Saturday, September 02, 2006

Denouement: 8/27-9/2

This week, while you were packing your Subaru for Burning Man, Fosco was

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

From the Annals of Excessive Packaging

Fosco has a thrilling opera season ahead of him, already having bought tickets to not just one but two (Tan Dun! Placido Domingo! Zhang Yimou! Ha Jin!) operas. Serendipitously, Fosco found a lovely pair of 19C French mother-of-pearl opera glasses on eBay.

The glasses are about 3x5x2, and you can see them in this picture:

They arrived today, wrapped in

  • a sealed plastic envelope, packed with
  • styrofoam peanuts, inside a
  • small cardboard box, inside a
  • sealed plastic envelope, inside another
  • sealed plastic envelope, inside a
  • larger cardboard box, paked with
  • styrofoam peanuts, inside a
  • larger cardboard box.
You can see the packaging below:

As happy as Fosco is to have received his lovely opera glasses intact, he does wonder if there was a better way

I'm on fire: Fosco at Burning Man

It's going to be a busy day here at Burning Man. As he writes this, Fosco is sitting inside a shade structure shaped like a giant patty pan squash. It is over 100 degrees and Fosco has a blistering case of sunburn. But it's all worth it: the MAN burns tonight!

Read some other blogs about Burning Man--Fosco is pretty sure that he made out with that Seth guy last night.

Oh wait...

Or maybe Fosco is laying on his couch with a tumbler of iced tea, watching College Football Kickoff Weekend.

Friday, September 01, 2006

As we embark on another school year...

In his peripatetic academic career, Fosco has taught at a range of academic institutions--from top liberal arts institutions to local commuter colleges. Consequently, he feels he has a pretty good grasp of the variance between the top and bottom tiers of college students. Even so, he was floored by this New York Times article. One of the most upsetting revelations was this:

California State set an ambitious goal to cut the proportion of unprepared freshmen to 10 percent by 2007, largely by testing them as high school juniors and having them make up for deficiencies in the 12th grade.

Cal State appears nowhere close to its goal. In reading alone, nearly half the high school juniors appear unprepared for college-level work.

Half of high school juniors are unprepared for college-level work? What in the name of Mavis Beacon is going on in high school? Is it now just a big four-year orgy?

Now, Fosco doesn't want to be a bad liberal or an elitist or anything, but is it possible that too many people are going to college? Of course, Fosco is in favor of everyone learning the necessary math and reading skills to negotiate everyday life. But what if that could be done in one or two-year trade schools? If we stopped requiring a bachelor's degree for entry-level employment, maybe our colleges wouldn't be overstuffed with unprepared students.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

We're here, we're queer, and we're looking for Matt LeBlanc

When Fosco was choosing a college in the early 1990s, how was he to know which university would serve as the best incubator of his latent queerness? All he had to rely on were publications like the Spartacus Guide (pictured left), which strictly speaking, aren't even college guides at all (despite the potentially-misleading cover). Fosco feels for you, his deceived queer brethren, who embarked on a four-year course of study at Rim U, hoping to meet the handsome varsity athlete pictured on the cover of the 90/91 Spartacus Guide. Fosco can imagine your sense of betrayal when, a few years later, you finally find the missing cover boy on "Must See TV" and discover that he is probably not (?) gay.

But now, college-bound queers need not suffer for lack of information, thanks to the The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students.

As Fosco is A) well past college age, B) no longer willing to date high school students (so stop calling, Casey), and C) on a budget, he has no intention of actually purchasing a copy of this guide. However, he is quite curious about its contents, especially concerning his current academic affiliation, his various previous academic pit stops, and his alma mater...

For understandable reasons, the promotional material for the guide is very tight-lipped about the rankings, although they do list the Top 20 (unranked in alphabetical order). Gratifyingly, UCSC is one of three UC schools to make the top 20. There are a few surprises, I would suggest: Duke? Princeton? Clearly the East Coast preppy establishment has changed a bit in the last decade or so (or has it?). I mean sure, Duke used to have an exceptional Queer Theory contingent, but (last time I checked) the school is located somewhere in North Carolina (the exact location is unavailable at press time).

Luckily, local broadsheet Metro Santa Cruz has revealed some of the rankings within the Top 20, and this is where things get interesting. Ranked higher than UC Santa Cruz is... El Ohio State University. WTF?

Now, Fosco is willing to do a little (a very little) research and he has discovered that the campus resources for LGBT students at OSU do appear to be excellent. There is also the fact that OSU boasts the best-funded scholarship program for LGBT students in the nation. Sounds good... maybe even better than UCSC, but what about when you want to leave campus?

When you're a young queer, would you really want to go to a college (even a very gay-friendly college) in a place with

Case closed.

And what of Fosco's Crimsonish alma mater? According to Metro, the Big H
didn't make it into The Advocate's guide at all this time around, partially due to the absence of an anti-discrimination policy that applies to transgender students at the time the book went to press. Harvard has since changed its policy.
Well, that sounds about right.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jonathan Franzen is incredibly... likeable?

Last night, Fosco attended a reading at the delightful independent bookstore Bookshop Santa Cruz. While Fosco is not usually an author groupie, he would have hated to miss an appearance in his town of that most feared literary monster... The Kraken!

Oh wait, not the Kraken. But a creature just as fearful: Jonathan Franzen!

That's right, children: shudder! Your old Uncle Fosco was actually in the same room with the unpredictably cranky bad boy of contemporary fiction. The man who is unafraid to share his unfriendly opinions about the current state of the art. The man who is guilty of the metaphorical equivalent of shooting Oprah in the face. The man whose most recent book has been described by book review empress Michiko Kakutani as "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed" (read the whole sharp-clawed review here).

Naturally, Fosco was excited to see what would happen at a Jonathan Franzen reading. Would he become enraged by a photographer's flash and maul the front row? Would he petulantly storm from the podium the first time an elderly woman coughed into her handkerchief? Would he try to one-up Norman Mailer by doing racist impressions of Michiko Kakutani? Ooooh, Fosco was tingling with excitement.

So were nearly 150 other Santa Cruz residents: book-loving lesbians, UCSC types, the lifelong learning elderly, and some homeless people. The room was packed and the crowd was salivating. Would our thirst for spectacle be satisfied?

Ummm. No. Because the old "evil" Jonathan Franzen has been replaced with a new "extremely likeable" model.

It turns out that Franzen is a regular in the area--he spends three and a half months a year in a cabin in nearby Boulder Creek. Because of this, he knows a lot of people in Santa Cruz. Apparently, he was only expecting his acquaintances to attend the reading, because he seemed genuinely surprised that the room was filled with "people I don't know personally" and he thanked us for coming, calling it "heartwarming."

About the new memoir, he was self-deprecating and humble, noting: "I don't know what to make of it and I'm trying not to apologize for it."

His reading was skillful and he came across as entirely genuine.

After he read, he offered to answer audience questions, which he did for an extended period of time (and quite good-naturedly). Some highlights from his answers:

  • He started summering near Santa Cruz several years ago, because he "saw the pelicans and I was sold."
  • He likes Santa Cruz because "something was bottled from the year I was in 8th or 9th grade and released in quantity here."
  • He considered much of the flap about The Corrections to be "humiliating."
  • His favorite local bird is the California towhee.
How can you not like this guy?

After the reading, he gamely signed books (even signing up to ten copies for some totally RUDE geeks). As he signed my book, we talked about the particular virtues of birding in Santa Cruz as opposed to birding in the Midwest. He was friendly, charming, and seemed to be enjoying the evening.

And now, Fosco is confused. If Jonathan Franzen isn't the monster we've been led to believe, what other conventional wisdom might be wrong?
Ahhh! The world crumbles!

Falafel of Santa Cruz: Mondays without Falafel Always Get Me Down

[The most recent of Fosco's weekly restaurant reviews]

Yesterday, I suggested to my personal assistant Geoffrey that we have lunch at Falafel of Santa Cruz, one of my new favorite restaurants in the Cruz. When we pulled up, we realized that we've unintentionally done this exact same thing the last four Mondays (and only on Mondays).

For some reason, Fosco really craves falafel on Mondays--and not just any falafel.

The food at Falafel of Santa Cruz is excellent. It is probably the best falafel that I've ever eaten (although I've never been farther East than Poland). The gyros are exceptional. The dolmas are good. The tahini sauce is meh, but you can add hot sauce. (And actually, the falafel is so good it doesn't really need sauce).

Even better are the french fries--the best in Santa Cruz.

And how can you beat the Falafel Special?

  • Large falafel sandwich
  • Large fries
  • Large soda
All for $6.75.

There's no atmosphere, but who cares? Take your falafel and go somewhere pretty--I hear there's a beach somewhere in town.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Books might be better than people: Some thoughts on Rick Moody

So there's the matter of Rick Moody. Last week, I was browsing at the exceptional Santa Cruz bookstore Logos when I noticed an attractively-designed paperback copy of Moody's first novel, Garden State. Because I have always meant to read Rick Moody and because I liked the cover design and because I can be a sucker for stories of slacker disaffection (especially right before school starts) and because I thought it might be enjoyable to picture Zach Braff as the novel's protagonist just as he was in the movie adaptation (more on this later) I bought the book (for $7.20 plus tax--an odd price now that I think about it). Now, having read only this novel in Moody's oeuvre, I offer some thoughts about Garden State and Rick Moody.

1. He can be a really good writer. There are some excellent sentences in this novel--epigrammatic sentences, like the one that I've quoted as the title of this post. It certainly encapsulates the question I've been weighing for years (but the "might be" leaves plenty of wiggle room).

And how can you not love a sentence like: "Ghosts were the New Jersey state bird."? Change that sentence to present tense and you have as perfect a sentence about New Jersey as has ever been written.

2. Sometimes good ideas get trapped in really bad sentences. For example:

"Human bonds all broke up, fragmented, shattered, exploded, she thought right then, resolution or no resolution, according to whatever explosives were at hand, and that was what she really wanted to tell Lane, but she didn’t see that it had much to do with him, especially since it was she, Alice, who was a breaker of bonds, a violator of families, a dead soul on the eternal Garden State Thruway of dead souls."

Now there are things I like about this sentence: "Garden State Thruway of dead souls" is a pretty good line. And I like the idea that, while the breaking of human bonds is inevitable, the means by which this process occurs are improvised and contingent ("according to whatever explosives were at hand"). This seems true to me.

However, "according to whatever explosives were at hand" is a pretty clunky phrase. Is "according to" really the right prepositional phrase here? Wouldn't "with" work better?

3. This book would have made a terrible movie. I haven't seen the movie, so as I read the novel, I kept asking myself questions like "how could this have been adapted into a coherent movie?" or "how did the director deal with that scene?" Luckily, as I discovered later, the movie Garden State is not based on the novel Garden State (although some inevitable similarities seem to exist).

However, I do think it is a worthwhile exercise for the reader of the novel to picture Natalie Portman and Zach Braff as the main characters in the book. This improves the likeability of said characters by a full standard deviation.

4. According to (note the appropriate use of the prepositional phrase!) the concordance for the novel compiled by, the word "fucking" occurs in the book more frequently than the word "home." That's hot.

5. I've been stalling, but finally I have to say it: sometimes Rick Moody is not a good writer. This is the paragraph that I hated most in the whole novel:

"She decided to take a sleeping pill. Before she had even finished making the decision she was in the bathroom, over the medicine cabinet. Maybe she liked the sleeping pills a little too much. She noticed how the paint was peeling in the bathroom, along the ceiling, as she swallowed. Back in her bedroom, a house fly made impossible right angles unable to find the inch of open window to freedom. Scarlett set the jar of sleeping pills on the floor beside her bed. Angels smiled on the well-rested. God loves sleepers and those who wake."

But then again, I could just as easily have chosen this paragraph:

"The buzzer sounded. Harsh and unexpected. Scarlett moved the bass and stepped over the television cord dangling between the table and the wall. But then she advised herself to stay put. She snatched up the martini, sipped it, replaced it on the table. She decided to establish the identity of the intruder. She stuck her head, again, out the window. Breezes blew."

[I'm going to ignore some obvious questions, like "was it really a 'jar' of sleeping pills?"]

I don't think that I've chosen uncharacteristic paragraphs to criticize: Moody's style is to write paragraphs like these, with a mix of indirect discourse, free indirect discourse, strangely out-of-place references to other styles of writing (such as the police-report tone of "establish the identity of the intruder" or the religious platitudes at the end of the first passage), plus some ambiguous declarative statements ("Breezes blew"--wtf?). However, he usually does it better. The problem is that when you're trying to manage so many types of discourses, it can be too easy to screw up the tone.

6. Novelist and critic Dale Peck hates Rick Moody a lot.

Peck's entertainingly vicious review begins with the infamous line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"--clearly an exaggeration, as Rick Moody's generation presumably includes Mitch Albom, Neil Gaiman, and (Saints preserve us!) Dan Brown. Hmmm, maybe even Ethan Hawke would qualify... Probably what Peck means is that Rick Moody is the worst good writer of his generation, which is still a pretty powerful statement.

But is Peck right? He does land some punches on Moody, but that's easy enough to do. One of his most accurate criticisms of Moody is that his prose is imprecise. Peck's close reading of the first paragraph of Moody's The Black Veil is like shooting fish in a barrel (although it's pretty funny).

Is linguistic imprecision really a valid criticism of a novel? Do we really want to hold contemporary novelists to that standard? The question that Peck never fully addresses to my satisfaction is the effect of Moody's imprecision: does it prevent meaning or does it actually produce a type of meaning? Or, to put it another way, is Moody linguistically careless or does he know exactly what he is doing? That Garden State managed to produce meaningful and specific emotional responses in this reader seems to suggest that Moody is doing something right, but I will reserve judgment until I read some of his other novels.

You can read the full review here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Creepy Tales from Santa Cruz Past

Here are two spoooooooky things about Santa Cruz that I learned on exactly the same day...

1. In August of 1961, a large flock of sooty shearwaters ate tainted plankton, became aggressive and confused, then flew ashore in the dark, smashing into all obstacles in their way.

Here are some of the best parts of the story, as reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

"A massive flight of sooty shearwaters, fresh from a feast of anchovies, collided with shoreside structures from Pleasure Point to Rio del Mar during the night.

Residents, especially in the Pleasure Point and Capitola area were awakened about 3 a.m. today by the rain of birds, slamming against their homes.

Dead, and stunned, seabirds littered the streets and roads in the foggy, early dawn. Startled by the invasion, residents rushed out on their lawns with flashlights, then rushed back inside, as the birds flew toward their light.


When the light of day made the area visible, residents found the streets covered with birds. The birds disgorged bits of fish and fish skeletons over the streets and lawns and housetops, leaving an overpowering fishy stench."

Of course, the best part of the story is this paragraph:

"The word of the bird invasion spread fast throughout the state. Cameramen from San Francisco papers were out in the early morning fog, and a phone call came to the Sentinel from Alfred Hitchcock from Hollywood, requesting that a Sentinel be sent to him. He has a home in the Santa Cruz mountains."

Two years later, Hitchcock made The Birds. It has been noted that the Santa Cruz incident caused Hitchcock to reconsider his earlier rejection of the eponymous Daphne du Maurier short story as a potential source for a movie.

A freaky story and a charming titbit of movie history, read the full Sentinel article here.

2. In the early 1970s, Santa Cruz became known as the "Murder Capital of the World," as three mass-murderers lived in the county. As the Sentinel rerports, one of them killed woman hitch-hikers because women caused him "grief," while the other two killers appear to have been driven by complete psychosis (one of them killed to "prevent earthquakes"--apparently unsuccessfully).

This story is really interesting for several reasons, especially in the ways that the whole thing was interpreted through the disconnect between hippies and the mainstream culture. In the light of 30 years of subsequent history, hippies have come to seem so harmless (although unpleasantly-scented)--for the most part, people no longer associate the extreme left with murder.

Read the full Sentinel piece here.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of Christopher Sorrentino's Trance, a fictionalization of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and a broader portrayal of that era in American history. The stoners and slackers in Sorrentino's novel are totally recognizable to anyone who has spent significant time on a contemporary college campus; however, instead of organizing drum circles, many of the burnouts of the 1960s/70s organized (using that word loosely) violent revolutionary plots. In our culture, the disaffected youths who don't go to college are no longer interested in politics; and the disaffected youths who do go to college, end up learning to express their political disaffection in diversity skits. While this is certainly to be preferred, aren't there some other options? Can't we be leftists without shooting people or performing activist theater?

Instant Karma

Remember yesterday's post, in which Fosco snottily disparaged less-pleasant climates and mentioned his perfect day at the beach? Well, all of the non-residents of Paradise can be pleased that Fosco has received his comeuppance for his weather-related haughtiness.

The picture below is not a photograph of two-thirds of a carton of curiously-hairy Neapolitan ice cream; rather, it is a picture of Fosco's upper thigh taken this morning:

Note the stark demarcation between the skin that was covered by Fosco's shorts yesterday (generally known as the groinal approach) and the skin a bit farther down (known today as ON FIRE!).


Fosco plans to spend the rest of the day as he did the morning: alternating between whimpering and smearing himself with aloe gel. Cooling aloe gel...