.  He passed as rational, if somewhat misguided, until recently.

In response to the riots which followed the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer, and the subsequent efforts by police and local government to distract and evade demands for accountability, Sorbo fell into a very typically racist rebuttal, describing the protestors as something less than human, and less worthy of justice:

“Ferguson riots have very little to do with the shooting of the young man. It is an excuse to be the losers these animals truly are. It is a tipping point to frustration built up over years of not trying, but blaming everyone else, The Man, for their failures. It’s always someone else’s fault when you give up.”

Losers. And animals.

Then he blames the press. ”Want the riots to end in Ferguson? Ban the media who are nothing more than agitators promoting the circus environment and inciting outsiders to join in the frenzy” 

When the story quickly went viral, Sorbo cowardly pulled his comments from his facebook page and offered up a half-assed mea culpa that wasn’t so much an apology, but a ‘what I meant to say was….” clarification in which he still managed to be an dumb ass.

“Okay….I stand humiliated and humbled. My most sincere apologies for my post on the events in Ferguson. I posted out of frustration and anger over the violence and looting. My words were never meant to hurt the African-American community. My use of the word “losers’ was directed at those doing the looting and vandalising and violence toward others. Anyone who does that is a loser in my book. So I will not apologise to those who are looting stores and vandalising there own community. I am very sorry for the police shooting. To answer violence with violence is not the answer here. Real leaders need to emerge out of that community to deal with the problems with the excessive use of police force. I agree with you that the police action has only added to the reaction of the residents of Ferguson. Yes. I am an idiot and do hold myself accountable for the way my post came off.”

Too late, Kevin. Apologies made while in disaster control mode don’t count.


Bonus “Why Assateague Rocks” Post.

Avalon boatasbury parkMy story about Assateague actually begins in Avalon, New Jersey, where we visited last year.  Despite good trips to pleasant, family-oriented Ocean City as a teenager and a previous visit to Cape May, we hadn’t exactly been sold on the idea of a New Jersey beach. Blame it on the Sopranos and all those depressing post-industrial Springsteen songs.

New Jersey Turnpike
ridin’ on a wet night
‘neath the refinery’s glow,
out where the great black rivers flow….

Yech–I don’t even want to think about The Magic Rat and his sweet machine.

avalon cropped
Well, not really.

But we’d heard Avalon was quaint, we’d been tubing on the Delaware River, and were heading south to take a dolphin viewing boat ride in Cape May, then cross the bay on the ferry to Loews on our way to–you guessed it–Assateague.

All I can say about Avalon is: what a shame. Avalon is a funky little town on a pleasant scale, no high rises and lots of small businesses. The beaches are beautiful and wide, with wonderful dunes. It was easy to park, there wasn’t much traffic, even on a Saturday, I thought, at first: now this is the kind of place where I might actually invest in a rental home that would one day be my retirement home.

And then I stepped on to the beach: $24 for my family of four for a day stung a little bit, but it’s New Jersey and beach tags are a tradition–they’re just not satisfied with the billions of dollars that visitors spend at businesses and on rentals each summer. Still, it’s cheaper than a movie, and they do keep the beaches spotless, so it’s hard to complain.

What I will complain about is the authoritarian approach Avalon’s beach patrol takes to regulate and restrict behavior. On a crowded Saturday, swimming was restricted to a small areas, perhaps 120 feet, between pairs of lifeguard stands, each of which was staffed by a pair of young guards. Additionally, although the surf was rather weak and there was virtually no undertow, a third guard stalked back and forth about 40 feet off shore, menacing anyone who dared to wade past her in the waist deep water (I’m 6′ 3 and had to squat just to get my head into a wave and get wet).

Vacation in Avalon? Think Again.

It was shoulder to shoulder, literally too crowded to swim, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only visitor who gazed longingly at the vast expanses of forbidden surf outside the guarded zones–easily 90 percent of the beach is off-limits not just to swimming, but apparently even to touch. I repeatedly saw lifeguards whistling folks walking down the beach, when the water lapped up against their ankles. Who walks on the hot sand and doesn’t want to slap their feet in the surf where it rolls on shore?

Unknown to us at the time, the Lifeguard Captain of Avalon is a legendary dick (disclaimer: my opinion based on research after the fact).

Playing catch is also forbidden. Furious whistle blowing followed the appearance of any thrown object–I asked the young beach tag checker girl and she told me that “sometimes you can play catch in the soft sand near the dunes, but not today.” Several striking young women were, however, permitted to play bocce under the close surveillance of the young men in the lifeguard stands.

A teen with the family next to us on the beach was whistled when he jogged down towards the surf. “No running on the beach!”

What? I had to ask about that, so I wandered over to the lifeguard stand and asked.  I was told “People can fall and get hurt, and they sometimes kick sand on other people,”

I laughed, couldn’t help it, and the young man said. “If you have a problem I can get my supervisor down here and we’ll see how funny that is. Let’s see your beach tag!”

I shrugged, walked back to my towel, and held the tag up for him to see–and he flipped me the middle finger. In a different world, I wait for the kid to end his work day and do a little amateur orthopedic work on that obviously malfunctioning finger. It wouldn’t be flopping around like that shoved up his….

I honestly don’t know why anyone goes to this beach, except that it seemed most of the folks didn’t even bother trying to swim. It was a sit on your butt and stare beach.  It was even impossible to sleep, with near-constant whistling and some asshat ringing a freaking cowbell every half hour (it turns out this was a ice cream salesperson, but my Pavlovian responses didn’t get the signal–it was just irritating.)

I’ve tried to avoid the obvious metaphors here, but being herded into a tight space by arrogant, authoritarian young Aryan men (and women) elicited some rather gruesome comparisons. We strolled the pleasant shops in the quaint business district after our time on the beach, but were ultimately too resentful of our experience to put much backbone into shopping–before bidding not adieu, but goodbye, to Avalon, never to return again.

And what does this have to do with Assateague?  Well, at the very same time we were suffocating in the oppression embrace of Avalon’s nanny state, the tides uncovered a substantial quantity of unexploded, World War 2 vintage ordnance, and the response was to send for come guys to blow it up.  You know, just in case.  That section of beach was closed for half a day, and when the work was done the authorities retreated and it was back to laid-back summer at the beach–kites flying, surfers surfing, fishers fishing, frisbees flying, soccer balls being kicked, and sand castles being built.  You can build a sand castle at Avalon but it’s illegal to dig a hole someone might step into, and when you leave the beach you have to flatten your castle so no one trips over it.

In Assateague you swim and if you drown the National Park Service will eventually get someone over to assist in removing your cold, wet corpse–unless you happen to fall into a turtle nest, in which case you’ll have to wait until after the hatch. And rightly so. If a horse bites you, someone will be by to take your statement, and to chastize you for pissing off the horse.

In short, you get to be human, responsible, and free. It’s presumed that you’ll be smart enough to not drown, or step in a hole, or fall face first in a sand castle, and I like that a lot….


Doh! After Shooting, NRA Tweets About Kids Having Fun With Guns

A 9-Year-Old at a Shooting Range, a Spraying Uzi and Outrage

These guys are just masters of tact and timing. I should probably save this for use as a D.A.H.O.F. post, but….  Not that these corporate shills won’t earn a nomination some other way.

In Wake of Arizona Uzi Killing, NRA Tweets About Kids Having Fun With Guns

NRA tweet


Henry Miller’s 11 Writing Commandments

I’m offering a rare repost, but this one is irresistible–not only for the racy photo of Henry Miller, but his rules for writing. I’ve broken all of them within recent memory–my shortcomings and failures are no longer inexplicable. Check out “Journelle Frivolous”–it’s well worth the time.


Some Late Thoughts on Ferguson, Missouri

I have been as appalled as anyone by the events in Ferguson, Missouri–from the killing that precipitated it, through the (literally) jack-booted thuggery of the local bureaucracy’s bumbling, violent attempts to suppress the inevitable reactions, the stumbling efforts to hide their conduct from the media, to the equally inept machinations to spin the story into a tale of a valiant public servant defending himself against a “Negro Super Criminal.”

What surprises me most was that people were surprised this happened, when just a few weeks earlier NYPD officers made national news strangling a man to death in the street for allegedly selling a single, unlicensed cigarette.  These encounters have become ubiquitous; they no longer surprise anyone.

Cops misbehave every day–they’re humans, they’re flawed, it happens–and until we summon the collective will to morally–not bureaucratically–demand accountability, this is what we get, and it’s what we deserve as a community.  Unfortunately, we don’t reap the proverbial harvest of our sins with anything approaching equitable distribution.  In America, a black man is killed every 28 hours by a police officer, security guard, or a vigilante.  Of course, this isn’t a new thing.  Scholars have pointed out that the high level of racial violence in America, as well as our predilection for using torture as an acceptable interrogation technique is rooted in the historical treatment of slaves–fascinating, though disturbing.  Now, it’s important to note that police violence isn’t exclusive to people of color–a quick and cursory look at incidents reveals that plenty of white people are beaten, tazed, strangled, shot, or killed by corrupt or incompetent officers whose aggression escalates growingly tense interactions between police and civilians.  My research–some of it admittedly  presumption based on the appearances of victims in images–is that poor white people are also targeted, though not as intensely.

It’s worth noting, that this phenomena isn’t just about killing.  The USA has, by far, the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate–over 500 per 100,000, more than 5 times the average for similar first world countries.  The disparity is largely made up of blacks (over 3,000/100K) and Latinos (over 1250/100K).  The easy response by those who deny the facts is to say “well, it’s because black and brown people are just more criminal, and more violent than white people.”  Uh, sure.  That’s it.

Still, the incarcerated are the lucky ones.  They survived.  Fortunately, people have begun to take more notice, and as their exasperation grows I fully expect to see more of these incidents. Hopefully it will not on the scale of what we’ve seen in Ferguson, but this is a cumulative response to a culture of aggressive policing that has been growing more and more militaristic over the past 35 years.  My parents weren’t afraid of police officers, nor was I when I was a child, but I am now.  That’s right–I’m a white, middle-class, small-town man who actively participates in local government, and I’m afraid of the police. I’m on a first name basis with our police chief, for whom I have a great deal of respect, yet I’m afraid of the police.  I have friends and relatives in law enforcement, and still, I’m afraid of the police.  I’ve raised my children to be wary of police, and to avoid interaction of any kind with them. Why?

milesBecause you just don’t know what you’re going to run into, or who. The city of Pittsburgh’s great Achilles heel is its untouchable, aggressive police department and its reputation for corruption and violence.  You absolutely don’t want to be a black guy in Pittsburgh and interact with the police because, even though most of the officers are upstanding, if you run into one of those who aren’t and it turns bad there will be zero accountability. They may kick your ass if you’re white, too, but the odds turn south if you’re not.

The problem is not endemic to Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh is certainly representative of the greater problem.  Time and time again, violent confrontations end with district attorneys deciding not to press charges, split juries, and acquittals. When a civilian is arrested for a crime, names are immediately released, often combined with the showy “perp walks” that the media love so well, but when the accused is a cop, the name of the officer is–as was the case in Ferguson–held secret for as long as the department can manage to keep it under wraps.

If I shoot someone, I’m going to be arrested, printed, mug-shotted, perp-walked, and talked about in press releases and interviews and(assuming my crime is high profile enough) shown on the news.  I’ll be thrown in jail pending a hearing that will almost certainly end in a stiff bail requirement.  A cop, on the other hand, who guns someone down, often gets anonymity, and…some vague restriction known as “administrative leave with pay” which sounds a lot like a reward to me: you still get paid to be police, but you don’t have to do any policing.

People notice this stuff.  That was match that lit the powder keg in Ferguson: a teenager was left dead in the streets and cops refused to name suspect name because he is one of their own.  Again, these riots weren’t just about Ferguson–they are about the cumulative effect of literally hundreds of these cases, over and over, week after week, and the inevitable artful dodges and inexplicable acquittals that follow.  We have been conditioned to expect zero accountability. If citizens had any confidence that police would face a fair and transparent legal process equivalent to that which a civilian would face for the same action, not only would outrage be contained but the temptation towards questionable conduct would be greatly reduced–a result which, in the end, would make things safer for the officers.

One thing I don’t understand, however, is the relative silence of all the teabaggers and libertarians who are usually doing back flips and cursing from their sphincters over even the slightest “big government” infringement on the rights of “we the people.” I can’t think of anything more indicative of an oppressive government than the gunning suspects down in the streets, except perhaps for the systematic protection of those who swing the clubs and squeeze the triggers.  Perhaps the disconnect here is the interpretation of who exactly composes “we the people?”

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