Microsoft: “Why Can't We Just Hire a High School Kid and Pay Him Peanuts?”
This is a story that's both personal and political. It's personal because it's about Patricia, my Patricia. It's political because... Well, keep reading.
It's a post from illustrator Robert Neubecker on the creation of Slate, and how the look of Slate came about.
In 1995, Patricia moved from New York, where she'd lived for 20 years, and where she'd been, among other things, art director at Newsweek magazine, to Seattle, where she grew up, and where she'd just gotten a gig with MSN. Bill Gates also wanted to start an online-only magazine as well, to show that it could be done, and he'd hired Michael Kinsley to get it rolling. Kinsley moved in across the hall from Patricia, Patricia introduced herself and suggested she help on the art side. She pitched a couple of primary illustrators: Mark Stamaty, Philip Burke and Robert Neubecker. Here's Neubecker:
Patricia bought a few of these drawings and, when they were developing a look for Slate, showed them to Mike and the Slate editors. The idea was to use simple black and white drawings that could download quickly on the old, slow, dial up modems. I had newspaper experience, and had worked extensively with Patricia when she was design director at Newsweek, so she knew that I could produce on short deadlines. So far so good. But, then the Microsoft people suggested, why couldn’t we just hire a high school kid who could draw, pay him peanuts, and come up with our own cartoons?
They hired the high school kids. Of course they didn't work out and Patricia kept pushing toward the professionals. Eventually they decided on Neubecker and Stamaty, but the contracts, as Microsoft contracts are, sucked. Patricia kept pushing in this area, too. Neubecker again:
I worked all summer without a contract or a paycheck while Patricia patiently, persistently moved the contract from WFH to the normal one time usage, artist copyright, that is the ethical norm.
Eventually it worked out. Because there was a Patricia. If there wasn't a Paticia, Slate's design would've been as screwed-up as any Microsoft design. Patricia's sister-in-law, Jayne, has a phrase for when she buys something cheap and it doesn't work: “I hate getting what I paid for.” That's Microsoft. It often gets what it pays for.
(Sidenote: I'm in the midst of something similar with Microsoft. Well, “midst.” Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece for MSN on “The Dark Knight” and I haven't been paid for it yet. The contract with MSN was different than the contract for MSNBC, for which I wrote for many years. At MSN, they'd broadened the NDA, the Non-Disclosure Agreement, to such an extent that the signer couldn't write about Microsoft. Ever. So I didn't sign it, and I told them I wouldn't sign it, and there was a flurry of activity for a few days afterwards and then silence. Apparently if you don't sign their contract they have no mechanism in place for a one-time fee. So I haven't been paid. I'm sure there are others in the same boat. I'm sure there's a good class-action lawsuit waiting to happen. Maybe it's already happening. Here's hoping.)
Neubecker, a talented man, is more optimistic than I am about the way things are going for people like him: people whose value lies in the quality of the work they do; whose work can't be quantified:
There was an explosion of illustration being used online in ’99 and ’00 before the tech bubble burst. This is gradually coming back and with the advent of the I-Pad and similar devices I expect this to open up more. Long columns of grey type is always boring—even in the New Yorker, bless them. Photos all look alike after a while. I have two web illustration jobs on now, series of drawings. One of the nicest jobs I did last year was a web animation I did for a pharma company. I teamed up with Rob Donnally from Slate who made the drawings move. I expect to see much more of that as time goes on. And print, like radio, I don’t think will ever go away. They say video killed the radio star. Tell that to Howard Stern.
Except the radio star in mind was a musician, a singer, someone who raised the spirit. It wasn't what Howard Stern is. Or what Rush Limbaugh is. You can't look at what radio has become and not be saddened.
Neubecker's story is a nice story with a happy ending, but it reminds me of Michael Mann's “The Insider”: it's about a battle being won in a war that everywhere else is being lost. And there are fewer insiders like Patricia fighting for us.
What's Good in “The Pacific”
I‘ve been watching “The Pacific” without being a fan of “The Pacific.” We don’t know these guys well enough, and they don't know each other well enough. In “Band of Brothers,” to which “The Pacific” will forever be compared and found wanting, the characters had gotten past the get-to-know-you stage and engaged on a deeper level. Here, they‘re always introducing themselves. Guys come, guys go. We watch guys cry for guys we don’t know, so we don't know why they‘re crying. We’re not always following the same platoon, either, so cohesion is an issue. The stories are as spread out as the Pacific islands they‘re invading.
Worse, the series feels slightly off, slightly false. In the midst of unspeakable horrors—which the series handles well—we get a speech that feels like a speech; like it was drafted by Henry Luce.
The one bright spot for me is a dark spot: Rami Malek as Merriell Shelton. When we first see him, part of the same platooon as Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge, our innocent Southern boy, he’s an annoyance. He's got a faraway look and a sing-songy voice that implies the world isn't as neat as Eugene thinks. One gets the feeling the war didn't do this to him, either; he showed up this way. But the war ain't helping.
With every episode he's grown on me. He's the one guy who feels real. Last Sunday we watched him toss pebbles into the open skulls of half-decapitated Japanse soldiers. At one point our boys ran into a non-combat soldier who asked them, these exhausted Marines, if anyone had a souvenir, a Jap sword or flag, he could bring home with him; and while the others were silent or combative, Shelton was matter of fact. “Nobody's going home” he said, almost joyfully.
I doubt it's a star-making turn but I hope it's a character-actor-making turn. “The Pacific” is slightly off, but Malik's Shelton is gloriously off.
My friend Jim is a big fan of the double, the working man’s extrabase hit, and the other day, in the stands at Safeco, he began to talk them up.
“Ever year,” he said, “someone seems to hit in the 50s and yet—“
“—and yet no one breaks Earl Webb’s record of 67,” I said. “I know.”
“Not even that. No one hits 60.”
“Really? Not Biggio or Nomar or someone like that?”
He shook his head. “Somebody’s always hitting in the 50s but I don’t think anyone’s hit 60 in decades.”
A few days later he e-mailed me the following:
No one has hit 60 since l936, when 2 did it, one in each league, Helton hit 59 back in 2000, the closest anyone has come.
I crunched the numbers and it’s more interesting than I realized. Only six players have hit 60 or more doubles in a season, and all of those instances occurred between 1926 and 1936. “60” is a pretty magic number. Tris Speaker, the career doubles leader, never reached it. (He hit 59 in 1923.) 50 or more, meanwhile, has been done 88 times, but 29 of those, or 33%, occurred in the 2000s.
Here are the 50+ seasons broken down by decade:
These numbers don’t surprise me too much, bulging, as they do, into double digits in the power years of the 1920s/30s, and 1990s/2000s, but I didn’t think the difference with other decades would be this stark. Hitting doubles requires power but not that much power. That’s its point. Too much power and the ball is gone. Too little and it’s a single, or caught. Speed, you’d think, would help, by turning singles into doubles, but the speedster years of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are virtually empty of 50+ seasons. Rickey Henderson never hit even 40 doubles in a season, let alone 50, while Lou Brock only went over 40 once, in the pitcher’s year of 1968, when he led the Majors with 46.
I began to pay attention to doubles in 1994 when the Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch was, as they say, “on pace” to break Earl Webb’s record. That year, of course, the season ended August 11th, with the players’ strike, and with Knoblauch stuck at 45. He’d never hit 50. A year later, in another strike-shortened season, three players did hit more than 50—Edgar Martinez (52), Albert Belle (52) and Mark Grace (51)—and it's been gangbusters ever since.
The era of the 50-homeurn season seems to be on the wane as players are tested, fined, and embarrassed, by steroid use. There have only been five 50-homerun seasons since 2003, which is less than there were in 2000 and 2001 alone, and none in the last two years.
The doubles, though, keep coming. Just not 60. Whatever peculiar set of circumstances allowed that to happen between 1926 and 1936 don't seem to exist anymore.
Edgar's double down the left field line beats the Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS. He was known as “Senor Double” in Seattle long before that moment.
Why You're Somewhere Between Dissatisfied and Disgusted
“Senior management's job is to pay people. If they fuck a hundred guys out of a hundred grand each, that's ten miliion more for them. They have four categories: happy, satisfied, dissatisfied, disgusted. If they hit happy, they've screwed up; They never want you to be happy. On the other hand, they don't want you so disgusted you quit. The sweet spot is somewhere between dissatisfied and disgusted.”
—Greg Lippmann of Deutsche Bank, in Michael Lewis' “The Big Short,” pg. 63. Last week, Lippmann, who not only bet against the subprime housing market but spread word that others should bet against the subprime housing market, too (he was, Lewis, writes, the “Patient Zero” of those bets), left Deutsche Bank for a hedge fund founded by Fred Brettschneider.
A.O. Scott, Movie Violence and the Art of Collapsing Distinctions
There are important things to say about movie violence, but A.O. Scott, in his piece in The New York Times last week, “Brutal Truths About Violence,” doesn’t say them.
He takes two recent movies that have little to do with each other, or, to be honest, with the film culture at large—“Kick Ass,” which opened below expectations in April, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which barely opened in the U.S. at all (153 theaters)—ties them together, and tips them over. He creates his own tipping point. “Enough is enough,” he writes. Or in typically qualifying fashion: “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries [about movie violence], but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough.”
The problem? These two movies display completely different attitudes about violence. Scott would argue that both revel in it, but at the least they’re polar opposites in intent: “Dragon Tattoo” is trying to make you feel the violence (so you can be horrified), while “Kick Ass” needs you inured to violence (so you can laugh at it).
At this point in his article, though, we’re merely having a mild disagreement. What propelled me to write this post is the way he dissects two scenes of rape and revenge in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” He writes:
[Director Niels Arden Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. While the film may want to draw a moral distinction between the episodes — one an unprovoked and heinous assault, the other an act of righteous vengeance — their intensity renders them equivalent.
Renders them equivalent? I don’t know what this means. That they’re both intense? Or that their very intensity renders their differences meaningless? And if the latter, is this specific to “Dragon Tattoo“? Or does the intensity of, say, Dirty Harry killing Scorpio render it morally equivalent to Scorpio killing innocent people?
Hardly stopping for a breath, Scott then ties ”Dragon Tattoo" to one of the most infamous movies ever made:
The 1978 exploitation film “I Spit on Your Grave” was widely reviled upon its release, but the violation and vengeance it presents, and the detail with which it depicts a gang rape and a victim’s serial revenge, are not so far from what is shown in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Both belong on a spectrum with Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” (2002), which narrated its story of rape and revenge out of order, and collapsed any meaningful distinction between condemning sexual brutality and reveling in it.
I haven’t seen “Irreversible” so I can’t comment on it. I have seen “I Spit on Your Grave.” Parts of it. And I can comment on why “Dragon Tattoo” is not on the same planet.
Here’s the IMDb plot description for “Spit”:
An aspiring writer is repeatedly gang-raped, humiliated, and left for dead by four men whom she systematically hunts down to seek revenge.
Now here’s the plot description for “Dragon Tattoo.” Apologies for its verbosity:
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, ruthless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from almost forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vanger's are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.
The rape-revenge cycle of “Spit on Your Grave” is the whole story. It was designed to appeal to our darker, prurient desires, and then to metaphorically kill them off, one by one.
The rape/revenge scenes of “Dragon” aren’t even mentioned in this overlong synopsis. The movie’s themes are certainly about “men who hate women” (it’s the Swedish title of both novel and movie: “Män som hatar kvinnor”), but the movie’s a mystery, a thriller, a crime drama, and a kind of romance/buddy tale. The rape/revenge scenes, if we haven’t read the novel, actually come as a shock. They come, to be honest, as a kind of disappointment. Lisbeth is our hero here. We thought she was too smart to get trapped in this manner. It’s like watching Spider-Man getting raped.
Which brings me back to this line:
But [Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. [Emphasis mine.]
Again, I’m not quite sure what he means. “Pornographic” in the sense that the scenes show naked bodies? Or “pornographic” in the sense that the scenes arouse lust? I certainly agree with the former definition (we see two people naked) but not the latter. At least the scenes raised no lust in me. And I’m hardly a boy scout.
Rape scenes are always going to inspire some mix of horror and lust, and the goal of a responsible filmmaker, as opposed to an exploitation filmmaker, is to tamp down the lust and increase the horror. And the best way of doing this it to let us know the woman. Let us care about the woman. She can’t be a stranger and she can’t be fake.
Oplev does this. Lisbeth is never sexualized during the film—that helps—but more importantly, at this point in the story, we know enough about her to care about her. Lisbeth reminds us of women we know so we care what happens to her; the woman in “Spit” reminds us of women we don’t know so we don’t. It helps that Noomi Rapace in “Dragon” is a real actress and Camille Keaton in “Spit” is not. She’s a B-movie actress in the middle of an exploitation film, and almost every scene is so badly produced it reminds us that it’s being staged. She can’t remind us of women we know because she’s obviously not real.
There's great irony in Scott's piece. Certain violent movies, he argues, create equivalence (through intensity) or collapse distinctions (through chronology), but I would argue it's actually Scott who does this. He focuses on meaningless similarities and ignores meaningful distinctions. That's either no way to begin a serious discussion about movie violence...or the best way.
Lancelot Links (Has Some Fun)
- Sarah Bunting and Matt Zoller Seitz recently posted this fun video on "The Ties of Zodiac." Not just for fashionistas or nostalgics.
- Via Hollywood Elsewhere, which compared it (accurately) to Mad magazine movie parodies of the '60s and '70s, here's a funny slam on everything wrong with "The Blind Side."
- My friend Andy is learning Vietnamese. Tell him "way to go" in your language of choice.
- My friend Jessica recently pointed out this video of a gentoo penguin escaping killer whales in Antarctica. It's from last year. The cynic in me wonders if it was staged, but it feels genuine, and all the people involved feel genuine. And either way it's fun.
- Same kind of thing: an Octopus has stolen my camera!
- Slide, schmide. Fordham's Brian Kownacki scores from first on a double with one of the most acrobatic baseball plays you'll see at any level.
- Via Rob Neyer. I'm going to have to get this book.
Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)
Despite its calm, sympathetic main character, an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), it’s hard, as a man, to walk out of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and not be disgusted with your gender.
Of course I’m one of the few people who walked into the movie not knowing the story. “Dragon Tattoo” is based upon the first of three books, the Millennium trilogy, that journalist Stieg Larsson wrote before he died in 2004. Worldwide sales of these books have now topped 20 million, while the second in the series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” became the first translated work since Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” to top The New York Times bestseller list. The film, with little help from the U.S., has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide, and it’s particularly big in Denmark, where, from a population of 5.4 million, US$17 million has been made (a ratio that if applied to the U.S. would mean a domestic box office take of $957 million), and while I was aware of the phenomenon, I wasn’t aware of the story. I certainly didn’t know the original, Swedish title contains no reference to either girls or dragon tattoos. It’s “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.”
The movie, indeed, opens with a man with a knife. But he’s a benevolent man, an old Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who is using the knife to cut open a package. It contains a flowery white plant under glass. He looks at it, sits down at his desk, and weeps.
These early scenes can be confusing for neophytes because they contain three separate storylines: there’s Vanger and that flowery white plant; there’s Blomqvist, a crusading journalist for a progressive magazine, “Millennium,” who is convicted of libel against another industrialist; and there’s the titular character, the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), whom we first see, hunched and hooded and seemingly hunted, walking through Swedish subways. How do these characters connect?
Turns out Vanger has hired a research company that employs Salander, a computer hacker, to look into Blomqvist’s life. She does, during his trial and conviction, and comes away with her own conviction that Blomqvist is “totally clean.” She’s also intrigued by him—in the way that she’s intrigued: from a distance—and continues to spy on him after the job is done.
Vanger then hires Blomqvist, who has six months before his prison sentence starts, to look into a case that has haunted the old man for 40 years. In September 1966, his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, whom we see in a beautiful black-and-white portrait, and who was Blomqvist’s babysitter back in the day, disappeared from Hedeby Island, the site of the Vanger estate. Everyone assumes she’s dead. Henrik assumes someone in his family killed her, and, on his birthday, sends him a framed flower, as Harriet used to do, to taunt him.
The Vanger family is certainly a piece of work. Two of Henrik’s brothers were Nazis: Gofffried, Harriet’s father, who, in 1965, fell into a nearby lake and died, and Harald, mean and rotten, who still lives on the estate.
Two other Vangers live on Hedeby as well: Gottfried’s son (and Harriet’s brother), Martin, who had once been a member of Hitler Youth, but is now older, jollier, and offers Blomqvist 21-year-old malt whiskey; and Harald’s daughter, Cecilia, who offers Blomqvist her bed.
In Stockholm, meanwhile, Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, is forced to undergo a change in guardians. Since she’s 24, of legal age, I assume guardians in Sweden are similar to parole officers in the U.S. but with legal degrees and more power. Her new guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), turns out to be no guardian at all. Initially he just seems like a dick: He takes greater control of Lisbeth’s bank account and her comings and goings. Then he asks her questions about sex. Then he forces oral sex on her. When she shows up at his place one evening because she needs emergency money, he punches her, handcuffs her to his bed and rapes her. At this point we already know Lisbeth is smart and tough so we’re a little disappointed she gets to this point—realizing she’s trapped, there’s something almost feral in her reaction—but we’ve also seen the small red light in her purse and assume she’s taping the whole, horrible event, which she is. The next time they meet, also at his place, she turns the tables. She tasers him. When he awakes, naked and handcuffed on the floor, she shows him the tape, lists her demands (basically: stay out of my fucking life), then sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos the following words on his chest and stomach: “I’m a sadist pig and a rapist.”
These are tough scenes to watch, particularly the rape, and at some point I wondered how much of the subplot was necessary. What does it have to do with Harriet Vanger? Couldn’t the filmmakers have excised it cleanly? Answers: “Not much” and “Yes.” Yet I’d still keep it. The subplot complements Larsson’s overall theme—men who hate women—and gives us a clearer view of the title character. This is someone you do not fuck with.
Back on Hedeby Island, Blomqvist rummages through 40-year-old evidence. There’s film footage of a tanker accident on the day she disappeared. (Is that her in the window of a building? Talking to someone? Already looking ghostly?) There’s a newspaper photo, that same day, of Harriet in the crowd at the annual Children’s Day parade, looked to her left, seemingly stunned, while everyone else is looking to their right. (“What are you looking at?” Blomqvist asks the photo.)
Then there’s Harriet’s diary. On the back page, Harriet has listed five sets of names/initials and numbers, such as “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027.” But they don’t correspond to names anyone knows or numbers that have ever been listed. What are they?
It’s up to Lisbeth, still hacking Blomqvist’s computer, to decipher them, and it’s a deciphering reminiscent of “The DaVinci Code.” (Just as the ghostly portrait and diary recall “Twin Peaks.”) The numbers are Bible verses, all from Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch. “32016,” for example, stands for Leviticus 20:16:
“If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”
The other verses are similarly cheery: burned with fire, cut to pieces, stoned to death. Lisbeth anonymously emails Blomqvist these answers, but he tracks her down, and the two wind up working together on Hedeby. The names and initials, they realize (too quickly), correspond to women who were killed, in the manner articulated in the Bible verses, at different periods: 1949, 1954, etc. But who did the killings? A big hint: All the murdered women were Jewish.
Up to this point we’ve mostly seen Lisbeth by herself, high-strung and tight-mouthed, but it turns out she’s much the same working with Blomqvist. Instigating a sexual relationship doesn’t open her up, either; it reveals how closed-off she is. She’s intimate without intimacy. Something about her suggests a wounded animal, or an animal that was once abused and is now forever skittish and ready to strike back. She also has a kind of super power, a photographic memory (an unnecessary addition: she’s fascinating without it), but when Blomqvist casually mentions this to her, she flinches, startled, and he has to calm her down. He says he didn’t mean anything by it. He says he wishes he had a photographic memory. In her silence is a kind of response: No, you don’t. Or: There are some things better forgotten.
“Dragon Tattoo” is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a Danish TV director, and it’s pretty straightforward storytelling: this, then this, then this. He juggles (well enough, if unremarkably) three separate storylines, and he presents (well enough, if unremarkably) all that dusty backstory inevitable in a 40-year-old mystery.
It’s the characters, Blomqvist and Lisbeth, that recommend the movie, because they turn certain thriller conventions on their heads. One knows that a man and a woman solving a crime together, particularly a serial crime, particularly a serial crime against women, should never split up as they get closer to a resolution. It’s just asking for trouble. And it happens here. Except the serial killer (Martin, by the way, the former Hitler Youth with the malt whiskey) doesn’t catch the defenseless Lisbeth; he catches the defenseless Blomqvist, whom he ties up, tortures, and is about to kill. It’s up to Lisbeth to arrive in the nick of time and take a golf club to Martin’s back.
But Martin is allowed to escape, and one expects, anxiously expects, as Lisbeth leans down to free Blomqvist, that Martin will return, because the serial killer always returns. Martin’s been at it for 40 years. Inculcated by his father, Gottfried, who sexually abused women, including his own daughter, Harriet, Martin has kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed dozens of women since 1966. He shows Blomqvist a small cage. “I had one in here while we were upstairs sharing malt whiskey,” he says matter-of-factly. He brags about showing these women some small act of kindness, giving them, say, a drink of water, and seeing in their eyes some small hope that they’ll survive; but he does it only for the thrill of extinguishing that hope.
This is the kind of movie villain that never dies, or takes a long time dying, so one anxiously expects him to come roaring back into the room when Lisbeth’s back is turned. Doesn’t happen. Instead she goes after him. She hops on her motorcycle and chases him down. He’s no longer the hunter; she is. It’s a truly thrilling cinematic moment.
Interestingly, the revelation of Martin and his subsequent death doesn’t solve the case. Martin may have been a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of dozens of women, and he and his father may have raped Harriet back in 1965—causing Harriet to kill her father while fleeing her father (remember: there are no accidental deaths in crime fiction)—but Martin didn't have anything to do with Harriet's disappearance. So what happened to her?
Answer: She’s alive. She escaped her family and its crimes and has been living in Australia all of these years. Blomqvist tracks her down, brings her back, and presents her to Henrik Vanger. And the music wells up as these two sweet people have a sweet, tearful reunion.
Me in the audience: Wait a minute. She just left? Allowing her brother to rape and torture and kill dozens of women? How awful. How awful, too, that the movie doesn’t even acknowledge it.
The book does. Or Lisbeth does:
During the drive [Blomqvist] told her about Harriet Vanger’s story. [Lisbeth] Salander sat in silence for half an hour before she opened her mouth.
“Bitch,” she said.
“Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”
In the end “Dragon Tattoo” is a fairly conventional movie that saves itself with its unconventionality. We start out caring about the conventional girl, Harriet, with her long blonde hair and secret smile, who plays the victim, and finish caring about the unconventional girl, Lisbeth, with her chopped black hair, tattoos and nose rings, who refuses to play the victim. We want to protect her—this girl who doesn’t need our protection.
Happy St. Jordi's Day!
About 10 years ago, around this time of year, I received a book and card from my friend Kristin, an extensive traveler fluent in Spanish, wishing me a happy St. Jordi's, or St. George's, Day. Via Wikipedia:
La Diada de Sant Jordi is a Catalan holiday held on April 23rd with similarities to Valentine's Day and unique twists that reflect the antiquity of the celebrations. The main event is the exchange of gifts.
Historically, men gave women roses, and women gave men a book—“a rose for love and a book forever.” In modern times, the mutual exchange of books is customary. Roses have been associated with this day since medieval times, but the giving of books originated in 1923 when a bookseller started to promote the holiday as a way to commemorate the deaths of Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare on April 23, 1616.
I could get behind this. In the U.S. we merely have St. Valentine's Day, in which men give women flowers and chocolates, and women give men grief. It's a day when single people get to feel like shit and florists get to double their prices. Not a fan, generally.
St. Jordi's Day isn't limited to romantic partners; it's for anyone you love or care about.
Shakespeare, Cervantes, St. Jordi, Barcelona, La Rambla, women with roses: somehow it all goes together. Remember it. And buy someone you love a book.
Another Happy Ending
"Really, it was a federal issue. Household [Finance Corporation] was peddling these deceptive mortgages all over the country. Yet the federal government failed to act. Instead, at the end of 2002, Household settled a class action suit out of court and agreed to pay a $484 million fine distributed to twelve states. The following year it sold itself, and its giant portfolio of subprime loans, for $15.5 billion to the British financial conglomerate the HSBC Group.
"Eisman was genuinely shocked. 'It never entered my mind that this could possibly happen,' he said. 'This wasn't just another company—this was the biggest company by far making subprime loans. And it was engaged in just blatant fraud. They should have taken the CEO out and hung him up by his fucking testicles. Instead they sold the company and the CEO made a hundred million dollars. And I thought, Whoa! That one didn't end the way it should have.'"
—from Michael Lewis' "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," pg. 18
Stadler and Waldorf Almost See a No-Hitter
My friend Jim and I are basically the Stadler and Waldorf of Seattle Mariners fans—we sit on the sidelines, disparage the proceedings, and crack each other up in the process. We're not exactly high on this year's team, either. Last year the M's scored the fewest runs in the American League and they didn't greatly improve their lineup in the off-season.
Even so, last week, when the M's were 2-6, Jim agreed to go to a game with me, and by the time we walked through the gates last night they were 6-7, a nice turnaround, although they were still near the bottom of the AL in runs scored with 45. Thankfully the team we were playing, the Orioles, were at the bottom of the league in runs scored with 43. Or as I heard M's broadcaster Rick Rizzs put it when I went to get some Ivars and beers during the third inning: “The Mariners have scored 45 runs this year; the Orioles only 42 (sic).”
When I got back to my seat the M's were in the middle of a rally. The bases were loaded with one out and Franklin Gutierrez, our best hitter, and the only reason Jim's girlfriend watches games (psst: he's good-looking), was at the plate.
“Jack Wilson started things off with a double,” Jim said, as he took his beer.
“I heard on the TV out there,” I said. “Rizzs made it sound like Babe Ruth's called shot.”
Jim laughed and shook his head. “He should have been thrown out by 10 feet but the Orioles misplayed it.
”Really?“ I said. ”According to Rizzs, 'he had that double right out of the batter's box.'“
Jim shook his head again, inhaled a weary and unamused laugh, then looked over at the broadcast booth. ”I should just go down there and punch him in the face right now.“
In the first few innings we'd gone over our many complaints. Was Jose Lopez really a no. 4 hitter? Was Griffey a no. 5 hitter? Shouldn't they move up Casey Kotchman, who has some upside, but is currently batting seventh? We wondered why, in the history of Safeco, with its favorable right-field winds, the M's had never acquired a really solid, left-handed power hitter. We talked how good my Twins were doing and got back to lefty power hitters. ”Thome was a good pick-up for them,“ Jim said. ”He would've looked good here, too, but“—and his voice slowed accusingly—”the DH slot was filled.“ Filled, I should add, by Ken Griffey, Jr., Jim's bete noir. Given our history, I can forgive Junior a lot, but Jim is more hard-hearted and (possibly) common-sensical.
Meanwhile, that third-inning rally continued. Gutierrez slapped a single to left for one run. Jose Lopez grounded into what should've been an inning-ending double play, but the O's third baseman, Ty Wiggington, bobbled it, Ichiro scored, everyone was safe. ”But now you've got Griffey up instead of Kochman,“ Jim said. But Griffey promptly singled to the right side for two more runs: 4-0, M's. Then Milton Bradley laced a double into the left field gap, and for some reason (memories of '95? memories of Wilson's double a few batters earlier?), the third-base coach waved the 40-year-old Griffey home from first. Out by 10 feet.
”Do you think if we were given enough time during spring training we couldn't do that?“ Jim asked.
”Be a third base coach. I've often wondered. It looks like not much.“
We were debating this when Kochman sent a shot screaming into the right-field bleachers. 7-0, M's.
”You think they're going to move him up in the lineup?“ Jim asked, as we stood and applauded. ”I don't think they have the balls.“
”Helluva inning, though,“ I said. ”Plus we got the no-hitter going.“
Indeed. Doug Fister, the M's 6-foot-eight-inch right-hander, had hit a batter and then walked a batter in the first, but hadn't allowed a hit. He retired the side in order in the 4th.
”I refuse to talk about a no-hitter until after five,“ Jim said.
An inning later: ”OK, now I'll talk about it.“
Neither one of us had ever been at the park for a no-hitter. ”I don't think I've even seen one on TV,“ Jim said.
”Me neither. No, wait. I did watch the last five innings of one once.“
”Gooden's against the M's. That was impressive. Against that lineup?“
This led to a trivia question Jim had heard on talk radio: Mariano Rivera has saved games for five Cy Young Award winners (not necessrily in their Cy Young-awarding-winning seasons). Who are they? ”Gooden was the one we couldn't get,“ he added.
After Fister retired the side in the sixth, Jim began to get pumped. ”Hey,“ he sudddenly realized. ”It's only nine outs.“
I looked around at the empty seats. ”And this is the kind of crowd that tends to see no hitters,“ I said.
”I don't know if I've ever seen Safeco this empty," Jim said.
Maybe we shouldn't have talked so much about the no hitter. Maybe we jinxed it. Because with nobody out in the top of 7th, Nick Markakis, who had 45 doubles last season, rocketed a sharp single past Fister and up the middle. We stood, applauded, acknowledged the effort. We talked one hitter until the next hit. We talked shutout and complete game and pitch counts until the O's scored a run. Then we knew that Fister, who'd thrown over 90 pitches, would probably be relieved in the 8th, as he was.
But we did see history last night. Jim called it: the attendance, 14,528, was the lowest ever at Safeco Field. Wucka wucka.
Our Vietnam Trip—Part III: Ha Long Bay
I was originally against a sidetrip to Ha Long Bay. After spending nearly 24 hours getting to Hanoi, my thinking went, why pick up so soon and go elsewhere? Shouldn’t we see what’s there first?
Then I saw what was there.
We bought our tickets through the much-recommended head offices of iTravel. I.e., we walked into an expat bar, up a back staircase, and into a crowded second-story room where two women worked behind desks stacked with paper. It looked like a model of shadiness and inefficiency but was in fact the opposite. Most members of the tour group were picked up at their hotel in the Old Quarter, but we we were staying at the home of friends on other side of town, so we were told the minibus would pick us up at the nearby Sheraton at 8:15 Monday morning. It didn’t. Patricia and I walked over to the Sheraton early to use its ATM—Who wants to be a Vietnamese millionaire? Withdraw US$50—and as we were debating which parking lot might be the right parking lot for the pickup, a pretty woman in business attire and clipboard approached us, asked if we were... and pointed to some long-ass western names on her clipboard...then she took us by cab to the minibus outside the iTravel offices. It was not only great customer service, it allowed us to see Monday morning rush hour traffic in Hanoi. We’d arrived late Friday night, and had tooled around Saturday and Sunday without really realizing that the insanity we were seeing was, in fact, light, weekend traffic. The slow taxicab ride back to the Old Quarter set us straight.
“Holy shit,” I said, staring out the window.
The pretty woman was not our guide (“I’m sorry, honey,” Patricia mock-consoled me). Our guide was a peppy young Vietnamese man who had majored in tourism at a local university, and who, after telling us a little about himself, began the trip by asking the 11 foreigners on board to talk a little about ourselves. This was the first tour-group tour Patricia and I had been on, and we exchanged wary glances, but the introductions were quick and painless. Among our companions: an Aussie man, his wife and mother, traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; two Dutch girls traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; and a Swiss couple traveling around Southeast Asia for several months. Patricia and I were in Vietnam for two weeks. Nothing like American vacation time.
From Hanoi to Hai Phong Harbor, the launch point for Ha Long Bay, is only 170 kilometers, or 105 miles, but it took nearly three hours to get there. The road was bumpy, and only two lanes, which, by general consent, the Vietnamese had turned into three lanes: two thin lanes on either side for motorbikes and bikes and pedestrians, and a main lane, straight down the middle, where larger vehicles, heading in both directions, played chicken with each other.
After leaving the city, we were soon driving past startling green rice fields tended by two or three Vietnamese wearing traditional garb and conical hats. It was a scene so quintessentially Vietnamese as to be almost embarrassing. It was like visiting America and seeing cowboys herding cattle, or visiting Holland and seeing Dutch girls in wooden shoes waving in front of windmills. You mean it’s really like this? Yes, it’s really like this.
We also drove past numerous thin, three-story buildings with colorful facades dotting the landscape. I’d seen plenty in Hanoi and assumed the design was a consequence of the city—you squeezed in where you could—but no squeezing was necessary in the countryside. These buildings weren’t even next to each other but sprouted as randomly as gopher heads popping out of holes: here, here, and over there. Only the facades of the buildings were painted, in bright pinks and purples and yellows, while the long, exposed sides kept their original cement gray. Our tour guide later told me that real estate in Vietnam cost more by the width. Thus the skinniness. Form may dictate content, but economics dictates form.
Our boat was called “The Calypso” and we spent a good deal of the 24 hours on board in its clean, dark-paneled dining room, tended by two Vietnamese men in white dress shirts and a Vietnamese woman in ao dai. All the tourists took a table and pretty much stuck with it: the Aussie held forth with the Europeans, a late-arriving Vietnamese family had their own table, while Patricia and I joined an American, Jonathan, a project manager with the International Red Cross in Indonesia, and his girlfriend, Noy, a restauranteur from Laos, who, though shy, corrected my mispronuciation of her country. (The “s” is silent: Lao as in wow.) She also became the fourth person, out of an eventual cast of thousands, to correct my Vietnamese pronunciaton for “thank you”: not cam ON but gam un! Or so it seemed.
Jonathan grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and, though he’d been living abroad for decades, still had that distinct Northeast obliteration of the letter “R.” He had met Noy during a biketrip through Laos when he stopped by her restaurant in Vientiane. I was peppering them with questions—How did they get together? How long had they been together? Did he know the Red Sox had won the World Series? Twice?—when, somewhere during dessert, people pointed at the window and we all rushed out onto the prow of the boat.
On the Oregon coast, there’s a famous rock 235 feet high just off the shore at Cannon Beach called Haystack Rock, and that’s what the islands in Ha Long Bay reminded me of. Except they were bigger, greener, and more numerous. That was the most amazing thing. On an overcast, sometimes misty day, we kept plowing the water and the islands kept appearing, in greater shapes and sizes. I went slack-jawed. “There are one thousand, nine hundred and sixty islands in Ha Long Bay,” our guide told me proudly. He said in 1994 Ha Long Bay was listed as a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO). He said now it was in the running for another, more prestigious honor (I forget which). He said its name meant Descending dragon. “Really?” I asked. “Long means dragon in Vietnamese?” Before I’d arrived I’d been curious if there were similarities between the Vietnamese and Chinese languages—since the Chinese had ruled Vietnam for a thousand years—and I’d already come across a few instances: male and female, nan and nu in Mandarin, are nam and nu in Vietnamese. Now long for dragon. Long is not only the Mandarin name for dragon, it’s the Mandarin name for both Bruce Lee (Lee Shao Long) and Jackie Chan (Chen Long). In Asia, it’s dragons forever.
After weighing anchor with 40 other tour boats (I counted the next morning), we took a smaller motorboat over to “Amazing Cave,” a stunning, three-chambered, well-lit attraction, made less attractive by the sheer number of people visiting. You go to Ha Long Bay not only for the beauty but to get away from the crowds of Hanoi, but the early part of our walk through Amazing Cave was as crowded as any walk through the Old Quarter. There was also the oddity of the penguin-shaped trash cans scattered throughout. “Why penguins?” Patricia wondered. “Why not something more native?” At the same time, the caves can’t help but bring the kid out in you, recalling, as they do, “Tom Sawyer” and pirate stories. You look around and think, “This would be a good place to be a pirate.” Then you think, “It probably was a good place to be a pirate.”
Back at the Calypso, we were given hot towels and an orange drink in the dining room, then met 10 minutes later by the side of the boat, where we all launched out into two-person kayaks and paddled over the bay, through a dark tunnel, and into the quiet of Monkey Island Bay. Longtime readers know, longtime knowers know, that the personalities of Patricia and myself, particularly on trips, tend to be divergent. She’s more of a Pollyanna while I’m a bit of a Grumpy Gus. Half full, half empty. Oh wow, this. Oh yeah, this. At home, too, whenever we drive somewhere, I drive, because I can’t bear the passive way she drives, and because she (mostly) doesn’t mind my more aggressive form of driving. But put us in a kayak together and this is what I heard from the front:
“What are you doing?”
“No, we’re supposed to go over there.”
“Are you even trying to steer?”
“What are you doing?”
Admittedly, I wasn’t, or we weren’t, the best steerers. I went for speed, then tried to compensate for direction, then overcompensated. We took the drunkard’s path to our destinations. “More exercise this way,” I said, seeing things half full for a change. Patricia, half empty, went unamused. But she loved Monkey Island, particularly when we paddled within spitting distance of a group of monkeys dangling from trees, one of whom jumped into the water and swam to shore. “I didn’t know monkeys could swim,” Patricia said, blissful. Then, as dusk fell, we followed the others back to the boat. Ours was the serpentine path. We barely beat the Vietnamese grandparents.
Dinner was great, and beautifully presented, and included shrimp dipped in a small side dish of salt, pepper and lime. P and Jonathan and Noy and I shared a bottle of wine, and afterwards we took our buzzes up on deck, sat on lounge chairs and gazed at the night sky and the island silhouettes surrounding us. The air was soft and warm. On the other boats in the bay you could hear karaoke being sung, and on our boat, below deck, several people laughed while fishing for squid. I was happy where we were. It felt just right.
The next morning, in fact, that was where I immediately went: up on deck, at 6:30 a.m., to write. I wasn’t alone. The Vietnamese family was already there. I should’ve taken this as an opportunity but I took it as an interruption.
“The Vietnamese,” I thought from the middle of their country. Vietnam responded accordingly. It began to rain on me.
Our second day, forecast as sunny, was like that, overcast and drizzly, and the planned excursion, a motorboat trip past a fishing village, was short and sad. How many tourist boats had the people in this fishing village seen that day, that week, that year? How soon do you despise the blank faces peering into and taking pictures of your lives?
But we mingled better that second day. I spoke briefly with the Dutch women, who hadn’t known each other before they began their trip, and who were heading next to southern China. The Aussie, Steve, who had lived in Shanghai and spoke some Chinese, gave them pointers. Steve was intriguing. On the first day, some passing fishing villagers were laughing and holding out their hands and pointing, and someone on the prow of the boat guessed at its meaning. Steve corrected them. “They’re making fun of my weight,” he said. But he said it so matter-of-factly, with no trace of animosity or self-pity, that it amounted to grace. Steve’s a teacher and a scholar, who, late into his 40s, is still working on his Ph.D. One gets the feeling he’s interested in too much to focus on one thing. He’s traveled the world, and spoke knowledgably about everything from the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to the idiocy of the personalities on FOX News. He became interested in the U.S. at an early age, he said, through the U.S. Civil War. We also talked Aussie movies and in general we all acted like it was the last day of school, even though we’d only been together for a day. Contact info, for whatever it was worth, was exchanged. Then we were back in port and heading to Hanoi again.
During our day on the boat, particularly up top or on the prow, I’d occassionally hear something that sounded like a helicopter—a sound and image that’s intrinsically tied with American memories of Vietnam. But I wasn’t hearing helicopters. I was hearing the chugging of long Vietnamese motorboats delivering supplies. Of course, these boats, too, were evocative. They looked like the boat Captain Willard takes upriver in “Apocalypse Now.” Plus these boats flew the Vietnamese flag, which, with its yellow star and red background flapping in the wind, is itself evocative. It was always oddly thrilling seeing it. It was like being on the other side of a big Other. “That’s right,” I’d think. “I’m here.”
The lovely Patrica, up on deck.
Getting away from it all.
Not our boat. More of a "Never get out of the boat" boat.
- Last June, while praising Pixar's “Up,” I wrote the following about Dug the dog: “What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds humor intrinsically within the object.” So why am I quoting myself? I just saw the trailer for “Marmaduke,” a live-action feature about a giant dog (voiced by Owen Wilson), in which—ahem—Marmaduke stands on his hind legs, and sings, and dances, and romances, and tries to be hip. Out in June. I'll be in hiding.
- Speaking of dumb dogs: I began reading this exchange between David Brooks and Gail Colllins on who will lead the Republican party until I got to these lines from Brooks that stopped me cold. I never finished:
First, let’s all stop paying attention to Sarah Palin for a little while. I understand why liberals want to talk about her. She allows them to feel intellectually superior to their opponents. And members of the conservative counterculture want to talk about her simply because she drives liberals insane. But she is a half-term former governor with a TV show. She is not going to be the leader of any party and doesn’t seem to be inclined in that direction.
The Sarah Palin phenomenon is a media psychodrama and nothing more. It gives people on each side an excuse to vent about personality traits they despise, but it has nothing to do with government.
She is in 2010 what Jerry Falwell was from the mid-1990s until his death — a conservative cartoon inflated by media. Evangelicals used to say that Falwell had three main constituency groups — ABC, CBS and NBC.
- How does Collins let Brooks get away with this? We talk about Sarah Palin because liberals want to talk about her? She's the 2010 equivalent of Jerry Falwell? Falwell never held public office. He was not mayor nor governor nor—let me remind Brooks—the Republican Party's candidate for vice-president of the United States. Thus she is both heir apparent—as losing vice presidents or vice-presidential nominees often are—and a media phenomenon. The idea that she remains in the news because liberals want her there, as someone to feel superior to, is, I would guess, 90% untrue. Put it this way: Speaking as a liberal, I would love her to go wherever Joe the Plumber went, but I don't think I'll get that wish anytime soon.
- Speaking of people I'd love to never hear from again: We have another reason to hate A.J. Pierzynski. As if we needed one.
- Speaking of something that feels like cheating: Here's a Wall Street Journal excerpt of Gregory Zuckerman's book “The Greatest Trade Ever,” about John Paulson buying credit-default swaps on the riskiest home mortgages in 2006. A year later his firm made $15 billion, with a measley $4 billion for himself. That amounts to $10 million a day. Nice work! He's not the cheater, by the way. He just saw where things couldn't keep going and acted on it. The worrisome graf for the rest of us:
Housing prices had climbed a puny 1.4% annually between 1975 and 2000, after inflation. But they had soared over 7% in the following five years, until 2005. The upshot: U.S. home prices would have to drop by almost 40% to return to their historic trend line. Not only had prices climbed like never before, but Mr. Pellegrini's figures showed that each time housing had dropped in the past, it fell through the trend line, suggesting that an eventual drop likely would be brutal.
- Speaking of brutal: Here's what I wrote about Hanoi traffic last week. And here are some friends of Andy's videotaping their ride to work. Fun!
- Speaking of Andy: Here's his post about teaching poetry in Hanoi.
- Speaking of poetry: Rogert Ebert says what I said about “Kick Ass,” but shorter and sweeter.
- Speaking of ass kicking: Andrew Sullivan takes down the Tea Party here. His main complaint is mine: If it's government spending and debt you're against, all you white Republicans, where were you when your man George W. Bush was increasing the national debt from $5 trillion to over $10 trillion? Why save your rage for two months into the new guy's presidency?
- And speaking of irrational critiques of Obama: In The New Yorker a few weeks back, Judith Thurman relayed an interview that Philip Roth gave to Italian freelance journalist Tommaso Debenedetti, in which, among other subjects, Roth complained about Obama's presidency, how disappointing it was, and what empty rhetoric there had been on hope and change. The problem? The interview was a complete fabrication. “But I have never said anything of the kind!” Roth objected to another Italian journalist who asked him about the first interview. “It is completely contrary to what I think. Obama, in my opinion, is fantastic.” In fact, Roth had never even spoken with Debenedetti, who also had an Obama-critiquing interview with John Grisham in the same right-wing tabloid. Regardless of whether Grisham and/or Roth sues, Roth delivers Debenedetti's epitaph. “Surely his career is over,” Roth says. Or he'll wind up on FOX News.
Review: “Kick Ass” (2010)
WARNING: NOT-SO-SUPER SPOILERS
There always seems to be an audience for this kind of thing: people who buy into the very thing they’re viewing ironically. We’re never as hip as we want to be.
“Kick Ass” is a step removed from superhero movies, since it’s set in a world without super powers, a world more or less like ours, where geeks hang out at comic book stores and talk about superheroes. At the same time it gives us a superhero storyline: the story of an ordinary kid, Dave Lezewski (Aaron Johnson), who one days asks his geek friends: Hey, how comes nobody tries to be a superhero? Then he can’t dismiss the idea. He fantasizes about it, and, as with serial killers (he says in a voiceover—nice comparison), it’s no longer enough to fantasize. He has to act out his fantasies. So he dons a green-and-yellow wet suit, reminiscent of Scorpion’s without the tail, and calls himself Kick Ass. But the first time he tries to stop a crime, involving the same two New York City street toughs who took his money and comic books a few weeks earlier, he gets stabbed in the stomach. The second time, while trying to rescue a missing cat, he stumbles upon a guy getting beat up, and, in the process of holding back his tormenters while getting his ass kicked again, he’s filmed by an Asian dude with a cellphone, who says of the whole affair, “This is fucking awesome!”
That Asian dude is us, by the way. Viewing the world at a remove, through a filter.
Of course the video winds up on YouTube, then in the mainstream media since it’s an “Internet sensation” with more than 20 million hits—or 160 million hits less than Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” One anticipates a storyline of copycats, of people getting involved, since Dave/Kick Ass is someone who, despite having no superpowers, is getting involved. But the movie thankfully doesn’t go in this direction.
It goes in a worse direction. Turns out there’s already a superhero in this world: a secret Batman wanna-be called Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), whose sidekick is his explosive, 11-year-old daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz of “(500) Days of Summer”). These two actually have superpowers—in the way that Batman has superpowers. They’re so expert in martial arts, etc., they can take on mobs of bad guys single-handedly. Unlike Batman, though, they use guns and knives and kill people. Even when the bad guys are running away, they chase them down and kill them. They leave a wide trail of blood.
And that’s the problem I have with the movie. No, not the trail of blood. When Hit Girl first appears, just in time to rescue Kick Ass from, well, dying, from getting cut head to sternum by drug dealers, and then uses her many blades to chop up the bad guys as expertly as a Japanese chef chops up sushi, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Isn’t this supposed to be an ironic superhero movie? The non-super-powered superhero movie?” But it’s not. Hit Girl is basically Robin, except female, foul-mouthed and sushilicious. She’s basically Batman. We still want the wish fulfillment, in other words, the easy cutting down of bullies and bad guys, we just want it in an ironic, hip form so we can pretend we don’t want it. There’s great dishonesty here.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are gunning for mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who, 11 years ago, framed Big Daddy, then a cop named Damon Macready, and put him in the slammer. While incarcerated, his wife became a drug addict and died during childbirth. Macready blames Frank, and, when he gets out, he trains both himself and his daughter to combat the mob. They begin to do this about a month before Kick Ass appears. Nice coincidence.
Cage is good, in his good off-kilter way. He plays Macready as a gun-totin’, spooky, psychopath of a loving father, while his Big Daddy borrows the cowl of The Owl, the armor of the Dark Knight, the yellow utility belt of 1970s-era Batman, and the puffed-up cadences of Adam West’s (satirical) Batman. Moretz is good, too, but... I remember when the red-band trailer appeared a few months ago, there was a minor uproar over some of her language. “How will I get a hold of you?” Kick Ass asks. She tells him to contact the mayor’s office. “He has a special signal in the sky?” she says. “It’s in the shape of a giant cock.” See? It mocks the very thing (Batman; superheroes; wish fulfillment) that it’s selling, while pushing the envelope of good taste. Some of us laugh. Me, I just sit in the audience wondering, “Would Macready/Big Daddy be the type of guy to teach his daughter this kind of language? Knives, yes. Guns, yes. But cock jokes? That doesn’t fit with the Adam West voice of propriety.” But I know I’m in the minority.
So Frank the mobster blames all the hits on his men on Kick Ass, and enlists his son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, McLovin from “Superbad”), to become yet another superhero, or supervillain, Red Mist, to lure Kick Ass out where he can kill him. It almost works. But Big Daddy gets Frank’s men first. A deeper betrayal is necessary, with more violence and bigger guns.
There’s nothing super here. “Kick Ass” feels like it was made by the stupid stepchildren of Quentin Tarantino. It’s not just substituting crudity for humor, and hipness and self-referentiality for plot and character development; it’s a soulless film. At one point, in a back alley, Frank kills Kick Ass, plus a witness, but it’s actually a kid going to a Kick Ass party. No one gives this kid (or the witness) a second thought—not even Dave/Kick Ass. And why should he? Dave’s own mother (Elizabeth McGovern, believe it or not) died of an aneurysm at breakfast two years earlier, and it’s treated as a sight gag. We see her head flop into a bowl of Honey Puffs cereal. In voiceover Dave tells us, more or less, that life goes on, but it’s less “Life goes on despite the pain we feel from irretrievable loss” than “Life goes on because we feel nothing.”
This is a movie for people who feel nothing but the world at a remove.
MLB Predictions: Rigged National Pastime Edition
It's a bit late to make predictions about how the baseball season, now in its second week, will turn out. Rob Neyer made his predictions over a week and a half ago, for example.
But I was more or less in Vietnam when the season started, and anyway my predictions have less to do with crunching players' batting and pitching numbers than, as per this post last autumn, looking at payrolls. And I needed to wait long enough to make sure the payroll numbers were set.
So, based on payroll, here are your winners in the American League, along with overall payroll ranking within the league:
East: New York Yankees (1)
Central: Detroit Tigers (3)
West: Los Angeles Angels (5)
Wild Card: Boston Red Sox (2)
Based on past performance since 1995, the AL team with the highest payroll has an 80% chance of making the post-season; no.s 2 and 3, a 60% chance.
And here's the National League:
East: Philadelphia Phillies (2)
Central: Chicago Cubs (1)
West: San Francisco Giants (4)
Wild Card: New York Mets (3)
I know: Cubs and Mets. But the correlation between payroll and playoffs isn't as strong in the NL. Based on past performance since 1995, the NL team with the highest payroll has a 46% chance of making the post-season; no.s 2 and 3, a 53% chance.
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how close I get, without trying, compared to those who spent hours and days and weeks crunching the numbers.
What “Yankees” Really Means
“Detailed early maps of Newfoundland show a body of water called Dildo Pond, named for its shape by the British garrison stationed in North America more than 300 years ago. In the colonial period, the word dildo evolved into doodle, British barracks slang for male genitalia. And to yank something meant exactly what it means now. Thus, to the British, a Yankee Doodle was one who yanked his doodle. A Yankee Doodle was a first-rate greenhorn—too thick and dim to realize the joke was on him. The Americans didn't recognize the English slang, and, to the astonishment of the British, instead made ‘Yankee Doodle’ their anthem. Then the Americans began calling themselves Yankees generally, and eventually [that became the name] of their greatest baseball team.”
—from “The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad” by Robert Elias
Which means the New York Yankees should really be called the New York Jackoffs. As we suspected all along.
Met Stadium Memories
In honor of the opening of Target Field and the return of outdoor baseball to Minnesota yesterday, here are some of my earliest, slap-dash, Cesar Tovar-like memories of Minnesota's last Major League outdoor stadium, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn.
- ...signs of all the Major League teams on poles in the voluminous parking lot as a means of finding your car again. “I believe we parked in the Orioles lot,” etc. In the first game I went to, probably age 4 or 5, we parked in the Cleveland Indians lot. That image, for whatever reason, sticks with me, and still feels magical, no matter how politically incorrect. I was also disappointed that we never got to park in the Twins lot because it was on the other (south or east) side of the stadium. We always came from the north. Like good Scandinavians.
- ...going to a game with my grandfather, my father's father, a gentlemanly ship's architect from Denmark, and sitting about 30 rows back from homeplate. This was before they put up the netting to catch foul balls whizzing back and we got our share, including one that bounced off Bedstefar's armrest. My father, brother and I immediately complained that he hadn't caught the ball—he who may never have been to a baseball game in his life—and for much of the rest of the game I mimicked how I would've trapped it, with my lightning quick reflexes, against the armrest. Forgive us, Bedstefar. I wish I could say we knew not what we were doing.
- ...going to a game with my grandmother, my mother's mother, who for 30 years worked at Black & Decker in Finksburg, Maryland, and watching her team, the Baltimore Orioles, pummel my Twins. Don Buford led off the game with a homerun (off Jim Kaat?), and the Orioles won 8-0. Well, it made Grammie happy anyway.
- ...Tony Oliva hitting a ball out of Met Stadium. Records will show this never happened—records will show that the longest homerun hit at Met Stadium was by Harmon Killebrew, 500+ feet, into the upper deck in left field—but I remember it clearly. Watching that white ball rise and rise and finally leave the park altogether. Maybe I was watching a bird.
- ...sitting in the right field bleachers when Tony Oliva tossed a batting practice/fielding practice ball into the stands. For the rest of batting practice/fielding practice, all of the kids shouted “Tony! Tony! Tony!” when the ball came his way. It felt so greedy and declasse, yet resulted from an act of kindness. I couldn't wrap my mind around this seeming contradiction. Plus I wanted a ball myself.
- ... my father catching a foul ball off the A's Sal Bando along the third base/left field side. He was waiting for my brother to come out of the bathroom, the ball sailed over his head, and he played it on a hop off the wall, “like Roberto Clemente,” he said, after returning triumphant to our seats.
- ...Bat Day. With real bats. And finding hundreds of them below the third base/left field bleachers.
- ...Camera Day. Hanging on the warning track and seeing the players up close. It's where this picture comes from. Do they do this anymore?
- ...arriving late to the first game of a doubleheader—and missing seeing Harmon Killebrew hit a grand slam in the 5th inning. Dad!
- ...leaving early during a tie game between the Twins and A's (my father was a classic “beat the traffic” guy), and, on the ride home, hearing George Mitterwald hit a homerun to win it. Dad!
- ...attending “Vida Blue Day” in 1971. I was for seeing the rookie phenomenon but against having a “day” for an opposing player. I was also critical of the buttons they gave you at the gate if you wore blue clothing. Or did you get in for half-price if you wore blue clothing? Either way, this is what was stamped on the buttons: “Roses are red/My clothes were blue/When I was there/To see Vida Blue.” Even at the age of 8, I knew “blue/Blue” was a pretty lousy rhyme.
- ...getting a cold headache from a Frosty Malt on a hot summer day.
- ...Harmon Killebrew hitting two homeruns. Always.
- Roger Lathbury, head of Orchises Press, whom my sister and I unintentionally screwed out of publishing J.D. Salinger's last novella, "Hapworth 16, 1924," tells his side of the story, which is a lot more fascinating than mine, in New York magazine. If there's a mistake in all of this, as Mr. Lathbury implies, it's the eight years Mr. Salinger took to consider his offer—taking him up to the digital age, where pre-pub of "Hapworth" could be more readily found on amazon.com by someone like me. Either way, it's a sad story. But that's part of what makes it a good story.
- My friend Andy's friend Matt Steinglass has a good piece in The New York Times Book Review called "Reading Tim O'Brien in Hanoi." Oddly, 20 years ago, I entitled the first notebook I filled while living in Taipei, Taiwan, "Reading Dostoevsky in Tien Mu." (Tien Mu is a suburb of Taipei.) That Dostoevsky and Tien Mu have nothing to do with each other may be the first reason of many it never wound up anywhere near The New York Times Book Review.
- Speaking of Andy, here's the beginning of the 15 books that most influenced him. We talked about this briefly while on the veranda of our joint hut in Phu Quoc two weeks ago. Just two weeks? A lifetime ago. I'll probably write up my list one of these days. It may be the only list that includes both Ernest Hemingway and Syd Hoff.
- Via Rob Neyer, Slate contrasts the way children's books and adult books treat five great baseball players: Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. It's funny stuff but, as a longtime reader of baseball biographies, both as a child and as an adult, you get the feeling it could have been funnier.
- As funny, maybe, as this movie trailer. Out in August. Fingers crossed.
- Or this post from Claver and Converse on the census. He encourages those red-staters who are wary of the census to give into their fears and not fill it out, since their lack of voice will only harm their states. "I want you to know how much I respect you for refusing any government assistance of any kind," he writes, "be it Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits, FHA home loan, etc. More power to you because it will leave more for me in the future."
- Finally, the not-so-funny: Michael J. Burry, the subject of Michael Lewis' new book, "The Big Short," responds to the oft-heard excuse from Alan Greenspan & Co. that no one saw the global financial meltdown coming by clearing his throat. Loudly. A key observation occurs halfway through. When Greenspan was grilled by Congress about financial analysts like Burry, who saw the dangers way back in 2005, he dismisses their insights as "a statistical illusion." Then he reiterates that no one at the Fed meetings mentioned anything about the dangers. Burry writes: "By Mr. Greenspan’s logic, anyone who might have foreseen the housing bubble would have been invited into the ivory tower, so if all those who were there did not hear it, then no one could have said it." Exactly. Greenspan is a poster child for the institutional voice. If you rise within a system you come to believe in that system, since you yourself have (obviously, deservedly) risen within it. More, you come to believe that anyone who doesn't rise within the system doesn't deserve to. Systems are self-protecting in this way. Would that economies were.
Off By That Much
"At headquarters, the agency kept advising Truman that China would not enter the [Korean] war on any significant scale. On October 18, as MacArthur's troops surged north toward the Yalu River and the Chinese border, the CIA reported that 'The Soviet Korean venture has ended in failure.' On October 20, the CIA said that Chinese forces detected at the Yalu were there to protect hydro-electric power plants. On October 28, it told the White House that those Chinese troops were scattered volunteers. On October 30, after American troops had been attacked, taking heavy casualties, the CIA reaffirmed that a major Chinese intervention was unlikely. A few days later, Chinese-speaking CIA officers interrogated several prisoners taken during the encounter and determined that they were Mao's soldiers. Yet CIA headquarters asserted one last time that China would not invade in force. Two days later 300,000 Chinese troops struck with an attack so brutal that it nearly pushed the Americans into the sea."
—from Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," pp. 58-59, beginning, or continuing, a tradition of faulty intelligence that invariably missed the biggest foreign policy events of the 20th century and beyond.
Our Vietnam Trip — Part II: Visiting Vestiges
The key to enjoying Hanoi, for me, was learning to cross the street.
Visiting a new culture, one is invariably reduced to a kind of infancy anyway. Suddenly one doesn’t know the language, the food, the unwritten rules. One can’t even say “hello” or “thank you” properly. This isn’t a negative so much as part of the reason for going. In his song “New Town,” Vic Chesnutt sings:
And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older
And that’s part of why we travel. To feel this way again. To stare at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as we can see again.
Learning to cross the street was part of this. Hanoi traffic is a constant, oncoming, evolving flow that can leave cautious foreigners standing by the side of the road for long periods of time. I remember it took me a year to figure out how to cross a wide, busy street in Taipei. (Basically: if you don’t look at the oncoming drivers then it’s their job to slow down or get out of your way; if you do look at them then it’s your job to get out of their way.) Things are slightly more civilized in Hanoi, and, on the first day, Andy gave us lessons: Move slowly, but with purpose, across the street; pause when necessary; and whatever you do, never step backwards. It’s the Hanoi traffic equivalent of: “Never get off the boat.”
Here's how my thinking on Hanoi traffic evolved during our stay. On the first day: My god, look at these crazy fuckers. On the second day: I can’t believe there aren’t more accidents. By the fourth day, the observation becomes a question: Hey, how come there aren’t more accidents? The lanes in Hanoi aren’t used as lanes, or even suggestions of lanes, and the mix of trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, weaving down the road, often into oncoming traffic, brush within centimeters of each other. Yet during our two-week stay we didn’t see one accident. We saw the aftermath of a minor one, a tipped motorbike in the middle of the road, but that was it. Why?
An answer begins to suggest itself when you realize there’s no road rage. In a certain sense the Vietnamese can’t afford road rage—otherwise they’d have nothing but road rage—but it goes deeper than that. To feel road rage one has to feel a sense of ownership: “This is my lane”; “That fucker cut me off”; etc. But in Hanoi the system works on accommodation or it doesn’t work at all. You go along to get along. Nobody owns anything. Hanoi traffic, it can be argued, is one of the most communistic things about modern Vietnam.
And that’s the key to crossing the road. That car or motorbike heading toward you doesn’t feel he owns the part of the road you’re standing on, so he doesn’t object to you standing there; he’ll go either to this or that side of you. It’s all a matter of anticipation and accommodation. Think of the traffic as a river and the pedestrian as a turtle (a symbol of longevity in Vietnamese culture), who moves slowly and purposefully, while the river, the traffic, flows all around him, until he’s on the other side.
And one is a kid again. Look ma, I crossed the street! By myself!
I had this feeling on our second full day in Hanoi when Patricia and I ventured out on our own. We’re walking people, and on this day we managed to walk from the city center to the old French quarter, then back to the Old Quarter to meet Andy for lunch. Afterwards we walked west again to some of the Ho Chi Minh sites. Many rivers to cross.
We began in the morning at Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where U.S. servicemen were imprisoned and tortured from 1964 to 1973. To get there, Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down in Oct. 1967, parachuted into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi, was pulled to shore and beaten by a crowd and then taken to a hospital, or “hospital,” for six weeks, before beginning two years of solitary confinement. To get there, Patricia and I took a taxi. The place cost John McCain six years of his life. It cost us 10,000 dong—or about 50 cents each. One feels guilty before even entering. One feels the way time reveals the absurdity of human events, the absurdity of the borders we construct.
Hoa Lo was built by the French in 1896, and most of the prison, now museum, is dedicated to the period when the French ruled and the Vietnamese rebelled and suffered. The American section is relatively small, and, though it should have come as no surprise to me, propagandized. Apparently the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners well. Apparently they let them play basketball and billiards and chess. They fed them sumptuous meals while sympathetic Vietnamese doctors tended their wounds. Apparently they didn’t torture them to extract information or use them as propaganda tools or break them with forced confessions.
The sign outside the gate (“Internal Regulations for Visit of Vestiges in Hoa Lo Prison”) warns, among other things, against frolicking in the prison. One hardly needs the warning. Hoa Lo is a grim place, made grimmer by the propaganda. The cells are small, dank, dirty, the barred windows tiny. The walls are crumbling. There’s a guillotine in the French section, John McCain’s flight suit under glass in the American. There’s a framed, colorful picture of a waving Santa Claus conducting a train full of Christmas trees and presents, supposedly drawn by American POWs, that is all the more depressing for its brightness and cheeriness. There’s a section on the many protesters of the war in Vietnam, including Norman Morrison, a Quaker who set himself afire in front of the Pentagon in November 1965, and who is something of a heroic martyr in Vietnam. His first name is misspelled: “Noosman.”
Two incidents stand out. The courtyard includes a small, open-air gift shop, which, one imagines, does little business—it’s like a gift shop at Auschwitz—but there are several books on display, including Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War.” This is a novel almost every expat in Vietnam knows but I hadn't even heard of until the day before when I saw it on a display table in a museum/home in the Old Quarter. After Andy talked it up, I read the first sentence:
On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Center Highlands, the Missing In Action body-collecting team awaits the dry season of 1976.
I’m a believer in first sentences and this was a good first sentence. I didn’t buy the book then, but I was contemplating a purchase at Hoa Lo when a white-haired, heavy-gutted foreigner walked by and saw, among the offerings, two books by Barack Obama: “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” He went apoplectic.
“Bah!” he yelled, and turned the faces of both books down.
It was such an impotent gesture I laughed. Not just because it was silly. If this guy was what I thought he was—a FOX-News watching, possibly Tea Party attending dude—he'd missed a golden opportunity. Barack Obama’s books were just sitting there next to Ho Chi Minh’s books. Why not take a picture of their awful, awful commingling? Play the “guilty by association” card. See? Didn’t we tell you he was a communist? And Asian to boot!
Instead he made his impotent gesture.
When I laughed out loud, he turned in our direction and, unbeknownst to me, met with a withering gaze from Patricia—who is less political than I but knows a stupid gesture when she sees one. Some combination of my amusement and her condemnation stirred something in this guy and he actually put the books back, grumbling all the while, before retreating to his wife. You don't mess with Patricia's withering gaze. Glenn Beck, you're next!
The second incident occurred after we left the prison. We were walking up Hoa Lo Road toward Hai Ba Trung when a Vietnamese man left his motorbike, walked over to the prison and took a piss against the wall. Public health issues aside, surely this is bad form for such an important building. Put another way: Are there no external regulations for visit of vestiges?
Then we were off: two children, holding hands, trying our best to cross the street.
The French Quarter was my idea, because it was French, and thus might not remind me of Taipei 20 years ago; but the Frenchiest thing about it were some wide boulevards, a grand opera house, and, most interestingly, a few old buildings, scattered here and there, of scraped yellow paint, high, second-story windows bordered by long green shutters, and empty balconies. They felt romantic. They probably felt romantic even before they suggested a lost era.
After meeting Andy for lunch at Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter—a restaurant that serves just one dish: fried fish, cooked at your table, with sticky noodles and greens and chili peppers—we left Andy again and walked, mostly via Phan Dinh Phung, to the Ho Chi Minh trifecta: House, Mausoleum, Museum. But we’d read poorly. The Mausoleum, housing Uncle Ho’s body—which has been preserved almost as long as mine has been alive (41 vs. 47 years)—is open only in the mornings. We were too late.
The House, though, where Ho lived and worked from 1958 until his death in 1969, was elegant in its simplicity. That’s its point. It stood on stilts next to a humid pond, and the rooms, which one could look at but not enter from outer walkways, were filled with small, simple desks, small, simple bookcases, and pictures of Lenin and Marx. (But not Stalin; never Stalin.) In the giftshop, an oddity: a book, called “40 Bai hoc danh cho tuoi moi lon,” with a cute Vietnamese girl in a short skirt on the cover. It felt like finding a Britney Spears CD at Monticello, but apparently the title translates to “40 Lessons for Adolescence” and is considered educational. A Google translation of a Vietnamese review tells us the book encourages “the healthy growth of new young adults, using the animated story, a vivid and concise, analytical, presentation...” Some enterprising expat should put that description on a T-shirt.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is less simple. It’s in a grand, opulent building, and there’s a grand, opulent staircase that leads to a grand, gleaming statue of Uncle Ho in mid-greeting; but it’s the second floor, past the statue, that recommends the place. It’s basically in a wagon-wheel design, with different wedges of the wheel dedicated, not to Ho, but to artistic interpretations of different periods of the 20th century as they relate to Vietnam. One wedge, for example, takes familiar images from Picasso’s “Guernica,” and brings them to large, 3-D life. There are homages to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” and photos of Dizzy Gillespie. There are attempts to make art out of the refuse of the American War: barbed wire, maps, G.I. helmets. There is a mirrored copy of a newspaper whose headline reads, “VIETNAM TRIUMPHS,” and whose subhed adds: “Nixon Bows to Heroism and Humanity"—as we know he always did. Most memorably, there is a giant tilted table on top of which sit giant pieces of fruit—banana, pineapple, apples—and which, according to a nearby plaque, encourages the younger generation, in the name of Uncle Ho, to preserve the environment against aggressive and destructive wars. No mention of pollution indexes.
We cabbed it home from there. This was before we’d been steered toward Mai Linh or CP taxis, the safe taxis, and it was the one time we were ripped off, or obviously ripped off, in Vietnam. I forget the name of the cab company, but as we neared Andy and Joanie’s place the meter read 170,000 dong. (A little over $8.) We objected strongly, pretty sure this was off by 100,000 dong ($5), but we could only object in English, and in the end I wasn’t quite sure of the cost anyway, so I gave him 150,000 dong, which he was happy to get. He triumphed. I bowed to his heroism and humanity.
The lovely Patricia, offering you your choice of giant fruit.
Live and Don't Learn
Interviewer: Do you think we’ve learned anything from [the Vietnam War]?
Former Capt. Randy Floyd: I think we’re trying not to. I think I’m trying not to sometimes. I can’t even cry easily—from my manhood image. I think Americans have tried, we’ve all tried, very hard, to escape what we’ve learned in Vietnam. To not come to the logical conclusions of what’s happened there. You know, the military does the same thing. They don’t realize that people fighting for their own freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics—adding a little more sophisticated technology over here, improving the tactics we used last time and not making quite so many mistakes. I think history operates a little different than that. That those kind of forces are not going to be stopped. I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their policymakers have exhibited.
—from “Hearts and Minds” (1974), the Academy-Award-winning documentary by Peter Davis on the Vietnam War
Saigon Signing Off
"Three hours after President Ford issued the evacuation order, the first American helicopters arrived from 80 miles offshore. The marine pilots performed with skill and daring, shuttling out about a thousand Americans and close to six thousand Vietnamese. A famous photograph shows one of the last helicopters leaving Saigon, perched on a rooftop as a trail of people climb a ladder to safety.* That photo, for many years, was mislabeled as a shot of the embassy. But in fact it was a CIA safe house, and those were [CIA station chief Tom] Polgar's friends clambering aboard.
"Polgar burned all the CIA's files, cables and codebooks that evening. Not long after midnight, he composed his farewell: THIS WILL BE FINAL MESSAGE FROM SAIGON STATION. ... IT HAS BEEN A LONG FIGHT AND WE HAVE LOST. ... THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE FORCED TO REPEAT IT. LET US HOPE THAT WE WILL NOT HAVE ANOTHER VIETNAM EXPERIENCE AND THAT WE HAVE LEARNED OUR LESSON. SAIGON SIGNING OFF."
—from Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," pg. 397.
* from the Boston Globe obituary of Hugh Van Es, the Dutch photojournalist who took the shot below:
From his vantage point on a balcony at the UPI bureau several blocks away, Mr. Van Es recorded the scene with a 300-mm lens - the longest one he had. It was clear, Mr. Van Es said later, that not all the approximately 30 people on the roof would be able to escape, and the UH-1 Huey took off overloaded with about a dozen.
Our Vietnam Trip — Part I: Hanoied
The Chinese have a word for it: ru nao. I assume the Vietnamese have a word for it, too, but I don't know Vietnamese. I don't even really know the Vietnamese for “thank you,” which is the first word one should learn when staying in a foreign country: thank you, hello, please, I'm sorry, how much, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. I know something of the Vietnamese for “hello” (xin chao) and I know something of “thank you” (cam on), but Vietnamese is a tonal language, just as Mandarin is a tonal language; except Vietnamese has seven tones to Mandarin's four, and the Mandarin four are, in comparison, fairly straightforward: an even, musical tone (like “fa” on the musical scale), a rising tone, a falling tone, and a falling then rising tone. They’re numbered, too, which makes clarification easier. “Which tone?” “Third tone.” In Vietnamese the tones tend to swoop and soar and stop suddenly and pile on themselves. If tones are like stairs—one is usually in some process of rising or falling—Vietnamese tones feel like a series of stairs by M.C. Escher.
Ru nao, whose tones I’ve forgotten, and which has no direct English translation, means busy and bustling and crowded and noisy and hectic, and Taipei, Taiwan, where I lived in 1987-88, and again in 1990-91, was hen ru nao; but Hanoi, where my friends Andy and Joanie moved last August, and which Patricia and I visited for the first time last month, is even more ru nao than my memory of Taipei. The city supposedly holds 6.5 million people, and four of them, Andy, Joanie, and their daughters, Fiona and Matilda, ages 7 and 4, live on the northeast side of Ho Tay, the giant lake to the north of the city, and are thus at a remove from some of this busyness. But it’s a short remove. Take a right out their front door, walk past the badminton court frequently in use by their Vietnamese neighbors, up a narrow alleyway that invariably smells of urine, and you’re in the thick of it again: the noise, the bustle, the sidewalks so crowded with parked motorbikes and piles of wires or mounds of dirt that they’re not much good for walking; the crazy traffic and constant beeping/honking off the Au Co. It is, in an English word, overwhelming, and in those first few days I felt overwhelmed.
Patricia was overwhelmed as well but in a good way. She is invariably game for anything, and she’d never been to Asia, so she kept saying: Wow, this. I am invariably game for little, and I’d had that history in Taipei, so I kept thinking: Oh yeah, this.
Oh yeah: these chalky tiled sidewalks made chalkier by pollution. Oh yeah: these dim fluorescent lights that cast a ghostly pallor over tiled rooms. Oh yeah: this humidity that curls the covers of paperback books and turns tile floors clammy. Oh yeah: this pollution that burns in the back of the throat. Oh yeah: ru nao.
On our first full day, Patricia, who had done the Lonely Planet reading (unlike some of us), wanted to go to the Old Quarter, with its narrow streets and small shops, north of Ho Hoan Kiem (Hoan Kiem Lake), and the Engelsons obliged. It’s often the first stop for foreigners, and it has its share of them, along with everything one associates with proximity to foreigners with deep pockets. All day the Vietnamese tried to sell us taxicab rides, pedicab rides, xe em (motorbike) rides, trinkets, watches, jewelry. A woman, wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hat, and carrying fruits and vegetables on either end of the traditonal Vietnamese bamboo pole, tried to sell us her wares. When we begged off, she placed the bamboo pole on my shoulder. It was heavier than I anticipated and initially I thought she wanted help. Initially I felt chivalrous. Then she tried placing her conical hat on my head. Andy, half-abashed, explained that it’s a touristy thing. Foreigners get their pictures taken wearing her hat and carrying her load, and she gets money, and maybe sells them something. I went from feeling chivalrous to feeling appalled—less for her than for the tourists who do this kind of thing. At the same time, being appalled, and giving back her hat and pole as if they were diseased, didn’t exactly help her out.
Most of the streets in the Old Quarter are dedicated to one product, and their names reflect this. Hang Bac means shops of silver, Hang Dao shops of silk. We saw less silver and silk than shoes, towels, trinkets, art knockoffs, DVDs. The DVDs are knockoffs, too, bootlegs, and include movies that are still in theaters—most notably “Avatar,” whose DVD is set to be released in the States on Earth Day, April 22nd. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but I was, and I wondered about its quality. A week and a half later, at the Ben Trahn Market in Saigon, curiosity got the better of me. The woman wanted 15,000 Vietnamese dollars (VND), or dong, for “Avatar,” but I offered 10,000 and she shrugged and took it. Basically I bargained her down from 75 cents to 50 cents. For a DVD of “Avatar.” That plays on U.S. systems. And isn’t filmed by someone in the back row of the theater but is a high-quality digital copy of the entire film. No wonder Hollywood’s worried. The DVD’s maker, if one wants to use that word, is a company called Simba, which promises “The Best Quality Trust," while the back of the DVD's packaging includes two impotent symbols: a copy protection label and an FBI anti-piracy warning. Our last day in Vietnam, back in the Old Quarter, I went a step further, asking for movies that hadn’t even been released into U.S. theaters yet. Did they have, say, “Iron Man 2”? They didn't, but, "Soon," the man promised. Then he offered “Alice in Wonderland,” “Repo Men,” “Percy Jackson.” He offered me the HBO Miniseries “The Pacific,” which, in the States, had aired only three of its 10 episodes. We should all be worried.
For lunch we went to a street vendor for bun cha: grilled pork, sticky noodles, greens and peppers mixed and dipped in a broth. As a child in the Midwest, I liked to get everything onto one fork—meat, potatoes and vegetable—and bun cha is kind of like that. You want all the flavors between your chopsticks and in your mouth at the same time. (For a better description, go here.) Patricia loved it, loved eating on the street, laughed about the yoga positions required to sit on those small, blue, plastic stools before that small, blue plastic table. I thought the bun cha delicious, too, but wondered how we wound up at this place, and how clean it was, and what disease I might be getting. (Spoiler: none.)
The market in the Old Quarter.
You don’t realize the extent of the noise of Hanoi until you get out of it, and, after lunch, as Joanie took the girls for ice cream, Andy took Patricia and I to an expat joint: through a bar, up the back stairs, and onto a leafy terrace sheltered from the street. That’s when you feel your ears suddenly relax. Andy ordered his regular, ca phe sua da, or coffee (ca phe) with condensed milk (sua) and ice (da). Patricia followed. I went with an iced lime drink they called a shake. Later Andy took us through another bar and up some more back stairs to purchase tickets for trips later in the week. Then the three of us went to the Old Quarter’s market to buy food for dinner that evening. Patricia was in heaven—she loves markets—but this is precisely when I became fed up with Hanoi. The markets are even more crowded than the streets, and yet, through the narrow lanes, covered by dirt and slop, people still ride their motorbikes, beeping all the while. Could I stand here? No. Here? No. It felt like no matter where I stood I was in someone’s way. It felt like Vietnam was allowing me no place to stand.
The Wisdom of Buck O'Neil
“Buck [O‘Neil, age 94] was wearier than usual. He had been sucker-punched by the Star [radio] interview and then pounded relentlessly by so many interviews and requests. His head spun. He was hungry. He was surrounded by a Friday evening in New York—the construction sounds, the blaring horns, the fast walkers, the street hustlers, the Broadway lights, the hole in the sky. Buck loved New York. He was ready to get home.
”’I'm going to sleep,' he announced when the car pulled up to the Marriott. As we stepped out of the car, I noticed a woman standing outside, near a concrete bench. She was wearing a red dress. It's not quite right to say I noticed her, as if this took some doing. She was noticeable. Her dress blazed candy-apple red. You could see it from Brooklyn. The woman who wore it looked nothing at all like Marilyn Monroe and yet that was the name that came to mind. Marilyn. It was that kind of dress. We walked into the hotel, and I turned back to mention something to Buck about the woman and her red dress. He was gone. I looked back to see if he had stayed in the car but the car was gone, too. I looked down the hall. Empty. Bathroom? Empty.
Then I looked outside. There was Buck talking to the woman in the red dress. Buck talked and she laughed. She talked and he laughed. They hugged. She kissed him. A young man walked over, and Buck talked to him, they hugged, they all laughed. The three of them stayed together for a long time, Buck and the woman and the young man. Finally Buck hugged both of them and walked in looking fresh as the morning. Star was a long way back in his memory. Buck said, ‘Let’s go get something to eat.'
“As we walked to the restaurant, he asked: ‘Did you see the woman in the red dress?’
“Buck shook his head and looked me in the eyes. And very slowly, with a teacher's edge in his voice, Buck said this: ‘Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.'”
—from Joe Posnanski's “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O‘Neil’s America,” which I read in its entirety during our plane trip from Seattle to Seoul and then Seoul to Hanoi, enjoying every minute I spent with Buck and Joe. Much recommended. Rest in Peace, Buck. Keep going, Joe.
Opening Day: Yankees vs. Viet Cong
In honor of baseball season starting tonight (at the moment: Yankees 5, Red Sox 1), I offer the following photo from the Ben Trahn Market in Saigon, which Patricia and I visited last Tuesday. Amid your Vietnam caps there was this. So much for Yankee Go Home. And yes, I was reminded of this.
Someone is Missing
That someone is me—from here. For the past two weeks Patricia and I have been traveling in Vietnam. I meant to post about the experience as it happened but events conspired so I'll be posting from the cool of Seattle rather than the humidity of Hanoi. I know. It's a little like mailing your exotic postcards once you get home, but I'll try to avoid the suggestion of a Seattle city postmark and Liberty Bell stamp. In the meantime here's some movie lit I picked up at the VinCom City Towers in Hanoi. That opening date is April 2, by the way, not February 4. We didn't see it. We actually saw something else that day. But more on that later.