Hanif Kureishi on the Kama Sutra

Hanif Kureishi on the Kama Sutra in the Guardian, great piece!

It suggests that the gentleman should keep away from lepers, malodorous women and anyone with white spots. It is arch, comical and amazing – less Byron and more the sort of thing that Jeeves would have said to a priapic Bertie Wooster had Bertie been Indian and PG Wodehouse without the sense to omit sex from his books. It states, for example, that “intercourse with two women who have good feelings for each other is known as the ‘combination’. The same with many women is called ‘the herd of cows’.”… If it turned out that the woman was also consulting a similar manual then the two characters in this drama would be playing roles that would ensure they’d remain outside the experience. Both would be in a fixed place and the relationship would merely be an exchange of fantasies….Like Alfred Kinsey’s reports at the end of the 1940s and early 50s, the Kama Sutra tries hard to turn passion into science.

A genuinely useful self-help guide to bearing pleasure might have to contain advice about putting up with the envy, contempt and hatred of oneself as well as of others, along with any self-disgust, guilt and punishment that may follow. It would be an education in determination and ruthlessness and, to a certain extent, in selfishness and in forgetting….It might be important to recognise that our pleasures have to be guarded from our own aggression, much as our freedoms are.

R.I.P Owsley Stanley/ Kid Charlemagne

Another great NYT obituary, this one for Owsley Stanley, “Artisan of Acid:”

Owsley Stanley, the prodigiously gifted applied chemist to the stars, who made LSD in quantity for the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Ken Kesey and other avatars of the psychedelic ’60s, died on Sunday in a car accident in Australia. He was 76 and lived in the bush near Cairns, in the Australian state of Queensland.

Owsley Stanley, left, with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead in a 1969 publicity photograph.

Mr. Stanley, the Dead’s former financial backer, pharmaceutical supplier and sound engineer, was in recent decades a reclusive, almost mythically enigmatic figure. He moved to Australia in the 1980s, as he explained in his rare interviews, so he might survive what he believed to be a coming Ice Age that would annihilate the Northern Hemisphere.

Once renowned as an artisan of acid, Mr. Stanley turned out LSD said to be purer and finer than any other. He was also among the first individuals (in many accounts, the very first) to mass-produce the drug; its resulting wide availability provided the chemical underpinnings of an era of love, music, grooviness and much else. Conservatively tallied, Mr. Stanley’s career output was more than a million doses, in some estimates more than five million.

He briefly attended the University of Virginia before enlisting in the Air Force, where he learned electronics. He later worked in Los Angeles as a broadcast engineer for radio and television stations. He also studied ballet and for a time was a professional dancer.

I am not sure if I knew of Stanley… probably I’d read references to him but they didn’t stick.  As is typical of NYT obits, this contains some amazing/weird/funny little details.  My favorite:

Mr. Stanley remained with the band off and on through the early ’70s, when, according to Rolling Stone, his habits became too much even for the Grateful Dead and they parted company. (He had insisted, among other things, that the band eat meat — nothing but meat — a dietary regimen he followed until the end of his life.)…

Mr. Stanley, who became an Australian citizen in the 1990s, was treated for throat cancer in 2004. In the Rolling Stone interview, he attributed his survival to his carnivorous diet. (A heart attack he had suffered some years earlier he ascribed to eating broccoli as a child, forced on him by his mother.)

Wow.  Of all the things mothers get blamed for, this has to be one of the most unfair.

I was fascinated to learn that Stanley is the “Kid Charlemagne” of Steely Dan’s fantastic song (which Kanye West samples on “Champion”):

Amazing lyrics: “Did you feel like Jesus/ On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene/ But yours was kitchen clean/ Now your patrons have all left you in the red/ Your low rent friends are dead/ All those dayglow freaks who used to paint the face/ They’ve joined the human race…/Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail/ Those test tubes and the scale/ Just get them all out of here/ Is there gas in the car/ Yes, there’s gas in the car/ I think the people down the hall/ Know who you are…You are still an outlaw in their eyes”

Well, chalk up a Steely Dan lyric that used to be absolutely opaque to me that now makes some sense.  Now it can be added to the ranks of great songs about drug dealers: “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Doctor Wu”, “Pusherman”…actually can’t think of too many more offhand but I’m sure there are a lot.

NYT Magazine redesign, letters section

So, the New York Times Magazine has done a big redesign.  I am one of those diehard NYT readers who are always slightly dismayed by the paper’s redesigns, no doubt partly out of sheer conservative attachment.  In this case, I can see some good things about it.  I’m happy to see the “What They Were Thinking” feature back, I always enjoyed that.  And today’s Lives column was one of the best I remember (really touching!), which may be related to its apparent origins in some kind of spontaneous online posting; it doesn’t have the slightly contrived feeling that these little life stories can sometimes have.  (Novelist Jennifer Egan’s profile of Lori Berenson, the American who spent 15 years in a Peruvian prison for abetting terrorists, is superb, but this doesn’t particularly relate to the redesign.  I am a fan of Egan’s generally…)

But.  I am appalled by the rethinking of the Letters page.  “Reply All”?  Really?  That’s the new name?  And “letters” — or rather, a random assortment of mostly online verbiage — by the likes of “Worried,” “T.S.,” “@Dedmo” and “Drduck”?

I’ve always considered a letter published in the New York Times to be an authored publication.  I had one published a year or two ago, and I was delighted.  The fact-checking procedure was rigorous: you have to prove that you are who you say you are.  They’re throwing that tradition of substance away for “Reply All,” bits of anonymous chatter and tweets and comments on Facebook pages (!) by people or rather online presences with @ signs before their  names?  The Letters section is now essentially a curated online comments thread?  This seems like an imitation of the New York Magazine feature that excerpts highlights from blog/online commentary about magazine content from the previous week — although that works really well, in part because it’s not pretending to be a letters column.

Maintain some dignity, please!  Very unhappy about this… May have to fire off a letter of complaint, or maybe this is my “letter”?

Of course, I’m sure the NYT got letters along these lines when they first introduced a separate sports section, or whatever.  But still.  You have to draw the line soemwhere.

Newspaper Obituaries/ Tom Rachman’s *The Imperfectionists*

Sometime over the last few years I started to appreciate the New York Times‘ obituaries for the first time.  I started reading parts of the NYT at a pretty young age but I don’t know that I ever made it through an obituary in my youth, unless perhaps for someone like John Lennon.  My new interest in the genre must have had something to do with getting older myself, although I have to say that I think it’s less about that or anything morbid than appreciating the obituary as a concentrated little life narrative.  I’ve never done this, but I’ve considered bringing in some examples to a class, perhaps with wedding announcements, as a way to think about life narratives and their conventions and forms.  The NYT ones are usually little gems, filled with surprises, twists, and wonderfully vivid and odd details.

Today has an especially good collection.  (Or at least, these are the ones in my Sunday paper — of course now the concept of “today’s paper” is mutable.)  The longest one is of Poppa Neutrino, “an itinerant philosopher, adventurer and environmentalist… who founded his own church, crossed the Atlantic on a raft made from scrap and invented a theoretically unstoppable football strategy.”  He invented “the Neutrino Clock Offense, a system of secret hand signals, based on the face of a clock, designed to let passer and receiver communicate while a play is in progress. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Pearlman was unable to persuade any college football teams to adopt it.”

Also on the page are Eleanor Galenson, a psychoanalyst who revised Freud’s accounts of the origins of sexual identity and concluded “that children make the discovery of genital difference between the ages of 15 to 19 months, and that this has an impact on their play, their relationship with their own bodies, their relationship with their parents.” Also Bernd Eichinger, screenwriter and producer of many films including the Hitler film Downfall, criticized by Wim Wenders for generating a “kind of benevolent understanding” of the Nazi leaders by virtue of seeing the world through their perspective.  (Maybe a missed opportunity here: why no mention of the Downfall internet meme?)

And finally — in some ways this is my favorite kind of obituary, a mini-biography of someone one is guaranteed never to have heard of before — an account of the life of Milton M. Levine, who made his fortune on “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm,” over 20 million of which have been sold since he invented it in 1956, inspired by the red ants at a July 4th picnic.  The obit concludes, “I found out [the ants’] most amazing feat yet… They put three kids through college.”

There’s a neat story or section in Tom Rachman’s excellent novel The Imperfectionists about the writing of an obituary.  This novel revolves around a broad cast of characters who worked at various times, from the 1950s through the present, for an English-language newspaper in Rome; Rachman worked at the International Herald Tribune so I presume that’s the model, although the novel’s paper seems maybe like a more second-rate version of the IHT?  The book reminded me a little of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad in its revolving/expansive/overlapping cast of characters.  It’s not as innovative as Egan in its use of this structure, however, perhaps a bit more like Winesburg, Ohio or (a more recent example) Olive Kitteridge.

The novel has a bit about a journalist with a flagging career who’s been assigned to do “preparedness” for an obituary of a forgotten Austrian feminist of the 1960s and 70s: “preparedness” meaning the research a paper does ahead of time for a potential subject of an obituary.  A potentially awkward situation, of course:

[N]othing is worse than obit interviews.  He must never disclose to his subjects why he’s researching because they tend to become distressed.  So he claims to be working on ‘a profile.’  He draws out the moribund interviewee, confirms the facts he needs, then sits there, pretending to jot notes, stewing in guilt, remarking, ‘Extraordinary!’ and ‘Did you really!’  All the while, he knows how little will make it into print — decades of a person’s life condensed into a few paragraphs, with a final resting place at the bottom of page nine, between Puzzle-Wuzzle and World Weather.

I won’t give away how it turns out, but the experience is surprising in various ways.

The novel is a valedictory love letter to print journalism and simply to print itself in its pre-internet forms.  This passing detail from the final chapter, about one of the book’s more peripheral characters, nicely captures that mourning and the sense that from our perspective, 1950-2000 or so feels like an era, an era of print’s gradual decline, not understood until close to the end:

Winston Chang, after a period of sleeping in his parents’ basement, found work at an exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota.  He adored the job overall but disliked lining the monkey cages with newspaper — even the sight of headlines made him panicky these days.  However, this was not to bother him for long: the local paper folded, and he switched to sawdust.  Soon, even the monkeys forgot the comforts of newspaper.

E.S.P. for naked ladies

I found this NYT article, “Journal’s Paper on E.S.P. Expected to Prompt Outrage,” pretty hilarious.  I had just finished a fascinating New Yorker article about unreplicable experiments, “the decline effect,” unconscious experimenter bias, and other problems leading to seemingly false or misleading conclusions in scientific research, and this E.S.P. research seems a perfect example.

This was the funniest part:

In another experiment, Dr. Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph; the other curtain hid nothing but a blank screen.

A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

So everyone has E.S.P. for pictures of naked ladies???  Only the “more talented” can tell the future when the future does not involve nude photos??

Since the phrase “naked ladies” appears twice in this post I fully expect it to be my most-popular ever.  Also, that people from the past, especially teenage boys, will employ E.S.P. to sense it and will then be bitterly disappointed when they click through. Sorry boys!– enjoy the image of flying guitars…

Cranston Stop Signs

This article cracked me up.  It is so Rhode Island/Providence (Cranston adjoins Providence).  It turns out that of the 2500 stop signs in Cranston, about a quarter of them are unauthorized.  Rogue stop signs.  People just put them up, I guess.

No one is sure who put them up or how to rectify the problem… Mr. Livingston said it was likely that some residents put them up without permission; Mr. Cipriano said former mayors might have circumvented the City Council and directed that the signs be put up as a way to curry favor with constituents…. The city is now trying to figure out what to do with people who recently received a ticket, Mr. Cipriano said. Some believe that a judge could vacate the citation if it was issued within the last year.

Some people in New England think Providence is just a charming little city with two good universities and excellent restaurants, but it’s a deeply corrupt place.  (Yes, I’m annexing Cranston into a Greater Providence).  When I lived in Providence, in an apartment on Wickenden Street, my landlady had this awful, creepy handyman who I was never thrilled had a key to my place.  One day his photo turned up on the cover of the ProJo — turned out he was a city cop who had been receiving bribes in some ornate kickback scheme involving something about police escorts for parades (?) if I recall correctly.

It’s just a somewhat lawless, do-it-yourself kind of town.  I can completely envision local mayors and city councilmen paying off constituents owed favors with stop signs for their street.  There’s probably at least one garage that specializes in manufacturing forged signs.

The funny thing is that I now wonder if a rogue Rhode Island stop sign may have played a role in the only significant car accident in which I’ve ever been involved.  I was driving my old rust orange Tercel shitbox, R.I.P., with our friend Mike, coming back from the liquor store where we’d gone for some beer, I think.  This may have been 1996 or so.  All of a sudden we slammed into what turned out to be a very expensive Jaguar.  The Jaguar got one scratch; my Tercel’s right axel snapped in two.  I pointed out to the cop (not my handyman) that the stop sign I’d run was nailed to a tree and, because of all the snow in the road, was yards away from the street and hard to see.  I think he bought it, because I never seemed to get any insurance penalty for the accident.

Now I’m convinced that this was a totally unauthorized sign some Providence old lady with connections had gotten her son to nail up on the tree.  Vindicated!  I now consider myself to have a perfect driving record going back 15 years.

Midwestern Smurfers

Always good to see the excellent P.R. for Indiana in the NYT:

With Cars as Meth Labs, Evidence Litters Roads

ELKHART, Ind. — The toxic garbage, often in clumps, blends in easily with the more mundane litter along rural roads and highways here: used plastic water bottles, old tubing, dirty gloves, empty packs of medicine. But it is a nuisance with truly explosive potential, and evidence of something more than simply a disregard for keeping the streets clean…

Law enforcement officials in several states say that addicts and dealers have become expert at making methamphetamine on the move, often in their cars, and they discard their garbage and chemical byproducts as they go, in an effort to destroy evidence and evade the police.

Wow, cooking meth in a moving car!   SO much worse than texting!

A friend (let’s just say that the frogs think of him as Dr. Moreau) comments, “You need to get with it: community gardens are so ’00s.  Mobile meth chefs and their smurfer guests are at the locavore cutting edge.”

An 8-year-old and an Uzi

It kind of surprises me that this story emerges from outside Boston, MA:

December 5, 2008

Police Chief Among 4 Indicted in Boy’s Death at Gun Show

BOSTON — A Massachusetts police chief, two Connecticut men and a gun club were indicted Thursday in the case of an 8-year-old boy killed by a submachine gun he was firing at a gun show.

The boy, Christopher K. Bizilj of Ashford, Conn., accidentally shot himself in the head while taking his turn with a 9-millimeter Micro Uzi on Oct. 26 in Westfield, Mass. He was accompanied by his father, an emergency room doctor, who, the authorities say, had chosen the Uzi for him to fire.

Massachusetts law generally makes it legal for children to fire a weapon if they have parental consent and are supervised by a certified instructor. But that does not apply to machine guns, which may not be fired by anyone under 18.

“There is no exception that would allow a machine gun to be furnished to an 8-year-old, with or without parental consent,” said William M. Bennett, the Hampden County district attorney, who obtained the indictments from a grand jury.

The accident occurred at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo, held at the Westfield Sportsman’s Club. The show was sponsored by COP Firearms and Training, which is owned by Edward B. Fleury, the police chief in Pelham, a western Massachusetts town of some 1,400 people about 30 miles from Westfield.

More details:

At a news conference where he announced the charges, Mr. Bennett said Dr. Bizilj (pronounced bah-SEEL) had chosen the Micro Uzi for Christopher to shoot because it was small and, the father thought, would therefore be easier to handle.

“He did not realize its small size actually made it more dangerous,” Mr. Bennett said, adding, “Although it might appear a heavier or longer weapon would be more dangerous, the small size of the weapon together with the rapid rate of fire made it more likely that an 8-year-old would lose control and the muzzle of the weapon would come close to his face, which is what happened here.”

As he fired, Mr. Bennett told The A.P., Christopher was supervised only by a 15-year-old.

Easy mistake to make, I suppose.  Those Micro Uzis look perfect for little kids.  Can you get a Bratz Baby[z] with a Micro Uzi?

OK, I guess this blog is starting to turn into a Concerned Parent forum, I better come up with some other topics…

Last Days of David Foster Wallace

Excerpt from Rolling Stone article: The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace.

Last night I had some time to kill and went to Borders, ended up reading this whole long article about D.F. Wallace.  It’s very sad — he’d suffered from chronic depression, including hospitalizations, since high school or so.  The suicide itself was far from a surprise; it had followed an earlier attempt, and he was in terrible terrible shape in the final months, trying to adjust to a new medication regime.

This is from a short story he published in an Amherst College literary magazine as an undergraduate:

You are the sickness yourself…. You realize all this…when you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face. That’s when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they’re “severely depressed;” we say, “Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!” That’s wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts…. When they “commit suicide,” they’re just being orderly.

When I heard about his death, aside from sadness, I had a strong feeling of disappointment and of having been cheated of what he would have written in the future.  But this article suggests that his depression was so overwhelming that it was not clear he would have ever been able to emerge from it well enough to write another novel.  (Although perhaps he just never received the proper treatment and it could have been different.)

On a more light-hearted note, the most amusing detail in the article (not in this excerpt) is that he went through an Alanis Morissette obsession in the early 90s (I think) during which he had a huge poster of her on his wall.  This succeeded long Melanie Griffith and (get this) Margaret Thatcher obsessions.

Here’s a NY Times article about a recent service held for Wallace.