Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hell On Wheels: A Review of the AMC epic Western

Anson Mount: The Glare

            "Hell On Wheels" is the name of the shanty town at the end of the railroad tracks. It's 1868 and The Union Pacific is spear-heading construction of the rails using teams of newly freed blacks and Irish laborers. The "town", a hodge podge of tents and important wooden buildings like the saloon, the casino and the whore house, get up and move every couple of months as the tracks continue their extension across Nebraska.  Coming East from California is the Central Pacific's railroad.  It is being built by an army of Chinese workers.  They have already crossed the Sierra Nevada and are headed for the Rocky Mountains.  Railroad men of various ethnic identities are digging, tunneling, blasting, dying and being ruthlessly exploited by a small cadre of robber barons who pull strings from distant offices in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City.
            Nearer to hand are a tier of middle managers working from Denver and Omaha.  At the very tip of the spear, right where the tracks are being laid into the mud and rock, is Cullen Bohannan.  He is played with great conviction by actor Anson Mount.  Bohannan is at various times Chief Engineer, common laborer, independent contractor and Head Of Railroad Police for the Union Pacific.  His knowledge and drive make him indispensable to builders of railroads.
            Bohannon was a Colonel in the Confederate Army.  While he was fighting battles distant from home, his family was murdered by pillaging Yankee soldiers.  Bohannon has a long and violent history.  He has a rage for revenge and a relentless drive to build railroad tracks better and faster than the competition.  This obsession with the track is Cullen's way of sublimating his grief and wrath.
            Here you have the setting for an epic Western television series.  "Hell On Wheels" is uneven but when it's good it's fantastic.  Even when it's not good it's not bad.  It's just slow and a bit broad, with bouts of over-acting and a little taste of corn.  Much of this over-acting is done by veteran actor Colm Meany, who plays Charles Durant, the putative owner of the Union Pacific.  I use the word putative because in the course of the plot, ownership of rail stocks switches hands, and is otherwise manipulated without scruples.  Colm Meany's Durant is a smarmy con man and ruthless survivor whose railroad is the object of numerous baits and switches, shell games, pyramid schemes and hand-buzzer jokes.  He can simultaneously occupy a jail cell and rule a business empire.  He's a man who wears a fine frock coat and beaver hat but he doesn't mind walking in the mud and he'll pick up a rifle or pistol if the occasion calls for it.  Overdone?  Yes, but entertaining as hell. 
Colm Meany's Durant: always a scumbag,occasionally an ally
            Anson Mount is an actor well suited to play a Western Hero.  He's got one of those faces that wears a look of passionate indifference.  This only sounds paradoxical until you see how he has mastered the skank-eye glare with which he regards his enemies.  He has murdered those Yankees directly responsible for killing his family.  He drinks, gambles and whores with the ruck and muck yet he earns their absolute loyalty because he gets the railroad built.  He is fair with his men.  He does the same work.  He is right where the track ends, where it is being built yet another mile across the plains and headed towards the mountains.  He wears a gun belt, jeans, boots, a leather vest and a straight brimmed black hat.
            "Hell On Wheels" is gripping.  It has a raft of finely crafted villains.  "The Swede" is a murderous yet subtle psychopath who never seems to die.  Just when we think he's been disposed of, he reappears.  Our celebration has been premature.  Hang him, burn him alive, throw him off a bridge, run him through with a spear: the monster keeps returning, with his huge eyes and his way of saying "mm.hmm" with his finger tapping his cheek.

The Swede cleaning off the gore

Swede, aka Thor Gundersen, a very scary man

            This is testament to the power of the series' dramatic engine.  A drama is only as good as its villains.  "Hell On Wheels" provides us with a lot of villains, and no two are alike.  We are disturbingly drawn by these evil characters into dark places of the human soul.  Our nerves are grinding, our teeth crunching as we wait for the awful monsters to meet justice.  We NEED that emotional release.  We can't wait for The Swede, or Durant, or Governor Jack Campbell, or smirking Sidney Snow to get what they deserve.  We wait with our breath held, wanting to squash those bastards into the puke and piss of Main Street Hell On Wheels.  The story runners keep us hanging on, coming back for more.  Some day Cullen Bohannon will draw his long pistol, fix his skank-eye glare of steely calm on his target and blow the fucker to pieces!
           I give "Hell On Wheels" four muskrats, one for each of the seasons so far produced.  There is a fifth and final season coming this year.  Perhaps The Swede will be diced, sliced, sauteed, pureed, dried and ground into powder, then released into the vortex of an EF Five Tornado, to be absolutely sure that he doesn't turn up somewhere else.  If he had been with The Donner Party he would have walked grinning down the Western Slope all chubby and with grease dripping from his lips.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why I Started Smoking Again

          After seventeen years of tobacco-free life, I started smoking again.
          (Long pause)
          I hate it when I do something so stupid there’s no excuse for it.  It's humiliating to be so asinine that I deserve a spanking, and I don't mean the good kind.  Dammit! 
          In 1992 I quit a three pack-a-day cigarette habit. It was a huge exertion. I am not a cold turkey type of person. I’m more like a warmed over chicken type of person. I have to do things in steps.
          I used nicotine gum and the patch. In a month I was down  to half a pack a day. I know..I know...one is not supposed to smoke and wear the patch.  I make my own rules. No Cold Turkey.  Luke-warm chicken.  That's my pace.  That's my way.  In another two weeks I reduced my intake to a mere two cigarettes a day.  Finally I made that ultimate leap of faith and left the old demon for good.  Or so I thought.
          It was lovely, being free of tobacco for twenty one years.
          What drove me back to smoking? What could be so frustrating, so enraging to cause me to undo that effort, the dedication that I had given to ending my addiction?
          I became a teacher at an affluent private high school.  This teaching job evolved from a phone call I received from the Principal of Tech Arts Academy. (Name changed to protect the innocent and the guilty). The Principal had read an article about my volunteer work with a school that was, shall we say, low on funds. I had done four years of mentoring at a tough school in the East Bay. 
          I negotiated a contract with Tech Arts Academy. I would teach three classes per week.  Each class would last fifty minutes. Pay per semester: Five thousand dollars.  I was stunned, and I was enthusiastic.  What more could I want?  The school was a short drive from home.  I had a light schedule and a fat pay check.  Sweet! I thought.  I didn't know that I had consigned myself to walk through the jaws of Chaos. Sweet! I kept thinking. Sweet sweet sweet!

          I had loved working with my wild hip-hop kids in the East Bay.  Beneath their thug veneer, they were hungry and grateful. At the holidays each student would make a card for me using a personal photo project. Some of them were brilliant. Some were unintentionally sobering.

          The students’ basic reading and writing skills hardly existed. I got a photo card from a senior. It had a razor-sharp black and white shot of a street scene. It was a classic: the little girl jumping rope was in mid-air. The old guys loafing in chairs were laughing as clouds of beer-spit hovered before their lips, each globule perfectly stopped like a cluster of stars in space. As a photographer this kid was a real talent. The photo conveyed a deep comprehension of the work of Cartier-Bresson. The boy’s scrawled message read like this: “Thang yu m Rosh fore teeshng mu to shit photo”.
          Back on the other side of the Bay I was about to be paid nearly five grand to teach a semester in a school where every student would have a Macbook and a digital camera.
          The school was set in the midst of parklands. There were benches under oak trees, little waterfalls, gentle rolling hills. I saw kids skateboarding along broad walkways, wearing torn jeans and hoodies. Most of the students were attached to a Smartphone or an Ipod.
          The East Bay school where I had mentored was built like a prison. It was all fences, high walls and right angles. There was no greenery, no plant life. Trash blew along its paved quadrangles, empty Cheetos bags yawed in the wind. Every year there was a handful of murders.  Memorial posters hung in the corridors: “Jerry Rodrigues, 1994-2012. We’ll miss you.”
          The posters were enlarged class photos of self-conscious teenagers with bad skin and confused expressions.  
          “Nguyen Van Pham, 1995-2012. So Much Promise.”
          I felt no fear. Wherever I walked students greeted me.
          “Hey Mr. Rosch, 'sup?  How ya doin?”
          “Mistah Rosch, ‘aighh-t! It’s all good... you know what I'm sayin'?”
          I carried four thousand dollars worth of gear in my photo bag. I never had any trouble.
          I hadn't built any fantasies about students from wealthy families.  In fact, I was a bit cynical.  My goal was simply to ignite a love of photography in some of these kids.  I wouldn't get them all.  I knew that.  I thought I would get a few.  I hoped.  That's all...I just...hoped. 
          On the first day of the semester I arrived at my classroom half an hour early and set up my tools. I had a laptop and my camera gear. The school provided a digital projector and a screen so I could show images and procedures on my computer. I had wanted this gear so badly at Flying Bullets High School!
          Every student was to have a Mac laptop and a medium-grade Sony digital camera. The latest and best photo software would be installed on each computer.
          There were four long tables with chairs in the classroom. They formed a square that was open at the ends. In the room’s center I had a small table to hold the computer and projector.  I could stand outside the square and walk around the classroom to reach each student. I could see all twenty four of my students and they could see me.


I had been told that I could use basic forms of verbal discipline. There would be no shouting, no cursing and of course no corporal punishment. To back up my discipline I had the option of sending a student to the principal’s office. This was a feeble deterrent. The principal was as frightening as a stick of cotton candy. She used “therapy talk”. “What are your feelings, Trish?. Why are you acting out? What can we do to resolve your issues?”
          At one o’clock the bell rang to begin my first class at Tech Arts. Within five minutes, fifteen of my students had drifted in and taken a seat. They were talking among themselves. They gave me a cursory glance. The boys continued pushing one another and laughing. Several were immersed in video games. The girls were listening to their Ipods, talking about boys and squealing at supersonic pitch. 
          By ten after one, another four students had arrived. They took their seats casually and looked around the room. They were either smirking or looking completely stricken and miserable.
          I still had five missing students. I started the class.
          “Hi, I’m Mister Rosch, and this is a class in digital photography. Would each of you answer when I call your name?"       
          They looked at me as though a giraffe had suddenly appeared in the room, something exotic and impossible to ignore.
          A girl wearing a soft white hoodie sat at the end of the rear table. Her eyes were unfocused. She was listening to music. It was so loud I could hear it. I was amazed that her head didn’t turn to mush.
          “Young lady, please take the hood down and turn off your smart-phone.”
She didn’t hear me. I met the eyes of the girl next to her and cocked my head to the right. The girl poked her neighbor. The hoodie girl emerged from her trance. Her neighbor spoke with enough volume to be heard over the music.
          “Off the hoodie! No Ipod!” she yelled, poking her thumb in my direction to fix the blame where it belonged. The girl’s face emerged from the shadow of the sweat-shirt’s hood. She was lightly freckled, her hair short and black. One of her cheeks was distorted by a huge wad of gum. Her mouth opened and closed like that of a snapping turtle.
          “Your name is?” I asked. She removed the chunk of gum and put it into a tissue. “Stephanie,” she answered. She placed the gum and tissue in her backpack.
          “Stephanie…Stephanie what?”
          “Oh..uh.. Stephanie Blarney,” she said, and there was a titter of quiet laughter from the class.
          I looked at my roll list and found one Stephanie, last name Hubbard.
I asked the girl in the next seat. “Is she Stephanie Hubbard?”
          “Guess so,” the adjacent girl answered. She looked to her left. “Is that your name, Blarney?”
          “Yeah,” Stephanie Hubbard grunted. The white ear buttons of her Ipod dangled from her dainty hand like the eye stalks of a squashed insect.
          I was about to resume roll call when a thin young gentleman appeared. His skin was pimpled, his hair looked like a broom that had served as a target for shotgun practice. His eyelids were at half mast. Marijuana vapor rose from his clothing like mist from a rain forest.
          As he took a seat I said, “Sir, you’re twenty minutes late.”
          He looked up at me and said, “Huh?”
          “Twenty minutes,” I said.
          “Twenty minutes what?”
          “You’re twenty minutes late,” I repeated. I wasn’t going to get angry. What would be the point?
          “Oh, well that’s not too bad,” he responded.
          “Just take a seat, please.”.
          Some of the students were laughing. Little snorts gusted from their noses.
          I continued the roll. Megan B-. Anthony C.- Keith E. I had gotten that far when the door opened and a compact black student entered the room. He was the only black student I had seen on the campus. He walked with a droop and bounce, very loose in his knees. His hands were held with index and pinky fingers pointed out while the other fingers curled into a fist. His limbs moved with the popping grooves of the hip hop gangsta. His head thrust forward, his elbows locked, his arms kept criss-crossing his chest. He went directly to a seat at the table nearest the door, scooched himself between two friends. There was a little rally of smacked knuckles, coded fingertwiddles and muttered incantations of “right on right on”.
          When this was done the latter student squared himself to face forward and smiled at me with perfectly false sincerity and charm. His eyes twinkled with benevolent mockery.
          “S’up man?” he asked rhetorically. “Everything ‘aight?”
          I walked to the door and twisted the lock mechanism to the left, and then back to the right. I did it three more times.
          It was 1:25.
          “I want everyone to know that from now on this door is closed at three minutes after one. Class begins at one. You’ll have three minutes grace. Don’t even bother coming through the door after that time. Go straight to the principal’s office.”
          I repressed my desire to start a “when I was your age” speech. No good, no good, utterly useless and stupid.
          I booted up the computer. The screen at the front of the room lit up to display its desktop. I sat in the chair next to the computer and projector. I moused onto the icon of Photoshop, so I could open the program.
          “There were supposed to be twenty four computers here,” I said to the class at large. “Does anyone know where those computers are?”
          A hand shot up. It belonged to a boy with a broad forehead and the faint beginnings of a moustache. He wore glasses and was dressed neatly in a short -sleeved shirt and belted khaki pants.
          “Tell me your name," I began.
          “I'm Damian,” he said. “I think the computers are still being checked out by Jeff in the tech lab. He’s supposed to bring them here when he’s done.”
          There’s always a kid in class who wants to help the teacher. Sometimes he’s the smart kid, the geek. Sometimes he’s the kid with the worst grades. He becomes a helper out of desperation. I had a feeling that Damian was the geek. He knew everything, had all the answers. Damian nudged the boy next to him. “Bock,” he said, “Why don’t you go down to tech lab and get those laptops?"
          Bock was a chubby person whose shirt buttons weren’t properly aligned.
          The division of labor had already been apportioned. I had one of each, the geek and the helper with the low grades. Without referring to me or looking in my direction, Bock rose from his chair and shuffled out the door.
          “He’ll take care of it, Mr. Rosch,” said Damian with calm familiarity. “Jeff The Tech is notoriously slow.” He pantomimed the act of inhaling marijuana. The air hissed through his lips. “He gets the job done but he loses track of time.”
          First day problems, I thought. At least the projector was there, and it worked.  A freshly shipped box of cameras sat in a corner of the room, still sealed with transparent tape.  It informed the world: Made In China. 24 units. A Sony Product.
          “I’d like to finish calling the roll, so at least I can put some names to faces,” I requested. I tried to keep my tone calm.
          Then a pert little girl wearing denim overalls and a Pendleton raised her hand and waved it like a semaphore.
          “Okay,” I said fatalistically. “What’s your name?”
          “Um…I’m Kate…and…um…I need to go to the bathroom.”
          “Kate,” I answered, looking towards the wall clock. It said 1:30. “This class is over in twenty minutes. Can you possibly wait until then?”
          “I …um….well…it’s you know…girl problems, a real emergency.”
          What was I going to say? No, you can’t replace the leaky tampon in your snooch? I didn’t entirely believe her but I couldn’t be sure. I made the worst tactical error of the entire semester.
          “Kate, just go,” I shook my thumb as if it had a mild burn. “Please come back here immediately. Don’t dawdle in the hall.” Kate vanished in a whiff of pleasant soapy odor. I didn’t see her until the next class, two days later.
          Immediately another girl waved her hand in the air. I held my silence for a couple of minutes. The girl in her seat kept waving. I held the silence until the room acquired an uncomfortable muttering edge. There was a hole where a response should be and no one wanted the hole to continue existing. Words began to spout from students’ mouths, random words, like “Man,” or “Hey”, or “Jeez. Finally the girl said, “Fuck, man, I gotta go too!”
          I nodded. Three other girls rose with her, and all of them fled the classroom as if a plague-carrying stink had arisen in the room’s bio-mass. They were fleeing this stink as if it would otherwise stalk them the rest of their lives.
          Vizz! The door opened and closed. The class attendance had shrunk back to fifteen.
          No sooner had the three girls vanished than a handsome lad with the look of James Dean entered the room. The students were suddenly quiet. This young man, keeping his back to the wall, slid the entire perimeter of the classroom until he found the seat closest to me, the seat at the very end of the table next to the windows. He stuck out his hand and said, “Woodleigh. Atherton Woodleigh.” I shook his hand.
          “Most people call me Lee. They tried calling me Woody but I cut them up a little and put a stop to that real fucking quick.” This was delivered with clear sincerity and humility. It wasn’t a boast. It was a fact.
          I found the name of the sociopath on the roll list and marked it with a check and the time: 1:36.
          The conversational volume in the room now grew until it was a general melee. Everyone was talking.
          I found a phone book under the teacher’s desk near the windows. I raised it and slammed it down on the desk.
          “Goddammit!” I shouted. “Will you shut up?”
          They shut up. Now they were all watching me.
          At that precise moment there was a clatter at the door and it pushed open as if by its own volition. I saw a long double tiered metal cart forcing its way into the room. The one called Bock slid past it and took its front end. He pulled with his back towards the class. Half his shirt tail hung over rumpled brown pants. At the other end of the cart, facing me, was a tall man with a long pony tail. He wore a black leather vest with a Hell’s Angel logo done in elaborate beadwork.
          "Here’s the Macs” Bock said triumphantly.
          Everyone began to rise from their chairs.
          “Whoa! Whoa! Sit down!” I commanded, and I was obeyed. “Bock, will you hand out the computers, please?”
          Jeff The Tech said, “Sorry about the lateness, man. These lops are a little creaky from last semester. The Essential Theater Arts class used ‘em and those guys don’t care about their gear at all, no way. Had to reformat every one of ‘em. Not the kids, I mean. The computers. You know what a bitch that is?”  He giggled with his hand over his mouth.  "That would be cool, if we could reformat the kids, wouldn't it?"  He didn't expect an answer.
          Each computer had a number taped to its bottom. The first student to get a computer was a bulky boy with light curly hair. He occupied the seat nearest the door. He looked under the computer and said, “Uh uh, this computer’s bunk, number zero one three six, uh..uh..it crashes every two minutes.”
He thrust the computer back onto the cart and reached for another. Jeff slapped his hands away.
          “Ain’t no computer good enough for you, Rick, you do this every time I give you a lop, every fucking time.”
          There followed a general rumble as students vied for computers with known reputations. Some had scratches and dings but they still made an impressive pile of laptops.
          I had been mentoring on the other side of the bay at Drawn Dagger High School. There was one computer per fifteen students and that computer ran with Windows 95 and might crash every time it tried to digest a large photo file. There were three printers in the photography room, ancient Hewlett Packards that printed only black and white. By dint of my own efforts soliciting photographers I had attracted six good but obsolete digital cameras, four or five monitors and a very old copy of pirated Photoshop. The software wouldn’t install properly on half the computers. I had gotten some refurbished Epson color printers but there wasn’t money for the ink. The teacher and I pooled our own funds and bought some ink.
          This wrangling at Tech Arts over Mac Laptops was too much for me. I felt as if someone had opened my chest and tied a square knot in my esophagus, then put it back inside me. Now I was expected to swallow.
          I couldn’t swallow this. I couldn’t.  I reached into my camera bag and took out a film camera, a 1976 model Pentax.  It was hefty.  I threw it against the wall.  It shattered with a dramatic cacophony of flying parts.  This brought the rumble to a sudden stop.  Students froze in place and looked at me as if I were a cobra who had suddenly slithered into the room.
          "SIT...DOWN!"  I didn't quite shout.  The class scuffled back to their seats.  They bumped into one another.  They refused to take their eyes off of me.
          "I don't know you as individuals," I said.  Throwing the camera had released my rage.  My heart beat had returned to normal.  "But collectively you act like a bunch of spoiled little fucks."  I tried to meet as many eyes as possible.  I saw fear, contempt, apathy and a small dose of provisional respect.  I had an intuition that it wouldn't be enough.  I was right.  The Principal came to talk to me before the next class.  I could not shout.  I could not throw things.  I could not use foul language.  If I wanted my job I would have to be more respectful towards the student body.  Their parents were paying a lot of money to send their kids to Tech Arts Academy.  A LOT of money.
          Let me break this down for you: the school was not really an educational institution.  Its purpose was to warehouse spoiled and unruly kids whose parents had no time for their children.  Therefore I had no power.  The people who really suffered were the few students who actually wanted to learn something and were stifled by their peers.  There are great private schools.  There are great public schools.  This was a shitty private school.
          Every day was like the first day. Some were worse. A few were better. Mostly, they were like this: chaos, petty wrangling, disappearances to the bathroom without return, lateness accompanied by staggering indifference. There were rolled eyes, concealed music players, giggling, fights, video games, reading comic books, animal noises and farts.
          I tried really hard but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d failed in some obvious way. If I had been a better teacher I could have controlled these kids. I had two students who cared. One was mister geek, Damian. He had it all down. Technically he knew the subject better than I did. He needed counsel in the creative side but at least he cared. There was a girl named Lizzie. She was a big country girl with long straight reddish hair. She worked hard. She didn’t know anything, but she wanted to know. She worked, and she learned. Her photography was dreadful! Her photos looked like very poor snapshots. How could a person who learned what she had learned, worked as she had worked, still be incapable of making good images?
          Some people have it, and some don’t.
          I had promised that the student who showed the most progress would win a nice digital camera. It was a donation from my friends in the photography community. It was a major upgrade from the Sony cameras in the big box.  Liz won the camera. Damian didn’t need it. He already had a good digital camera and would probably end up at Harvard in a couple of years.
          I projected my class material on the screen while the students sneaked around in the dimmed room, plotting ways to disrupt their own educations. Their literacy was no better than that at Murder Incorporated High School. There was a difference. The kids at Murder Inc were trying but lacked the opportunity. The kids at Tech Arts had the opportunity but were trying not to.
          I assigned essays. I spoke about the work of historic geniuses like Steichen and Halsman. I showed presentations of images on the screen. I assigned homework. I asked the students to read up on Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The latter was a French photographer who shot witty and profound black and white photos. He used a Leica to catch the spontaneity of Paris street scenes. I asked the class to turn in essays on the great Frenchman.
          This was the essay that sent me to buy a pack of cigarettes. This masterpiece was scrawled on half a torn piece of lined notebook paper in handwriting worthy of a four year old.
          My student had written the following: “Henry Carter Beast was a great photographer. He was a genius. He took a lot of pictures. They were all in black and white. They had some greys too I think.”
          That was two years ago. I just bought a box of nicotine patches.
I stopped smoking once. I know I can stop again. 
          Aww, dammit!

digitally enhanced smoke

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Silicon Valley: A Review of the HBO series

            Computer geeks are an easy target.  They walk inside a field of self-generated clichés.  Socially awkward, virginal, they gather like packs of bipedal Chihuahuas who speak an arcane scientific language.  Since no one else understands them, they are forced to seek companionship with their own kind.  No matter that they loathe one another.  They're all they've got.
            The comic TV series "Silicon Valley" doesn't so much debunk the myths about geeks as re-bunk them.  We see them as we expect to see them: neurotic, jittery, terrified of women, lost in video games or bongs when they're not working.  We wouldn't be laughing if the clichés were without substance.  There are scenes in this show, especially bits of dialogue, that had me holding my guts with laughter.
            The geeks' Holy Grail, their leprechaun's pot of gold is to invent the Killer App or to create an algorithm that will change the world of computing.   The top tier of their hierarchy is occupied by the tech billionaires.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates cast long shadows but the tech world is about swift change, about change so headlong that a startup company can swing from the euphoria of being "funded" to the disaster of being scooped, of having their intellectual property stolen, hacked, pilfered, betrayed or hamstrung by lawsuit until the "funding" vanishes as swiftly as it appeared.  In the last sentence I have revealed the basic plot structure of a typical episode of "Silicon Valley". 
            The billionaires who have run the gauntlet of these dangers would seem to be settled into their wealth.  Such is not the case.  They are under intense pressure to stay ahead of the curve, to continue to innovate.  They've gone beyond common neurosis into a rarified air of psychosis that is buffered by obscene wealth.  They have enough money to indulge their every eccentricity.  They are occupied with such projects as inventing driverless automobiles that look like women's high heeled shoes.
            "Silicon Valley" is a meditation on the business of Tech, the culture of Tech and the people who operate within this microcosm.  The central character, Richard Hendrix, played by Thomas Middleditch, is an authentic computer genius without a shred of sense.  He has created a blockbuster killer app, a compression algorithm that enables data to be up-and-downloaded at blinding speed.  So far, in the two available seasons of "Silicon Valley", this technology has been stolen several times by competitors and flat-out given away by a witless Richard Hendrix who doesn't realize that he walks in a minefield of ruthless competition. The most innocuous mis-step could explode under his feet and blow his legs into little pieces of adipose tissue.  Instant liposuction, so to speak. 

The characters Richard Hendrix and Erlich Bachman 

            Mike Judge and his co-producers have put their cast into a fictional Palo Alto house that is owned by a tubby, grandiose character named Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller).  Bachman calls this place his "incubator".  He offers shelter to geeks in exchange for stock shares in their future apps and innovations.  Obnoxious as he is, Erlich functions as an ego where there is a debilitating shortage of self-confidence.  The company that is being formed around Richard's algorithm is called Pied Piper.  The cast of characters who live in the house barely combine to form a single functioning person.  In spite of, or because of, this paucity of social and business acumen, the team manages to reinforce one another.  Since most of the responsibilities are on Richard's shoulders, it is Richard who must reach into himself and locate enough courage to face down the most intimidating tech moguls.
            I find myself rooting for Richard.  I find myself angry with him for being so witless as to repeatedly give away his property.  I put my hands to my head and moan "Shut up, Richard, just shut up!  Don't you know you're getting brain-raped?"  Okay, that means I'm emotionally invested.  Good for Mike Judge and cohorts for setting me up to laugh with and to fight for these underdogs.  "Silicon Valley" is a bit of a cartoon, but how could it not be?  Mike Judge is a cartoon maker, having spawned "Beavis And Butthead", "King Of The Hill" and "The Family Guy".  His transition to using live human actors works well enough for me to give it three and a half muskrats.  I would give it four but the cumulative effect of watching several episodes is a case of jitters as if I had overdosed on some allergy medicine loaded with pseudo-ephedrine.

Thomas Middleditch

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Poem About The Changing Language Called Engrish

June 26, 2015

is a bigger LOL,
the language has been twittered,
texted amputated, but
there is hope, what with all the
extra syllables, "impotency", when
did that come along? "Competency"?
What was wrong with "competence"?
it's like saying "Nukular" marks you
as a moron; let's get "orientated", OK?
I like the acronyms better than the extra "cy"s and
while Webster's gives them full status, Oxford tiptoes around the issue, so FWIW
when the nukular thingy goes off in your home town
it will be just a dream, a nightmare scream. LGBT saves just enough time to
get gay, and I've heard, FYI, that Lezbos and Queers are immune
to radiation.  AAMOF they have other powers too, so don't be too quick to judge those who are different, AAFCS.
As Any Fool Can See.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Oprah And The Selling of Dream Fulfillment Technology

Oprah and The Selling of Dream Fulfillment Technology

            Every time I go to the supermarket I see "O" magazine displayed at the checkout stand and every issue of "O" magazine has a photo of Oprah Winfrey on its cover.  There is something disturbing about a person who puts herself on the cover of her own magazine month after month.  She can do what she wants with it, but we know what Oprah looks like by now and I feel a little embarrassed for her.  She could give us inspiring landscape photos or images of other worthy people.  Instead, we get a simple complacent message:"Look at me!  I'm Oprah.  I'm still young, slim and beautiful."  Even though she's not.
            If it's wisdom that I seek from the pages of "O" magazine, I would as soon discuss life with a REAL funky old black broad than with this promoter of the so-called Ideal Life.
            It takes only a brief glimpse at the titles of the articles to make me feel utterly shitty about myself.  I'm not losing weight.  I'm not making more money. I'm not getting younger.  My libido is vanishing.  My dreams haven't been fulfilled.  
            This last item, about dream fulfillment, is an arrow pointing into the center of Oprah's empire.  This uber-wealthy celebrity is selling what I call DREAM FULFILLMENT TECHNOLOGY.  She has become  rich and powerful peddling this stuff and the irony of it is this: there is no such thing as DREAM FULFILLMENT TECHNOLOGY.  There are various tools to help us cope better with life's stresses.  There are psychotherapy, meditation, exercise, nutrition and a raft of spiritual practices.  None of these, however, guarantees that dreams will come true.  Only a very few people, lucky or possessing a certain kind of karma, get to live their dreams.  The rest of us must accept the lives we have been dealt.  Life is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes a nightmare and occasionally a dream.
            The problem with dreams is that  one can dream the wrong dream.  Watch any episode of "American Idol" to witness inept dreamers.  The depth of people's belief in themselves is shockingly at odds with their lack of talent.  Dreams are, by their nature, elusive.  If people are willing to commit decades of their lives to pursuing a goal, it might be wise to let the process of pursuit become the defining reality.  If you do a thing and you love doing it, stay with that love and don't be distracted by some end point called Success.  That way, when dreams fail to materialize, the disappointment does not become bitterness.  If a dream IS fulfilled, then there must be a new dream, and yet another in an infinite progression of dreams.  Such is the stuff of being alive.  The world itself is a dream.
            Oprah is but one of many thousands of merchants of Fulfillment.  They thrive in hard times and these are hard times.  I want to go "tut tut" and say "Shame on you for exploiting the frustration and gullibility of your clients."              
          It seems to me that the big-time sellers of Dream Fulfillment Technology are making a lot more money than their customers. That's why the cover of "O" magazine gives me the creeps.
        I realize that Oprah has supported many great causes, given a host of writers their defining break and has represented a general movement towards positive awareness.  It's the cult of personality that bothers me.  I wouldn't be surprised at the establishment of a Dalai-lama style lineage so that in a thousand years we may be addressing the Fourteenth Oprah as she descends from her hover-carpet to bless the multitudes.  I hope that she will be a crotchety old black broad with a whip-sharp tongue and no patience for fools.

My Google+ Profile

Monday, June 1, 2015

Saving Grace: A Review of the TV Series

This image beautifully captures the character of Detective Grace Hanadarko

  Holly Hunter has never been on my radar before I saw her in the role of detective Grace Hanadarko in the series, "Saving Grace".  
          The cop show genre is tired. There are so many redundant procedurals about catching bad guys.  Do we need another one?  "Saving Grace" is distinctive because its premise is hewn out of a metaphysical absurdity.  It takes this crazy premise and carries it with gusto through three seasons.  That's an achievement worth noting.
            The premise, (we can even call it a gimmick) is simple enough.  Detective Hanadarko is driving drunk, speeding in her unwashed Porsche 911 down a dark deserted street when she hits and kills a man who has appeared as if from nowhere.
            She leans over the body and wails, "Oh God, Oh God, what have I done?  Please help me!"
            Suddenly the man is gone, there's no blood on the concrete, no damage to her car.  It's as if it never happened.
            Grace has experienced an intervention.  The agent of this intervention is an Angel, literally an Angel, with retractable wings, shaggy grey hair and a weathered face that is full of kindness.  His name is Earl and his function is to serve as a "Last Chance Angel".  Does Grace believe this?  Of course not.  Earl whisks her to a promontory at the Grand Canyon, performs a few other casual miracles and returns her to the site of the accident. 
            Saving Grace is set in Oklahoma City.  We are never allowed to forget that the bombing of The Murrah Building is for Oklahomans an equivalent to 9/11 for most other Americans.  Everyone in the The Violent Crimes Unit  lost a loved one or a friend in that heinous crime and it is still very much alive in  Oklahoma culture.  
          The Violent Crimes Unit is filled with unruly cops, all of whom are either having sex with Grace, will have sex with Grace, or want to have sex with Grace.  For Hunter this is a great role, a vehicle for her acting chops and she inhabits the character effortlessly and with total conviction. She has  a distinctive way of speaking, as if she is whistling through the side of her mouth.  I don't think this is an affectation.  It may be more of a symptom, but that's none of my business.  It doesn't harm Hunter's effectiveness.
            Hunter is a tiny person.  She is like a petite thoroughbred race horse, every muscle rippling with purpose.  She moves with sexy arrogance, tossing her mane of hair with a trademark twitch, striding through the world in her hippie clothes and cowboy boots.  As Grace she is a very naughty girl, a sex addict, an alcoholic, a disturber-of-shit.  It's amazing that she hasn't been fired but she's always teetering on the brink of disaster with Internal Affairs.  Her raunchy provocation keeps the cops in her unit in a pheromone ferment.  She's having an affair with her partner/cop.  This is flirting with personal and professional suicide.  Cop/Partner/Boyfriend is jealous of every other cop who might have been or will be involved with Grace, hence the constant outbreak of boyish fistfights in the squad's office.  Fortunately for Grace, the unit is commanded by a loyal friend, Captain Kate Perry, played with assurance by Lorraine Toussaint.
            The series begins with an adequate episode. It works well enough to keep me around to see more.  It gains momentum and the characters emerge in ways that are appealing.   The Violent Crimes Unit is a family.  It behaves dysfunctionally but one thing can be said: these are not corrupt cops.  They may be drunk, jealous, their personal lives in chaos, but these cops aren't dirty.  They are very good at their jobs. In spite of their screwy milieu, they solve crimes.
            Leon Rippy, playing Earl, The Last Chance Angel, is a pillar in the structure of the story arc.  He pushes no religious agenda, he's strictly non-denominational. 
            It's easy to see that the cast and crew of "Saving Grace" had a wonderful time working on the project.  When such chemistry evolves in a film or TV series, it's palpable and it makes the viewing that much more rewarding.  I enjoyed "Saving Grace" for its sense of family, for the obvious devotion that the characters had for one another, for Earl's angelic mischief.  There's a lot of good stuff here. 

          I give it four muskrats.  It's really a three and a half muskrat series but I'll throw in another half because there's so much worthless crap around.  And there's Laura SanGiacomo. She plays the most adorable forensic coroner working in the TV/Cop world.
Leon Rippy as Earl, The Last Chance Angel

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Review of My Soon-to-be Published Novel

John Coltrane

I began writing CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN thirty years ago.  I acquired a high profile literary agent named Scott Meredith, thanks to the sale of a short story to Playboy Magazine.  The story won Playboy's Best Story Award for the year.  It seemed that I was shot out of a rocket; my career was launched and I had editors at Meredith's agency helping me with CONFESSIONS etc. In spite of this stroke of amazing fortune, that was not my best year.  It was almost my worst.  I had big problems, personal problems.  The editor helped me with the book, but I was not yet mature as a writer.  The book required that I trace the lives of characters across fifty years.  I was barely over twenty years old. Then Scott Meredith passed away and so did my opportunity.

I continued writing and finished CONFESSIONS and other projects.  When I started passing CONFESSIONS around to literary agents the landscape of publishing had changed.  The era of vampires and tycoon-erotica had taken hold.  I heard this phrase hundreds of times: "While your writing is excellent, I find that I haven't fallen in love with your book and I'm afraid I'll have to pass."

There are so many people writing so many books these days that it's difficult to get ANYONE to read my manuscript.  I don't blame people for giving me the swish n' pass treatment.  In spite of so many obstacles, I'm stubborn and I believe in what I'm doing.  Now, thanks to my "excellent writing", there are people willing to read me, and not only read me but fall in love with my work.

Lin Ross is an email acquaintance.  I don't know the gentleman; he's  a fine novelist and we have a good online rapport. I decided to send him the manuscript of CONFESSIONS.  Yesterday I received this review of CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN, written by novelist/poet/musician/artist Lin Ross. I thank Lin from the depths of my heart.  He is nurturing and unselfish, a rare bird indeed.  To read the first two chapters, click this link:Confessions Of An Honest Man

"Confessions of An Honest Man"  a Novel by Art Rosch
 Reviewed by Lin Ross

What happens when the desires we think we want for the majority of our lives dangle there, within our grasp?   What happens when those special almost golden people who loomed as heroes prove to be not gods, but flawed and human?   "Confessions of an Honest Man," by Art Rosch , answers those intriguing questions, and sheds new light upon an era, a cultural explosion and an art-form too often romanticized, but rarely given the life, breath, and rhythms it truly deserves.  I speak here of the world of jazz and its players.  

Author Art Rosch masterfully takes our hand and leads us through the life of  his protagonist, Aaron Kantro from the  age of nine into adulthood where he meets his idol, the jazz legend "Zoot Prestige." In Rosch's world there is black and white (in the complexion of his characters, in society, and in metaphor), but there are also sweeping portions and broad strokes of gray. That gray is far more fascinating for it is there that the realities of these often harsh and sometimes painfully beautiful dualities exist.  

Is this the story a lost boy seeking a father figure? Yes... to a degree, perhaps. Between the pages, lurking there inside the lines, this is so much more. This is about life and how, in a moment, it can show us its most dazzlingly wonderful face, and then in the blink of an eye, its most hideous, ass-ugly underside.

There is a certain genius in the storytelling and when young Aaron makes it to 1960s New York City, the sound, fury and poignancy of jazz embraces you like a cool cerulean blue spot of neon. You are lost and found inside the grooves of these talented musicians: you are a blues traveler walking beside the cool bop of their struts and frets.  

Any young person reading this impressively inclusive novel might want to leave the warm yet stifling cocoon of home to venture out into the vast unknown, join a band, be hungry, and then be fed by the art of of creation. However, be forewarned, there are cautionary tales around almost every bend, and sometimes getting what we THINK we want might end up breaking our hearts in the process.  

This is one of those rare books filled with the liveliness of characters, dialogue, lessons, and such lushly vivid storytelling that the reader is haunted long after the final page is closed. Such is the poignancy and the precision of Rosch's pen.  

I look forward to more work from this author, because Art Rosch is a singular and deeply unique presence in the writing world: a truth-teller, an intrepid reporter of the streets and a chronicler of the human heart. This is an Artist who truly understands The Blues Condition and it is reflected so intriguingly here. 

BRAVO, Mr. Rosch! BRAVO!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Addiction And Redemption

March 28, 2015

            Addiction is a way of postponing suicide.  I know what I'm talking about, because I've wrestled with addiction at various periods in my life.  I realized that being an addict was a means of dividing my inner torment into manageable packets.  Without this strategy I might have been overwhelmed by my pain.  These manageable packets were all the individual doses of my comfort-drug of the moment.  Aside from the usual substance abuse, I also regard most of my consumer obsessions as addictions.  When I became enamored with photography I didn't buy equipment as a mature adult.  I bought all my gear compulsively.  I was crazy with wanting gizmos.  I built up such formidable debt that I watched my income dribble away in un-manageable packets, flowing into the pockets of credit card banks.
            I can talk about my poor abused childhood, the family violence I endured, but I'm not keen on rehashing that old stuff.  Everyone has their story.  I'm more concerned with the way our entire culture has become a society of addicts.  Not only is addiction pervasive but it's encouraged.  If I could count certain products advertised on TV I would likely discover that smart phones, automobiles and fast food are the most touted items, and that their marketing is designed to increase their addictive potential.
            If I came from a remote galaxy and watched a recording that consisted ONLY of commercials I would conclude that earth people (or Americans, at least) are infantile morons, gullible yokels who respond to glittering things that promise fulfillment.  That promise is delivered in a silly cajoling voice that I wouldn't use to coax my dog to take his medicine.  Who IS this lady in the white medical scrubs with the blue lettering in a white room full of boxes?  Why is she escorting ordinary citizens on a tour of her product line, a line that promises SAFETY, SECURITY, REDUCED RISK AT A FANTASTIC PRICE?  Why does she look like an  android?  Her name is Flo.  Flow?  Go With The Flow?  Should we trust this Flo with our insurance needs or should we trust the funny little lizard who is so personable and harmless?  I would trust the lizard because he speaks with an English accent. Everyone knows that Englishmen are stalwart folk with stiff upper lips who know how to cope with life's emergencies.
            Addicts.  Every one of us.  The question is simple.  Why are we in such pain that in order to survive we must subdivide our lives into manageable packets of agony?

            Hmmm, let me see: our planet is being poisoned, our most beautiful animal companions are being poached to extinction, our families and support structures have vaporized.  We are the loneliest people in history.  Expressing our emotions is amazingly difficult because we fear judgment and rejection.  We have forgotten how to FEEL emotion much less express it because we are so occupied with managing the insane complexities of daily life.  That takes a lot of mental energy, daily life.  Who has the time to stop, reflect and feel?  And if we could feel, we might be driven towards a sense of empathy for those who are afflicted by war, tyranny, famine and homelessness.  Who wants to feel that sad?
            No no no no no!  If I felt that sad I might want to kill myself.  But if I could look at my human companions on this earth and if we could admit to one another that we feel terribly sad and lonely, that might help me.  That might alleviate my sense of isolation.  I might even make new friends.   I might let go of my fear of judgment and rejection when I discover that everyone has the same woes, the same addictions, the same thwarted needs for simple humanity.
            What do you think?  Is it possible to create a new paradigm based on authenticity and compassion?

            I do.