Laughing At The Bleakness

30079724Title: Homesick For Another World

Rating: 4 Stars

I first encountered Ottessa Moshfegh last year when I read Eileen. It’s really hard to say that you love a book that tries so hard to be unloved. Eileen is one of the most unlikable protagonists that I’ve ever read. She’s resolutely unhappy and full of self loathing. Centering an entire novel around such a character and keeping you interested, if not exactly rooting for her, is a literary triumph.

Home For Another World follows along the same course. Instead of a novel, it’s around a dozen stories of bleakness. The central characters are almost invariably unattractive, whether it be their looks, their personality, or their motives. They all pick at scabs, sometimes literally. These are not people that, in the real world, anyone would root for.

Yet, in story after story, Moshfegh succeeds in pulling you into it and making you care. Beyond just making you care, there’s usually at least a line or two in each story that makes you laugh out loud, even if, after you laugh, you feel slightly guilty or uncomfortable about the laugh and wonder what that says about you.

For instance, Bettering Yourself features an alcoholic grade school teacher who screams at her students, tells them about her sex life, and obsessively calls her ex-husband until he pays her to stop.

Malibu concerns a man with pimples, a rash all over his body, and bad teeth out looking to meet a woman. His mentor giving him girl advice is his uncle on permanent disability who has a colostomy bag that he never properly cleans.

Slumming is the story of another teacher (high-school English this time) that has bought a summer house. At the end of every school year, she goes out to spend the entire summer at the house. While there, every day she gets a sandwich from the local sub shop and then walks over to the abandoned bus station, where she goes into the men’s room and buys whatever drug that is being sold that day. It changes from day to day and she never asks what it is, but somehow, magically, it is always precisely the drug that she needs at that moment.

I could go on, but I think that the point is made. In Moshfegh’s universe, you’re never going to meet a good person. You’re never going to meet anyone with unsullied motives. The happiest ending that you’ll probably get is that the person chooses to live another day.

Stylistically, her short stories owe a pretty strong debt to Carver. The characters live on the fringes of society. There is a best a minimal plot. Characters make their choices and willingly live with the consequences. You have small stories told in a minimalist style, but that punch way above their weight.

The opening stories are much stronger than the closing stories. If the quality had been maintained throughout, the collection would have entered Knockemstiff territory. Even if it doesn’t quite reach that level, still this was the strongest collection of stories that I’ve read in a while.


Command or Control – Choose One

I’ve been re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. This is at least the third time that I’ve read it. It’s a collection of his essays from the 1970s to the 1990s, so they are understandably dated, but even so they are still a fascinating read.

The essay that I’m currently on now concerns our nuclear command and control system. This is a pretty scary subject. Podcast fans might remember, I think it was This American Life (or Radiolab, I can never tell them apart) had a piece on it. Eric Schlosser wrote an entire book on this subject (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety). Some time ago, I read Raven Rock, by Garrett Graff, which is more about the infrastructure of keeping the government going in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The concerns boil down to the phrase command and control. On the one hand, we want to make sure that if that horrible time comes when we must launch a full nuclear war, that the command will be carried out. On the other hand, we want to make absolutely sure that the launch order is never made accidentally or inappropriately (that is, there is control over the order).

Those two requirements make absolute sense and should be the bedrock of nuclear policy. The problem is that those two requirements are paradoxical.

Take a look at each requirements. Let’s start with command.

Back in the 1950s there was kind of a weird power struggle over who should have control over the nuclear weapons. The armed forces, thinking that this was just another weapon, fought to have launch authority. After all, a general doesn’t go to a president if, in a battle, he needs to use a tank. If I recollect correctly, I believe that it was actually Eisenhower, the only US president in our time that exuded an authority that the military respected, that ended that question once and for all in favor of the president having that authority.

Of course, the enemy would know that and would target the president in the case of a surprise attack. What if the president died? Then, it devolves to the vice president. And so on. At the end of the day, if the Strategic Air Command can’t get hold of anyone in the case of an emergency, then the SAC commander has the authority.

So, by making sure that the nuclear launches will be carried out even if the command structure is removed, we are, to a large extent, sacrificing control.

How about the other hard requirement? We certainly want to make sure that we don’t accidentally launch the missiles. We’ve invested billions of dollars in monitoring / tracking equipment to try to detect foreign missile strikes so that we can respond appropriately.

And yet…

In 1960, a moonrise over Norway was misinterpreted as a USSR mass attack.

At the height of Watergate when Nixon was at maximum stress and regularly drunk, he once told a group of congressmen that “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead”. It was so concerning that calls were made to the Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who quietly instituted a policy that all launch orders go through him or Kissinger (wow, that does not make me feel much safer).

In 1979, a training scenario was incorrectly loaded onto the production computer and it falsely reported that 2,200 missiles were in the air coming from USSR. The National Security Adviser at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that the president had three to seven minutes to decide upon a retaliatory attack. Brzezinski, thinking that the world was coming to an end, did not wake his wife because he wanted her to not be aware of her imminent death.

In 2010, the military lost monitoring control over 50 ICBMs for nearly 45 minutes. They had no idea if they had been hacked and/or taken over by rogue elements.

On the other side, in 1995, Boris Yeltsin actually activated the Russian nuclear briefcase over a Norwegian research rocket. Norway had informed the Russian authorities of the planned launch but that had never been passed on to the nuclear authorities. Yes, Boris Yeltsin was contemplating launching a nuclear retaliation. This is the same Boris Yeltsin, also in the same year of 1995, who was making a state visit and was caught in the middle of the night, drunk out of his mind, in his underwear, outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza. The secret service agents escorted him back to the White House.

If you think that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that this question is moot, keep in mind that we still have about 6800 nuclear weapons in various stages of operation and that Russia has about 7000.

And the world leaders with their proverbial fingers on the button? Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Sweet dreams everyone.

Sycophants Gone Wild


Title: The Death of Stalin

Rating: 4 Stars

Every now and then I see a movie that I swear was custom designed for me. For instance, about twenty years ago, there was a movie called Dick. It was a juvenile comedy about Watergate. There were inside references to such things as the taping over of locks at the Watergate complex, Deep Throat, and the 18 1/2 minute gap. At the same time, it was the story of a giggly teenage young woman that had developed a crush on Richard Nixon, writing his name repeatedly on her pee chee, and blurting out, in moments of complete silence, how much she loved dick.

Note that this movie came out twenty-five years after Watergate. I believe that the Venn diagram of people that would have simultaneously enjoyed the subtle and inside nods to the Watergate conspiracy and have a deep appreciation for sophomoric humor didn’t extend that far beyond me.

Now, I see that another movie has come out. It’s about the death of Stalin and the immediate chaotic fallout after his death. As with Dick, this is a comedy right smack dab in history geek’s wheelhouse.

I’ve read Montefiore’s The Red Tzar a couple of times now. Stalin’s reign holds an almost obsessive fascination to me. How does a country let this happen? Stalin ordered several purges during his time. He purged anyone that was even remotely a threat to him. He purged the original so-called Old Bolsheviks. He purged the small landowners (the Kulaks) that wanted to keep farming their own lands. He purged the army of its officers (which turned out not to be such a great move right before the start of WWII).

It was so simple. He’d pressure / torture someone to confess and name names. He’d then have those who were named arrested and repeat the process. Desperate to avoid torture, a person arrested would quickly confess to the most absurd crimes and then name as many names as they could come up with. Following this process, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions would ultimately be executed.

And then, of course, the torturers themselves would then be arrested and executed.

The movie starts at this point. Lists of people are sent out to be arrested. In his dacha, Stalin and his small cadre drink and make jokes. This cadre, Stalin’s inner circle (Beria, Krushschev, Malentov, Kaganovich, and a couple of others), possess enormous power but are aware that at any moment Stalin can yank that power away from any one of them and send him to his death. In fact, one of them, Molotov, unknowingly is on a list soon to be arrested. So, although they drink and laugh and shout joyously, they all do it while nervously eyeing Stalin. It’s much like the Twilight Zone episode of the six year old kid that has absolute power over all of the adults.

Later that night, Stalin has a stroke. He is not dead but he is incapacitated.

At first, they are all paralyzed. They are so used to living under Stalin’s thumb that they are at a loss of what to do. They’re afraid at first to even touch him (think of medieval times where it was a crime for a commoner to even touch a king). Even though he’s lying on the floor, comatose and incontinent, they debate the merits of bringing in a doctor. This situation is even more complicated by the fact that just recently many Moscow doctors have been arrested or executed as a result of a purge (the doctors’ plot).

Eventually, Stalin dies. Beria sees his chance. He makes his move to seize power. Will Krushschev be able to block him? The weak Malentov is technically the next in succession. Who will he support? Who will get the legendary General Zhukov’s, the leader of the army, support?

That forms the plot.

It is an entertaining and funny movie. The machinations of these previously toady sycophants trying to become the next supreme ruler of the USSR is absurd to watch. The actors (especially Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Krushschev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria) all do exceptional comedic work.

It kind of gets the fact right but clearly this is a comedy, not a documentary.

It is a timely movie for many reasons. First of all, think of the situation in Russia. Putin is, as I write this, about to win a landslide election. He has no significant opposition. Within the Russian government itself, there is nothing that appears to be a succession plan. In fact, it appears that not much happens without his approval. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, what would the Russian government do?

And it’s not like the US is in much better shape. Especially with the recent firings, Trump’s cabinet is a chorus of yes-men (and women) who occasionally make appearances together to compete in fulsome praise of the vision and talent of our great leader. Mike Pence goes to great lengths to be as subservient to Trump as the most pliable lapdog.

Let’s face facts. Our president is an obese man in his 70’s who does not eat well and counts golf as exercise. Would any of us be really all that surprised if he stroked out?

And what if he did? Imagine him prone on the floor and surrounded by Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin. Who from that sorry mess would you want to take the reigns and start issuing orders?

So, yes, it was a funny movie that I enjoyed watching. However, the fact that a comedy about an autocrat that died sixty years ago caused me to reflect upon our current political situation was, to say the least, unsettling.

Slaves Built More Than The White House


Title: The Half Has Never Been Told

Rating: 4 Stars

This book has a couple of provocative themes. One is that the modern industrial world might never have happened without American slavery. The other major theme challenges the accepted wisdom that slavery was going to fade away over time because slave labor cannot compete in terms of productivity with a free workforce paid wages. Baptist makes the argument that slave labor is relentlessly and brutally efficient.

Most people with a passing knowledge of history are aware that the Haitian Revolution is one of the very rare instances of a slave revolt actually succeeding. It ended up creating a nation that was free of slaves and actually run by the former slaves.

During the uprising, Napoleon sent troops to shut it down. The French troops were defeated by the Haitians. As a direct result of that defeat, Napoleon agreed to sell to America the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase.

The territory in the Louisiana Purchase was fed by the Mississippi river, which led to the land being incredibly fertile. As soon as this was discovered, the American government began to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes at the point of a gun. The Native American were progressively pushed out of their homelands and settlers moved in.

As this was happening, demand for cotton was beginning to skyrocket. The rich, fertile land of the Louisiana Purchase was perfectly positioned to grow cotton.

The invention of the cotton gin was a significant advance in separating cotton from its seed. However, the act of picking the cotton was still a very labor intensive effort requiring many hands. Therefore, cotton farming generated a tremendous demand for slave labor.

Do you see what just happened there? Because of its success, a slave revolution in one country indirectly led to a dramatic increase of slavery in another country. Historical irony isn’t always subtle.

Concurrent with this, textile manufacturing was making tremendous gains in England. Technological advances were being made that allowed dramatically greater productivity with the same number of workers. This led to ever greater demand for cotton. In fact, if the cotton growers hadn’t been available to meet that demand, there wouldn’t have been such a dramatic increase in technology because there wouldn’t have been a point.

In fact, the American South became a powerhouse for cotton growing. In 1800 the South produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton in 1800. In 1860, they produced 2 billion pounds.

Textiles were the engine for technology. Textiles were a significant percentage of all industrial output. The regular supply of cotton made sure that the engine was always running, and not only that, but always improving. It can be said that this symbiotic relationship of raw cotton and textile manufacturing was the most significant factor in creating the world in which we live today.

So, how did the South do it? How did it increase its output by a factor of more than 1,000 in about 60 years?

Sure, there was more land. There were some advances in the cotton seed that produced a slightly fluffier end product. These factors weren’t even close to enough to explain the difference.

The key factor was the increased productivity of the slaves. Closer to the year 1800, the best slaves were picking at most 100 lbs of cotton a day. When you think of how light and fluffy cotton is, I can’t even imagine the effort that it would take to pick 100 lbs of cotton in one day.

By the year 1860 rolled around, slaves were averaging closer to 500 lbs of cotton a day.

Yes, their productivity increased by a factor of five. Notice that there was no advance in technology for the cotton picker. No new tool was invented. There was no innovation that somehow automated part of the picking. It was hard, bloody, manual work. While England was gaining tremendous advances through technology, the slaves that fed the raw product for those machines were doing the same work 60 years later but were picking five times as much cotton.

How? By basically terrorizing and working the slaves to their deaths. Everyday, each slave’s output would be weighed. Each slave was assigned a specific quota. If the slave did not meet the quota, he/she would be whipped. If the slave exceeded his/her quota, then guess what? That new total became his/her new quota, and if the next day, he/she didn’t meet that quota, then a whipping would result. This remorselessly efficient process led the slaves to drive themselves to higher and higher productivity.

Accounts from slaves during that time tell the story of basically leaving their minds and just becoming a ruthlessly efficient machine, with both hands working independently in a blur.

This was how the modern industrial world was built.

Why Hitler?

I’ve been re-reading parts of Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. It’s a dated collection, but it’s a re-print of long form articles that he did over a 30 year period on topics as diverse as the rise of the original hackers (that hacked into the phone system using, among other things, a Cap’n Crunch whistle), his obsession with the play Hamlet, the strange deaths of twin gynecologists (the basis for a movie starring Jeremy Irons), a mysterious death involving Burt Reynolds, and the apparent suicide of Danny Casoloro (who was investigating / reporting on a wide ranging government conspiracy he called the Octopus).

Even though this collection was published in 2001, so it includes articles that he wrote way back in the 70s, it still makes for compelling reading. It’s clear that he himself is a somewhat obsessive person, so reading of him diving deep into his fellow obsessives makes for entertaining reading.

One of his articles later itself became a full length book. It was called Explaining Hitler.

It tries to answer the fundamental question, how did Hitler become Hitler? How does an apparently normal person once so unsuccessful that he was a penniless painter nearly homeless in Austria ultimately end up not only rising Germany up from the ashes of its defeat but then nearly conquer all of Western Europe and kill six million Jewish people?

Various historians and psychoanalysts have come up with a number of theories over the years.

Some theories fixate that there must have been something in Hitler’s background that made him hate Jewish people. One theory is that his beloved mother that painfully died of cancer was treated by a Jewish doctor that could not cure her. Another theory is that Hitler’s father was himself fathered by a Jewish person and Hitler was tormented by the fact that he was ‘tainted’ with Jewish blood. Yet another theory is that, when he was a starving artist in Vienna, he picked up a venereal disease from a Jewish prostitute.

I’m not making this up. These are theories that have been put forward in published books by respected authors. There’s something dismal in all of these theories. They all, in one form or another, no matter how subtle, somehow shift the blame onto some lone Jewish person and makes him / her somehow the root cause of the Holocaust.

Another theory is that Hitler’s father beat him mercilessly and somehow that triggered something. There is very little evidence for this and other theories emphasize the gentleness of his father, so this seems shaky as well.

Another theory is around hypnotherapy. After Germany’s loss in WWI, Hitler was so traumatized that he experienced hysterical blindness. He was apparently cured by hypnosis. Specifically, the hypnotist told Hitler (while he was hypnotized) that it was his destiny to lead Germany to greatness and therefore he must regain his sight so he that could assume his rightful place. The theory here is that the idea implanted so deeply that it made him a monster.

And then, of course, there’s the ‘one ball’ theory. There apparently was a German soldier serving in WWII that knew Hitler from his childhood and would tell a story (until he was arrested and sentenced to death) of when Hitler was a child, on a dare, he tried to urinate into a billy goat’s mouth and the goat reached up and tore one of his testicles off. So, apparently, the Holocaust and the untold misery in the Soviet Union was the result of overcompensation?

Even going beyond the root cause, there is even now serious disagreements regarding what Hitler’s motives were. Some historians believe that Hitler was sincere in his actions. They believe that he thought it was his moral mission to remove Jewish people (and Poles and Slovaks and …) for the betterment of the world.

Other historians equally fervently believe that he was basically an actor. He was an ambitious opportunist that did whatever necessary to gain the reigns of power and then basically responded to the will of the people.

Yet another group of historians believe that he started off as an actor but ultimately there reached a point where he began to believe his lines. After acting as an opportunist in the early stages of the war, specifically after he achieved such massive success in the initial stages of the Soviet Union invasion, he became convinced that his will was destiny; this delusion became his downfall.

There’s another whole school of thought that Hitler should never try to be understood. He is beyond humanity. To try to understand Hitler is to try to explain Hitler. It’s a short path from explaining Hitler to excusing Hitler. To venture even a little down this path of trying to understand evil is itself an immoral action.

Why does this seem so important now? It seems to me, not just in the US but in the world, the inevitable advance that democracy had been marching upon over the last several decades has seemed to reach a pause. There are now parties arising in many countries that seem to be hearkening back to a more dangerous time.

Obviously not all such parties are going to lead the world to global conflagration. There’s a very good chance that none of them will. It’s just that now might be a good time to look back into history and see if there’s anything that we can learn to make sure that we recognize the next Hitler, if such a one ever tries to emerge again.

Two Firemen Are In A Smoked Filled Room

Many years ago (I think it was probably in the late 1980s), I went to see a comedian named John Fox. He was the headliner. He came out, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. This led rapidly to the punchline. For his entire set, he did a rapid-fire set of unrelated jokes. The jokes were so quick and risque that he had the crowd in stitches.

About ten years later, I just happened to see that he was touring and was stopping off in Seattle. Remembering how much I enjoyed him, I decide to see him again. He walks out onto the stage and the first words out of his mouth were, “Two firemen are in a smoked filled room butt fucking”. It was ten years later and his act was, word for word, identical.

Going to see Anthony Jeselnik this week got me thinking a bit. As I previously wrote, he is, despite his extremely dark humor, actually a conventional joke teller. His act is not personal. I learned nothing about Jeselnik by listening to his act. For all I know, he could have a staff of crack writers that grind out the jokes that he delivers.

This is counter to the current trend of comedy. Comedians today generally are much more personal. They delve into their psyche and their personal lives and use what they discover there as the subject matter of their humor. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast pretty regularly. He is definitely one of the reigning senior spokesmen for the current state of comedy. He’ll talk to fellow comedians and he’ll occasionally reference some other comedian and say that he/she tells jokes. Although he tries to be impartial, it’s pretty clear that he kind of holds them in some disdain. Such comedians that simply tell jokes are, in his eyes, children of a lesser comedic god.

The deeply personal comedic perspective is a tradition that goes back 50 or more years. Before that, comedians told jokes. In fact that was their job. It was to tell jokes. It was not  their job to write jokes. There’s a famous book named the Joe Miller joke book. Joe Miller was an 18th century British actor. Shortly after his death, a joke book was published in his name. It consisted of 247 jokes.  Over the years the book was revised and new jokes were added.

By the time that vaudeville and then later the Catskills Borscht Belt were going on, there were comedians still making use of those same jokes from the Miller book. There were comedians who were successful for decades and never changed their act. In fact, I might have my facts screwed up here, but I believe that one of the great vaudeville comedians, Eddie Cantor, was in real life pretty much incapable of natural humor.

Clearly, the reason why they were able to do it was because there was extremely limited recording taking place then. Most people would only occasionally go to comedy shows, so the fact that large numbers of comedians were using essentially the same material was not a big deal. Comedians regularly stole successful bits from each other. It was known and just accepted.

Things started to change in the age of television and radio. Suddenly, a comedian could reach millions of people with one show. A comedian could go on the Ed Sullivan show and do some piece of his act. Well, when he went out on the road again, many people in his audience would have seen his act and wouldn’t want to see it again. Unlike singing, comedy does not improve with repetition. People who had been touring for decades were effectively driven out of the business, unable to come up with new material.

Desperate for new material, joke stealing became a real issue. Someone could go on a national show with stolen material and would ruin that material not only for him/herself but also for the comedian that originated it. Milton Berle, Mr Television himself, was an infamous joke thief.

Some famous comedians hired a team of writers to generate new content constantly. However, it was a losing battle. Every new joke that came out could be instantly stolen.

Some comedians started trying a different approach. Led by so-called coffee house comedians like Mort Sahl and yes, Lenny Bruce, instead of just telling jokes, they began to tell stories. These weren’t generic let me tell you about my wife kind of stories. These were deeply personal experiences that were clearly unique to them.

By telling such personal stories, they were inoculating themselves from thieves. The stories just wouldn’t make sense to be told by other comedians with obviously different life experiences. Not only that, but the personal nature also changed the delivery of the act. Instead of a rapid fire set of gags, the comedy act became more thoughtful. This more thoughtful style was so foreign to the more typical joke thief that even if they tried to steal it, they’d just look silly trying to imitate it.

Lo and behold, the audience grew to appreciate this kind of humor. It effectively made a tighter emotional bond between the comedian and the audience. It created a depth to the comedy that was previously missing. From the coffee house, it expanded outward and eventually became the de facto technique for most future comedians.

However, think now of the stress that is placed on modern comedians. Many comedians have Netflix deals. Some comedians have a contract to release a new special every year or so. This places tremendous pressure upon them. Every year, the comedian has to delve deeply into his/her past or psyche and come up with another hour of comedy. I can’t even imagine the difficulty that goes into doing that.

Tig Notaro’s show about her fight with cancer and Patton Oswalt’s show about the death of his wife are now rightly considered landmark comedy. Today, if you look back on youTube at the giants of comedy from the vaudeville or early radio/TV days, you’ll find yourself amazed at the difference in sophistication between the comedy of today and comedy then. It has quite literally morphed into a different form of art.

And to think that to a large extent that this transpired because someone was trying to keep fellow comedians from stealing their jokes.

Laughing At Murder / Suicide


Title: Anthony Jeselnik

I first watched Anthony Jeselnik when he did his Netflix special Thoughts and Prayers. Some of his jokes were kind of obvious and sophomoric but he won me over with the Thoughts and Prayer part of his routine, where he explained why he sends out really insensitive tweets after major tragedies. It was insightful social commentary that still resonates even now, I think of it whenever I hear a politician send out thoughts and prayers to shooting victims but then does absolutely nothing to help and/or solve the problem of mass shootings.

Mo Welch opened for him. She did a strong set. She’s in the mold of the the current  tradition of extremely personal comedy. She is gay, grew up poor, and her father apparently spent a substantial amount of her childhood in prison. All of these topics were fodder for her humor.

She was a good opener for Jeselnik because, like him, her comedy pushed boundaries. She had a riff about how a lesbian’s finger is her penis, meeting a friend who was from Joliet (a famous prison), and joyfully exclaiming that her father did time there, and an extended bit about wanting to marry her mother when she was a child (ending with a joke about sex with her mom).

She received good laughs and warmed the audience up well.

Jeselnik then came out. His act was in the same style as his Netflix special. He assumes a character on stage. He acts cocky to the point of arrogance. He frequently assures the audience of the brilliance of his jokes. He stalks the stage like a tiger. When he gets to the punchline, he stares directly out at the audience with a fierce intensity.

And that’s the interesting thing about Jeselnik. He tells jokes. The current trend of comedians is personal. If you think of the current top comedians like Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, or Chris Rock, they tell stories about themselves. Sure, they address larger themes, but they come from a personal place to express it. The trend is still ongoing. An up and coming comedian like Ali Wong goes into extremely graphic (and hilarious) detail about her pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child.

Jeselnik stays aloof on stage. Even when he does tell a story about his father, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not based in reality. It’s like the old school unmarried comedians making jokes about their wives. It’s a vehicle to a punchline, not a personal observation.

And that’s OK. I just find it interesting how he’s going against the stream. He clearly owes a debt to Mitch Hedberg and, even earlier, to Steven Wright. Like Hedberg and Wright, he has fun with language. He’ll start talking and it follows a very predictable path and then, still staying in context with what he’s talking about, he takes a very dark twist. The unexpected path and the abruptness in which it happens is the source of his humor.

It usually is very effective. I have noticed that you can get into the rhythm of his bits. If you listen carefully and project just a bit ahead, you can with some regularity actually predict the joke, which of course lessens the impact.

I think that it’ll be interesting to see how Jeselnik’s act will be in ten years. Will he be in the same persona? Will audiences still want to see him? Over time, I see his act becoming more and more predictable. It’ll be interesting to see if it evolves.

Tonight, as usual, he tested his audience to see how far he can take them. He does a bit on baby dropping. From what I recollect, I believe that he did a similar bit on his Netflix special. I think the idea of getting people to laugh at such an obviously absurd comedic premise is a challenge to him. Similarly, he had extended bits on murder / suicide, abortion, and racism. His abortion bit especially skirted the edge of exactly what he could say that would be simultaneously funny and shocking.

I’m wondering if he had one true moment during the end of his routine. He talked, in an ironically obsequious manner, of what a great crowd the audience was. He then made an offhand comment about the time he was at Bumbershoot and half the audience walked out on him. There’s no reason to actually believe him, but knowing that Bumbershoot is basically a bunch of random people deciding to catch a show, not knowing who Jeselnik was, that could very well be the one true fact of the evening. He tossed out the little aside with just enough of a hint of a bitterness to make you think that it actually happened and that it stung him a bit.

Cash Machine With A Social Conscience


Title: Black Panther

Rating: 4 Stars

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther. Was the hype worth it? Except for an annoying amount of over the top CGI, definitely yes. It was one of the best Marvel movies that I’ve seen.

It successfully blended action sequences and typical comic book superhero struggles with interesting social / philosophical questions.

The premise is that there is an African nation named Wakanda. A meteorite lands there some time ago that contains a material called vibranium. This semi-magical material is incredibly strong and has many other valuable properties.

A series of Wakanda kings decided to keep vibranium secret for themselves. Using the material, they have become technologically advanced and fabulously wealthy while appearing to be a poor third world country.

The latest king has died and the new one, T’Challa, has been installed. Meanwhile, the previous king had a brother that was undercover in the US. The king discovers that his brother is actually working to share vibranium with impoverished blacks around the world to allow them to rise to power. The king forbids it and ultimately ends up killing his brother, leaving his brother’s young son to grow up radicalized in the US. Ultimately, his brother’s son (nicknamed Killmonger) grows up to be a highly trained fighter with a single minded purpose to avenge his father’s death and to continue his father’s mission of sharing vibranium with oppressed black people.

The main plot is the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Who will rule Wakanda? What will Wakanda’s role be in the world community?

It does bring up interesting questions. Wakanda definitely is painted as a utopia of peace and progress. It appears that vibranium landed possibly hundreds of years ago. That would seem to imply that while Europeans were carting off their fellow Africans and forcing them into slavery, this technologically advanced nation was just letting it happen without even trying to help. Is that the actions of a beneficial nation?

What would be the responsibilities of an incredibly advanced and rich black nation when there are at least hundreds of millions of blacks and billions of people of color that are oppressed? Would they / should they have a higher responsibility than a rich white nation due to some shared sense of ethnicity?

Let’s leave aside the issue of race. What are the responsibilities of any rich nation when there over a billion people that live in extreme poverty? As we sit in our technologically advanced cities with easy access to the conveniences of life, do we have an obligation to people on the other side of the planet that don’t have ready access to clean water?

There’s also the issue of vibranium. It truly appears to be a wonder material. Wakanda has built up a super civilization and apparently they’ve barely even scratched the surface of the amount of vibranium that they have. Is it fair that they have exclusive / easy access to the material? No matter how benevolent a nation is, it would seem problematic if it has exclusive access to a material that, if used, they could apparently conquer and control the world. This seems reminiscent of that very short period of time after WWII when the US was the sole atomic power. It was shocking when the USSR exploded its atomic weapon, but in an alternate universe where that didn’t happen, how would US / world history have unfolded if the US had the sole power to destroy any nation that defied it over a period of decades?

The movie itself was entertaining. I particularly liked T’Challa’s sister Shuri. She’s sixteen years old and is the technical genius behind much of Wakanda’s technology. In the film, she was funny and brilliant, reminiscent of the quirky genius Q from the Bond movies. Especially given the dearth of females of color in the technology field, including her in the film was pretty awesome.

As far as I can tell, there were two white characters in the film. One was an evil soldier of fortune arms seller kind of guy. The other was a CIA agent that was used to a significant extent as a comic foil. Amazingly enough, the film still worked and is making a shitload of money. Maybe white guys are OK with movies where they’re not always the center of attention?

Besides the blatant overuse of CGI, the only discordant note for me during the film was the Jabari Tribe. They worship gorillas. They dress in gear that resembles gorilla. They go into battle with a war cry that sound like gorilla grunts. Maybe I’m being an overly sensitive liberal snowflake, but large men kind of acting like gorillas seemed kind of problematic to me

That’s basically a nit. I kind of have a habit of hating on Marvel movies since they are such an obvious cash machine that sucks oxygen out of the market for other types of films. In this case, Marvel really hit the mark on character, action, and social commentary.

Reliving The Past That I Missed


Title: Damned I’m Cramped

I grew up in a part of the Seattle metropolitan area affectionately known as Rat City. At that point in time, in the late 70s and early 80s, it was a lower middle class blue collar town of predominantly white people.

In that setting, the two avenues of music that were generally available to me was the AC/DC style of heavy metal or the Judas Priest style of heavy metal (I was pretty solidly in the AC/DC camp). If you want to see a pretty much spot-on documentary on how I and my friends were at that time, I’d advise you to go to youTube and find Heavy Metal Parking Lot. It is exactly what the title claims. Someone brought video equipment and filmed the crowd gathering before a Judas Priest concert. At one time, this was almost lost footage that would play very rarely in theaters (it’s about 30 minutes long). I remember seeing it for the first time about fifteen years ago in an art house theater as part of a documentary collection and I almost pissed myself in some bizarre combination of laughter and shame.

Because of that, even though I lived through the height of the punk movement, none of my friends were into it all. I didn’t have the sense / self confidence to go to shows on my own, and then later I married a woman who didn’t enjoy music at all. So, even though I really enjoy punk music and I was at an age where it would have been just about perfect for me to go such shows, I completely missed them. The fact that I easily could have seen the Ramones live in really small venues occasionally causes pain in my soul.

Now I’m much older and I have no problems at all going to shows on my own. As you can imagine, the pickings are pretty slim. You might have some copy of some punk band with possibly one original member show up to play their hits. I saw X play their Los Angeles album live in its entirety one New Years Eve some years ago.

Sometimes I have to make do. I noticed that a cover / tribute band was opening for another band at the Funhouse called Damned I’m Cramped. They do two sets, in the first one they cover The Cramps and in the second they cover The Damned. The Cramps are one of my favorite bands and The Damned are about as O.G. punk rock as you can get. Seriously, their drummer was named Rat Scabies.

This one I had to go to. I had an absolutely great time.

For the Cramps set, the lead singer tried his hardest to channel Lux Interior. He showed up on the stage in a tight leather one piece, a fur coat, long gloves, and eye makeup. Several times, he gave a blow job to the microphone by taking the head of it into his mouth (a signature Lux movement). He climbed on top of speakers. He danced into the crowd. He was buzzing around while singing the Human Fly.

For The Damned part, he changed character. Still wearing the leather one piece, he now also wore a leather jacket and sun glasses. He snarled and spat the lyrics.

The band was tight. The songs were awesome. I much prefer The Cramps songs to The Damned, but they absolutely kicked ass on The Damned songs. The Damned’s two most famous songs, Neat Neat Neat and New Rose. were absolutely blistering.

The band was not a group of young men. The bassist looked like nothing more than some corporate cubicle rat putting in his thirty years. The rhythm guitar was a paunchy bald man that looked like maybe he managed a local parts store. Towards the end of the show, the singer turned to the lead guitarist and thanked him, saying that it wasn’t for him that the singer would be a sad karaoke singer somewhere. You get the feeling that there was truth in what he was saying.

But on stage, this motley group of aging men absolutely killed it and they looked like they were having a blast.

Sometimes I think about the economics of the music business, especially those bands that are opening acts for places like the Funhouse.  There was maybe two hundred people in the audience. My ticket cost eight dollars. I bought two PBRs.

How much can an opening act make? I then look at the band and I get it. For a couple of hours, they get to be rock gods. The money is just icing.

And for me, even though I missed out on the real thing, it was great for me to hear songs that I love played live. Not as good as the real thing, but still a hell of a lot of fun.


A Journey Through Slavery


Title: The Underground Railroad

Rating; 4 Stars

Probably most people know the premise of this novel by now. Whitehead imagines the underground railroad as an actual railroad. Escaped slaves are conducted down through a hidden trap door to a train station, where periodically a train would come through to usher them to the next stop, hopefully arriving ultimately someplace in the North. This is the story of Cora, a slave trying to find her way to freedom.

The railroad itself is at most a minor part of the story. What is interesting is what happens to Cora at each stop after she gets off and is once again above ground. Each state that she stops at is a different manifestation of the slave experience.

She first escapes from Georgia. Georgia is the deep South cotton plantation kind of slavery. Life is hard, the overseer is brutal, and her owner is sadistic. Slaves are routinely tortured. Slaves that try to escape are always found and once returned, are executed slowly and brutally over days. This is slavery at its most bestial.

Once she escapes Georgia, she ends up in South Carolina. Here she thinks that she’s found peace. The races seem to peacefully co-exist. White people are educating the slaves. At the dormitory that she stays at, the white caretaker seems to be peculiarly persistent on some subjects. As she learns over time, all of the slaves in town are being sterilized and experimented upon. Specifically the men are being infected and not treated for syphilis (aka Tuskegee Experiment). As a slave, she learns once again that she has no ownership over her body. The whites see her as non human. There’s an indirect point here that slavery isn’t just black and white. There are parallels here between the slaves of America and the enslaved Jewish people in the death / concentration camps during WWII.

Her next stop is North Carolina. What is unusual here is that there are no black people anywhere. The station master there hurriedly sneaks her into his house and hides her in a secret part of his attic (again with the echoes to Nazism). There she learns the truth. In North Carolina they’ve have outlawed black slaves and are instead using white indentured servants. Black slaves captured in the state are hung and are then left swinging on a road as a warning for all to see. Eradication of a subjugated people is a historical trope.

Next up is Tennessee. Here you see God’s wrath upon those that practice slavery. Nearly everywhere she goes in the state has been burnt in a fire or is ravaged by plague. The remaining whites live in great sorrow.

Her last major stop is Indiana. Here, blacks have a realistic opportunity to break the bonds of their servitude. There is a large farm that is communally run by blacks. There is a large library in which Cora can read. Musicians come to play. Noted speakers come to lecture. This is as close to an escaped slave utopia that she can hope to find. As to be expected, the nearby white settlers hate to see this success and are determined to destroy it.

As can be imagined, this is a heartbreaking book of brutality. Cora loses everything she loves. Through it all, her spirit and determinism powers her.