Sunday, December 25, 2005

Aaron vs. Celebrity
I saw an advertisement for FOX's upcoming "Skating with Celebrities" and no, it's not a spoof of "Dancing with Celebrities" (which in turn, is not a parody of anything, not intentionally, at least). And as the episode ended, I realized that I really didn't know any of the celebrities. Which begs the question: What constitutes a celebrity? Are you a star simply because you were once on Full House? It seems to me that there has to be more to it than that, otherwise there's probably just as many celebrities as there are ordinary people.

According to the dictionary (that little read source), you need to be a widely known person. Being a former anything disqualifies you, as you are currently nothing. That is, off the radar. Negligible. Absent. In fact, if we're tuning in to watch just out of disbelief that you are actually still alive, you are anti-celebrity. Next time, hire yourself some paparazzi (an ugly necessity to maintain that image), and stay in that artificially created spotlight. I mean, I was a child model (that is, I was in a single print advertisement); should I qualify? (The answer is: Yes. But that's another story.)

No, a celebrity is maintained by making the personal image synonymous with their work. That's why high-profile musicians have such high-profile stories. All the rappers have their feuds, all the teeny-boppers have their... well... their "teeny-boppers," and all the rock bands wear their hearts on their sleeves, chests, ass-checks... wherever the ink fits, really. Unless an actor throws a phone at someone every now and then, we tend to forget the films they've been it: the principle is, we have to be interested equally in the person and their work for them to become celebrity.

Now, I admire that one of the contestants is a rehabilitated drug-addict (that is, literally, a former child-actor). But his sad story is no different from that of Alonzo Bodden, who won (on an untelevised episode) the final Last Comic Standing. Nor that of some of the contestants on other reality TV shows. But are any of these people necessarily celebrities? I could pull some other names out of hat, friends of mine, and you'll either know them or not. What makes them a celebrity, rather than an actor, or a comic, &c, is whether you know them before I mention them. There's just too many people out there who have all performed at one point or another for them all to be celebrities. FOX needs to be honest about their schadenfraude-ing duties and just label this "Cheap Laughs."

Honestly though, we should just know people for their accomplishments, not for their status. Elvis is an iconic name, just like Jesus, but I really don't know the work of either. Should I call these people celebrities? And if I respect them just for the bankability of their name, isn't that far worse than honoring their legacies and messages? I know at least with the latter of those two icons, many people have forgotten the point because they've gotten wrapped up in the mythos, the "celebrity." Let's also think about these celebrities: they're all actors, media whores already. What about some Nobel laureates performing? What about John Ashbery?

We're lost in the pop-pop flash of the glitzy media. We want to quantify fame so that we can strive to achieve and own it, as if there were some logarithm we could perform to achieve it. And failing that, we want to laugh at those who had an opportunity for stardom, but lost it. In doing so, we inadvertently fall prey to the biggest paradox of them all: we can't see what happens to someone after their fifteen minutes are up without extending their fame. So we'll never get to see what happens when the fame falls away. And we'll go on chasing those celebrity ghosts, those people that never were or never deserved to be, from channel to channel, always indulging the hope that one day, that will be me (I mean . . . us).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Aaron vs. Legislative Wordplay

You Republican raconteurs, you. Your conservative chicanery of inelegant (yet elegant) nonsense phrasings is no surprise after Bush first elucidated "fuzzy math" (and fuzzier English). Now that I've managed to get that out of my system (at least for one sentence), here's an idea I came up with. The current political engine works is quite adept at calling a spade anything but a spade (how about "rathbon"?), so let's not be left behind in the lurch (ditch, gulf, &c). In the spirit of Paul Auster, who once let a madman propose a world in which each object had a one-to-one relationship with its name ("City of Glass"), let's come up with some new names, and skirt all the bull-ocracy.

The example I'd like to choose is "abortion." Both sides of the issue have taken positive-sounding names ("The Right to Choose" versus "The Right to Life") and put their own unique on what is essentially the same issue (though the way they talk, it's hard to see, let alone hear). It's a heavy-handed subject, but what I find most astonishing are the ways in which each party chooses to describe the act itself. I've never seen such graphic descriptions of violence (we allow this on TV) as some of what I've heard. Babies vacuumed out of their mothers, still wailing with the sound of silence from unformed trachea, non-existent vocal cords, absent lungs. The malicious cutting up and disposal of embryos and the black marketeering for the stem cell market, as if people enjoy handling so much meat (and yes, some people do). They've (the anti-abortioneers) really vilified the subject. The other side, not surprisingly, talks of painless procedures and acts of mercy. They find ways to make a teenager's sluttishness look like victimization and come up with the most ridiculous of excuses. Yes, accidents happen, and I accept that. However, I don't believe that people's privates have a magnetic attraction that somehow causes the one to fall atop the other purely through the miracle of science. There's got to be a little willpower, or barring that, some blood vessel expansion. That comes first ("then," as the nursery rhyme for the modern age goes, "comes marriage, then more sex, then comes ____ with the baby carriage," and if you're really lucky, love, eventually*).

I fear that all of this banter may have distracted from my actual stance on abortion. --Good. What I actually think about it is irrelevant; we're only judging words today, and how they're used to make a point. So my solution to the whole abortion problem is to call it something else (much like the GLBT community is currently dealing with "union" instead of "marriage"). What I mean is, let them ban abortions. You'll just go in for some perfectly legal cosmetic liposuction. If that's a little too edgy a concept (think Nip/Tuck**), just call it something else. Some word that they haven't banned yet. Because once they have to start defining exactly what it is that you're not allowed to do, a battle will be able to be fought on clear grounds, without all this ginger-stepping that allows one term to mean so many varying things. Our government can't agree on what "torture" means, nor "warfare" or "terrorism" for that matter. And as long as we allow them to use such generic and non-descriptive terms, they can continue to avoid the issue.

So let's forgo the wordplay, let's stop playing Scrabble. We can still agree to disagree, but let's at least agree on what we're disagreeing about. Otherwise, we'll never really solve anything. We'll just be generating a lot of hot air.*** And really, you don't want to be a rathbon, do you?

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*It occurs to me that "Love Eventually" might make a far better movie than "Love Actually." If you'd like to purchase a treatment or script, my contact information is on the link to the right.
Let's just come up with another name for abortion, okay?
**And please, Ryan Murphy, don't ever let the advertisers dictate to you on how to sell your product. This season may be notoriously awful, but you shouldn't have to censor yourself because the hot-dog vendors hawking products on the sidelines of your episodic drama are pulling out.
***And the last thing a country with Global Warming (or, more specifically, the fact that our own environmental actions are destroying Nature itself, and I'd be more specific if I knew the actual science behind it--again, the avoidance of strict terminology allows this country to avoid taking responsibility for what they call "cutesy science") needs is more hot air.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Aaron vs. Private Schools

First off, if it is possible to be without bias on a subject . . . I don't have that restraint. I hate the concept of a private school. And second, so far as research or experience goes to back that statement up: I have none. I went to a public elementary school, a public middle school, a public high school, and a public college. Never mind that the middle school was M.S. 54, a specialized program (Delta) for the more scholastically apt (N.B. and ignore that I was not initially accepted), and forget that my high school was the academically elite and studiously sterilized Stuyvesant (N.B. and again, excuse that I passed the entrance exam by only three points). The fact of the matter is; I never paid for a higher (or even lower) education, and I know nothing about private schools, let alone Catholic schools (save the stories our parents tell us to help them sleep better at night). I know of people who have attended these once-removed-from-reality edifices (facades, really) of education. That’s about the extent of my knowledge.

Of course, having a basis for an argument is irrelevant (or so many Catholic schools, not to mention our Ultimate Administration of governance), so let loose the gripes of wrath. A friend of mine (Sharon) recently informed me that her hometown (Sparta) had gained a moment of infamous popularity thanks to an MTV headline. Well, let me be the first to congratulate her and then to tell her that there is such a thing as bad press. So far as I know, Sparta was a country in ancient Greece (a place far removed in time and place), and the current one, located somewhere in the ambiguous smog of New Jersey, should be the next Afghanistan on our list. I just don’t see the point in having a second Sparta, especially one that’s going to have such inept policies.

As for the policy itself: Pope John XXIII Regional High School’s principal, the Reverend Kieran McHugh has mandated that students can no longer have websites (including web-logs or Facebook-type pages) . . . for their own protection. “If this protects one child from being near-abducted or harassed or preyed upon,” says McHugh, “I make no apologies for this stance.” However, should a child be far-abducted or wholly snatched, that’s apparently not only their own problem, but part of the “unspoken” policy. The real reason, obvious to the rest of the world (a group whose brains are not stifled by the unbearable rigidity of mitres), is that students were bashing their terrible school (well, d’uh), over the Internet. That, in itself, is against school policy: now students will face expulsion for simply posting mundane chatter on the Web. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for clearing up the worthless chat and chattel, but this is a First Amendment violation.

Not so, apparently. You see, this is Private School. Normal laws don’t apply there. It’s all bendy. Because students sign a charter for the right to pay money to attend such a luxuriant home of learning, they constrict themselves to special rules. To rules which could eventually (and legally) include other restrictions or requirements, such as an inability to question religious faith and the necessity of theological workshops (brainwashing). Fantastic, no? That we can send our students to places that could make it a requirement for their pupils to learn fanaticism, the MacGyver way to make bombs from anything, and the strict training of suicide bombing. Yes, I’m taking the extreme here, but aren’t we just sanctioning the right of religious (or even just private/exclusive) schools to mandate their own policies, ones that they see fit to preserve a better tomorrow? We cannot let such one-dimensional stupidity exist. Where would the Intelligent Design be in that?

Meanwhile, Pope John H.S. insists that their policies are not only just, but for the safety of the students. If you’re going to ban the Internet because of the potential for stalkers, why not ban the Street? Or those suspicious black SUVs? Or how about just banning crime? I mean, what’s one blanket statement compared to another? In any case, the whole problem with private school is that each is essentially a country onto itself, one that is adjunct but separate to our government. One that creates a specialized kind of thinking, a disjoined type of student: one separate and possibly more than equal. Private schools, to put it bluntly, scare me.

I’d like to imagine that parents would be wise enough not to send their students to a school that teaches farther and farther from the norm. But parents are easily frightened, and would rather authoritatively clamp down than risk their fragile students in a “danger” school. And I understand that there are some very real problems with safety in certain public schools. But the more we restrict our young, the more resentful we make them, and the more likely they are to be incapable of tolerance or understanding of other social situations, even. Schools are a paradigm of the world’s social makeup: if a student makes it through school only because they’ve avoided danger, or because they’ve been surrounded by the comfortable ideology of the like-minded, how will they ever deal with the angry voices of the rest of the country? The answer: they won’t. They’ll continue to clamp down, and the whole cycle will continue.

Private schools enable the minority to pretend they’re the majority; they allow the suppression of normal student development; they bleed parents as a preface to the gouging of college; and they don’t really—in my opinion­—make the least bit of difference on how smart your child will be. After all, I’m a public school baby, and look how I turned out. Bitter, resentful and full of trenchant barbs: a model citizen. So get behind me, the poster child for public schools, and run from all that is wholly unholy: private (especially religiously private) schools.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Aaron vs. Gift Cards

Ho, ho, ho . . . 'tis the season for giving, or so they say. I certainly wouldn't know, what with being the broke critic that I am (and a soullessly bankrupt person besides). Plus, I'm quite embittered, or so they say; so don't bring any of those prostitutional chants of goodwill around my block, I don't want them.

But if you would like to give me a gift this year, please send cash. Why go through all that hard work picking out something you think I'll like only to have me then go through all that hard work returning it? Unless it's something you made yourself (where the thought really does count), I'm perfectly fine using holiday donations to go shopping for myself. I'm a big boy now, all growed up.

Let's get something clear though. If you can't think of something non-commercial to get me, but you don't want to be so thoughtless as to give me cash, don't get me anything. A gift card is pure evil, distributed in various plastic denominations.

First off, you can't return it. Second, it's impossible to spend EXACTLY the total value of the card, so at some point, I'll have to waste my hard-earned money. Third, why should my choices be limited to the confines of one store? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of Democracy? Where's my personal freedom of choice? Let's be honest: these gift cards don't accrue interest and I'm not likely to need $100 worth of books at Barnes & Noble at any given time. (Not that I won't spend it; I'm a bibliophile.) Chances are, when I see an item I really want, I probably won't even have the gift card with me. Cash is a bit more liquid, you'll have to agree.

Now, Sharon, a friend of mine, pointed out a new form of gift currency going around on courtesy of American Express. It's basically a pre-paid debit card, insured and all. But then you're spending extra cash on a middle-man instead of just paying me off for your happy holiday. Plus, then all my transactions are visible to the public, and last time I checked, drug dealers didn't accept plastic. Not really a problem for me; I'm just saying. . . . Anyway, I suppose you could always take that debit card to the bank and make a full withdrawal, but then again, I suppose you could've just given me cash to begin with. I can imagine the awkward conversations already: "So, son, what did you spend your credit on?" "Well, Dad, I bought some cash." "Cash?" "Cash. Merry Christmas."

What, are you worried that I'm going to take your cash and use it to buy other people belated presents? Relax, I could just as easily do that with your gift cards, let alone your actual crummy presents. Look, you can trust me: and if you can't, I'm not quite sure why you're giving me a gift at all. (Unless it's a payoff, some sort of money-laundering thing. Again, I'm not really a product of the underworld, so I don't know anything about that.)

So this holiday season, don't get cutesy, don't try to be sweet. Nothing warms the soul like some cold, hard cash. Or a hot cocoa. With marshmallows. But hey, don't go getting any funny ideas. Give me the money, I'd rather buy my own!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Aaron vs. Analysis

There is nothing like a semi-philosophical debate about the purpose and nature of analysis to sober one up. (You can try singing the previous sentence to "There is Nothing Like a Dame" but I don't think you'll get any further than I did.) In any case, it's practically a rule (going hand in hand with the whole 'not eating' thing) that every self-proclaimed artist have a manifesto. At the least, it's something bulky enough to burn for heat when the power goes out; at the most, should you ever make it, it's something strong enough to justify your success. So here's mine.

I believe the reader is just as much a writer as the author, and unless both are fully involved in the creative process, it's just literary masturbation (one-handed).

It takes two to tango, folks, and I'm sick of the chick-lit or junk novel, the light beach reads or glorified (and simplified) crime novels that tell you everything up front. An author's job should be to put words on a page - words that move him or her - and, as a teacher of mine once said, to let them live. Most readers, especially the stupid ones (but hopefully the smart ones), are just going to put words in your mouth (or is that page?) anyway. That is, everybody has a unique perspective, their own slant on language, and it's a guarantee that nobody will see exactly what I meant to be seen. So as I figure it, why even have a fixed image anyway? Just write something that's aesthetically pleasing, something that lives, that fits the premises (or doesn't, if that's the point), and allow the reader to take it with them.

Which brings me to the bane of my existence: Analysis. Considering how strongly I feel that a writer's work should be ambiguous, aesthetic, and enjoyable (so as to encourage personal thought), the idea that we should pick apart existing works and proclaim one solitary meaning (or pick apart the interpretations of others) is offensive. If you want to make an annotated version, that is, to research terms and to look for anagrams and wordplay, that's fine, because you're just pointing out an author's cleverness for stupid people. However, if you also want to explain what the purpose of each character was, to say that Quilty or H.H. was a double of the other (I have lapsed into Lolita here), I think you're mad. You know why? Because it doesn't matter. Even the annotated notes don't really matter. I should get whatever I get from the book when I get it. If I need Cliff Notes to understand it (as we're frequently training our students to use), it didn't have any effect on me, and we should move on to the next book. It's not necessary (or even conducive) that we understand every sentence, every phrase, or even every idea. Nor do I see how sitting about writing about this or that is going to add any value to this world. If you think the author was using a certain theme, and you liked it, good. Write a story that uses that theme.

Let me take a step back: the conversation originated with poetry. I made a comment that John Ashbery's poetic standpoint was very appealing to me. He writes poetry that's meant to be experienced, straight through, without mulling over lines or re-reading. If you miss something, you miss it, that's part of the experience (just like seeing a movie on the big screen, where you can't rewind). The very act of missing something will redefine what you even get from the poem, and if it's only one word, one phrase or a single image or idea (or even nothing); you've still gotten at least that from it. You don't walk away empty handed. Of course, to then try to analyze one of Ashbery's poems would be redundant. You'd be experiencing it out of context, as it wasn't meant to be read (just like Shakespeare is meant to be performed). If you want to justify historical references that are oblique (again, annotations, not commentary), then append away. That's why the appendix is that thing we don't need. The point being: poetry and fiction should move you WITHOUT an explanation. If you get moved my studying it, then you're attracted to analysis, not the work itself, and that's a whole other kind of sad: second-hand transfusions.

Now, lest I be construed as shitting in my own pool, let me clarify that there's a difference between analysis and criticism. Analysis, to me, is a deadening effect: it involves a thesis and, like many scientists in the Bush Administration, requires looking purely for the lines that support that thesis, while ignoring all other comments (or trying to explain them). That's no good, nor can it possibly be accurate. In fact, the only way to truly analyze something would be to go line by line, at which point you'd have just rewritten the novel itself. Why pick out themes and what not, just for the sake of illustrating what the "deeper" meaning was? If all I can do is float on top of the water, knowing there's treasure at the bottom isn't going to help me. And seeing pictures of the divers going under, that's just living vicariously through analysis.

Criticism, on the other hand, is a lively and opinionated affair. We're not trying to prove a point with arts criticism, not really. If there's any analysis, it's meant to be one-sided (and acknowledges that). We're just trying to say: hey, don't (or do) see this (read this) and here's why (why not). It's not meant to explain something to the reader: it's meant to convey an emotional reaction that one person had. In many ways, at its best, criticism should be like a creative piece itself. Refreshing, aesthetic, full of images and wordplay: enjoyable to read. There's no need for a plot summary; the point is to be visceral, not superficial. Or at least, so I believe. I can still remember Harry Knowles's "Fucking The Monster" review of Sphere (I met him at a conference once, when I was first starting out as a critic): not a single word about the movie, but damned if I didn't want to never see the film after reading the review. It's color commentary, edgy and productive, that gets me going, that justifies what we do.

Along those lines, I guess if people wrote "color analysis," I might be more interested. But too often, I find analysis to be derivative of the product, and criticism to be its own separate animal. Analysis is indirect in getting to the point; criticism should be short, sweet and a direct response. Which leads me to a rule: Analysis is always wrong, Criticism is always right. Analysis presumes to be fact-based and supported, but the text it uses is liquid and subject to constant interpretation, so it's no more supported than a leaf in a tsunami. Criticism is an opinion, and despite what some bad teachers may say, your opinion can't be wrong. Q.E.D.

Now, before this gets any more analytical (and self-defeating, to the point where I need to excoriatingly criticize myself to get back on track), let me just wrap things up, a plea to all writers, critics, scholars and creative geniuses:

There is only Write and Wrong. Wrong is Wrong. So just Write. (Period)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Aaron vs. Public Transportation

This is not a love/hate relationship I'm in: Emotion has nothing to do with it. This is S&M, plain and simple. I, like many others in the vice-tight grip of the dystopic MTA, am a submissive; I smile as police interrogate me; I laugh when trains reschedule and delay with capricious delight; I contort myself into sardine tubes and jockey for position; and yes, I pay for this abuse. I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world. I can't.

That said, I look for ways to bite back. I rip that MetroCard through the reader, I punch through the turnstile, and I ram myself against the doors. And all the while I'm conscious of saving money (i.e. taking the bus so as to be able to transfer for a train within two hours), all the while, I'm thinking of ways to take that Card and shove it. It's a pretty passive resistance, but how else to deal with the illusory practices of the MTA.

Case in point: the MetroCard. Tokens used to be art; intricate and beautiful, they combined form and function. Ah, listen to me, gushing like some combination of Art History major and schoolgirl. Now we have these ugly plasticine devices that no doubt have conveniences for the ninja (no coins jingling means extra stealth), and moreso allow the MTA to sinisterly monitor our use (or abuse) of the sytem. And what they've done is to adapt the economic policies of this country, focusing their reparational attentions on the big hubs rather than the unsightly stations and train lines that the majority don't populate. Don't be fooled by the Wonkian design: this MetroCard is no golden ticket. It will get you where you're going, eventually, but it'll cut corners and punish you at every turn. On second thought: perhaps not so different from the Chocolate Factory, from which children fall down disposal chutes or are pumped through chocolate funnels.

Point the second: the Price. I'd never really paid attention to it until I started working a regular midtown job, but $2 dollars a ride is the kind of extortion that chips away at you, like acid-reflux or one of those other livable illnesses. Still, that's not infuriating so much as the Unlimited scam, for which you'll pay $27 or $76 for a week- or month-long pass. Consider how much these rates are inflated by how much you'd pay normally: you get a special rate of six rides for every $10 spent, so you'd need to ride 14 times to get your money back over the week. That's also assuming you don't lose the card: while it's not designed to be lost (like the iPod "Pico"), accidents do happen. And yet, if you're addicted to travel and keep your wallet tight (and your MetroCard tighter), I guess it's okay. Still, look at all the people lost and confused (no, not tourists). "Where are you going?" I'll ask, and they'll just scowl and walk away, or maybe reply, their eyes dulled with the subterranean glare, "Anywhere. Anywhere but here."

Which is interesting: to get where we want, we must be where we least desire to be, most notably during rush hour. Now, we don't have it as bad as Japan (where pedophiles justify their existence) and we're far more efficient than Russia, cheaper than London and open later than our US counterparts, but man, we don't live there. We live here, and we should really only shit in our own backyards. Anywhere else would just be rude.

One final thought though: despite the supplicant population of transients (our modern boxcar residents); despite the tactless graffiti (I guess the real artists of the street have been hired); despite the tumultuous passage of this metallic phallus through the vaginal underbelly of the city (thanks Freud); it's better than taking a cab. (Marginally relevant anecdote: I've only ever been hit by a car while in a cab. BY another cab. I guess you could say it was a auto-erotic moment, cab-on-cab action.) And, lest I shit all over those yellow bugs, my emergency egress, at least it's not a Pedi-Cab. Because for all the gouging of the MTA, at least they're practical. And God, despite what you may have heard, hates the ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Aaron vs. Heights

Gosh, no, I haven't forgotten about all of you. But it's been busy at e-casa de Riccio, as I put my cyber-shop in order and my electronic affairs together. Now, in my new job as a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, I have gotten to see some exoticly mundane locations. It's funny, but being up more than twenty stories tends to elevate your perception of things. Forgive the pun: the height must've gone to my head. It takes a while to adapt to the literal pressure.

Take for instance, Central Park. I never really appreciated how scenic the whole thing looks, how urbane - a paradoxical word for the forested area of the urban jungle - the greenery is, sitting in the shadow of this concrete prison. But day after day, I'm looking out at this page from another book, and it makes me almost want to waste my time walking through it. Such a shame things are rarely as close as they appear, and like my stance on God, the moment I should grasp the beauty of the thing, it will become complete inaccessible by definition. In other words, I might go back and row around the pond because that's what I'm good at, I might play some softball, but I'm certainly not going to rusticate in Sheep's Meadow.

But that's not all I see: the shadow starts at the base of Central Park, but as the day slips forward in subtle incriments, all of "uptown" looms its scabby self at me. You ugly hideous beast, I love you. Which makes me forget for a moment, as I lean out to wrap you in my arms (you sweet embraceable you), that I'm quite high up. When I was younger, in a teen traveling camp, we used to dare each other to lean against the thin-seeming glass, that vitreous substance, and peer down into the ant-occupied minuret, "look ma no hands" free. What a frightening and exhilirating feeling.

Much like the experience of soaring on a rollercoaster. Of the few things my brother has ever done (intentionally or not) to better my life, his "chicken-call" convincing was How I Learned To Love The 'Coaster (or Dr. Rollerlove). In that bizarre black twist that defines my life, the way I finally justified the needless thrill was the reminder that if I died, I'd most likely be dying with many other people, and therefore, the embarassment of a premature death would be far less obvious. This same philosophy enabled me to fly to England; I guess it's the same philosophy that lets us live our anonymously famous lives.

This has been a wobbly ranting narrative so far, and it's not likely to get any saner. Suffice to say, I'm intoxicated with the feel of actually having a purpose (read: a job that I love), and maybe it's not just the oxygen-rich air that's doing it to me. Everything just seems better from way up here. But if you're wondering why you don't see me, relax, I like to stay far away from the edge.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Aaron vs. Barnes and Noble

I have found Hell. It is not, as previously recorded, located somewhere between here and digging to China. Nor, as hypothezied by deconstructionalists, is it located in our celestial orbit to counterbalance the fraudulent notion of heaven. Furthermore, Hell is most definately not merely a state of mind, as the Freudulent would have you believe. No. Hell exists. Right here, on Earth (but not, as pessimists assert, Earth itself): at any of your local Barnes and Noble/Borders/Local Booksellers.

I refer, of course, to the Young Adult Fiction section. I recently journied through the munificent tiers of books in search of a GRE review book, having decided that such a course of action might be the inevitable conclusion to my job search. After frightening myself initially by picking up the specialized "English" GRE review book (which trains one to recognize classical authors by style alone), I started to flee the ominous and omnipresent stacks, only to collide with this self-made Hell.

First off, I never realized there were so many Chicken Soups for the Soul. Apparently we're all very sick people (we would be, to write these books to begin with), and more so, we can be segregated into extremist factions, from the Christian Right to the Libertarian Right to the hardcore street toughs (who I'm sure have better things to do than read... this, at least). I'm still waiting for Chicken Soup for the Chicken Soup Reader's Soul, or Chicken Soup for the Illterate Soul, or, as my good friend Zack pointed out, Chicken Soup for the Fetal Soul. These, I'd like to affirm, were the best of the section. To the left: illustrated diet books for young teenagers. The kind of glitsy girl-talk pink and posh covered journals that assert, in glam-speak, with like every other word, exactly what it's like, like, to be a girl, like, trying to have, like, a body... and junk. Frightening. Almost as frightening as, to its right (to it's FAR right): The O'Reilly Factor for Kids. Did I mention the brainwashing children's version of the Left Behind series, forty books long and growing? (That's more than Animorphs, and only slightly less than Goosebumps.)

And on the opposite side: popular television show serial novels, set in the Buffyverse or thereabouts (not that there's anything wrong with that) and the modern day Hardy Boy/Nancy Drew equivalents. Yes, I'm talking about the pulp teen spy novel. But they used to have more tact: now they come right out and say "These are ordinary kids. Like you. They dress... like you. But then they go and do dangerous things." Wow. Way to make me feel, even more, like I wasted an integral part of my childhood. Good thing that section's not nearly as long as the wall-to-wall collection of Manga (Japanese comics, read back to front). I remember when these were merely a novelty item: hard-to-find and harder-to-sell, we were assured of only getting the best Japan had to offer. But then we got the culture shock of Tamogotchi and the Fad Market, and all of a sudden, every single pisspoor comic was ported over here. No more Ranma 1/2: instead, we get comics that are a sixteen of that, in other words, Ranma 1/32. For those who don't know, Manga, like most Teen novels, work in decompression: rather than telling a story concisely, they span out simple sentences over multiple pages to convey exaggerated shock and recycle the same sight-gags over and over again. It's much like reading a children's book, but again, we were in the Young Adult/Teen Fiction section. No wonder nobody likes to read any more. Look at the choices we're offering them.

No, this was a horrific example of what the market has been driven to; the same place that The New Yorker informs me many newspapers have been driven to. Despite the writer's general intelligence, they are forced to cater to their audience, in other words, to write not for themselves, but for those who might actually buy the paper. This has resulted in a lot of dumbing down, in other words, the creation of Hell in every bookstore. If we stop writing for the smart, we cease to give people the ability to read anything smart. Stupid becomes the new median, and I hestiate to think what lies beneath being retarded and stunted.

Save us, oh Jesus-for-Kids. We need your almighty miracles, as depicted in at least half a dozen Manga, to rectify the brand new sins of a greedy and intolerable market. For we, or at least I, are surely in hell now.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Aaron and the Homeless

Every other street, or neighborhood, ought to have one. I say this in response to the approach I’ve seen taken down on Houston by a more compassionate and understanding neighborhood. There’s a homeless man who lives – yes, resides – in a chair that sits outside a local Ray’s Pizza. He sleeps there, sheltered by the pizzerias’ awning, reclining against the wall and with this feet stretched out, back supported by a rickety chair. He has a large aluminum can hung around his neck, like a pasta sauce container, stripped of all recognition, and, for all purposes, is no more scruffy or banged up than the can itself. The community allows him to reside there, without calling on the police to catch him for loitering, even allows him to use the bathroom during operating hours to stay somewhat clean, and in return, he helps out around the neighborhood with small tasks. I have seen him, occasionally, sweeping the streets or delivering for the pizzeria. He seems sweet, not at all belligerent, and contributes to the neighborhood, becoming a staple rather than an eyesore, actually serving to give the place some LITERAL character.

Now, as a long time resident of Manhattan, I recognize that there’s a homeless problem. It’s one that seems insurmountable, and no long-standing solution has ever been offered. But how about something like this as a start? This neighborhood has not offered him a place to live, not welcomed him in with open arms: but they haven’t repelled him with pitchforks and fire either. Instead, they tolerate his presence – in fact, they, in cooperation with him, have found a way for both to benefit. I don’t mean to imply that the homeless are lesser creatures than the residentially-endowed or that they are a situation to be “tolerated” or “dealt with,” but merely that, in a city where being homeless is very much a social stigma, this seems to be a mutually beneficial fit. One that other neighborhoods with a charitable streak might want to consider.

We have all these people sleeping, unprotected and alone on the street. I’m not suggesting that we correct that overnight, but why not invite these people to sleep – one to a block – in our neighborhood? Find people who, due to circumstances are reduced to living on the street, and give them a halfway street on which they can rest a little easier. In a charitable cooperation, this person might be assured of three square a day, and a somewhat sheltered place to sleep, in return for which he/she might protect the premises (a living alarm) or help out with minor reconstruction/chores around the area. It costs us very little to help those who are suffering, but at the same time, it’s no surprise that we are more compelled by the intimate than the anonymous. Having a familiar face, a sort of outdoors doorman, might encourage the mutual relationship to grow: the homeless might be able to eventually better their situation through cooperation with local businesses (e.g. finding work) and hopefully, with legal employment and good relations with the surroundings, move up.

This is a serious topic, I understand, and I know that I don’t have quite the eloquent words to describe this. I also know that not all homeless people would take kindly to a relationship like this, one which, to some, would seem degrading and demeaning. And this is not a case of beggars not being choosers, because the moment a beggar loses the right to choose is the moment they lose their self-respect, the last ounce of their essence and self. What I’m saying is that it is difficult to find the appropriate methodology, and rather than having the current parasitic and defiling relationship, a more symbiotic approach, one cleaned up more than mine, seems like a good solution to an honest problem.

I post this here just because of the raw amount of homeless people I have seen recently, and the gentle way with which I have seen certain people treat them. People who have called them by their first name, or given sandwiches directly rather than money, as if they were children going off to school. Giving up a little curb seems a small sacrifice to enter into an overall more empowering relationship with the world and our community: and maybe I’m just in a naively inspired mood (for what is inspiration but na├»ve?), but couldn’t the residents of the Houston area have hit on something crucial and key?

Friday, September 30, 2005

Aaron and the Faux Pas

In case it's not clear, I have a slight obsession bordering on mania when it comes to television. I enjoy scripted, reality and experimental shows: probably because I just get such a good feel for things that would never actually happen to me in real life. I mean, it's not like there's a show that narrates the life of being holiday help at Russ & Daughters (more to come on that later). I think mainly it's just having something that's always ready to preoccupy me and my minor ADD (undiagnosed, but it's the thought that counts, right?).

This isn't going to be a long post, but I got sucked into watching The Amazing Race. This new season, the eight, interested me by purporting to be a family show: ten teams of four race around the world to win a million dollars. Plus, the first episode was set in New York City, and there's nothing more entertaining to we who live here than watching tourists - especially greedy ones - bumbling around. So I watched, looking for cheap laughs: I just never expected they'd all be at the producer's expense.

We live in racial times, and it's important to be careful when casting. You want balanced teams that represent the wide walks of life: if they're all going to be white, at least make some of them religious nuts, some of them whiny brats, some of them Italian stereotypes. Thankfully, the crack board of The Amazing Race managed to find black people in America: I know they're a rare breed, but they do exist. However, here comes the big amusing faux pas.

I need to set the scene: we're zooming in on those cab/boat hybrids that shuttle people around the Statue of Liberty, meeting the families for the first time. We've got all these team names: Paolo, Schroeder, Godelewski, all of whom are constantly filmed in a blind panic until they blur together. And nine of them are of the pasty white persuasion: as in, those who don't seem to know what the sun is (and can't use being Irish as an excuse). Until, in a stroke of genius, we're introduced to the one minority team, a black family that seems incredibly together. They are: the black family. Congratulations, producers: I'm sure we will remember their name, just as we remember their skin pigmentation.

I'm not being racist, but I think this Amazing Race serves as a real standard for American sterotypes and prejudices. After all, this show's won the Emmy for reality programming the last three years in the row, and this is what they choose to represent America with? Nine duplicates of themselves and one slightly off-color family that seems as if they were shaded in to give the show a little credability? I'm hoping the whole thing gets better, and until the Black family gets kicked off, I'll continue to watch... but wow. That's just messed up.

Well, thanks for tuning in: time for me to get back to work, by which I mean back to the boob tube, the six hours of sleep I'll pull, and the fun of working in a premiere appetizer store.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Aaron vs. Circulation

So every now and then, I look at my profile to see how many hits I’ve had. That gives me an estimation (or affirmation) that there’s somebody out there actually reading this web log, my pre-emptive memoir. Aside from the fact that these numbers jump quite erratically (so much so that I’m convinced there’s some ballot stuffing going on), this miniature obsession has gotten me enough fuel for this week’s rant: the lengths (and breadths) to which printed works will go to increase their readership numbers.

The most obvious offender is The New York Post, which in addition to having more abrasive and in-your-face street salesmen than any of the other publications put together (these people worked double shifts during last week’s City Council elections), now manages to sell copies of its magazine by offering cash incentives. That’s right, the Post, which costs a quarter, is essentially a readable lottery ticket (one in which none of the profits have to go towards that silly thing called ‘education’).

The first incentive was a $10,000 “Grand Master” Su Doku tournament: the cash prize (publicized on the front page) boosted sales of the Monday and Sunday issues and got foolish logicians hopelessly enmeshed in this “wordless crossword.” (Will Shortz said it, not me.) After this five-week festival, the equivalent of passing out cheap samples of crack cocaine, the Post started raking in cash from publishing a Su Doku book (along with hundreds of other great marketers) – a very cheap enterprise, considering that the author is a computer program. It’s only a matter of time before the algorithm for puzzle construction becomes freeware, at which point we can generate our own infinite Su Doku’s for private publication and use. The Post (although publishers of stupid and integrity-less articles) has a smart editorial staff, and they moved ahead to phase two.

This next incentive was a scratch-off ticket to be enclosed one day, with the instructions on how to scratch it off following in each consecutive day. To find out if you’d won you’d have to follow the instructions, and this meant buying a copy every day (multiple copies even, if you wanted to increase your chances). There’s no better way to increase your readership than by offering them free gifts and cash rewards for buying into the war of the presses: I think it’s only a matter of time before we see Frequent Flier miles awarded to subscribers and/or at certain legalized distribution centers. Oh, and by the way, I’m told the individual pages make great rolling paper for marijuana, though of course, they by no means will publicly endorse that.

Online sites don’t stray too far from this type of thinking either: they offer constant pop-ups to win prizes, and the most successful sites are usually the most glamorous, which is a shame, because when it comes to the printed word, less is usually more. Now, I’ve been trying for the last three months to put together a book of short stories for publication, and I’ve learned a thing or two (about a thing or two) about making something viable for mass consumption. And unless I adapt strong measures like offering a piece of my soul to whoever finds the golden ticket hidden in one of my books, I don’t think there’s any way I can compete with the myriad other competitors. And again, that’s a shame, since there’s some work in this book that I think is actually pretty promising.

I made the allusion early on that there was a connection between the marketing force for a news publication and a political campaign, and I meant it. The two were almost synonymous on the actual voting day, both being pitched and sold in the same way. Campaigns offered the less appealing gifts: handshakes from a well-oiled hand, plastic buttons and bumper stickers with pictures of use only to political stalkers, and the occasional thank you (time permitting). Is it any surprise that voting itself often doesn’t turn out the numbers that certain other, far less important, activities do?

Circulation has run rampant, and I’ve got no real solution on curing it – and let’s face it, my own readership numbers are nowhere near high enough to do anything about it, even from a grassroots perspective. But it’s something to think about, like most of my ill-tempered rants against society, so stick around and let’s grow legitimately. (Those who act now will receive a limited edition thingamajig, so call now while supplies still last!)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Aaron vs. Bush

It was only a matter of time. Now, what I'm presenting to you tonight is a very one-sided debate in which I will basically annotate the released transcript of Bush's speech tonight with the intent of debasing the man. I'm going to do to him what Katrina did to New Orleans: which is, according to Bush, "nearly empty, still partly underwater, and waiting for life and hope to return." That said, I really don't have to do much work. In fact, I feel as if I could leave the following alone as a horrific monologue.

[Interlude: A friend of mine once auditioned for a Shakespearian comedy by doing a tragic speech, "To be or not to be," or something like that, with sock puppets. He did not, suffice it to say, get into the show. However, I don't think that reflects as poorly on him as this aforementioned horrific monologue, one that could be delivered by Captain Obvious.]

[Second Interlude: And along that train of thought: Bush is on a lower level of existance than a pop singer. I have previously railed at pop stars for not writing their own material, but whether you like them or not, they do put up a good show. They make other people's songs look good, other people's choreography, directing, &c. Bush somehow manages to do none of the above, which is unfortunate for a man who should be leading this country. He not only doesn't write his own material (unless asking permission at the UN to take a pee break), but he doesn't deliver it well. He may have the ultimate pressure on him, but that's what we give him long extended vacations for.]

Those little interludes should give you more than a fair taste of what you're in for. Here we go folks. "Glasses onnnnnnnn!"

BUSH: Good evening. I am speaking to you from the city of New Orleans, nearly empty, still partly underwater, and waiting for life and hope to return. Eastward from Lake Pontchartrain, across the Mississippi coast, to Alabama and into Florida, millions of lives were changed in a day by a cruel and wasteful storm.

AARON: Thankee-sai, Cap'n. Way to emphasize the importance of geography over that of human life. And thank you for humanizing the disaster while at the same time trivializing it as a simple storm. I know, I know, slap a face on it and you can launch a nuke at it! But wait: it's not alive, it's a giant wind tunnel, affectionately known to the intelligent as a hurricane. I know you dislike large words, but The Post got around that by calling it a 'cane.

BUSH: In the aftermath, we have seen fellow citizens left stunned and uprooted, searching for loved ones, and grieving for the dead and looking for meaning in a tragedy that seems so blind and random. We have also witnessed the kind of desperation no citizen of this great and generous nation should ever have to know - fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy, and the bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street.

These days of sorrow and outrage have also been marked by acts of courage and kindness that make all Americans proud. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued tens of thousands of people from flooded neighborhoods. Religious congregations and families have welcomed strangers as brothers and sisters and neighbors.

AARON: In what we'll see as a recurring theme, Bush will constantly applaud the effort of religious people; as if normal people didn't give a damn. Let's also give a hand to the repetition of Bush's speechwriter: criminals, by definition, tend not to have mercy. Also, let's clarify: this hurricane may indeed have been blind (it not being animate and all), but it is far from random. We saw it coming. On the same TVs that we could later watch bodies of the dead and the punctuating acts of courage and kindness, we saw Katrina coming. I know you might not have TV out on the ranch, but it didn't just suddenly appear. Nor were the last three years of your cuts to the Engineers Corps "accidental."

BUSH: In the community of Chalmette, when two men tried to break into a home, the owner invited them to stay and took in 15 other people who had no place to go. At Tulane Hospital for Children, doctors and nurses didn't eat for days so patients could have food, and eventually carried the patients on their backs up eight flights of stairs to helicopters.

Many first responders were victims themselves - wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. When I met Steve Scott of the Biloxi Fire Department, he and his colleagues were conducting a house-to-house search for survivors. Steve told me this: ``I lost my house and I lost my cars, but I still got my family ... and I still got my spirit.''

AARON: Hey there again buddy. All the first responders were victims, considering the first responders were the people there. Who lived there. You know, in that little city that no longer exists? It's nice that he still had his family: a lot of people didn't. And they didn't care about houses and cars when they were starving to death: I believe they lost their spirits around this point.

BUSH: Across the Gulf Coast, among people who have lost much and suffered much and given to the limit of their power, we are seeing that same spirit: a core of strength that survives all hurt, a faith in God no storm can take away and a powerful American determination to clear the ruins and build better than before.

AARON: In other words, the headline should read: "Bush to God: Fuck Off!" Storms, according to intelligent design, are too complex too be created by freak accidents like "nature." The creator, that little voice in your ear, is therefore the person who sent this "storm" upon us. So it's a faith in God that God can't take away. I guess that answers the question of what happens when the unstoppable force meets the unmovable object.

BUSH: Tonight so many victims of the hurricane and the flood are far from home and friends and familiar things. You need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead, you are not alone. To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country. To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country.

And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.

AARON: On the other hand, Hawaii and Alaska have been declared expendable. As for New Orleans, let's leave that explanation to Rob Smiegel as Clinton: "We gotta have the beads! Mardi Gras! Whooo!" Now, how many of us knew that New Orleans was called the "Crescent City"? Hmm, I guess we can imagine an America without it; albeit one far less festive. However, let's take this moment of silence to consider yet another recurring theme: you saying that we're going to stay as long as it takes to help these AMERICAN citizens... that's a statement of fact; more than that: it's your job.

[Interlude 3: Be warned. The way Bush acts as if he's going out of his way to do his job, it's only a matter of time before he starts passing around a tip jar too. Nothing disgusts me more than people being upset when they don't get paid additionally for providing the service we're already paying them for.]

BUSH: The work of rescue is largely finished; the work of recovery is moving forward. In nearly all of Mississippi, electric power has been restored. Trade is starting to return to the Port of New Orleans, and agricultural shipments are moving down the Mississippi River. All major gasoline pipelines are now in operation, preventing the supply disruptions that many feared.

The breaks in the levees have been closed, the pumps are running, and the water here in New Orleans is receding by the hour. Environmental officials are on the ground, taking water samples, identifying and dealing with hazardous debris, and working to get drinking water and wastewater treatment systems operating again. And some very sad duties are being carried out by professionals who gather the dead, treat them with respect and prepare them for their rest.

In the task of recovery and rebuilding, some of the hardest work is still ahead and it will require the creative skill and generosity of a united country.

AARON: Now honestly, the port of New Orleans never ceased to exist, so restoring operations isn't that hard. The port simply expanded, that's all. That's a poor joke though, in bad taste, and unlike Bush I'll acknowlege this mistake and move on to the more important thing: before we've talked about repairing the levees and restoring homes, we've assuaged the public's main concern. Major gasoline pipelines. This wasn't really a problem for area residents who are still simply FLOATING their cars to work.

BUSH: Our first commitment is to meet the immediate needs of those who had to flee their homes and leave all their possessions behind. For these Americans, every night brings uncertainty, every day requires new courage and the months to come will bring more than their fair share of struggles.

The Department of Homeland Security is registering evacuees who are now in shelters, churches or private homes, whether in the Gulf region or far away. I have signed an order providing immediate assistance to people from the disaster area. As of today, more than 500 thousand evacuee families have gotten emergency help to pay for food, clothing and other essentials.

Evacuees who have not yet registered should contact FEMA or the Red Cross. We need to know who you are, because many of you will also be eligible for broader assistance in the future. Many families were separated during the evacuation, and we are working to help you reunite. Please call 1-877-568-3317 - that's 1-877-568-3317 - and we will work to bring your family back together, and pay for your travel to reach them.

AARON: I feel it's important to point out that the evacuees who haven't yet registered for FEMA or Red Cross aid either can't, don't have televisions, or would prefer to do this without government interference. Again, the town is still in poor condition: from what phones are they placing these (thankfully) toll-free calls? That's okay, it's the thought that counts: we're a country of proud SPIRITS who don't need practicality. We're creative.

BUSH: In addition, we are taking steps to ensure that evacuees don't have to travel great distances or navigate bureaucracies to get the benefits that are there for them. The Department of Health and Human Services has sent more than 15 hundred health professionals, along with over 50 tons of medical supplies, including vaccines, antibiotics and medicines, for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes. The Social Security Administration is delivering checks. The Department of Labor is helping displaced persons apply for temporary jobs and unemployment benefits. And the Postal Service is registering new addresses so that people can get their mail.

AARON: Both Jeanette and I instantly realized the underlying truth of this insidious message. These "dislocated" residents desperately need their bills and spam: those are the foundations of America. They can become the new landfill and foundation for New New Orleans.

BUSH: To carry out the first stages of the relief effort and begin the rebuilding at once, I have asked for, and the Congress has provided, more than $60 billion. This is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis, which demonstrates the compassion and resolve of our nation.

AARON: Near the end of this speech, when our attention spans can no longer retain this not-so-inspirational statement, Bush will explain that we have weathered the similar crises of 9/11, Jamestown, Plymouth, Chicago and San Fransisco. And didn't we help raise an awful lot of money recently for tsunami victims across the world? And spend an unprecedented amount of money giving the Iraqi people democracy?

BUSH: Our second commitment is to help the citizens of the Gulf Coast to overcome this disaster, put their lives back together and rebuild their communities. Along this coast, for mile after mile, the wind and water swept the land clean. In Mississippi, many thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed. In New Orleans and surrounding parishes, more than a quarter million houses are no longer safe to live in. Hundreds of thousands of people from across this region will need to find longer-term housing.

AARON: What was the first commitment again? Oh yeah. Oil pipelines.

BUSH: Our goal is to get people out of shelters by the middle of October. So we are providing direct assistance to evacuees that allows them to rent apartments, and many already are moving into places of their own. A number of states have taken in evacuees and shown them great compassion, admitting children to school and providing health care. So I will work with Congress to ensure that states are reimbursed for these extra expenses.

In the disaster area and in cities that have received huge numbers of displaced people we are beginning to bring in mobile homes and trailers for temporary use. To relieve the burden on local health care facilities in the region, we are sending extra doctors and nurses to these areas. We are also providing money that can be used to cover overtime pay for police and fire departments while cities and towns rebuild.

Near New Orleans, Biloxi and other cities, housing is urgently needed for police and firefighters, other service providers and the many workers who are going to rebuild those cities. Right now, many are sleeping on ships we have brought to the Port of New Orleans, and more ships are on their way to the region. And we will provide mobile homes and supply them with basic services, as close to the construction areas as possible, so the rebuilding process can go forward as quickly as possible.

And the federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities so they can rebuild in a sensible, well planned way. Federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems. Our goal is to get the work done quickly. And taxpayers expect this work to be done honestly and wisely, so we will have a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures.

AARON: I'm still here. I don't feel it's important to keep rehashing that Bush is just stating the obvious. Although if you dig a little deeper, don't you just love the way he says that federal funds will cover the "great majority of the costs." Why don't you consider levying a "crisis tax" or something that slightly raises taxes (we're talking like, around $5 more a person) to make sure that everybody is back on their feet? But wait; let's not forget that you are the man trying to privatize social security so that we'll ultimately all have to fend for ourselves.

BUSH: In the rebuilding process, there will be many important decisions and many details to resolve, yet we are moving forward according to some clear principles. The federal government will be fully engaged in the mission, but Governor Barbour, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin and other state and local leaders will have the primary role in planning for their own future. Clearly, communities will need to move decisively to change zoning laws and building codes, in order to avoid a repeat of what we have seen. And in the work of rebuilding, as many jobs as possible should go to men and women who live in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Our third commitment is this: When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created. Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive, not just to cope, but to overcome. We want evacuees to come home for the best of reasons, because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love.

AARON: So you mean you do like black people? This is what we call a blanket statement: how exactly are more families - minority families at that - going to own houses? It's not enough to just say that you envision a future where everybody is equal: poverty, like a hurricane, like the concept of terrorism: they are not afraid of your nuclear arsenal.

BUSH: When one resident of this city who lost his home was asked by a reporter if he would relocate, he said, ``Naw, I will rebuild but I'll build higher.'' That is our vision of the future, in this city and beyond: We will not just rebuild, we will build higher and better.To meet this goal, I will listen to good ideas from Congress, state and local officials, and the private sector. I believe we should start with three initiatives that the Congress should pass.

AARON: Holy shit! You're going to listen to good ideas from Congress! And officials! And the shady sounding "private sector." In other words: you're going to continue to do exactly what you've done for the rest of your presidency. You're going to listen to others and let them pull your strings, which admittedly, is probably safer than actually trying to do anything yourself. We wouldn't want you to blow a fuse or anything. Aren't we all more encouraged, hopeful and inspired by our valiant leader telling us that he has NO IDEAS, but that he's more than willing and able to LISTEN to those of others?

BUSH: Tonight I propose the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone, encompassing the region of the disaster in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Within this zone, we should provide immediate incentives for job-creating, investment tax relief for small businesses, incentives to companies that create jobs, and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises, to get them up and running again. It is entrepreneurship that creates jobs and opportunity, it is entrepreneurship that helps break the cycle of poverty and we will take the side of entrepreneurs as they lead the economic revival of the Gulf region.

AARON: No sir. It is money that creates jobs and opportunities. Money being spent through entrepreneurship (and I applaud your efforts to say this word, though you fumbled three for three) and other vehicles for the trickle-down theory. Thankfully, you've PROPOSED the creation of accounts that MIGHT pay some ELIGIBLE evacuees who need extra help UP TO $5,000. That'll definately do it. Why don't you put some golden tickets in Hershey bars while you're at it?

BUSH: I propose the creation of Worker Recovery Accounts to help those evacuees who need extra help finding work. Under this plan, the federal government would provide accounts of up to $5,000, which these evacuees could draw upon for job training and education to help them get a good job and for child care expenses during their job search.

To help lower-income citizens in the hurricane region build new and better lives, I also propose that Congress pass an Urban Homesteading Act. Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government, and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity. Homeownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region.In the long run, the New Orleans area has a particular challenge, because much of the city lies below sea level. The people who call it home need to have reassurance that their lives will be safer in the years to come. Protecting a city that sits lower than the water around it is not easy, but it can and has been done. City and parish officials in New Orleans and state officials in Louisiana will have a large part in the engineering decisions to come, and the Army Corps of Engineers will work at their side to make the flood protection system stronger than it has ever been.

The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be very proud of, and all Americans are needed in this common effort. It is the armies of compassion - charities and houses of worship and idealistic men and women - that give our reconstruction effort its humanity. They offer to those who hurt a friendly face, an arm around the shoulder and the reassurance that in hard times, they can count on someone who cares. By land, by sea and by air, good people wanting to make a difference deployed to the Gulf Coast, and they have been working around the clock ever since.

The cash needed to support the armies of compassion is great, and Americans have given generously. For example, the private fundraising effort led by former Presidents Bush and Clinton has already received pledges of more than $100 million. Some of that money is going to governors, to be used for immediate needs within their states. A portion will also be sent to local houses of worship, to help reimburse them for the expense of helping others. This evening the need is still urgent, and I ask the American people to continue donating to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, other good charities and religious congregations in the region.

AARON: Okay, I've left you alone to ramble for a while, and look where it gets you! You are sending only a portion of this $100 million dollars that OTHER presidents have raised on your inept behalf to governors for emergencies. The rest is going to local "houses of worship"? I'm sorry: seperation of Church and State. The Church takes donations from the clergy all the time for exactly this purpose: to aid and help our society (or at least, that's what they say). They shouldn't need money from the government, and they shouldn't get it. Charities are fine, but people don't need faith right now: they need basic amenities.

BUSH: It is also essential for the many organizations of our country to reach out to your fellow citizens in the Gulf area. So I have asked USA Freedom Corps to create an information clearinghouse, available at usafreedomcorps.gov, so that families anywhere in the country can find opportunities to help families in the region or a school can support a school. And I challenge existing organizations - churches, Scout troops or labor union locals - to get in touch with their counterparts in Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama, and learn what they can do to help. In this great national enterprise, important work can be done by everyone, and everyone should find their role and do their part.

The government of this nation will do its part as well. Our cities must have clear and up-to-date plans for responding to natural disasters, disease outbreaks or terrorist attack, for evacuating large numbers of people in an emergency and for providing the food, water and security they would need. In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a flood plain. I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority. Therefore, I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to undertake an immediate review, in cooperation with local counterparts, of emergency plans in every major city in America.

I also want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The storm involved a massive flood, a major supply and security operation, and an evacuation order affecting more than a million people. It was not a normal hurricane and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it. Many of the men and women of the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States military, the National Guard, Homeland Security and state and local governments performed skillfully under the worst conditions. Yet the system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

AARON: It wasn't a normal hurricane folks, you heard it here first. It was a mutant. An X-Hurricane. The ubermensch of natural disasters. Give me a break: I'm glad that you now plan to develop emergency plans for large urban areas (this apparently is the only thing that government is responsible for). It does frighten me though that as with September 11, you are using this as an excuse to gain greater federal authority and more power for the military. We do need operational plans and the national guard should be here (not Iraq), but all we really need to do is just react faster. That's it. No more hitting the snooze alarm, okay chief?

BUSH: Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution. So I have ordered every Cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people.The United States Congress also has an important oversight function to perform. Congress is preparing an investigation, and I will work with members of both parties to make sure this effort is thorough.

In the life of this nation, we have often been reminded that nature is an awesome force, and that all life is fragile. We are the heirs of men and women who lived through those first terrible winters at Jamestown and Plymouth, who rebuilt Chicago after a great fire, and San Francisco after a great earthquake, who reclaimed the prairie from the dust bowl of the 1930s. Every time, the people of this land have come back from fire, flood and storm to build anew and to build better than what we had before. Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature and we will not start now.

These trials have also reminded us that we are often stronger than we know, with the help of grace and one another. They remind us of a hope beyond all pain and death, a God who welcomes the lost to a house not made with hands. And they remind us that we are tied together in this life, in this nation, and that the despair of any touches us all.

AARON: When I was a counselor for a Jewish summer camp, they used to make us sing a song called "Don't Laugh At Me," by Mark Willis. One of the lines is "In god's eyes, we're all the same/someday we'll all have perfect wings." This seems to me the exact same as what Bush is saying here: we may be horribly unequal, racially discriminatory and violent, but God will welcome us after we die with open arms. This life isn't very important, which is apparently why Bush is striving so hard to make sure all life as we know it ends before his term does.

BUSH: I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come. The streets of Biloxi and Gulfport will again be filled with lovely homes and the sound of children playing. The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole. And here in New Orleans, the streetcars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ``second line'' symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

Thank you, and may God bless America.

AARON: Despite the overwhelming presence of God at the end here, this part's actually kind of poignant. I read once that all we really remember is the very beginning and the very end. I strongly believe that Bush subscribes to this theory along with his speechwriters, because this is probably the only decent and uplifting portion of the speech.

Now, I know you were probably expecting more commentary from me, but that's it. I'm completely spent. I just feel that you should know I probably spent more time writing the annotations to this speech than Bush did reading or editing it. Before you label me anti-American, my heart really does go out to all of the victims of Katrina. I just can't stand the cloying lies of our government. Be safe, America. Be safe.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Aaron vs. Muggers

[*This might not be especially funny to those of you who have traumatic memories of being mugged, but, well, get over it. Life moves on. Besides, this one’s dedicated to that special someone, you stalker you.*]

There is nothing (and I’m resisting the urge to post my copy of “There is nothing like a mugging!” [the popular South Pacific hit]) like getting mugged to make one reassess their priorities and values. Like, say, mainly: my life, first and foremost. Which is, obviously, since I’m writing this, intact. And since my hands aren’t visibly shaking (with anything other than the usual carpal tunnel), I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m over it.

At least in a physical sense: nobody likes being threatened with a knife to their throat or patted down by a slimmer version of Fat Joe. Had it been a fatter version of Eminem (a Mega M&M? perhaps), I’m not really sure how I would’ve reacted. In any case, I did exactly as told – not even thinking to lie or anything about my PIN number – and as a reward was left several items: Jorge Luis Borge’s Collected Fictions (you know, so I can reflect on the situation) and my travel edition of Scrabble (don’t ask). I think he may have even chuckled at that after he took off his game face. For some reason, perhaps my writing is that bad, he chose to take my wallet rather than my writer’s notebook. My goal is now to make him regret that by publishing a bestselling novel.

For what it’s worth, I deserved it on some level – you all know how I love to read and walk, something that’s assuredly not a good idea at 1:15a.m. – but at the same time, Stuyvesant has these really awkward looking “riggings” up, as if we’re filming portions of Pirates of the Caribbean here, replete with scaffolds and hulls. Makes it very easy to hide in a little nook and follow someone into their building. For a place that now charges three times as much as they did five years ago, security really should be better.

M&T is also a horrid responder: should your card be stolen while their office hours are black, there is no way for you to reach a live operator. The closest you can come is to report your card stolen/missing to an answering machine. That’s not a real comfort, and I plan to hold M&T completely liable for the money extracted from my card. Even if that means picketing outside of their office – I do enjoy picking fights with people who aren’t likely to brandish knives on me. Hopefully the guy who mugged me will be content with the money he’s now essentially stolen from M&T and never come looking for me again.

Now it’s time to pick up the pieces, which is really just my way of coming full-circle to my initial point: priorities and values, aside from my life, and the living of it. On my list of things to do are a replacement ID card from the DMV (and you’re bound to hear the end of that), clearing up matters with the irascible M&T bank manager and grabbing a wallet from some street vendor (preferably one that hasn’t been stolen). Oh, and getting a library card, because you know I loves to read. Just, um, not at 1:15am anymore.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest inconveniences is going to be obtaining a new cell phone. My mother refused to let me pay for insurance each month (which would've covered this): she's obstinately blocking me from it once more. Of course, she's also paying for the device, and I can't complain because without it, I've had to fall back on pay phones: the poor man's cell phone. Only these never get reception: I spent a dollar in change just trying to find a phone that actually worked on both ends (reciever and mouthpiece) and was terrified to stick my finger into the quarter return slot because of that old urban legend about the tacks people leave in them. Well, not really frightened so much as lazy. Or both. The point is: these things mean business - there's a reason why those stainless steel cords are just long enough to be used as nooses. And there's no negotiating with a machine for a little more time on the phone - Mommy needs more money for crack, so you'd better pay up.

And while we're on the subject of phones and muggers - our lovely antagonist decides that he's going to prank phone call the people in my most recent calls. While this is only heresay until the lovely and anti-commentitus Jeanette posts something (again, she is not a comment whore) in her own defense: she was rudely woken up by Mr. Mugger who proceeded to fumble over her all-too-difficult-to-pronounce name before falling back asleep again. I'm sorry you lost a valuable seven minutes of REM. I will play "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine)" for you later. Both my singing and the mugger's calling are, make no mistake, far more disturbing than you might possibly realize.

Moral of the story? You know, I was mugged, and I don’t feel particularly obligated to give you one. Go have your own experience and see if you feel like tying everything up so neatly for everyone else. I just needed to laugh a little.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Aaron vs. Legal Con Artists

I've just bought a new pair of glasses, the old pair being a vicious casualty of war between my brother and I. It will not necessarily be missed, the frames dislocated from the shoulders, the lenses themselves scratched something fierce and the whole contraption possibly doing more harm than good. However, what will be missed are the five hundred dollars that went towards purchasing this new pair.

Now, the legal con is very simple. It involves a necessary product - for instance, food - but one that is specialized in, that very few people know anything about - specifically, an organic food or an exotic food. You can do basic research online now, thanks to the internet, but interpreting the data becomes like stock analysis for the layman: of not much use. We don't know how to read the information properly, and when we arrive to get our prescription filled, we're taken for a complete ride. The more appropriate analogue would have been medication, but that expense is never questioned and has inflated so high because of people allowing medical coverage to needlessly purchase the most expensive and generally worthless of products.

In any case, upon arrival at the shyster's lens store, the seller will immediate entice you with words of "savings," "sales" and "under-the-table discounts." What these equate to are a skillful manipulation between inflations and gradual lessenings of that inflation to a more reasonable (but still slightly exaggerated) price. Of course, that implies some basic knowledge of haggling, something that went out with the agoras of yore. Couple that with the fact that these optometrists live off of commissions (they profit from giving you the most expensive of options) and today's honest and naive citizen is going to get shucked.

I actually overheard a conversation while putting my contacts in (after my "free" eye exam) between a new hire and the store manager. The latter boasted of owning three stores and said that this new seller - a former bartendress - would do fine in no time, once she learned "how to sell" the products. I think it no small coincidence that all employees were women, and moderately attractive ones at that.

Now, the frame we pick out is going to cost either $250 or $299 (there are two attractive looking options) - but they'll be half off. Now, $150 for glasses sounds fine, until you factor in the cost of my ultra-thick lenses which (honestly) have to be custom made because they're so damn terrible. The price is now overall $350 or so, and it's necessary to upgrade the scratch-guard. She offers us SG and anti-glare protection for $75 (which is a great deal over $120... though still completely unnecessary if you think about the longevity of my last pair) - when I ask for just scratch-free lenses, she tells me that would be $65. So why not spend the extra ten?

Now that she's gotten us up to around $445, she manages to sell us one final time. A second frame and lenses - a back-up pair - for only $55, to make the whole thing an even five. This is what's called the consolation prize, so we think we're getting our money's worth. After all, two pairs for five is really just $250 each. Reasonable. However, the actual economic truth is, if she's willing to part with my "expensive" custom lenses and a pair of non-designer frames (which look just as good) for $55 - isn't that approximately how much a pair would cost? Maybe $150-200 at the most. All of a sudden, the $500 expense we've accrued isn't looking as good.

Still. A man's got to see. And my credit card has a great pay-back plan. So maybe, whether we'd like to admit it or not, we're all just willing participants in this legal shell game. After all, need we look any further than the lies our government has forced down our throat for support of this most basic of self-evident truths?