Jan 26th, 2017 by Clark Humphrey

The total-control regime in Washington DC, and its egomaniacal central figure, are existentially frightening in their threat to every aspect of the American Republic and its people (and, by extension, all the peoples of the globe).

I’ve been thinking of how to portray this character in the context of the great villains of fiction and lore.

I’ve compared certain past politicians to everyone from Lord Farquahr in the original Shrek to a one-shot Get Smart! villain, Simon the Likeable.

This past summer, I began to call the then GOP presidential nominee “He Who Cannot Be Named” (from Harry Potter). But that became cumbersome.

So I went in search of the perfect pre-existing fictionalization for this man-child, a figure with an insatiable lust for attention and a craving to cause suffering just to maniacally laugh at his victims.

A villain this insanely sure of his own omnipotence would never show panic, so that leaves out the Master from Doctor Who.

The pantheon of Disney villains (even if you only count the studio’s “core universe” of animated features and shorts) is vast. But even these characters usually have a relatable core motivation for their various crimes (greed, power, vanity, revenge, even fashion). They largely don’t encompass the pure “evil just for the sake of ego” that I’m talking about here.

With one recent exception.

It’s a character described in a fan-written “wiki” as: “Insane, twisted, crass, mischievous, deceptive, manipulative, sly, vague, witty, lively, whimsical, hammy, confident, spiteful, temperamental, choleric, evil, chaotic, greedy, sadomasochistic.”

The character’s “likes,” as described on the same web page, include: “Chaos, the suffering of others, destroying things, partying, manipulation.”

bill cipher

I’m talking about Bill Cipher.

He’s the main antagonist on Gravity Falls, a Disney Channel cartoon show that ended last February, after airing 41 half-hours over three and a half years (the last two as a one-hour finale).

The show’s set in Central Oregon, in one of those fictional towns where assorted weird things show up every day. In various episodes, the show’s brother-and-sister heroes encounter such anomalies as gnomes, unicorns, ghosts, zombies, dinosaurs, a crashed UFO, and video-game characters come to life.

And, like several other sagas of its type (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Lost, et al.), there’s a “meta-mystery” on Gravity Falls.

It involves Bill, who’s initially introduced as a “dream demon” from another dimension. He sees all, knows all, and can invade people’s minds, especially as they sleep.

Bill can take any visual form, but his default appearance is as a triangle with a single eye near its center. But even though he resembles the “eye in the pyramid” on the $1 bill, Bill’s motive is not material wealth.

Rather, he wants to “cross over” from the “nightmare realm” and become a physical presence in our world—not to merely rule it but to destroy it, just for kicks.

Bill Cipher’s depicted as both a homicidal maniac and as a brilliant schemer; a good of chaos and and a master manipulator.

In the series’ climactic story arc, Bill successfully cons two characters and obtains the materials to make a “dimensional rift” between his world and ours. He summons a hooligan gang of monsters to ransack the town, turn people into statues, and otherwise spread “weirdness” (pure destructive chaos).

From there, he aims to expand the “weirdness” across the Earth: “Anything will be possible! I’ll remake a fun world, a better world! A party that never ends with a host that never dies. No more restrictions, no more laws!” As he says this, the screen shows images of a giant-sized Bill in a potential future, etching a “smiley face” on the North American continent (destroying whole cities in the process), then taking a bite out of the Earth as if it were an apple.

I believe this sadistic madness, not any mere material avarice, is the type of villainy that fits our age.

You can hear Bill Cipher’s sneering laugh among goons who laugh too hard at their own racist/sexist “jokes.”

You can see his smug taunting among the online “trolls” who belittle and insult everyone deemed different from them.

You can hear Bill’s line about how “there’s no room for heroes in MY world” echoed in the voices of conservatives who want the rest of us to shut up and fall into line.

You can sense Bill’s lust for destruction among certain “religious right” figures who not only oppose all efforts to save the environment, but who sometimes vocally wish for the “End Times” of Fundamentalist prophecy.

To prevent Bill from spreading his “weirdness” to the rest of the Earth, the surviving townspeople have to hold hands in a rite that will send Bill away. They include characters that had been mortal enemies in previous episodes, but who now must work together against a common foe.

It doesn’t work at first, because two of them refuse to cooperate with one another. In the final episode (titled “Take Back the Falls”), those two have to finally cooperate (and one of them risks losing his mind) to trap and remove Bill, revive the frozen townspeople, and bring the town back to a semblance of “normal.”

Similarly, to stop the threats to America’s civil society, we’ve got to forge alliances across lines of race, gender, region, religion, and social class.

(As an aside, someone put up a “Bill Cipher for President” Facebook page late last summer. One smarky commenter wrote: “You’re seriously making me choose between a horrible demon bent on destroying everything he touches, and Bill Cipher?”)

Dec 28th, 2013 by Clark Humphrey

Back in 2003, after the first round of local dot-com crashes, former Seattle Weekly writer Fred Moody wrote a book called Seattle and the Demons of Ambition.

Moody wrote about instances when the city as a whole, or individual Seattleites, obsessively pursued grandiose schemes for power, money, or civic greatness, only to figuratively crash back down to Earth.

Moody didn’t include the Seattle Monorail Project (1996-2005) in his vignettes. But that failed dream of a better, cheaper, more futuristic urban transit system certainly qualifies as a sky-high dream that collapsed amid broken hearts and balance sheets.

And Dick Falkenbury, the sometime cab driver who helped to launch the project, is a major aspect of this tale. While he’d worked in minor roles on local political campaigns in the past, many saw him as the ultimate outsider.

To the local media, and to many of his supporters, Falkenbury was the civilian tinkerer with a great idea—an idea that would cure gridlock, make car-free living more feasible, and never get stuck in traffic, all without major government subsidies.

He was like Campbell Scott’s character in the Seattle-filmed movie Singles, whose drive for a city-crossing “supertrain” was promptly dismissed by the mayor. Except that Falkenbury’s idea, while snickered at by almost everyone in power, was loved by the people.

With the aid of local rich kid Grant Cogswell and a few plucky volunteers, plus some clever ideas for low-cost signature gathering and campaigning, the Monorail Initiative got onto the ballot—and passed.

Cogswell went on to a failed City Council run, as documented in Phil Campbell’s book Zioncheck for President and Stephen Gyllenhaal’s movie Grassroots. (Later, Cogswell declared Seattle to be unworthy of him and moved to Mexico City.)

Now, Falkenbury’s written, and self-published, his account of the Monorail dream’s life and death.

The book’s title, Rise Above It All, was one of the initiative’s slogans.

Just as the elevated trains were meant to run above snarled streets, the Monorail Project was meant to run above, and apart from, the city bureaucracy and the “infrastructure lobby” of contractors and construction unions.

That things didn’t turn out that way wasn’t just the fault of Falkenbury’s outsider status. But that was a factor. He made enemies. He nurtured grudges, even with allies. Without the skills or clout to manage the ongoing operation of planning and building a transit system, he was forced to watch it taken over by the “experts.”

What came out the other end of that process was, in many ways, just another bloated civic construction proposal, complete with an unworkable financing plan. After four consecutive “yes” votes, city voters finally killed the monorail on a fifth ballot.

But would the system Falkenbury originally envisioned, or something like it. have worked?

Would it have carried 20 million riders or more per year, in auto-piloted trains, on tracks supported just 20 feet above the ground on narrow pillars, with fewer than 100 employees, financed almost completely by fare-box proceeds and station concessions?

In his book, Falkenbury insists it could have, and still could.

But he doesn’t make a convincing case.

For one thing, he could have really used an editor.

He regularly misspells the names of even major players in his story, such as City Councilmember Nick Licata.

He makes the sort of wrong-real-word errors that Microsoft Word’s spell checker can’t find, such as when he mentions “rewarding a contract” instead of “awarding” it.

He rambles on about his personal distaste for several people, including ostensible allies such as Peter Sherwin (whose second monorail initiative kept the dream alive after the city council first tried to kill it).

And he defends the monorail plan as he’d originally envisioned it, without providing a lot of specific evidence that the engineers and planners and politicians were all wrong and he was right.

But he still could be.

If Falkenbury had been a more effective schmoozer and networker; if he’d gotten more politicians on his side; if he’d sold his plan as a supplement, not a competitor, to the tri-county Sound Transit organization; if he’d convinced ST to at least consider switching from light-rail to monorail technologies; if he’d been able to keep a tighter eye on the planning and money people, or had more allies who could; then, just maybe, we might have been riding in the sky from Crown Hill to the West Seattle Junction by now.

(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)

Feb 25th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

My pals at HistoryLink.org have put together a weighty historical coffee table tome called The Future Remembered.

It’s all about the Century 21 Exposition, the Seattle world’s fair that began 50 years ago this April.

It’s 300 pages of insightful prose and luscious pictures concerning what is still probably the single most important event that ever happened here in Software City.

It’s proof of what a physical book can still be—an object of desire. (And a handy blunt instrument, should you need one.)

It gives you most of the individual subplots of the fair’s story, from the miraculously perfect design of the Space Needle to the erotic puppet show (by the future producers of Land of the Lost!).

These sub-stories are woven around a main narrative line, about a cabal of squarer-than-square civic boosters who pulled off a staggering feat of a spectacle, something that melded both high art and mass entertainment into one vision of a sleek modern tomorrow (that mostly still hasn’t shown up).

And it even turned a small profit, and left a 74-acre arts-and-recreation campus in the middle of town.

You should all look it up, check it out, even get one for your very own.


Indeed, there’s only only one small mini-gripe I’ve got with the document.

There’s a two page spread saluting “Women At Century 21.”

It honors Gracie Hansen (the brassy small-town hostess who ran one of the fair’s burlesque revues), Laurene Gandy (wife of fair exec Joe Gandy and a tireless worker for both the fair and the subsequent Seattle Center), and the other male execs’ wives (billed collectively as “Our Fair Ladies”).

But one prominent woman is not mentioned in the spread. Or in the entire book.

Dr. Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) was a marine biologist, a UW prof, and a science-ed host on KCTS.

Ray worked as a “science advisor” to the United States Science Pavilion at the fair. In this role, she was the pavilion’s chief spokesperson to the local media.

She then became the first head of the pavilion’s post-fair entity, the Pacific Science Center.

From there she became the highest ranking woman in Richard Nixon’s Executive Branch (running the Atomic Energy Commission).

From there she successfully ran for governor in 1976 as a “flag of convenience” Democrat.

Then she proceeded on an anti-environmentalist agenda, alienated just about the entire state Democratic Party, and lost her re-election bid in the 1980 primary.

Ray left behind a lot of political opponents.

And, admittedly, her later role with the Science Center held more authority than her role with the Science Pavilion.

But she should not be written out of the fair’s history.

Sep 21st, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

Igor Kellor is a multimedia whiz and a very clever person. He’s the creator of the musical Mackris v. O’Reilly and the blog Hideous Belltown.

Now he’s got a CD out (also available online), Greater Seattle.

While billed under the band name Longboat, Keller provides almost all the instrumental sounds (mostly synths) and all the lead vocals.

Don’t expect any perky paeans to tourist vistas and real estate opportunities here. Kellor has more ambitious agendas.

He offers snappy, snarky cabaret ditties about 10 Seattle neighborhoods (including Harbor Island!) and five outlying communities. Each tune is influenced by a different musical genre. Some of the melodies and arrangements match the tone of the lyric tales; others starkly contrast with them.

“Belltown” is a dirge, befitting the chorus of “downtown’s afterthought.”

“Ballard” is a sad sea shanty, about the upscaling away of its entire heritage.

“Fremont” is an uptempo hoedown, even though Keller sings that “To me Fremont will always be/The gateway to Ballard.”

“Downtown” is a brisk calypso-beat tale about the police shooting of John T. Williams.

Some of the songs are more up to date than others. The opening track, “Bellevue,” features the standard stereotype of the Eastside’s largest city as a whitebread conformist nightmare. In real life, it’s becoming more ethnically diverse than Seattle.

Kellor also doesn’t care much for Mercer Island (“It’s clear that money can’t buy taste”), Buren (“Visiting here makes your mind go numb/It’s much like a bug in your cranium”), and Federal Way (depicted as an ideal home for “a violent modern man”).

And he absolutely loathes Edmonds (“A police state/Bad cops rule this town”), recounting a story of “teenage drivers against police cruisers.”

Kellor wraps up all this sharp civic commentary with a sharp change of pace and attitude, a pleasant rendition of “Seattle” (the old Here Come the Brides theme) joined in by a trumpet, trombone and tuba.

Greater Seattle is an ambitious, brusque love letter to the city, warts n’ all.

Jul 18th, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

About three weeks ago, I wrote about the long term decline of cable access TV, once one of Seattle’s most fertile loci of creativity.

Today, of course, we have online video streaming.

This is so much more convenient for niche-audience programming in several ways. Viewers don’t have to tune in at any specific time. They can easily catch up with past episodes. They can watch wherever they have a computer (or tablet or smart phone) and a broadband or WiFi connection.

And with contemporary digital video gear so much cheaper to buy (or rent) these days, low-budget and no-budget producers can accomplish quite a degree of slickness.

Take for example The Spit Show with Indus & Raquel (produced by Indus Alelia, written and directed by Dan Desrosiers, hosted by Alelia and Raquel Werner).

Like many cable access comedy shows of the 1990s, The Spit Show consists of comedy and music bits, with continuing characters and a loose storyline.

But unlike those older shows, it has fancy production values and is edited with brisk comic pacing.

And without a weekly time slot to fill, it can put out episodes of any length (more or less 10 minutes) at a relatively leisurely frequency (four episodes since February).

Alelia and Werner aren’t asking you to be home at any particular time. They’re not asking you to invest 29 minutes into deciding whether you like their work.

But if you do like their work, they’d like you to keep coming back.

Dec 21st, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

If you’re to believe political cartoonist and radical essayist Ted Rall, everything’s just going to keep getting worse, and the only answer is to actively speed up the process.

He’s got a book out, The Anti-American Manifesto.

In it, he claims that “it’s time for our revolution.”

He doesn’t mean a “creative revolution,” or a “revolution in business.”

And he sure doesn’t mean a “tea party revolution” that just reinforces the big-money powers’ grip on control.

Rall wants to see an actual uprising, that would lead to the actual overthrow of our country’s political/corporate system.

He acknowledges that such a revolt would be violent. Many innocent people would be hurt or killed; many types of infrastructure would be destroyed; and what would rise from those ashes could very well be a dictatorship and/or reign of terror.

Rall doesn’t seem to mind all of that.

He claims that even if we end up with a Robspierre or a Napoleon or even a Pol Pot, the long-term result would still be an eventual overall improvement for the continent’s, and the world’s, people.

I wouldn’t be quite so sure about that.

But at least Rall, unlike some I know who’ve bandied about the “R word,” realizes it would be a serious action with serious consequences.

Oct 7th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

Last night, I attended the highly anticipated premiere of I Am Secretly an Important Man, the long in-the-making biopic about Seattle poet/author/musician/actor/performance artist Steven J. “Jesse” Bernstein.

Documentarian Peter Sillen had been collecting footage and reminiscences of Bernstein since the year after Bernstein’s 1991 suicide. Only now, after directing four other films and performing camera work on several others, has Sillen finally assembled this footage into an 85-minute feature.

He’s done a spectacular job.

The finished work captures, as well as any mere 85-minute feature can, the immense creative range, depth, and contradictions within Bernstein, which I won’t attempt to describe in this one blog entry.

(Of course, it helps that Bernstein recorded so much of his life and work in audio tape, video tape, and film, much of it taken by artists and collaborators from across the Northwest creative community.)

Suffice it to say you should see An Important Man during its engagement later this autumn at the Northwest Film Forum.

Feb 26th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

(Warning: This installment is going to ramble even further afield than usual.)

A few days ago, I wrote something critical of Jaron Lanier’s rant against digital culture, You Are Not a Gadget.

In one part of his book, Lanier blamed the economic crash of ’08 on the computer technology that had made the housing bubble’s suspect “investment products” possible.

I wrote that blame for the bubble shouldn’t be laid on Net tech, but that it might instead be laid on Net business culture, on the “Get Big Fast” mentality of unalloyed hustle seen in the first dot-com mania.

What really went on on Wall Street and the other global finance capitals is a little more complicated than that. But not much.

Several commentators have noted links between the speculators and the philosophies of Ayn Rand. “The great recession is all her fault,” alleged Andrew Corsello in a GQ essay last fall. Slate’s Johann Hari, reviewing two recent Rand biographies, blames “this fifth-rate Nietzsche of the mini-malls” for the speculators’ sociopathic levels of selfishness, and even for the Bush-Cheney Republicans’ highly organized cruelty (“…by drilling into the basest human instincts”).

Some French radicals, meanwhile, have created a movement they call “Post-Autistic Economics.” Their premise, as best I can figure it out (I’ve always been lousy at understanding Euro-intellectual theorizing) is that geeky math-heavy economic and political planning is the enemy of any attempt to build a more humane society.

Some critics of the P.A.E. gang have apparently alleged that to call the global elite’s machinations “autistic” is an insult to real autistics. I’d agree.

It’s also an insult to those who love math and abstractions and game theory and techy or trivia-y stuff, a.k.a. nerds. This is a group in which I consider myself a member (despite my lack of prowess at software coding and my indifference toward Dungeons & Dragons).

As Benjamin Nugent expresses in his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People (a great and funny tribute to braniacs from assorted times and places), a guy’s inability at the unwritten rules of social engagement does NOT mean he’s insensitive or that he doesn’t care about people. It just means he’s lousy at communicating his care.

And care, ultimately, is what will get us out of this mess. It’s the only thing that can.

Which brings us to yet another book.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis attempts nothing less than the re-direction of how the whole planet thinks and relates.

Rifkin (himself an experienced economics and history nerd) sees social networking and Web 2.0 sites as helping to bring people together—a togetherness he thinks we’ll desperately need if we’re going to save the planet, reduce poverty and disease, etc.

In geekess supreme Arianna Huffington’s interpretation, Rifkin’s book…

…challenges the conventional view of human nature embedded in our educational systems, business practices, and political culture—a view that sees human nature as detached, rational, and objective, and sees individuals as autonomous agents in pursuit primarily of material self-interest. And it seeks to replace that view with a counter-narrative that allows humanity to see itself as an extended family living in a shared and interconnected world.

Feb 21st, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

There’s this guy named Jaron Lanier. He was part of some of the earliest virtual reality research, as he’ll repeatedly tell you.

Now he’s rebranded himself as a cyper-skeptic. While he insists he’s no Luddite, he sure talks as if he thinks everything wrong with modern society could be traced to the Internet, to its imperfect technologies, and to its even more imperfect business models.

He’s compiled some of these screeds into a book, You Are Not a Gadget.

It’s subtitled “A Manifesto,” but it’s less of a single structured argument and more of a package of rewritten magazine essays.

In them, Lanier blames the collapse of just about all old-media businesses on the Web’s inability to command a price for content.

He blames what he calls the sameness of modern pop music on the bad influence of discrete synths and samplers.

He blames lousy software on open-source collectives that just can’t innovate the way individuals and strong-leader groups can.

He blames 2008’s economic collapse on inscrutably arcane “investment products” that could only have been devised with the aid of advanced computer technology.

He blames what he calls a devaluing of the individual in today’s world on Web 2.0 sites’ obsession with collective anonymity, with turning humans into abstracted collections of likes and associations.

I’m not convinced.

Yes, the legacy ephemeral-media businesses (broadcast TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and so on) are in huge trouble. But the whole concept of the mass audience, upon which these businesses had relied, has cracked, probably irreversably. The Web has only some of the blame/credit for this.

Apple, Amazon, and others have proven people will pay for content delivered as electronic bits, under the proper circumstances. I believe the iPad and machines ike it will only help commercial e-media grow.

Meanwhile, the decaying remnants of the big record companies (there are only four of them left, none US-owned and only one (Sony) still tethered to a major corporation) continually try to stuff the musical genie back into the broken mass-market bottle. They promote decreasingly distinctive works, issued under the names of professional gossip-mag celebrities. In the 1980s, folks such as Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt predicted corporate music would end up in a recursive death cycle. It’s happened now, and it ain’t pretty, but it was inevitable.

Open source software didn’t grow out of mistaken techno-hippie idealism, as Lanier claims, but out of mainframe-era computing administrators who shared pieces of code as a professional courtesy. From the start, it was all about insider geeks helping find better ways to solve existing problems. So it gives us insider-geek tools like LINUX and better-mousetrap stuff like the Firefox browser. If the truly innovative tech stuff always comes from individuals and top-down groups, as Lanier alleges, it’s because that’s where the make-a-name-for-yourself incentive is.

As for the financial bubble, Lanier’s closer to where I believe the mark is, but still misses it. The fatal link to the reckless speculators wasn’t from Internet technologies, but Internet business models. A decade after the first dot-coms arose, large swaths of business and most of finance had adopted dot-com mindsets. Enron was only the first prominent example. We can make millions, billions, fast! Not by old slowpoke return-on-investment models, but by devising really clever schemes and then selling them as hard as humanly possible—no, even harder. The whole of the global economy was wrested by the same smirky tall white guys who’d given us such surefire success stories as Flooz.com, Kozmo.com, and MyLackey.com.

And then comes what I see as Lanier’s most important allegation, that being online is degrading what it means to be human. No. It’s really the marketing business that wants to either lump us all into an undifferentiated mass or to wall us off from one another on the basis of demographics and buying habits. Social media, at their best, help humans reconnect to one another on other bases—political/social organizing, religious/spiritual questing, shared cultural memories, or just being alive and having something to say.

Jan 8th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

I’m old, but I’m not old enough to remember the live TV anthology dramas seen in the DVD box set The Golden Age of Television. But I am old enough to remember when these particular eight kinescope films were reshown on PBS in 1981.

Producer Sonny Fox, who’d compiled the PBS series, mostly selected stories that had remained famous via feature-film remakes (Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Days of Wine and Roses, No Time for Sergeants, et al).

The box set presents the shows exactly as Fox had re-edited them. The plus in this: the introductions and cast/writer/director interviews Mr. Fox had added at the beginning of each installment. The minus: some of the closing credit sequences are truncated or missing.

Because so many pre-1978 live (and even taped) TV shows were never copyrighted, many other DVDs of live anthology episodes are now on the market, as single discs and in sets. They tend to include the original credits, and often even the original commercials. Criterion, which released this set, could have done likewise.

As for the plays themselves, you get nine and a half hours of raw, Actors’ Studio-style over-emoting, performed by actors who were already famous or who became famous or who aren’t even trivia answers now, performed within tiny studio sets under harsh monochrome lighting.

Utterly fascinating.

Jan 7th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

Finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest sociocultural rant book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
From the title alone, it’s obvious Ehrenreich can’t stand the positivity movement/industry, a very American institution that’s boomed and blossomed of late.
She blames positive thinking (and its assorted tendrils in religion, business, and pop psychology) for infantilizing its followers, for leading a passive-aggressive nation into all those now-popped economic bubbles, and even for the Bush gang’s gung-ho drives into war and ultra-graft.
The book is a minor work of hers, which is odd considering it starts out with a very personal crisis in her own life. (She got breast cancer. She wound up hating the teddy bears and boxes of crayons foisted upon her more than she hated the disease itself.)
And like so many left-wing essay books, it comprises a long sequence of complaints, with only the briefest hint of possible solutions stuck in at the very end. She loathes uncritical, unquestioning “positivity,” but she doesn’t want people to be hooked on depression or stress either.
So what’s left in between? Social and political activism, she suggests.
But I’ve seen plenty of “activists” who get stuck in their own emotional trips (self-aggrandizing protests, feel-good “lifestyle choices,” et al.). They get to feel righteous, or smug, or genetically superior to the sap masses. And nothing changes.
World-changing and personal therapy, I believe, are two different thangs.
Still, there is a psychological benefit to working with other people, helping other people, becoming an involved part of our interdependent existence.
That was one of the messages in This Emotional Life, the recent Paul Allen-produced PBS miniseries. Another message was when an interviewee said, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. The opposite of depression is vitality.”
That meets obliquely with something I wrote around the time of the Obama inauguration. The “hope” Obama talked about wasn’t pie-in-the-sky positive thinking. It was acknowledging that work needed to be done, and then doing it, doing it with a clear and open mind and with full confidence in one’s abilities.
This has everything to do with Ehrenreich’s usual main topics, progressive politics and the plight of working families.

You don’t have to open Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest sociocultural rant book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America to know what it’ll say.

From the title alone, it’s obvious Ehrenreich can’t stand the positivity movement/industry, a very American institution that’s boomed and blossomed of late.

She blames positive thinking (and its assorted tendrils in religion, business, and pop psychology) for infantilizing its followers, for leading a passive-aggressive nation into all those now-popped economic bubbles, and even for the Bush gang’s gung-ho drives into war and ultra-graft.

The book is a minor work of hers, which is odd considering it starts out with a very personal crisis in her own life. (She got breast cancer. She wound up hating the teddy bears and boxes of crayons foisted upon her more than she hated the disease itself.)

And like so many left-wing essay books, it comprises a long sequence of complaints, with only the briefest hint of possible solutions stuck in at the very end. She loathes uncritical, unquestioning “positivity,” but she doesn’t want people to be hooked on depression or stress either.

So what’s left in between? Social and political activism, she suggests.

But I’ve seen plenty of “activists” who get stuck in their own emotional trips (self-aggrandizing protests, feel-good “lifestyle choices,” sneering against the “sheeple,” et al.). They get to feel powerful, or righteous, or smug, or genetically superior to the sap masses. And nothing changes.

World-changing and personal therapy, I believe, are two different thangs.

Still, there is a psychological benefit to working with other people, helping other people, becoming an involved part of our interdependent existence.

That was one of the messages in This Emotional Life, the recent Paul Allen-produced PBS miniseries. Another message was when an interviewee said, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. The opposite of depression is vitality.”

That meets obliquely with something I wrote around the time of the Obama inauguration. The “hope” Obama talked about wasn’t pie-in-the-sky positive thinking. It was acknowledging that work needed to be done, and then doing it, doing it with a clear and open mind and with full confidence in one’s abilities.

This has everything to do with Ehrenreich’s usual main topics, progressive politics and the plight of working families.

BOOK BEAT: 'The Progressive Revolution'
Aug 13th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

book coverI really wanted to like The Progressive Revolution, ex-Clinton aide Michael Lux’s breezy review of liberal thought and action from the Revolutionary War days to today.

Or rather, to some time early last autumn.

That’s the problem. For reasons known only to publisher John Wiley & Sons, Lux’s book had an official publication date of Jan. 17, 2009. As Lux admits toward the book’s end, “I’m writing these words without knowing the outcome of the 2008 election, and you are reading this with the knowledge of how it came out.”

If you’re putting out a bigtime hardcover treatise about American progressivism, and you leave out that movement’s most recent history-changing event, you’ve got a product that’s obsolete even before it’s for sale. Throughout, Lux refers to George W. Bush’s administration in the present tense, and wonders out loud when the lefties will ever regain any influence in the federal sphere.

The bulk of Lux’s work, the historical stuff, is fine. It’s a quick and easy read, albeit incomplete. It reassures readers who suffered through all the Bush-era nonsense that, yes, progs really are Americans—indeed, that “the best in America” is progressives’ doing. Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, the long drives for race and gender equality, the labor movement, the environmental movement—whenever and wherever Americans got anything right, the progressives got it done and the conservatives fought like hell to stop it.

Had The Progressive Revolution come out at the start of the 2008 Presidential season, it might have been a building block toward an Obama/netroots philosophy of pride in progress. As for now, maybe Lux will bring it up to date for a paperback edition.

Strangely enough, Wiley did bother to include a copyright-page “Limit of Liability/Disclaimer of Warranty” more appropriate for the company’s computer books:

“While the publisher and the author have used their best efforts in preparing this book, they make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of this book and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. No warranty may be created or extended by sales representatives or written sales materials. The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation. You should consult with a professional where appropriate. Neither the publisher nor the author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.”

Jul 22nd, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

book cover…is there can be only one contender for Most Boring Novel Subject of All Time.

I speak, of course, of novels about the lives (or lack thereof) of writers.

For the most part, us scribes are sedentary documentators and grammar geeks. Quiet folks leading ordinary existences as “home office” denizens or day-jobbers in such unglamourous places as college English departments.

Fictional writer characters often have more adventuresome lives than real-life writers, albeit sometimes to the point of incredulity.

Christopher Miller’s brilliantly funny new novel, The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank, features not one but three fictional writers. They’re all introverted losers, and not of the loveable kind. But they’re damn funny.

The eponymous Dank is a farcical extreme of the sedentary-writer type. He’s a prolific, and mildly successful, sci-fi hack (based only superficially on Philip K. Dick). While himself obese and almost fatally lethargic at any task except writing (and sometimes even at that), his tall tales abound with rugged crimefighters, womanizing spaceship captains, and gallant adventurers.

His pathetic life and more pathetic works are recounted to us, shortly after his death, by a dueling pair of biographers, who’d both been rivals for Dank’s friendship—the annoyingly laudatory Bill Boswell and the even-more-annoyingly disdainful Owen Hirt. As they (mostly Boswell) provide alphabetically-ordered accounts of Dank’s stories and the events (and non-events) of Dank’s life, we slowly (over 522 pages) learn what went on among these three losers, then what really went on among them. Without revealing spoilers, let’s just say that both Boswell and Hirt turn out to be gravely unreliable narrators.

While Dank, Boswell, and Hirt are all dreadful writers, Miller is a terrific one.

The Cardboard Universe is chock full of allusions (to everyone from Nabokov to Vonnegut to various real sci-fi scribblers), Oulipo-esque clever writing tricks, and how’d-he-do-that surprise payoffs.

But you don’t have to know about any of Miller’s references to laugh out loud at his tale. It’s uproariously funny, especially as the world of our three antiheroes retreats to the northern California college town where they all live, then to the block surrounding Dank’s house, then (with Dank’s exile from public life) to the confines of his house, then to the insides of Boswell’s own questionable sanity.

That’s not a place as vast as the far galaxies, but it can be just as scary, and a lot more entertaining.

BOOK BEAT: 'Happinessâ„¢'
Jul 6th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

book coverFor its first 50 or so pages of his novel Happinessâ„¢, Canadian satirist Will Ferguson provides a quaint send-up of office politics and the book industry (historically, literature’s second most boring subject, after writers themselves).

But the humor picks up once the main story gets underway. This is really a book about a book, the ultimate self-help book, a meandering 1,000-page series of life lessons entitled What I Learned on the Mountain and credited to a pseudonymous guru calling himself “Rajee Tupak Soiree.” Our hero, downtrodden book editor Edwin de Valu, gets the typewritten manuscript in the slush pile at the middling publisher where he gruelingly toils. After some initial misadventures, Edwin has the text published with no changes.

Without the blanding-out process of the industry’s professional prose-polishers, What I Learned on the Mountain gets unleashed full-strength upon an unsuspecting world. Within days (the book biz’s notoriously slow operational pace is highly compressed in Ferguson’s fictional world), it’s the #1 best seller of all time.

And it really works!

Soiree’s turgid prose turns out to have a hypnotic effect, subconsiously leading most of its readers into a new way of thinking. (Ferguson doesn’t attempt to show us how this works; he only directly quotes from What I Learned on the Mountain in very brief snippets.)

The result: Pretty much the end of civilization as we know it.

Millions of North Americans suddenly convert to inner peace and contentment. The alcohol, tobacco, drug, fashion, and baldness-remedy industries collapse. So does the book industry, except for spinoffs and ripoffs of What I Learned on the Mountain. Vast swaths of the U.S. work force just up and quit their posts to embark on vision quests or to join Tupak Soiree’s Colorado ashram/harem. This heaven, like David Byrne’s is a place where nothing ever happens.

Edwin de Valu sees everything he’d known (including his wife and his ex-lover) disappear around him, and feels responsible for it. This milquetoast salaryman reinvents himself as an action hero (or antihero), determined to strike his revenge on Tupak Soiree and all he represents. In the process, he learns the real lesson of life—it’s meant to be a struggle. Happiness, real happiness, is a journey, not a destination.

And (spoiler alert) Edwin also finds out that Tupak Soiree is a total fraud. What I Learned on the Mountain, the book that conquered humanity’s cynicism and greed, was a cynical attempt to make money.

I found Ferguson’s ending to be a real cop-out. I wanted to read about the ultimate battle for humanity’s soul, between evil-disguised-as-good (Tupak and his blissed-out hordes) and good-disguised-as-evil (the now angry, gun-toting Edwin).

That story remains to be written.

So does the heart of Ferguson’s conceit, a sufficiently-long example of Tupak’s seductive prose stylings.

But these failings may simply mean Ferguson’s conceptual reach exceeds his stylistic grasp.

In other words, he’s also still striving.

(Sidebar 1: The novel’s original Canadian title in 2001 was Generica, referring to the uniform state of bliss people adopt upon exposure to Tupak Soiree’s teachings.)

(Sidebar 2: Could there actually be a style of writing that, like monks’ chants or recent attempts in “binaural-beat” electronic music, rewire the human mind? The story possibilities, oh the story possibilities…)

(Sidebar 3: What would US/Canadian society really look like after a mass conversion away from anxiety/depression/addiction and toward inner peace? We’d still have to feed and shelter ourselves, and we’d still have tribal/social/political differences. More story possibilities…)

Jan 25th, 2007 by Clark Humphrey

video coverI’ve watched three of the four discs in the box set Harveytoons, The Complete Series. These 1950-1962 cartoons have proven to be just as perverse, violent and corny as I remember from my childhood.

In my adult years, I’ve learned these films were originally made by Famous Studios, which had been formed in 1942 after Paramount foreclosed on the more prestigious Max Fleischer studio. I also learned that, despite at least two of the films depicting the studio as situated in sunny Hollywood, it was really one of two animation factories in New York. (The other was the even less-respected Terrytoons.)

When Paramount parceled out its old theatrical shorts to TV distributors, it told those buyers to remove the Paramount name and logo from all distributed prints. Thus, when Harvey Comics bought one of the Paramount cartoon packages (plus the rights to all the starring characters therein), Paramount’s “Noveltoons” jack-in-the-box logo became “Harveytoons.”

These retitled films were first televised Sunday afternoons on ABC in 1959. I first saw them three or four years later, when they were syndicated onto local weekday kids’ shows. (As I recall, they aired locally with Brakeman Bill on KTNT, later KSTW.)

I’m surprised at how many moments from the films have been part of my brain’s hard-wiring, after all these decades:

  • Casper drinking lemonade and turning pink.
  • Herman the mouse turning Katnip into a Christmas tree, then sticking the cat’s tail in a power outlet to light him up.
  • In another film, Herman (disguised as a mouse St. Peter) threatening Katnip with a toss into “the fiery furnace” (really a coal-fired home furnace).
  • Baby Huey mistaking lab chemicals for “sody pop” and burping fireballs.
  • A one-shot musical set in a “candy town” nightclub, with a gun-toting sourball cutting in on a dancing lollypop: “All right Lolly, drop that gum!”
  • The “Crazytown Manufacturing Co.” factory, where an entire log is mechanically whittled away to create a single toothpick.

Some aspects of the films which I hadn’t remembered:

  • The drawing, animation, backgrounds, and music are all of a much higher quality than I realized as a kid–at least in the package’s earlier films. Starting with the shorts bearing 1956 copyright dates, the budgets started going down. Full character movement gave way to simpler “cycle” animation.
  • And Casper, the dominant character in the Harvey package (Popeye was Famous Studios’ biggest star, but those films were sold to a different syndicator) seemed overly infantile to me when I was six, but it resonates more strongly now.

Casper, as first created by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo in 1945, was a cloying object lesson in “fair play, overcoming peer pressure and being accepted for who you are (not by how you appear),” to quote a reviewer at imdb.com. As the Famous crew over the years turned the premise into a repetitive gag formula, its life lessons seemed a bit shallow–particularly when juxtaposed against the brutal hijinx of Herman and Katnip.

But in today’s sociocultural context, it makes more sense.

Casper is a sensitive, intellectual (the films often open on him reading a hardcover book), optimistic kid, who wants to spread amity, love, and cooperation in the world–in short, a progressive Democrat.

The other ghosts (later standardized in the comic books as the Ghostly Trio) are snotty schoolyard bullies who thrive on propagating fear, misunderstanding, and discord–in short, conservative Republicans.

Most of the “living” humans and animals in the Casper films have been indoctrinated by anti-ghost propaganda into fleeing at first sight of Casper, even though Casper has only the best of intentions. Heck, the other ghosts are never seen performing anything more harmful than frat-boy pranks.

But those pranks are what the other ghosts “live” for. The other ghosts not only want Casper to be perceived as scary, they want Casper to become scary. By refusing the ghost agenda, Casper is a rebel against, and a threat to, the dominant (ghost) culture.

Ironically, Casper usually gets out of trouble when the predators threatening his new-found friends see Casper and flee in fright. Casper’s curse is also one of his gifts.

But Casper’s bigger gift is perseverance. One new friend at a time, he effectively spreads his message of togetherness. For a non-corporeal being who’d apparently “died” at a presexual age (an aspect of his story that wasn’t discussed until the 1995 feature film), he’s got a lot of interest in helping corporeal humans live better lives together.

I could think of worse role models.

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