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Dec. 13th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

as seen on TV

I was talking with my brother a few weeks ago, and he asked me if I thought there was such a thing as immoral art - if artists bear any ethical obligations regarding the content of their work.  I said yes.  I think the thing that defines art - what differentiates it from craft - is its attempt to capture and convey human experience.  We turn to art for entertainment and aesthetic pleasure, but also to learn about how other people see the world, to find out about how things are, or could be, or should be, or might once have been.  And particular works are more or less successful at achieving this, but there is only one way for art to be immoral, and that is for it to deliberately and profoundly misrepresent the nature of human life.  Art is perforce not factually true, but it is only wrong inasmuch as it is dishonest.  If the dishonesty is too pervasive, it ceases to be art and becomes something else instead: propaganda, or pornography, or advertising.  But frequently it's nothing so clear cut - a little bit of falsehood mixed into an otherwise viable work, just for dramatic effect, just to keep things interesting.  It happens all the time.  We kind of expect it, particularly in art's more commercial forms.  But it still has the capacity to cause harm.

Music and television shows are probably the most pervasive art media in our culture.  And while I think anyone finding emotional guidance in Britney Spears songs is apt to be let down eventually, it's television that concerns me at the moment.  TV shows tell us a lot of pretty stupid things about the world - about what will make us happy, about how relationships work, about what space aliens spend their time doing.  But I think one of the most dangerous lies on television is its habitual portrayal of the utility of torture.  Anyone who watches dramas predicated on international conflicts or violent crime (the spy show, the army show, the FBI show, the cop show) is familiar with this: the ticking bomb.  The loved one in deadly peril.  The villain or terrorist withholding vital information.  Enter the hero of the moment: someone grimly determined, even desperate.  He doesn't like what he's about to do, but this is his last lead, and innocent lives are at stake.  The bad guy is uncooperative.  A few punches don't loosen him up, so then the gloves come off.  This isn't the good guy's usual line of work, so the tools are simple: a knife, a pair of pliers, a cigarette lighter.  We don't have to watch anything too graphic - blood in the corner of the screen and some screaming.  Within twenty seconds, the bad guy caves, starts spouting information: places, times, names.  This is the last we see of him.  We only watch the good guy run off and save the day, just in the nick of time.  How many times have you seen that story?

We are lucky to live in a country where the government tends to only practice torture on foreign nationals, on foreign soil.  We don't have much personal experience with it.  We haven't spoken with its victims, we're not concerned that when our college buddies are arrested at some protest, they'll be released with electrical burns, if at all.  And so, over time, it is not so hard to sympathize with the guy on TV - what would you do, after all, if it was a choice between inflicting a little pain and letting a nuclear bomb go off in Times Square?  And as soon as this becomes the question, we have swallowed the lie.  We have accepted the (criminally false) premise that torture produces accurate, actionable intelligence, rather than a confession to anything and everything that might make it stop (I am a terrorist.  My mother is a terrorist.  My cat is a terrorist).  We have accepted that the good guy and the bad guy are labeled in advance based on political affiliation, and that these designations are not altered by individual choices and behavior.

It's not Hollywood's fault that the executive branch has spent much of the last eight years waging systematic war on the basic tenets of civilization (transparency, accountability, rule of law, respect for human rights).  We learned phrases like "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition" from the news, not Jack Bauer.  But he might be part of the reason that I've had to debate whether torture is always wrong with otherwise decent and reasonable adults, and part of the reason why the news doesn't prompt more outrage.  Our "liberal media" have, I think, contributed a fair amount to this country in terms of promoting civil rights (how many times have we seen black or female presidents on TV?  Often enough for it to feel familiar by 2008?  Yeah, 24 may have done its part there too).  But there is something worse than irresponsible about the number of "heroes" who are willing to get their hands dirty for the greater good at prime time.  It's worth remembering that life imitates art sometimes, too.

Dec. 3rd, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

The Office Chairs' Desertion

There is a cluster of used desk chairs near the staff kitchen, heavy black beasts whose single legs end in wheel-tipped talons, deserving of some ominous corvid plural: an unkindness, a murder.  In point of fact, it is a downsizing of chairs, each the revenant of someone who was here last week, before the conference room convocation, the manila folders with details of severance packages and COBRA benefits, the tears in the HR director’s office with the pitiful privacy of its glass door.  This is the third time since spring, so we’re all familiar with the protocol: the bitter stoicism of it’s-been-fun final emails with civilian contact information, the poorly-attended postmortem at a Santa Monica bar after six, the hugs and promises to keep in touch like it’s the last day of summer camp.  On Monday, the appropriations begin, hesitant at first – Do you think it’s ok to take B’s chair now? – but before long the choicest office supplies of the departed have been picked through and redistributed, the sudden surfeit of staple removers a reminder like the pervasive hush – as if most of the office has just stepped out for lunch, with only the unpopular and the overworked still holding down the fort at their desks – and the desks themselves, quickly covered with drawings and models to hide the nakedness of unmanned workspace.  A week later, we in the dwindling herd of survivors are still checking up on one another, as if unemployment might be contagious, the fabric of the firm so thin that we must enact a buddy system so as not to accidentally lose anyone else in its fissures.  We've completed the business of contraction (archiving files, staffing reassignments to bolster hard-hit teams, distribution of the brutally truncated phone directory), and now all that’s left is to corral those last unwanted chairs, the ones no one would trade for, the ones no one even wants to keep on hand for visitors at impromptu deskside meetings.  Tomorrow they will probably be gone, trucked off to a retirement home for rejected office furniture – the Salvation Army, maybe, or a Council Thrift Shop – but today I find myself wanting to warn them, to suggest that they pass around some WD-40 and wheel themselves quietly away, out the door and down the street (under cover of night so as to make use of their natural camouflage), skating effortlessly across the concrete banks of the L.A. River to the Ballona Wetlands, where their crow cousins can teach them the ways of the wild.  In six months they will be completely feral, upholstery shredded, seat foam sodden and pungent, and perhaps I will catch a glimpse of one, driving back from Playa Del Rey after lunch, an ungainly shadow behind a shrubby thicket, armrests akimbo, lying in wait.

Nov. 18th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

homes for the heart

Usually when I travel for more than a couple of days, it's to cross something off the big list of places I haven't been yet.  To replace some blank corner of my personal globe with memories and snapshots and anecdotes about some little cafe just off the square...  There's so much world out there, I think to myself, it's a pity not to go see it.  So I venture into the unknown with an ATM card and a tape-flagged guide book and a good supply of socks, and become my tourist self, watchful, quiet, making little notes in the back of my head about how to write it all up later in my journal.

I enjoy that.

But sometimes I forget how much I also enjoy the other kind of travel, to places where I do not need to be a tourist, where I already have favorite restaurants and fond recollections, and of course friends.  So the past week's jaunt down the East Coast was a very pleasant reminder of that more personal kind of journey, which is less a foray into an unimagined future than a careful stitching of the past back into the present, a drawing out of possibilities that were folded away in your pockets all along. 

I'm back in my apartment now, but it's hard to quite feel like I've come home when I haven't gone anywhere that I didn't already belong.

Nov. 5th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

after the big game

I'm not a joiner.  I'm not really a sports fan.  I ditched every pep rally in high school.  I frequently stand in a corner talking to people I already know at parties.  And yet election days invariably bring out vestiges of team spirit I otherwise completely forget that I have.  I showed up before work at my polling place yesterday morning wearing an Obama t-shirt and a "no on Prop 8" sticker and stood in line for an hour, smiling vaguely at the world in my pre-caffeinated haze, somehow got talked into distributing more stickers on my way out, and finished the night in a hotel ballroom full of screaming Obama fans (such as myself). 

The day after, the whole world feels a bit liminal, not quite one thing or another.  I think enough has been said about the historic nature of the election, so I wil just add this: it is a profound relief to have a president-elect with a genuine understanding of and commitment to the notion of a common good.  I'm sure his idea of it and mine differ somewhat in the specifics, but after eight years of governance as a full-contact sport, it was past time for a change.  Civilization cannot be zero-sum without unraveling itself.   So welcome back, America.  We've missed you.

Oct. 29th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

brevity is the soul of not being late to work

For those who haven't talked to me this week, a quick update:
  • My mom had a relapse over the weekend and got quite sick again.  She's back on antibiotics and starting to feel a little better.
  • However, I have postponed my trip to the east coast for two weeks so as not to interrupt my soup-provision duties.
  • In order to demonstrate that I actually still do things in my free time other than complain, here are some pictures from c_a's birthday weekend up in northern California.

Oct. 22nd, 2008

McCain/Toaster 2008

symbolic logic

Some of you may be wondering why you haven’t heard much about the election from me recently. Partially this is because I’ve been busy. But it’s also because I try not to blather here just for the sake of it, and I honestly can’t figure out what there is to say to people who at this stage don’t know who to vote for, or are supporting the wrong guy. Unless they’ve just gotten back from an eight year sabbatical on a deserted island, in which case I’d be happy to bring them up to speed.

But I’ve been struck lately by how Senator McCain kept saying, in the debates, “I know how to do it! I have a plan!” And I thought to myself, what is this guy, a freaking cylon? And it actually seemed like a kind of interesting analogy. Not because I believe he’s an evil robot, or even a morally ambiguous robot, but because their plans (or what little has been disclosed of them) have approximately equal merit. Here’s a quick rundown:

Cylon Plans:
  • In order to safeguard the genetic future of your species, blow up 99.999% of humanity, irradiate the rest, and murderously pursue the handful that got away. Then pin your hopes for reproduction on the few radiation-sick specimens you can still find!
  • In order to colonize planets, first destroy them with massive nuclear attacks, then move in and redecorate.
  • In order to make peace with the humans, give them a nice police state. Execute those who object for ingratitude and poor fashion sense.
  • In order to ensure domestic tranquility, resolve policy questions with debate until consensus is reached, unless that doesn’t work, in which case proceed to civil war.
Senator McCain’s Plans:
  • In order to help the middle class, give tax cuts to wealthy corporations.
  • In order to remedy financial corruption and mismanagement, simply eliminate greed from the human character.
  • In order to maintain good relations with the Pakistanis, cagily imply on network television that you aren’t against attacking targets in their territory – even though you’d never say so in advance, because that would be bad manners. Bonus points for consistently mispronouncing their country’s name.
  • In order to assure the security of the United States, choose a vice president with less foreign policy experience than some six-year-olds. Seriously, I’d been to Russia by that age, as well as a dozen other countries, and while I thought the Soviets were scary, I wouldn’t have recommended bombing them.
So there you are - in the end, it’s not about brains vs. circuitry, or conservative vs. liberal, it’s just about plain old-fashioned foresight and common sense. Now go out and vote as if the future of your civilization depended on it, and remember that good leadership doesn't come from experience, it comes from the judgment to tell when to toss your enemies out the airlock and when to just use that threat as a negotiating point.

Oct. 17th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

to my best friend, on her birthday

Dear B,

I have not bought you many presents this year.  There will be a good meal, and cake, and something to open, but I fear not up to my usual standard.  But though I've been preoccupied lately, though neither of our birthdays quite seemed real until they'd actually begun, I hope you know this does not mean that you have been absent from my thoughts.  Even if I've been too scattered to say it properly, you are the person I can talk to when I want to be alone, the person who knows when and how to help me even if I won't ever ask, who strings my days together into a life, and I am grateful for it always. 

Little is more precious than someone who knows you deeply and cares for you without reservation.  A friendship such as ours does not require constant tending, having grown wild and tall for over a decade, but it is good to remember that the habit of companionship rises not from simple repetition but from the ground we offer it.  Tendrils of shared stories and mutual favoritism creep around us, bit by bit, until they have marked out a circle in which neither of us can be anything but ourselves, a place we carry with us even twelve timezones apart. 

Thank you for being my best friend, and also for feeding me, and doing my laundry, and listening even when I have nothing to say.  I know I have been significantly less fun than a barrel of monkeys lately (and take a moment to consider just how much of a mess they'd make in there, and what it might do to your apartment when they got out), but I am heartily looking forward to running for the hills with you, and shall happily ply you with mashed potatoes containing at least four types of dairy product.  Happy birthday.

With much love,
A

Oct. 12th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

running to stand still

Fall has fallen on Los Angeles at last - it arrived Friday evening, on a howling wind that sent dry leaves skittering across the pavement with a sound like a wooden guiro.  The seasons change in half a day here, abrupt but tenuous and I don't know if I'll be wearing a scarf or a t-shirt tomorrow, but for two days it's been crisp air and sharp-edged mountains, smog swept away by the sky's October cleaning.  Still behind at work, still too busy and too scattered and generally overwrought, but thought I'd take the opportunity to post the long-delayed travelogue from my trip. No promises about its coherence, but:

Moscow from the OutsideCollapse )

Not in Leningrad AnymoreCollapse )

Uzbekistan: Our Post-Soviet Road Trip, In Which Very Little Is IlluminatedCollapse )

Also, my (typically copious) photo album is now uploaded and can be found here. Have some free samples:

Statue in Grand Cascade at Peterhof




Oct. 5th, 2008

flaminga in salzburg

checking in

Briefly, my mom came home from the hospital today, mostly recovered, though still without a good explanation for what made her deathly ill in the first place.  This means, among other things, that I should start existing a bit more again, online and otherwise.  For the time being, as I lack the energy to say anything meaningful, there's a new journal format, because there's a limit to how long a girl who doesn't like pink can deal with having a pink blog, even in the interests of being literal, and apparently that limit is about four years.  Also, anyone who's been seeing ads here recently should stop having that problem, and I would like to say for the record that while I do not appreciate LJ selling me out, their evil plan was in fact successful, because I am too lazy to migrate.

In other inconsequential news, it turns out I have an extra week of vacation time that I didn't know about because my company's intranet HR system is chronically wrong.  Anyone know of a fun place to go around Christmas?

Sep. 26th, 2008

reminds me of death

FYI

To anyone who may be wondering, I have returned from central Asia and will at some point even post about my travels.  But at the moment my mom is seriously ill and I'm spending all my free time at the hospital, so I don't know exactly when that'll happen.  I hope everyone's had a good September, and I'll be back for real when circumstances permit.

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