Monday, May 24, 2010

Fiddling Until Computer Implodes

I'm supposed to be being attacked by 5 viruses at the moment, one critical. My intention was to try to write a post of snippet-items anyway.

Boxing no longer generates the interest it once did in this country though one would learn much about interpersonal relations by studying it, for the techniques people use in argument, particularly those between husbands and wives, are akin to the styles or non-styles used by boxers. My mother, for example, unfortunately had a Gerry Cooney like style of arguing, wherein she would plant herself in a single spot, cover her face with her hands, and allow her opponent to rain blow after (verbal) blow on her with very ineffective resistance, hoping for the bell to ring, or, in some instances, for her opponent to leave the premises in complete triumph, often for days, with her still rooted and dazed on the same spot, the equivalent of a TKO. It thus caught me quite by surprise when my wife's style of argument turned out to be more akin to that of Sugar Ray Robinson, landing well-placed and stinging blows, frequently in combination, and then moving from room to room under the guise of "being busy", and never allowing herself to be drawn into a toe-to-toe exchange of punches in the center of the ring. I believe this method is more instinctive than studied with her, but it is brilliantly effective, for it is not easy for a lumbering fellow like myself to fight, hurl invectives, etc, against a moving target with a quick mind.

Applying the theory further, one sees how here too Mike Tyson was a bad role model for Americans, especially since he remains the last boxer to be widely recognizable across all strata of society. Tyson's method of fighting at its most impressive was to march straightforward into the center of the ring and pound his overmatched opponents senseless, often in spectacular fashion such as knocking them through the ropes or lifting them off the ground and sending them airborne several feet backwards. A good portion of the American public seems to have adopted this technique in their approach to debate. Once people with a modicum of skill figured out how to sustain Tyson's initial fury, he was exposed and began to lose, as no doubt would also happen to most of the bullies and demagogues who hold much of our public discourse in thrall. Unfortunately most people, including myself, when encountering a person of this type end up playing the role of one of Tyson's hapless early opponents--Marvis Frazier perhaps--who had to be carried out of the ring on a stretcher 30 seconds after the bell rang.

That ability to sting in conversation and dealings with other people is a crucial skill that I never developed--not so that I should be able to unload indiscrimately on everybody I came across, but just to keep people wary of me, make them have to be a little respectful, not get too comfortable. As it is, people pretty much dig in and occupy all the ground they want up to the very boundaries of my person, and I can do little about it without expending pretty much all of my force, which I am understandably reluctant to do in routine social encounters. I hope dearly that at least some of my children have enough light, quickly deployed mental power they can carry about with them to be able to establish some kind of presence in such situations. I am putting a lot of hope in my dear wife's excellent genetic qualities as far as the social fate of the next generation goes, myself having little to offer in that regard other than height, which I have have always considered more of a non-negative than a positive quality, though I have had several men express to me, and apparently believed it whole-heartedly, that if they possessed my height in combination with their other outstanding qualities they would be making six figures and dating beauty pageant contestants, or at the very least Hooters waitresses.

I am currently reading a book which is giving me a great deal of ninth hand pleasure, The Brideshead Generation, by an Englishman named Humphrey Carpenter. Everything I read about them further persuades me that this crowd--the Bright Young People of 1920s London--were unspeakably awful, but at the same time I can read about them all day and never weary of them. Their style of life is as close to my ideal as I have found, especially among the English-speaking peoples, though I do also like the coffeehouse and tavern haunters of the 18th century. They drank a great deal, they traveled, they wrote, they chased women (and boys, I concede), they were witty, they had an excellent taste for characters and scenes. The Oxford Railway Club, for one example, was a group of aesthetes, homo- and heterosexual (in the womanless world of 1920s Oxford these distinctions did not impose the social boundaries among men that they seem to today), dedicated to taking midweek excursions around the rails of England, having a five course dinner on the outbound train, jumping off at Leicester or some such place and riding back in the bar car to make the midnight curfew, accounts of which excursions were dutifully written up for one of the myriad campus publications. Of course if you are on the railway club outing on a Tuesday night that means you aren't studying. But it's 1923, and you are of the right class, so you can still recover from getting a third in history, or not managing to get your degree at all, and manage to do something fairly interesting and prestigious. These guys struggled a little to get their careers going in their mid-20s, and of course some of the most brilliant ones never panned out as writers or anything else, but the ones who really made it big, at decisive moments in their development were able to produce something of reasonable value, and were close enough to the sources of power and influence to have a fair chance of having someone in a position to aid them take on their projects. One of the notable circumstances of the Oxford chapters are the confidence that as every generation must have its writers and poets, it is taken for granted that a good number of those in the rising one are surely present, and that therefore their little college poems and general literary education are in fact serious matters. There appears to be something of a similiar attitude at Harvard and other Ivy League schools, perhaps not so much in literature, but the expectation that numerous of the young people sitting in your class at any given time are going to be prominent and influential--of what degree of quality is not for the moment in the question--seems to be in operation from what I know of their graduates.

It is clear that someone in our family--evidently it isn't going to be me--is going to have to buckle down somewhere and figure out how to make a pile and push us into that realm of society where our more talented members have access to people who can show them how to really get on in life. In my family we are on at least the third or fourth generation of capable enough intellectual ability that never seems to amount to anything because they don't know how to work or ingratiate themselves with the right people or something. I came across my three year old son the other day essentially teaching himself to read--he had a little book open and was sounding out j--a--m--and I thought, well, he'll end up a little office clerk like his father, being spoken to by people with 8 week correspondence course certificates as if he were seven steps beneath them on the class scale, and deservedly so, but why? How does this keep perpetuating itself, and why can no one make that leap to the next stratum?

But I digress. There is some dispute as to how fun the parties of the 20s actually were--some people are fastidious as to detail--but since I am reading here in May of 2010 about, among numerous other fetes, Babe Plunkett-Greene's and Elizabeth Ponsonby's Swimming-Pool party of 13 July 1928, I am going to guess that it was at least as much fun as anything most people who are interested in this scene will have ever known themselves. "Bathing costumes of the most dazzling kinds and colours were worn by the guests," the Daily Express reported, "Dancing took place to the strains of a negro orchestra, and the hardy leaped into the bath, of which the water had been slightly warmed...A special cocktail, christened the Bathwater Cocktail, was invented for the occasion." Further, back to the main narrative of the text: "...the women one met at such parties were not especially sexually liberated; they 'expected to have passes made at them', but were well able to fend these off. One heard stories of debs who could be got to bed, but...such sexual contacts as were achieved at or after these parties (being) brittle and transitory...They might bruise and press each other's flesh...No hearts to break and nothing to linger afterwards behind." This doesn't sound all that bad. One remarkable thing about this group is that while they went nuts with affairs and freaky sex in their 30s, 40s and even beyond, many if not most of them appear to have remained virgins as far the opposite sex was concerned for several years beyond college age, 23 and 24 and 25. That certainly was not healthy for them. The best age for that sort of thing seems to be 17, as far as your best chance of being well-adjusted and healthy down the line goes, some people probably handle 16 and some would be best advised to hold off till 18, but beyond that I really think you start to see unnecessary derangement.

Humphrey Carpenter views Waugh as the central figure of this group of writers, not merely socially but from the literary; personally I would be inclined to disagree, but I have only read Brideshead Revisited, which seemed to me the weakest of all the books I have read from this general group, which includes Anthony Powell, Graham Greene and Henry Green, not to mention Orwell, who is not part of this crowd socially but was the same age and was at school with many of them. I can go along with the premise though because the book is so damn entertaining. Carpenter also was "a musician and the founder of Vile Bodies, a band that recreates the music of the Evelyn Waugh era at the Ritz Hotel in London." I don't know if this is still going on (this was written in 1990), but I think it might be too much even for me to take. (Note: Carpenter died in 2005. The band does not appear to play anymore). The Ritz is so prominent in the literature of this era especially, which I have been gorging on and living vicariously through for much of the last decade now that I am thinking I may have to make a splurge and have dinner there if I ever make it back to London (which dinner will probably cost more than my plane ticket, at current rates anyway).

Of Mice and Men (movies--1939 & 1992)

I've seen both of these versions lately, as each is rated a top rank film by various major publication or other, the '39 one more frequently, though the '92 has its fans as well. The two movies are quite similar, and almost look at times like they were filmed on the same sets. You would think I would be partial to the '39, but I am leaning towards the '92 which seemed to me a little better acted (Gary Sinise & John Malkovich in the main roles versus Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr, and Sherilyn Fenn has it all over the simpering ninny they had in '39 as the girl). The '39 has the advantage of being contemporary with the book and it had a very capable director in Lewis Milestone, who did All Quiet on the Western Front. I don't love either of them, and as such it is actually interesting to see two versions of the same story.

The story seems to have been regarded almost since its first appearance as being profoundly and vitally American. Like many such American stories, it features a prominent character who is retarded, in this instance one who is a tireless worker ignorant of his own strength, which I presume is supposed to be symbolic of the vast American proletariat. An agreeably sinister stand-in for corporate America, and the American dream, more modest but no less elusive than it is in our era, are also portrayed. I have to say the story has never resonated too much with me--the characters and milieu are not the type that I am really drawn to, especially since there is not much humor in them. I find it hard to love people who are both earnest and ragged--the combination doesn't work for me.

In short I think if you haven't read the book at least one of the films is worth seeing (they are by no means bad--I just wouldn't think of them as great) just to become more familiar with the story and the place it occupies in American culture, where for whatever reason it has become recognized as a classic by many influential people.

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