Friday, February 23, 2007

Missed Opportunity

With all the flap going on about the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who's the daddy, where's the money, what drugs was she on, and why do we care, it seems to me the simplest route to clear up the main question is being overlooked.

Maury Povich, step up and invite the potential daddies to your show. While you may need to add extra chairs to your set, you can then whip out one of those lie detector test and DNA test manila envelopes and clear this up in a matter of minutes. It would be as entertaining as any Povich show, erm, you'd pull in some ratings, and best of all, there wouldn't be anyone to pop up from their chair and run backstage. The pursuit cameramen get a break, as well.

This would have at least as much theater as this week's court proceedings and with more commercial breaks I could go to the bathroom more. People don't sling chairs at each other on this show so it would be completely dignified.

Why are the obvious things sometimes the easiest to overlook?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Short Stories vs. Novels

Way back when I read a lot of short stories. And I read a lot of novels. I found, though, that it was difficult to switch back and forth and I never really figured out why. If I read a book of short stories it took a certain amount of weird effort to get back into reading a novel. The reverse was true, as well. A strange kind of inertia existed that tended to keep me serially reading either short story collections or novels.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm not talking about the classics or "literary" fiction; not the stories of Chekhov, Turgenev or Hemingway, and not "Moby Dick" or "Don Quixote." This should stay squarely in the realm of "popular fiction," whatever that actually is.

In times past, the path to becoming an author was frequently one of establishing a body of work as a short story writer before moving on to novel writing. The near total collapse of the fiction magazine market probably had a lot to do with this changing and in any case is no longer true. I no longer "discover" authors by their magazine appearances.

So what is the discrepancy between reading short stories and novels? I can't put my finger on it. I do think that both bad novels and bad short stories can be discarded unfinished with fairly equal alacrity, so with works of low skill or quality they have that in common.

But when was the last time you enjoyed a novel, thought it was good, and failed to understand it? Sadly, I read a good number of short stories where I'm left wondering just what exactly was the point. For example, to show an adulterous affair took place? To portray said affair with beautiful prose or technique? To evoke a single emotion (which may be all you have space for)?

So I read many short stories that are very well written and enjoyable to read but leave me ultimately unfulfilled. I feel like I've just read somebody's warm up exercise, a prelude to a work some place, some where that will be more filling and less unresolved. Are these just faulty short stories? Is the deficiency with me?

Oddly enough this doesn't happen so much with "genre" stories. The works of Jack Vance, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon only rarely leave me scratching my head and wondering, "Why? What exactly was that?" I wonder if this is because as genre fiction there is more of an implicit pressure to relate an entire story, a more fully realized work, than is necessary with a literary offering. I kinda sorta sometimes think that with a literary story you're not supposed to get it.

I may just lack the skills, knowledge or background to appreciate stories like this. Maybe there'll come a day, like the one where I discovered I could appreciate classical music, when their existence will make more sense to me. And yet novels, genre or otherwise, have never produced in me the same feelings. I never find myself asking, "Why the hell did they write that?" I may not care for it, or I may very much, I may think the author did an excellent job or a poor one, but I don't question its reason for being.

So while I wait for the promised fire I'll keep reading them, enjoying and appreciating some, scratching my head over others. Periodically I'll return to Vance, Ellison and Sturgeon and I'll continue to read William Trevor, Paul Bowles, Somerset Maugham. But for many of the folks I come across in places like Granta or anthologies, I may keep a-scratching on my noggin for a spell, at least until another neuron or three fire up.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Paradise Dies

Years ago, when I heard my grandmother was ill, I jumped on a plane and flew out to Los Angeles to try to make some things easier for her. On a stolen side trip I stumbled into Hollywood and wandered those streets with names made famous by cheap television shows: Melrose, LaBrea, Sunset, Hollywood Boulevard.

I remember walking along the sidewalks, facing down, reading the names of the celebrities and the not-so cemented beneath giant golden stars. One of the biggest cinematic names of all time, Charlie Chaplin, was covered by a spill of aged coffee or something like it; a stain covering the glitz, rendering it nearly invisible as it hovered somewhere below grime level.

Look, there's Grauman's Chinese Theater but first, here you can buy four t-shirts for ten bucks. Or cheap knock off electronics like in Times Square. Hold your breath as you walk past these doors, the improvised bathrooms of the homeless. Aren't those Marilyn Monroe's hand prints up ahead? Where's the glamour now?

It was here that it first occurred to me that the glow can't last. The more attractive a place, the more magnetic it is not just to the people like the ones who made it that way, but to the hangers on, the fringe people of society, and the ones that try to make a cheap or easy buck. And people spill their coffees on Charlie Chaplin and no one comes to clean it up.

When I first moved to Florida two decades ago, the Tampa area was still small time enough to feel more like a work in progress. But for years we would hear about how many thousands of people were moving to the state each month. How long can this go on, we all wondered. Where will they all go? What will they drink? How will they drive?

Silly questions, it appears. Now, finally, a few more people are moving out of the state than are moving in, but it's close enough to be about even, the same as with California. In St. Petersburg, where I lived for much of the time, the orange groves it was founded on are all gone, replaced by acres and acres of subdivisions. And these aren't neighborhoods created in harmony with the environment. The landscape is bulldozed, burned, then bulldozed again before the builders come and cram as many houses as they can into these previously open, productive areas. They may even plant a tree or two on their way out.

The hydrologic line for Florida is about a third of the way down from its northern border. Below that, rainfall is supposed to supply the needs of the landscape, the people, and everything. But it can't. There's not enough any more. Desalinization plants are open now but they dump the removed salt back into the oceans. What will the rising salt content do the watery environment? No one knows.

Traffic used to be bad, really bad, just in south Florida, where if you were smart you knew not to honk your horn at anybody. Too many people have too many guns. Now it's bad everywhere you go, making travel time a factor for not just getting to the beach in time to pay for an open parking spot, but commuting to work, shopping for groceries, and everything else.

Drive past undeveloped land in Fort Myers and what does it all have in common? For Sale signs on seemingly every lot. More land to pave over, more houses to build, more demand for water and infrastructure that doesn't exist.

Property taxes have risen to crazy levels. They're capped if you own your home but that limit isn't portable; you have to pay the new rate if you buy a new house. Only wealthy out of staters can afford to purchase new homes now.

Homeowners and Flood insurance rates are also stratospheric. Supposedly it's against the law for companies to raise their rates to offset specific losses but it's a mighty coincidence that they've jumped up after the storms of recent years. We had to pay for flood insurance when we lived in a home in an area that had never flooded. I had an acquaintance who used to live across the street from a flood zone but was told his house was now being included and he'd have to pay. He'd never been flooded, either.

I saw a headline last week that said that a woman, a sheriff's deputy, and two others had been shot I had a suspicion and I opened the story just to see where the incident had happened: sure enough, it was Florida. Then the state mistakenly sent a summons to my new address made out to one of the seventh graders who tried to steal my car from my driveway in the middle of the day. Not the one who had been kicked out of school for carrying a hand gun, the other one. He was involved in two more pending cases. Maybe that explains why my damages reimbursement hasn't come for a few months. The kid's busy.

Why do we destroy these places? Why can't we at least try to preserve the character, the feel of these amazing landscapes? Sadly I think the only answer is that there is too much money to be made by developers. When that much money talks, the sounds of the birds singing or the sight of stars in the night sky are obscured by bulldozers and street lights. The land becomes a parody of itself and everyone loses, just not right away. Like global warming, by the time enough people declare an actual problem, the money's gone and the damage is done.

What do you have left? What happens when there are no more Floridas or San Diegos or Myrtle Beaches? Why can't we maintain rather than expand? Why can't we aim for equilibrium rather than nonsensical growth?

Hell, we can't even keep the shine on Charlie Chaplin. We've moved out of state, far away from any metropolitan sized area and what do we hear but how much this area has grown. We're part of somebody else's perceived problem now. And the land at the end of the road right by the freeway exit has been zoned for commercial use. I bet if they drain and fill the wetlands and level off the hill top, they could build a fine Target or something in there. You can run but you can't hide.