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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: March 13-March 30, 2008

Wednesday, March 26, 2008:

I just finished watching The Corner, the six-episode miniseries that David Simon and Ed Burns conceived before assembling that miracle of TV drama, The Wire. (Roc Live himself, Charles S. Dutton, directed all six episodes.) The show follows strung-out Khandi Alexander (Catherine from NewsRadio), her estranged junkie ex-husband, and their sometimes-slinger son as they each deal with a life that's flanked by a drug culture that won't give them a moment's peace.

In retrospect, it's a lot of fun to see members of the Simon/Burns Repertory Company (i.e., Wire cast members) popping up in The Corner's supporting roles: Freamon! Snydor! Wilson! There's Jay as a shady scrap metal dealer! There's that... wheelchair guy... Denkins, maybe? At any rate, there he is! I did a happy couch dance when Daniels showed up in episode five. Bev's out of town, so Cora had to appreciate my bons mots that depended on knowledge of the actors' subsequent filmographies. Cora snorted in the same dismissive way that Bev would've, honestly.

I haven't seen a lot of press about The Corner, even after The Wire deservedly ensnared the mind of every TV critic in America. Admittedly, The Corner is methadone to The Wire's heroin because it's more of a character study, without The Wire's multitentacled narrative thread. Cops don't much get involved and kingpins don't much get involved; it's like a series focusing on The Wire's Bubbs. Characters are simply on drugs or off drugs, but either status will likely change once or twice by the end of the episode. That's sort of the point: no one's job, addiction, or recovery counts as long-term, and we watch people fall in and out of their roles due to a type of inertia that has nothing to do with free will and everything to do with the daily pressures that these inner-city citizens have never been without. In the Baltimore of The Corner, there's no incentive for anyone to stay in school or to get a straight job--not when there's a perfectly lucrative alternative available to anyone who's seen too many kinds of personal destruction to differentiate between the risks of continued addiction and the humiliation of minimum-wage bullshit.

Given that the Wire staff recently wrote a grand editorial in Time against imprisoning people for nonviolent drug offenses, and given that our nation recently surpassed a despicable one percent incarceration rate, I'm kind of surprised that The Corner hasn't popped up in more topical sidebars lately. It's no competition for the hijinks of Kima and McNulty, but don't let The Corner's mainstream absence convince you to overlook its humane power.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Power of Pussy by Bongwater.
Cowed by two naughty puppies.
The Sesame Street clip that shows up 50 seconds into this one cracks me up.
7:08 p.m.

Doot? | |

Tuesday, March 25, 2008:

I just watched Street Fight, which is Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated documentary about Newark's 2002 mayoral election (recommended a few times in Television Without Pity's recaps of The Wire's fourth season). Relevantly enough, it follows fresh-faced "candidate for change" Cory Booker through his campaign to unseat awesomely-named incumbent Sharpe James, and the many dirty retaliatory tactics Booker faces in that campaign. It's claimed that Sharpe James intentionally spreads disinformation, steals Booker's campaign signs, uses the local police to coerce business owners to fall in line, and essentially engages in racial warfare against Booker (both men are black Democrats in a largely black city, but James apparently refers to the light-skinned Booker as "a white Republican").

It covers some interesting ground, but it's ultimately a poorly-made film, because the anti-James sentiment relies almost entirely on innuendo, hearsay, and--most frustratingly--Curry's first-person narration, detailing personal threats Curry received/perceived, examples of James's poor behavior that Curry claims to have witnessed, and other events that were not captured on camera. Meanwhile, to hear the film tell it, Booker's worst vice is that a word as offensive as shit might occasionally pass his lips. Though Booker does seem sincere and I don't necessarily doubt the many accusations that are leveled against James in Street Fight, the most damning thing we actually see is the mayor's security team palming Curry's camera lens and trying to illegally keep him from filming. It's annoying, of course, but in the absence of other documented shadiness, James doesn't come across as any more dangerously corrupt than the average bedding salesman featured on your local news's "Hall of Shame Problem Solvers" segment.

The thing that Curry and other post-Michael Moore documentarians and reporters need to learn is that the audience is not automatically on your side. Michael Moore can get away with completely one-sided narration for a few reasons: he's funny, he shows enough firsthand footage to effectively lend credence to his secondhand claims, and everyone knows he's got an agenda. Moore's strength (as well as his failing) is that he fights propaganda with propaganda and builds his cases to bait people to come after him for it. Depending on the result, it can be an ingenious or maddening technique, but it's his and he's earned it through sheer ballsiness. Other documentarians cannot simply piggyback on it by making a nuisance of themselves and then acting victimized when people tell them to cut it out. We, the viewers, do tacitly agree to take the director's perspective as a guide when we sit down to view a documentary he's assembled, but without "the camera doesn't lie" footage to buttress whatever thesis he's laying out, we're also savvy enough to know we need more proof before ruling, and that's something Street Fight does not provide. I'll give it a C+.

Random memory:

In Miss Hackett's ninth grade language arts class, we would occasionally play a fun game to kill time: Everyone would take out a sheet of paper and write the alphabet, one letter at a time, down each line of the sheet. Then, next to it, we would write, one letter at a time, the first 26 letters of some specific cliche, like "An apple a day keeps the doctor a." The two columns would form 26 pairs of initials which we then had to use to name famous people, real or fictional. (Using the above phrase, for instance, the initials would read AA, BN, CA, DP, EP, and so on. So you could name Alan Arkin, Bill Nye, Carol Alt, Dennis Polonich, and Emo Phillips. Get it?) You got a point for each name you came up with that no one else in the class came up with. During one game, Kelly Duffy and I were amused to find that we'd both named Hans Moleman. I had a brief crush on Kelly Duffy after that. Anyway, Miss Hackett gave me a warning for going too obscure when I named Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher for "VK," and I was ultimately disqualified for naming Murphy Brown actor Joe Regalbuto.

CURRENT MUSIC: Frenching the Bully by The Gits.
Eh, fine.
Roughly 3/4 to go.
7:37 p.m.

Doot? | |

Saturday, March 22, 2008:

For the third time this week, I took Cora (left, in spider costume) and Bubba (visiting dog, right) out for a walk and a manure truck immediately plopped down the road past our house, making the rest of the walk rather unpleasant for me.

I can't quite put my finger on the metaphor for the state of Maine, but I know it's in there.

CURRENT MUSIC: Hounds of Love by Kate Bush.
A little nauseated.
Right Guard Sport Stick deodorant is for shit. Don't ask how I know or what I smell like.
TIME: 3:52 p.m.

Doot? | |

Friday, March 21, 2008:

Hannaford, one of our local grocery chains, announced earlier this week that a security breach has potentially compromised 4.2 million credit card numbers in the past few months. This morning on Maine AIRS, I read an article about how Hannaford's response to this problem has left a lot to be desired. Specifically, their efforts to pacify and genuflect before their worried, incensed consumers have consisted of little more than a "whoops" note from CEO Ron Hodge posted on their website. I started cackling on the air as I read the following paragraph (italics mine):

"Hodge's letter also is posted at the entrance to Hannaford's flagship store at Back Cove in Portland. It doesn't stand out among other visual clutter, however, and because it's taped to an automatic door, a customer has to make an effort to actually read it."

CURRENT MUSIC: Cymatic Scan by Bill Laswell and Tetsu Inoue.
The Bangor Daily News suggests that the Bush administration targeted Eliot Spitzer for a Valerie Plame-style takedown because of his vocal accusations that the administration was complicit in the subprime mortgage collapse. Interesting.
1:30 p.m.

Doot? | |

Thursday, March 13, 2008:

I've had better months than the one that has transpired since last I wrote. I think. Well, I'm sure I've had 30 better days, even if they were non-consecutive, because I know I don't always feel like I'm about to turn into Kevin Borseth. Anyway, allow me to catch you up: The Tuesday after Valentine's Day, Bev called and woke me up just after she left for work, telling me that her car suddenly had no brakes and that she'd need me to drive her in, since she was already running late. I quickly threw some clothes on and made it out the front door just as Bev maneuvered back into our driveway. We hopped into my leprous old Tempo and it begrudgingly hauled us to Bev's office.

That's when the Tempo's transmission died, though I did manage to get it to sputter and roll about a half-mile, onto a side road leading to the airport. I attempted to add transmission fluid on my own but succeeded only in staining the road a gory maroon. So I bothered Bev at work and she suggested getting AAA to tow me and the car down to her parents' place, an hour away, so I could swap for one of her dad's all-purpose loaners. Bev had to call AAA for me because my membership card was in the wallet that I'd left at home in the rush to get dressed and out the door. Then I waited about an hour, because AAA sent the tow truck driver to our house instead of where I was stranded. I became quite good at playing Snake on my burner phone, even with transmission fluid smeared all over the buttons.

The tow truck driver was perfectly nice, but conversation was in short and awkward supply as I rode in his cab down to Deer Isle. I know nothing about the inner workings of cars, and he didn't seem to care much about the Pet Shop Boys, so the only moment of easy back-and-forth we had was when we came to an accord that Maine is the worst state. ("I've lived in more than half the states," he said more than once. "I have no idea why I came back here.") He tried to explain to me why the cab responded to every minor bump in the road with lumbar-granulating mechanical-bull action--something about "struts" or "stilts," maybe?--but I didn't follow it. It was a relief to both of us, I expect, when he unloaded me and the Tempo at Bev's parents' place.

On the drive home, in a Buick borrowed from Bev's very patient and gracious parents, I thought about my attitude toward everything. Ben is always going on about the positive results of positive thinking--not in a pseudo-mystical The Secret way, but in a very pragmatic way--and I remembered having a conversation with Jess a few years back about how we must have been putting something odd out into the world to attract negative situations so reliably when we hung out. So as I drove, I tried reminding myself that the world really isn't out to get me and that the only reason it seems like things go wrong so often is because that's what I focus on and how I choose to perceive things in my life. I have been feeling myself becoming ever more misanthropic and cynical in recent months, cursing more often, thinking uncharitable thoughts toward perfectly nice people, and that's really not the person I want to be. Honest. So, I reasoned, if I am to put the brakes on this alarming trend, the first step is to stop expecting the worst and seeing every event as a confirmation of that. It would go against every crinkle my brain has developed since eighth grade (when my history teacher memorably admonished me, "Your cynicism behooves you," apparently thinking "behoove" meant the opposite of what it means), but it was time to start conditioning myself to look for the good.

And I quickly found that my fortunes had changed! When I finally made it back home, there was a big ol' package waiting on my front porch! I was particularly excited because earlier in the month, Amanda had told me that she and Sean were generously going to mail me a box of 40 CDs and 15 DVDs that they no longer needed or wanted, for me to donate to my local library. Here's an excerpt from the e-mail she sent me: "Keep them, donate them, sell them, I don't care. We just didn't want them in our house anymore! It turned out to be kind of an adventure, too. Because I am a very special kind of idiot, I got off the bus three stops too early, so I got to carry a 20-pound box (I told you it was giant) four blocks through very slippery snow. That was unpleasant. By the time I got to the post office, my arms had basically turned into spaghetti and I had trouble gripping the pen, so the customs form looks like it was filled in by a first grader." She told me there'd be good, canonical CDs by people like the Ramones and Kinks that the library could certainly use! Beach Boys too, but still, Ramones and Kinks!

I bounded up the front steps and was surprised by my own strength as I effortlessly hoisted the package and confirmed that Amanda's return address was on there. Hooray!

After a second, it became clear that I'm still a weakling and the package was just remarkably light. "Amanda must have been exaggerating when she said it was 20 pounds," I thought.

And then I noticed that there was a purple stamp on the top of the box that read, "Received Without Contents At SMP & DC."

Yep, empty box. It's not damaged at all; someone just slit it open, helped himself to its contents, and resealed it somewhere along the journey between Toronto and Bangor. My favorite college professor used to refer to people who steal things from libraries as "perverts," so that's how I'm going to think of the thief in this case, since that's what he unknowingly did. Perv. I e-mailed Amanda with the news, and she was furious about it too. Luckily, she insured the package for $100 (Canadian), so although it doesn't come close to covering the actual value of the box's contents, at least she'll be reimbursed something.

Incidentally, Meineke repaired the brakes on Bev's Lumina. The following day, Bev called me at work to let me know that the Lumina's alternator had died, so it was off to Meineke again. The alternator was replaced at no small expense, car was retrieved... and its battery died the next day. Bev replaced that one herself. Then I got the flu.

Watched Rashomon. Lots of continuity problems. No good.


Last week, I took Bev to a local sleep clinic so she could undergo a sleep study, and while I was gone, Cora overturned the living room garbage and feasted on the orange peels, birdseed, and Puffs brand Kleenex within. By the time Bev returned the next morning, her head coated hilariously with parrafin wax where they'd stuck the electrodes, Cora could barely move at all. Cora had been whining the entire night next to me, but I figured she just missed Bev, because she is kind of a clingy pup, or had simply given herself a stomachache from eating trash. But by morning, she was pathetically dragging herself along the floor with her front paws rather than walking, so clearly, something was really wrong. After a daylong stay at the vet during which time I cried and guzzled beer and drunk-dialed my parents because that's how I deal with stress, Cora was diagnosed with a maelstrom of ailments (ailstrom? maelments?) including pancreatitis, whipworms, and hip dysplasia, the latter of which is a particularly unusual problem for such a little dog to have. By way of treatment for it, we're not supposed to let the puppy jump all over the place anymore, so we removed the ottoman that Cora used to use as a vaulting horse to get herself up onto our bed, and built this ramp:

Cora hates the ramp and will not willingly go near it. At first, we thought she was scared or that the incline was too steep, but it now appears that she's just a stubborn dog, because we have seen her use it in a controlled fashion to get down from the bed; she just prefers to whimper until we pick her up.

She doing fine otherwise, though. She takes her meds as long as I hide them in cheese, and is getting around fine. We went walking in the backyard earlier, and she became completely enamored of some sort of conifer branch that was lying on the ground. (I'm not sure what kind of trees we have back there: Spruce? Fir? Larch? I fear I'm an arboreal racist like Ronald Reagan, in that many trees look the same to me.) Within seconds of sniffing it, she was rubbing her face all over it like it was a perfume sample. So she's back to being an inscrutable little weirdo, for which I am thankful.

Remember how I mentioned that my credit union was keeping 6% of all Canadian checks I deposited, as a "Canadian discount"? Well, I closed that account and moved my money to a new credit union... who is doing the same thing to me despite assurances that they wouldn't withhold anything beyond what the exchange rate dictates. And I'm sure that the U.S. dollar has not regained that much ground against the Canadian one recently; I'm no Alan Greenspan, but when every damn editorial I read uses the twee euphemism "the R word" to refer to our current economic status, things clearly aren't looking rosy. So where did this policy come from? Is it common practice for financial institutions to do this? I could see charging a dollar or two, maybe, and calling it a "foreign transaction fee," but 6% is a big chunk to take. I wonder if Bangor has any shady check-cashing depots like Detroit does, who might ultimately charge me less.

Basically, this whole month has had the lingering effect of making me very resentful of money itself, and very unflatteringly jealous of rich people. Bev and I are hardly destitute, of course. We've got a house, cable TV, reasonably good health insurance, speedy-if-unreliable Internet connection, etc., and I do feel very blessed and grateful for that. I whine a lot, CLEARLY, but I am conscious that things are a lot worse for a lot of people, and since there is absolutely no logical reason why misfortune should befall anyone rather than me, I feel guilty for even idly fantasizing about having more than I have. But at the same time, I don't think Bev and I live an extravagant lifestyle by any means, and I've lately allowed myself to become inappropriately frustrated by the amount of money and effort that's required to simply exist at what I think is a reasonable level with comparatively modest luxuries, especially when car repairs and vet bills and hidden 6% fees all coalesce into a seemingly insurmountable wad of impending financial doom that's not going to be staved off by some ill-considered "economic stimulus" check.

I honestly don't begrudge anyone the privileges they enjoy any more than I feel entitled to comforts that others go without. But recently, I've been disappointed to find myself watching some urban-money-parade reality show on Bravo and realizing my mind has been selfishly seething, "Grumble grumble conspicuous consumption, Lipstick Jungle grumble grumble Harry Winston, $600 bottle-service clubs grumble grumble." I don't want to think like that. I'm not even jealous of their money or their things; I'm just jealous of the way I imagine they don't have to constantly think about money. It's the intrusive, non-stop thinking that really gets to me: "Can I afford to buy the new Jim White album this week? Should I wait until Friday? Should I just forgo it indefinitely like I've done with the new Cat Power and Liam Finn discs?" It's always there, simmering my insides, and I can't envision a future in which it'll stop. I don't know what to do, but this situation is gnawing my brain into a new, ugly shape that I am extremely unhappy about.

And also, at least three Amazon sellers in the past two months have failed to deliver the DVD of A Night to Dismember that I've ordered from them. Life is unbearably tragic.

CURRENT MUSIC: Golden Delicious by Mike Doughty. It's not very good!
Bitter Betty.
MOST INTERESTING ARTICLE I'VE READ IN A WHILE: This one, about how brand names for new pharmaceuticals are chosen. Using their criteria, the ideal name for a new drug would be Klazix. If any pharmaceutical company wants to name its new drug "Klazix," please send me as much money or as much free Klazix as possible and I won't raise a stink about how I got there first.
6:09 p.m.

Doot? | |

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