Welcome to the Deep Blue Sea

January 28, 2008

I never quite understood the allure of the sea. In some ways, of course, I can—you have a pure, calm, stable ocean that is effectively yours to conquer, if even just for a lazy Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, that same ocean pool will mercilessly swallow you whole with nary a moment’s thought if you look at her just a touch askance. I’m frightened of the sea much like I’m frightened of repelling and the income tax—simple in concept, incredibly dangerous if you’re not paying attention, which is all the time.

Historically, of course, the ocean has been an important cultural subject; fishing provided much-needed and easily-obtained nutrition. It also provided a trouble-free means to get away from the wife for eight to eighteen months at a stretch if you played your cards right. Massive battles were fought with oars and grapeshot, and commerce was as important to the lowly carrack transporting spices in 500 BC as it is to the Chinese factory dumping a few thousand crates of cheap dollar-store toys and suspect toothpaste today.

And no discussion of the attraction of the sea would be complete without mentioning pirates, the devil-may-care heroes of the high seas. The romanticizing of the pirate is one of the odder aspects of modern culture, since being a pirate pretty much boiled down to:

1. Getting gold. That’s the good part.
2. Having about a 1 in 3 chance of having your head split open by a wayward mast or broadsword. That’s bad.
3. Having about a 1 in 3 chance of dying from:
a. Scurvy
b. Syphilis
c. Winning at, or losing at, a game of bones
d. All of these are bad.
4. Basically being a murderer for profit. That’s either bad or good, all things considered

Granted, thievery and skullduggery have long been romanticized from Robin Hood all the way to the Societe Generale, but pirating pretty much took it about as extreme as you could without being a head of state declaring yourself Catholic. Some tried to legitimize their acts as being effectively a gun for hire, but that seems a rather fine point when you’re scooping the eyeballs out of a Hanseatic merchant like an ice cream sundae.

To me, the nautical world is filled with confusion and darkness, and shining the bright light of knowledge will most likely simply piss me off. The terminology is frightful, from the vaguely sinister gunwale to the delightfully perverted coaming. And they call sailors “old salts” for a reason, since I have a mental picture in my head of a voyage consisting of 1) getting swamped with sea water every time the wind so much as thinks about changing direction, 2) trying not to let the sea water saturate our clothes, food, and rum, 3) drowning in the brine lest my inner ear infection cause me to lose my balance for merely a few seconds, and 4) vomiting. And while salt is eating away at both the wood and my pancreas, there are actual sailors who know how to run this sort of thing trying to manage a ship larger than most Benelux nations with ropes and sails and large pieces of driftwood fashioned into masts getting tossed about in a cacophony of perfectly timed organization that only OK Go! and Martha Stewart could find sexually stimulating.

Some people, of course, have taking one of the few necessities of history and somehow distilled all the nasty, difficult parts out and converted it into an expensive hobby, something not exactly unknown to aficionados of paintball, hot rodders, and China. I’ll be honest; I’ve never really gone out to the sea except on one ill-advised rafting trip (hint: don’t wear boots with felt lining while rafting unless you’ve brought rubber bands and a fistful of Glad bags), but then again I’ve never sat around with an immense pile of hard cash I wanted to desperately piss away. I do, however, have a rather soft spot in my mind for lighthouses, the butterface sister-in-law of sailing, a spot that would be much greater if the entire lighthouse industry weren’t monopolized by old women spending money at Hallmark shops.

The best thing about the sea, though, is that it’s the cheapest way to travel. To travel by air or by land, you have to exert some effort and energy into the endeavor, this energy, by the way, currently resides in large pools under the Saudi Arabian desert. Even in centuries past, it costs money to feed and house oxen, whereas a boat, once built, just keeps on going with minimal maintenance of tar and Spaniards. Whereas, all other things being equal, the sea is the sea—free movement so long as you know how to tack, assuming that you don’t mind that it takes fourteen months to go about three thousand miles (or, in boating terms, “nautical kilometers”). The wind and the water do all the work for you, and you don’t need a catalytic converter or twenty bushels of grain a day to do it. And as much as Mother Earth has been slacking off lately, it’s about time she pulled her weight.

Smurf Smurf Smurf the Smurf Smurf!

January 14, 2008

Well don’t that Smurf all! The Smurfs turn fifty this year.

Belgian cartoonist Peyo created the Smurfs decades before they became a hit American cartoon. His Smurfs, though, often lampooned European society in sharp, biting satire, rather than the dog-and-pony tripe that was trotted out to US kids for nearly a decade. And yet the success of the Smurfs poured money into his pockets, allowing him the latitude to continue drawing comics about the Belgian political parties or chocolate or waffles or soccer or whatever it is that’s important in Brussels.

It might be a bit presumptuous to celebrate fifty years already; the first Smurf appeared in 1958, and was pretty much a walk-on; they languished as tertiary, Stephen-Baldwin level characters until their popularity grew too big to ignore. Yet there has to be a starting place somewhere, and so the Smurfs look gazingly wistful at that AARP letter they just got in the mail.

The Smurfs had quite a lot of influence on the children of the ‘80s, from their optimistically Reaganesque la-LA-la-la-la-laaaa to their unique cognitive failures at subject-verb transposition. Very few children, aside from those whose parents erroneously thought that watching television would turn them into mindless intellectual wastelands who honestly believe that the single greatest cultural achievement of Western Civilization lies somewhere along the spectrum of Knight Rider and go-go-Gadget-mallet, won’t immediately recognize the various trials and tribulations of Gargamel, Azrael, and all the Smurfs whose parents lacked a certain level of creativity, naming them after random adjectives that, in the cruel execution of a social more that being baked into gold can only parallel, they were destined to fulfill. One wonders whether Lazy Smurf’s father bothered to start a college fund or not.

Of course, whether Smurfs had parents or not has befuddled scores upon scores of high college students and Donnie Darko fans. With only Smurfette of child-bearing age and ability, yet showing no signs of mommy hips, one has to assume a rather prolific bait-and-switch game is being played by someone, somewhere. Best not to ask questions, Papa Smurf says, and, besides, their DNA is corrupted beyond any hope of positive identification.

Watching the series as an adult, of course, is a recipe for disappointment. Catching them on some basement dwelling basic cable station at three in the morning, I was shocked at how painful the shrill voices were and how repetitively dull the dialogue was. I was shocked—shocked!—when, after extensive research on the Internet Movie Database, I found out that more than one person voiced all the different Smurfs, even though it sounds like they’re all voiced by some guy who just inhaled a combination of helium, Red Bull, and crystal meth. And, while hardly unique amongst Saturday morning cartoons, where quality control and script-writing are apparently farmed out to what I will charitably call completely retarded idiots who eat lead for breakfast and routinely watch House Hunters, the episodes were derivative and only buoyed by what I’m going to call charm but know full well is simply nostalgia.

And so help the viewer who happens to catch an episode featuring Pee-wee or Johan. I cry deeply for your soul.

Of course, the Smurfs have not been without controversy. More than one casual observer, and by causal observer I mean “the entire staff of the National Review,” have drawn the obvious parallels between the Smurf village and a textbook communist society. Defenders of the Smurfs counter with the fact that it’s just a children’s show. “Sure,” they say, “The Smurfs live in a communal village were work is shared by all and there is no means of currency and Papa Smurf acts as an executive director with unchecked power over the economic well-being of the community and he wears red and all Smurfs have a de facto uniform to minimize their differences and each episode has a lesson about from each according to his ability and to each according to his need and there is a bronze statue of Joseph Stalin in the village square, but, c’mon, it’s just a cartoon.”

Another criticism is the reliance on magic and alchemy. Part of this is simply the usual Harry Potter cranks assuming that the Smurfs, in conjunction with day care centers and the Catholic Church, are trying to indoctrinate our children into believing in fantasies and fairy tales. The bigger criticism should be lazy logical thinking—if there’s a problem, just crack open the alchemist cookbook and whip up a batch of anti-there’s-a-problem-in-the-village serum. At least the existence of Gargamel, an old, powerful nemesis that fills the Smurfs with a near-constant fear of torment and death, injects a healthy dose of how the real world works.

Still, the Smurfs presented a generation of children with a little bit of the best of all worlds. An escapist tale—no one is going to confuse blue midgets in tukes for Johannesburg. Riyadh, or Watts, though some may latently suspect Stonewall—that teaches good manners and kindness to others. Given the other messages the entertainment industry doles out to kids nowadays—“You are smarter than your parents,” “Acting loud and obnoxiously goofy in public is a virtue,” and “You should plan your entire educational experience on the 1 in 40,000,000 chance you’ll be selected to perform on American Idol”—it’s not so bad of an idea. And, at the very least, at least they’re better than the Snorks.

There Goes Another Candidate: Don’t Cry For Me, New Hampshire Edition

January 7, 2008

The New Hampshire primary will be, hands down, the most important event in modern history. Assuming the fact that an inconclusive, grandstanding beauty contest will determine who leads this nation for the next four years.

This, of course is looking from that looking-glass known as Iowa, a complete hash of a race where up was down, right was left, and black was, ahem, white. K, maybe that last one doesn’t fit so well, all things considered. I’ll be frank and admit that I kind of forgot about the Iowa caucuses the day they were held, despite being reminded on what appeared to be two thousand occasions for the weeks beforehand, and managed to catch the reports of who won the contest on both sides, a minor miracle in and of itself what with only about 2% of the precincts reporting.

The complicated and insane primary situation we insist on perpetuating to determine our head of state is such that the national parties—organizations not known to hold particularly rational ideas concerning pretty much anything—tried to force the states to not draw out the campaign for what seems like sixteen years by penalizing their delegate count for holding their contests early, a rather creative solution that had the effect of still having a campaign that lasts about sixteen years long.

Iowa had its share of surprises. Okay, not really. The race between Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton was uncharacteristically tight; most people assumed a walk for Hillary. Unless you were from Chicago, in which it was only natural that Obama was going to win handily. Or if you were from the south, when it was unimaginable that John Edwards would lose. Or if you were from the planet Kryypzleon and thought it inconceivable that Dennis Kuchinich wouldn’t crack double digits.

The real surprise was Mike Huckabee. Huckabee, previously known primarily for his massive weight loss and his ties to elder statesman and policy wonk Chuck Norris, pitched a blend of moral values, tax reform, and Soviet-style populism that must have really sparked the imagination of many an Iowan farmer well-coached in regressive revenue schemes and the particulars of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Either that, or he promised to dump a truckload of taxpayer money into ethanol subsidies, though to be fair I have to assume that if you were any candidate campaigning in Iowa that was already promised.

Next up is New Hampshire, where it is do-or-die time for many candidates. Romney is running in his own backyard, so a substandard showing could derail his campaign. New Hampshire’s large libertarian community may come out in force for Ron Paul, but that group may be diluted by the institutionally insane community in New Hampshire, where Paul may have to split his votes with Thompson. And while Guiliani has largely ignored the state to concentrate on larger bounties, fully aware of the momentum that is fueling the likes of Huckabee, he might like to see some voters turn out that remember both 9/11 and what, exactly, should be done to Jamaican scofflaws when they run afoul of the law, or walk outside. And 9/11.

It’s also notable that there was a caucus between Iowa and New Hampshire—Wyoming held theirs a few days ago. Granted, it didn’t get a lot of publicity, and the fact that Romney won was almost but not quite a forgone conclusion given the state’s proximity to Not South Carolina, where if you have the tenacity to be a Mormon you had best have at least charted “Go Away Little Girl.” And since it held its caucus early, it was stripped of half of its massive delegate count, minimizing its already reduced influence. One assumes that they were trying to convert their tiny, lily-white, single-industry state into a new New Hampshire; this will succeed, of course, when Halliburton opens its new facility in Concord.

Also in Wyoming, the Democrats were going to hold their caucus, but he had a doctor’s appointment that day.

The unexpected results of Iowa have made a particularly bland campaign for the Democrats quite an emotional affair. Hillary was close to tears about the setbacks in her campaign. Crying in presidential campaigns is generally considered a tactical error; Ed Muskie pretty much self-imploded way back in 1972 when he appeared on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader and wept like a scared little girl because someone said he didn’t like French Canadians. It turns out this someone was Nixon, in the form of an anonymous letter sent from the Dirty Tricks Department, which I think in and of itself would make anyone cry.

But, of course, society states that women are allowed to cry, just a little. Right? Maybe not. When Pat Schroeder, a rather shrill feminist congresswoman from the unlikely state of Colorado, dropped out of the 1988 race, she bawled like a scared little girl, crumpling into an emotional heap of hormones and wasted dreams after announcing her withdrawal. Most of America stepped back and said, whoa. How can a woman lead America against Russia when she can barely handle losing to Mike Dukakis?

And, of course, many believe that Hillary, long suspected of being an emotionless husk of a woman, is simply making a rank calculation when she turns on the waterworks. A possibility, of course, but I’m not going to ask. You go right ahead. I like my voice at this octave.

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke Le Cigarette

January 5, 2008

This year began the greatest assault against mankind has been unleashed in the unlikely streets of Paris, Toulouse, and Bordeaux.

Smoking is hereby banned in the nation of France.

News of the smoking ban may come as a shock to most American observers, at least those that don’t immediately skip the International News section of the local paper to see how badly the Knicks got beat last night. Cultural snapshots of the French in the American psyche aren’t particularly numerous, but one of the most indelible ones is that of the erudite French intellectual, sitting in a chair on a sidewalk café wearing a beret and some fruity glasses, sipping a small cup of expensive coffee and smoking a cigarette. That impression, in and of itself, defines the French in American eyes are equally parts distinguished, rebellious, and self-important. And hot, if she’s a chick.

While this may be an unfair generalization of an entire nation, it’s valid because the human race is lazy and wants quick answers to stuff that normally takes effort to research. The French in particular are quite an enigma for Americans, it seems. It’s one of the odder disconnects of international perceptions, really. In theory, France and America have a lot of history in common; they threw in a common cause during Revolutionary times and rarely did international conflicts find the two on opposing ends of the negotiating table. They both had revolutions to solidify the concept of democracy in social life, France’s admittedly being a lot more bloody and prone to heads being chopped off and priests being flayed alive in front of screaming, hysterically orgasmic crowds, and America’s being a bit more about freezing from hunger in Valley Forge. And many felt it was poetic justice that after Lafayette’s contributions to the revolutionary cause at the founding of our civilization, we aided them against Hitler’s blitzkrieg by holding a little sit ‘n’ sip on the beaches of Normandy.

Then something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Perhaps it was Vietnam. The French had it first, mind you, and one suspects a bit of willful blindness when Eisenhower bought the whole mess without checking their feedback rating too closely. (“This Algeria keeps falling apart, many attempts at fixing it will not work; repeated attempts to contact seller failed.”) Perhaps it was the commies; the French were sympathetic to not being caught in the middle and blown up in a vaporizing cloud of nuclear fallout when the US and Russkies traded backslaps, so they figured might as well tip their hand and maybe weasel a 30-hour workweek out of the deal as well. Perhaps it was the Cirque de Soleil.

In any case, France and America seem to have evolved into a love-hate relationship. Americans blatantly generalize the French as unproductive laggards unconcerned with facing up to the real challenges of modern life, having no problem with letting other nations solve the world’s problems while they avoid the costs. France, on the other hand, views America as an imprudent cowboy sloshing around its agenda like an entitlement to stick its middle finger at the world while guzzling barrels of oil and exporting crappy movies to push a capitalistic agenda with such heavy-handed ideological films as National Treasure. Both of these perceptions, of course, are largely right, though one has to make allowances for the existence of Eva Green.

Today, the cultures of America and France often seem to be vastly different in values and priorities. Certainly, a large proportion of this is exaggerated; I’m positive in a chase for a sackful of cash or a quick game of grabass all cultures are equally intrigued. And yet both seem highly dismissive of each other. Americans tend to think of French culture as the bastion of upper-class pretension, with scary, rich, and expensive cuisine and confusingly paced and ultimately bore-ass cinema, though most French movies have an admittedly higher chance of seeing a lot more exposed breasts swaying gently across the screen. The French, of course, are highly defensive about their culture to the point of purging English-influenced words from their language, such as “le hands free,” “le hoodie,” and “le overtime.”

This is particularly odd, since France and America tend to have a lot more in common as leaders of Western Civilization than either think. The differences appear appalling to those undergoing culture shock, but compared to, say, the Sierra Leone, where arson and rape are written into the constitution as “mildly discouraged,” or Kuala Lumpur, where engineering a destructive computer virus or creative a lucrative stock-option scam is A-OK so long as you’re not spitting on the sidewalk, it’s pretty tame. Not enjoying obscure cheese or Disney movies is intellectual chump change when someone in Tokyo who doesn’t spend their business hours looking at tentacle porn is considered out of the mainstream.

Still, with the smoking ban in effect, the French now knows how it feels to have the overreaching iron fist of paternalistic government micromanage the pleasures of everyday life. At least, in this, we stand as brothers.