30 December 2010

Possession by Zulawski, 1981

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:25 am

I believe this is the first feature-length film I’ve watched entirely on YouTube. Here’s the link to part 1 of 9.

27 December 2010

The Pianist

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 10:32 am

Here’s another new character I’m introducing: the pianist. In contrast to Tyler Misch, who will prove a central motive force for other characters’ actions while remaining an essentially withdrawn figure, the pianist will take a more active hand. We first encounter him in part one, chapter eleven, at a party hosted by one of the super-rich in his elaborate mountaintop retreat:

The Steinway alternately filled the vast interior with lush chords and splintered it with jagged rhythms. The pianist wore a top hat and nothing else; he seemed undistracted by the young man seated on the floor between the piano bench and the footpedals, his face buried in the musician’s crotch. On one of the red leather sofas two naked women fondled each other as they watched themselves on the giant television screen mounted on the wall across the room. An enormous man, fully clothed, stood above the two women, a cigarette in one hand and a videocamera in the other. Scattered throughout the room in twos and threes, perhaps twenty other guests were talking, laughing, fucking, watching others fuck. The scent of cinammon and marijuana suffused the room. Waitresses in formal attire served champagne and savories. From behind the one-way mirror Martin Drake recognized the bartender from Rik’s…

Two chapters later the pianist and the bartender make another appearance, this time at Rik’s, the café where they both work:

Her afternoon shift over, the bartender went back to the kitchen to pick up her things. Sauces and broths were simmering; the chef was going over the dinner specials with the waitstaff; busboys were bundling up dirty napkins and tablecloths and stuffing them in laundry bags. Skirting the edge of the dining area on her way to the door, the bartender was startled by a crashing dominant seventh. Reflexively she turned toward the source of the sound: the man seated at the old upright piano seemed unaware of her presence. She quickened her step.

“Hey pretty,” a voice drawled. Glancing again, she met the pianist’s liquid gaze. He played the same chord again, softly, one note at a time, in ascending sequence – a musical invitation. Hesitantly she approached the piano. “I trust that you made out all right the other night? Financially I mean. Of course the Host pays well, but he also invites some quite generous friends.” The bartender nodded: the tips had been extravagant. “Of course,” the pianist intimated, “if you made out in other ways I am, as they say, all ears.”

Several times during those long hours she had been engaged in conversation by those whom she served. She had been propositioned, which she had been told to expect; graciously she had declined all offers. She had accepted no controlled substances that might compromise her performance. To her surprise she had not been groped by any of the men or women, dressed or undressed. Near dawn someone had given her an earring, which she had casually slipped into her pocket; the next morning she realized that it was a natural pearl of remarkable size and nacreous brilliance. “I did fine, thanks,” she said.

“I should hope that you would thank me, precious. Might I suggest another possibility for the next time? Unshackle yourself from servitude. Become a guest. Yes I know, he has not served who gathers gold, and so forth. But the beauty of the simple deed which serves another’s hour of need – tell me, isn’t that worth more than its weight in gold? No need to trot about with your little tray in your little uniform. Not a brilliant conversationalist? Not a promising ingénue or the next Rachel Whiteread? Not to worry: she also serves who only stands and waits. You have what it takes, my dear, trust me. When his hour of need arises – or hers – the lucrative guest will come to you. And I assure you, those guests know how to demonstrate their gratitude. Show but the slightest inclination and I shall be pleased to extend an enthusiastic recommendation to our Host.”

The bartender could feel her face getting warm. “Does Rikki know?” she asked, quickly surveying the dining room.

“My lovely, don’t you understand? Rikki knows everything.”

“And she approves?”

“She neither approves nor disapproves. She knows. That, for Rikki, is more than enough. Don’t worry: she hired you to tend bar, not to audition for the Host’s exquisite little collection. If you do decide to give my suggestion the consideration it merits, I am prepared to play Henry Higgins to your Eliza Dolittle. Poise, posture, presence: the classic assets are lost on the cowboys and rubes who assail you around here. I assure you that finesse does make a difference to the real guests you encounter at the Host’s get-togethers. Good taste is one way to distinguish the real from the impostor – an ability which will prove indispensable to you, my dear. It’s surprising how often the young talents try to woo me, convinced that I can be their sugar daddy while they perfect their craft. I can teach you to avoid old frauds like me.”

“Yes, well…”

“No strings attached, pretty. It’s in my best interests to please the Host. And isn’t it a happy coincidence, my enchanting young friend, that what pleases me almost invariably pleases him as well? Oh there would have been a time when I might have demanded quid pro quo. A pretty face, a well-turned figure, the public servility nicely counterpointing a subtle yet thematic air of contempt: well I am an aesthete above all. Let’s just say that my worm has turned. In retrospect I believe, if I may put it somewhat indelicately, that for me the smell has proven the decisive factor. Of course if the terms and conditions are favorable I am prepared to hold my nose so to speak. No: think of me as your Godfather – some day, and that day may never come…”

I expect the pianist to play a recurring secondary part in the story.

21 December 2010

Mad Dog

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:26 am

“I like myself more when I’m ticked off. And right now I like myself a lot.”

– Tom Izzo, men’s head basketball coach at Michigan State University

I’m on my morning walk, the one that takes me toward the foothills, through the condo complex, alongside the engineered drainage ditch. A woman walking a dog approaches on the sidewalk. The dog is medium-to-short in stature, stocky, big-jawed — I don’t know my dog breeds, but I’m thinking at least half pit bull. The dog is on a long leash, and it’s got that look in its eye like it wants to tussle. Just as we’re about to pass one another the woman shortens up the leash, pulling the dog next to her. We pass. Immediately I feel something grabbing the back of my leg. I turn: the woman and the dog are walking away.

“Get that fucking dog off of me,” I yell at the woman.

The woman stops and faces me. “Well good morning to you too,” she replies. The dog says nothing.

“Your dog grabbed me.”

“It didn’t grab you.”

“Yes it did, you bitch.”

“Oh, so I’m a bitch now?”

“You’re both bitches.” Woman and dog walk away. I’m still standing there, yelling after them: “That’s a fucking pit bull. If you can’t control it better than that, you should get it off the street. Or better yet, let it off the leash so it can go for my throat.” I continue my usual route, make the turn by the open field, and head home.

*  *  *

EVENING UPDATE. Today just wasn’t a good day for me to go outside. My afternoon run took me to the library (where I dropped off a book for my wife and picked up Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash for myself). Two different cars almost hit me, both times when I was in a pedestrian crosswalk. The first guy seemed to be looking right at me as I approached, but as I was passing directly in front of his car he started driving toward me. I had to take evasive action to avoid being hit. When I yelled at the driver he acted like I’d dropped out of the fucking sky directly in front of his car. I swore at him and gave him the finger; he returned the gesture and drove off. Not two minutes later it happened again, at a different crosswalk. THESE FUCKING ASSHOLES, I yelled, and this time the car actually stopped to let me pass. The library book and I both made it home intact.

20 December 2010

Report on the Writers’ Group

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:56 am

No thanks, but I don’t believe I’ll be back next month.

A side note for you empiricists:  During the recent flurry of new Ktismatics posts, traffic on the blog has gone down. This trend mirrors the increase in hits when I previously stopped posting.

18 December 2010

A Guy Walks Into a Writers’ Group

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

Tonight will be my second visit to a writers’ group.

This fall I was reading a thirties noir novel on my deck when a passer-by stopped to remark about how odd it was to see anyone reading, let alone a man. He was even more surprised when he found out I was reading fiction. It turns out that this fellow, who recently moved into the neighborhood, taught comparative literature at a nearby university before retiring. He also writes creative nonfiction and poetry. I told him that I write too. Oh really? You should come to our group, read something you’ve written to us. I recounted my prior fairly-recent experiences with public reading and a local writers’ group, which I recounted on the blog at the time. He found the tale amusing, and asked to read the short story I had read to the group. He loved the story, and suggested that I try it out on his group at the November session. I did: the rest of the group liked it too, and we engaged in some lively discussion about it.

It’s a small group that’s been meeting for years. The current lineup consists of my new neighborhood friend, a novelist, and two poets, all of whom have taught or currently teach literature at universities. So I’m sort of the odd man out in terms of literary background, which makes me a bit apprehensive. But they didn’t rub my aesthetic ignorance in my face, and when I asked what were surely naive questions about literary allusions they didn’t ridicule me (at least to my face). The group meets monthly, so the format doesn’t really lend itself to workshop-level craftsmanship. I’m not exactly sure what its point is really: to give each person a few minutes in the spotlight, to encourage one another in their lonely writerly endeavors, to wine and dine in convivial company — those seem to be the main benefits. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing I’d like to participate in long-term, but I will go again tonight.

In a recent post I presented a short chapter from the second part of a novel I’m currently writing. I gave my neighbor friend the first three chapters of the first part, which he also liked. He has encouraged me to read these chapters to the group, but I think it’s a bit much. I’ll probably read only the first chapter, which is almost exactly the same length as the ten-minute “Looking Up” story I read previously. Here’s the beginning of that chapter — you’ll note that it incorporates the strange graffiti stencil I posted about earlier this week. I have a couple of questions about this bit, mostly concerning the reference to Bass Ale (too obscure or precious?) and the abrupt shift in voice/tense. On Monday I’ll report back on the group.



The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no rock oldies blasting on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please. As she pours you take a closer look at the ornate pendant suspended from the black ribbon encircling her neck. It appears to be an iconic image, although the coronet perched atop the leering holy man’s head and the five-pointed pinwheel he wears above his breast betoken no familiar theology. Some new-age mystic no doubt, maybe even an ironic citation of mysticism. Most likely she spotted the medallion at a consignment store and thought how good it would look with her black jacket.

The beer has been poured, and now you realize that you’re standing there staring at this young woman’s chest. She, who has surely dealt with your type before, asks if you’d like to sit down. Glass in hand, you step awkwardly around the two patrons to your left and take a seat at the end of the bar. She slips a coaster under your glass and holds out a menu. Scanning the daily lunch specials you see something you’d like. As you wait for the opportunity to order you can’t help but listen in on the two men’s conversation.

“Two guys walk into a bar,” says the first guy.

“Already heard it,” the other guy says.

“But there are a million guy-walks-into-a-bar jokes,” the first guy, feigning offense, retorts.

The second guy folds his napkin and sets it next to his plate. He stands, takes his wallet out of his inside jacket pocket, lays down a twenty. “You’ve got to realize, Stephen, that in my line of work you hear them all. Just this morning there’s this client in my office, some guy getting sued for divorce, wife caught him with the other woman. So this client launches into the Two Guys setup, and I just rock back in my chair and smile. Oh I’ll laugh when he’s done all right. Hell, I’m on the meter. He tells me the joke, then he tells me where he heard the joke, and I’m thinking to myself, this sure is an easy way to make an extra five bucks.”

Stephen pulls a thin roll of bills from his jeans pocket. He peels off a five and tosses it on the bar in front of his lawyer friend. “Okay, I’m paying in advance. So there’s these two guys. They walk into a bar…”

“That should cover the tip,” the lawyer says with a wink to the barkeep. Donning a pair of sunglasses he strides toward the door, the other man following closely behind.

*   *   *

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare. A block later he and Martin Drake paused to watch a dreadlocked girl tapdance, accompanied by an old hippie banjoist’s competent rendition of O Susannah. Even though the two buskers had set up their show on a grassy patch, the rhythmic chatter of the dancer’s feet sounded distinct and sharp. Stepping closer, Stephen saw that she was performing her act on a four-foot-square piece of hardwood, hinged in the middle for portability. Martin tossed a few coins in the bowl, then the two men continued their postprandial stroll. Two blocks toward the foothills, where the downtown walking mall turned back into a residential street, stood an old two-storey frame house that had been converted into an upscale office duplex. “Drake and Daniels LLC, Attorneys at Law,” announced the discrete sign posted above the left entryway. “Let’s do this again,” Martin said, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses, and Stephen couldn’t help but wonder whether Martin’s invitation reflected the casual professionalism which his old friend seemed to slip on and off as easily as his Wayfarers.

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and walked back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone and peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read…

*   *   *

20 Dec — Well if you must know, the Bass Ale refers to this painting by Manet:

* * * * *

17 January update — Courtesy of Kenzie, here’s a screengrab from the latest Simpsons’ episode. Probably if I had taken this variant of the Manet to the writers’ group no one would have admitted knowing anything about Mr. Burns.

16 December 2010

On the “Tax Compromise”

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:12 am

Purportedly the $1 trillion “tax compromise” will function as an economic stimulus. With more discretionary money to spend, the citizenry will buy more consumer goods. This increased demand will stimulate the private sector to hire more workers. I think it’s bullshit.

Between April 2008 to March 2009 the US unemployment rate doubled, and since then it’s been stuck at between 9 and 10 percent. During this same interval the consumer price index and the gross domestic product have both gone up slightly. Meanwhile US corporate profits have consistently increased over the past year and a half, reaching the highest level in history during the third quarter of 2010. Soaring profits demonstrate the success of an industry-wide strategy: cut costs by squeezing more productivity out of fewer workers while maintaining or even increasing sales.

The biggest obstacle to sustaining this profit-making strategy is the real possibility of a decline in demand. Unemployed people have less money to spend, while the still-employed haven’t seen their wages rise. But that’s nothing new: adjusted for inflation, US wages have stagnated for thirty years. During those thirty years prices and sales have gone up. How? Less saving, more borrowing. But the borrowing bubble burst in the mortgage crisis, and since then personal savings rates have been increasing.

To keep the profits rolling in, US industry has to find a way to keep discretionary spending high. It would seem that it’s finally time for industry to pay the piper: start paying workers more so they can keep buying more. Corporations are currently making profits at an annualized rate of $1.7 trillion: why not spend, say, an even trill next year to hire more workers and raise wages? Then the workers can spend the extra pay on more of the shit that they’re making and you’re selling.

But then, object the CEOs and investors, that trillion wouldn’t be profit any more, would it? How about this: instead of getting consumers to borrow more, let’s have the government borrow more. Then, instead of the government spending the borrowed money on more public works that benefit the citizenry, let’s have the government distribute the borrowed money to the consumers so they can buy more of the shit we sell. Instead of spending a trillion of our profits on increased labor costs, we’ll invest that trillion in the new bonds the government will issue to pay for the borrowing — that way corporations make even more profits on the interest. And we’ll make sure our political hacks keep selling our story: pass this borrow-and-spend stimulus package right now or risk double-dip recession. Okay, meeting adjourned.

14 December 2010

Obamacare Unconstitutional?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:29 am

At first blush I don’t have a huge problem with a Virginia federal judge declaring the Obama healthcare plan unconstitutional. The judge argues that the government cannot force citizens to buy products from private-sector vendors. I agree.

Under a single-payer arrangement, doctors, hospitals, home-care services, and so on would all have continued to be private-sector providers of care. Their services would have been accessible to all, paid for by the government subject to whatever copays and deductibles would have applied. If you didn’t want to use the single-payer plan, you could of course make other arrangements, find other ways to pay — although of course you wouldn’t receive any sort of refund from the single-payer plan in which you are automatically enrolled. This is the way Medicare currently works, and to my knowledge there are no legal challenges to its constitutionality.

Under Obamacare, low-income citizens would qualify for a subsidy to pay for private health insurance. People who choose not to buy would be subjected to a fine: presumably it’s this punitive fine that’s constitutionally objectionable. If the fine is eliminated, then the obligation to buy would be eliminated and Obamacare would pass constitutional muster. The revised plan would still be better than the status quo, and in some ways it might be an improvement on the original plan. The substantial government subsidies of insurance premiums for low-income people would still be in effect, significantly reducing the ranks of the uninsured. Those who still choose not to buy will unfortunately include the very poor, who still can’t afford the premiums. But the non-buyers will also include the very healthy, for whom the exorbitant price of private health insurance doesn’t seem worth the benefits. It’s this latter, relatively low-risk group that the insurers were hoping to lure into the Obamacare risk pool. Fines levied for failing to buy the product would have effectively eliminated any incentive for the insurers to compete for the uninsured’s business based on price. With the fines tossed out, competition theoretically returns to the market. As long as we’re stuck in the private sector, a little more price competition is better than none.

That the conservatives’ removal of a critical component of Obamacare might actually prove beneficial to the citizenry and harmful to corporate financial interests illustrates what a fundamentally crappy plan it is. In all likelihood though, the conservatives won’t stop with removing the obligation to buy private insurance: they’ll take the whole plan down, including premium subsidies for the poor. For all its failures, Obamacare at least would have reduced the number of uninsureds; now even that gain will almost surely be lost.

A year ago many progressives were arguing that Obamacare, while seriously flawed, was at least a step in the right direction, a piece of legislation that could be built on incrementally. Now one has to wonder whether the Dems shouldn’t have gone all in for single-payer, which is after all a coherent and internally consistent scheme. Of course neither Obama nor Hillary supported single-payer during their presidential campaigns, so there never was much chance. Further, the success of single-payer requires that the government actually negotiate deals — with doctor networks, pharmas, hospitals, and other corporate vendors — that benefit the citizenry, seeking the best care for the lowest price. Frankly, I doubt that the government is up to it. After all, the US government serves as single payer for military goods and services, and it certainly doesn’t seem to drive very hard bargains with those contractors, regardless of which party is signing the checks.

*   *   *

14 Dec — From today’s Associated Press:

“Hudson limited his ruling to striking down the so-called individual mandate, leaving intact other portions of the law. But administration officials and outside analysts agree that important provisions of the legislation could not go forward without the requirement for everyone to be insured. That’s because insurers need to have large pools of healthy people, who are cheap to insure, or it is not financially tenable for them to extend coverage to those with pre-existing medical problems.”

Exactly. The individual mandate is why Obamacare was so attractive to the private health industry, why they supported the plan. It’s unclear to me that the Republicans, who support — and who are supported by — these corporate constituents just as much as the Democrats, will really want to disallow the individual mandate, which subsidizes billions in extra private-sector revenues/profits. We’ll see how it plays out.

12 December 2010


Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:08 am

What is this image? It’s about 2 feet in diameter, spray-stencilled on a sidewalk near where I live. I’d seen another copy of it on the wall of a pedestrian underpass tunnel in town, but that one has been painted over by the city maintenance crew.

13 Dec — Turns out the image measures only about 15 inches across: apparently it looms larger in my unconscious.

10 December 2010

Asian Fail

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:51 am

“I failed.”

“Did you fail, or did you get a B?”

“I got a B, but…”

“So you Asian failed.”

[Conversation between my daughter and one of her highschoolmates, neither of whom is Asian.]

8 December 2010

Code Name: The Icon

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:47 am

This morning I sat down to write the first chapter of the second part of a novel I’ve been working on. In this part I intend to introduce a character whom I variously think of as Tyler Misch, the Underground Man, and the Portalist. He is, as they say, shrouded in mystery, having disappeared without a trace some years prior to the time frame in which the story unfolds. Is he dead or alive? Is he transnational tycoon or Mafioso, CIA or revolutionary, genius or madman? Whoever he is, it’s important that he have a Secret Project, the scope of which seems to be enormous. This Project might purport to save the world from Apocalypse, or it might push the world over the edge. I want the nature of this Project to be revealed gradually, enigmatically, in a series of letters he writes to a daughter whom he has never seen.

So, in Chapter One of Part Two I wanted to write the first of these revelatory yet obfuscatory letters from Tyler Misch. What should be the tone of this letter? In what oblique ways might he begin trying to describe the Project? Here, drawing on my extended engagements in the theory blogs, is what I drafted this morning. Some of you who are still stopping by might get a kick out of the allusions.

*   *   *


Its code name is the Icon. When up and running, the Icon would serve as a nexus. Multiple vectors or trajectories converge into the Icon; from it others diverge. An omnibus portal, a grand central station.

Of course the Icon would not be installed in a single centralized location. It would need to be distributed across an extremely wide area. Not just wide, but also deep and tall. Not just on the surface, but above and below. Earth and sky and sea. Separating the three vertical levels of the Icon’s installation should be regarded more as a matter of linguistic convenience than as an absolute or relative distinction within its material reality.

Speaking of its material reality, critical to the Icon’s subtle elegance is that it seems not to be there at all. It is assembled from real components to be sure, but these components consist primarily of ordinary materials and objects. Or should I say they seem so to consist. It has been proposed by some of the Speculative Realists that the essence of any and every object always withdraws from every interaction. In other words, every thing is always more than it seems. If these theorists are right, then all objects hide not just from human perceivers but also from one another. They hide even from the universe as a whole, a part of and yet apart from the larger Reality in which they are embedded. As a consequence of this principle of withdrawal the Icon’s essence would remain forever covert, occluded, occult, impenetrable by the most sophisticated and impersonal devices that have been invented or that ever will be invented by human or artificial or alien intelligence. More: objects withdraw not only from one another but from themselves. Therefore, no matter how sophisticated the Icon becomes, it can never become aware of its own essence, can never reveal itself to those who would seek to corrupt or destroy or exploit it.

Trajectories passing through the Icon may continue unchanged or they may be deflected. They may be terminated or merged into other trajectories. They may be altered in quantitative and qualitative ways. Most startlingly, some trajectories become something else altogether, evidently without passing through any sort of transformative processes or intermediate stages. When it operates in this way the Icon functions as a creator of Absolute Difference.

Love to you and your Mother,


4 December 2010

Brainytown USA

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:52 pm

I just found out that we live in the brainiest city in America.

Here’s a link to the BrainiestBastions table, which displays each US metro area with 200K+ population and its corresponding “brainpower index,” based on a weighted combination of percentages of residents who have completed various levels of schooling. Perched at the top of page 1, Boulder proudly proclaims its brainy cred: 32% university graduates, plus an additional 26% with advanced degrees. Ann Arbor Michigan places a fairly distant second with 24% and 25%. The rest of the top ten: Washington, Durham NC, Fort Collins CO, Bridgeport-Stamfort CT, San Jose CA, Boston, Madison WI, and San Francisco-Oakland. Dredging the bottom is Merced California with 8% bachelors’ degrees plus 3% masters’ and above.

Maybe living in Brainytown is what makes me discount the value of the “stinking badges.” I’d probably change my tune if I lived in Merced.

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