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Archives for November 2007

Birthday Haiku

Holland, four years old
Today, a million snowflakes
Gliding through her dreams.

Harold Ford Proposes Flat Tax

Henri, I think you’ll want to read this.

I thought the flat tax went the way of the flat earth, but here it is almost 2008 and it’s being proposed again. On top of that, I always thought the flat tax was the intellectual property of nutjobs like Friedman, Hayak, and von Mises. Harold Ford, Jr., you may remember, is the Democrat Congressman from Tennessee who lost the election for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Bill Frist. Here are a few excerpts from his article for the The Washington Times:

We ended the last century with America’s economic might at its zenith, with Americans at their most optimistic, and with nearly all who endeavored to make the most of their opportunities and talents getting ahead in life. John F. Kennedy’s declaration that a rising tide will lift all boats was alive and well.

To address the challenges of the middle class, Democrats should advance an agenda that aims to do something loftier than just repeal the Bush tax cuts on millionaires. It should boost incentives for average Americans to increase savings and investments, and help them participate more fully in the upside of economic growth.

Toward that end, here are a few ideas that will help more people share in the rewards of the modern economy:

• Middle-class flat tax: This is simple and fair: no middle-class family with an income of under $150,000 should ever pay an effective tax rate of more than 10 percent. If what they owe after calculating their taxes is more than 10 percent of their income, they won’t have to pay a dime above 10 percent. If they owe less than 10 percent, they pay the lesser amount.

• Permanent capital-gains tax cuts: Long-term capital gains tax rates now are between 5 percent and 15 percent. The rates are progressive: People in or below the 15 percent personal income tax bracket (which applies to married couples making $60,000) get the lower capital-gains rate. We should lower the capital-gains tax even further for people making up to $100,000 a year, provided they hold the asset for up to five years. Thus your tax would be 4 percent if you hold the asset for three years, 3 percent if you hold it for five years. This sliding scale for taxing capital gains will encourage investment and increase savings for a majority of Americans.

Sounds good to me. And yes, I did just go from blogging about Philip Roth to flacking tax policy..

"F-16 fighter plane shooting missles at a Hut in Iraq while someone inside is…

shitting in a hole and trying to read a copy of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ that was airdropped by accident 10 years ago in Afghanistan.” That’s how Tao Lin describes the greatness of Roth in the latest issue of The Stranger, in an article titled “The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America”. I liked this article, and I think the implicit comparison drawn between the megalomania of authorship and the random value of pets and methods for going mobile is especially awesome. Is there possibly a connection between the veneration accorded our most eros-driven writer and our capacity for destruction? Maybe. Just maybe.

And I really, really, really liked this paragraph (Noah Cicero – I hadn’t heard of him, either – is the author of the novel Burning Babies and blogs at The Outsider):

CENTIPEDE IN THE DARKNESS: Noah Cicero. Has published seven books. One on Lulu, two on his personal blog, and four POD on small presses. Rarely, if ever, has sex with fans he meets on MySpace. Gets more hits on his blog in half a week than has sold books in five years. Ignored by all print, for-profit media except in foreign countries. Makes enough money from his writing to get drunk once a season. Will likely die alone of something easily treatable if he’d had money or motivation to go to a doctor. Will be forgotten in 20 years (while he is still alive) when he loses the ability to blog after getting first-degree burns on both hands while boiling potatoes at work. Will be rediscovered 60 years after his death. Blog will be published as a hardcover in 2270 on Mars.

Hoo-ray for Centipedes!

Z Ya

Sarah Kerr has written an article for The New York Review of Books that is both a good introduction to and a fine elegy for Nathan Zuckerman, the “alter-writer” whose literary peregrinations have been documented by Philip Roth over the last 30 years or so. I think he first appeared in My Life As A Man, and way back then he was character created by that other alter writer, Peter Tarnapol. Yes, it’s a little confusing for the uninitiated, but you might as well start with Exit Ghost and work your way backwards. Here’s an excerpt from the NYRB article to inspire you:

Early on Roth mines Zuckerman ambitious, overeager young literary aspirant for comedy and musing about literature. Later we get the rich and doubt-wracked forty-year-old version, nearly undone by physical pain. Paranoiacs, ideologues, and even some justifiably angry people have drawn him into entertaining combat, their grievances evolving over the years. In the eerily moving meditation in The Counterlife on the writer’s process of imagining, Zuckerman even briefly appears to have dropped dead. Indeed, nearly as far back as two decades ago, Roth’s reliance on this sort of proxy—this navigator of literary fame, lightning rod for accusations, delighter in sex, and accepter of the guilty destiny of a writer to use people—was already so long, incident-filled, plainly divergent from his real life yet symbolically tangled up with it that in his memoir The Facts he could append to his own account a brutal critique written by none other than Zuckerman:

Dear Roth, I’ve read the manuscript twice. Here is the candor you ask for: Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than “accurately” reporting your own life. Could it be that you’ve turned yourself into a subject not only because you’re tired of me but because you believe I am no longer someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises? Well, on the evidence of what I’ve just read, I’d say you’re still as much in need of me as I of you—and that I need you is indisputable. For me to speak of “my” anything would be ridiculous, however much there has been established in me the illusion of an independent existence. I owe everything to you, while you, however, owe me nothing less than the freedom to write freely. I am your permission, your indiscretion, the key to disclosure. I understand that now as I never did before.

And from there you should go directly to Operation Shylock or Sabbath’s Theater, which are about as good as it gets in modern fiction. My opinion, anyway.

A New Way to Read?

Man, you can’t do this with a blog. Brian Dettmer creates these works out of old books, and other things. Galleries that have exhibited his work may be found here and here. He has this to say about his method:

“I always think of the books content and how it relates to my process. For example, when I work with an anatomy book, I think of the book as a body and of my process as a dissection; when I work with a science or anthropology book, I think about excavation: if its a history book I think about memory and the way history is told and the way it can be redefined.”

The rest of the interview may be found at the blog what to wear during an orange alert. Pardon the silly picture on the sidebar.

Søren Says

When it is the duty to love the men we see, then one must first and foremost give up all fanciful and extravagant ideas about a dream world where the object of love is to be sought and found; that is, one must become sober, win actuality and truth by finding and continuing in the world of actuality as the task assigned to one.
~ Works of Love

Keeping Back a Little

A brother renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, ‘If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.’ The brother did so, and the dogs and birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 1984, p. 5

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Pablo Casals / Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach

My mom had the Casals LPs when I was young, and would sometimes play them as I went to sleep at night. The audio wasn’t nearly as good as some of the other versions, even in the 1970s, and I think he plays them quite a bit more slowly than Rostropovitch, Ma, Kremer, and the others I’ve listened to. Still, there’s something special about the Casals recordings. For one thing, he was the one who “discovered” a manuscript in a thrift shop. You can read more about the Suites at the Wikipedia entry.

[Part One] [Part Two]

And you can take a Master class from Sr Pablo here!

Birthday Haiku

Q. metamorphosed
Into D. then J. then B.
While writing Bird’s Nest.

Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Nine

How do you go about separating your life from that of your parents? It can be a fairly complicated process. For some people the question hardly comes up at all. Perhaps they don’t lead lives very different from those of their parents; they share the same values, the same aspirations, and their lives are for the most part easy repetitions of a pattern provided in advance. This must be less common than it used to be, since the world changes more and more with each new generation. And you’re more likely to copy your parents, of course, if you admire them; when you don’t, you’ll probably go looking elsewhere for different models.

Julie was serious about moving out. She went immediately from Dr. Cervantes to a nearby place open for breakfast (the same place her mother used to go to after dropping her off as a young girl), bought a paper, ordered a cup of coffee, and began working her way through the ‘Apartments’ section of the classified ads. She wasn’t ambitious or greedy; the main thing was that she had to move out of the house she’d lived in virtually her entire life, and into a place of her own. She considered her last exchange with Dr. Cervantes a promise both to him and herself that the very next action she undertook would be for her own independence. Her decision to stop seeing Cervantes showed a great deal of insight: all that experience in his office had taught her that while talking about her parents (at her parents’ request!), she was in fact only further entangling herself with them. So her announcement that she was finished with the visits was itself a kind of proclamation of emancipation. Anything might happen, everything else might change, but she would free herself from her parents.

Since she didn’t have a job and had only a little money saved, she didn’t bother looking at anything other than studio apartments. She could certainly find a way to support that; what she didn’t know now she would figure out as she made her own way. Whatever it might take, she would do it; the only thing that really mattered was moving out. She would suffocate if she stayed at home any longer, as she had told Dr. Cervantes so many times before. After looking through ads for just five minutes she realized that even a studio apartment was out of her price range. She turned to the columns for single rooms instead and circled three that looked promising. Then she took out her cell phone and made her first call right there at the table.

The first place she went to look at was just a few miles away, a three bedroom, dilapidated clapboard a few blocks off of Eastlake Avenue, not far from the bridge that connected Lake Union to the channel which led to Lake Washington. She pressed the buzzer, failed to hear anything, and then rapped her knuckles on the door three times. A slender man in his late twenties soon opened the door and invited her in.

“Julie?”

“Yeah. Doug, right?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“I’m here about the room?”

“You’re not sure?”

“No. I mean, yes … I mean, I’d like to look at it.”

He pushed the door open and then stood to the side to allow her to walk past him.

With one hand stroking his goatee, he led her back through the dining room to a room next to the kitchen. Once inside Julie looked from side to side and floor to ceiling. It seemed okay. The walls were a dingy white, but the plaster was pretty well intact. From the entrance she could look out into the kitchen, which was painted yellow and looked a little dingy, too. They both stood in the middle while she looked at the walls and he took turns crossing and uncrossing his arms.

“It’s small, but it’s clean. A few holes in the wall, but that’s about it. We just sprayed the house for bugs.”

“Ooo. Is that a problem? Bugs?” She realized she sounded disgusted, and then she realized that might not be a bad thing.

“Well, we keep it from turning into a problem. Prevention, really”

She stood in the middle of the room and looked around for a minute.

“Nice view,” looking out the window. A few buildings downtown were visible just to the side of the building across the street.

“Well, yeah, it gets a little noisy at around 9:00 am,” he responded, thinking that she was looking at the parking lot between the house and an apartment building next door.

“Oh yeah. I see. Well…”

“I guess I should fill in those holes,” said Doug to the walls, as if it was an apology. In a way, it was.

“How much do you need at first?”

“Up front?”

“Um … yeah, up front.”

“First and last. Don’t need a deposit.” He was still scanning the walls. “Jeez, that’s a big hole. I’ll take fifty bucks off.”

Julie did the math. “Nine hundred?”

“Yeah. I guess you could you just put a poster over it.”

“I’ll take it”

“Great.”

Well, it wasn’t, but she followed him out to the living room. A desk there served as his office. She stood next to the fireplace while he fumbled around in a metal filing cabinet. A young woman came out of the kitchen, rattling what looked like a serving spoon in a cup of something hot. She was wearing a black tee shirt, like Doug, which seemed to make them husband and wife, or something. She was slightly pale, but for the time being she still had good skin. Her hair was dark with a red sheen in the light of the bare bulb above. ‘Tweezer’ was written in cursive glitter across her smallish breasts, perhaps indicating a band. A girl band, probably, although Julie had never heard of it before. Although it might well have referred to the woman’s eyebrows, which had been pretty seriously sculpted.

“Morning.”

“Uh huh.”

“Go to school?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Work near by?”

“I’m looking now, actually. I’m thinking community college first.”

“Up the hill?”

“I spose.”

“That’d be nice. Hey, if you need a job, they need someone where I work.”

“Where’s that?”

“Video store, right up the street.”

“Close by?”

“I walk there. It’s nice. Dollar rentals for employees. They have every DVD ever made, and a lot of all the TV stuff as well.”

“That sounds great.” It did.

Doug, having finally fished out the lease agreement, brought it over for Julie to sign. After trying unsuccessfully to sign it against the wall, Tweezer stepped aside so that she could use desk. After signing the contract, she handed it back and just stood there as if awaiting further instructions.

“Well, you can just make the check out to me,” said Doug, and spelled out his last name. “By the fifth of the month from now on is fine.”

This made Julie panic. Of course they would want money right now, why hadn’t she thought of that? She had a bank card, but no checking account. What else could she have forgotten? References. Why hadn’t he asked for references? In the space of two seconds she traveled from panic to suspicion, and then without even thinking about it was able to stall without bringing any suspicion on herself.

“I’d actually just planned to look around, and I left my checkbook at home.” She waited to see if they would take such a lame excuse. “I’m really sorry. It’s just that I’ve got a lot going on right now.” She’d heard this from her mom a lot over the years, and it pained her to have to use it herself.

“Well, just drop it off later today, or as soon as you get a chance. I’ll give you a copy of the lease then.”

“Great”

She and Doug shook hands. Tweezer smiled. Things were looking up.

Julie’s next job was to go to the bank, where she had a savings account. It might seem strange that a young woman her age should be without a checking account, but she had always lived at home and her mother had always taken care of the bills she had for school, car insurance, and even the car itself. She had a debit card with which she could take out money from the savings account her father contributed to every month.

After going to the bank she sat in the car and confronted the dread she had of talking to her mother. She knew exactly the kind of reaction she would have. She wouldn’t show her anger (or at least she wouldn’t express it), but she knew it wouldn’t be very supportive. Mother had a number of stock tactics with which she could voice her disapproval, some more controlling than others. There was the look of stern disapproval, accompanied by a clenched jaw and hours of stony silence, usually broken in the end with words such as, “I understand your need to…’ There was the simple No. Julie might argue with this, but as she’d said to her mother so many times before, it was like pounding her head against a brick wall. To this her mother would reply, “So don’t pound!” and then, “How do you think I feel? ” The first reply makes all the sense in the world. What else can a parent tell a child who doesn’t like the discipline being imposed? The second had more than a touch of self-pity and did nothing to help Julie see anything more than her own point of view. The worst response, however, was a thoughtful pause emphasized by raised eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned down, completely phony and utterly unconvincing.

Julie thought all this over in about five seconds and decided she would just sneak out. A few days later it took perhaps half a dozen trips to transfer all of her things to her new room. Since she didn’t have a dresser, she hung most of her clothes in the closet and piled the rest onto bookshelves that had been built into the corner of the room. Her biggest problem was that she didn’t have a bed. Luckily, Tweezer was around during the last of her trips. The two were able to get the rest of her things up to the room without too much difficulty. Tweezer stood in the center of the room, thumbs through her belt loops, and surveyed the room by slowly turning around in a circle.

“Nice. You gonna get some posters or something?”

“I suppose so. It needs something, doesn’t it?”

“I could get you some movie posters.”

“That’d be nice.”

“So do you have a boyfriend or something?”

“No. Not right now.” ‘But it’s high time,’ she thought to herself.

“I guess that’s personal. Don’t think it’s cause I’m the owner, or because I live with the owner. I’m just curious.”

“Not at all, I understand.” Maybe she could help her find a boyfriend.

“Say, I told my boss about you, so you should go in. You’d like it there.”

Julie was tempted to ask, “Based on what?” but held back. In spite of her questions, she liked the girl and was happy that someone was thinking of her.

“We look after our tenant. Want you to pay rent and all.”

“Well, I’ll go today.”

“You’ve gotta watch out for that owner though. He can be kind of creepy, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.” What did she mean?

“He’s hit on a lot of girls, even though he’s married. Wife comes in all the time, too. Acts like she doesn’t know, or like nothing is wrong. Strange. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Otherwise he’s okay, all things considered. He’ll give you days off when you need them. And there’s dollar movies, don’t forget about that. Wait – do you have a TV right now?”

“I’m working on that, right after a dresser for my clothes.”

“I’ll talk to Doug, he’s got a few things from past renters in the basement, stuff they just left behind. I think he’s got a bed down there, actually.”

“Yeah, well…”

“Anyway, he’ll get you some stuff. We look after our housemates.”

Doug was in fact able to find a bed frame in good condition, an old metal piece, double sized, with a wire mesh so loose that he’d had to add a sheet of plywood to provide decent support. He also found a chest of drawers. The mattress looked awful, and she ended ordering one from a local department store.

Julie went into Videosyncracy for a job on her way back from the mattress hunt. Tom wasn’t in that particular morning, and the young man who handed and took the application did so with the bare minimum of expression. She looked around the store and realized that as far as video stores went, this one was better than anywhere else she’d been. The ceiling was perhaps twenty-five feet high, and at the back wall was an open staircase that zigzagged up to a second floor, half the size of the first. Underneath that floor she could see a small theatre, with perhaps two dozen chairs. She’d never seen so many movies in one place and wondered how many there actually were.

“Got a lot of movies here,” she said to the young man behind the counter.

“Yep,” he said, playing it cool. Julie craned her neck as she looked up at the upper level.

The young man warmed up a little. “It used to be a cardboard box factory or something. I can just imagine a supervisor coming out his office up there, leaning on the railing and looking down on the poor slobs working down below. We’re the poor slobs now, I guess. Although Tom – that’s the guy you want to talk to – he keeps his office back there.”

She saw him nodding towards a room filled with shelves behind him. “We also keep all the actual videos back there.”

“You have room for all of them?”

“Yeah. But it’s getting pretty tight.”

“Do you like working here?”

“Yeah, it’s great. Tom’s a great boss. He’s a good guy. Knows his movies.”

“Thanks for the help”

“Well, maybe I’ll see you again.”

She would have to ask Tweezer about him when she got home.

A few days later, Julie was lying on her bed and taking stock of her situation. She was slowly getting the place together; she now had sheets on the bed, although she hadn’t yet spent the night yet. She’d bought some food, although she hadn’t eaten a meal there either. She did have most of her clothes in the room, and had actually changed there once. That was something. She hadn’t said anything to her mom yet; moving out was certainly complicated. She actually hadn’t said much of importance to her mom for quite some time, and the rented room, when she thought about it, was really just the latest in a long line of events that she realized she and her mother would never see eye to eye on. So why bring it up until she had to? She didn’t have to. When would she have to? Maybe when she started working. But mom was now gone much of the time herself.

A few days later she got a message on her cell phone from the manager at the video store. Listening to the message, she remembered how grudgingly her mom had agreed to the phone, knowing how much more freedom it would provide. Lost for a moment in anger and memory, she actually had to play the message again. Knowing how forgetful she was, she wrote down his name and the time, even though it was her only appointment.

She showed up right at 1:00 and actually met him as he was entering the store. There were just a few customers there at the time, so it was convenient enough to begin with a tour of the store. She didn’t bother telling him that the clerk had said as much the other day. Was he giving her second looks as well? Maybe the clerk had said something. ‘As well he should’, she thought. She took stock of him as well. On the tall side, extremely broad shoulders, and dark brown hair. Nice eyes, nice smile; obviously comfortable in his store. This was his element, of course. He waved her towards his office behind the counter. They went through a room packed with shelves, on which were kept all videos in clear plastic cases.

“This is where we keep all the DVD’s,” he explained. “Can’t risk leaving them out on the shelves.”

“Uh huh. There’s a lot, isn’t there?”

The walls were painted bright yellow, but they didn’t quite make for the sunny appearance they were intended to. She was reminded of the artwork in office. While she sat there with her back straight, he leaned back in his chair and looked over the application as if he were seeing it for the first time, which perhaps he was.

“Nice handwriting.”

“Thanks.”

“Jedermann?”

“Yep.”

He looked at her for a moment, as if searching for something. He broke his own trance and turned his gaze back to the application. She was now quite conscious that she was being interviewed. This moment passed, and it was in fact a cheerful conversation that took place.

“The job starts at ten bucks an hour, I think you know that, and I’ll start you off at 25 hours a week. We’re flexible about the hours, and you can work out any changes you need to make with the other employees – just let me know a couple of days in advance, and when I initial the master schedule in this binder, it’ll be official.” He held up the binder as if he were in a TV commercial.

This time it was Julie with the blank stare.

“Well … job’s yours if you want it,” he clarified.

“Oh. Of course I want it …”

“Good. Then it’s official,” he said, beaming brightly.

They regarded each other for a moment.

“Well then, I’ll put you on the next schedule. Why don’t you come in tomorrow afternoon around two – it won’t be too busy then – and I’ll show you the register and how all the rest works. Not that it’s too difficult. Sound good?”

“Oh … that sounds great!”

It did. She had her place, she had her job; all she needed now was to explain it all to her mom. She thought about all the things she could tell her, ways that she thought she could reason with her during an imagined scene, but it all sounded like pleading, and (because she had pleaded so much in the past) she knew that this approach would get her nowhere. Her mom would just tell her that she needed to be in school, and when Julie explained again that she didn’t want to go to school, her mother would insist on more visits with Cervantes. And Julie hadn’t even told her she’d stopped. What she needed to do, she decided, was to just inform her of the decision that had already been made, and then let her react however she chose. She felt stronger as she imagined their meeting this way, and prepared herself for the fateful encounter. Well, it worked well enough in the imagination, but over the next few days she found reasons to put it off. Doug and Tweezer were probably wondering why she hadn’t spent the night there yet. She pondered the exchange with her mom as if she were watching it all over again on rapid rewind, and realized she’d never be able to tell her in person. She simply couldn’t do it, and in fact it was something of an accomplishment that she even managed to leave her a note.