Monday, August 31, 2015

The Care and Feeding of a Total Jerk Who Doesn't Appreciate a Damn Thing You Do for Her

That will be all
Last year, my partner and I did the whole get married business and then the whole go on a trip of a lifetime business (which you can read all about here if you are so inclined). That trip meant leaving our cat, Circe, a, let's say, less than affectionate three-legged black cat with, let's say, not the most generous personality, with our roommate. The good news is that Circe is not a dog, which means there really weren't a lot of time consuming or rigorously scheduled chores. Basically, you can fit caring for a cat into any schedule. (Which is one of the reasons why I, more of a dog person at heart, have a cat, not a dog.) More specifically, and this is good or bad depending on your perspective on cats, Circe doesn't like you, so once you've taken care of the necessities she'll generally leave you alone. Except maybe in the winter when one of the necessities is your warmth. Your sweet, sweet calorically-efficient-for-her warmth.

Naturally, being responsible adults, we left our roommate, who was graciously watching over Circe, a detailed list of instructions, typed, emailed, and printed and hung on the refrigerator. But, since it was me writing the instructions, I couldn't just give her a clear and concise list of responsibilities. What fun would that be? Since I hear the internet likes cats and 'rissa really likes this and I basically do what she tells me, I've decided to share those instructions with you. Please enjoy...

The Care and Feeding of a Total Jerk Who Doesn't Appreciate a Damn Thing You Do For Her

Circe gets a scoop of dry food in the morning (scoop is on the container of food) in the “mouse bowl,” which is not to say the bowl is made of a mouse, just that it has a representation of a mouse on it. She also gets a scoop of dry food in the evening, because she whines if she can see the mouse in the mouse bowl.

Your intransigence in relation to the "basement full of poison" has been noted.
In the evening she gets a teaspoon of wet food (Cans of wet food are behind the signed Alton Brown poster on the liquor cabinet) mixed with a scoop of the powder on top of the microwave, and a little bit of warm water, in the metal bowl, which needs to be washed out ahead of time. And, because you're made of time I guess, you need to smoosh up the little biscuits of slightly solidified abomination into a paste, otherwise she won't eat it.

She can have up to 20 of the green treats in the peanut butter jar a day. We put some in her blue ball so maybe her royal highness gets a tiny scrap of what could be exercise at some point in her day.

Hallway privileges have been revoked until further notice, no matter how much she cries.

Her water dish should be washed out once a week or so. We use the short, blue brush with the gray and blue handle on the sink to wash out all cat related items.

Her litter box needs to be scooped every day, not necessarily because she is a jerk (though, she, of course, is) but to control the smell. Scoop the clumps directly into the toilet. Give them 5-10 minutes to break down and flush them away, like any hopes of having a meaningful relationship with this being.

You are so fucking disappointing.
If you want to try to “play” with her the most effective toy is the bird on the string which lives in the crayon bank. (Which is not a bank for crayons, of course, that would be stupid, but a piggy bank in the shape of a giant crayon.) Most of the time she'll just watch you swing it around like there is nothing in the world you'd rather be doing than boring her with your tired and almost certainly wasted attempt at meaningful interaction, but, you should still try every now and again.

There is a bag of catnip near the treats. You can sprinkle some on any surface you feel comfortable having her go on a saliva heavy wallowing spree, but I'd recommend the cat tree in the living room.

You can also give her fish flakes from the plastic container near the other food. The fish flakes smell like sin and bad decision making, but she likes them.

Given that Circe was alive and in good health when we returned, and our roommate was alive, in good health, and not demonstrating any emotional damages from Circe's refusal to acknowledge her as a living being of inherent value, I'd have to say the instructions were successful.

Monday, August 24, 2015

What I Learned from The Conquering Tide by Ian Toll

The easiest way to tell who was going to win the war in the Pacific was to look at a map. Japan a tiny island with few natural resources. The United States of America, one of the largest countries in the world with what, at the time, seemed like an endless supply of industrial resources. There were only two possible ways Japan had a chance: the first was to maintain, throughout the entire war, their hold on resource-rich conquered territory and the logistics to transport those resources great distances through contested waters, and the second was to deal the United States some kind of early defeat that would convince them to avoid war all together. And so the fundamental idea of Pearl Harbor was that the attack would so psychologically devastating the Americans that they would sign a treaty right away. When the US didn't, the war was essentially over.

That said, there were points in the war, especially early on, where Japan might have been able to create a stronger position for themselves at the negotiating table. A different outcome at Midway for example, or a series of strategic or tactical successes that slowed island-hopping. Or even establishing a strong enough final defense line to discourage an assault on Japan itself. (Of course, that strategy would be rendered obsolete.) Since the U.S was far from perfect in its execution of the war and Japan did enjoy early, and sometimes overwhelming success, why were they unable to create this stronger position? According to The Conquering Tide, the second volume in Ian Toll's definitive history of the war in the Pacific, a key factor was racism.

Those who favored a war with the United States believed that Americans were too soft to handle war. We were too decadent, too rich, and too lazy. We wouldn't put in the effort and we couldn't handle the hardship of war. We were fat. We were weak. We could not withstand the Japanese fighting spirit. The most definitive demonstration of just how ingrained this belief was and how destructive it was to the Japanese war effort was their response to U.S. submarine warfare.

They didn't have one. Despite relying on supplies from overseas territories, the Japanese never developed any kind of anti-submarine tactics or technologies besides depth charges. For a while, U.S. submarine technology, especially the torpedoes, were ineffective, but once those mechanical problems were solved, submarines crippled Japanese shipping, greatly limiting Japan's ability to wage war. Oil tanker after oil tanker was sunk and yet Japan did nothing. Why? They simply didn't believe Americans had the fortitude to endure the privations of submarine warfare.

Nor did the Japanese believe Americans were brave enough to withstand an aggressive frontal assault, no matter how entrenched their defenses were. They assumed, Americans would run from charging Japanese warriors. So in battle after battle, the Japanese wasted thousands of lives on frontal assaults on entrenched defensive positions. They could never seem to learn that Americans with machine guns in trenches and bunkers don't flee. No soldiers with machine guns in trenches and bunkers flee.

What made Pacific Crucible, the first volume in Toll's trilogy, so brilliant was Toll's ability to move back and forth from the most powerful to the least powerful actors. He could tell the story of an enlisted soldier, with as much respect and dignity as he told the story of Roosevelt and Churchill. He was able to give the board rooms and intelligence offices the same weight as the battlefield and the aircraft carrier. He was able to show how the old ways of thinking about war changed or didn't in response to the new technologies of war.

But the story in the Pacific changed after Midway. If the war wasn't over at Pearl Harbor it was certainly over after Midway and it was just a matter of the United States rolling through the rest of the Pacific, like a, well, I guess you'd say like a “conquering tide.” Sometimes this can give the book a plodding, almost punching-the-clock tone and pace. Pick an island, bomb the every-loving fuck out of it, send in the Marines, ease and navigate inter-branch conflict and rivalry, rinse and repeat. But Toll is an historian, not a novelist, and so it feels plodding because it was plodding. But there was always something in that rinse and repeat, always risk and conflict, always death and suffering, and so, as we're punching the clock, Toll never lets us forget we are punching the clock in war.

In some ways, works of history shouldn't have a lot of suspense. I mean, we know how the war in the Pacific ends. But knowing the war ends doesn't mean agreeing on everything about the war. I have long believed the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was unnecessary, that it was far less about achieving victory over Japan as it was waving our dick at Russia. But I'm a lefty-commie-pinko-hippy whatever. But, given how lopsided the victories for the U.S. were after Midway and especially after Guadalacanal, and given how depleted Japanese military resources were, and how clear Toll is in this volume about the state of Japan's ability to wage war, I can't imagine Toll coming to anything other than the same conclusion. It's one thing to read this idea in Howard Zinn, who intentionally set out to offer a different perspective on American history but to see it in a definitive history, especially as so many politicians rabidly cling to the idea of American exceptionalism. would be significant. I was going to read the third volume regardless, because Toll is a fantastic historian, but this odd sense of political suspense makes me downright impatient.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Last Book I Bought: Grave of Light Edition

It might sound odd to say, but I buy books much less frequently than I would prefer. A combination of limited money, even more limited space in my apartment, and great relationships with a bunch of fantastic publishers who just give me books, means that, even with my generous staff discount from Porter Square Books, I rarely buy books for myself. Which tells me there is often something distinctive or important about a book that compels me to actually spend money and shelf space to own it. Something distinctive and important enough that I think it's worth an informal series on my blog, one that provides another avenue or structure for talking about books that I think you should read, and one that riffs on The Rumpus's great also somewhat informal Last Book I Loved Series.

So the inaugural Last Book I Bought post is Grave of Light by Alice Notley.

I love poetry. I read it, I write it, I review it, I've even blogged about my love of poetry, but there are some major gaps in my awareness and understanding. Perhaps the most glaring one is in American poetry from about the end of the Beats until about Kevin Young, later James Tate, later Merwin, Mary Reufle, and more contemporary poets like Patricia Lockwood and Brian Turner. Basically it is a gap from what is usually taught in schools up until I began reviewing poetry about ten years ago. A lot of poetry happened in that time and a lot of changes happened in the landscape of American poetry in that time.

Alice Notley is in that gap. She was one of the names I would see in collections of poetry criticism or in interviews with poets, but for some reason, the timing of her new collections or my enthusiasm for other poets, or the standard-issue chaos of existence, I never got around to trying her until I saw Grave of Light in the bookstore. I flipped through and saw big blocks of text, long poems, unique arrangements of lines on the page, a blissful absence of pointless empty white paper (don't get me started on poets who assume white space inherently communicates and create these giant fucking books that don't fit on the shelves of any human bookstore), and, at least through the course of a casual flip-through, a refreshing diversity of style, form, and technique. Notlety is, obviously, a poet struggling to express the complicated currents of human experience and is not afraid to be complicated herself to do it. So I got the book out of the library first. (Remember all that about money and space.)

I like the debate about the relative impact of Whitman and Dickinson on American poetry. To me, even if I'm hashing out the distinctions by myself, distinguishing between the two and assigning value to those distinctions, reveals much about my poetics, my political values, and my general aesthetics of literature, as does following their influence through other poets I read and respect. For all her influence, I still contend that American poets have not caught up with Dickinson's innovations in poetic grammar. (If I were focusing on our ideas of grammar, I might take a moment to argue that Dickinson's use of the dash might be the greatest consistent use of punctuation in English, but this post is about Notley.) In fact, I'd go so far as to say very few poets, perhaps especially those short-line white-space enthusiasts that so get under my skin, have even attempted her way of arranging clauses, enjambing lines, and arresting and diverting grammatical momentum.

It's important to note that grammar isn't just about punctuation, but about how the parts of sentences are arranged in relation to the idea of “making sense.” At it's heart, grammar is an agreement that facilitates efficient verbal communication. Grammar is a system of logic, a way of arranging ideas so they make sense to the people who did not originate them. Though poetry has a very different relationship to the nature of sense and logic and communication than prose, it still has grammar, it still has agreements that allow for communication. Beyond her dashes, Dickinson had a way of arranging her ideas to stress the seams of poetic grammar, almost without us noticing it. Each phrase that seems to act as a qualifier or a descriptor also complicates and obscures. There are moments where her work feels so overt and open as to lurch towards a kind of obscenity, but that overtness collapses upon closer reading.

What I found when I started reading Grave of Light was a poet grappling with Dickinson's grammar. And that made the sale.