Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Manly Men Doping Around

The Sea WolfThe Sea Wolf by Jack London

I like Jack London. I really do. But sometimes you gotta wish he paid closer attention to what he was doing.

The Sea Wolf is supposed to be a sea tale, a kind of Moby Dick with the focus on Ahab. And it works, to a point. To a very limited point. This Ahab happens to be "materialist," in the language of the early 20th century--meaning he doesn't care much for deep thought and sentiment and stuff that can't be measured. If Ayn Rand had been to sea she might have come up with this character, Wolf Larsen. As it is, he's disjointed composite of Howard Roark, Gordon Gecko and a poor understanding of Nietzsche's superman. He takes what he can get, kills when he can, cares nothing for convention, for morals, for "sentiment," as he calls it. He is strong and intelligent.

We meet him after the narrator, a literary critic named Humphrey, falls off a ferry and gets rescued by him in his seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. Of course, a man like Wolf Larsen probably wouldn't rescue anyone just to save a life, but he needs a foil, someone to banter with. Humphrey provides that.

I won't go further with the plot, except to say it is as unbelievable as any you will ever see. I would rather talk about London's peculiar style in this work. Somebody needs to.

There is hardly a page in The Sea Wolf where the author does not botch a decent effect by undermining it with some contrary idea a little later. There is hardly a page where a good description is not negated later by a poorly chosen and mitigating word. I call it inattention.

In Chapter 9, for example, we are told that Mugridge, the Cockney cook, is a coward, shortly later that he is brave. His was “the courage of cowardice,” I kid you not. His intimidation of Humphrey by sharpening a kitchen knife in his presence is "ludicrous"—until a few lines later when it is "serious". He is far too timid to actually use the knife, but this very timidity might prompt him to do it. A paragraph later, when he stabs another man rather than Humphrey, who had been the object of his wrath, his face is livid with fear and so he becomes—I am not making this up—domineering and exultant.

“The psychology of it is sadly tangled,” Humphrey tells us, “and yet I could read the workings of his mind as clearly as though it were a printed book.”

Possibly. But if so, he is the only one.

At one point in Chapter 12, several men are chasing Mugridge so they might seize him up and tow him behind the ship. Mugridge resists by running away. He had little stomach for a dip, we are told, “as the water was frightfully cold, and his was anything but a rugged constitution.” Two lines later he is flashing along the deck with a “nimbleness and speed we did not dream he possessed.”

There then takes place a bit of stage business that demonstrates Mugridge’s agility, though not in the way London probably hoped. Mugridge is being chased by one Harrison, and is springing like a cat to the tops of cabins, shinnying down scuttles, racing through rigging, and in all ways moving like a young and agile ape, to avoid being thrown in the water. Harrison is “at his heels and gaining on him.” Then:

“Mugridge, leaping suddenly, caught the jib-boom-lift. It happened in an instant. Holding his weight by his arms, and in mid-air doubling his body at the hips, he let fly with both feet. The oncoming Harrison caught the kick squarely in the pit of the stomach, groaned involuntarily, and doubled up and sank backward to the deck.”

Now I am as credulous as any reader, but in this case I must crave an explanation for how a man being frantically chased can suddenly grab hold of a line above his head, double at the hips, and kick the man behind him in the stomach. I have run through this action many times in my imagination and can only conclude that 1. Mugridge was a contortionist and could double himself backward or 2. London was eager to finish writing for the day and get drinking.

And as for Harrison groaning involuntarily, well, yes, I imagine he did. I am certain it was involuntary and I’m certain it was more than a groan—more like a bark or a grunt or a shriek—some expostulation more urgent than a groan and entirely beyond the groan category. It was a sound that was punched out of Harrison, kicked out of him, not squshed by slow pressure as a groan would have been. I also don’t wonder that Harrison “doubled up and sank backward” after being kicked in the stomach, though people in that situation more often fly backward than sink. Let that pass. This is a story thick with unusual characters exhibiting unusual behavior. Perhaps this is the proper way to behave aboard the Ghost.

There are many more examples, but we need not continue. I’ll only say I’m glad there is plenty more of London's writing to represent the man. If this were all he would never have gotten out of Oakland.

Monday, June 10, 2013

An End to All Your Worries

This week, a new feature: Ask Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Dear Cosmopolitan Magazine: I'm an independent young woman trying to be more sociable. I don't know much about your magazine except that it contains many photographs of extremely beautiful couples who appear to be about to have sex, so I thought you might have some advice. – Unsure

Dear Unsure: We have all kinds of advice for you. We publish 12 issues a year of advice just for you, dear, sweet, upwardly mobile but still insecure Cosmo Girl. Please refer to our special 21-page section in the May issue, called "Understanding Men," which contains such interesting articles as "The Joy of Polarity Sex," which does not involve electrical sockets no matter what it sounds like.

Also read articles such as "The Mysterious Male Ego (Yes, it's Big)," wherein we give you many examples of women having trouble making their men function properly because they, um, because they - well, it's not clear why, but you'll love the snappy graphics.

Also please find the article wherein we discuss the four male personality types - Bad Boy, Good Guy, Brainy Man and Sexy Hunk - based on the four celebrities we happened to have pictures of this month, including, if can believe this, Microsoft President Bill Gates.

This should clear up any insecurities you may have and replace them with entirely new ones.

Dear Cosmo: I'm looking for a way to spruce up my appearance. Any tips? -Feeling Drab

Dear Drab: Fashion and appearance tips are a crucial part of our monthly fare. Any time you need inspiration, please consult our cover photograph, which every month features a beautiful woman constructed mostly of petrochemical products.

Environmental tip: Many of the beauty products advertised in our pages may also be used in home renovation.

For those on a budget: You can save money on fragrances by rubbing the magazine directly against your chest.

Dear Cosmo: What is the biggest challenge to you as a magazine? - Curious

Dear Curious: I would say it's finding two or three hundred different ways to run the same story about breaking up.

Dear Cosmo: What is the most bizarre insecurity you can find to write a story about? - Still Curious

Dear Still Curious: This month it would be the story about dealing with jealous bridesmaids on your wedding day.

Question: What about bizarre advice?

Answer: That would have to be the story on page 166 about how to faint in moments of high emotional drama. This article cautions, however, that you shouldn't attempt to fake faint unless you've practiced at home on a rug.

Question: How many subscriptions did you say you sell?

Answer: So many it's scary, friend.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How to Speak Good

Greetings English speakers! Today we'll talk about getting orientated toward language, so that next chance you get you'll speak real good in public and absolutely wheeze all kinda class and refinement, and have a positive impact (KABOOM!) on your listeners.

It's very important to speak good, when speaking to others. Fluency in speech confers upon the speaker a sense of education, earnestness, sobriety--a sense that this person actually paid attention in English class, and is therefore probably a starchy little weasel-eyed prig.

If you get beat up because of this, speaking clearly on the phone to the ambulance people will increase your chance of getting quick medical care. So. A few points and pointers for effective speaking in public:

When speaking to another person, it's important to use correct word forms--and we're not talking about just in public but anywheres. You should use the proper word forms irregardless of what your friends say. Hopefully, you'll also use correct grammar, not just any old grammar laying around. 
In constructing your sentences, try not to be redundant, saying the same thing twice or even three times, thus repeating yourself over and over and over again.

Use words that have some legitimate history of use in the English language, and not words you've completely made up, such as "tribiculate."
(To "tribiculate" is to write on something using three ballpoint pens.)

While we're on the subject, do not use other words you've made up, such as:

- Wieroin. (noun. A kind of weathervane.)

- Nastacular. (adj. Un-amazing, un-excellent. Vehemently ordinary. Used to describe disappointing events, events which did not live up to their advance press, such as national elections.)

- Spondacious. (adj. Delightful, delicious, often used to describe ice cream.)

- Elgoto. (A Peruvian hotel chain.)

Also, don't use words people think you've made up but didn't, such as:

- Conglobatio. (adj. Gathering into a globe or ball.)

- Callipygian. (adj. Having shapely buttocks.)

When delivering a public address, follow this procedure. First, get the attention of your audience somehow, either by clearing your throat, or by holding your breath and making your eyes go white like Li'l Orphan Annie, or by shaking your (callipygian) behind around, or by holding up a large automatic weapon. Then, wait a judicious interval. (A judicious interval is the space between Jewish people.) 

Then, speak forcefully, in a resonant (full of resin) voice, building your arguments carefully, pre-empting objections, covering the premises thoroughly, and arriving at your point with that strong, reverberant, elephantine certainty which signals that this speaker, indeed, has taken the audience in his hand, and made them go to sleep.

While they're dozing, take their wallets. 

One last point on speaking to others. Remember the old saying: You have two ears and only one mouth. What does that say about the ratio of talking to listening? 

Of course. You've got to talk twice as much as anyone wants to hear.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Virginia City

Now it’s true the place looks the part--both exactly as you’d expect and startling.

As you arrive over the last little swale into the mountain town, 1875 is suddenly spread out before you, like a late chromo of Currier and Ives, if Currier and Ives had been western prospectors: Long wooden sidewalks, their planks athwart the now-invisible muddy trenches, covered with sloping roofs to make a long colonnade down both sides of the street. Big airy rooms inside grand picture windows, with high patterned ceilings and chandeliers of tinted glass, a flamboyant saloon every 50 running feet, gaudy storefronts emblazoned in the grandiose lettering of the gold rush.

And it’s true you get howdy’s from folks in the street, from folks who probably have a right to say howdy, and wear cowboy hats and dungarees, though stricter gun laws won’t allow the revolver at the side, which would complete the picture. And, oh yes, it’s true that Virginia City plays the part of the wild west mining town, wild in action and wild in speculation, the greatest American boom town of the 1870s, to perfection for the tourists.

But a great deal remains unexplained.

Lookit. Here’s a town lodged high on a mountainside, away above the clouds, like Machu Picchu or Shangri-La, connected to the outside world by a couple of steep grades almost useless in the winter, occupying its own atmosphere. It’s one of those places where the meridians cross or the vibrations resonate or the chakras align, or however you might want to account for the fact that people arrive here and their eyes go wide and they settle down in an old shack or a hut and go to work in the library and depart nevermore.

Perfect example: Diamond Jim, manning the Visitor Center desk most days of the week, came here after a double homicide next door in Stockton California persuaded him it was time to leave. Ditto Terry down at the Silver Queen Hotel, who also came from California but without a double murder for persuasion.

Something cozy, something close. Like the wooden sidewalks and their covering of roofs. Or the narrowness of the street. Or the compactness of the locale, its size constrained by the rakish angle of the earth at this spot. Or the isolation of being alone on a mountainside with the world far below, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all of an exclusive commonwealth whose membership requirement is only that pair of wide eyes.

Oh yes, there is history. One of the great silver strikes of the world took place on this spot, the Comstock Lode, discovered in 1859 and not entirely mined out yet. Remember the Hearsts, as in William Randolph? That fortune started here. Ever heard of San Francisco? The money made here largely built it, and then rebuilt it after the earthquake. Do you know the state of Nevada? Statehood arrived soon after Virginia opened its first saloon, and largely because of the money here.

And there is fame, yes, there is fame. Step right up to the curb in the Crystal Bar saloon and view the tourist brochures mounted on the very wood where George Hearst, Dan DeQuille, Joe Goodman and Sam Clemens all contemplated the first happy drinks of the evening. Across the street is the office of the Territorial Enterprise, at one time the most influential paper in the west, where most of these gentlemen worked. Clemens devoted a big part of a later book to life in boomtown Virginia in the early 60s, when mining shares were trading like quarters and a chance encounter in the street could make you rich.

But the place has other sorts of appeal.

In the current office of the Territorial Enterprise, for example, you will find scaling the north wall a pair of parallel panels and the remnants of a pulley system. These are all that is left of the dumb waiter that for many years moved copy, printing plates, galley proofs, and probably whiskey among the three floors of the building. The foot of this dumb waiter resides in the basement, among artifacts of the small Mark Twain museum and the ancient printing press, still anchored like grim death in the bedrock of the basement floor.

It is this dumb waiter that lets all the ghosts in.

Ghosts, spirits, phantomlike entities, ectoplasmic exhalations, whatever you might want to call them, and whatever might be their provenance: Ghosts invest the town as thoroughly as any deluge of tourists. It is thought—at least by the ghost hunter TV shows that have made this place a favorite—that the dumb waiter is their portal.

Well, for some of them, perhaps. It depends what kind of ghosts you’re talking about. Clearly the portal would be handy for the dozens of miners still lying in the 750 miles of mine tunnel beneath the town. But you must assume that many of the ghosts, like their living co-inhabitants, just found a place in town they liked and settled down.

The Washoe Club, the most haunted place in town, during the silver boom the home of the Millionaires Club, now boasts a museum devoted to many of the ghosts who apparently do not commute from below but who live in the building year round. The ghost of the prostitute in the Silver Queen Hotel clearly needs no portal from the underworld, but can remain cozy and ensconced in the room where she killed herself, and never trouble to leave the building.

None of the spirits in the Washoe Club travel so very far outside their domain, though they do remain quiet for long periods. Perhaps the museum now devoted to them gratifies their ghostly egos enough that they need not stir nor rattle nor shake but for part of the year, and can kick back all the rest of it.

Spirits or humans, ectoplasm or protoplasm, long-term resident or recent arrival, there is an agreement here that life should pause for a while and progress no further. And so far it has kept the spirits of all worlds content.