Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Network"--a Latter Day Appreciation

One of its scenes is iconic.

It's the one where disgraced newscaster Howard Beale exhorts his network audience to stick their heads out the window and shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!!!"

I streamed the 1976 classic "Network" last night on Netflix (what a cool service--instant movies on your flatscreen!). And I was reminded why I had found the movie so surprising and stimulating when I first saw it at a big old movie palace in Seattle back when it came out: then, as now, it came across as both outraged and literate; tough and grounded; and now even moreso than then, in so many ways prescient about the fate of news and information in our plugged-in society.

More or less, it's about a newscaster at a failing network who, having had a nervous breakdown on the air, is exploited for entertainment value while still doing the news. Eventually he is terminated because people tire of his twisted shenanigans.

Beyond the well-written script (Paddy Chayefsky) and the bravura performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall (what a cast!), the film remains a standout for its biting satire about the hucksterism driving that most self-serious of professions: television news. When it came out, the scenes it presented came across as wild, even preposterous: glitzy, circus-like newscasts? Who'd have thought they'd ever really dare!

Now we can see it was in the cards all along. Never mind the Fox News calamity--where fantasy and propaganda are presented as fact with Goebbelsesque audacity--even the news liberals watch (Olbermann, Maddow, Stewart, Colbert) is hopped up with entertainment features. How else do you explain Keith's "Worst Persons in the World" (which I much enjoy) or Maddow's "Scrub, Rinse, Repeat" (which I also enjoy); each crafted with enough news to be news, but enough guff to be fun? And Colbert especially has leeched out pretty much all the actual news from the show, replacing it (mercifully) with heavy doses of subversive hijinks. And guess what: we love it!

In "Network" the formula seemed to work: Howard Beale's news-hour-of-madness was a big success for a time. The suggestion wasn't all that fantastical. Just a few years ahead of its time.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


In the past few weeks, several friends and family members have either lost their jobs, had their hours or salaries curtailed, or had little luck finding a job at all...In a downtown Newark Chase Manhattan branch, I read the receipts left curled by the ATMs. The balances are $18.12, $76.43, $22.30, $38.89...My graduating seniors are gripped with apprehension about what the future, their future, might yield except difficulty and deficits...Psychic distress, even depression, is general in the body politic...Faltering, Faltering, Failing, Falling...present-tense plunge into catastrophe, malaise, and maelstrom. We need a healing song to purge the atmosphere, to remedy the rotten refrain we have been forced to lisp against our better selves. Any suggestions from the world archive? Any picture to paste? Poem to recite? How art reacts to calamity is a test of our humanity and I do hope you are up to the task.

Either that or else it's happy hour time and I've got the Molotov cocktails! J/C

Monday, February 23, 2009

I share my working space with:

A drawing from a dream I once had. On a beach, there were many ghosts telling me their stories and this stairway is where they descended from.

A hand engraved, bone mirror I bought in Fez. After much haggling, I paid half its asking price. Saw the same mirror a year later at a store in NY for the exact price I'd paid.

A Valentine's day gift from my daughter. I must be doing something right.

A postcard by Jean-Michel Basquiat that my husband bought from him for $1.00 when he was completely unknown.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Of the Thinness of Print

Recently a family member accepted a subscription to the New Yorker. The first issue that came seemed hardly a magazine in thickness--more like a brochure. Missing were the pages and pages of ads that used to fatten the most successful (and some of the not-so-successful) print magazines (remember Wired?--it was like a phone book in the 90's).

When you buy the NY Times these days, it feels miniaturized and sadly less relevant than the heavy, inky, no-color Newspaper of Record from a decade ago. The Times has of course become smaller and smaller in width (so has Rolling Stone succumbed) but lately it seems they too have been abandoned by their advertisers, and the paper is not just small these days, but thin. Can we say scrawny?

It isn't just the economy.

The news--if it is news--about non-broadcast advertising is that it's moving heavily, rapidly on-line. Partly this is because it's awfully cheap to run ads on line and partly because it is very possible to track the success--not the focus-group success, but the actual success--of an ad. An advertiser can know if its on-line ad is driving desired actions--use the coupon, buy the shoes, book the ticket, download the pdf--in a way that it can never hope to do with its universe of print.

The other part is, of course, about the economy.

As companies look for efficiencies (and knowing they cannot simply disappear from the brand marketplace), they don't think "two-page spread" anymore. They think--perhaps--"interactive module" or "social media launch for hope-to-become-viral video". If they weren't looking for ways to find any port in an economic Nor'easter, these advertisers would probably put money behind both print and on-line. But mostly, they're not putting money into print like they used to.

The big names will survive in print for a while, but I think the end of the print versions of most newspapers and many magazines may be a little bit more than a dot on the publishing horizon. The future will have thousands of interesting "print" venues--blogs, twitterings, facebook pages, new on-line information cocktails as yet undreamed--and it will include great news sites from the great Eastern Seaboard newspapers that have not decimated their reporting staffs--but if you think about Newseek (for instance) turning itself into something other than a newsweekly, you can't help but figure that the next few years will include the end of inky publishing as we have come to know it.


The evolution of doodling

Maybe sacrilege, beginning with simple crosses
in the margins of those third grade notebooks 
that were brindled like the maddest cows.  

Next came  the letter M, standing for Me, for my name,
always drawn rearing up, in 3-D, so I could show
what I had learned about shadows falling
across the letter itself.  

High school was all about dollar signs,
even in those blue exam notebooks, a way
for me to say without saying the words
of those days, which were all - I want,
I want, I want.

And now that I'm the man and the kind of man
that has a lot of meetings,  and my notebook
is just so - leatherbound, with a pocket for my cards
and the perfect holster for my pen, I can't draw
anything, since it's laid out on the table for all to see,
so I use the bad handwriting I learned in second grade
to hide the words I write which are -
what the hell are these people talking about today?

Mark Aiello

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blue and yellow

Whenever you notice blue and yellow conspiring to make green, try to understand why.

Because a tree is never just a tree. You have been given permission to recapture that world lost to all of us.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Did you hear about how Obama's stimulus bill includes $17 billion dollars for high-speed rail? Have we gotten excited enough about that yet? It may mean NY-Chicago in a few hours; SFO-LA daytrips--and energy efficiency!

But this post is not about that.

It's about Nadya Suleman, the mother-of-fourteen-including-recent-in-vitro-octuplets that everyone from Keith Olbermann to his nemesis Billo the Clown have been attacking without mercy.

The last word I used was "mercy", as in "have some".

I watched her NBC interview prepared to find much to loathe in a person who seemed almost limitlessly self-centered and irresponsible. I came away hoping the Suleman family gets all the help it needs, because it is going to need plenty.

That Nadya is broke, and possibly a delusional Jolie-wannabe (what's with the puffy lips you didn't used to have?) is almost beside the point. Operating on a consistent, if perhaps ruinously misguided inner logic, Ms. Suleman has executed a plan the results of which she seems almost preternaturally thrilled. How many of us can boast either the plan or the guts (in her case literally) to make the plan real in the sense that eight babies and six other kids are real?

She comes off as an unlikely heroine of sorts. Taking the notion of female empowerment and not only turning it on its head (who'd a thunk it might involve extreme fertility of all things?) but playing it out to its logical extreme, she has almost created a baffling, troubling new paradigm for the so-called "culture of life". Both liberals (all those babies--eww!) and conservatives (who's going to pay for this!!!) seem completely put off their game by her actions.

My next question is: where are the Christians when they are clearly called for?

Let's go back to that "culture of life" stuff for a moment. Here is a woman who literally refused to let even one potential embryo die--who instead wanted all of them to enjoy what she calls "the gift of life". How is this so very different from Christian dogma? Or are they going to quibble with her use of technology to build those babies? Or are they standing off to the side because her name sounds Muslim and that she's probably bonkers?

I am guessing Ms. Suleman will somehow make out okay with her ridiculously large brood of future executives and philanthropists. Just as she figured out how to build the nation's most famous family of fatherless children, she will somehow stumble into the money to keep them all fed (and apparently obtain a graduate degree while doing so!).

In a weird, unfathomable way, she has impressed me--hats off, I guess.

Christians? Time to make it real. I am sure you know how to get in touch.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Today The New York Times ran an editorial, "My Savior, Their Killer," about the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, the Khymer Rouge commander of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Duch is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the trial now under way under the auspices of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. He is responsible (notice how the modifier "allegedly" drops from view and into horrific statistical fact) for ordering the death penalty at least 12, 380 times. 12,380 times. At least.

The author of the piece, Francois Bizot, was a prisoner of this mass murderer for three months in 1971. His account of his experience, The Gate, translated into English several years ago, is one of most gripping, terrifying memoirs I've come across, accentuating dispassionately and powerfully our sense of historical nightmare and personal experience in the modern world. In the months that Bizot was interrogated by Duch, the two conversed at length on various subjects. Duch was an intellectual whose cruelty is shown to be even more awful for its clinical rationalizations and for the fact that any humanist underpinnings of his learning curdled into a subversive shadow of itself, its logic propping up a casual regimen of torture, mutilation, and killing. The Gate is a reminder of the fragility of the human world, how so easily it can collapse into the killing fields of any place, how the engineers of these machinations can articulate like orators and murder like butchers. Read this book and take pause. J/C

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Lightning removes the geography of the sky,

leaves the town shivering in the subjunctive,

caught in that instant when things

have not happened

pigeons not yet scattered from the eaves

might have happened

was that a footstep on the porch?

were still wished for

daylight, and shadows no longer

loom and lurch down alleyways

It might be nothing at all.

Words have become something I do

to keep my commas apart,

what I use only to say

what things are not.

It may be that, exactly.

The thunder's boom far gone

over the sea, and you, for a moment

lending me the wise levers and fullblown roses

of which you are composed.

It should be like that.

The moment when verbs happen in only 

one tense, when the shocking light 

banishes all pretence, 

and we can see perfectly well how this town is made

of little white houses each standing utterly alone.

Mark Aiello

Saturday, February 14, 2009


...And all true poets will steal the artifice of the un-gods and lovers out there, militating against false confections, queasy sentimental attitudes, and Hallmark Holiday tomfoolery. Happy Valentine's Day Massacre! Let the simulated hearts hearkening this day be torn to shreds, pieces, numerous ribbons. Would that all observant Valentiners break up or suffer a night of relationship malaise. To wisely pursue any meaningful development of this 14th of Febuary "occasion," celebrate, no, worship, the Nine Muses and light a sparkler for the White Goddess. You'd at least have the respect of the custodians of the beautiful and well-made. Make art to choke hearts this night and realize it is no coincidence that the co-developer of the Jarvik artificial heart just died just in time for the holiday. I send plaudits and chocolates to his aesthetically astute spirit.... J/C

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Rapid End to Bipartisanship

Am I the only one who feels like the withdrawal of Judd Gregg as Commerce nominee represents the last nail in the tiny, infant coffin of Obama's hope for bipartisanship? Is it really much of a secret that once he was told he would not be able to manipulate the census in order not to count minorities (denying big, liberal cities the additional representatives they deserve in Congress), the Republican from New Hampshire lost his taste for the job?

In my opinion bipartisanship may have been--maybe still is--a dream Obama actually believes in, and it sure helped him get elected (many Americans continue to imagine they are "one").

I am glad he reached out some, if only to prove the GOP is run by dead-enders.

America is not "one". The divides are deep. The general profile of belief and custom in America's Northeast, its West Coast and some better educated places in between are more different from, say, a place like Tennessee (rapid apologies in advance to the educated and reasonable folks therefrom), than Switzerland is from Italy. The differing political and social climates between these regions are not going to permit much bipartisanship, if any (my pet theory is that fundamentalist Christianity is a major culprit, but that is another subject).

The GOP is, by all appearances, determined to see the nation fail under a Democrat. The reason for this is because each elected GOP politician seems to believe that a Democrat-led failure may at some point lead to a re-establishment of the neo-con Caliphate. This quixotic notion has rather more currency than the hopes and dreams of the Bourbons in Spain, but not that much more. The feisty behavior of the Republican party in these opening days of the Obama administration is, using a market term for a stock headed permanently south, nothing more than a dead-cat bounce.

For their part, elected Dems tend to be chickenhearted apologists for the regime (status quo benefits them too).

Who knows--maybe Obama wears everyone down with constant likeability and gets the GOP, still fiercely in denial of its own disgrace, to sing with him 'round the campfire. But I kind of doubt it.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Here in New York, in the summer, there is a Great Divide among those of us who follow the American Pastime. On the one side and in the majority are the eternally gloating, black-hatted fans of the team resident in the Bronx with their 26 trophies. On the other are the blue-hatted minority (but a considerable one) with their less-than-lovable wanna-be team trying to stay relevant in a swampy part of of town called (unbecomingly) Flushing.

I mention this in order to point out that the once-mighty Bronx team, manned in its heyday by graceful, iconic figures that held home-run trophies in one hand and hot dogs in the other; that swatted hits in more games running than some players get hits in a season (and later marrying Marilyn Monroe); that played drunk but hit balls way out past the train station anyway; that said "Holy Cow" and somehow managed to be in the middle of every winner; that caught more winning World Series games than anyone, ever, and was maybe more quotable than Walt Whitman; that played in more games consecutive than anyone in his day and then gave an iconic speech (again, as quotable as any of the greats of history) when gravely ill; that, though temperamental, shot World-Series home-runs in preternatural succession and, to be fair and more recent, somehow found ways to jump into the stands or race across foul lines to save games when they mattered--this team (the iconic one from the Bronx, not the pale imitation of a winner from Flushing)--has now become the home of not one or two, but at least four superstars who have admitted or been all-but-convicted of cheating by using a combination of banned substances known as steroids.

Didn't we--the non-Bronx-club-fans--always feel (or anyhow at least in the last few years and certainly since one of the black-hatted, pumped-up 'roidmeisters tried to attack our star catcher with the sharp sliver of a bat) that something was just plain wrong with the Yanks? Didn't it seem like some kind of bad-faith for the gloating gloaters to gloat so gloatingly over the artificially enhanced feats of their mega-wealthy, jack-ass "superstars" (you know who they are); and didn't it seem not just like a fitting let-down when the team couldn't manage to get past the first round of the playoffs, but some kind of cosmic justice?

And can it seem like anything but the final disgrace for it now to be revealed, much as we had all suspected but could not more than insinuate, that even the tiny-man-in-a-big-body called A-Rod has now been revealed as a fake, a sham, a cock-up, a puffed and coiffed and juice-injected rip-off?

Not that the Flushing flops have a lock on dignity. But has it not seemed for quite some time--admit it now--that the team of 26 Championships had, over the past several years, not only lost its mojo, but become, even while "winning", a sorry, shameful, empty fraud?

And can we now be forgiven for feeling like fans of said fraudulent enterprise perhaps should own up to this fact and at least stop the gloating?



Odd correspondences abound in my district of the world, a parcel of a precinct of New Jersey's middle reaches. On my way to school this morning to lecture about W.G. Sebald's hauntingly magnificent novel Austerlitz, I noticed that two other PATH train passengers were reading the same book! And last night, while traveling on the same train but in the opposite direction, two individuals on the Newark Penn Station about ten feet from each other and about fifty feet from me were reading the book of Seamus Heaney interviews I mentioned in my last post. Is this a correspondence or a coincidence, convergence or a new federal government surveillance program for which agents mimic their quarry? Am I being watched or stuck in a literary xerox universe? I might have to start publicly perusing more obscure tomes... J/C

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Flammable material

We'll never know the cause - which simple sum

of the factorial weight of all the years of his career -

each themselves laden with numbers; revenue,

(variance to budget), throughput divided by headcount

and then divided again by defect then by fiscal quarter,

was the one that set it off.  Maybe

it was just the way each day's calendar was broken

into fifteen minute notches, each standing

for something someone else needed him to do.

Even the talk in the breakroom seemed to be algebra -

models of cars, their prices and horsepower,

or Sunday point spreads.  Until, in one idle moment

by the vending machine after he had punched the proper buttons,

he reached the number that every solid has

when it must change state - and he ignited.

The security guards never once looked up

from their box scores to see his grew wool suit

flaring brightly as he swiped his badge.

Burning, he'd get in line for his morning coffee,

and, burning, he would watch the elevator numbers

tick up to his floor.  No one said a word

about the smoke at the morning production meeting

or about the column of flame

that rose above the bathroom stall.

The only ones who became suspicious

were the cleaning crew,

but no one ever talks to them

except to say good night.  

They would sweep small piles of ash

from his keyboard and chair each night,

so they were the only ones not surprised

when he was suddenly gone, altogether.

Mark Aiello

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Calling Their Bluff

Today the poker game came to an end.

I am talking about the one where failed-company executives kept bluffing there was no way they could accept a mortal's wage and still show up to work in the morning. The one where failed-company executives pretended they had options--that they "might leave" if not paid crazy sums despite their stewardship of spectacular failure. The one where they pretended they were somehow indispensable to their companies' success when in fact they were at best irrelevant to it and more likely inimical to it.

Today, President Obama--buoyed by Senator Claire McCaskill's proposal and a wave of popular revulsion--called their bluff. In the manner of a certain baseball-team owner from long ago who offered less money in a player's contract renewal after the team did rather poorly in the prior season, Obama in essence said to the tarnished titans: "We can finish last without you."

He told them that if they were going to accept government money to keep their companies from going under, they were going to have to cap their salaries at $500,000 per year. He called the offending high pay-rates "bad strategy". I would quibble with that (for instance, strategy for whom?), but I'd rather give him credit for finally saying "Show me your cards." Word is, they don't have a hand among them.

It was always a game of three card monte--without the cops. And while the profits were there, who'd have paid it much mind? We were all getting along okay. As Americans, we don't enjoy looking too closely at the other guy's ledger. But now we're all hurting. And the crafty executives, having arranged to be given billions by taxpayers, noticed no rules governing use of the money! They took it and socked it away in the Cayman Islands, many of them did. Those who took, don't have to give it back. Oops!

But that was then--under a different, long-gone administration (whose was it?--I've forgotten). And now the great leaders of finance have been put on notice: there's such a thing as the marketplace of ideas. And their ideas--the ones where they tank the economy and sock away bonuses as if delivering value--have been exposed as bankrupt. Kind of like their companies.

There's a certain symmetry to it.

Masters of the Universe: welcome to the world.



Stepping Stones, the collection of interviews with Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney by fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll, has been deservedly hailed, admired, and gushed over. It is a behemoth of a book, an archival monster of sensitive subjectivity and poetic power. Even if one carries great confidence in a ready knowledge of the poet and his work, this volume will disabuse such a notion. The depth, density, and radiating intelligence on display here complements autobiography, storytelling, recollections of other poets and the act of writing various poems (the sections are mostly organized by the titles of individual volumes). These interviews will help you get into the mind and materials of this Master and compel you to go back to the poems.

The interviews were conducted over the course of several years by email and in writing. Various levels of mediation can be discerned and the time taken to respond to O'Driscoll's queries can be reasonably assumed by the different lengths of the responses. Short or long, the answers are always perceptive and deftly woven into a tapesty of insights.

Just as W.B. Yeats described Oscar Wilde has someone whose casual speech seemed as if it had the perfection of a long-mulled and sculpted thought, Heaney's turns-of-phrase and dazzling descriptions seem to come off with ease and quickness. My expectations of these interviews were high and reading through them my regard of them is even higher, on the highest "crate of air," to use Heaney's phrase. Bravo, Maestro! J/C

Sunday, February 01, 2009