Monday, May 14, 2012

Wheeling to attack my own flank ...but it's still my own.

I'm back from the alcohol-fueled etc. across the Midwest, having spent quite a bit of time with stepson (18 hours in a car is quite a bit, even with a college guy as delightful and pleasant as this one), and visited a total of eight bookstores, including the marvelous Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, OH, where I gave a reading/signing and seemed to be pretty well-received, even by my brother, who is a notoriously tough crowd.  I visited a number of Barnes and Nobles because they have the excellent taste to keep my Daybreak series perpetually in stock (and some of them actually have small displays of Losers in Space, apparently for a summer reading program), and those were very pleasant places, signed the copy of Losers in Space at The Bookworm in Omaha, and discovered there is still a surviving Books-A-Million in Perrysburg, Ohio, and it's a really nice one.  I ate various kinds of home cookin', saw people I hadn't seen in a while, and reminded myself that it's a big country and I like quite a bit of it.

So now with a little luck I'm going to be resuming more regular blogging, sort of where I left off, getting back to things like global warming, dirty jokes, and fourness, and one fairly good prompt for it was a long letter from an old writer buddy who happens to be fairly conservative, and who, bless his open-minded heart, has been wading through my bit of left-leaning electoral propaganda,  Raise the Gipper!  He firmly believed he had cracked the secret code, or I had secretly cracked, and that I was now on his side of things, because he thought I was being far rougher on liberals than on conservatives.  I think the answer is of some general interest so I've shorn out the purely personal stuff ("How's things with Binky and Popo?  Remember that time that involved the bathtub, the Jehovah's Witness, and Crazy Randy?  I saw Morf the Dishwasher yesterday and he said hi and all the kids are fine," and so forth).  and here's that more or less general interest part, about why a conservative reading the thing might decide I had stealthed in a conservative message (I don't agree with him, but I see what he's talking about, so this is more about why he'd think that than about why he shouldn't):

I'll start with what I think is a pretty good analogy: if you read the comments for a few months on Trudeau's Doonesbury  page, you'll discover regular accusations by one liberal or another that Trudeau has sold out and is now a crypto-rightie, and also occasional notes from conservatives saying, about one strip or another "See!  See! Told you you should be one of us!"  Generally that happens whenever he depicts soldiers and veterans sympathetically, or when he aims particular mockery at various trends that conservatives deplore, or sometimes when one of his more clueless leftist characters is on stage.  I do recall that long ago when Jonny Hart's B.C. was not yet heavy-duty evangelical,  liberals sometimes thought he was turning liberal and conservatives that he was betraying them, usually because Hart was a fairly strong backer of women's rights.  I have no data but I wouldn't be at all surprised if political strips like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, L'il Abner, and Pogo got similar reactions at one time or another in their long runs in the papers.

Or analogy 2, straight back to the source in Western culture: Aristophanes was, we can be quite sure, a conservative, indeed by 5th c. Athenian standards a right-wing curmudgeon.  It runs all through his plays, from his attacks on the war with Sparta (conservatives were generally pro-Sparta and saw the war as unnecessary) through his various ways of satirizing the democratic politicians (especially those who wanted to broaden the franchise).  He blazes away at Socrates's radicalism in Clouds and stands foursquare and then some for old style Aeschylean drama against that upstart melodramatist Euripides in Frogs.

But he's also the author of Lysistrata, which nearly every drama student with pacifist and/or feminist leanings loves, because not only does it imply that war is senseless, it suggests strongly that men are particularly stupid on the subject because they have dicks.

So pulling all those analogies together, your reasonable question about just whose side I'm on is I think produced by one major factor:

Satirists, as satirists, aren't actually on anyone's side.  

We're kind of more freelance snipers.  The fundamental message of satire is that the struggle against absurdity is futile, nothing is really worthy of being taken seriously, and that every earnest, dedicated Preserver or Grower  (to use the terms from Raise the Gipper!) needs its pants yanked down and its wee-wee pointed at and giggled about.

This is not as popular a point of view as one might think, as every  twelve year old with a smart mouth used to learn in junior high school.  Hence, if there's a great big honking target right next to one, how can one resist slipping a blade into it, especially if it is on one's own side? (It's easier to reach and their back is right there).

Then too, fiction writers often see the things we love more accurately, and tend to keep them close to us, and accuracy makes for better jokes. This is one reason, apart from a generally less vulgar and hateful climate about ethnicity, why generic jokes about the general smelliness/stupidity of various ethnic groups (whoever cleans the toilets or collects the garbage  in your time and place tend to be elected the butt of them) are mercifully on the fade – they just aren't funny, for the most part .  (I'm thinking here of things like the original light bulb joke, the punch line of which is "one to hold it and four to turn the ladder"; or the one about why They are so expensive in cannibal restaurants —"Have you ever tried to clean one?"—and those sort of insults that can be aimed at any group that is unable to defend itself and is currently stuck in jobs nobody wants.)

On the other hand, the precisely targeted right-on-a-sore-spot jokes that are told within the group are still circulating because their sting is part of the appeal; satire is aggressive humor and it is much more aggressive with the stiletto than it is with the ball bat.  Hence, for example, if you browse through the "Shit X Say"  videos on Youtube, you can all but instantly sort out the ones that were made by people who are X or know X well; they're a scream if you know X and incomprehensible otherwise.

It's simply easier to hit your own side, and even if you're mainly aiming at the other, when the satirist's urge to bombard your own flank strikes, your fire is likely to be both more accurate and more creative.

That also explains a difference in the reader.  When the reader leans opposite the satirist, it's probably going to happen that the reader will find the mockery of his/her own side is heavy handed, crude, repetitive, and a bit stupid, because after all there are only so many root-gags about any given side; but the jokes about the satirist's own side (and the reader's enemy) will seem fresher because the reader is less likely to have heard them to the point of being tired.

And also there's something about the structure of satire that positions the attacks on one's own side into higher visibility: Many satires are some version of Candide, or of  Frogs or Clouds, or most of Moliere (or to get more contemporary, of Forrest Gump, Tully Bascombe,  Leo Bloom, or Truman Burbank).  Very often the nominal protagonist is a naive young person (very often male, which may or may not be interesting, but is certainly the convention for the last few centuries) who is just after a few mundane goals like a good job and a happy marriage,  determined to do right and believing the best of people.  This hapless but well-meaning and sincere goof stumbles into the chamberpot of folly and evil that the satirist is targeting,  catches his foot in it, falls out the open window, has it dumped over him, and then is plunged into it repeatedly until, wiser and less innocent, he's allowed to have some sort of happy ending.  And that sort of character has to at least start out on, and maybe remain on, the side the satirist is targeting.  Which would explain how Joe Loinaudroit got into Raise the Gipper! and why he gets more viewpoint time than anyone else.

Why is that such a common trick?  Well, off the top of my head, it has to do with
• comic potential for pratfalls (a naive hero will run into stuff where one who is already knowing will either avoid it or look stupid),
• being a valuable Bob for dialogue (people can explain "as you should have known, Bob ...")
• maintaining someone likeable, since satire generally likes no one very much and most readers want to like someone,
•creating a pseudo-happy ending (the world is full of fools led by knaves, but at least the nice people got together), which again can make satire bearable.

The great satires that don't use that structure are very often the really bleak and bitter ones (Ben Jonson's Volpone and The Alchemist come to mind, as does most of Joe Orton), which are sort of the brussels sprouts of the entertainment world – done just right they please a few discriminating palates, otherwise they're cabbage-flavored ball bearings.

And the short political satires that were my model surprisingly often use that trick.  So, genre-jammin' dude that I am, when I decided to write a short contemporary political satire about one absurd premise, I grabbed for the standard toolkit, and Joe was born.  He was, as you say, an honest conservative, because he needed to be honest to make the satire work and conservative to believably go where I needed to send him.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Left wing dictator in alcohol-fueled rampage across the Midwest

Well, actually, I'm a democratic socialist, with leanings toward anarchism and syndicalism.

I am dictating large parts of THE LAST PRESIDENT, which is getting done RSN, as I drive.  I have a peculiar system for dictating on long drives that I might photograph for you all sometime soon.

And the rental car I'm in is flex-fuel, so I'm mostly using E-85, i.e. 85% ethanol, and that's pretty much "alcohol-fueled," ne?

All right, rampage is a bit of an exaggeration.

But I really, really, liked that that title.

I'm in a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the rampage resumes tomorrow morning.  G'night!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Announcing the JOHN BARNES OHIO TOUR ...

Well, actually, I'm retrieving my stepson from Case Western, where he's had a very successful first year, and I'm visiting my father and brother in Bowling Green, where they've been for more than half of Dad's very long and it should go much longer life and practically all of said brother's as well.

HOWEVER as it happens this means I've got some bookstore visiting to do on the way in and out.  Currently confirmed plans are that I'll sign some stock at BooksAMillion in Perrysburg on Wednesday May 9, and I'll do a full-on reading/signing at Grounds for Thought  at 174 South Main Street in Bowling Green at 7 pm on Thursday May 10.  I'll be adding a couple of other stops later. Those of you who are in the area, come on by, take a look at me, and see that it's every bit as appalling as you thought.  I will be holding books right side up, wearing a clean shirt, and demonstrating that I can sign my name.  ALL AT THE SAME TIME!

Summer porch reading, laughing as if it mattered, spawning a throwback, and the peculiar twisty behavior of intentions

I'm not altogether sure where these thoughts are coming from. Maybe it's just that it's a nice Friday morning leading into what's supposed to be a beautiful summery weekend here. Or maybe it's because I just went through and did a cleanup on Raisethe Gipper! because it was downloading badly for some people, discovered the conversion process had done some other damage, and in the course of undoing the other damage, had to re-read it, and discovered I had done somewhat more of what I intended than I thought I had. It might be Lisa Bloom's interesting piece about getting a twelve-year-old boy to read.

One part of the reflection was a kind of combined wistful thought: I got hooked on short political comic novels at around the age of 12 or so—Mad Magazine age, I guess you would say—along with half a dozen other genres and subcategories that brought me an immense amount of pleasure. That's because at 12 I was reading around a book a day, yet somehow was also doing quite a lot of sports (at which I was no good at all), Boy Scouts (fairly good, made Eagle a couple years later), and more extracurriculars than you could shake a stick at. (In fact I was Vice President of the Seventh Grade Stick Shaking Club). I was cutting occasional lawns and spading gardens for money, and yet I also spent hours just hanging out with friends.

Now, part of that was that the public schools in the 1970s were at the near-nadir of asking students to do anything – the old standards of "any teacher who wants to can pile on as much work as they want and flunk your dumb butt if you don't do it" had fallen and the new standards of "you will become an expert at filling out forms so the school can continue to receive federal funding" had not been set up. My parents were blessedly strict about television—it didn't come on until the dinner dishes were washed—and the public library was still an excellent place for hiding from bullies, because it was still mainly a place where people read or checked out books, and most of the bullies were about as eager to go into a book-oriented place as a vampire is to the Garlic Festival.

One reason I could have a book a day habit was that most of the genres and flavors I learned to like then were short books. The science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s seldom ran more than 80,000 words or so to a novel. I was a great fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan and Barsoom, of course, but also Pellucidar and Venus), I was one of those odd boys who preferred Andre Norton to Robert Heinlein in the juvenile department (but I read most of both of them just to make sure), and so forth. The New Wave was just hitting and because the librarians in our small town thought sf was still "children's literature," the same shelves also harbored dirty books that the librarian would let me check out.

But there were so many other things, in so many other genres, most of them short. P.G. Wodehouse, Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, Glendon Swarthout, Leslie Charteris's The Saint stories, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, Nicholas Freeling's Inspector Van der Valk, Philip Wylie's Crunch and Des, and Max Shulman.

Max Shulman wrote funny. It's pretty hard to read ten pages of him without laughing out loud a couple of times; he had that knack. (And pure text is one of the hardest ways to make people laugh).

Nostalgic types will probably remember that he created the character of Dobie Gillis, out of which came a much-loved TV series, and I'm not sure but that may have been my pathway to find him. By junior high, anyway, I knew I could depend on Shulman to make me laugh, and that's how I happened to snaffle up Rally Round the Flag, Boys! one day.

I don't think I can possibly explain what Rally Round the Flag, Boys! was about any better than Sheila O'Malley does. Read what she says, and resolve to someday read that book (you can get one used with the change you have left over from buying mine, of course).

Now, the sweetness of that introduction to political cynicism did not lie in my contemplating politics from some remote, innocent idyll. The little college town where I lived in the Midwest was not idyllic and innocent at the time (or ever, really, you can get some idea from Tales of the Madman Underground too). It was the heart and soul and guts of Nixon country, demographically, but it was also a college town full of liberal professors. The big antiwar demonstrations had begun, there had been the police riot that was the 1968 Democratic convention, and Kent State and Jackson State hadn't happened yet but were in the wind. Local politics was shot through with the usual scandals, the John Birchers had a good-sized booth at the county fair, and mutterings about taxes and corruption were as endemic as ever. People were angry, and even a very out-of-it kid could pick that up.

Yet for me, Rally Round the Flag, Boys! triggered a reading spree of short funny political novels (including eventually sneaking a read of my mother's copy of Our Gang). You could gobble one down in a weekend afternoon if there wasn't a lawn to mow or a neighborhood softball or football game to play, or even in a long homeworkless evening.

It was a trip to absurdity, but absurdity where you could laugh and ride along; no, it did not seem likely that a country about the size of Monaco would accidentally defeat the USA in a war (while trying to lose to get reconstruction money), as in The Mouse that Roared, or that the hot flashpoint in the Cold War would be a rock in the Caribbean the size of a city block, as in And to my nephew Albert I leave the island what I won off Fatty Hagan in a poker game.  But when you're at that reading-obsessively stage of kidhood, one thing you're trying to do is make a little more sense out of the world, and all of a sudden perspective breaks on you when you contemplate that the inhabitants of a small town near Bridgeport, Connecticut may strongly want to defend the United States with atom-bomb-attracting missiles, but may object to having them in their town, and will do their damnedest not to see their own inconsistency, just like anyone else. You start to see that the logic of "the nation with the biggest bomb rules the world" is a little cracked and strange when that nation is Grand Fenwick, and that the principle of fighting to keep every bit of real estate out of Soviet hands (and bearing any burden and paying any price) sounds a bit cracked when it's half of Foul Rock, which used to be good only for nude sunbathing and now (that it is occupied by American Marines and Soviet paratroopers) not even that.

And the laughter reinforced some other thoughts and feelings that were part of my growing up in a surprisingly Norman Rockwellish/Booth Tarkingtonian kind of place. Our next door neighbors, and the kids my brother and I played with a lot, were fundamentalists; both sets of parents simply told their kids "We don't believe that nonsense they believe in the other house, but you will never, never disrespect anyone there for it." Some of my father's cronies were university faculty who were much more liberal than he was; others were the old-style guns-and-conspiracy Birchers; politics was one thing, family cookouts, kids playing with each other, watching your neighbors' house while they were away, that was something else.

It was possible to laugh because in a deep sense, it was a game of thinking about what would be best, rather than about who won. Or just as likely it was possible to think about what would be best because there was time to sit on a comfortable porch and read something just to laugh. The satire was often pretty mean—the bumblers and knaves that populate high office in those books are brutal caricatures—and yet the plot of those books often turned around ordinary life. Indeed one conspicuous feature was that the authors seemed to go out of their way to include sympathetic characters with whom they disagreed; the comedy arose from reasonable, well-meaning people being pulled into unreasonable, malevolent purposes, at least until the end, when ordinary life, true love, common sense, and all that stuff would trump all the silly politics in the middle.

It's hard to imagine books like that in our world anymore. Who's going to sit still to be told that the other side is crazy but there are good people there? Or that your own side is seldom more embarrassing than when it is right? It's the sort of thing that could lead to having a beer with a Republican and spending the whole time talking about baseball, or putting your focus into a safe neighborhood playground for the kids and working together with people who don't share your views on abortion, gun control, or the war.

Well, all right, let's skip the sarcasm. I miss living in a culture like that. Where'd it go?

I think the most likely answer is that we have come to value our stuff too much and our time too little. In those days most businesses, most of the time, just tried to stay in business another year, and ambition meant being in charge and being comfortable, not living like an Italian Renaissance prince without the grace, or a Roman emperor without the restraint. My college textbook on labor economics showed the famous "backward bent" or S-curve for labor supply—up to a point, higher wages get more people to work, but beyond that point, they'd rather have time off —which is now thought to be rather quaint and empirically disproven. The new economic gospel is: People want money to buy stuff. If wages are low they'll work long hours to get stuff, and if wages go up, they'll add more hours to get even more stuff. Every trot around the treadmill gets you another toy and the objective is to drop dead off the treadmill into the biggest pile of toys.

And humane politics, whether right or left, is about people, and people take time, and toys don't.  It takes time to step back far enough to see absurdity, not just as something to fling at the other side, but as something that gets into it whenever politics, people, and power are knitted together. It takes time to realize that the skid mark on they back of your neighbor's boxers is not unlike the yellow stain around the fly of your own. * It takes time to get from absurdity to humor, to laugh at the laughable not because your laughter will sting it into fighting you, but because really, the natural response to, say, Rush Limbaugh, for a sane, self-confident person with time on his hands, is "My, what big teeth you have, grandma."

In that time-valuing environment, most politics was amateur: people reading papers, talking, discussing what might be best, and ideas gradually percolating into politicians who tried to embody them. It was liberal in the sense of "suited to freedom" (like liberal arts in college, another thing no one has time or money for anymore); time to play, share, and discuss, between amateurs (i.e. people who loved the game).

But in our present environment, nobody's a political amateur, kibitzing over the heads of the pros, anymore. Our political discourse gets simplified into something that doesn't take much time (because we need our time to get our stuff to huddle with inside). So we very efficiently learn to shout yay us, boo bad them, and stay with the side, which the political pros like us to do (it makes us easier to handle) and which takes minimum time and effort. It takes less time and it defends the most stuff. Tell the neighbor who disagrees that he's a fool or a traitor and it'll save time; eventually you can acquire all your opinions from your team, absorb them via drive time radio, and never have to interact with the other side except in short, angry barks, nor consider whether the position you are advocating is your own or the one it's your job to have for your side.

So I suppose Raise the Gipper! is not only a throwback, but a hopeless one at that; it's a good laugh for a mostly-idle afternoon on a back porch, in a world where people use that afternoon to take a second job so they can get an HDTV that they'll never have time to watch. It's intended to poke fun at the Republican nominating process, which paraded before us, as Dr. Bayle Brazenydol explains in Chapter 2, "the sorriest collection of stuffed shirts, empty suits, self‑gratulatory ignorami, and outright wig‑flipped ding‑dongs in the history of the Republic," and to suggest that in the dire straits of having to run with Romney, the 'pubs might resort to the Dark Arts and raise rancid, rotten Ronald Reagan as their zombie candidate.

But it also sort of tries to understand them, if only because the joke is better that way. The main conservative character in the book, Joe Loinaudroit, is a Tea Party guy who honestly believes it all, and not for ignoble reasons; he's just mugged by the consequences of some intentions run amok, and he's finding that his own reasonable and civil approach to the world gets him trampled by the real foamers on his side, and doesn't quite know what to do about that. Zombie Reagan does occasionally eat somebody's head, but he also has a perspective on his old party that is somewhere at the intersection of Rue Rueful and Disgusted Drive, and in a certain odd sense, he is a better candidate than most of the field would be. There's wickedness and folly in plenty but also love and a basis for tolerance; the book may make you snicker at your Tea Party co-worker or neighbor, but it surely won't steer you to hate him (and if s/he reads the book, s/he might find bits of it funny because of little shocks of recognition, even if s/he doesn't like the whole message, or is not the sort of person who would ever write s/he with reference to him/herself).

All right, so  Raise the Gipper! is a throwback.  Perhaps that is what the public will do with it. But I'm still glad I threw it out there. Not so much for what it says (though I am happy enough with that), but for what it is: a fairly civil** political laugh.

I know of nine people who have read it so far, mostly reviewers and critics who have been assigned to it (and have sent me little notes growing out of that assignment, which is how I know they read it). Raise the Gipper! has been downloaded many more times than that, which means it's on some people's to-read stack for this weekend, or some weekend this summer. If I might venture a suggestion...maybe take your tablet reader, laptop, or whatever out to sit in a cool lounge chair under a tree, with something cold to drink? Or on the patio of a friendly place where they won't chase you away if you nurse a couple beers, an iced tea, or coffee all afternoon? Just be cautious in case I did manage to be funny somewhere—as we used to say when I was twelve, "No nosies, you're out in public." And maybe, while you're out in public, you could smile at a neighbor you don't agree with. It will make them wonder what you are up to.

*Back away from that metaphor slowly and do not attempt to extend it.

**Some conservatives will feel I was unfair or uncivil or both. I will cheer them up later by calling them at three in the morning and telling them knock knock jokes, and if that doesn't work, I'll fart. They paid for laughter and by gum they're going to get it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A quick visit to the other side of my life

One of many things that has had me terribly busy all the past month is that I designed the set for Vintage Theatre's production of the play version of THE JOY LUCK CLUB. (If you're based in Denver you really should see it; it's the first show in their new space. As I write there are three weekends left.  Tickets here if you're interested).

What follows is sort of a rough draft of the artist's statement for my portfolio.  It may or may not make any sense to anyone who doesn't design sets.

Over the years I've come to realize that I'm an indifferent actor and director, and that design is really what I love, most especially scene.  This particular set was one of those gifts of the gods where the original idea, pursued passionately and systematically and kept in charge of the whole process, was the key to everything.

In this case, it was the idea of organizing the platforming, and a system of mini-cycloramas, into variations on the yin-yang curve, and then making everything proportional to the existing space.  The deck-to-grid height in the space was 11'6", so I drew the big, governing yin-yang curve of the platforms with a radius of 11'6"; visually that made the set "square," i.e. the dominant diagonal was the same length as the proscenium height.  It also meant that the secondary curve -- which created the upper platform where the mah jong table was -- had to be a radius exactly half that, i.e. 5'9", about an actor height, so since the platform showed the whole curve (2 radii), there was a nice 2:1 integer ratio between horizontal and vertical there.  Once that was decided, all the other proportions -- heights, radii, distances -- could be simple integer ratios applied to that basic 11'6" dimension (I made heavy use of 2:3 and 1:4 ratios), and the mass and planes of the set just naturally hung together.

A pleasant secondary effect was that because everything was in circular and semicircular curves, entrances, exits, and changes of level tended to align with tangents to the curves (naturally enough, if you were coming in from behind a mini-cyc, you pretty much had to come in tangent to it; if it shared a center with the curve of the platform, there you were, moving at the tangent angle to the platform curve too.  So actors naturally fell into curving, indirect entrances that were compositionally very pleasing and also tended to emphasize movements like inward and outward spirals and "double star" circular orbits of each other -- which worked extremely well with the themes of frustating, rarely consummated communication that is nevertheless unable to escape its social frame.

Painting the set in light gray and setting the mini-cycs up in costume satin (despite its name, a very cheap poly fabric) made it take Jen Orf's highly saturated light really well, so the whole set could change instantly to another look while preserving the unity of those curves, whose dimensions united the human proportion to the size of the stage.

And here are some pictures I shot with my phone:

You can see what a difference the light can make on surfaces like that; part of the scene designer's job is giving the lighting designer a place to play.  Another is giving the actors a place to play, and you can find some of them playing on this set here.

And that, my friends, is where I was for much of the past month, when I wasn't typing about undead Republicans.