Tuesday 02 April 2002

So why don’t we pretend?

I used to stop by Salon most days, but since I started blogging I’ve been lucky to get there once a week. Today I took some time off to catch up on one of my favorite Salon features, the Since You Asked (advice to the lovelorn) column by Cary Tennis. I went all the way back to the January 29 installment and began to plod through the letters:

  • 28-year old man doesn’t feel deep emotional connection with 27-year old woman
  • married woman asks if it’s OK to look up an old flame via the Internet
  • depressed woman can’t choose between A, who she’s been seeing for ten years, and B (four years)
  • young man keeps running into lovely, mysterious woman with whom he had a brief affair

Four prosaic problems plus the requisite sensible advice, then suddenly we strike gold.

A woman writes to say she is married to a “sincere, sexy, funny, thoughtful” man who stays at home to raise their two daughters while she pursues her career, calls her to say he loves her, thinks she looks sexy in her red fleece pajamas, cooks, shops, and hangs her delicates out to dry. She loves him, she trusts him, she wants to grow old with him. Perfection, right?

Wrong.

He’s driving her batty because he won’t express an opinion. She’s tired of being told “I don’t know.”

As it happens, Cary Tennis and his wife “have this problem too.” He has opinions but believes they need to be “thought-out and informed.” This “vexes and irritates” his wife. How have they addressed this grave incompatibility?

…expert husband that I am, I have learned to have opinions about things I have no opinion about. I think the haircut is good, very good. I think the dress is excellent. Occasionally, for the sake of authenticity, the dress is not so good and must be changed, in my opinion.

Sometimes, because I am hoping she will find her keys and join me at the door, I do not have an opinion about the apple crumb cake or the new shoes. But I try to come up with something better than a grunt because I know this is not the beginner’s hill, but the expert husband slope; it is always the finals, and I am being scored.

He points out that his wife would not be surprised to learn that he’s been “faking.” She knows he’s an artist who creates things as he goes along. More importantly though, by pretending to have opinions, he has actually developed “informed and well-thought-out opinions” about all manner of things.

This is profoundly useful advice which cuts to the essence of how we learn. By pretending. By ignoring the fact that we don’t know how to do something and choosing to behave as though we did. Children learn in this way. Adults have mostly forgotten how. We convince ourselves that it’s too difficult, that our minds don’t work that way, that we lack the physical aptitude, that we need to take a course… when actually all that’s required is the mindset that says: “I know I don’t know how to do this, but if I carefully observe someone who does know, and then imitate them, I’ll be able to fool myself into doing it too.”

If there’s no-one to model, you might need to imagine how an expert might do it, or read a book to get started. The important thing is to pretend.

It’d be great to find out if the woman with the perfect/flawed husband was clever enough to lie to herself. In a case like this, it takes two smart people to create a convincing illusion and Mrs Tennis deserves at least half the credit, probably more. My instinct tells me that Mrs I’m Not Satisfied is too attached to an unattainable ideal to accept such a pragmatic solution, particularly one that would require her to pretend—for a while at least, perhaps for the rest of her life—that she believed her husband’s newly found opinions were sincere, even when they weren’t.

Reading Cary Tennis’s marvellous reply reminded me of an anecdote in Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s Frogs into Princes. Bandler and Grinder developed a therapeutic method called NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) by modeling the three best therapists of the seventies: Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson. Frogs into Princes is a transcript of a workshop Bandler and Grinder taught together and it’s difficult to tell sometimes who is speaking. It doesn’t really matter, since at that time they spoke with one voice:

The last time that I went to see Milton Erickson, he said something to me. And as I was sitting there in front of him, it didn’t make sense. Most of his covert metaphors have made… eons of sense to me. But he said something to me which would have taken me a while to figure out. Milton said to me “You don’t consider yourself a therapist, but you are a therapist.” And I said “Well, not really.” He said “Well, let’s pretend … that you’re a therapist who works with people. The most important thing …. when you’re pretending this … is to understand … that you are really not…. You are just pretending…. And if you pretend really well, the people that you work with will pretend to make changes. And they will forget that they are pretending … for the rest of their lives. But don’t you be fooled by it.” And then he looked at me and he said:

“Goodbye.”

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Wednesday 03 April 2002

Self-justification as a way of life

Michael Barrish’s story about his (and his girlfriend Rachel’s) failed attempt to steal a roadside duck sign in Delaware generated several email messages telling him that stealing is wrong. Analyzing his and Rachel’s identical responses to one forceful, articulate email from a guy named Jay Perkins, Barrish came to the conclusion that “there are three things you can do in such a situation:”

  1. Attack the accuser
  2. Minimize the wrong
  3. Defend your character

At the risk of coming across like “a goddamn paragon of righteousness,” one could suggest alternatives, such as admitting the wrong, apologizing, or rectifying any harm done. But Michael Barrish is using the incident to make a more useful (though dispiriting) observation:

Of course I’m not just speaking about duck signs here, nor only about myself. The same self-serving logic used to justify petty theft is used to justify the destruction of the planet. People do what they want, then find reasons to justify it.

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Don’t blame the storyteller

Burningbird used my previous post as the launching pad for a trenchant attack on Michael Barrish’s observation that “the same self-serving logic used to justify petty theft is used to justify the destruction of the planet. People do what they want, then find reasons to justify it.” She wrote:

Bullshit. This is absolute and total bullshit.

Yes, some people will do selfish acts and then seek to justify their actions. However, most people, and I count myself in this group, making me a “goddamn paragon of rightousness”, follow our moral codes without any equivocation.

What Barrish failed to realize is that by saying this problem is a global problem, he’s absolving himself of any responsibility for his action and his reaction to the criticism he received.

To the contrary, I understood the “moral” of Michael Barrish’s story to be exactly the opposite: the planet is being steadily destroyed because people, including myself (Michael Barrish, Jonathon Delacour, whoever), do what we want and then find reasons to justify it. I found his observation dispiriting because of its accuracy. Rather than absolving himself of responsibility, I assumed he was embracing responsibility.

If we accept, as Burningbird suggested, that most people follow their moral codes without any equivocation, and if we also accept that the planet is being destroyed, then either there’s a problem with the moral codes or—and this is Barrish’s argument, and mine—people aren’t actually following them. (If you don’t believe the planet is being destroyed, the whole discussion is moot.)

As it transpired, Burningbird had second thoughts:

Did I go over the top in the last posting? I did, didn’t I? Yes, you did. A little.

I do this sometimes, have you noticed that? Come to think of it, I think I have.

But I’ve also noticed Burningbird’s willingness to acknowledge her occasional excesses. In this case, she even confessed to stealing a blue plastic light cover from a parked police car at the age of 14.

So much for my high moral ground

(…she says as she slinks away, hanging her head in shame…)

The stealing doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the intensity of her initial response, which was based (I suspect) on an unfamiliarity with Michael Barrish’s work.

Uh, oh! I promised myself there’d be no more metablogging!

Barrish’s statement (about people doing whatever they want then justifying it) needs to be seen in the wider context of his website, Oblivio, which comprises a large number of entries, apparently based on incidents in the writer’s life. Besides being enviably consistent, Barrish’s posts are subtly constructed, artfully honest, acutely observed, wryly humorous, and gracefully written.

My guess is that Burningbird reacted so strongly because she assumed that the Sign story and its sequel, #1, were weblog entries. I described Barrish’s stories as “artfully honest” because I’ve never regarded Oblivio as a weblog, but rather as a collection of stories (even though the section called Archives contains about 160 entries while the Stories section lists just ten). My “blogroll” is captioned Favorites, not Blogroll, mainly because of Oblivio.

Yet, even though I don’t regard Oblivio as a weblog, others might. I suppose it could be mistaken for a weblog, just as Michael Barrish could be mistaken for a real person. He probably is a real person since he also uses the website to solicit web development work (though he maintains separate sites for each purpose, for reasons he explains in the story Motherfucker). But Barrish is also a character who appears in his own stories. As does Rachel, his girlfriend. Whether she really exists and whether she’s his girlfriend is impossible to determine, without knowing Michael Barrish. Even then, the real-life Rachel may bear only a fleeting resemblance to the Rachel in the stories. (Just like the women in some of my stories.)

Duck Crossing signAs for the Duck Crossing sign, we know that there is one, though the sign in the photograph may not necessarily be in Delaware, the scene of the story. And there may or may not be an email correspondent named Jay Perkins. In any case, notice the authenticity that the photograph confers on the story/post.

As it happens, there is a Jay Perkins with a www.jayperkins.com website. But Jay Perkins was also the brother of Carl Perkins, writer of the 1956 smash hit, Blue Suede Shoes (the B-side of the record was Honey Don’t, which was a hit for The Beatles in 1964 with Ringo Starr singing lead vocal). Carl Perkins and Jay Perkins, on their way to a taping for the Perry Como TV show in New York, were injured in a car accident. In Delaware.

So, you might be asking, what’s the point of all this? The point is this: there seems to be an implicit agreement amongst webloggers to speak with an authentic voice, to tell the truth as they see it, to give witness, according to the dictates of journalism. That’s why so many bloggers are convinced that they are creating a new form of journalism, that the collective power of weblogs lies in their ability to cover all sides of a story, that weblogs can aspire to the highest goal of journalism, which is to expose then communicate the facts—so everyone can READ ALL ABOUT IT!

Michael Barrish has made no such promise. Indeed, at the beginning of Sign, he writes:

Had we succeeded, I wouldn’t be telling you any of this. This raises the question of what I’m not telling you. I’m not telling you a lot.

Michael Barrish is an artist, not a journalist; yet, paradoxically, stories like his are richer and more honest than most journalism. More persuasive too, as was revealed by Burningbird’s passionate response and the critical email messages he received (whether they were real or simply part of the story).

Today Jon Udell responded to a New York Times article about how the future of literate storytelling looks bleak as more and more glossy magazines are replacing 4,000 word articles with images. John wrote:

Funny. The future of literate storytelling has never looked brighter to me. I can’t say the same for the future of the glossy publishing industry, though.

Jon’s correct. Literate storytelling is on the brink of a resurgence, though not because weblogs are embracing journalistic values. Storytelling depends on a belief that an artfully constructed fiction is frequently more truthful than a carefully described fact. Or to quote Antonio Machado, from one of the aphorisms that appears randomly at the top of the Oblivio home page:

In my solitude I have seen things very clearly, which are not true.

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Sunday 07 April 2002

Last gasp of the Anglophiles

Every June in New South Wales, tens of thousands of sixth graders sit for the Selective Schools Examination in the hope of gaining enrolment in one of 23 government-funded selective schools. The successful students will spend their high school years being taught by excellent teachers in smaller classes with better facilities—at almost negligible cost to their parents. A comparable education in a private school (such as Sydney Grammar School) can cost as much as $15,575 (US$8,255) per pupil per year.

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald disclosed that an influential group of Sydney Boys High School graduates is arguing for a change in government policy so that the sons and grandsons of former students may attend the school without sitting for the test or meeting the requirement that they live within the school’s catchment area.

At first glance this appears to be a classic case of self interest, as former students seek an advantage for their sons and grandsons. In fact, such “sibling rights” had been allowed since the school’s establishment in the 19th century but were abolished thirty years ago. Still, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone in democratic Australia could argue for a return to a system in which privileges are granted according to heredity rather than merit. There must be a compelling reason for such an argument to be mounted.

The answer is found in an article in the current issue of the old boys’ magazine, which points out that:

The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian…

Not surprisingly, this statement provoked an immediate charge of racism that, as it turns out, misses the point entirely.

With more than half its residents born overseas, Sydney is not just the most culturally diverse city in Australia, it is also a strongly Asian city. According to City Council statistics:

  • the two largest migrant groups are Chinese (14.6%) and Indonesian (10.7%)
  • one in five residents speaks a dialect of Chinese
  • four of the top five languages spoken in Sydney are Asian, with one-third of the population proficient in an Asian language

While this Asian influence is the main reason I enjoy living in Sydney, many older Australians—particularly those outside the large cities—do not share my delight. Some of them have never forgiven the Japanese for their treatment of Australian prisoners-of-war; others pine for the halcyon days when Australia was nothing more but an Antipodean outpost of British traditions and values.

But Sydney has absorbed the influx of Asian immigrants with minimal discord. So, even though many of the Sydney High old boys belong to that Anglophile generation, their desire for the reinstatement of “sibling rights” is motivated hardly at all by racism, partly by self-interest, and actually by something else entirely.

Just as everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation, every single phenomenon in Australia—social, political, cultural—is never more than three degrees of separation from the most important influence in Australian life: sport. The City Council may suggest that “more than one-third of City of Sydney residents (35.1%) do not claim to belong to an organised religion” but that statistic fails to recognize that every Australian resident (native-born or immigrant) is compulsorily enrolled in the Church of Sport.

The full sentence in old boys’s magazine article reads:

The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby.

Sydney Boys High is the only government school whose students compete in the GPS (Great Private Schools) sporting competition with seven (exclusive and expensive) private boys schools. It is hardly coincidental that rowing, cricket, and rugby are the favored sports of the British aristocracy and ruling class.

So the problem is not that 90 per cent of the current 7th grade students are Asian. It’s that 90 percent of the current 7th grade students are, for the most part, slightly-built boys with physiques ill-suited for excelling in rowing, cricket, and rugby. Their skins could be purple and they could speak Mesopotamian for all the Sydney High old boys care—if only Asian students were all six feet tall and weighed at least 85kg (190lb). Which they aren’t and they don’t.

The old boys’ campaign hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of succeeding. The Sydney Boys High principal, Dr Kim Jagger, has already been quoted as saying that “those seeking government intervention on sibling rights and geographic boundaries for selective schools were ‘crying in the wilderness’.” The Labor government in New South Wales is no more likely to grant the old boys’ wish than it is to ban trade unions.

Instead of trying to prop up the last vestiges of the British influence in Australia by stacking Sydney Boys High with their dunderheaded sons and grandsons, the old boys should devote their energies to persuading the GPS to replace cricket with baseball and rugby with soccer. Then we’d all be better off.

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Monday 08 April 2002

Japanese writing

Each day, as I scan the items in Moreover’s Japan News feed, the outlook for Japan seems to be getting worse and worse: aging population, impotent government, shrinking export markets, failing banks, astronomical debt. And one of today’s headlines—First miracle, then collapse - now an endless struggle. Where did it all go wrong for Japan?—reminded me of a conversation I had with a former girlfriend about the secret of Japan’s success.

According to Ayako, Japan’s rapid modernization and subsequent economic success was due not to the loyalty and endurance of the Japanese worker, nor to the symbiotic relationship between business and government, nor even to the legendary Japanese ability to copy and refine ideas and technologies from elsewhere. The foundation for Japan’s success, she said, lay largely in the power and flexibility of its writing system.

Whereas the French fanatically attempt to preserve the purity of their language—to the extent of having a government committee police the introduction of foreign words (like le coke)—the Japanese took the opposite approach, first by basing their written language on Chinese pictographic characters, then by borrowing and adapting words as needed, mainly from English but also from Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

“We are an island people,” Ayako said, her voice trembling with uncharacteristic vehemence, “we have no resources apart from our own diligence.” I heard in these words her father’s or a high school teacher’s admonition.

She meant that Japan, with no oil or mineral wealth and barely enough arable land to feed its population, could survive only by importing raw materials and exporting finished products. Doing this successfully depended solely on the skill and imagination of its people. Unlike the French, the Japanese regarded language as a raw material like any other, to be imported and fashioned into something useful.

The Japanese had no native writing system until, during the Asuka period (593-710), they began to borrow Chinese ideographic characters (called kanji). Each kanji represents a concrete word or concept but does not indicate how that word is pronounced, as an alphabetical writing system (such as English) does.

Nihongo (the Japanese language) written in kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji

Moreover, kanji are ill-suited for representing grammatical markers and inflectional endings. To circumvent these problems, by the middle of the ninth century the Japanese had developed two phonetic syllabaries: the curved hiragana and the angular katakana.

Thus, the word for the Japanese language—nihongo—can be written using either kanji, hiragana, or katakana.

Alternatively, it can be written in romaji (Roman letters), used for teaching elementary or conversational Japanese to foreigners and to enter Japanese text on a computer with a standard English keyboard.

Kokkyou no nagai tonneru wo nukeru to yukiguni de atta. (The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.)

A typical Japanese sentence contains characters from each set — as in this sentence, one of the best-known in modern Japanese, which opens Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country):

Kokkyou no nagai tonneru wo nukeru to yukiguni de atta.
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. (in Edward Seidensticker’s translation).

The kanji appear in yellow (the nouns “borderline” and “snow country,” the stems of the adjective “long” and of the verb “came out”); the katakana word tonneru (tunnel) is magenta; and the hiragana are white (the particles, adjectival and verb inflections, and the final verb).

Interestingly, in the original, there is no “train.” The Japanese literally reads: “When [something/someone] emerges from the long tunnel at the borderline, the snow country exists.” The nominal subject of the sentence might be “the snow country” but the implied subject (60% of Japanese sentences lack a subject) is the person (the protagonist or the reader) sitting in the train.

Seidensticker is one of the greatest translators of Japanese into English, yet his rendering provides none of the sense of the original, in which one experiences the feeling of being confined in a dark tunnel and then being suddenly thrown into the white brilliance of northern Japan in winter. Nor is there any sense of leaving heavily populated Central Honshu and entering the Deep North that Basho immortalized—all of which is implied in the single word “borderline.” Such are the difficulties of translating one language into another. Still, just learning Japanese is problem enough.

Of more than 40,000 possible kanji characters, just under 2,000 comprise over 98% of those in current usage, the “Common Use Kanji” that Japanese school children are expected to know by the end of high school.

The basic katakana set consists of 48 syllables used for writing loan-words (words borrowed from other languages such as makudonarudo, McDonalds), for onomatopoeic (shikushiku, sniffling) or mimetic (nyaa, miaow) words, for the names of flora and fauna, and for emphasis (like bold or italic in English).

The hiragana (meaning “commonly used,” “easy,” or “rounded”) duplicate the katakana in rounded, more easily written characters and are used to write indigenous Japanese words and grammatical markers and inflectional endings.

Ayako’s point was this: not long after they were forced by Commodore Perry to abandon the policy of national seclusion that had lasted from 1639 to 1854, the Japanese sent scholars and experts all around the world to study Western systems of law, medicine, engineering, education, and military science. The ease with which the ideas and techniques they brought back were readily described to their fellow countrymen was due in no small part to the versatility that, over centuries, had been designed into the Japanese writing system.

As fascinating as Ayako’s hypothesis was, it couldn’t match something else I learned about Japanese writing—later on, when I started to read Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. These early classics of Japanese literature—and many others—were written not in Chinese—as was the custom for official or serious writing — but with an early variant of hiragana called onnade (women’s hand). But that’s another story.

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Thursday 11 April 2002

Women’s hair

Much of my reading these days is about the Yoshiwara, the Edo period pleasure quarter that lasted from the early 1600s to shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In that period, Japanese women’s hairstyles denoted their social class: the tsubushi-shimada-mage was worn by geisha, the shima-momo-ware by unmarried girls, and the maru-mage style by married women. During the Edo period, when women married, they dyed their teeth black and, when they had baby, shaved their eyebrows (just as the female nobility did in the time of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon).

My search for illustrations of each of these styles was unsuccessful. Then I remembered a book I bought a long time ago — What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World. I thought it might have illustrations of traditional Japanese hairstyles but it turned out to be a Diderot-style visual encyclopedia, designed to introduce to Japanese readers the English terms for a vast range of objects in the world circa 1985. Still, it does contain this remarkable illustration of a composite hairstyle (though I knew most of the terms, the “flip” came as a surprise):

Illustration of various women's hairstyles applied to a single head of hair

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Sunday 14 April 2002

The Google API?

Burningbird “just can’t see any usefulness of the Google API for weblogging.”

Dave Winer “ran a survey on Scripting News asking if the Google API is useful. The number one answer was ‘Yes, there are lots of possibilities.’ The second most popular choice was ‘The lightning bolt hasn’t hit me yet.’”

Mark Pilgrim has written PyGoogle, a “Python wrapper for the Google web API. Allows you to do Google searches, retrieve pages from the Google cache, and ask Google for spelling suggestions.”

I have no idea whether the Google API is useful; perhaps the lightning bolt will strike me, perhaps not. But I agree absolutely with Burningbird when she writes:

I keep hearing from you all that you’re really only concerned about attracting readers who come to the weblog to read what you say. Yet we’re inundated, drowned, overwhelmed, and suffocated by all of the technological gimmicks that we absolutely must have at our weblogs or perish!

In the nearly twenty years I spent as a photographer, I learned one significant truth: the less reliance I placed on technological gimmicks, the better my pictures became. One film, one developer, one paper, one camera, two lenses (one slightly longer than normal, the other slightly wider than normal—if I’d been an absolute purist I would have settled for just the normal lens, but I hated Cartier-Bresson with a passion).

When I taught photography, I suggested this minimalist approach to my students. Most of them rejected it out of hand, protesting that it restricted their creativity. When I repeated the Japanese aesthetic maxim—the further you travel along a narrow path, the wider it becomes—they looked blankly at me, as though I’d spoken to them in a foreign language.

I can’t see weblogging gimmicks as being any different — though, if someone can explain how the Google API will make me a better writer, I’m willing to listen. But I suspect the New York photographer Ed Feingersh’s late 40s aphorism applies equally to weblogging:

The cameras get better and better, but the pictures stay just the same.

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Monday 15 April 2002

Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance

From James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett

Péron was responsible for recruiting his Irish friend into the Resistance movement. Beckett needed little persuading. He had followed the rise of Nazism in the 1930s with fascination, growing disgust, and, finally, horror. He had dipped with revulsion into Hitler’s Mein Kampf and recognized the racial hatred that lay at the roots of national socialism. During his extended visit to Germany in 1936-37, he had witnessed at first hand the impact of anti-Semitism on individual painters whom he had met in Hamburg, persecuted simply because they were non-“Aryan.”

Now, back in occupied Paris in 1940, Jewish friends were being stigmatized and abused, even assaulted. Beckett was disgusted by the Statut des Juifs introduced in October 1940 to discriminate against Jews and appalled when they were forced to wear the Star of David. When Jewish-owned properties were daubed with anti-Semitic slogans, then attacked and burned down, he was deeply shocked and repelled by the crude visual symbolism and by the verbal messages of anti-Semitic posters. The taking and execution of hostages in 1941, when some of the Jewish people he knew were rounded up and arrested, horrified him. This was months before “la Grande Rafle” (the Big Roundup) of mid-July 1942, when 12,844 Jews were arrested. Whether all this was being done by French anti-Semitic groups out of indigenous Vichy-inspired hatred (as much of the anti-Jewish violence in the very early days of the occupation was) or by the Germans themselves was a specious distinction for Beckett. It was sufficient that it was inhumane. As an Irishman, he was in principle neutral during the war, but “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded,” he commented.

One of the key factors in his decision to join the Resistance cell of which Péron was an important member was the arrest and disappearance to a concentration camp of Joyce’s friend, unpaid secretary, and helper, Paul Léon. Like many of Léon’s friends, Beckett had expressed concern that he and his wife and family should remain in Paris at a time so dangerous for anyone Jewish. Beckett recounted how he met Léon in the street in August 1941 and told him with alarm that he should leave at once. “I have to wait until tomorrow when my son takes his bachot [school examination],” replied Léon. The following day he was arrested and interned near Paris. Throughout the next few months, Beckett expressed his concern for his friend by handing over his rations to Paul Léon’s wife, Lucie, to be sent to the internee. Lucie Léon relates:

In 1941, my husband Paul Léon was arrested and was being starved and tortured by the Germans (we were all in Paris at that time). I was trying to get food packages together and it was an almost impossible task. Sam Beckett used to bring me his bread ration and also his cigarette ration, so I could get them through to the camp. I will never forget this great kindness on his part. At that time he was probably in almost as much trouble as we were, and he certainly needed those rations himself.

Léon was arrested on August 21, 1941, and, according to official documents, Beckett formally joined the Resistance on the first day of September.

From Deidre Bair’s Samuel Beckett

[Beckett] intended to live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris. He wanted to stay in France as a visible symbol of sympathy for his French friends while observing the restraints which he felt his Irish citizenship imposed upon him. His Jewish friends had all disappeared, and so he was astonished one day to see Paul Léon walking openly down a street past German foot patrols and officers sitting in cafes. Léon assured the horrified Beckett that he intended to go into hiding the very next day, as soon as his son received his baccalaureate degree, but he gambled one day too long. He was arrested and interned near Paris, and killed as a Jew by the Nazis in 1942.

All around Beckett senseless arrests and killings were commonplace. Even more devastating was the knowledge that numerous friends were either colloborating openly with the Germans or indirectly toadying to them. He found himself unable to remain neutral any longer. Now that the war touched his friends, it was no longer a philosophical exercise—it had become grimly personal. Léon’s incarceration was just one of the events which led to Beckett’s abandonment of neutrality: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly by their treatment of the Jews, that I could not remain inactive,” he said. Long after the war, when an interviewer asked Beckett why he had taken an active political stand, he replied, “I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation.” He was being consistent in his apolitical behaviour.

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Wednesday 17 April 2002

When everybody loves everybody else

From Tim Bowden’s One Crowded Hour: Neil Davis Combat Cameraman 1934-1985

One morning Davis was having breakfast in a soup shop and a North Vietnamese cameraman recognised him and introduced himself. The two men realised that they had covered some of the same battles from different sides. They talked for a long time with the camaraderie of like-minded professionals.

Davis knew that his time in Indo-China was inevitably coming to a close and that he would have to rebuild his life elsewhere after eleven years of close association and identification with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the two combat cameraman reminisced, the North Vietnamese leaned across the table and asked Neil an important personal question.

“Did you enjoy covering combat?” he asked the tall Australian.

The question took Davis by surprise, but he admitted he did. The North Vietnamese agreed he did also, and asked Neil whether he also missed it.

I was not able to give him a good enough answer, and again turned the question back, and asked him if he missed covering battle action.

“Yes,” said the North Vietnamese, “because under those conditions everybody loves everybody else.”

I think he said it best. I built up many close friendships in Indo-China during the war, because they were formed under extraordinary circumstances. When you are with someone in times of stress, the small irritations of people’s behaviour don’t matter, because when it comes to the big things, they behave very well. I found the great majority of people behaved superbly in very difficult situations.

When you are under fire or under attack and everything seems lost and you are facing death, I have found people are naturally courageous.

That is what my North Vietnamese friend also realised, and expressed so well when he said that under those conditions, everybody loves everybody else.

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Sunday 21 April 2002

Warblogging and the warm inner glow

This morning, the Channel Nine current affairs program Sunday ran two related Middle East stories. First, Jim Waley and a Sunday camera crew visited the Jenin refugee camp “avoiding the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city.” Then, the pièce de resistance:

In the middle of all this, Sunday decided to organise a town meeting in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, on the border between the Arab and the Jewish parts of the city. We invited both Israelis and Palestinians alike, from all walks of life, holding a wide range of views … to see if there was any common ground for resurrecting the peace that was seemingly buried when Israel launched its Operation Defensive Shield on Good Friday. Jim Waley was the moderator of a sometimes fiery debate …

The Nine Network loves to stage these “town meetings.” Drugs, in-vitro fertilization, child abuse, Aboriginals, asylum seekers… the moment any controversial issue crops up in Australia, Nine rolls out a town meeting with Jim Waley or Richard Carleton or Ray Martin on hand to moderate the mandatory fiery debate. Now it seems they decided to inflict a town meeting on a bunch of hapless Israelis and Palestinians.

As I sat down to watch this Fiery Forum in Jerusalem, only one thing was certain: the meeting would end in acrimony, as Nine-sponsored town meetings generally do, with the participants trading barbs across a gulf of hostility. Then the moderator—having overseen a process that invariably generates vast amounts of heat but very little light—would thank the participants before delivering a homily about how we all now know a little more about this difficult and complex issue.

And that’s how it played out, largely. You can read the transcript, though it conveys little of the emotional tenor of the exchange. In any case, half-an-hour later we were back exactly where we’d started. Nowhere.

The Fiery Forum in Jerusalem encapsulated the entire Middle East debate for me: I sat on a sofa thousands of miles away drinking coffee while the participants argued their respective cases, disagreeing on practically everything. Jim Waley might have “lift[ed] the lid, a little bit, on what is a very complex and protracted issue” but, when we peered inside, it was as murky and intractable as always.

It’s not about finding answers or exploring the merits and deficiencies of each position. It’s about pitting one side against another and trusting that the sparks will fly. Toss some lions and Christians into the Coliseum, let the audience settle back to enjoy the show, and the network and its sponsors laugh all the way to the bank.

You may never have seen a Nine town meeting but you know the formula. It’s Jerry Springer or Ricky Lake for the intelligentsia, though with far less intellectual and emotional honesty—on the part of the producers—than you find on Springer’s show, or Lake’s.

The most obscene aspect of the exercise is that hundreds of thousands of Australians will switch off their TV sets believing that by becoming “better informed” they have in some way contributed to finding a solution to the Middle East crisis, whereas all they have really done is allow themselves to be briefly entertained by the spectacle of other people’s misery.

In Australia, this confusion of feeling with action is called the politics of the warm inner glow.

The warm inner glow is a perjorative term that Australian conservatives use to describe the liberal preference for feeling good at the expense of making tough decisions. In a speech to the right-wing H.R. Nicholls Society, Dr Colin Howard defines the warm inner glow as

an attitude… characterized by a marked preference for feeling good rather than doing good. It dislikes facts that prevent the beholder from feeling good. That is not surprising. We all like feeling good and we all dislike facts that deprive us of that pleasure. But what matters is how we react to those facts.

Nothing illustrates the warm inner glow better than this sign, on a door not far from where I live:

Sign on door: Escaped refugees welcome here

An escaped refugee is no more likely to knock on this door than a Martian. For all I know the inhabitants of the household are kind, well-meaning people—but their hollow gesture irritates me beyond belief. What worth is an offer of shelter and assistance made in the almost certain knowledge that it will never be taken up?

Late last year, Don Arthur addressed this question in an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Web Diary.

Most criticisms of Australia’s elite consists of variations on the same themes - pragmatism versus idealism, responsibility versus deliberate impotence, realism versus mythology and healthy cynicism versus naivety. The criticisms are fuelled by irritation at a group whose moral purity seems to come at no personal cost - citizens who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.

I share the conservative exasperation with those “who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.” But it cuts both ways. Many conservatives (and, it seems to me, most warbloggers) attempt—by carelessly throwing around terms such as anti-Semite, moral equivocator, and terrorist sympathizer—to deny to others the right of free speech they claim for themselves, a right that is the absolute foundation of any democratic society.

It’s for that reason that I was so deeply dispirited by Mike Sanders’ statement: And the equivocation and silence of the non war bloggers is deafening.

Mike’s assertion troubles me since it seems to imply:

  • that it is incumbent on every “non war blogger” to transform their weblog into a platform from which they decry terrorism and suicide bombing
  • that in this sharp and precise time, when one must be either for the warbloggers or against them, the failure to politicize one’s weblog equates to moral cowardice.

As if spewing an endless stream of right-wing populist rhetoric requires even the tiniest shard of moral courage.

People blog for a multitude of reasons. Like everything in life, some weblogs have greater value and/or more serious intent than others. But the demand, no matter how well-intentioned, that bloggers all fall into line and support any particular political, religious, or moral position strikes me as not only totalitarian, it also demeans the sacrifices of everyone who has fought or suffered or died in defence of our democratic freedoms.

A few days ago, I posted excerpts from two biographies of Samuel Beckett, under the title Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance, a post that was correctly interpreted as a statement of protest against the growing tide of anti-Semitism around the world. I have spent the last couple of weeks reading, watching movies and documentaries, and thinking about the Holocaust. But my Beckett post was intended to communicate much more.

When World War II broke out, Beckett—as an Irish citizen living in France — felt no obligation to fight the Germans on behalf of either the British or the French. Instead he intended to “live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris.” When it became clear that the Nazis were arresting and killing his Jewish friends, “he found himself unable to remain neutral any longer.” At that point he joined the French Resistance, putting his own life at risk.

Like Beckett, I have little faith in either religion or politics and I respond with deep mistrust towards anyone who attempts to coerce me on either religious or political grounds. I believe that the only thing that lasts is art, and that even art is ephemeral.

Beckett was in many ways an exemplary artist. Wanting nothing more than to write, he put that desire to one side and went to war—not for some abstract ideal, but for entirely personal reasons. His Jewish friends were being persecuted and so he took up arms against their persecutors. Beckett, whose whole life was devoted to words, abandoned words and took action.

Warbloggers confuse words with action. And, not surprisingly, their moral purity seems to come at little personal cost.

In that way, warbloggers are hardly different from the liberal do-gooders they castigate. The ultimate aim of the warblogger is to make himself and his readers feel good. This privileging of words and feelings over meaningful action most resembles a kind of emotional pornography; it constitutes the most grievous insult to those who are suffering and dying on both sides.

What a fucking irony. That I, who am regarded by all of my closest friends as irretrievably conservative, should be mounting an argument against conservative orthodoxy. And yet, how could anyone find the glib assertions, pompous certainty, and smug intolerance of the warbloggers anything but deeply offensive? Particularly when compared with the everyday actions and responsibilities of those who are truly engaged.

This morning I watched as Jim Waley and his Sunday crew, having avoided “the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city” suddenly stumbled across an Israeli patrol. The young lieutenant in command warned the Australians that they had entered restricted territory but then he agreed to be interviewed. Waley asked the officer what he was most afraid of. The Israeli thought for a long, long time. Then he answered. He was afraid of making the wrong decision in a firefight. He was afraid that a choice he made would result in the death or wounding of either his troops or of Palestinian civilians.

I am not yet sufficiently cynical to believe that, in taking such a long time to formulate his answer, he was trying to recall a training lecture he’d attended on how to handle foreign journalists. Rather I believe that he was running through in his mind the catalogue of all the good and bad decisions he’d made, of everything he’d learned during training and since, before attempting to choose one fear out of a hundred or more. The interview could have been a setup yet he came across to me as the kind of soldier who stands as a credit to any army.

Strapping on explosives and blowing up yourself and others is pathetic when measured against the willingness to accept total responsibility for the lives of the men under your command while trying at the same time to minimize civilian casualties.

As I see it, the combined outpourings of all the warbloggers have less worth than one of that young lieutenant’s toenail clippings. I wish Jim Waley had asked him another question. I wish he’d asked the officer what kind of men make the most honorable, dependable, and courageous soldiers. I doubt the Israeli would have answered, “Self-important bombastic loudmouth warbloggers.”

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Monday 22 April 2002

I always wanted to be a writer

Looking at Jeff Ward’s photographs at Visible Darkness over the past few months, I often used to wonder why he stopped making those beautiful, mysterious, intelligent pictures. Today Jeff’s reminiscence of transforming himself from a photographer to a writer unleashed a torrent of memories. Jeff gets the sounds of camera shutters just right: “the near-silent fftt of a Leica or Rollei to the loud WHAP of a Mamiya RB-67” and the CLUNK of the Nikon F series. For a long time, I used Nikon F models for exactly the same reason as Jeff: the viewfinder showed 100% of the frame. Then I settled on the Hasselblad. The viewfinder showed a fraction less but I loved the square frame, the 2¼ negative, the solid THWUMP of the shutter and mirror, and—above all—the sense of control. Again Jeff nails it:

The real stuff happens at the edges, and I wanted control. Control, control, control … the world must be ordered, there must be some sense behind it all. Standing in the empty concrete and brown spaces of Southern California, I tried to make it work. To find in those rectilinear spaces something that I felt was inside myself. What I found out was— the harder you look, the less likely you are to find it. I suppose what I wanted most of all was mystery, and mystery just won’t come when called. Year after year of trying to make sense, when really all I needed to do was let go and let sense and mystery find me.

“Year after year of trying to make sense…” For the nearly twenty years that I was a photographer, I was never bored for an instant. Photography was endlessly fascinating: the perfect amalgam of art and science. I enjoyed sloshing around with chemicals, the solitude of the darkroom, the beauty and precision of expensive cameras, the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art). Like Jeff, I was captivated by the intellectual challenge of transforming chaotic three-dimensional space into a cohesive flat plane.

I loved the fact that it was difficult and I could do it. Most of all I loved the idea that pictures could touch people’s hearts and change their lives.

Neo-Natal Intensive Care, Childrens Hospital, Sydney

In 1987 I bought a Macintosh. I had commenced photographing in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the Children’s Hospital in Sydney and thought a computer might bring some order to my unwieldy project. Which it did. I showed the pictures—the best work I had ever done—at Watters Gallery in August 1987 to general, though not universal, acclaim. Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.

This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.

Then I stopped photographing.

It was not a sudden decision but rather a feeling that built up over the course of a year. Perhaps I had come up hard against the midlife crisis and this activity that had absorbed most of my waking attention gradually became meaningless to me. I certainly did other midlife crisis kinds of things: quitting my teaching job at the university art school, drinking too much, going out with girls half my age.

Maybe my disaffection sprang from a conviction that television had rendered photography almost irrelevant, a process only hastened by its elevation to the status of an Art. Or I was appalled by the corrosive influence that “theory” had begun to exert on practice, as an opportunistic postmodernism analyzed pictures to within an inch of their lives before abandoning them in the cul-de-sac of political correctness.

I know I yearned for those photographic values which started with Walker Evans and finished with Robert Frank and had fallen into disrepute. Possibly I accepted the fact that I’d done the best I was capable of and it was better to walk away and begin anew.

Most probably I had exhausted my reserves of love and compassion.

Desperately needing a new obsession, I attended an Apple conference in early 1989 where I saw the beginnings of what would become “multimedia.” I realized that this new medium combined three of my passions: images, writing, and movies. Multimedia metamorphosed into CD-ROM and then the Web. I learned to write and kept practising.

Peace Statue (Ayako), Nagasaki, 1997

At the same time I discovered multimedia I fell ardently in love with a Japanese woman, a love affair that—although it lasted less than a year—rekindled a fascination for Japanese language and culture that had waxed and waned through all my time as a photographer. A few years ago I visited Nagasaki. Walking through the Peace Park, which contains an astonishing array of kitsch sculpture, I saw a gigantic statue of a Japanese woman looking lovingly at a dove perched near her shoulder. When I looked more closely, I realized she bore an uncanny resemblance to Ayako.

Jeff Ward learned to write because he wanted to talk online about the pictures he was making. I learned to write in order to fill the void that opened up when I stopped making pictures. Jeff never wanted to be a writer. I realized recently that I always did. Now we’re a couple of ex-photographers who spend most of our time writing (though we both include photographs in our weblogs). Jeff thinks “words are easier!” I’m not so sure.

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Tuesday 23 April 2002

Truth through error

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, Anna Karina plays Nana, a young woman who has drifted into prostitution. In a bar, Nana sits beside an elderly man (the philosopher, Brice Parain, playing himself) and asks him to buy her a drink. They start to talk. Nana tells Parain that suddenly she doesn’t know what to say. “It happens to me a lot,” she says. “I know what I mean to say. I think about it carefully before I say anything. But when it’s time to speak I can’t say it.”

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Nana

He tells her a story about Porthos, one of the Three Musketeers, a simple man who has never thought about his life. One day he has to blow up a tunnel. He places the bomb and, as he is running away, he starts to think about how it is possible to keep going forward. He stops running. The bomb goes off. So, says Parain, thinking killed him. “Why tell me a story like that?” she asks him. “No reason, just to talk,” he replies.

Nana: Why must we express ourselves? To understand each other?

Parain: We have to think. To think we need to speak. There’s no other way. And to communicate, humans must speak.

Nana: But at the same time it’s very difficult… whereas I think life should be simple. Your Three Musketeers story is very beautiful but it’s frightening.

Parain: It’s frightening but it gives a clue. We’re only able to speak well after we renounce living for a while. It’s the price we pay.

Nana: Is speaking fatal?

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Brice Parain

Parain: Speaking is a sort of resurrection and life with speech is different from life without it. So, to live with words you must go through the death of life without them. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself… there’s an asceticism which means that you can only speak well when you look at life with detachment.

Nana: But you can’t live everyday life with, I don’t know, with…

Parain: With detachment? That’s why we swing between silence and speech. We swing between the two because life is such that we go from everyday life into another life which is much higher because it’s a thinking life. But this thinking life involves the killing of life that is too mundane.

Nana: But is thinking and speaking the same thing?

Parain: I think so. Plato said it was. It’s an old idea. In thought I don’t think we can separate thinking from the words we use to express it. If you analyze consciousness you can only grasp a moment of thought with words.

Nana: So to speak is to risk lying?

Parain: Yes, because lying is a way of seeking. There’s little difference between an error and a lie. I’m not talking about ordinary lying… But as for subtle lying, it’s often very close to a mistake. You just can’t find the exact word. You said you often didn’t know what to say. That’s because you fear not finding the right word.

Nana: How do you know what the right word is?

Parain: You have to work at it. It takes effort. Say what must be said in a way that’s appropriate, that isn’t hurtful, that says what must be said, that does what it’s meant to do without hurting or wounding.

Nana: Yes, you have to try to be sincere. Someone said to me, truth is in everything, even in error.

Parain: It’s true. They didn’t realize it in France in the seventeenth century when they thought you could avoid error. Not only lies but error. And live in truth. I don’t think it’s possible. That’s why Kant and Hegel and German philosophy brought us back to living and the fact that we must reach truth through error.

Nana: What do you think of love?

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Thursday 25 April 2002

Lest we forget

Today is Anzac Day, the national holiday that commemorates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915. Earlier in the week the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by two historians (Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson) in which they offered a “corrective to 10 myths about the Anzac campaign.” As an introduction, they wrote:

Anzac Day is our national day. It has quite eclipsed Australia Day, which has become an embarrassment for some, a day at the cricket for others, and a long weekend for most. No orgy of fuzzy sentimentality or outpouring of national pride takes place in January. Such emotions are the exclusive preserve of April 25. This phenomenon is unstoppable. For better or worse, it is on Anzac Day that we celebrate being a nation and becoming a nation.

Yet this devotion to Anzac Day is puzzling. The choice of a military action almost a century ago as a founding event excludes more than half the population: women, indigenous people and most ethnic groups. And if we insist on equating nationhood with death in battle, why choose a defeat by an adversary then regarded as the sick man of Europe instead of our role in the war’s culminating battles in 1918 against Germany?

Anzac Day does seem to be unstoppable. For increasing numbers of young Australians, a visit to the Gallipoli battlegrounds is now seen as an essential stop on their first overseas trip. They, along with millions of other Australians, clearly understand—as Prior and Wilson do not—that no-one is excluded when (to use the words of the official historian, C.W. Bean) “enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance” are remembered and acknowledged.

Why choose to celebrate a defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) rather than one of the victories against the Germans on the Western Front? The Australian War Memorial suggests one reason:

Australians recognise 25 April as an occasion of national commemoration. Commemorative services are held at dawn, the time of the original landing, across the nation. Later in the day ex-servicemen and women meet and join in marches through the major cities and many smaller centres. Commemorative ceremonies are held at war memorials around the country. It is a day when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war.

A defeat affords us the opportunity to discover meanings for war that the celebration of a victory would not.

For me, Anzac Day offers an antidote to the relentless obsession with success that exerts such a corrosive influence on our current values and behavior. Anzac Day draws our attention to what Ivan Morris calls The Nobility of Failure, enabling us to:

identify… emotionally with these individuals who waged their forlorn struggle against overwhelming odds; and the fact that all their efforts are crowned with failure lends them a pathos which characterizes the general vanity of human endeavor and makes them the most loved and evocative of heroes.

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Sunday 28 April 2002

Dishmatique

DishmatiqueI’m not sure what this reveals about my personality but one of things I loved about being a photographer was having different camera systems, with all kinds of accessories that screwed or snapped together with satisfying clicks. Though not anywhere near as tactile, computers are similar: I have lots of SCSI, USB, and Firewire devices hanging off both my desktop and notebook PCs.

I like the Dishmatique washing up system for the same reason: not only does it have replaceable sponge/scouring heads, but you unscrew the cap on the end and fill the handle with dishwashing detergent, which the Dishmatique automatically dispenses as you clean!

Dishmatique replacement headsEach scouring head has a kind of bayonet mount with a safety catch to ensure that the head cannot work its way loose—no matter how vigorously you scrub.

Best of all, two kinds of interchangeable sponge/scouring heads are available:

  • Non-Scratch White (for delicate china and non-stick cookware) and
  • Heavy Duty Green (for stubbon stains and cast-iron pots and pans).

Given that the Dishmatique is made in England, it amazes me that a Google search on “Dishmatique” yields only two sites: Maria in Finland and Kron International in Sweden.

I can’t imagine facing a pile of dishes without my Dishmatiques (I have two, so that I don’t have to switch heads in mid-wash). I’ll be interested to hear if they’re available elsewhere in the world.

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Monday 29 April 2002

What Makes Sammy Run

Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy RunIn this extraordinary novel, acclaimed screenwriter of On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg manages to be simultaneously ruthless and sympathetic towards Sammy Glick, who represents not just the archetypal Hollywood hustler but the kind of callous go-getter we’ve probably all run into at some point in our lives. I count myself lucky to have encountered only one Sammy.

But Schulberg is also pretty sharp in depicting female psychology. In one marvellous passage, he offers a persuasive answer to the age-old question of why intelligent, attractive women are frequently attracted to assholes. The narrator, Al Manheim, has asked Kit, the woman he loves who has rejected his advances, why she sleeps with Sammy Glick:

“Okay, pal,” she said. “But don’t blame me if it makes you sore. As you probably guessed, our little corporal is pretty damn good in bed. Sex hasn’t much to do with friendship or love or any other of those virtuous relationships. Most people know that, but they don’t like to admit it. Well, the first day Sammy came into my office to save California from annexing itself to Russia, I was ready to tear him limb from limb and at the same time I had this crazy desire to know what it felt like to have all that driving ambition and frenzy and violence inside me.”

In some circles, this is known as chick logic.

Late last year Dreamworks, as part of a three-year deal with Ben Stiller, paid Warner Bros. US$2.6 million to import Stiller’s adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run, which the actor will both star in and direct. This is what’s called a delicious irony, since David Geffen — who, along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, owns Dreamworks — is commonly regarded as the greatest Glick of all.

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Some Nudity Required

Odette Springer: Some Nudity Required Odette Springer’s documentary about the B movie industry is, for the most part, little more than a series of talking heads intercut with scenes of sex and violence from the schlock movies they’ve made. Producer or director, male or female, bartender wannabee-actors or Penthouse pets, they offer an ingenious array of justifications for participating in the creation of meretricious junk. With a few exceptions, they delude themselves that the B industry is a necessary (though admittedly evil) step on their journey to mainstream Hollywood.

Only the relaxed and urbane Roger Corman (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Swamp Women, Little Shop of Horrors) seems completely comfortable about his “minor part in the history of the film industry” (his words). Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall, Sorority House Massacre 2, The Bare Wench Project) candidly admits that he got into the industry to make money and get laid, points out that large breasts are the B movie’s most important special effect, then goes ballistic at the “boring questions” Springer is asking him.

But it’s Maria Ford (Strip for Action, Strip to Kill 2, Stripteaser) who makes Some Nudity Required worth watching. In a series of heartbreaking interviews she articulates her desperate desire to be an actress within a production system that only allows her to “act” in exchange for appearing nude. At one point she says: “I asked them if I could do the part without doing the nudity and they looked at me as though I was crazy.” She talks about the pressure to have breast implants and how she would look at herself in the mirror, wondering what was wrong with her breasts — too small, not high enough on her chest?

Finally, there’s a masterful cut from Dan Golden’s throwaway remark about the disposable nature of the character Ford plays in his movie Naked Obsession to Ford herself, telling of her fears of getting a reputation for being “difficult” then bewailing the Faustian pact she has made:

What the fuck am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to be difficult. And I don’t want a rumor going around town saying I’m difficult so I go in and I do the nudity and I do exactly what I’m told. And I look at the movie and I want to throw up when it’s done because all that’s left in there is my fucking nudity and my acting’s not even there. And they’re the same people that are going to walk around and say she’s nothing but a sleazy bimbo, you know, who’s good for nothing but her body and she’s not an actress. What am I supposed to do? What is the answer for me?

Unfortunately, Springer couldn’t come up with an answer. According to her unofficial fan site, Maria Ford went ahead with breast implants as well as collagen injections for her lips. “I liked her better natural,” writes the webmaster. “I liked her better imperfect and unique.”

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Aphorisms

aphorism n. a pithy observation which contains a general truth.

Politics

It matters not whether it’s a black cat or a white cat; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Democrats always want a small army, but want to send it everywhere, while the Republicans want a very big army and don’t want to use it at all. (Bruce Herschensohn) [For universal application, substitute “liberals” and “conservatives” respectively.]

Storytelling

Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth. (Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Declares)

Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. (Frank Daniel)

All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character, you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay. (Syd Field)

In the Gnostic gospels it says that if you reveal what’s inside you, what’s inside you will save you. If you don’t, it will destroy you. (Harvey Keitel)

The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurous on behalf of us all. (John Updike)

Happy people have no stories. (Louise Bourgeois)

I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it. (William Faulkner)

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Ayako

We strolled into Andiamo late on a Friday night. Ayako glanced at the floor, a shadow darkening her face.
“This place is not very clean,” she said. It wasn’t particularly clean but I liked it. Pete and I had coffee there every week. I pulled out a chair for her and she sat down. We ordered.
“Why can’t we go to a nice place?”
“We do go to nice places,” I replied. “But sometimes I like to go to a shabby place, it makes me feel relaxed.”
We’re having the same argument as the couple in Ozu’s Ochazuke no Aji, I realized: the wife with expensive tastes, her husband preferring cheap cigarettes and second class seats on the train. Had I fallen for an o-jo-sama?

She took a sip of her hot chocolate and I waited for her to lick the outside of the cup to catch the drips. Her tongue flashed moist and pink. Already beautiful, this gesture made her irresistible.
“My mother was always telling me not to lick the cup,” she said.
“It’s cute,” I told her. “Sexy too.” She looked skeptical yet delighted.
“What did your father think? About your licking the cup?”
“He didn’t mind. He liked everything I did.”

I’d wondered about her name. I knew that Japanese girl’s names frequently ended in ko — meaning child or small thing — but was curious about aya.
“Did he choose your name? Ayako?”
“Yes he did. It was his mother’s name too.”
I flattened a napkin on the table and called to the waitress to borrow a pen. She gave me one of two tucked into the waistband of her apron. I gave it to Ayako and asked her to write her name. She fussed with the napkin for a moment then carefully wrote two large red characters.

Ayako's nameI asked her the meaning of the character aya.
Aya means gorgeous,” she answered, without a trace of self-consciousness. “It’s an old-fashioned character, not used much any more. People are always asking me to write it for them. Ko means tiny thing or child.”
“Why do so many Japanese women’s names end in ko?” She considered my question thoughtfully.
“I’m not sure,” she finally said. “Perhaps because their fathers don’t want them growing up into tigers.”

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Unbelievable

I am not an accomplished cook. I’ve been told often enough — mostly by girlfriends — that I cook as though I’m conducting a chemistry experiment. I suppose it could look like that. What with majoring in chemistry at university and then becoming a photographer, much of my life I’ve been carefully measuring and mixing chemicals.

Those habits must have followed me into the kitchen. I never stray from the recipe: measuring quantities accurately, setting the oven temperature precisely, timing each dish to the minute. By eschewing flair or imagination, applying scientific methods, and restricting myself to a repertoire of three dishes, I can make a meal for two or four people with little fuss and no risk of failure.

I always ask potential guests whether they’ve eaten at my place before and, if so, what did they have: grilled Atlantic salmon with asparagus and new potatoes; chicken cacciatore with steamed corn, carrots, and broccoli; or veal campagnola with a green salad? For newcomers, I like to serve the chicken cacciatore. It seems more ambitious and can be prepared ahead of time, leaving just the vegetables to steam.

So that’s what I cooked for Ayako, the first time she came to dinner. The aromas of garlic, basil, and tomato filled the apartment. Chopped anchovies, olives, and parsley lay in piles on a large white plate. Ayako stood in the doorway of the tiny galley kitchen, holding a glass of white wine, watching me slice carrots and broccoli.

The lid of the saucepan clattered gently. I lifted it, poked at the corn with a fork then — relaxing for a moment — took a sip of beer.
“You should put the broccoli in now,” she told me.
“No,” I replied. “The carrots go in next, for eight minutes, then the broccoli for two.”
Shinjirarenai,” she exclaimed, laughing.
I’d only recently started studying Japanese again and didn’t know the meaning of shinjirarenai.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “A man who knows how to cook broccoli.”

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Wife

We’d ventured west, combining a picnic in the mountains with a visit to see H’s new baby at the hospital. Now — after presenting the flowers, admiring the baby, and mixing uneasily with the relatives — we were filling up with petrol for the 35 mile trip home.

Shrieks and yells pulled my attention from the spinning numerals on the bowser to a gaggle of teenagers at the next line of pumps. Tattoos, shaven skulls, bovver boots. We were deep in skinhead country. I felt uneasy, and ashamed of my unease.

The noise evaporated as they scrambled back into their Chrysler. A hard boy — older than the others — strode out of the 7-Eleven. Short and stockily built, he wore a dark green T-shirt with SPIT in huge white letters across the chest. Looking at Natsuko’s old Volvo (and me) with loathing, he slid into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, flicked the ignition, and revved the V-8.

I ran through a checklist of possibilities, from bundling Natsuko into the 7-Eleven to locking ourselves in the car to fleeing without paying for the petrol. Still, I consoled myself, it’s broad daylight. There are three other cars filling up. They won’t try anything here.

As though he’d read my mind, SPIT-man threw the car into gear and careered out onto the main road. I relaxed and tried to cast off my shame.

But, rather than diminishing, the roar of the Chrysler’s engine increased in intensity as the car zoomed back alongside.

Two brutal young faces crowded the rear passenger window.

“Why don’t you and your wife get back to Asia where you belong?” one of them yelled.

“Fucking Asian cunt,” screeched his offsider. And just as suddenly they were gone.

It was my first encounter with racism, or rather, my first time I’d been subjected to racist taunts. I felt embarrassed for Natsuko and — perversely — wanted to apologize for my countrymen’s behavior. But, her face flushed with excitement, she interrupted before I’d uttered a word:

“Did you hear what they said? They thought I was your wife.”

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Kokoro

The Chinese character to the left of my name in the site banner is xin, heart. In Japanese it’s pronounced kokoro or shin, depending on the context. In Japanese it can mean mind, spirit, feelings, emotions, thoughts… Its diffuse “meaning” is one of the reasons I chose the character kokoro as the graphical title for my site.

It’s also the name of a novel by the distinguished Japanese writer, Natsume Soseki. At the end of the English translation of Kokoro, Edwin McClellan, the translator, explains: The best rendering of the Japanese word “kokoro” that I have seen is Lafcadio Hearn’s, which is: “the heart of things.”

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Site design

This site design is loosely based on the Clean Movable Type layout and has been checked against the following browsers:

  • Windows Internet Explorer 5 & 6, Opera 5 & 6, Netscape 6.2, and Mozilla 1.2
  • Macintosh Internet Explorer 5, Netscape 6.2, Safari, and Chimera.

It doesn’t work in Netscape 4.x and I don’t particularly care (early Netscape and Internet Explorer users see the banner logo and text, then the content, and finally the calendar and links). It doesn’t look pretty in earlier browsers but the content is all there.

You’ll find other excellent CSS layouts at:

For general advice on CSS, Eric Meyer’s site is a great place to start.

I have to say right up front that I love these W3C buttons—they remind me of the merit badges I struggled to win as a Boy Scout.

CSS Validation buttonXHTML Validation buttonAt Mark Pilgrim’s urging, I swallowed the XHTML and CSS KoolAid. It validates as XHTML and would validate as CSS if the W3C CSS Validator understood the Simplified Box Model Hack. So I’m wearing the badge anyway.

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Tuesday 30 April 2002

The significance of the Yasukuni Shrine

Today the Japanese Prime Minister, Koizumi Junichiro arrived in Australia for bilateral trade negotiations. Last week, the Returned Serviceman’s League (RSL) protested against Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, as did the governments of China and South Korea. (The Australian government was non-committal.)

The Yasukuni Shrine honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, among them 14 Class-A war criminals such as World War II Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. Koizumi’s explanation that his visit was part of Japan’s spring peace festival failed to placate the opposition.

The Victorian RSL president, Bruce Ruxton, was reported as saying that Koizumi’s action was “typical” of the Japanese. “The Japanese are like that. It is in their genes … they are war-like,” he added.

Though it is difficult to conceive of a contemporary nation less warlike than the Japanese, many of whom strongly oppose even allowing their Self-Defense Forces to travel overseas to assist in U.N. peacekeeping missions, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese political leaders are a source of ongoing tension between Japan and its neighbors.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, any government support for the shrine was regarded as unconstitutional and the shrine became a private religious organization. However in 1985, on the advice of a private advisory body that official visits were constitutional, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited Yasukuni on August 15th, the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II.

A recent Xinhua News Agency story quotes Li Liangzhi, a professor with the People’s University of China:

Koizumi had delivered a speech at the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression during his visit to China last October, in which he admitted Japan was responsible for the aggression, said he pondered deeply about the aggression carried out during the war and expressed heartfelt sorrow for it and apologized profoundly.

Six months later, while his words were still reverberating in Chinese people’s ears, Koizumi visited the shrine again.

If the shrine did not house the remains of convicted war criminals, it is doubtful that official visits would provoke such antagonism from Asian countries who still regard the Japanese with bitterness over their wartime atrocities.

Most Japanese raised in the postwar period have only a sketchy knowledge of the events of the Pacific war since Japanese history textbooks have always presented a sanitized view of Japan’s wartime actions. More importantly, there is a deep-seated belief amongst many Japanese that they are the true victims of the war since Japan is the only country that was subjected to atomic attack.

Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni should also be seen in the context of a widespread Japanese cynicism about the validity of the war-crimes tribunals. The entry on “war crimes trials” in the Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan (the standard English language reference work) says:

The term “war crimes” denotes activity in wartime that contravenes recognized standards of military conduct. Theoretically, it should include illegal activity by all participants and should exclude activity not clearly considered illegal. In the aftermath of the war in the Pacific, however, neither condition was applied. The various wartime and postwar trials and tribunals in the Far East considered only Japanese acts, not acts committed by the Allies. As regards the second condition, the bulk of the prosecution at the Tokyo Trial rested on charges not clearly considered illegal. For example, the principal charge at Tokyo was that of “aggression”; yet as recently as 1944, three Allied nations (France, Great Britain, and the United States) had agreed that aggressive war was not a crime. On both scores, then, the war crimes prosecutions relating to the Pacific War are open to the charge, first made by some of the defendants, that they were victors’ justice—revenge dressed up in the trappings of legality.

This Japanese reluctance to take the war crimes trials seriously, while questionable in regard to the Tokyo Trials, is understandable in the case of General Yamashita Tomoyuki who was tried and executed in the Philippines in 1946 for atrocities he had expressly forbidden, committed by Navy troops from whom he was cut off and over whom he had no direct command.

The end result of the tribunals was that, in the words of Meirion and Susie Harries, the war criminals “were converted into near-martyrs, invested with an aura of heroism they had hardly possessed in life.” This is the real reason that Japanese Prime Ministers will continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour