Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Brief Career of a Professional Extrovert

I found myself on a corner in downtown Portland, a binder in my hand, trying to talk to passing pedestrians. I was a canvasser. A few stopped and talked to me, most passed by, and a very few told me to go fuck myself. It was, oddly, fun. Some time ago, I didn't think that such a thing could be at all enjoyable, but I found myself liking my time outside.

I was soliciting donations for Children International, a charity that provides assistance to poor children in developing countries. The structure of the donations was monthly child sponsorship- you send certain amount of money every month to the charity, and sponsor a given kid. You send them letters, they send you letters, you get a picture of them. It was a $22 a month minimum, with a two year commitment. I personally find this system of donations to be emotionally manipulative, but no matter. What they did seemed worthwhile.

I, along with a dozen or so other new recruits, got a half day of training prior to hitting the streets. We were warned about the high burnout rate, warned that most of us would walk off the job within a day or so. The trainer was an amazingly extroverted, handsome guy, and I admired his speaking abilities. I wondered what else he could be doing, with his charisma. After warning us, he did his best to get jazzed up about the job, get us motivated.

I talked with a bunch of my new coworkers, and many of them were just happy to be there, they didn't need motivation. An unemployed construction worker told me about how he had three kids at home and needed this job badly. Another, rasta-type guy mentioned about how happy he was to be employed and how he knew he could be successful if he just stayed positive. I thought so, too. I'm persuasive and charismatic. I figured that if anyone can convince the citizens of Portland to help starving Zambian kids, it was me.

On my first day, I stood on a street corner and attempted to talk to pedestrians. After about an hour, a homeless guy who'd been watching me came up and struck up a conversation. He was this old guy who kind of looked like what Mr. T would look like if he were destitute. Actually, maybe it was Mr. T... He mentioned that he used to be a salesman, and that what I was doing was "Way too aggressive."

"C'mon, man," he said, "don't try to shake their hands. You're scaring them. You're in their face way too much." I thought that Mr. T had something of a point, and tried it out. He was right, and I cooled down a bit, stopping way more people when I wasn't as spastic. I stopped a lot of people, actually. Most of them told me "good luck," but didn't actually sign up. Several people offered me cash or single lump sums, but I had to explain that that wasn't how the charity worked. When I told them it was a monthly thing, and what the minimum was, they balked. Even after I explained it one guy said, "Can I just give you fifteen bucks?" "No," I said, "they only do the monthly thing." He walked away.

Another guy, before I was able to say anything, told me to eat a dick. I told him to have a nice day.

By lunchtime on the first day, our ranks had already thinned. A few of the new hires had walked off in frustration. I asked one of the more senior canvassers how long people usually lasted, and she replied that there was lots of turnover, and that two months was a long time. I kept my internal monologue positive. I kept telling myself that I was in the top ten percent with regards to persuasive ability and social aptitude, and kept thinking about the gambler's fallacy. I knew I could do this.

Durning the second half of the first day, I kept myself jazzed and motivated, trying to formulate a rap that I could use. I started talking about clean water, how people in industrialized countries take it for granted, and how cheaply it can be provided. One guy I stopped, when hearing this, told me that there was "A different water, an eternal water," that could help people more, and ended up trying to do his Jesus-rap on me. He left, eventually, and told me that I was doing the Lord's work. Another guy I stopped ended up being a Japanese tourist, and his eyese seemed to pop out of his head when I dragged out my Japanese. That was pretty fun.

My first day ended without a signup, but I wasn't discouraged by that. The trainer told me that that was normal, and that I'd probably be fine.

The next day I was on a different street corner, one where two homeless guys were playing the guitar and harmonica. They played "Love Me Do" incessantly. I didn't mind it, actually, and appreciated the soundtrack. During the day, I talked to lots of people. It was fun. Tons of people told me about their jobs and how they lost them, and a guy from Sri Lanka told me all about the situation there, with the Sinhalese and the Tamils. "This is a great country," he said, "this is great. I play golf all the time. People complain about the economy, but it's still great here." I agreed with him.

I chatted with this really cute girl who was rollerblading around, and had a long conversation with a guy who used to be in the Peace Corps. I got interested in these people, and loved chatting with random people. They had opinions and ideas, but again and again said that they didn't have money. I supposed it was true, and I felt bad for them. I know that's why I ultimately only signed up one person- I felt bad for the people on the street. I had tons of empathy, and couldn't really close the deal.

By the end of the second day, more of the new hires had quit, including the rasta guy who had tried to be so positive. That bummed me out. He'd seemed really motivated, and it sucked to see someone who looked so idealistic fold like that. I still felt positive about the job, though. I got to hear about Sri Lanka from someone who was from there. That was really cool, and I stayed positive. I was told, though, that if I didn't bring in results on my third day that I would get canned. I told the trainer I could do it.

On my third day, I talked to more people, including a tiny homeless woman who called herself Little Mama. She said that I could be her son, if I wanted. I said that was really nice of her, and she went away, talking to herself. At lunch, the unemployed construction worker quit. He'd gotten spit on, and said he didn't need this. Later, I did indeed sign up someone to sponser a kid, which felt good. I did feel accomplished, actually having paperwork to fill in. But, it wasn't enough. One sign-up in three days simply wasn't cost effective, and I was told to go.

"I have to," said the trainer. I told him I understood. "I'm impresed that you didn't quit though," he said, "most people quit." He said that shit happens, that some people just don't get lucky, and that he'd be a reference if I needed one. I thanked him, and left.

Now I'm back. Now I'm sending off my resume to tons of jobs each day, writing, and riding my bike a lot. Despite recent events and the economic situation, I'm optomistic. At the absolute worst, I'll ask for my old job back. That's not something that I want to do, but it's on the table. In the meantime, though, I've had some nice chats about prospective jobs, and there are a few that I'm excited about.

After all, all I want is a gig. My career options are looking quite good. At present, I just need something to pay the bills, and not very many of them. I have no mortgage, car, kids, or other commitments. I don't need to worry about any of that, and I'm way hireable than most other people. I'm lucky, really. Everything will be fine.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Love Rock 'N Roll

Last weekend was one of the more rockin' weekends I've had in a while. Literally. It was rock-tastic. Three reasons why:

Reunion by Way of Wii

Prisoner's Dilemma was never a great band, but we were entertaining. What we lacked in skill we made up for in moxy, belting out songs about Wal-Mart, a homocidial Pac-Man, the Jabberwocky, and how not getting called back was kind of like the end of the world. In addition to that, we took our performances as opportunities to dress up in garish clothing. The singer described her looks as "Catholic school-girl in trouble," the keyboardist (that would be Joseph Barker) often wore a traditional Afghan outfit, complete with the hat, and I had this really awful tan, 70s-style, thigh-length leather coat that I wore with a skinny tie and oftentimes huge sideburns. We put on a show, to say the least.

We cheaply cut a hastily-recorded album, got recognized by a few people, and had tons of fun playing bad music. Inevitably, though, we drifted apart. Around my senior year of college, Prisoner's Dilemma faded away, we graduated, and it was done.

Last weekend, though, we were in the same room at the same time for the first time in years at a party in Eugene. It's a cliche to say so, but it really did feel like no time had passed. Well, except for the fact that the singer was married, I'd been in another country, and the keyboardist now lives in California. Other than that, it was like no time had passed.

A reunion was in order. A reunion that took place through the magic of Guitar Hero. We jumped about, danced like idiots, and had an awesome time of it. Im unashamed to say that I got pretty into it, and strummed the hell out of my plastic guitar Wii controller. I'm looking at my actual guitar now, a few feet away from me. I'm thinking that it's been a bit too long...


Meanwhile, down in Eugene, I visited my brother. He's a very musically talented guy, who happens to have a drum set in his living room. I'd never gotten behind one before, asked if I could, and he said "sure." He taught me a basic beat, and I just went from there.

I was able to pound out an uncomplicated rhythm fairly well, and definitely understood the appeal of drumming. It's satisfying. Viscerally satisfying. You're making music by beating the shit out of things and banging on metal. I could imagine myself getting into it.

American Karaoke

"Why would you do that to yourself?" It was a good question. Why on earth would I select It's the End of the World As We Know It to sing at karaoke. Why? Moreso, why would I decided to sing it in front of a bar full of people, where I was probably going to fuck up the superfast lyrics? Why would I subject myself to such performative masochims?

I sang karaoke quite a bit in Japan, and got very, very used to belting out songs like an idiot. I was fond of obnoxious stuff like Welcome to the Jungle and Lady Marmalade, songs that lend themselves to lots of theatrical flourish and whatnot. With songs like that no one really expects you to sing them well. Enthusiasm is the key, and more often than not you've got people singing along with you.

But that was in Japan, and karaoke there is in a cozy little room where you sing and drink with your friends. The only one who's going to see your Axl Rose impersonation is people whom you're on good terms with, so there's a lot more leeway to let loose. Before Sunday, I'd never stood up in front of a bar, taken a microphone, and sang in front of a ton of strangers. Moreover, some of the people there seemed to be taking it pretty seriously. This older woman had this whole dance routine that she did along with the Tina Turner version of Proud Mary, and someone actually sang Sarah McLaughlin's Angel, a song I've never cared for and is in no way ironic or rockin'.

My heart was making my ribcage aware of it's presence. When my name was called, I downed the rest of my gin and tonic in a single gulp.

Walking up to the microphone, I remembered the first time I ever played guitar in front of other people back in college. The lights were especially bright, and I couldn't actually see the audience. This felt sort of like that. I ended up just looking at the lyrics screen, which was mostly superfluous as I already knew the lyrics to Burning Down the House fairly well.

And, I wasn't very good. I got some polite applause, but hardly a spectacular performance.

I didn't sing for a while, and continued chatting with and drinking with people, wondering what I would do next. But, there were two singers in particular who emboldened me: One was a random, geeky-looking girl who sang Camel Toe. She seemed to get a weird reaction from the bar, but I thought it was especially awesome to see someone loudly singing a novelty song about embarrassing female fashion incidents. The other particularly inspiring singer was a friend of mine who sang Strokin'. It was absolutely hilarious, seeing some dude in a biker jacket loudly asking the bar about their sexual schedules.

This was the sort of silliness and rockin' enthusiasm that I was used to. This was music with irony, humor, and a certain "Woo-Hoo!" quality. It was the kind of stuff that tolerated a certain lack of talent in exchange for performative ability. So, I put in the song that I'd always wanted to sing in Japan but never could: It's the End of the World as We Know It. I'd always wanted a shot at it's lyrics, and it maintains a geeky place in my heart, as it was supposedly inspired by a debate tournament. Karaoke places in Japan always had What's the Frequency, Kenneth? but no End of the World. Now, I had my opportunity.

I fucked up the lyrics. I dropped a few lines. But, it went well. I had an awesome time up there, jumping up and down kicking my legs up and screaming about Lenny Bruce, Leonoid Brezhnev, snakes and aeroplanes. I roped in a friend to sing with me, and it was awesome. Enthusiasm and showman ship trumped natural talent, and all was nifty.

Good times. Definitely doing the karaoke thing again State-side. I'm tempted to try Ice, Ice, Baby, just as an exercise in awfulness. Or something by Def Leppard. We'll see.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Wolverine Van Buren: Adventures in Dubious Facial Hair

I like changing up my facial hair. It's not that I especially like having a beard, or being scruffy, or whatever. It's no one thing in particular. I just like being able to change my appearance easily. Just knowing that something is mutable makes me like it more. A given thing doesn't have to change, but knowing that it can be changed seems nifty to me.

So, I mess about with my facial hair a lot.

Most of the time, I grow a beard, shave it off, and grow a beard again. Rinse, repeat. I've experimented with sideburns and goatees, and had a solitary mustache for about twenty four hours. (One co-worker told me that the 'stache made me look like a plumber, and another told me that I looked like a porn star. Either way, the lip rug was gone the next day.) For the past two and a half years, though, I've lived a life of enforced clean-shaven-ness. GEOS did not allow facial hair in it's dress code, and I dutifully shaved myself every day.

As I was shaving before my last teaching day, I thought "This is going to be the last time I shave my entire face in a while..." And it was. I grew a full beard for about a month.

Until today.

I got the itch to shave off my beard once I got used to it, and should probably be clean shaven anyway as I'm trying to land a teaching gig later this week. So, I took razor to face this morning and did the following:

I call it the Wolverine Van Buren, named, obviously, for the eighth president of the United States. I might shave it off tomorrow. Maybe.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


While out on errands with my roommates today, we hit an Asian import store. The place was mainly food items and the like, and not exclusively things Japanese. There were a fair amount of Chinese and Korean products as well. But, the place had a Japanese name and featured a Kinokuniya bookstore in the back, so most of the things there reminded me of Japan.

I walked about, reading the labels on the imported goods, pleased with myself that many of them were comprehensible. There was a fair amount of kitschy bric-a-brac (decorative chopsticks, miniature Buddha statues and the like) that in Japan itself formed so much retail debris, yet here were laden with nostalgia. I found the exact same maniki neko (one of those cats with the upraised paw) that my old school had, the same brand of udon that I used to buy (here marked up because of imports) and bound editions of manga. I got a little homesick for a country that isn't mine.

Not that I'm complaining about being in Portland, but it was another reminder that this is permanent. I will always miss Japan. In Japan, I missed Portland. I remember going to a bar that had Rogue beer on tap, and just seeing the logo made me nostaligic for my home. To prevent myself from missing Japan I said to myself, "this is a good thing, this feeling of wanting another, past place is a mark of past experience." Moreover, it is permanent. I will always miss Japan, and always miss Portland, and hopefully, other areas will be added to that list. It is, weirdly, pleasurable to be nostaligic about a place that is not your home. It is an affirmation of sorts.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

In Which I Watch Watchmen

So, I just saw Watchmen. It was okay. Not terrible, but not particularly good, either. Just okay. Huge swathes of the internet are abuzz with what's in this movie right now, so I'll just briefly mention a few things I liked, and a few things I didn't.

A few things I liked:

-The opening credits set to The Times They Are A Changin. The shots reminiscint of newspaper photos were great, and I liked that the director did something really original with all that backing material.

-The guy who played Rorschach. He was awesomly crazy in all the right ways.

-The awesome owl ship. Actually, I've always thought that the owl ship was awesome, but I was very happy to see it in action in the way I imagined it.

-The set design of Ozymandias' Antarctic base. It's like Versailles plus Hoth plus ancient Egypt. Coolness.

-All Along The Watchtower as the backing music for Mars and Antarctica.

A few things I didn't like:

-The director obviously thinks violence is awesome. That's fine, and swooshy, bloody, smashy movie fights are awesome in the right context. Watchmen isn't that context. The fights were a bit too "Bang! Pow! Splat!" for the source material.

-Using Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah during a sex scene. C'mon! That might have been romantic freshman year of university, but we're older now.

-Ozymandias. Zero charisma, and he seemed a bit too obviously evil.

-The new ending. Yes, the book's ending is implausible and kind of ridiculous, but I was still looking forward to it, dammit.

-Nite Owl shouting "NOOOOOOOO!"

-The absence of the minor characters, particularly the kid and the news vendor. But, I guess minor characters would have to be cut to make the run time.

So, it wasn't a travesty, but it wasn't nearly as great as it could have been. None of Alan Moore's stuff has been adapted all that well, unfortunately. Oh, well. The book still rocks.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Thoughts on Watchmen and Genre Fiction

"'It's too much,' 'It's too fantastic,' 'It's not to be believed' are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm." -Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" -Jay Morton, Superman radio serial

I was talking with my brother about a week ago about our mutual admiration of the new Daniel Craig James Bond movies. We both liked them immensely for similar reasons, and my brother summed it up nicely: "Everything that Austin Powers made fun of," he said, "they took out." Yes, absolutely. That was it. The two recent Bond movies had been unburdened of certain elements that had grown stale long ago, and had made the series fodder for parody. In much the same way, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were free of the sensibility that pervaded Adam West era Batman. Likewise, the new Battlestar Galactica has reformed a television show of no real repute into one of the best dramas around.

Genre fiction, that is, fiction that deals with out fantasies and fears of power, technology, the future, anxieties, and the wide world, has changed. It has changed because it has traded self-consciousness for confidence and, less and less, seeks to be viewed as camp. Instead, genre fiction now demands to be seen on its own terms. It does not seek to portray campy extravagance as its main draw, but now seeks an audience on its own strength.

These senses of self-consciousness and campy sensationalism have been, more than narrative content, the cheif definers of genre fiction over the course of its lifetime. Consider, for instance, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut. Atwood's Handmaid's Tale portrays a nightmarish near future of sexual opression, and her Oryx and Crake imagines a post-apocalyptic world where a single human walks alone among genetically engineered primitives. Vonnegut freely populated his novels with aliens, time travel, and other such weirdness. However, in any bookstore one will generally find these authors in the general fiction or literature section rather than with the rest of the science fiction, because they lack sensibilities of genre fiction. They don't differ in narrative content, not much. It is only their sensibilities that are appreciably differrent.

However, genre fiction over the past few decades has gradually shifted away from this sensibility, an often self-limiting imposition of self-conciousness and flagrant campiness. Watchmen is often sited as being a significant part of this shift, a major event in which the creators "changed comics forever" and whatnot. It's often coupled with The Dark Knight Returns as ushering in a new form of "grim 'n gritty" comics, and the violence, sex, and general dark tone of the graphic novel are generally mentioned as being a big part of that.

But I think that dwelling on Watchmen's "grim 'n gritty"-ness misses the point. Certainly there were comics drenched in violence and sex before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons introduced us to Rorschach and friends. Think about Tales From the Crypt and all of the other stuff that EC Comics did. Certainly their offerings were as "grim 'n gritty" as anything else.

So, there was already plenty of sex, gore, and darkness in comics by the time Watchmen came out. But, much of it was sex, gore, and darkness portrayed with just as much camp sensationalism as anything else. The stuff of Tales From the Crypt and other EC fare is brazen and almost humorous in it's trashy and sensationalistic portrayl of sex, violence, and darkness. It plays into lurid fantasies of sex anf violence just as clearly as Superman comics play into fantasies of physical stregnth and potency. If one thinks that only the "R-Rated" content of Watchmen is what makes it groundbreaking, than one seriously misses the point. Fare such as Spawn and The Punisher is not necessarily more daring than traditional comics, it is more garish.

So, Watchmen did not differ from other works of genre fiction in terms of its narrative content. What it differed in was its sensibilities. Watchmen's violence is not remarkable in its extremity, but rather its sadness. The sex is not remarkable for its presence or explicitness, but rather for its ordinary awkwardness. Almost paradoxically, Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan is probably the most sensationally powerful character ever put into comics, but the fantastic fact of his existence is not played up. He is presented unadorned by hype. Likewise, Battlestar Galactica's Cylon centurions are portrayed not as flamboyant or garish icons of technology (a la Robby the Robot), but rather as frightening and powerful weapons of war.

In Neuromancer, William Gibson doesn't spend much time at all on exposition, and therefore does not resort to campy sensationalim at all. He does not say "In the year such and such, the world has changed..." or any other kind of infodumping, and therefore never "showcases" or "sells" the setting he has made. Instead, he strides into his cyberpunk world with the same sort of narrative voice that an author would use with the real world, and inhabits his construction with conviction. Neuromancer makes dizzying reading because of this, but the narrative is successful in part because Gibson is so unapologetic about what he has created. He does not blink.

In recent years, Ang Lee's Hulk did an excellent job of stripping away the camp excess from the central fantastic character, and telling a story about a man who was filled with fear and anxiety. The film failed commercially because audiences expected to see one of the most camp-laden characters ever in action and got nothing of the sort. But, I think that it suceeded precisely because of that. Hulk is an excellent movie because it does not dwell on the excesses and outlandishness of its central character. Instead, it deals with him as a man. A huge, green, man, but a man nonetheless.

Which brings me to the other side of this whole process of genre fiction evolution: The general loss of self-consciousness and the infusion of confidence in the field.

Going back to the Hulk again, his debut issue proclaimed him to be "The strangest man of all time!" Such promotion has plenty of sensational sensibility, of course, but it is also extremely self-conscious about what sort of story it is. Self-consciousness of this sort, I think, can be limiting both on creators and consumers of fiction. It is most obviously limiting to creators because they may say to themselves, "Ok, I'm writing a science fiction story. It will include the following elements and expected cliches in the work, because that's just how it's done." Likewise, a consumer of fiction might say unconsciously "Ok, I'm reading a science fiction story. I will expect to encounter the following elements of and expected cliches in the work, because that's just how it's done."

The above examples may sound overly pithy and paint writers as hacks and consumers as intellectually lazy, but they do occur. I remember watching some random SF television show with an old girlfriend and she said, "When are they going to get to the space battle?" Indeed, I'd also wondered when the various spaceships were going to start shooting at each other, and they did indeed have a space battle by the end of the show. Both creators and consumers self-consciously fell in line with expectations.

Obviously such expectations limit what can happen in the narrative context of a work of genre fiction, and it takes an industrious creator to break free of those conventions, and sufficiently open-minded consumers to embrace them. When you have a movie where the big, green protagonist doesn't get to smash things, some people feel ripped off. In Watchmen, the heroes are powerless to stop the villain's grand scheme. The ending smacks of disappointment, and the conventions of the genre jarringly fall apart when the heroes fail and Moore and Gibbons allow the story to end on their own terms, rather than on the terms of convention.

But, that is not the only sort of self-consciousness that has pervaded genre fiction. There is plenty of science fiction, in particular the stories of Isaac Asimov and much of Star Trek, that says to the consumer "Hey, isn't this interesting!" Asimov's stories are often vehicles for him to showcase a certain kind of scientific scenario, and most episodes of Star Trek often have a sort of "what if this happened" kind of approach. I tend to find these "puzzle box" stories charming and intellectually engagin in their own way, but when consuming them I am always conscious that I am more engaged in the central philosophical or scientific problem of the scenario than with the meat of the narrative or the lives of the characters.

This is not to say that "what if..." or "puzzle box" fiction necessarily disengages the reader or viewer from the plot or characters. Nothing of the sort. 1984 is successful because it allows us to see through the experience of Winston Smith. Winston Smith, and his political anxieties, paranoia, and sexual longing, are as important to 1984 as the dystopic "what if" that pervades the book. If anything, the vividness of his experience makes the "what if" all the better illustrated. To borrow a phrase from activist politics, 1984 succeeds because it makes "the personal political."

In other words, it focuses on the characters, something that any high school English teacher would tell you is important. But in genre fiction, the focus has far too often been on the "what ifs" the "puzzle box" aspects of the story, and the sensationalism of the scenario. It takes a certain amount of discipline to focus on human affairs, I think when fantastic things are happening. But when a creator can pull it off, the fantastic things dazzle us all the more.

Night of the Living Dead is a good example of this. Essentially, it's a movie about a bunch of people who sit around a house and argue with each other. They are arguing, of course, about what to do about the zombies outside and how to survive, but the real focus of the story is on the fear, panic, and the difficulty of cooperation in extreme circumstances. This emphasis on emotional realism doesn't rob from the fantastic elements at all. When the the characters do face down George Romero's zombies, the situation is more intense because they have been established as real people. The zombies are not jokey things that the viewer may wave away- they are a threat to people whom we care about.

So, creators must, with confidence, imbue their characters and scenarios with life in the face of absurdity. Self-consciously dwelling on the scenario will only take you so far, and it may seem absurd to have the ridiculous and fantastic characters of genre fiction imbued with emotional life. After all, they are fantasies, and fantasies are often simplistic and archetypical. But, one must have the confidence that the inner life of a man in tights is just as compelling and just as legitimate as the inner life of a man in a suit. Battlestar Galactica is effective because it says to the viewer, with the full faith in its convictions, that the inner life of the cylons is interesting. The fact that they are reincarnating robots in space does not shake this conviction. The narrative imbues full confidence in its creation, rather than presenting them at a self-conscious distance, demuring its focus to the intellectualism of the central "what if" scenario, or the camp sensationalim of the narrative situation.

Watchmen, of course, takes its character seriously. They are not archetypes or pawns which the creators merely use to move the story forward. Nite Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre and the rest are treated with legitimate affection by the creators and readers. They are not McGuffins, and, despite their absurd circumstances, they are real.

And they are not the only ones. Thinking about genre fiction, several characters seem better realized, even in the face of fantasy, then ever before. The characters in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were unselfconsciously presented to us even in the face of a baroque fantasy setting like Middle Earth. James Bond was once a human cartoon (albeit an entertaing one), a tuxedo-clad archetype whose main function was to deliver the action, sex, and gadgets of the narrative situation. Now he's an actual character. I've already mentioned Battlestar Galactica, and Batman and the Joker have been wonderfully stripped of everything that once made them objects of parody.

This is all good for genre fiction, I think. To be fair, I have nothing against genre fiction that indulged in the campy sensationalism of self-consciousness that I've described. If anything, I find it endearing. But, much of it seems marked by a kind of innocence, and it does not demand to be taken seriously. If something does not demand to be taken seriously, then it invites disposibility, it invites itself to be treated like a commodity rather than art.

Genre fiction, I think, is not disposable, and potentially has as much narrative legitimacy as anything else. Over the past twenty or so years, creators, viewers, and readers have come to realize that. Watchman was a big part of that process, and the genre fiction available now is better than ever because of it.

That said, the movie is supposed to suck... But for the most part, genre fiction has been wonderful of late.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


So, I've gotten a place in North Portland, a fairly nice place that I'm renting, without a lease, from a friend. It's a pretty good deal. This is the first time in about ten years that I've had a Portland address, and ten years ago I would not have been attracted to North Portland at all. Ten years ago, North Portland was dominated by industrial areas and low income housing, the forgotten "fifth quadrant" of the city. It was the poor area, the "bad part of town," (though never nearly as bad as, say, Detroit or New Orleans or the like). Now, I live here, and all sorts of changes are going on very near my house.

Mississippi Street, a very nice avenue of shops and restaurants, is nearby. Just last night I was at Mississippi Pizza, drinking excellent beer and listening to live hip-hop, and then at Mississippi Studios, a performance space that had just reopened and was letting people in for free. There's also a very nice looking comic book shop that I'll have to stay away from if I want to save money.

A bit north is Alberta, a street that's turned into a Mecca for a certain kind of demographic, i.e., mine. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is also close by, and it's gone from being a wide-open nasty artery to a respectable commercial street. The whole place is developing and improving rather impressively. Back in the nineties, Portland managed to take the downtown Pearl District, then a collection of old warehouses and industrial buildings, and recycle it into an upscale residential and commercial area. A similar change seems to be happening here, though North Portland probably won't be nearly as opulent as the Pearl now is.

This is fantastic. This is really, really wonderful. Whole forgotten and disused parts of the city have had money, life, and culture breathed into them, and I'm not prepared to derisively dismiss this as mere "gentrification."

Gentrification is a real phenomena, and it is indeed a bad thing when longtime residents get forced out of their homes because of rising property values (not that property values are rising in the current recession, but over the long term...). I have little patience, though, for snotty hipsters who make facile "critiques" of supposed gentrification, especially while they themselves are contributing to it. Yes, I find the graffiti above sort of ironically amusing, but in all probability it was probably scrawled by someone like myself, a new arrival to North Portland, a young, educated person such as myself who has a sense of irony and possesses cultural capital if not actual capital.

But really, what's the alternative? Would opponents of development or gentrification really want big swathes of the city to stagnate and fail to develop? That seems even less humane. I would be appalled if North Portland turned into a collection of condos and fancy restaurants, and I do think that there should be corrective measures taken in the way of zoning and rent control. But knee-jerk reaction to economic development (on both an urban and global scale) is ridiculous. It's a stumbling block to success. Yes, there should be housing for low income people. Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes, we should strive for social justice and social cohesion, and try to meet people's economic needs. But demanding that regions stay poor and undeveloped? Preposterous. Development is a good thing. Edward Abbey, as much as I love him, was massively misleading when he said that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." Growth lifts people out of poverty by giving them capital and jobs.

And then there's the whole racial dimension of it, which is too thorny to get into. But, I think that there what's happening now is the opposite of the "white flight" of the 1950s.

Starting after World War II, whole masses of middle class white people moved away from the inner cities and out the the new, shiny, segregated suburbs in what has been called "white flight." The result was that the wealth and tax bases of the inner cities suffered, and the wealth and tax bases of the suburbs did just fine, resulting in a horrible unbalancing of the quality of government services, most notably schools, in the two areas.

Think about it- think about how often in the media the fate of the "inner cities" was decried and moaned about. Well, a big part of that was that the main wealth generators were sitting in the suburbs, not contributing to the economic well being of the urban center that they fled. The biggest reason that inner city schools became so terrible is that they didn't have any money. They didn't have any money because so many of them were funded by property taxes, and when housing values are low all across an area, not enough revenue is generated to adequately fund social services. This problem was so bad that it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 with San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, wherein the Supremes decided 5 to 4 that funding schools out of local property taxes did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I think that the Court was wrong in this instance, but the whole affair was a great case study about why economic segregation deeply harms communities.

So, "white flight" was a terrible thing, something that harmed the inner cities, harmed poor people, harmed black people, harmed everybody, really. Now we've got the exact opposite happening, and supposedly it's harming the inner cities, harming poor people, harming black people, harming everybody. I'm skeptical of the ills of gentrification and development, and I've wondered if a lot of it is just white liberal guilt getting blown out of proportion.

Do I want North Portland to turn into a series of prohibitively expensive condos? No. But should it have remained how it was? Absolutely not. Again- development is good. I'm happy to be here, happy to be in a part of the city that feels new, and I wonder what kind of development and evolution my hometown will go through next.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I just got an email informing me that I've passed the Foreign Service Officer Test. This is awesome. This is an amazing, wonderful, fantastic feeling. Yes, there's lots of stuff that I still need to do before the Foreign Service hires me- the next step is a series of essays due on March 24th -but the test is a notoriously difficult stumbling block. One figure I read said that 80% of the people who take it fail.

And I passed that thing. I passed that huge monster of a world knowledge exam. Hell yes, I'm ecstatic and proud of myself. I've got it. I know I can do this. I've got the smarts from years of schooling and personal study, I've got the leadership experience from working in student governments and as a teacher, and I know I've got the social skills and adaptation skills necessary to work abroad for the U.S. government. This is a career well within my grasp.

Awesome. I feel utterly awesome. Woo!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

American Udon

Since I'd gotten back to the States, I'd been itching to go to a Japanese restaurant. Not because I miss Japanese food so much, though I'm sure I will at some point, but because I wanted to see the difference, I wanted to see how it got tweaked and changed here on the other side of the Pacific. Certainly Japan changes around plenty of American stuff. Lots of the pizza seemed to be laden with corn and mayo, for instance.

Anyway, a few nights ago I was in Mio Sushi on Hawthorne with a pair of friends and ordered tempura udon. I love udon, and ordered it partially because I was amused that it was being offered in such a fashionable area in a sit-down restaurant. I used to get udon all the time, but it was at this little hole-in-the-wall place next to Narita station where very old ladies plopped the noodles and inari into your bowl efficiently and unceremoniously, and I ate standing up at a counter. It was great, it was unadorned, cheap, and I was back at work within twenty minutes.

So that was my vision of udon- thrifty workweek food, stuff you eat while still planning lessons in your head. I had to try this udon, this sit-down, American, restaurant-in-a-fashionable-district Udon. I was anticipating it to be entirely different, and possible reek of a terrible inauthenticity. Maybe part of me wanted that, so I could decry it's terrible inauthenticity, even though I think that arguments like that are usually overblown and unfounded. The udon came, though, and indeed it was different.

There weren't any greens in it, and the tempura, more tempura than they'd have ever give you at my old hole-in-the-wall place, was in a separate little bowl of to the side. They had the spice, right, though, and the soup looked and smelled right, and the noodles... were delicious. The noodles were absolutely wonderful, and so was the tempura. It was some of the best udon I've ever had.

Not the best. The very, very best udon I've ever had I ate while I was drunk at a tanuki festival in Takamatsu. But this came close. This was good, thick, satisfying udon, and it was made right here, in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. I was strangely happy with it. Happy that this little bit of Japan had extended to my home, happy that things bleed out of their national borders, that information, food, experiences and people, extend everywhere. I'm happy that we live in an age of the internet, of rapid transport, of global exchange. I'm happy that you can eat hamburgers in Tokyo and udon in Portland. Sure, ethnic restaurants aren't new, aren't just a product of the current age, the information and globalization age, but it was a nice reminder, a visceral reminder, of how all the borders are permeable, all the walls are coming apart, and about how wide open it all is.