“I now began to consider, that I might yet get a great many Things out of the Ship, which would be useful to me…”

One of the recurrent themes of Robinson Crusoe—one of Crusoe’s oft-repeated complaints—is how many things he lacked, and how much work everything took: because he either totally lacked the necessary tools, or had only crude, self-made approximations, which themselves took much time and labor to make (four days to make a shovel and hod!). About making his (first) fence, Crusoe says that “it is scarce credible what inexpressible labour everything was done with”——and the word “labour” is often so modified: not only “inexpressible,” but also “hard,” “much,” “very great,” “prodigious,” “infinite.”

On the other hand, Crusoe boasts of the things that he accomplishes by his constant labor, despite all the things he lacks—and he goes so far as to boast that he could have brewed beer, despite lacking barrels, kettles, hops, and yeast:

…and yet all these Things [lacking], notwithstanding, I verily believe, had not these Things interven’d, I mean the Frights and Terrors I was in about the Savages, I had undertaken it, and perhaps brought it to pass too; for I seldom gave any Thing over without accomplishing it, when once I had it in my Head to begin it.

The thing is, for all his complaining, Crusoe has a shitload of stuff. The ship he was on when became a castaway was barely two weeks into a trans-Atlantic voyage (from Brazil to Guinea) when it ran aground and all aboard—except Crusoe—perished. The ship itself survived the storms with minimal (well, moderate) damage, and was lodged in the sand about a quarter-mile from the shore, at low tide—that is, within swimming distance. Crusoe spends a full two weeks salvaging material from the ship before it finally sinks in another storm.

And what does he salvage? Everything:

[on the first day:] Bread, Rice, three Dutch Cheeses, five Pieces of dry’d Goat’s Flesh, …and a little Remainder of European Corn …… several Cases of Bottles…, in which were some Cordial Waters, and in all about five or six Gallons of Rack …… the Carpenter’s Chest …… Ammunition and Arms … two very good Fowling-pieces … two Pistols … some Powder-horns, and a small Bag of Shot, and two old rusty Swords; … three barrels of Powder [one of which has taken water, and is left behind]…

[on the second day:] …two or three Bags full of Nails and Spikes, a great Skrew-Jack, a Dozen or two of Hatchets, and above all, that most useful Thing call’d a Grindstone; …two or three Iron Crows, and two Barrels of Musquet Balls, seven Musquets, and another fowling Piece, with some small Quantity of Powder more; a large Bag full of small Shot …… Besides these Things, I took all the Mens Cloaths that I could find, and a spare Fore-top-sail, a Hammock, and some Bedding…

…the third Time I went, I brought away as much of the Rigging as I could, as also all the small Ropes and Rope-twine I could get, … [and] the Barrel of wet Gun-powder: In a Word, I brought away all the Sails first and last, only that I was fain to cut them in Pieces…

…after I had made five or six Voyages such as these, and thought that I had nothing more to expect from the Ship that was worth my meddling with, I say, after all this, I found a great Hogshead of Bread and three large Runlets of Rum or Spirits, and a box of Sugar, and a Barrel of fine Flower…

[these things are enumerated later, but are salvaged on one of those “five or six voyages”:] Pens, Ink, Paper, …three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation … also I found three very good Bibles … some Portuguese Books also, and among them two or three Popish Prayer-Books, and several other Books …… a Dog and two Cats…

…I got two Cables and a Hawser on Shore, with all the Iron Work I could get… [this raft capsizes, and it is only with “infinite Labour” that Crusoe fishes the cables and “some of the Iron” out of his little cove]

[on the final trip:] …two or three large Razors, and one Pair of large Sizzers, with some ten or a Dozen of good Knives and Forks …… about Thirty six Pounds value in Money, some European Coin, some Brasil, some Pieces of Eight, some Gold, some Silver.

Then the ship sinks—but, six months later, it’s cast up by an earthquake, and Crusoe spends a month dismantling the fucking thing: “Timber, and Plank, and Iron-Work enough, to have builded a good Boat, if I had known how; and also, I got at several Times and in several Pieces, near 100 Weight of the Sheet-Lead.”

I don’t have a point, at all—it’s just that I finally (finally) got around to typing up that inventory in my notes on the novel, and thought I should share. Being stranded on a fertile, goat-filled, tropical island might not be so bad, if you had all that stuff, right?

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FREEDOM DIED, PEOPLE

I’m a bit late on this—like, two months late—which means you’ve almost certainly seen this video by now:

It’s hard to take seriously, sure—it’s got a weird “expensive production values on a shoestring budget” aesthetic, and the final seconds are ridiculous (but, to be fair, it’s impossible to make “FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY” sexy, no matter how many flames you put behind it). And, of course, it was widely mocked as soon as it hit the internet, mostly for blatantly ripping off The Hunger Games (or the trailers, anyway) while simultaneously completely inverting the franchise’s ideology (or so the criticisms go: I’ve neither seen nor read The Hunger Games series, and have no idea what sort of political statements it makes).

The point I want to make—which seems (at least in my cursory reading about this … video) to have been overlooked—is that dystopian/post-apocalyptic narratives lend themselves much more readily to conservative agendas than to progressive ones.

I’m using the terms “conservative” and “progressive” fairly loosely, and—reductively, I admit—as shorthand for “change is bad” and “change is good,” respectively. But even if these definitions flatof socio-political nuance, I think they’re still sufficiently accurate to be useful. And while I tend toward the progressive end of things—”traditional” sometimes means “racist/sexist/oppressive,” and contemporary American conservative politics is based on inaccurate nostalgic fantasies about the early union—I also recognize that changes to complex systems (such as those that exist in a nation of 330 million people) often/always have unexpected/unpredictable results, which are not always positive.

Having gotten that out of the way: the dystopian/postapocalyptic narrative is, almost by definition, a conservative narrative¹—things are okay, something happens, then things are terrible. Change is bad. Were things better in The Road before the bombs fell? Of course. (Ditto for basically every narrative with nuclear explosions.) Were things better before Ingsoc? Yes. Did things get worse after Skynet became self-aware? Obviously! (Well, except for the robots. Ditto for the machines in The Matrix.) How about Independence Day? Sure, Bill Pullman and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saved humanity from the aliens, but only after the destruction of ‘every major city’ and the loss of countless human lives. (Roland Emmerich also destroys the world in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t make accurate jokes about them.) Are zombies ever good news, or outbreaks of virulent and fatal diseases? No (unless, again, you’re a zombie or a virus).

Back to the video: what is it trying to sell us? Ostensibly, anyway, it’s trying to sell us “fiscal responsibility, Constitutionally-limited government, [and] free markets” (in all-caps, no less). I’m going to ignore those, because they aren’t what we’re supposed to take away—they seem like a complete non sequitur, in fact. The video is trying to sell us revolution—a repeat of the Revolution, which (even though the video shows nothing more violent than people glowering at each other) has violent, bloody connotations. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, after all.

What happens after a revolution? After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell established a military dictatorship protectorate; the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution under Dessalines—all resulted in dictatorships of varying duration. The American Revolution is different only in that it resulted in an oligarchy (which persists to this day) rather than rule by .

The “people” certainly participate in revolutions, but they don’t organize them: cabals and juntas and provincial gentry organize them for the purpose of acquiring more power. A revolution results—in the short term, at least—in the transfer of power from elite to elite, and not in the dissemination of power from the elite to the people. That is: the people have, on the whole, no more liberty after a revolution than before, though they may have exchanged some liberties for others.

But, ironically, the Tea Party Patriots (like other ‘revolutionaries’ before them) are couching this movement in terms of greater individual liberty. “Limited government” is good, and (at least for libertarians) “limitedness” and “goodness” are inversely proportionate, so that almost no government is best (no government is anarchy, for fuck’s sake, and we can’t have that). Right? And with small government comes greater individual liberty—which reminds me, irresistibly, of the Hobbesian state of nature, in which individual liberty is completely unrestrained (nevermind that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and a war of all against all). So: governmental power should be consolidated (but not diminished), and individual liberty should be expanded, so we can all be assholes to one another. Cool.

I was going to write about The Walking Dead (the comic)—all those patriarchal, dictatorial tribes (Rick’s included) trying to make a “new life” in the brave new world of the undead—but I don’t think I can right now. The more I’ve tried to make sense of that video, the less sense it makes to me—maybe it doesn’t make any sense?—and I think I’ve already made the point I want to make … which is just that the dystopian tone is actually sort of generically appropriate. That’s all.

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1. The only counter-example that comes to mind is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the epilogue is crucial: it shows that things eventually change for the better.


Contagion

I just got back from watching Contagion (there’s a dollar theater in Plano—I didn’t know those were still a thing): it’s been on my list of movies to watch since I heard about it, and I went tonight instead of waiting for the DVD release because I’m going to be teaching the film in the spring. A colleague and I are putting together a writing course on disasters, and Contagion is one of the texts.

One of the things that means is that there will be more posts about this movie, from a more critical/pedagogical perspective, as I actually teach it—and so for now, I’m just going to talk about how awesome it was. Also: there will be spoilers.

The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow, coughing, and we know very quickly that she’s going to die (if, in fact, we didn’t know that going in). When she gets home to Minnesota from Hong Kong and hugs her son, who is about seven, we know he’s going to die, too—and we might expect her husband, Matt Damon, to die as well, but he doesn’t. There’s a fair amount going on during the opening minutes—we’re introduced to some other major characters, we see the early spread of the virus—but the mini-arc involving Beth (Paltrow), Mitch (Damon), and Clark (the kid) is one of the best parts of the film. Beth is sick, sure, but then she collapses at home, is rushed to the hospital, and dies—very quickly. Damon’s performance as he’s being told of his wife’s death is … well, excellent: it is not excessively (obviously) emotionally manipulative, and it gives a personal, individual weight of grief to the sufferings of countless millions that the film gives us. And when Clark dies while Mitch is at the hospital, well, you know that the film isn’t fucking around.

The cast was uniformly good. I was particularly impressed by Kate Winslet—which reminds me that I should watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again soon—and by Jennifer Ehle (though I must say that Regency-era dress is more flattering than an orange biohazard suit). I am always impressed by Matt Damon.

Jude Law did well with a shitty character—my initial impression is that the blogger he plays is an antagonistically-written caricature, but I may change my mind. The character is used to make some interesting and salient points about the way misinformation spreads virally (get it?), but he also feels one-dimensional in a way that even more minor characters don’t. That’s one of the film’s strengths: despite the large cast of characters, and the ensemble cast, everyone feels like a real person—except Law’s Alan Krumwiede, despite his admirable efforts. I mean, what the hell kind of name is Krumwiede? The next stupidest name in the film is “Cheever,” and that’s not stupid at all.

I’ll end by saying that this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen—even though it ends better than one might expect—and now I feel compelled to stockpile canned goods and bottled water and vegetable seeds and ammunition and batteries, and et cetera, so that I can quarantine myself and my family when this shit actually happens, because we’re overdue for an epidemic.

Also: apparently chefs in Asian casinos don’t wash their hands after handling raw pork. So, watch out for that.


Day 215: Welcome a new life.

I’ve linked to the Census Bureau’s population clock before: you have to reload the page to get new numbers, but this one updates as you watch, which is cool, but also a bit disturbing.

If I wanted to go into it, this would be the time to discuss the unsustainability of our current population growth curve, and the ever-increasing likelihood of some sort of catastrophic collapse in which most of the population dies, and what this has to do with late-20th and early-21st century apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions … I don’t really want to, though, because it’s depressing to think about. Also it’s late, and I’ve had a few bourbons, and I have to get up early and dig post-holes and put posts in them and put concrete around the posts in the morning.

So.

I’m going to take the easy way out, and offer someone else’s advice: “wear sunscreen,” &c.

I’ll make a few additions, also borrowed, but from other sources:

Life is hard, and then you die. It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms. Death and destruction. Smoke if you’ve got ’em. Alcohol doesn’t make life worth living, but it helps sometimes. All you need is love. Shit flows downhill, and payday’s on Friday. The Dude abides.

When the zombies happen, stay the fuck out of the cities.

Rock over London; rock on, Chicago.


Day 177: Try seducing someone way out of your league.

So, earlier today I was at [redacted], attending [function where this sort of thing is very out of place]. I saw [redacted] in the crowd, with whom I have the slightest of acquaintances, due to [redacted]. She looked even more stunning than usual, which is saying something. I approached her, abandoning my wife.

Me: You looking stunning.

Her: [a bit startled]: Thank you…

Me: Even more stunning than usual, which is saying something. I always enjoyed seeing you at [redacted].

Her: Uh…

Me: That dress is amazing. It really accentuates your [redacted], and your [redacted] looks fabulous. Have you been working out?

Her: [polite but cold smile]

Me: Look, this [function] is going to be a waste of our time. Let’s get out of here, go have a few drinks.

Her: I’m not sure—

Me: Let me cut to the chase. I want to have sex with you.

Her: [shocked, open-mouthed stare]

Me: Should I take that as a yes? [pause] You see, I’m blogging through this Book—

Her: [forceful slap]

People around us: [suddenly silent and staring]

Me: [pause, then—]: Alright, seriously, just once, I think it could  be a lot of fun—

[when suddenly—]

Her husband: [smashing right cross to the side of my head]

Me: [sudden loss of consciousness]

[Cut to black. Fade in, new scene: a ditch, between a small two-lane highway and a field. There are cows. It’s dusk.]

Me: [slowly regaining consciousness in the ditch.]

[long pause]

Me: Well, that didn’t work out like I’d hoped…

[long pause; cattle lowing in the distance, off-screen]

Me: [staggering to my feet, looking around trying to get my bearings]: Where the fuck am I?

[a car passes]

[I start walking east]

[fade to black, roll credits]


Day 165: Develop your very own eccentricity!

In other words: become a hipster.

The problem is that this is a game that never ends. This dude wears crayons in his beard: for a while, he’s the only one — because it looks fucking stupid — and so he gets hipster cred for being the only one. But people see him, and people talk about him, and soon there are others: not people in his circle, but people who are strangers or, at best, very tenuously connected. For a while, each of them gets hipster points for the crayons-in-the-beard thing, though the above dude, as the “OCBG” (“original crayon-beard gangsta”), gets the most hipster points.

Then a terrible thing happens: a critical mass of crayon-bearded hipsters is reached, and suddenly it’s “mainstream.” There are a variety of factors that determine the critical mass: the size of the community, the geographical area in question, the rate of spread of the eccentricity, how quickly it is possible to “fake” the eccentricity (in this case, with handmade felt fake beards with old-school crayolas in them), the first appearance of the eccentricity on You Tube, &c, &c.

Once the critical mass is reached, however, there is no going back, and the originator(s) and early adopters will drop the eccentricity faster than Julia Roberts dropped Lyle Lovett. Some may go so far as to shave their beards completely. Then they have to do something new, like bring back the penny-farthing. Or, at this point, the velocipide.

The only way to win this game is to not play, to strip oneself of all affectations and eccentricities. Of course, this is its own form of hipsterism, if done in a deliberate and conscious manner, with the goal of not being a hipster, which is why I’d be doing it.

My only option is to come up with something that most hipsters wouldn’t want to adopt, so that I can avoid the suddenly-fucking-everyone-has-crayons-in-their-beard problem: that something is manual labor.

Not just “manual labor” generally, but something specific, like laundry or deck construction or post removal. Everybody does laundry; deck construction takes too long; post removal is more work than I want to do, especially when the posts are in concrete. So I’m going to go into artisanal tree-trimming: to make it hipster I’ll be wearing cutoff shorts, too-small t-shirts, a fedora, and I’ll be drinking PBR out of a can, and I’m going to haul my tools — all of which I’ll acquire at thrift stores, garage sales, or on the side of the highway — on my xtracycle. I’m also only going to trim trees in small batches, whatever that means, though I’m going to charge a lot for it, probably twice what it would cost to hire actual professionals to do four times as much trimming.

Let’s see you do that, hipsters. Check and mate.


Day 157: Human chess day.

This didn’t happen how I intended.

I was picturing a bunch of people in the park, looking like idiots, playing a very slow and complicated version of dodgeball. Instead, I matched wits with my house, and lost.

We have a faucet in the backyard, attached to the back of the garage. It’s not particularly accessible anymore, because the previous owners built a deck around it; attaching a hose to it involves ‘harsh language’ during and a stiff drink after.

It started leaking this spring. At first I wasn’t sure what was going on, because the kids use the hose to make mud pies, and don’t always get it turned off all the way; eventually, though, I realized that the faucet was leaking — slowly, but leaking — and would have to be replaced. It was probably as old as the house, which is getting damn old at this point; if I remember correctly — and my wife will correct me if I don’t — the house was built in the late 1940s. (Tangentially: when I was doing the kitchen remodel last summer, I found a Coca-Cola bottle under the house, circa the 1940s, with “Sherman TX” on the bottom.)

So I got up this morning, had a cup of coffee, whatever, went to Lowe’s with the kids to pick up a new faucet and nipple, came home, and went to work.

In order for this all to make sense, you need to be aware that there are five distinct pieces involved: the copper pipe, the elbow, the nipple, the faucet, and the hose. (That’s one of the best lists I’ve ever written.) The plan was to remove and replace the old nipple and faucet; however, the whole mess had gotten so corroded that my attempts to loosen the nipple from the elbow actually loosened the elbow from the pipe. No big deal, though: just go back to Lowe’s, get a new elbow, swing by my dad’s to pick up the soldering stuff, and we’re back in business.

That’s what happened, basically, although it took a few more moves than I intended. By noon-thirty, though, the whole thing was put back together, and I had a faucet that no longer leaked — take that, house!

I went about my afternoon, which involved being somewhere other than my house. When we came home, I checked on the back yard — I’m paranoid about plumbing fixes, these days — and found a small pond.

Fuck. That’s the third time this year we’ve had a broken pipe and a resultant lake. At least it’s not under the house, right?

I checked the new elbow: no leaks. I checked the knob, thinking it might not have been all the way off: not that either. I looked — carefully — under the deck at the pipe coming up out of the ground: it was totally dry, except the part that was under water.

What must have happened is this: there’s got to be another elbow in the line, and my removal of the faucet was too much for the 70-year-old solder, and that elbow started leaking. Fixing it will be easy enough, I guess, but getting to it is going to be a bitch. There’s a deck built around it, for one thing: I’m going to have to remove a section of it in order to even verify that my hunch is correct (which is going to require borrowing a chainsaw and a reciprocating saw from my father). It’s also surrounded by mud, and mud is less-than-conducive to soldering copper pipe. It also another fucking plumbing disaster.

Today, the house wins. I’m going to kick its ass tomorrow, though, because I want to be able to turn my water back on.

If you don’t see what any of this has to do with chess, well, I’m not sure what to say to you.