The Blue Raccoon

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Literary Devices

A few days ago one of the cats that owns me objected to my reading of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues and with a strong paw knocked it into the upstairs commode.

Hey, I was reading that!

Flannery shrugged, grinned, and sauntered off with big furry shoulders rolling in pride.

The book was still dripping when I wrapped a towel around it and hustled, like a medivac triage doctor, to splay it open on a basement radiator. A few days elapsed, I retrieved the book. Wrinkled, yes, and somewhat rougher in texture, and my marginalia are smeared making them slightly less legible than they were already.

But Reservation Blues is in good condition and resting comfortably back on the radiator/reading matter shelf of the upstairs bathroom. And I’m almost finished. Compelling read, by the way. Thank you, Mr. Alexie. (Born 1966, younger and greatly more published than me -- Good on him!)

But this situation put me to thinking about several items that this week piqued my curiosity/sense of failure. I am a despairing aspiring novelist whose arduous effort may come to nothing, and even if a book is produced, the goddess knows if by then the preferred delivery system will be a physical book except as an expensive collector’s item.

Readers are rushing out by the millions to delight in shiny new objects like eReaders. But what would happen to an eReader if a Flannery variant chose to demonstrate his/her valuation of the work, and motor skills, by shot-putting the hapless volume into the toilet? Think on this while we amble along a little further.

• Item: Michael David Lukas’ apparent staggering work of genius is The Oracle of Stamboul. Its exotic historical locale and origin story -- a photograph found in a Constantinople junk shop -- sounds right up my tale-sprung-from-antique-object alley, except that my assorted insecurities were rankled by the piece about him on NPR.

An artist is not his interview, and we’re all trying our best, but. Says he worked for seven years (I have two decades down on three failed books so far, thus, I sympathize though only a little because, well.)

During this time, Lukas hustled between graduate school, grants and some odd jobs to keep himself out of the daily workaday grind and write. Yes, the sound you hear is my rising frustration and envy.

Martha Woodroof writes, “Halfway through, Lukas says, he "ended up having a crisis of the lean years and [starting] a career in socially responsible business." This, he discovered, while fine for others, was not fine for him. "During that time, I learned how hard it is for me not to write — and how hard it is to write with a full-time job."
So, it was back to full-time writing, funded by whomever Lukas could shake support out of and whatever paying work fit into the corners of his writing days. "I was asking people for money essentially all the time," he says. "I'm really, really thankful for all those people who work at organizations and foundations that give money and support to writers."

At this point, I wanted to toss from the office window my accumulation of writer self-help and inspirational guides and go learn a trade, just like Dad helpfully advised in my stubborn youth. ("Dad, that's not what I do. I'm going to be a writer." As if that settled anything.) But a nearing on 50-year-old reinventing himself as a plumber or an HVAC specialist doesn’t strike me as good use of anybody's time.

If I was able to shake this affliction that spurs me to write -- above and beyond my steady and often demanding journo job -- I would. Any story you can write possesses possibilities for greatness. The tantalizing gap is between ambition and the ability to bring clarity to what's going on in the mental movie house. How may I better excel as a projectionist?

I reflect on a piece by Stephen Marche in the February Brooklyn Decker issue of Esquire. [Photo by Yu Tsai] The title: “Is James Frey The Most Important Writer In America?” The nut graph: “He's an arrogant opportunist who wants to take advantage of talented young writers. Basically, he's exactly what the publishing industry needs.”

Marche explains how Frey – “a refugee from the great decade of American fraud,” a spot-on line -- but -- come to think -- isn’t every decade a great one for American fraud? – has stepped into the current tumult of publishing with his own Full Fathom Five publishing house. He gets young writers to “coproduce’ works of adult fiction that they can say they wrote, but he controls it and he grabs up to 70 percent of the royalties.

Marche continues, emphasis mine: “Frey, at least according to some, trolls the M.F.A. programs in New York rather the way pimps in movies troll Penn Station for farmers' daughters, but I hesitate to judge his plan. The truth is that anyone who spends $40,000 a year to be taught how to write by writers who cannot make a living by writing, or who imagines that fairness and common sense have anything to do with the publishing industry, could probably use a lesson in how life really works.”

• Item: This season’s literary gothy brunette is Amanda Hocking who as the self publisher of a series of hot-right- now genre fiction, is today a millionaire.

She’s as surprised as anybody.

Hocking tapped into a hot market trend: mystery, romance, other worldly shenanigans. And good on her! If I could figure out a way to write such material I would, but she already is, and it isn’t my bailiwick.

I’ve not read her work thus cannot speak to its worthiness. But, who the hell cares what I think? USA Today, the nation’s paper of record at this juncture of the dread latter days, says 20 million people read e-books last year and many would-be authors seeking validation of readership have gone the route of self-publishing.

Mark Corker, founder of Smashwords a self-publishing firm, writes on the HuffPo, “The Author Uprising Against Big Publishing” “Do authors still need publishers in this new world order?” posits Corker. “ I think it all goes back to my first question. To survive and thrive, publishers big and small must do for authors what authors cannot or will not do for themselves.”

But I must raise my hand. I write each workday in a mostly professional manner. I get up, walk to my office where at my wreck of the Hesperus desk, I try to make some sense of the mess I've made. I am thankfully edited by not one but sometimes two or three others. Sentences get parsed and tweaked – at times, to my annoyance – but we tend to work it out.

The collapse of megalithic publishing, along with its stultifying stodginess and clubbiness and frustrating sense of professionalism, a-hem, means that a certain lack of expertise is getting flushed out. Among my tasks at work is to fairly frequently give overviews of books. I’ve seen more and more volumes released with little errors, nicks in tense, grammatical goofs, that in my shop would’ve received big red circles before going to press. Nowadays, there’s a burgeoning cottage industry of laid off editors offering themselves to those self-publishing types.

But the point of self-publishing is to avoid all those restrictive rings that keep them away from selling the thing. Used to be that a killer for self-publishing was distribution. Many bookstores wouldn’t carry self-published books. Few outlets reviewed them. Now, you can avoid not only publishers but bookstores. Blogs by the bushels full have sprouted up to extol/review these misfits that aren’t in the accepted canon of reviewing.

Lord Chesterfield said to let blockheads read what blockheads write. But that was the 18th century, he was a snob and his little aphorisms survive on Wikiquotes.

Item: Another life and world ago, Frank Rich was a founding editor of the Richmond Mercury, a weekly liberal investigative journalism tab. Then he went off and spent more than three decades at the New York Times, reviewing, essaying, caviling, annoying.

These days The Grey Lady is getting ragged around the edges. Newspapers drift politically and editorially as they stumble in the swamps from hummock to hummock where their possible extinction awaits. Writers are drowning and those who aren't are jumping in canoes and rowing. (Where are they paddling in such haste? Over the rapids? Into the cybersphere? They can't know for sure.)

Rich is heading to New York magazine -- and good on him! He wrote in his exit letter: “After seventeen years in my second career there, as a columnist, I feel much as I did after nearly fourteen years in my first, as chief drama critic—both the satisfaction that I’ve given a great job all I had and a serious hunger to move on to fresh and expanded writing challenges after having done the same assignment for so long.
... It was impossible to top the idea of reuniting with my friend Adam Moss, who has played a crucial role in my writing life since the late 1980s and who, as editor of the Times Magazine, was instrumental in my transition from arts criticism to broader essay writing.
The role Adam has created for me at his revitalized New York Magazine will allow me to write with more reflection, variety, and space than is possible within the confines of a weekly newspaper column—and, for that matter, will allow me to stretch the definition of a magazine column.”

H’mmm. Stretch the idea of a column – like to 6,000 words? (I laugh, because I’m truly guilty). But, he’s saying: Life’s too short. Why persist in doing something I don’t love if I have a viable alternative?

Meanwhile, the New York Times magazine has poetically jettisoned The Ethicist and Questions For columns. My Sunday expedition to fetch the Times from a Carytown store was as much a part of the ritual as reading it.

That phase has passed.

To procure a Sunday times I must hike to a chained convenience or supermarket to buy it and, well, the paper stacks up that must be recycled. (Reading it online doesn't come without a backend price: the electricity that powers this computer likely comes from mountain-top removed coal, the computer parts were perhaps made by Chinese or Indian children poisoned by soldering the circuit boards, etc. -- and, so, I ask, where's The Ethicist now?)

An archivist friend of mine gave me a bookmark from Biff's , a former Carytown institution that became Carytown Books and it's where the Playn'Trade video game store is now. Biff's was famous for its magazine, selection, book groups, Kelly Justice, and Gus, a cat famous for living at the time of the Pharoahs, who then decorously died while still on mouse watch.

Prior to Biff's the place was Beacon Books, something of a hipster hangout in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I believe the store sold jazz records, too, if I'm not conflating my stories.

Beneath the deco Biff's emblem is the phrase, "Books For Knowledge & Pleasure." That about covers what their job description, doesn't it?

Finally, I’ve spent a considerable time here quoting what other writers have said about writing and publishing while kvetching about the shortcomings of my own aspirations. Fact is, to write, a writer sits down and uses the personally preferred instrument to transcribe the voices in his/her head. These notes fill pages and then clot computer memories. Maybe a book comes out of it, maybe not, and if it does, people may read it or not, and these days, there’s ever more reasons not to. I plant books around my house to read them; but I now have an iPhone, too. Shiny objects.

Thing is, the power goes off, the batteries run out, I still have my warped volume of Sherman Alexie, published by the Grove Press in 1995 (Now Grove/Atlantic).

And see how the once-sodden, dried out pages resemble the rings of a tree. (
Where the pages originate, as living tissue, before ever meeting with the writer's exclamation that he, too, is alive!). The thickness of the rings indicate the tree's health during seasons of wet and drought.

All I know is, I can turn these pages until the end. That is a small but satisfying thing in a world alarmingly lately bereft of them.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Blue Raccoon Returns! Sort Of, Not Really

Greetings, billion-eyed audience.

Miss me?

I've heard your clamoring and wails of disappointment when you've come to this musty corner of the Interwebz in search of your BC fix. What you find is that same fake seductive image of the late sad tragic Chandra Levy, and the sad tragic awful image of a mass grave of Filipinos killed by our side in the hostile takeover of their home.

Yet you have scooted my way from all corners of the globe; brought by some kind of offbeat search that doesn't land you where you want, so you stick around for mere seconds -- though somebody on Feb.24 parked here for a whopping six minutes close to the wee small hour of 4 a.m. The visitor went to the August 2007 entries. A distant innocent time, when I was all up in the Duncan-Blake suicides.

This image, by the way, was taken by a piece of technology about which I knew next to nothing in December 2009 when last I posted: an iPhone. I took it a few days ago at the Virginia Commonwealth University Anderson Gallery. This was for its appropriate year-end/holiday period exhibit, "The Nameless Hour: Places of Reverie, Paths of Reflection." This was a group exhibition of with a theme of contemplation out of which comes inspiration or realization. The title came from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Reverie.

I grabbed the above self-portrait amid The Sound of Red Earth, light and sound sculpture by Stephen Vitiello with lighting design by Jeremy Choate. In the third floor galleries one room was hung with blue neon where rushing water sounds played, and the adjacent space with red light. You could walk among and around the dangling beams in a playful way, or just stand and listen. The red room featured sounds of animal life of the Australian Outback, which is where he went to capture the aural landscape. In another room, a video documented his journey to a remote part of Australia and how he recorded the sound. The experience was positively synesthetic.

So I've been away for a long while for the most part because blogging is for me something of a mystery. I don't have a gimmick and unless there's a book out, I'm not selling anything, nor am I technically proficient enough to either renovate this site or start another one. And if I did, why would I? I blog three days a week on another network. That pixel-punishment is conducted during business hours thus technically I'm getting paid and even edited, which, frankly, makes it better than otherwise.

Another outlet that I didn't know about in December 2009 was Facebook. This method of communication has varied as an obsession and an annoyance for more than a year. It's wrapped around my life, and I don't know that it's all benign. I don't mind the restrictions of the Status Update box. With abbreviations and other foreshortening of language I manage to make fit most of my observations -- or those from whom I crib.

Twitter isn't for me because I'm neither famous nor exciting, unless "Just completed successful BM!" is Twitterable, which, with variation, much of that stuff seems to be to me.

I'm also in yearlong novel-writing workshop. Which is what I should be doing right now: either working on mine, or reading/commenting on the writing of classmates. Regardless, between the writing, reading and devouring other published novels, there's not much of me left over.

I dislike coming across blogs that have stopped without warning. I think of an incredible image from Tom De Haven's Derby Dugan series. ""Derby on a train. Snowstorm. There's a maniac. Derby's in a desert. There's a cactus. A cow skull. Derby's in a rowboat..."

It's in the third book, Dugan Underground, when the 1930s's era comic strip suddenly ends -- in the middle of a baseball game. Derby stands on the mound ready for a ball that gets closer and closer but, like Zeno's paradox, it never comes across the plate. The final caption is, "WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?"

I don't know.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009


The above image came from Arnaldo Dumindin's online history of the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. I think of this conflict for several reasons, as the last granules of 2009 and the 21st Century Aughts slip away. The image at left is the unfortunate Chandra Levy.

First, I'm reading historian James Bradley's "The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire."

The book describes Teddy Roosevelt's effort through his Secretary of War William Howard Taft who was dispatched in 1905 on a Pacific cruise. The voyage resulted in secret and unconstitutional treaties that caused our engagement there and laid fuses for what ignited the Pacific Theatre of World War II, an almost every major conflict following, resulting in tens of millions dead.

It was the culmination of the "White Man's Burden" philosophy that guided the U.S. westward, "following the sun."

Quoting the U .S. military commander Gen. Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur's father), Bradley "pointedly describes a too familiar situation. “General MacArthur described a depressing quagmire where the U.S. Army controlled only 117 miles out of a total of 116,000 square miles, a hostile country where Americans could not venture out alone and a shell-shocked populace whose hatred for their oppressors grew each day,” he writes. “The Imperial Cruise” is all too persuasive in its visions of history repeating itself."

Well, as Mark Twain -- who opposed this imperialist gambit -- observed, history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

If you don't believe it, look the recent headlines. It's chilling.

There's a familiar scene at the end of Charlie Wilson's War in which Wilson tries to get Congressional appropriations for building schools in Afghanistan. It's a powerful glimpse into why we're there now -- because of the mess the Soviets left, and how our covert assistance helped dislodge them and ultimately cause the collapse of Communist rule. But an exasperated Wilson, when told he can't get the money, says this is what always happens. We go in and change the world and then we leave. 'We always leave."

That's a bit disingenuous. The U.S. today maintains bases in Germany, Japan and Korea, and we're still in Central Europe following the horrors of Serb-Croat atrocities and civil war.

In fact, and these are 2004 figures, the "Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories."

There's a bit more up-to-date information here.

We invaded the Phillippines for little cause, after buying the country for $20 million, and then unsatisfied with Filipino administration and courts, decided to go and slaughter them into our way of doing things.

Of course, we did the same thing to Native Americans, and a photograph reproduced by Bradley in Imperial Cruise of native dead in a trench at Wounded Knee, bears startling resemblance to the one shown above, that also appears in the book. Mark Twain complained of U.S. imperialism, but wouldn't admit that we did the same damn thing to the Indians. And then there's the whole slavery thing. But facing fault there would cause the nation to admit, like the Fonz, that it was w-w-w-r -wr-wrong. There's lately come various apologies for various crimes and errors on our part, but of course, this doesn't help the 600,000 Filipino war dead. Or the millions of Indians wiped away. That we weren't any better than other colonial powers of the period is a difficult view to take.

This is tough reading.

I think of all this, too, because we are at the end of the Aughts. They started with anxiety about The End of the World -- remember Y2K? Then came 9/11 and that wiped away the Chandra Levy Washington D.C. murder mystery and the threat of killer sharks.

Now, at the end of the Aughts, there's still anxiety about the end of the world, with real and imagined fears of nuclear potential in Iran and Korea, and terrorists. Following 9/11, there was supposed to be a new serious to the media, but instead, thanks to TMZ and millions of blogs, no, we're instead distracted by narcissistic party-crashers at the White House and Tiger Woods' peccadilloes.

There's been a whole slew of movies about the world ending in various ways from comets to zombie-causing plagues. Seems like every other program on the History Channel is about decoding Nostradamus or the Bible or some other hidden mystery that indicates the end is nigh.

Conspiracy theory has become a kind of civil religion. The political world is wildly divided and toxic. One side regards the other as some form of alien life form. (Indeed, some people believe they really are from out of space, or inside the Earth)

And the people who believe this stuff breed and vote.

Anyway, the Teens of the 21st century look more and more like the beginning of the 20th.

Happy New Year. I'm going to get a few stiff drinks.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The New Sensation

The image of this smiling, arms-raised young woman is more than a century old. She is Evelyn Nesbit, arguably one of the first mass media sex symbols and the template for all the pathetic, tawdry scandals that followed in her wake. She was featured both in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, the movie in which Elizabeth McGovern won an Oscar nomination portraying her, and the popular musical of the same name. And she was one of my early fascinations.

In the waning months of 2009 there've been the deaths of beautiful women who've died before the generally accepted actuarial eventuality. This has occurred to me personally, and generally.

I offer to you the words of Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell from his 1909 novel The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking. These concern the death of a pretty and vivacious young woman.

"You see the world had advanced since Stella died, -- twice around the sun, from solstice to solstice, traveling through I forget how many millions of miles; and there had been wars and scandals and a host of débutantes and any number of dinners; and, after all, the world is for the living.

So we of Lichfield agreed unanimously that it was very sad, and spoke of her for a while, punctiliously, as 'poor dear Stella'": and the next week Emily Van Orden ran away with Tam Whately; and a few days later Alicia Wade's husband died, and we debated whether Teddy Anstruther would do the proper thng or sensibly marry Cecilia Reindun: and so, a little by little, we forgot our poor, dear Stella in precisely the decorous graduations of regret with which our poor dead Stella would have forgotten any one of us.

Yes, even those who loved her most deeply have forgotten Stella. They remember only an imaginary being who was entirely perfect, and of whom they were not worthy. It is this fictitious woman who has usurped the real Stella's place in the heart of the real Stella's own mother, and whom Lizzie de' Arlanges believes once to have been her sister, and over whom Peter Blagden is always ready to grow maudlin; and it is this immaculate woman -- who never existed, -- that will be until the end of Avis' matrimonial existence the standard by which Avis is measured and found wanting. And thus again, the whirligig of time, by an odd turn, brings its revenges...."

..And I? Well, I was very fond of Stella. It would be good to have her back,-- to jeer at me, to make me feel red and uncomfortable and ridiculous, to say rude things about my waist, and indeed to fluster me just by being there. Yes, it would be good."

And, thus, the year ends and takes away those who were loved and whose memory, though piquant and near now, will in time fade. As will we all.

Who will remember us? What will they write? What will they make of us, a century on?

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Via Wikipedia.

We Interrupt This Blogpost To
Prevent World War I.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month some 91 winters ago; distant from us across a scorched earth of memory and events; known because of black and white photographs and some herky-jerky moving images and yellowing newspapers -- back then, the most horrendous enterprise ever undertaken by humanity concluded. The First World War came to an exhausted finale.

The statistics for the catastrophe are enormous and numbing: an estimated 37 million dead and maimed. The war settled little and returned in a new and improved guise 21 years later.

The horrors of World War I was but the prequel for Duby Dubya Deuce that swallowed whole around 65 million. If we throw in that science now guesstimates that the Great Influenza of 1918 incubated as an avian flu variantin northern France's trenches -- and that that pandemic may have killed between 20 million to 100 million from August 1918 to March 1919--we can pile those incomprehensible figures on top of everything else.

So we're talking ballpark about 110 million people dying as a direct result, or through disease, from both conflicts.

This is like dropping a rock down a well and never hearing a splash. We cannot comprehend in a meaningful way such unspeakable amounts of death.

I've spent far too much time and effort contemplating a separate reality where the historic World War I didn't occur. If you go
here, and scroll down, you can see. The causes of that cataclysm were hydra-headed. Gavrilo Prinzip lit a fuse when he bumbled into assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. You can go to Strange Interludes Part the Second to read more.

I asserted then that our history would be better off if the Wilhelmine Germans and the so-called Central Powers had triumphed in the fall and winter of 1914. But I've reassessed. Consider how during the first four months of the war, on the Western front alone, the combined casualties of Britain, Belgium and France were 570,000. Germany suffered about 200,000.

That's too many. Too many wives to have lost husbands, too many children to be deprived of fathers, too many first blushes of young love extinguished. These numbers are an affront and insult to life itself. Yes, Heraclitus the Cynic observed that struggle is the father of all things; but bettter that be accomplished through challenging poses of the Kama Sutra than across the churned up moonscape of Flanders.

And so I take a step into mist-shrouded fantasy. I ask for your indulgence, and to consider this: how at almost each turn, the assassination by Serbian state-allowed terrorists of Austria-Hungary's heir apparent could've been prevented. Even to the last. If Gavrilo Prinzip had just eaten his lunch at another deli, the Archduke's discombobulated motorcade would've ridden off into the Sarajevan dust. The random quality of this single occurrence just causes one to shake the head in disbelief. It's almost like Prinzip was being guided on a wire.

World War I--as it occurred in our history--was avoidable, or it could've been mitigated into a Balkan region conflict such as were flickering and disturbing the peace as they'd been since 1912.

Boundaries on the Balkans after the First and the Second Balkan War, 1912-1913.

Consider how Austrian chief of the general staff and primary war planner, Baron Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf wavered on July 29, 1914, about going to war with Russia. He thought he could settle the score with Serbia first. He figured he'd have two weeks before Russian intervention.

Further, Hotzendorf's German equivalent, Helmuth von Moltke believed on the morning of July 30 that Russian mobilization didn't mean Germany needed to mobilize in support of Austria-Hungary. By the afternoon, Moltke's mind was changed--maybe because he'd learned that Hotzendorf's preoccupation with Serbia would leave Germany's ass in the wind. Moltke was counting on supporting Austro-Hungarian movement in Galicia. But the two generals, supposed allies, didn't really talk much prior to the war. When it all came down, these two be-medaled boobs were swept up and tossed aside.

Matters were further muddied by official German diplomatic messages urging Austro-Hungarian restraint regarding Russia, while Moltke urged otherwise, confusing the easy-to-confuse Hotzendorf who said flat out he didn't want to be blamed for igniting a general European war.

One August 1, 1914, Europe teetered on the edge of international war. As historian Harry F. Young summarized in his recounting of that fateful day: "Austria had opened fire on Serbia; Russia had begun to mobilize the troops; Berlin’s ultimatum to St. Petersburg would expire at noon; France was prepared to support her tsarist ally; and so far England’s efforts to mediate had failed.”

Kaiser Wilhelm signed the order to commence German war preparations. A short while later, Wilhelm was given a dispatch from a German diplomat in London that indicated the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey had promised, "England would remain neutral and would guarantee France's neutrality" if Germany didn't attack France. Wilhelm convened a meeting of his top brass and popped champagne to celebrate.

The specter of a two-front war was dissipated. Germany could go on the offensive in the East and remain on the defensive in the West. Von Moltke, summoned to the meeting by a harried messenger, was flabbergasted. He and the "All Highest" argued as the general insisted the Schlieffen Plan had a schedule to keep. The single-front mobilization plan was, he said, out of date. The trains couldn't be called back. If they were, the troops sent east would arrive in a higgeldly-piggeldly pile of bodies and equipment too unorganized to present an effective force.

The Schlieffen Plan was holy writ to Moltke -- for the most part because he'd never countenanced an alternative. He was a technician, not an artist, and imagination wasn't his strong suit.

The preposterous concept of a quick knock out of France in one campaign was his motivating idea. Nothing else mattered. Moltke contemplated of the next war with the last war's strategy; armies had grown so large that attempting such massive movements wasn't humanly possible. Though he didn't know it, Moltke needed tanks and brigades of motorized troops. These didn't exist in 1914.

The Kaiser bellowed at Moltke, "Your uncle would've given me a different answer!" This was a sharp cut; he was referring to "Moltke the Great" who, with Bismarck, unified Germany into an empire.

The younger Moltke must've known that plans to send the armies to the East were worked on through 1913, and with typical German efficiency could've been yanked out of their diligently maintained files and put into play. German railroad officers received as rigorous training as soldiers. A staff officer who'd worked on these plans would later prove -- on paper at least -- that almost with the flip of a switch, the Germans could've transferred up to four armies to the east within days. But the German Railway Office wasn't consulted: instead, history's great moment came down to a pair of fatal neurotics getting red-faced in Berlin, who, were they in civilian life, would've been suitable for running a deli.

Moltke quite simply didn't want to deviate from the schedule. He seems just to have wanted to get it over with. War was inevitable; let it come. This meant violating the neutrality of Belgium, and tripping the wire to get Britain involved.

But the Kaiser didn't want to hear a refutation of good news. If conflict with France could be prevented, Germany needed to make the effort. A messenger was sent flying to the forward units edging toward Luxembourg: stop in your tracks. Don't transgress the border.

As happened, though, the whole thing was an an
apparent confusion by the Anglophillic and fluent English speaker Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, the German envoy in London -- "The Misunderstanding of August 1." Lichnowsky loved England's ways, but his homeland, too, and a telephone conversation with the obtuse British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, left him with the impression that a ruinous conflagaration engulfing both of his favorite nations could be avoided. He'd cabled the Kaiser: Wait, hold up--we can turn this thing around. There's been debates about this so-called misunderstanding ever since.

Prince Lichnowsky seems to have misinterpreted Grey's circituitous phrases--what the foreign secretary had actually said was that he could guarantee Germany against attack by France if Germany would promise to attack
neither France nor Russia.

There was no way, of course, that Britain could
assure French docility. The incident, however, points out Moltke's over-reliance on a plan that really wasn't much better than a table-top exercise that rolled over neutral Belgium and guaranteed British mobilization, and didn't solve the Problem of How To Take Paris. In fact, within a few months of the extent of the horrendous miscalculation becoming quite visible in both the exhausted soldiery and massive body counts, Moltke would remark that the choice to invade France--which hadn't fired so much as a popgun at Germany after Sarajevo--was a terrible mistake.

It is doubtful France would've remained idle if Germany had turned the brunt of its power against Russia. The nation could now revenge the humiliation of Sedan and 1870. Or, would some how a diplomatic angle get worked; that of making a Alsace-Lorriane an autonomous division of Germany? Better diplomacy than mad policy -- except nationalism in Europe was in the air like a dog whistle, calling the nations forward, lerching them into collision like zombies driving in a demolition derby.

Consider the
Titanic, built by this same Anglo-Teutonic Civilization, one that believed in such a thing as a ship that couldn't sink. Her Captain Edward J. Smith was at the helm of a vessel that in size and scope surpassed his experience. She had the latest technological innovations, but not enough lifeboats due to concern both about concern and appearances. No boat drills were held. After the iceberg was struck, no general announcement was given, word spread like gossip, although steerage passengers, engineers and those luckless post office clerks knew the ship was in dire trouble.

And later, when the "Spanish Influenza" began claiming thousands of lives at a rate not known since the bubonic pandemic of the 14th century, the civil and religious authorities of 1917-1919 at first thought that such a thing was impossible in their advanced technological age. These were the people who considered the 1914-1918 cataclysm "The War To End All Wars."

Von Moltke was hung up on his pre-conceived plans and wouldn't deviate from them. But they were faulty, and relied on a knock out one-two punch by armies too large to actually encircle and destroy, much less move at inhuman speeds to undertake such endeavors. He had to learn that himself, in time, and by then, it was too late for him and Europe.

So my solution?: A time traveling SWAT team. I send this out to any who would be able to conceive of such.

On May 9, 1911, 10 men meet in Belgrade to form a secret organization
Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), which becomes known as The Black Hand. This is the most radical branch of another secret organization brought together on Oct. 8, 1908, Norodna Odbrama, "National Defense."

A number of members were Serb army officers. Their stated goal was to realize a Greater Serbia by any means necessary, which meant political assassinations. This meant the destabilization of Austria-Hungary. None of them on May 9 understand what their shenanigans will end up causing.

By 1914 the group blossoms into some 2500 members organized in grassroot cells of 3-to-5 members.
Cell members didn't know much about what was going on outside their sub-groups.

The Black Hand obscures the boundary between it and National Defense, and supplants the older group. The cells were directed by two levels of committees, the top being a 10-member committee chaired by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known also as Apis, The Bee. His personal courage was undisputed, but his zealotry and ruthlessness knew no bounds. Even the Serbian prime minister feared Dimitrijevic--for he could just as well lead a coup against the present Serb government if it stood in the way of his plans.

Team Stop WWI, using bio-electro-chemical means, zap the 10-member "Black Hand" May 9, 1911 gathering with a shot of "Road to Damascus." Maybe it's triggered by something in their drinks, food, even an airborne agency. The 10 are afflicted by physiological seizures. Their brains spark and pop as synaptic firings alter. They scream, laugh, weep. They transform into Scrooge on Christmas Day.

A few go starkers. Drooling, naked crazy. A couple may kill themselves on the spot in a fit of ecstatic realization. The Bee could be one of these, or, he understands now he must work for a diplomatic solution. That'll end up getting him killed by the haters he's helped stir up (in fact, Dimitrijevic got shot in 1917 for treason).

This mind-altering experience of a few key players won't stop war, but delay the conception, and perhaps prevent the grinding death machine of the Western Front trenches and the horror of Galipoli. Likewise not to occur as in our history, would be the nonsensical drawing of Mesoptamian maps by the British and French. Their meddling-- and the world's ravenous need for petroleum-- is one of the reasons our reality today is threatened by constant conflict from that region.

In the spring of 1914, the elderly Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was quite ill with pneumonia and expected to die. His successor, Franz Ferdinand, was preparing for assuming the role and that meant making some modifications to the system. Team Stop WWI Now uses its techno-magic to hurry Franz Joseph into a death that would come some 30 months and too much later. This may split up Austro-Hungary, but, so what? It was going to fall apart one way or another.

No World War I, no World War II, no Holocaust, no Soviet pogroms, no
Rape of Nanking, no "Great Depression," no radical Islam as it is understood today, a different development of nations in Mesopotamia, Africa and Asia -- and no Hogan's Heroes.

This changed reality still leaves Britain and Germany in a naval arms race, a truncated Russia with German satellites--through economic support or otherwise--in the Ukraine, along the Baltic and with the Kingdom of Poland, providing buffers between the German Empire and nationalist Russians. There is a revanchist France, perhaps in the altered worldline, more like Franco's Spain. Another spate of conflict is inevitable. Anybody who has ever played the elementary strategy game of Risk, and squabbled over Europe, can tell you that.

Perhaps Russia moves to reclaim
Belarus, a chafing German client state, and at the same time, France launches across the border again to get its licks in, sometime around 1920-ish. The U.S.--a different one than what we know because there wasn't a World War I for it to stretch its superpower eagle's wings--would sit and read of the distant events at the family breakfast table.

Germany and Britain come to blows over colonies and control of Mesopotamian oil interests. Maybe a version of
Jutlandoccurs, but under different circumstances, and another result. And, because there's no repression of Jews, all those European scientists and intellectuals and artists stay home. Abstract Expressionism isn't exported to New York. The laurels of European culture is wrested from Paris, where it was sliding anyway, to Berlin.

In this altered world, perhaps it is the Germans who split the atom, and the Germans who perfect rocketry, among other technolgical innovations. A "Cold War" might exist between whatever Germany evolves into and the whatever Russia becomes, but it's anybody's guess whether in this altered world if the nuclear standoff would've led to a Space Race like the one that caused John F. Kennedy to make the bold statement of sending a man to the moon and returning him to Earth. The Maltese Cross banner might've gotten shoved into the lunar dust, not Old Glory.
"Das ist ein kleiner Schritt für einen Mann, ein riesiger Sprung für Menschheit."

The inhabitants of such a world wouldn't be any less venal or more gracious than the world we are condemned to inhabit. Those residents just have a different set of problems to complain about, and keep them up nights on blogs that few if anybody ever reads.

The sad part is, that even if this "zap the Black Hand" option could be played, I wouldn't enjoy any of the benefits. Not in this "worldline" where I dwell. Some other Harry Kollatz Jr., sitting in his version of a cluttered Colonial Ave. Richmond, Va., office, would be pondering another batch of "what-ifs." Or, at least, that's one theory.

Whatever the case, get working on this problem of World War I, you future historic circumstance-altering humanity-loving scientists, on this 11th day of the 11th month. Make the past an alternate future for somebody today!

A rare World War I aerial photo, taken at a height of 150 meters by a French photographer, shows French troops on the Somme Front launching an attack on the Germans. (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives) Via History Place.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Girls Are Back --
Is There Going To Be Trouble?

Yes, billion-eyed audience, here they are again. Many of you long-time listeners already know the story. But, for those of you who don't: this image was taken, and not by me, at an exhibition opening several years ago at the vanished
Three Miles Gallery and this space, and the adjacent one, is today the bustling Tarrant's Café.

Richmond's First Fridays Aftwalk begins its new season in earnest tomorrow evening. You can see it all in colour here. Here at the Blue Raccoon, these young women are emblematic of the social verve and creative energy -- a Dyonisian jumbalaya, well, not in the radical True Blood way -- that First Friday Richmond represents in ye olde Richmond Towne.

This pair of Richmond lovelies display the classic duality of Greek tragedy/comedy, and the predicament of existence, and how in general conditions are one or the other -- depending who you are and where your viewing booth is.

But is the representation of enjoyment that seems to unnerve some people. Or at least, after eight years, suddenly the civil administration here gives the appearance, anyway, of being shocked, shocked! to see art galleries on Broad Street, and droves of people trooping in and out of them. This, too, is reflected by the haranguing of corner preachers on milk crates with PA systems who are persuaded that wine and cheese are the gateway drugs to hell.

The fear and anxiety was portrayed in the current issue of the city's weekly tab.

As often happens, the comment train following the article is more illuminating - and for bad reasons -- than the article. Like a particularly bad morning on C-SPAN, the snipes and quips aren't so much directed at the issues raised but bent on grinding particular axes or slapping around artists, whom even in 2009 in Richmond are viewed with suspicion as potential subversives and condemned as useless drains. Never mind that without the arts schools and institutions devoted to them here that Richmond would just be another whistle stop on the way to Atlanta. I'm beyond fed up with people who a) Don't read articles all the way through and b) Comment with knee-jerk responses to a headline, picture or captions. This is why we as a civilization in decline: lack both attention and discipline. So there, corner preacher, stick that up your righteous indignation.

And so there are belligerent, bullet-headed nihilist hipsters who'll profusely and obscenely decry Richmond as some kind of portal to, I don't know, boredom or hell or hellish boredom but that's because they insist on wanting Richmond to be New York or L.A., or any other place that it is not. Let Richmond be Richmond, and if you're not willing to roll up your sleeves, expose your baroquely tatted forearms and do something constructive, then why are you here anyway? In a way, these types are just as annoying as that street corner preacher who is just there because he likes to hear himself preach or the suburbanites who, from the safe distance of the cul-de-sac, toss their grenades of ignorance and fear. And their shrapnel unfortunately sticks in all of us.

Which gets me to the presence of uniformed officialdom that was meandering among the galleries during August's First Friday, with their clipboards, clickable pens and curious expressions. I understand the need to monitor safety regulations for buildings, without question.

However, there is a way to do things. Can we not go to the spaces and look at them before they are packed with people to see about proper egress and lighted exits and such? You do want to see them under the times of most stress, too -- and that doesn't make city officials bad guys, but, there should be a better, less invasive way.

So. I guess we'll see.

Some of the highlights I intend to hit:

Little Creatures, a 1708 Gallery satellite exhibit at the historic Linden Row Inn and curated by my personal Grand Louvre, Amie Oliver. The show features sculpture, painting, drawing and photography inspired by animals and the natural world.

For more information on the artists please visit the links below:

Joan Gaustad:

Leah Jacobson:

Rob McAdams:

Jamie Pocklington:

Gordon Stettinius:

Rob Tarbell:

Paul Teeples:

Another show I've quite desirous of seeing is Thomas van Auken's exhibition, sponsored by Art 180, at the Schindler Satellite Gallery at 8 W. Broad.

I snagged this image from van Auken's Facebook. I enjoy his confident lines and Germanic textures. Figurative work has had its ups and downs in terms of general acceptance these days. VCU tends toward the Abstract-Expressionsits, and around the country, drawing itself isn't considered as important.

So it's great to see somebody who somehow not only learned to draw but paints, too, and the overall effects are pleasing and even sometimes a bit startling.

I'll be buzzing into Ghostprint, Gallery5, and Metro Space Gallery, too.

I'll see you on Broad or nearby, on Friday.

We shall return to Phil Gotz's tour of Richmond during the weekend.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond...And What I Found There Part X

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces and cable television appearances detailing five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The savvy and sharp Tia Chulangong provided to Gotz as a guide from the city's hospitality bureau provides color commentary about Richmond sights and history. Tia, however, informs Gotz that Jennifer Royce, his novelist ex-wife, is in town on a book tour and through a scheduling error booked into the Jefferson Hotel where he is, too. The writer and his guide enjoyed a travelogue experience from the rooftop terrace of the Jefferson. Gotz observes the city's bosky streets and plentiful green and open spaces, lack of automotive traffic or parking lots, the preserved historic architecture and the exile of high rise office and residential towers to the outer edges of the central metro. Tia leaves him to enjoy his first evening on the town. While reveling in the atmosphere of the chic boho estabishment of Monrovia, in Monroe Park, and t the sounds of the house band, Deadly Nightshade, he happens into Jennifer and their encounter is less than cordial. Out of sorts, Gotz heads downtown to the club Mongoose Civique.

(Image: via The Vault. All other images via Middleburg Trust.)

The more progress he made up Ninth Street the greater distance between him and the jazz on Gallego Plaza that faded into the noise of a busy city. Gotz fumbled for his cell phone. He pushed in Tia Chulangong because she said he could, and she was his guide. And he needed guidance just now. The phone rang several times until her voice, warm and professional, said, "This is Tia Chulangong of the Richmond Visitors and Conventions Department. If this is media related, please don't hesitate to leave a message. I'll get back to you."

Standing at Ninth and Main, Gotz said, "Tia, this is Phil. I'm calling because...because I'm actually getting ready to go into Mongoose Civique and didn't know if I needed to know anything, ah, special."
He shoved the phone into his jacket pocket and turned left on Main as the familiar clarinet smear from Rhapsody In Blue caused him to bring it out again.

"Guess where I am?" said Tia, sounding more mischievous than Gotz anticipated.

"I wouldn't even try."

"Right outside Mongoose Civique."

A pause.

"What about those Cruel Aztec Gods."

"Oh, we went, and then I saw some girlfriends there and we decided to come out here. We're not staying long. You and I have a busy schedule planned!"

"I know I know...but listen...I'm intrigued enough to know what the inside of this place looks like..."


"There's a line."

"You've got that all access pass around your neck."

Now he stood before 821 E. Main St. an imposing, Trajan triumphal-arched bank building, the former Virginia Trust Company, as the incised letters proclaimed.

"Does this big guy at the door know what this means?" he fingered the plastic card.

"Yes, all the doormen know that special pass. Anyway, I'm standing right here."

Gotz shoved his hands in his pockets and passed by a line of dressed-to-party youngsters and approached the red velvet ropes. The bald man in black wearing a wire at his ear turned hard dark eyes onto the card as Gotz held it up. He motioned Gotz on. Tia stood beside the door wearing a baring red dress.

"Fancy meeting you here," Gotz said.

Thumpa thumpa thumpa music pounded from deep inside.

"We're up on the mezzanine, if you'd care to join us."

"I'd love to."

They passed through the double glass doors and Gotz was immediately in a swirl of partiers, like any hip club, from Goa to Aspen. But seldom had he seen such vigorous entertainment pursued
under gold-encrusted coffered ceilings with rosettes inside. A large lit clock affixed to the mezzanine level marked the advancing hours into the dwindling night. The huge room was dim, music geared to cause hip-shuddering and the bar clingers leaning into each other's ears to be heard.

Up in a calm eddy of the party in a corner of the mezzanine among sleek lounge furniture sat a pair of Tia's friends; Capriana Umana, a stunning African American woman in a purple and pink floral dress and the bobbed blonde Ainslie Groth whose wide bared shoulders made Gotz want to lay his head down on one.

They shook hands and Tia efficiently made introductions all around: Capriana, from Atlanta originally but studying urban planning at Ginter U; Ainslie had something to do with regional sports promotions. Richmond's National League Virginians and the NBA Cardinals gave the metro a chip in the "quality of life" game. Gotz, wherever his assignments and expense account took him, tried his writerly best to figure out a different way to explain. And the only way to know the place is to be in the place, and hear the roar of the crowd when the popfly goes up, like this club where he felt lascivious just walking in; and that was comforting.

"So Capriana, why did you choose Ginter?"

She laughed, big, tossing her head one way. "Well, this is the place you come to for my field, In the country. This is where I wanted to come; because Richmond works, and it's good planning put in motion. And I love it."

"You don't have to impress me. Honestly. Why did you come?"

"Ah," and she looked at her confederates, who laughed with her. Ah, Gotz, said, he so enjoyed the music of unified female amusement.

"It's got a killer club scene," she said.

"Damn straight," Ainslie affirmed as she brought up her martini glass. To Gotz, her green dress seemed like a candy wrapper containing all that sweetness.

"I swear I didn't put them up to his, Mr. Gotz," Tia said, raising a hand. "This is how they really feel."

"Well let me ask you this. I took one of those bubble-things to get here. I've read about them, but it was kind of interesting. A little strange. Even for me. What do you think."

They cried out together, as though scoring the highest in a game, "Ped Pods!" Tia crossed her arms, pointing to the women on either side of her. More laughter.

"They have to answer that."

"I'm a Three T girl," said Ainslie, stirring her olives.

"How's that?"

She counted off on fingers. "Tram, train or taxi," she laughed. "I don't like talking to my transportation."

Tia explained how the Pedestrian Pods were the primary cause for the foundering of the hugely popular Mayor Jack Chataigne who'd served Richmond with a Periclean duration of 30 years. There wasn't really ever a candidate who can stand against him; from an old Richmond family and VMI-trained, his wit, self-deprecation, diplomatic skills and constant moving about the people, returned him to city hall every four years. Chataigne advocated for such late 1980s projects as the extension of the Kanawha Canal trips into Goochland and the Byrd Park Pumphouse Canal Museum that wouldn't have gotten through their embryonic stages without his guidance. He got legislation passed guiding residental requirements for varying economic levels in the towers outside of the center city, led the charge for massive improvements in the schools, roads and riverfront, and more efficient delivery of social services. The Virginians stadium on Mayo's Island is called "The Jack."

"But the Ped Pods killed him off, politically," Tia said.

Capriana shook her head. "What happened to Jack was just wrong. More than wrong: stupid. I mean here he is, the truly, the highpoint, the absolute of what Richomnd is supposed to be about. This city won't find anybody else like him. I mean, he's in the history books: you look up "Good Mayor" in the dictionary, and there's his picture. For real."

Her frown was deep and sincere and Chataigne's abrupt dismissal struck Gotz as though it personally offended Capriana.

The Ped Pods were expensive and experimental at a time of a tight budgets, Tia went on to say, but more importantly, loathed by the taxi driver's union. The compromise measure was that the Ped Pods would run as a four-year pilot project primarily restricted to downtown circulator routes. And that was what got Jack voted out two years ago.

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