Friday, October 30, 2009

The Privilege of Exchange

I've been thinking about that short story “The Gift of the Magi”—anyone remember it? It's one of those they always make you read in school, along with “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Lottery”. It's an O. Henry (the author not the candy bar)story, which means that it has a crazy twist at the end. Or at least that was supposed to be his trademark. I've never read anything else the guy ever wrote, as far as I know, but in your English textbook, if you check the author bio before the story, they will not fail to mention how famous he was for his surprise twist endings, making O. Henry sort of the M. Night Shyamalan of his day, I guess.

(Keep in mind that I have not read this story since I was probably thirteen years old, so I may have some of the details slightly wrong, but don't worry, I remember the main plot points.)

ANYWAY, “The Gift of the Magi.” It's a story about Jim and Della, a young couple who are staring down the barrel of their first Christmas together, and they are broke. This is causing some problems for the two of them, because neither can afford to get the other a Christmas gift. Della, the girl, has long beautiful hair, and she loves her husband Jim very much, and she wants to do something really nice for him. So she goes and she has her long beautiful hair cut off, and then she sells it so someone can make a really cool wig out of it. Heartbreaking! She then takes her hair-money and uses it to buy a really nice watch-chain for Jim. This is awesome, the power of love at work, etc. And she goes home and she puts the chain in a fancy box and waits for Jim to get home from working at Mr. Scrooge's counting house or wherever it is a dude worked back then in those days.

So then Jim comes home and before she can give him the fancy watch-chain, he tells her that he has a gift for her, and hands over a box of his own. And so they sit down opposite one another and open up the presents. Bored to tears yet? Well, don't worry, because this is where it gets good. You see, while Della has gone and sold her hair to buy Jim a watch-chain, Jim has sold his pocketwatch to buy Della a beautiful set of silver combs and brushes! The irony is just too much, and they realize that—I don't know, love is good, and it's the thought that counts and all that stuff. It is a beautiful and well-crafted story that is beloved by young and old all the world over.

But here's the thing.

Della's hair—her long, beautiful hair—that shit is going to grow back, and she will be able to use her fine silver combs and brushes and whatnot. But Jim? Jim is shit out of luck—he's not going to be growing a new pocketwatch anytime soon. He totally gets the shaft in this story. A better ending would be, instead of the two of them gently laughing and being grateful to be young and in love and so on, if Jim said “Well, Della, tell you what—in three months when your hair grows back, we'll go sell your combs and stuff and buy me another watch. That way the two of us will be back at square one, you with hair that you can't comb and me with a watch I can't swing around on a chain. Otherwise, this is some god-damn bullshit.”

You know. Something like that.

Friday, October 16, 2009


(A quick sketch from the bus: a vaguely scummy-looking white dude boarded, clutching a baby carrier complete with sleeping baby in one hand and his breakfast burrito in the other. He proceeded to sit opposite me and talk into his cell phone, holding it in front of his mouth like a walkie-talkie. I had a great view of his jagged teeth. Because there were women in the vicinity, at some point someone mentioned the baby. "He's four months old," daddy told everyone within earshot, "yesterday was the first day I seen him. I's in jail when he's born. His momma come to me with him and says she don't wont im. Says 'have a nice life with your son,' and I'm raisin im now." He then began to hand out wallet-size photos. "there's two of my kids," he said, "and here's two more. Here's the other two. And here's the otherns." "How many kids you got?" inquired the heavyset woman directly to my right, in between bites of her breakfast sloppy joe. "I got seven daughters and this here little boy," he told us all, and went on to let us know that he was 31 years old and had eight children "by five different women." He confided in us that he "used to like to smoke pot and chase women." At some point the phrase "I'd dip in and out" was used. The bus stopped somewhere between the public housing apartments and a motel famous for its numerous murders and he departed, sleeping baby in hand, bound for greener pastures and more willing pussies.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Way Out Of This Night

Iris Dement's “My Life”is song that never ceases to amaze me.

The song is simple, three and a half minutes. A piano part I suspect nearly anyone could play, a plucked violin that swells and recedes quietly underneath the plaintive vocal, nothing else. Dement's voice is a strange, tender thing. A country voice, but one that's worlds away from not only the pop sheen of modern country but also from the brash twang of the 60s and 70s. A voice you might hear on a Carter Family 78 or Harry Smith's Anthology, a voice that swims up from the crackle and hiss and the weight of decades.

The lyrics are simple. Some would even say trite—“I gave joy to my mother/and I made my lover smile/and I can give comfort to my friends/when they're hurting/and I can make it seem better/for awhile”—goes the chorus, but just viewing the words does nothing to explain the way that Dement makes something so simple the cradle for enormous profundity. Its opening verse—“My life, it don't count for nothing/When I look at this world/I feel so small/And my life, it's only a season/a passing September that no one will recall”—makes personal humilty into a supremely beautiful, heroic thing.

It truly astounds me, sometimes, that human beings can carry so much beauty around inside themselves. It further astounds me how any one of us can look out at the world and not be utterly crushed by its limitless possibility. It's been a long day but I'm still awake, listening to this song and feeling my head spin. The sentiments are nothing new, nor are they expressed in any way that could ever be considered complex, but the song is better for it. You can feel lifetimes pass while it plays.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

True Blood is a pretty bad TV show—I could go on and on about it, its mulitple Terrible Southern Accents, the bad acting, the awful special effects, the various and sundry plot holes, the typical condescension toward/complete misunderstanding of the American South—but I won't. I'll just say that it's bad and leave it at that.


I do have to mention this. Two of the castmembers—Chris Bauer and William Sanderson—were each on HBO original programs that were much, much better. Bauer played Frank Sobotka on season two of The Wire (a show that I had never seen until about three months ago, but that I became balls-out obsessed with), while the great William Sanderson, in addition to his roles in Blade Runner, Lonesome Dove and Newhart, played EB Farnum on Deadwood, a fantastic show that was killed before its time.

Bauer and Sanderson play the two cops in the town, and I imagine the two of them, after a long day of vampiring, walking into a dimly lit bar, sitting quietly at a wobbly table. They do not speak for a long time. A waitress comes and they quietly make their orders. She brings them quickly and moves back behind the bar. Finally, Sanderson lifts his glass.

“I was on Deadwood,” he mutters quietly.

“I was on The Wire,” Bauer counters.

“Touche',” replies Sanderson.

And they drink in the gathering darkness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last & Greatest of Human Dreams

I really like Ken Burns. A lot of the criticism of his work is pretty valid, I guess...but really, I don't much care. The stuff he gets right is great, and the stuff he gets wrong he doesn't get so wrong that I'm too put off (although I thought The War wasn't much good).

He's got another long-ass documentary on PBS, this one about America's national parks. I've only half-heartedly watched a bit of it—honestly, I'm not that interested in the parks' history—but it's pretty good. At what, twelve hours? it's probably too long, and more than a little repetitive (take a drink every time you hear someone say some variation of “the national parks are about democracy”), but again, so what.

The thing is, the other night when I was watching, I was...overcome? I guess, as I sometimes am, by how incredibly huge this country really is, both in its literal physical scope and, more importantly, its vast symbolic power, its ability to be what Hunter Thompson called “a fantastic monument to the better instincts of the human race.” America is an absolutely limitless place, which of course means it is also a nation that can never live up to the promises it makes—America will always break your heart, because you know that no matter how good it is, it will never be as good as it can be. Which means that there will always be men and women working to improve things, and to make the country live up to its potential.

They'll fail, of course. But they're trying.