Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Remembrance of John Ditsky, friend, mentor, poet, professor

The news of John Ditsky's death came to me with a distinct Ditskian lack of drama: A friend sent an email message saying our beloved writing teacher had passed away on Monday, May 15. No other details. As vague and understated as the man himself.

In the English Department course calender for the University of Windsor, I once read that John Ditsky's poetry had received over 1,400 acceptances. An amazing number. That wording always intrigued me; sort of rankled me in its lack of specificity. I had always meant to joke with John, saying, "Did you write two poems that were each accepted 700 times?" but never got around to it. Maybe he wrote one poem that was accepted 1,400 times -- a feat much more difficult (albeit bizarre) than writing and publishing 1,400 poems.

If not for that entry in the course calender, I might not have known John wrote at all. He never spoke of his work, and dodged questions about it. He taught writing -- or rather, oversaw a creative writing seminar -- and American literature. Once in a writing class a poet -- with a tenuous grasp of her native language -- tried conveying the ecstacy a character experienced when she "had" an orgasm. As the rest of us jousted with the gnarled language of the poem, John, in his typically understated, darkly comic way, informed the poet that people do not have orgasms, they achieve orgasm. He said that in 1991, and I made a mental note of that fact.

John was a tall, maddeningly thin man -- at least to me who packed on the pounds slamming pints and jamming back sandwiches at the campus pub -- with the most improbably deep voice. He spoke softly so I never experienced the full power of his voice, though I imagined it powerful enough to easily break a man's ribcage. Although he had an excellent sense of humor, John was slow to laugh. His natural shyness coupled with his intensely introspective nature often left uncomfortable silences in the midst of conversations. But his laugh existed. I had heard it. And it was a prize: part bellow, part bear-roar, and wholly capable of expressing without words just how much he enjoyed a good joke or bon mot.

One morning in the Department of English a fellow grad student was explaining to me and John about the lagging attendance numbers in the Expository Writing classes she (and I) taught. My classmate said she resorted to threatening her students with deducting 1% from their final grades for every class missed without a valid excuse. To which I said, "If I could do the math, I'd threaten like that, too." There was a momentary pause as John slowly smiled, and then filled the hallway with his sonorous laugh.

There was an afternoon when John gathered with about a dozen of his students at the campus pub before an English Department party. We drank pitchers of beer, played songs on the coin-laden jukebox, and vied for John's attention. His conversation was sometimes sparse, answering lengthy questions with a single word. At one point someone mentioned hearing in the news that NBA star, A.C. Green had publicly admitted to being a virgin. In the hush during which everyone digested this morsel of news, I feigned disbelief and said with all of the gullibility I could muster, "But he played for the Los Angeles Lakers!" My statement was greeted with derision and people explaining to me that one could play for the Los Angeles Lakers and still be a virgin... Then John laughed. He got it. And slowly, so did everyone else.

John's academic specialty was the work of John Steinbeck. I had heard from numerous people that John was, in fact, one of the foremost Steinbeck scholars in the world. In one of my creative writing journals (a course requirement submitted quarterly for grading) I asked John what exactly was it about Steinbeck's writing style that made him so great. John wrote back, "I never said Steinbeck was a great writer." Vintage Ditsky. I mulled that one over for... well, until this day.

For all of his personal awkwardness and vague remarks that were the hallmarks of chats with John, he was a man of incredible good humor and encouragement. It was a quiet encouragement, but it was there, and it was steadier and more reliable than more vocal forms with which I've been in contact since my days in the English Department. I took two writing courses with John and a number of American literature classes. I was one of the few students who missed few classes. Unfortunately, I don't think I was the friend to John that he was to me. I never raised my hand once in his classes -- or any of my other classes. Convinced I would only utter the painfully, ridiculously obvious about any given subject, I sat back and took notes, and contributed nothing. Even when hollow silence followed one of John's questions in class, I sat there feeling his pain, but doing nothing to relieve it. I can't remember if I ever offered him a cop-out or apology or an explanation for this. Had I been in his shoes, I'd have wondered just what the hell was wrong with me. But it was never an issue with John.

He was kind enough to have me over to his home in Detroit a few times, showing me his massive book and record collections. It took years, but he owned hardback editions of nearly every one of his favorite books -- and there were thousands of them. As for his records, they were an intimidating presence in his sitting room where we retired to drink cans of Milwaukee's Finest. When I noticed the gray metal card catalog on the shelf, I asked John if he kept the albums in alphabetical order, or by genre. He seemed puzzled and said, "No, they're organized by serial number." And he was serious.

John generously read and commented on every piece of writing I ever gave to him -- and I submitted thousands of pages of writing for his perusal. I never had a feeling that he much cared for what I wrote, but I valued his opinions, which always centered on concrete problems in the writing. His advice was sound and helpful. As second reader on my masters thesis, John used his question time during my defense to make a statement about how much he enjoyed my work. Of all the times and places he could have done that, he chose the absolutely perfect, most meaningful venue. He ended his statement with an embarrassed laugh and said, "Well, there's a fan letter for you."

After graduation, I remained in touch with John via letters. I typed mine on a word processor and he composed his on an electric typewriter. No matter what I asked him in my letters, I never got more than a couple of paragraphs out of him. But, being a poet, those paragraphs resonated until his next letter arrived -- and usually beyond that. At some point I stopped writing. I know it was me because John was as reliable as clockwork -- if you sent him a letter, you got one in return. So, I still owe him one.

John Ditsky was a good friend and an invaluable mentor to me. He tolerated my foibles, silently beared my hangovers, listened to my bluster, vitriol and sad antics, and never held any of it against me. John's death is a violent shock to my heart's neighborhood. I had no idea he was ill; have no idea what brought about his death. But I'm damned sad that he's gone.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Stephen Colbert's brilliant monologue and dreadful press secretary audition

It's really quite fitting and funny that the objects of Stephen Colbert's brilliant monologue at the White House Correspondents' Dinner simply will not concede that he was funny. The media, neo-cons, and all around establishment have been telling us that "black is white" "up is down" and "wrong is right" from a position of power for the past six years. Of course they're now saying that Stephen Colbert wasn't funny. The reason speaks more about Colbert's detractors, and pinata-shattered targets, than Colbert as a comic and satirist.

Colbert eviscerated Washington's sacred cows at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. One after another, he lobbed verbal hand grenades at George W. Bush, as the Oval Office squatter looked on with the grim face of a barroom tough guy past his prime. A bully who's all bull now. Colbert interspersed his onslaught on BushCo by lashing its enablers -- the lethargic, flaccid, gutless lapdog press. One of the most stinging moments came when Colbert said:
But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
Of course these self-important, self-congratulatory-masturbatory sycophants gaped at Colbert in offended-distended silence. And there were laughs. The exact kind of laughs any real comedian wants to hear -- the reluctant bursts of repressed laughter one might hear in church or funerals or anywhere laughter is not permitted. Laughter that breaks through. Those are the laughs I relish.

And we've got people like Richard Cohen at once trumpeting their "hey, I'm a funny guy!" credentials, while in the next breath dismissing Colbert's monologue as missing the mark. No, Richard Cohen, et al, are simply, inadvertantly revealing their allegiance to the sacred cows. Of course they didn't laugh. Of course they won't admit to Colbert being sniper-precise in his attack. Richard Cohen was probably expecting Jay "Dorrito-shucking-asshole" Leno to lead the cheers for BushCo. Sorry Richard.

One thing I can't figure is when Colbert played his "news conference audition tape." It was an audio tape [CORRECTION: The audition tape was, in fact, video, but I thought it was audio because C-SPAN did not direct their camera at the screen, but focused on George W. Bush], not video, and it was interminable. Sure, it was great hearing psuedo reporters asking "Why did we go into Iraq?" and Helen Thomas' nail-'em-to-the-floor question, "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds to Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?" But overall the audition tape was too damned long, too many sound gags that didn't translate. The only thing I can figure is that after his brilliant monologue why he would make such a misstep. I think it was calculated. The entire time the tape played the C-SPAN camera was pointed at George W. Bush. Bush looked as though he was approached by a poor person, so sour and bewildered and blinking was his expression. I think Colbert was simply twisting the knife he had so deftly placed in the center of Bush's nervous system. He wanted to see if Bush would get up and walk out. Bush didn't, so he had to listen to all the question he never wanted to hear the first time around.

Colbert was damned funny. His performance was one of the bravest, most biting satirical attacks I've ever seen or heard. He made all the right heads roll.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Must See Documentary on 9/11 -- LOOSE CHANGE 2ND EDITION

MUST SEE DOCUMENTARY: Loose Change: 2nd Edition

Considering the myriad varying opinions about whether or not Stephen Colbert was "funny" at the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner (he was dead-on funny and sniper-precise in his delivery and content), ideas about what really happened on September 11, 2001 in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania, are exponentially divergent. I watched the WTC towers fall in real-time from an office in Southfield, Michigan; my nervous went incandescent with horror at the sight.

Having read widely on the subject of 9/11 and having viewed several documentaries expounding upon different theories or aspects of those attacks, I'm familiar with much of the current thinking (pro and con to the "official" version of events). Still, this documentary revealed details I had never before heard. Such as:

* graphically demonstrates with computer models some of the "war games" coincidentally scheduled on 9/11 that diverted military resources away from NYC and Washtington, D.C.

* visual comparisons of the damage to the Pentagon on 9/11 with airplane wreckage from Texas on November 22, 2004 when a private jet intended to pick up George Bush senior flew so low that it, too, struck lamp posts before crashing. Although the situations are very similar, the amount of wreckage and physical damage to surrounding landscape are not remotely the same.

* FBI Director Robert Mueller's admission (of which I had never heard) that authorities really had no proof or concrete idea about the identities of the alleged highjackers who overtook the doomed planes on 9/11.

* eight and-a-half minutes into the film a telephone interview with Hunter S. Thompson plays as footage of the damage to the WTC is shown. I own more of Thompson's book than any other contemporary author. I've seen him interviewed numerous times, and am loath to admit that I usually found him very disappointing, sometimes to the point of incoherency. However, he is sharp and bang-on during this interview. In fact, I didn't realize it was Thompson's voice (distinct though it was) until a full minute after the interview commenced.

* not only reports of a secondary explosion at the Pentagon, but actual film footage of a fireball coming from the damaged area of the Pentagon following the initial attack.

* satellite photos of the Pentagon four days before the attack show white markings on the front lawn marking the almost exact trajectory of whatever hit the building on 9/11.

* most startling are the copious transcripts of firefighters radio transmissions from within the WTC on 9/11 describing explosions going off within the building after the planes crashed into it.

* comparisons of other steel frame buildings that suffered catastrophic fires, burning for hours on end, which did not collapse. One of these comparisons involved the plane that struck the Empire State Building in 1945, and how limited, contained, and minor its damage was to the building.

* Letter from Kevin Ryan of Underwriters Laboratories (who underwrote the insurance on the WTC buildings) stated clearly and unequivically that the steel components in the WTC were certified to "ASTM E119" -- writing, "... I think we can all agree that even under-fireproofed steel will not melt until reaching red-hot temperatures of nearly 3000F. Why Dr. Brown would imply that 2000F would melt the high-grade steel used in those buildings makes no sense at all. This story just does not add up..." Days after writing this letter, Kevin Ryan was fired from his job.

* interview with Willie Rodriguez, janitor in the WTC for 20 years, in which he describes an explosion occurring deep in the lower levels of the WTC just before the first plane hit.

* the most startling information, for me, were the reports that Flight 93 -- supposed to have crashed in Shanksville PA -- is known to have actually landed in Cleveland OH, at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport under the pretext of a bomb-threat aboard. The 200 passengers were evacuated from the plane and taken to an empty NASA building nearby on the airport's premises. What happened to them from there, no one knows -- other than the fact that none of them are alive today.

* also, the Flight 93 plane was spotted at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 2003 by flight attendant David Freedman of United Airlines who kept track of all the planes on which he worked.

What impressed me most about this documentary is that its maker does not grasp at straws. When he comes upon an unanswered question, he states it as such. He does not guess, does not venture outlandish theories. He puts the onus where it belongs -- on the Bush administration to provide the information that is still required in order to shed light onto the areas of 9/11 that remain shrouded in mystery and inconsistency

There's no question this documentary will no sway everyone. Maybe it is only preaching to the choir. However, for anyone willing to listen to a rationally wrought, soberly presented set of facts and questions, set aside what you think you know about the 9/11 attacks and the issues of forewarning and involvement, and watch this documentary. If you know something the documentarian doesn't know, tell him. I think he's willing to listen. As it stands, 9/11 is the Kennedy Assassination of this generation. The 9/11 Report is its Warren Commission Report. The tattered old catch-all veil of "national security" needs to be swept aside in this case and the truth come to light and the perpetrators and planners of this obscenity prosecuted. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the PATRIOT Act have been the direct result of the 9/11 attacks. Who has benefited more substantially from these events? Osama Bin Laden or George W. Bush? We sure don't hear Halliburton screaming for justice for those killed in 9/11.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bereft Lehind -- Evangelical Christian action cinema

Bereft Lehind -- Left Behind II Evangelical Christian action cinema: Ed Wood Meets L. Ron Hubbard

Last summer I was given a copy of Kirk Cameron's magnum opus Left Behind II by a person starting a video mail order business. Having never heard of the Left Behind book series, I was morbidly fascinated to see what an evangelical Christian action movie looked like (in much the same way I was once curious to see what the genitalia of a hermaphrodite looked like -- a fleeting curiosity that I would have been much better off not satisfying).

The two men pictured here (who are clearly in love with one another) are (left) Tim LaHaye -- a sort of Christian Liberace -- and (right) Jerry B. Jenkins, who will likely one day be selling Quaker oats on TV to all of us.

The hermaphroditic genatalia... sorry, the evangelical Christian action movie seems to have been constructed in much the same way the Bible was written -- with little attention to creating consistency in detail, and having no respect for the intelligence of its audience. You see, in Left Behind, the Rapture occurred, leaving the earth littered with millions of sets of empty clothes on air planes, offices, in vehicles on the street -- everywhere. More Dockers and striped Polo shirts than God himself could count.

Also, it appears that only the litterers of the world were left behind -- the movie sets stream with garbage in every direction. Cleanliness is next to godliness! Anyhow, the proprietors of the empty clothes were, of course, whisked to heaven because, of course, we live in the End Times. Although every other generation of Christians who believed they lived in the End Times were wrong, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are not wrong.

So, the Book of Revelations is finally stretching its legs, finally getting its pyro show underway. Following the Rapture comes the sequel Left Behind II, which picks up the action a week after the Big Day of Empty Clothing. These people "left behind" weren't "right with God" so they're stuck on earth, still in their clothes, but are told by some passage in the Bible that they'll have a second crack at heaven. Good thing, too, because Kirk Cameron's (Buck Williams) onscreen girlfriend, Chloe, is hot!

More importantly, however, is that following the Rapture comes the rise of the anti-Christ. This personage takes the tired, Cold War form of Nicolae Carpathia. Yeah, this guy with the horrible Russian accent leads the U.N. and subtly spouts patently unChristian platitudes about seeking world peace, ending war and hunger, and ending religious intolerance: in other words, eradicating the pillars of Christianity. This monster must die! The evangelical authors of this mess are more than a little ridiculous in their longing gaze back to the good ole Moscow-hating days of the 1980s when evangelical nut Ronald Regan seemed poised to hurry the apocalyptic-pyrotechnics with a few nukes aimed at the Kremlin. As if the blue-helmeted U.N. could ever overrun America and lull the world to sleep with a "false" peace! What a perfectly Christian term: "false peace." It has no meaning whatsoever.

Anyhow, after much "real world" talk about God, and a lot of easy running around and globe-trotting on bad sets, Buck Williams, star reporter for the Global News Network converts a leading Jewish scholar to Christianity, and foils the anti-Christ by getting the new Jew-for-Jesus to proclaim on worldwide television that Jesus Christ meets all of the criteria in "ancient texts" describing the messiah.

One of the most nauseating moments in this thoroughly nauseating film came about twenty-four minutes in when "Chris," the skeptical friend of Rayford Steele -- manly Christian man, airline pilot, who is struggling with his faith since his wife and son were removed, nude, from this world -- storms out of a church service, unimpressed with the airy talk about God. When Chris tells his friend Rayford that he, Chris, believes himself to be a good person, Buck Williams swings into action. "According to whose standards?" Williams intones and then begins quoting the Ten Commandments. "If a person who murders is a murderer, what is a person who lies?" Williams asks, ensnaring his prey and oozing pungent self-righteousness through my TV screen. Chris reluctantly accepts that because he has lied in his life that he's a liar. He's also stolen -- something small, he concedes -- so he's a thief. And of course he's lusted after women, so he's an adulterer at heart. Yeah, ole Buck Williams took that son of a bitch to task. By God's standards, Chris is a piece of shit. The result of this realization? Chris goes home and within three minutes of screen time is contemplating suicide, sloppily spinning a revolver around on his coffee table -- in his messy apartment (cleanliness is next to godliness).

All the while, through the film, people are "coming to Christ" in the most easy, superficial ways. So, so realistic. Everyone prays with their hands clasped together and their brows furrowed with ecstatic intensity. And there isn't the least bit of consistency regarding what tasks and situations the characters will tackle for themselves and those they will leave to the will of God. "It's in God's hands," more than a few characters sigh weightily. If it's in God's hands, then why doesn't everyone just go back to bed? Are they suffering the sin of pride and believing they are capable of doing something God cannot? The film is a shoe stuck in a huge wad of theological gum.

In the end, the Devil is defeated and the convoluted predictions of the Bible come true, and Buck Williams struts down the aisle of a packed, candle-lit church at the film's conclusion -- with skeptic, Chris, singing his heart out; filled with faith! -- in the midst of the sort of hackneyed awful music that drove me from the church so many years ago. He's a conquering hero in Dockers.

Man, if this is the realm of the saved, please book me another table in the afterlife.