::Literate Blather::
Friday, June 30, 2006
Essay: Should There Be a Minimum Wage?

The band They Might Be Giants produced a short, catchy pop song called, “Minimum Wage.” Shouting “Minimum Wage” to a building crescendo of music and the crack of a buggy whip, the band puts a happy spin on a dire issue – working for wages below the poverty level.

In a 2003 survey, U.S. economists were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers.” A total of 73 percent either fully or partly agreed and only 27 percent disagreed. Most economists seem to support opponents of the minimum wage which say it undermines job creation, reduces the quality of existing jobs, and decreases the opportunity for unskilled laborers.

Is this possible? Should the U.S. enforce a minimum wage and does legislating a minimum wage undercut low-wage workers and harm the overall economy? Few people question the viability of raising a family on minimum wage. It’s impossible without a second income or government assistance (in the form of food stamps, subsidized housing and other federal and state programs).

Right now, the federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour and adjusted for inflation is at the second lowest level since 1955 – when Eisenhower was president and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series. September 1 will mark the ninth anniversary since the minimum wage was raised by Congress.

A full-time worker earning minimum wage now collects a salary of $10,712 a year – well below the poverty level. As of March 2003, about 13 percent of U.S. workers were considered low-wage earners (making between $5.15 and $7.99 an hour), according to the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI also reports that on average these low-wage earners contributed 68 percent of their family’s income and that 47 percent of low-wage earners were married or had children.

The problem with the question posed to the economists is that it focuses on the effect of a minimum wage on “unemployment.” This assumes that the purpose of mandating a minimum wage is to stimulate job creation. In fact, lower wages do increase the job growth. It’s an economic reality and common sense that if an employer has one employee making $12 an hour and you tell her she can have two employees at $6 an hour or three employees $4 an hour – she’ll probably take it. She doubles or triples the man-hours for the same wage.

That’s a win-win situation for the employer. However, it’s a terrible situation for workers even though more jobs are created. The worker gets less buying power and a wage that falls below livable levels – increasing poverty and government dependence. Instead, of one well-paid worker and two unemployed ones, you end up with three employed people that need to be subsidized in order to survive.

The minimum wage isn’t about creating jobs – it’s about protecting workers. No one should be forced to work fulltime at a wage that is not only unlivable, but well below the established poverty level. This argument works even if applied to teenagers working at the local burger joint to save money for school or for recent immigrants trying to feed their families. The minimum wage should be about fairness. It’s about placing a monetary minimum on the value of work and helping to distribute income up and down the wage ladder.

Abolishing the minimum wage, as many opponents advocate, would undermine the labor market – especially for low wage workers who have little to no bargaining power with employers. Wage disparity has become an enormous concern in the U.S. where CEOs now earn more than 240 times the amount of the average worker. Killing the minimum wage, which has been a foundation of the U.Ss been a foundation of the U.s. the U.e the U.S. wants to spendCEO now earn more than 240 times the amount of the average worke economy since 1938, is not a message the U.S. wants to send.

In fact, it’s time to raise the minimum wage rate. That’s a message many workers want to hear.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006
The 7 Toughest Detectives in Fiction

“I don't mind if you don't like my manners. I don't like 'em myself. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”
- Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep

Tough (adj.): 1. So strong and resilient as to withstand great strain without tearing or breaking. 2. Physically hardy: rugged. 3. Vicious: rough. 4. Strong-minded: resolute.

After working out with the heavy bag and killing our own meat for dinner, DaRK PaRTY enjoys reclining on a bed of nails to read murder mysteries featuring hard-boiled detectives. You know the type – grizzled, hard-luck private eyes with a fondness for bourbon, loose dames, and powerful firearms. Gumshoes who don’t mind breaking laws or busting heads to solve the big case for their clients.

There are plenty of contemporary tough-guys in fiction today, but we narrowed down the list to seven of the toughest.
These are the detectives that follow in the footsteps of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and Mike Hammer. Our favorites, in no particular order, are:

Elvis Cole

Author: Robert Crais
Debut: The Monkey’s Raincoat
Best Book: LA Requiem
Sidekick: Joe Pike

LA private detective Elvis Cole squeaked onto the list, suffering because he’s not as tough as his sidekick, Joe Pike (who is arguably one of the toughest, most ruthless characters in detective fiction). But Cole is hard-boiled in his own right – a master of martial arts, quite proficient with his Dan Wesson .38, and willing to put his fist in the face of anyone who stands in his way. Thankfully, Crais has toned down Cole’s Peter Pan persona from the earlier novels. That was when Cole’s used a Mickey Mouse phone and often quoted Jiminy Cricket. He still wears Hawaiian shirts and drives a bright yellow Corvette, but Cole’s come a long way in last several years.

Cole is not as funny as he thinks he is, but he’s a dogged investigator with a strict moral code and a dedication to his clients. Cole prefers to work within the framework of the law, but is willing to step outside the boundaries if he feels it’s necessary. He has no problem meting out justice with a firearm or with a swift kick to the head – although he’s not as brutal or as brooding as his best friend and partner, Pike.

The novels are definitely worth a read, especially the outstanding LA Requiem – which took the series to a new level. The earlier novels are spotty and Crais can be a lazy, unimaginative writer at times (although he excels at pacing and plotting).


Author: Robert B. Parker
Debut: The Goldwulf Manuscript
Best Book: A Catskill Eagle
Sidekick: Hawk

In recent years, Parker has revived the Spencer franchise and the last few novels, if not as powerful as the earlier books, at least echoes them (with the notable exception of Potshot, which was a terrible book in every way, shape, and form). Spenser defined hard-boiled in the 70s and 80s. He's a classic wise-guy PI; forced out of the Massachusetts State Police because his problems with authority. He’s an ex-boxer and knows how to punch-out a bad-guy. He’s got his own moral compass – and if he feels justice is being meted out - he’ll put a bullet in your head.

The most annoying aspect of the Boston gumshoe is his relationship with Susan Silverstein, his moody, intellectual girlfriend. As a general rule, the less of Susan in a Spenser book means a better book. The pithy exchanges between Spenser and Susan on the his moral code, food, and sex can grate on the nerves, but the worst part is that Susan has made Spenser less “tough.”

It’s hard not to recommend the Spenser series, however, because of its influence on the genre. Parker’s writing is stark and minimal, but packs a wallop. There’s probably no better writer in detective fiction. Where Parker lacks is in plotting. Most of the recent Spenser novesl are simply Spenser annoying people until they try and kill him. Intricate mysteries they’re not. But if you’re looking for tough-guy antics and one of the best sidekicks in the business – then Spenser is your man.

Harry Stoner

Author: Jonathan Valin
Debut: The Lime Pit
Best Book: Day of Wrath
Sidekick: None

Harry Stoner lives in an unlikely tough guy city – Cincinnati (do they even have crime there?). He also drives around in a rusting Chevy Pinto. But don’t hold this against him. While Stoner is more brooding and less confident than the other tough guys on the list, he’s a big, hulking private eye with a temper and an intense sense of justice that makes him extremely dangerous.

Valin writes dark and the Stoner novels don’t shy away from graphic violence and the horrors of crime and violence. Most of the earlier Stoner books are out of print and Valin has been inconsistent with delivering new books in the series (the last one was 1995’s Missing). But you would be remiss not to dive into one of the most underrated tough guy detectives in fiction.

Dave Robicheaux

Author: James Lee Burke
Debut: Neon Rain
Best Book: In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
Sidekick: Cleetus

Dave Robicheaux is the most complex tough guy on the list. He’s a family man who runs a parttime bait shop on the bayou in New Iberia, Louisiana. He’s capable of real love and tenderness with his wife and daughter. But he’s also a failed New Orleans detective with a violent temper and a sense of righteousness that a barrels into arrogance. Robicheaux is not to be messed with.

He works as a sheriff for the New Iberia police force (and in later books as a private eye). Robicheaux follows his own rules – all the time – and has little patience for those who stand in his way. He’s got a jones against corruption and often takes on mobsters head on.

Burke may be the best writer on the list – his descriptions of Louisiana are drenched with imagery. You can smell the rotting vegetation of the bayou, feel the mist rising off the river, and hear the electric static of the insects. He is a masterful writer, but he sometimes lapses into cliché and formula from book to book. Don’t let this deter you, however, or you’ll miss one of the best detective series in fiction.


Author: Andrew Vachss
Debut: Flood
Best Book: Hard Candy
Sidekick: Max the Silent

Burke makes the tough guy list without being all that physically intimating. In fact, he often admits that he smokes too much and gets easily winded with intense physical activity. But what Burke lacks in physical toughness, he more than makes up for in mental and emotional toughness. Burke is an outcast who lives on the fringes of society – getting by on scams and petty crime. He lives completely off the grid – no paper trail – and tries to be as invisible as possible. However, he’s a dogged investigator and often surfaces to take on cases that have to do with child sexual abuse.

The Burke novels are hard-core and can stay with readers long after finishing. Vachss’ stark, brutal writing style perfectly captures his main character. Burke has a zero tolerance policy for sexual predators and his own flawed moral code allows him to inflict as much damage as possible on these criminals (including cold-blooded murder).

Vachss isn’t for everyone – there’s nary a light moment in any of the novels. As a writer, Burke can be preachy, but only on occasion. Burke also has one of the more interesting sidekicks: Max the Silent. A deaf, Mongolian ninja who can seemingly disappears into the vapor after an attack.

Travis McGee

Author: John D. MacDonald
Debut: The Deep Blue Goodbye
Best Book: The Green Ripper
Sidekick: Meyers

Travis McGee calls himself a salvage consultant. If you lose something, he’ll get it back for you for half of the value. But no matter what he calls himself, McGee is a gumshoe, plain and simple. McGee only works when he needs the cash, taking his retirement in installments aboard his Florida houseboat, The Busted Flush.

McGee is a romantic and a sucker for damsels in distress (McGee likes the ladies). He's also a big, muscular man with an attraction (and repulsion) to violence. McGee lives life by a strict moral code that often comes in conflict with mainstream society. He lives on the edge of society and likes it that way. He is no slouch either – quick and deadly when necessary.

MacDonald created one of the most popular fictional detectives in McGee – the fantasy male that every other male wished he could be. The books are beautifully written and plotted – with MacDonald able to throw stones at modern society through the point of view of McGee. But the social commentary doesn’t get in the way of damn fine mysteries.


Author: Richard Stark (pen name for Donald Westlake)
Debut: The Hunter
Best Book: The Comeback
Sidekick: None

Parker isn’t a cop or a private eye – he’s a criminal. But he makes the list because he’s is without a doubt one of the toughest tough guys in literature. In fact, he’s a sociopath and a murderer. Most of the novels are capers – usually elaborate robberies that go wrong at some point. Parker sticks to the rules when he joins up with a gang to pull a job, but he doesn’t hesitate to take out a partner if they try to screw him. Crossing Parker usually means a quick trip into a shallow grave. He’s prone to snapping people’s necks or throwing them through windows.

The Parker novels were good pulp fun in the 60s and 70s, but Westlake recently reintroduced the character in some new novels. Westlake hasn’t missed a beat and the new books are just as hard-boiled as the earlier ones. These books are more enjoyable than they should be and Westlake is an excellent writer. The pacing is so dead on that when a reader reaches the end of the book – it’s a surprise.

Runner-ups: Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Lawerence Block's Matthew Scudder and Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006
5 Questions About: Visual Arts

(DaRK PaRTY decided it needed a better education on contemporary art. Who better to interview than an art historian? Meet Merete Jankowski, an art historian who works as an advisor and curator for the Danish Arts Agency under the Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Her job is to curate, inform and advise the Danish government about contemporary international visual art and to promote contemporary Danish art to the world. Born in Germany, but raised in Denmark, she lives in Copenhagen.)

DaRK PaRTY: What is your definition of art?

Merete Jankowski: Personally, I believe art to be any object, gesture, thought or deed defined or considered to be art by whoever has conceived of the work in question. If you tell me something you create is art, I will consider it art.

DP: Is it fair to say there is no such a thing as good or bad art or is it more accurate to say there is popular and unpopular art?

Merete: I’m not sure that I accept the premise of your question. It seems to me as if you only give me the chance of saying that if there is no objective criteria for good and bad art, then what is conceived as good and bad is really only a matter of popularity.

For me, the quality of an art work hasn't got the slightest thing to do with whether it is popular or not - at the same time, the quality of an art work is not something eternal, objective and unchanging. On a socio-cultural level, quality is something that is ascribed to a work of art; it is not something that is inherent to it. On a personal level, I find that a good art work - regardless of whether it interests me thematically or not - is one which successfully manages to bring across whatever idea, point or notion the artist had in mind with it. It’s bullshit that many people think contemporary art requires no skill of execution. If you understand video art or installation art well, for example, you can easily discern whether the artist knows what he is doing or is just fumbling around. You can see professionalism of execution no matter what the material.

The making of art is like writing - no matter the genius of your idea, it requires some experience with presenting your thoughts in writing to make it come out of your head the way you intended.

DP: I once saw a modern art sculpture that was a plastic grocery bag duct taped to a stick at an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Is it fair to categorize that piece with classic pieces of art such as Di Vinci's "Mona Lisa"?

Merete: I think that in a sense you stumble slightly in your own question. Conceiving the "Mona Lisa" as a "classic piece of art" is a thoroughly contemporary idea - at the time it was conceived, "Mona Lisa" was considered a piece of handiwork similar to that of a well-fashioned table or a well-cobbled shoe. Your definition of "Mona Lisa" would not have made any sense to Leonardo. I mean, come on..."Mona Lisa "is not even Leonardo's name for the piece. The name is a modern invention, as well!

I think the “Mona Lisa” is less of an art work, conceived within the definition of art that defines my practice, than the contemporary art piece you mention. Honestly, we only lump these two pieces you mention together because of tradition. And I think that actually both works would gain immensely by being liberated from one another (an impossible idea, of course).

The idea of the museum as we know it today is barely two-hundred years old - it is really a semi-Hegelian conception having more to do with showing off your wealth and attempting to rewrite history than anything else. I have never understood how one could make a volume of "Art through the last 1,000 years" or a museum show presenting a millennium of art chronologically and still keep a straight face. To me, this is a decidedly unscientific approach to art, as what you are doing is basically creating a fiction linking objects together which have little or nothing to do with one another.

As a contemporary curator, "Mona Lisa" does not matter to me. Just as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp does not matter to a Renaissance specialist.

DP: What is the biggest misconception about art that the average person has?

Merete: That art means “good” or that labeling something "art" suggests quality. Most people use the word "art" like that: If they don't like a piece, they say "That's not art !" thereby meaning, "It’s crap." That concept is completely alien to me. If I find a work of art to be crap, it does not remove its status as art. Because whether something is or is not art has got nothing to do with the quality of the piece considered. This of course has to do with that most people's conception of art rests on 18th-century standards for art. They judge contemporary art by standards that belong to a previous century.

What I find REALLY funny is that people do not only judge contemporary art anachronistically, they also judge OLD art anachronistically - as was seen in the way you spoke of "Mona Lisa." I often think of...think if people viewed science in the same way as most people view contemporary art, judging the achievements of modern science by the standards of Newton and Galileo - then they would read Einstein's relativity theory and stand next to the Hubble telescope saying, "That's not scientific!"

Or what if people today judged the writing of English fiction by how English was written by Shakespeare, Donne and Milton? Then they would browse through all of our English-language Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners pointing their fingers and shouting, "These guys can't even spell – yet they win prizes?"

I’m sure my examples seem overly silly to people - but in my world they are no more silly than standing in front of a plastic grocery bag duct taped to a stick and saying "But that's not art!"

DP: What artists or works do you most admire?

Merete: I wouldn’t say that I decidedly admire any artists as such, but Sophie Calle, Andy Warhol and On Kawara are probably the artists who have mattered the most to me on a personal level. Discovering all three of them profoundly changed not only my views about art, but my life. All three have been major sources of personal inspiration for me.

I stumbled - and stumbled really is the right word - upon all three of them when I was very young, and they will always have a special place in my heart - in the same way that your first love will always remain special to you no matter who you fall in love with later on.

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Monday, June 26, 2006
When a Poem is a Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

When I first nervously bumped into William Carlos Williams’ simple, yet amazingly complex The Red Wheelbarrow, I was an awkward junior high school student infatuated with Stephen King and horror novels. Nothing was more important to me than vampires, werewolves, and a good piss-freezing scare. I avoided poetry like it was a sneezy, runny-nosed first grader. Poetry wasn’t linear – it wasn’t clear. Why anyone would prefer poetry to prose baffled me.

So when The Red Wheelbarrow made my acquaintance from the pages of a literature anthology that my sixth grade English teacher had us reading: my first reaction was unmitigated joy.

“Hallelujah, a short poem!”

Here, finally, was a poem that my adolescent mind could wrap its brain cells around. And it was one lousy sentence of 16 words (and not one word more than two syllables). This was no T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or one of Shakespeare’s impossible sonnets. This was, well, American sounding.

If asked what the poem was about, I would have said: A red wheelbarrow.

So much did my young mind appreciate Williams that the poem became infused in my memory. It became my favorite poem.

I didn’t think much of it after that – until college. The Red Wheelbarrow strolled back into my life in an Introduction to Poetry class taught by an erudite, cranky professor (and accomplished poet who claimed to have once met Hemingway by driving to his house on Key West and introducing himself).

“Ah,” I thought, “my favorite poem.”

The professor disliked Williams immensely and was not appreciative of The Red Wheelbarrow. In fact, he savaged it. Amazingly, I came to agree with him. What was so wonderful about this tiny, little poem about a wheelbarrow? Wasn’t it silly? Wasn’t it something Williams probably jotted down on a cocktail napkin one rainy evening?

So I dismissed it and went back to more important pursuits like getting drunk and analyzing the lyrics of Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys.

Now, older and wiser, I realize that The Red Wheelbarrow is a masterpiece. Stark, yet vivid, and so gorgeous and so mind-blowingly deep that it can take your breath away. The poem is a riddle: “So much depends upon” this wheelbarrow, Williams tells us. Why? Why is the wheelbarrow so important? What cosmic secrets are lying on the wet grass next to those white chickens? What does it all mean?

What Williams has done is create a scene – so vivid, so lush – that it has become real. The contrast between the red wheelbarrow, slick with rainwater, and the white chickens firmly entrenches itself in the reader’s mind. Williams’ poem is a snapshot – a photograph. And by adding the weight of importance to the wheelbarrow with the riddle, Williams has gone beyond what is real and into what is art. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Williams argued that The Red Wheelbarrow was a response to the garrulous poetry of European poets like – ta da! – Eliot. But in the end The Red Wheelbarrow is so much more. It is poetry. And it’s the wheelbarrow. The poem as reality. A mundane wheelbarrow as a poem.

So ask me. “What is The Red Wheelbarrow about?”

And I’ll tell you, quite confidently: “It’s a wheelbarrow.”

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Sunday, June 25, 2006
Sand: A Fantasy Serial (Part II)

Chapter Two
Discovery in the B’Kar Waste

(Welcome to the second installment of our five-part swords and sorcery adventure. We join our hero, Radric, shortly after he discovered an ambush in the hot, arid desert of the B’Kar Waste. Each week DaRK PaRTY will publish another chapter in this pulse-pounding short story. A version of Sand was originally published in Lost Worlds: The Writers and Artists’ Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum.)

Two days later, Radric spotted a whiff of smoke twirling lazily across the sharp blue desert sky. He hobbled his mount and crawled to the top of the next dune. The sand had become more course and he knew that in a few days the D’jaren war party he was tracking would arrive at the western steppes of the B’Kar Waste.

Their homeland.

The dune proved to be an excellent vantage point. The D’jaren party was camped a low steppe next to a desert stream, a thin trickle of dun-colored water that reminded Radric he was thirsty.

The D’jaren camels and the horses stolen from the dead soldiers were tied in a makeshift corral made of rope. Radric counted seven tents, including the large one at the center belonging to the D’jaren warchief.

Radric settled to wait.

The afternoon faded into twilight and the aroma of cooking wafted over Radric’s outpost. D’jaren were fond of sand lizards and the root of thistle cactus, which they ground into a thick paste. Two D’jaren warriors guarded the mounts and two others patrolled the perimeter of the camp. Radric leaned back against the sand and tried to remember everything he could about the D’jaren.

It was rare to meet a D’jaren outside their homeland and, in fact, Radric never had. His two encounters with them had been in battle in the B’Kar Waste when he had been a sell sword. He knew little of their culture. They were nomads and tribal. He knew of six or seven clans with names like Stone Lizard and Thunder Rock. The clans constantly feuded over territory.

The race was distantly related to humans, but smaller in stature. Their skin was pale yellow and hairless, thick and contoured like tree bark. D’jaren wore layers of brown, yellow, and white robes and Radric had heard that the colors signified status within the clan. Their most startling feature, at least to humans, was a flap of gelatinous skin that protruded from their foreheads and covered their faces – extending to their upper lips. This flap, known as a d’jar, was a great source of pride and often tattooed and decorated with gold and silver jewelry.

The d’jars main purpose was to shield the D’jaren’s eyes from the harsh wind storms of the B’Kar Waste. D’jaren eyes, said to be star-shaped vermilion-colored orbs about the size of raisins, were considered holy. It was forbidden for D’jaren to reveal their eyes in public; rare even in private. It was a sign of great honor and respect for a D’jaren to show his eyes to another.

The D’jaren did not “see” like humans. Somehow they were able to distinguish shadows and light, but relied more on hearing and scent. D’jaren saw the heat energy emitted by living creatures. Against the stark, lifeless background of the B’Kar Waste, living things glowed, allowing the D’jaren to see them. It was said that in a jungle, a D’jaren would be completely blind.

After another quick survey of the camp, Radric returned to his horse to wait for full dark. The dry, desert heat cooled as night approached. Radric crouched in the sand and ate a dinner of dried rabbit, hard cheese, and brown bread. His water supply was running dangerous low, so he took only a few conservative sips from his water skin.

As the first and second moons rose, Radric plotted his rescue of the wizard. The D’jaren party looked settled, which meant they were probably at a planned rendezvous site to wait for the rest of the clan. Once that happened there would be little chance of a rescue. Radric adjusted his saddle bags against his back and pondered.

Many years ago, he and Caswell had been traveling companions, if not friends. All that changed in Vixoria, the City of Saints, in the far east beyond the Churning Sea. There they met the Gypsy girl, Ttara, and the Mountain Dwarf, Shattock. Shattock knew of an out of the way warehouse that belonged to the High Temple of Vixoria. There were rumors of a forgotten sub-basement that stored old relics – golden goblets, jewel-studded scepters, ivory statues, and other exotic treasures. Shattock’s eyes glimmered as he regaled them with his tale. It had been a simple plan, one that relied on Radric’s warrior skills and Caswell’s magic. Greed must have consumed Caswell. It was the only explanation for what happened next.

In the end, Ttara and Shattock lay dead in the dust of the basement and the wizard fled with the booty. Radric survived the betrayal, crawling to Ttara’s side, shortly before she died, holding her cold hand as she wept into death. He had been captured by the High Temple Guard and spent two long years in a Vixorian labor camp, cutting stone and sifting through tons of sand. He picked up a handful of sand and let in run between his fingers. He had broken his vow never to touch sand again.

Radric escaped from the labor camp. He spent a long time searching for Caswell, but the wizard had disappeared and as the year wore on, Radric lost hope of ever finding him. He wandered, mostly in the south along the coast of the Great Sterling Ocean. The cities there were populous and wealthy. He gambled and drank; hiring out as a bodyguard or a sell sword – whoever would pay him the most coin. Then two months ago, he met the Lady Fflame of Lindell, a powerful kingdom in the west.

She was a woman scorned. Scorned by Caswell. The wizard had gained in stature since his days thieving in Vixoria. He was now a trusted advisor and comrade to the king of Lindell. Caswell ruled a portion of the kingdom known as Tarkkum. He lived in an elegant stronghold and commanded the Dark Tarkkum Guard, an elite corps of the Lindellian Army.

Radric touched the purse of gold coins Lady Fflame had given to him. She promised him more – much more, if he’d kill Caswell and bring her the wizard’s ring. Fflame knew nothing of the bitter hatred Radric felt for Caswell. She thought he was simply a paid assassin that she had met in a dark tavern. A mercenary. It had been a chance meeting. The chance of a lifetime. Radric had tracked the wizard to his stronghold in Tarkkum only to discover that Caswell had left for a junket to the B’Kar Waste to settle a border dispute with the D’jaren. A junket that had obviously met with failure.

From the folds of his saddlebags, Radric removed his prized possession – a midnight cloak. Even in the pitch blackness of the desert night, the cloak pulsed with blackness as deep as oil. The cloak was magic, sewn by Night Elves. Donning the cloak draped the wearer in invisibility. It wasn’t foolproof. To work, the wearer had to remain still, movement nullifying the magic’s effects. The cloak was also dangerous. It fed off the wearer’s soul. Wearing a midnight cloak too long was almost certain death. It wasn’t without hesitation that Radric donned the cloak over his armor and weapons.

Putting on the cloak felt very much like being dipped in ice water. He felt the familiar freezing of his blood and shuddered. Quickly and quietly, he scaled the dune and headed into the D’jaren camp. It was time.

(Stay tuned to next week's installment of Sand -- Chapter Three: Rescue)

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Saturday, June 24, 2006
Literary Criticism: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"

Summary: A terrible plague, known as Red Death, has beset the lands of Prince Prospero. After the plague has killed more than half of his subjects, the Prince gathers up his closest friends and associates and they retreat to a secluded abbey surrounded by high walls. Stocked with ample portions of food and drink, the group shuts itself up to await the plagues demise. Six months later, the Prince holds a grand masquerade ball in his private chambers. One of the guests arrives dressed as Red Death. Enraged, the Prince confronts the man and is struck dead. The rest of the guests realize that the figure really is Red Death and begin to drop dead from the disease.

Analysis: Edgar Allan Poe had a vivid, nightmarish imagination and that creativity is one of the reasons why he has risen to the ranks of the literary elite in American literature. Another reason is because he was such a fascinating character – encompassing failure and post-humorous success, a marriage to his cousin, and, of course, a life-long battle with alcoholism that killed him at the age of 40.

Unfortunately, while many of his stories and poems are horrifyingly original (Poe is truly the literary grandfather of Stephen King), Poe is an inconsistent writer (Give him an A for effort – because Poe tried so hard in everything he ever wrote). “The Masque of the Red Death” is a perfect example of Poe’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller.

The limited success of “Masque” lies mainly in Poe’s ability to create a surreal landscape and infuse it with enough creepiness to, if not scare readers, certainly to give us pause. Poe uses this ability to great effect in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Black Cat,” two of his better stories. It’s not as prevalent in “Masque,” but he does manage to create just enough sinister atmosphere for the story to work on that level. We also need to tip our cap to Poe for inventing the “epidemic” narrative for without “Masque” we might not have gotten Albert Camus’s The Plague or Stephen King’s The Stand.

Otherwise, “Masque” has several glaring weaknesses. Poe’s writing can be as blunt as a mallet to the head and in “Masque” that obviousness is in full form. The main character, if there is such a thing in this story, is Prince Prospero (even the name lacks subtlety). The Prince for whatever bizarre reason has set up his inner chambers into seven distinct rooms of differing colors: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. They represent each stage of human life from birth to death. Overlooking all of this is a gigantic ebony clock that chimes haunting notes on the hour. All of this set decoration seems – and is – so staged. There only because Poe requires it for his story.

When the Prince and his associates, locked away from the Red Death plaguing the kingdom, throw a grand masquerade ball it is within this maze-like rainbow of rooms. The reader is left to ponder why? The only explanation we are given for the ball or the ominous interior design is that the Prince is well… weird.

So is it any surprise that when the costumed reveler who turns out to be Red Death incarnate kills the Prince that they run through all the rooms starting at the first and ending up in the last one – the black one – where the Prince ends up dying? Of course not. “Masque” is a morality play, an allegory that tells us the obvious – “You can’t cheat death.”

But in the end it’s the writing that really harms “Masque.” There are not efforts to even try and establish characters other than the superficial Prince. When he dies (and we know all along that he’ll die) there’s no emotional connection to him. He’s simply another prop in Poe’s allegory. The story is also filled with too much telling and not enough showing. “There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There was much of the beautiful much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little that which might have excited disgust.” Poe doesn’t bother to show us the beautiful, wanton, bizarre or terrible with any specific examples.

In the end, “The Masque of the Red Death” only survives as filler in anthologies of Poe’s work. It is minor and inferior in every way.

Read our literary criticism of Anton Chekov's "A Dead Body"

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Thursday, June 22, 2006
Under God's Right Arm: Why Do Liberals Hate Jesus?

In her stunning new masterpiece of conservative prose, Ann Coulter calls liberals in the United States “godless.” In fact, Ann uses this interesting fact as the title to her outstanding book: Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

Ann is dead on!

Example number one comes from Foothill High School in Clark County, Nevada. Brittany McComb, the senior class valedictorian, recently had her speech cut short by school officials for the sin of having thanked God and Jesus. She also had a couple of references to the Bible in her speech, but she wasn’t able to get that far.

“I went through four years of school at Foothill and they taught me logic and they taught me freedom of speech,” McComb told a crowd of proud parents and teachers. “God's the biggest part of my life. Just like other valedictorians thank their parents, I wanted to thank my lord and savior.”

That’s when the liberals pulled the plug.

It is children like Brittany McComb who make Christian pastors flush crimson with pride. She is so unlike many high school kids these days (such as young boys who drop out of school and move to big cities in order to sell their tight, little packages to older men in dark, seedy alleys for much too much money). No, Brittany McComb is a breath of fresh air and Christians should rally behind this little firecracker.

The liberal school administrators had a different agenda, however. They immediately turned off Brittany’s microphone and ended her speech early. The parents in the audience jeered the decision – but school administrators were adamant that God and Jesus would not be allowed to be mentioned at the school graduation. Typical. Despite making up more than 76 percent of the United States population, Christians continue to be a persecuted minority. Rest assured that if Brittany had tried to thank Allah or Satan there would not have been a peep from school administrators.

But for some reason God, Jesus and the Bible get liberals’ blood boiling.

The Nevada ACLU general counsel explained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “It's important for people to understand that a student was given a school-sponsored forum by a school and therefore, in essence, it was a school-sponsored speech. There should be no controversy here.”

This might sound logical to people with college educations or people who have read the U.S. Constitution, but don’t be fooled by their supposed facts. An anti-Christian lawyer from Little Rock also told me that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited “preaching” during graduation speeches in two cases in 2000 and 2003 (the 2003 case was also upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, blah, blah, blah).

You see what I mean? Liberals like to put their “spin” on these cases while, in fact, they are guilty of crushing Christianity under the heels of their black leather boots.

School officials are also falling back on the lame excuse that Brittany defied their authority after she was expressly told by them that her commencement address went beyond thanking God and Jesus and into preaching. She was told to use an edited and approved copy of her speech, but Brittany disobeyed them. But that is nonsense because Brittany said she did it because – and I quote this young lady who is a shining example of a good Christian directly:

“People aren't stupid and they know we have freedom of speech and the district wasn't advocating my ideas. Those are my opinions. It's what I believe.”

Obviously, this is an intelligent, little filly! (And she is quite the looker if you’ve seen her photograph. Any burly, strapping varsity football player would be excited to the Nth degree to take this young, God-loving "chick" to the prom!).

I urge my fellow Christians to demean the ACLU at every chance and to tell your liberal friends that God loves them even though they continue to turn their backs on Christianity – the religion that put Europe and America on the map! Now that’s a religion that deserves our thanks!

(The Rev. Colson Crosslick is pastor of the Pretty Good Shepherd Church in Ripsaw, Arkansas. In the past, he has called for a boycott of all Brittany Spears albums. He also writes the regularly appearing column Under God's Right Arm for DaRK PaRTY.)

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006
5 Questions About: Design

(DaRK PaRTY interviews Paul Ocepek, the owner and principal of Torpedo http://www.torpedodesign.com, a product and graphic design studio in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The award-winning firm has worked with an impressive array of clients that include RCA, Motorola, GE, Mattel and Rubbermaid. Paul has more than 18 years of experience in product design. He is also the owner of Fishboy http://www.fishboy.com, a premium line of funky sportswear illustrating Paul’s unique artwork. DaRK PaRTY wanted to pick Paul’s brain about the art of design.)

DaRK PaRTY: Torpedo Design specializes in product design, which is designing the interfaces and usability for consumer products like television sets, DVD players, remote controls and cell phones. There seems to be a building backlash by consumers about the complexity of these items. The complaints are usually about too many features, too many buttons, etc. There was even a New Yorker cartoon recently that showed a man asking for a cell phone that could actually make phone calls. Is this a real problem in the design of consumer electronics?

Paul Ocepek: Yes, I believe it is. Consumer electronics are commodity goods and one of the few ways that manufacturers can add "value" or differentiation to their products is to add features. More features mean higher price points which obviously lead to higher profits. The problem with this scenario is that the majority of added features are software driven - meaning they aren't necessarily obvious or intuitive. In most cases a function is buried in levels of tedious on-screen menus and sub-menus - sometimes never to be found without referencing the instruction book, and as we all know that can be an adventure unto itself. Features and product "add-ons" are a funny thing - consumers often complain that they don't understand or can't operate a product because it's too complex, yet those are the things that make them buy the product in the first place. "Hey, it's got all this stuff so it must be better than the lower priced model." We often equate number of features with product quality or ease-of-use, when in many cases this is just simply not true.

Another challenge, especially in the case of cell phones, is that the product continues to shrink in size. This means that there is less real estate for physical buttons - so in reality, we're dealing with very advanced products and fewer buttons. This has led to the proliferation of cursor or navigation type keys that operate in tandem with on screen displays, allowing one button to perform many different functions. Along with great product design - great user interface design is critical in these types of applications. Button size and graphics are also an issue - how small can a button be before it's too small? When does the type labeling a button become unreadable? Unfortunately (or maybe not) the human body is far slower at adapting to new technology than consumer electronics - our thumbs aren't getting any smaller and our eyes aren't getting any bigger!

DP: Can you give us an example of a product that you think was successful because of its product design and an example of a product that failed because it wasn’t designed properly.

Paul: I think the iPod is a wonderful product design. It's so simple yet so utterly complex. I remember the feeling of sheer amazement after I ripped my entire CD collection and placed more than 5,000 songs on to this tiny box smaller than a deck of cards.

"Is this magic?" I thought. The scroll wheel interface is incredibly easy to use, it's intuitive and it makes the task of reviewing a huge amount of data relatively painless. The entire product is elegant in its use of materials and the form. Although a rectangular, it has a sensual look and feel. The Apple design team could have very easily gone overboard on this type of product by adding a multitude buttons, a more curvaceous form factor, and various surface finishes such as fake chrome or metallic paint. As one of my old design professors always used to say, "Sometimes the quietest design says the most."

As far as product failures, one current product that I find particularly annoying is the Gillette M3Power razor. This was the first battery powered shaving "system" on the market. Now, I'm sure that this razor has a lot of fans as it provides a close shave, but then again so did my old Mach3 sans motor.

First, the handle is noticeably fatter and doesn’t feel as good in the hand as the older, thinner designs. Second, the power button is poorly positioned - I often inadvertently turn off the razor during the middle of a shave. Third, on more than one occasion, I have found the razor turned on in my shaving kit after something had been pressed against it - this always raises some eyebrows at the airport! Fourth, the entire notion of another hundred million or so dead batteries filling our landfills bothers me. The whole product just reeks of superficial marketing. In my opinion, it's a needless waste of money and resources. What's next - battery powered soap bars?!

DP: You’re also a prolific graphic designer with a fondness for bright, bold colors and a playful, vibrant feeling. Most of your stuff seems designed to make people happy. Is that accurate and how would you describe your style?

Paul: Well, I'm glad you feel that way. I would say that's a fairly accurate statement, at least that's been my intent. My style is most likely considered "pop art" or "graphic illustration." My use of bold, saturated spot colors and heavy line weight is a reflection of my love for silkscreen printing. I don't get overly caught up in detail - I'm more interested in color, shape, impact and in some cases, typography. I'd rather spend my time getting on to the next design than laboring tediously over a particular piece. I love the idea of print making - whether digitally or manually - for creating multiple images. And yes, I seem to gravitate towards "happy" or humorous images - sometimes that's just a natural result of certain color combinations as opposed to subject matter, but in general I tend to avoid dark subjects. Goth, I'm not - although I do like skeletons a lot.

DP: You are also the principal of Fishboy – an online boutique that sells hats, t-shirts and gift items featuring your fish-based artwork. Fishboy has been around since 1996 – which is a long time for an online store. What’s the secret of your success?

Paul: I believe Fishboy continues to survive and grow in an ultra-competitive market due to a commitment to unique, funny artwork, but within the framework of a brand. I try and keep a cohesive look and feel to all the artwork as opposed to the shotgun approach employed by some other companies. People immediately recognize a Fishboy design and that's incredibly important when trying to build a brand.

We live and die with repeat customers so it's paramount that we are satisfying expectations when people come back to the site looking to make new purchases. Let's face it - the world doesn't really need another t-shirt design, but there is always a market for something just a bit fresh or different. A slight twist or unique viewpoint can go a long way in a crowded retail space full of copycat products. Funny always sells - it's just the process of trying to determine what is actually funny and what isn't that keeps me up at night. But I love it.

DP: You grew up in land-locked Pittsburgh, PA. What’s the deal with fish and fishing?

Paul: I grew up around a lot of lakes and rivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I was introduced to the joys and frustrations of fishing by my father and grandfather at a very young age and have been angling ever since - although I must admit, since the birth of my daughter the rod and reel have been gathering a lot of dust!

On an artistic level, I think I'm attracted to fish because of their unique shapes, unlimited color combinations and graphic patterns - it's certainly not the smell. I can draw the most outrageous fish and then find something 10 times crazier that actually exists. It's fascinating stuff. Nature rules.

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Monday, June 19, 2006
Sand: A Fantasy Serial (Part 1)

Chapter One
A Desert Massacre

(Welcome to our new special feature. Each week DaRK PaRTY will be publishing a chapter in a five-part swords and sorcery adventure called Sand. A version of this heart-pounding, action-packed short story was originally published in Lost Worlds: The Writers and Artists’ Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum.)

A shredded banner flapped in the desert wind. A heavy gust snapped the flag like a horse whip; the sound echoing across the flat plain. A golden sphere on a black background was the crest of the Dark Tarkkum Guard.
Radric had found his quarry.

Dead soldiers and their mounts surrounded an overturned carriage, its roof caved in. Fat, ruby-necked vultures picked at the remains of a warhorse, squabbling amongst themselves with squawks and pecks. One of the birds lifted its head and glared at Radric with tiny, black eyes.

Arrows riddled the bodies of the soldiers. The attackers had been swift and in a hurry; not bothering to retrieved their weapons. The arrows were crudely constructed, the shafts shaped from sun-bleached wood. D’jaren design. Desert dust coated everything and Radric knew that by nightfall the shifting sands of the B’Kar Waste would swallow the battleground.

Radric dismounted and tied his mount to a broken section of the carriage axle. He paused, cocked his head, and listened. The wind hissed across the sand, the banner rippled, and the vultures argued. Otherwise the dunes were silent. He walked to the nearest soldier and knelt down to investigate.

The soldier was a seasoned veteran. Scars and a shaggy, brown beard covered a weathered face. He was garbed in the tradition black armor and red sash of the Dark Tarkkum Guard. A pair of arrows protruded from between the links of his breastplate. His sword and dagger were still sheathed. The soldier had been killed instantly and judging from and looked to have been dead for only a few hours.

Radric stood and counted the bodies. Fourteen men. He walked to the perimeter and wasn’t surprised to find a series of shallow pits. A D’jaren ambush. An old trick. D’jaren warriors armed with bows would lay buried under the sand in a semi-circle. When the unsuspecting party moved into the center of the horseshoe, the warriors rose out to the sand and fired. Anyone not killed by the arrows would be cut down with scimitars. By the number of pits and arrows, Radric estimated the D’jaren party at 20. A war party.

The inside of the carriage had been stripped. Radric found a torn orange jacket under the seat that matched Caswell’s fashion taste. The mage was fond of colorful silks. There were no dead D’jaren, which meant that Caswell had not been able to cast a spell before being captured. The D’jaren were wary of necromancy and would have been quick to disable the wizard. That meant they knew Caswell was coming. The ambush hadn’t been a random attack, but a planned kidnapping. That complicated things.

A caught a glimpse of himself in a shattered fragment of mirror. His grizzled face was speckled with grayish whiskers, his long brown hair, streak with white, was tied in a ponytail with a piece of worn leather. He stared into his cold blue eyes, a sneer splaying across his face. Then he knocked the mirror over.

The sun hung low on the horizon. Radric dismissed a brief notion to camp inside the carriage. Better to sleep away from the carrion eaters and the ghosts of the fallen guards. He mounted his horse and rode over the dunes until he found a rock outcropping that would break the cold, night wind of the waste.

He had found Caswell. Now all he had to do was rescue him from the D’Jaren.

(Stayed tuned for next week's installment of Sand -- Chapter Two: Discovery in the B'Kar Waste)

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Sunday, June 18, 2006
Poem: Werewolf

The disease has me


Spittle rides the screaming

like raindrops on an icy wind.

I tear into the closet like

A rabid dog, foaming.

A loafer

Knocks over the bedroom lamp,

bulb shattering.

Words sharper than claws

Rip her to shreds,

leaving bloody pieces.

Later, hunched down

in the seat,

in the dark,

at the movies,

the gentle husband,

and loving father


I wonder

Like a silly, little


Who lies about

cookie jars—

Who is that other

That cruel savage.

Because I know,

I’m certain,


he is not


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Thursday, June 15, 2006
Reading Dickens

"There is everything in Dickens."- Jules Verne

I remember two distinct emotions when I finished reading David Copperfield: disappointment and the warm satisfaction that accompanies accomplishment. The disappointment was because the novel is all encompassing – a time machine back to Victorian England. You can see the dark, drafty manor houses, smell the burning tallow of candles, taste the mulled port, and even feel boney fingers of Uriah Heep as he gives you his cold, clammy handshake. So when it ended, I was saddened, which is always an excellent sign that you’ve just read a damn fine book.

The feeling of accomplishment was more complex. At first, I thought it had to do with the length of the book. I read the Signet Classic paperback and it was a hefty 870 pages long; dense enough to be used as a doorstop. But I’ve read many long books in my reading life – and many more difficult ones (The Sound and the Fury comes to mind). No, it was something else and it took me a few days to work through it.

The accomplishment came from a simple fact: No one reads Dickens anymore.

Strike that. Some people still read Dickens. There are a few Dickens societies with spotty memberships (filled, I imagine, with gray-haired men with facial hair, tweed jackets, and Sherlockian pipes), professors of literature, a few eccentric bibliophiles, and – thank God – hundreds of thousands of high school freshmen and sophomores who are forced to read A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations every year. (These young men and women may be the sole reason why Cliff Notes continues to thrive). They may also be the reason why anyone even publishes Dickens anymore.

So what I meant to say was: No one mainstream reads Dickens anymore. Go to any chain bookstore in any mall in America and you might find a forgotten shelf called “Classics” in some dark corner of the place with a couple of moldy copies of Oliver Twist drowning in dust (probably squeezed next to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.)

Ask any reader when they last picked up Dickens and you may be surprised. It could be never or a long, long time ago -- when they were in high school reading Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations. Titles like Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son have fallen out of favor (although a 2005 BBC television series based on Bleak House renewed interest in the book with the bibliophiles).

So the question is why? Why is Dickens so rejected these days? One problem lies with those hundreds of thousands of high schoolers. When you force feed high school students books they aren’t properly educated enough to enjoy, you foster a life-long hatred of books - all books. The goal of high school English should be to foster a love of reading first. Start with books kids might like to read - like Tolkien, for example. Don't introduce challenging authors like Dickens and Shakespeare right off the bat. It's like teaching kids to play baseball by having them try to hit Pedro Martinez on the first day of practice. You end up with frustrated kids - who don't like baseball. I still can't read Romeo and Juliet because it was jammed down my throat by a militant English teacher in high school.

The second problem for today's readers is plot. Dickens has too many and, often times, they don't intersect with each other. He has a tendency to get lost. Modern readers like to zip down the freeway at breakneck speeds toward a stated and well marked destination and Dickens is a forgotten dirt road that winds through the country side and really doesn't get anywhere until it gets there. His novels are grand escapades stretching on for years – sometimes decades – featuring dozens and dozens of characters (there are more than 850 different characters in the Pickwick Papers alone). Some of the characters are gigantic – larger than the books where they came to life: Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Little Nell, Pip, Sydney Carton, and Mr. Pickwick himself. That, too, can be a distraction. So it takes a long time to wade through one of Dickens’ books and that can be maddening for modern readers.

But Dickens is one of the few writers who capture life – a stunning literary achievement. Reading Dickens is to experience humanity. He deserves to be read – to be experienced. You meet people in Dickens - not characters. When you finish one of his novels, you feel rewarded - like you have recieved a very special gift.

The best advice I’ve ever read about reading Dickens comes from the brilliant mind of Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Dickens (a must-have for any true Dickens fan). Epstein wrote: “Take a Zen approach: the destination doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that counts. Savior each word; don't rush. And don't try to think logicially! You are entering a different universe, where people are the same and yet not the same. And remember that truth is not always literal.”

Good, sound advice and words that I will keep close in mind as I dust off my copy of The Old Curiosity Shop.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006
Essay: TV Party No More

I don't have cable TV. Or own a satellite dish.

Why bother when I don't watch television? I've never seen an episode of Survivor or watched The Sopranos. I've never seen Sex in the City, 24, NYPD Blue, Grey's Anatomy, American Idol or any of the CSI programs. I have a vague recollection that there may have been a show about ice skating with celebrities.

After they discover my secret, co-workers eye me with suspicion as if I've just announced my intention to strangle the cleaning lady. (And it's a difficult secret to keep because a surprising number of conversations are about TV shows.) Once my co-workers pick their jaws off the carpet, they always want to know why. As in: "Why in Allah's name would you do such a thing?"

It's a simple explanation. TV sucks.

Commericial television is more addictive than crack. It's a corrosive visual stimulus that leaves its users clinging to a life of irrational dissatisfaction -- with everything. Watch too much TV and its only a matter of time before you begin to harbor a sinking feeling that you don't add up. You begin to doubt your life, your looks, your income, your car, your house, your friends and even your dog. That's why you end up doing dumb things like buying an SUV you can't afford or signing up for a Macy's gold card.

The average American watches more than four hours of television each day, according to the A.C. Nielsen Company. That adds up to more than 28 hours a week or a whopping two months of Charmed every year.

Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, provides us with the mind-numbing rejoinder to this question: What do the majority of Americans do between work and bedtime?

Well, 80 percent of us watch television.

Some other rather alarming statistics from the organization TV-Free America:
  • 99 percent of American homes own at least one television, but the average number of sets in each household is 2.4
  • The television is on for six hours and 47 minutes daily in the average American home
  • 54 percent of children between the ages of 4-6 would rather watch TV than spend time with their fathers
  • Parents spend an average of 3.5 minutes a week in meaningful conversation with their children, but their children watch an average of 1,680 minutes of TV a week
  • Children spend an average of 900 hours a year in school and 1,500 hours a year watching TV
  • Americans as a whole spends 250 billion hours a year watching TV
Television (and video games) are increasingly being blamed as one of the prime factors in the expanding waistlines of American society, may be a factor in behavior problems of young kids and teenagers and certainly is responsible in part to our declining literacy (I always get a kick out of people who claim to only watch PBS and educational TV. Watching television is a passive activity and the jury is still out on if it has any practical educational value).

It's time to admit we have a problem.

I quit in the summer of 1999. It was late June and my wife and I were ensconced on the couch watching a rerun of Seinfeld while eating pork fried rice, spring rolls, and black bean chicken from the local Chinese restaurant. That night, zombified by an overdose of MSG, we gazed at the flickering images on the boob tube for more than five hours. When it was over, we were exhausted and surprisingly melancholy. Here we were -- a young married couple -- spending a beautiful spring evening watching sitcoms -- most of them reruns. The lost possibilities assaulted us: a rock concert, dinner with friends, drinks with co-workers, a jog along the bike path, actual conversation -- with each other, and even sex -- with each other.

How could any of those things not be better than watching Kramer barrel into Jerry's apartment for the 18,765th time?

So my wife presented a radical idea. Quit TV for a week. I had immediate reservations (The X-Files would be on in three days). There was also Red Sox baseball to consider. But I reluctantly agreed if only to please my wife. How bad could it be?

It turned out to be very difficult -- for the first 48 hours. It was like quitting coffee cold turkey. At first, you miss it desperately. You think about cheating. You plan to cheat. You get a headache. You complain a lot. Revert to whining. Then it's over. You're done as long as you don't go back. The week ended and we survived. So we decided to try another week. Then a month. Then the rest of the summer. Now it's been seven years.

We rarely cheat and, quite frankly, I can't believe I ever had the time to watch TV. How do people fit it in?

The benefits are amazing. Suddenly, you have time -- to read, to write, to talk, to cook dinner and eat it together as a family. You have time to finish chores, to visit friends, to go to movies on a weeknight, to paint or to play board games. You have time for a long jog by the river and no reason not to go to the gym. You start to lose those feelings of inadequacy that comes from being bombarded by TV advertising. You no longer get the urge to buy -- for no reason. Since you no longer watch TV news you begin to lose the sense that the world is vicious and dangerous and ugly.

Quit. You can do it. Start with a day or a weekend. Then try a week. It doesn't have to be a complete ban either. I still watch the occasional New England Patriots game and the SuperBowl. If you want to watch Lost or Deadwood -- keep those shows on your schedule. The important thing is to break the hours of daily viewing and reclaim your life.

Don't be one of those people who can quote every classic quip from Friends -- yet can't seem to remember their mother's birthday or their own weddng anniversery.

Revel in the silence.

Read our essay on why Americans are so damn tired all the time

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Saturday, June 10, 2006
Poems: Two by Rebecca Traquair


we weren't really friends
there wasn't time
and I'm left comfortless with thoughts of could-have-been

(part of you was never meant to touch the ground again)

people who loved you keep saying
you would have wanted it this way
I know better (I knew you well enough)
you valued your life too much to step away
so easily

dying, you would have had just enough time to be afraid
unless you were fearless
the way you were in life

and it's the not-knowing that keeps shredding me
as I think this, over and over (please don't be afraid)

(it's all over now)

I don't know how to pray, but that's a lie
all poems are prayers to something
(poems are lies)

I don't believe in an afterlife
and if I did, I don't know if it would be more
for my sake
or for yours


"Because it is bitter"

I'm not sorry

I wrote that poem

it was not meant to bring comfort
to anyone

I was too busy
tearing out my heart
to show you, to see if I could

how can you live without your heart?
you ask me

I don't know

perhaps one day
I'll be able to write myself
a new one

(DaRK PaRTY Contributor Rebecca Traquair is a poet living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. When she's not writing, she spends an inordinate amount of time poring overmaps and reading indiscriminately. Perennial favorite writers include Harlan Ellison, H.D., Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, and Gregory Corso.)

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Thursday, June 08, 2006
Literary Criticism: E. Annie Proulx's "Heart Songs"

Summary: Hard-luck Snipe has abandoned his wife and hectic urban life to move to Vermont to live what he thinks is going to be a pastoral life with his young, unfocused girlfriend. But rural life is more difficult than Snipe imagined. The manual jobs he manages to secure are demeaning and arduous and his get-rich schemes fall apart – one after the other. On the edge of despair, Snipe decides that music will be his new passion. He joins with a clan of “hillbillies” who play music every Wednesday evening. The music fuels his passions and his dreams. But in his efforts to monetize the relationship, he ends up having an affair with the fat wife of the fiddle player. The relationship collapses in chaos, he returns to his girlfriend in disgrace, and plots a move to New Mexico to start over again.

Analysis: Let me get this out of the way first. I disliked The Shipping News. The novel, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, was overwrought, over-written, and nearly impossible to read. So it was with reluctance that I picked up Proulx’s Heart Songs and Other Stories. I was pleasantly surprised. Her shorter fiction is without the pretentiousness that plagues The Shipping News.

“Heart Songs” is lyrical, subtle, and a wonderfully complex look at the troubled soul of Snipe. The first sentence gives us Snipe’s life in metaphor as he navigates a track of road: “Snipe drove along through the ravine of mournful hemlocks, gravel snapping against the underside of the Puegeot.”

Snipe is a lost soul and an all-too-common example of modern masculinity. He’s an unfocused dreamer pining for recognition, fame, and money, but unwilling to work hard for it and easily discouraged by any obstacle. We learn that Snipe isn’t particularly handsome, but women are attracted to him. “A sense of dangerous heat came from him, the heat of some interior decay smoldering like a lightning-struck tree heart, a smothered misery that might someday flare and burn.”

Snipe just can’t – please excuse the colloquialism – “get his shit together.” He’s left his wife, the city, and a clothing shop (which his abandoned wife has turned into a successful business without him). He runs off to his romanticized impression of country life with a younger girlfriend just as misguided and anxious as Snipe (but with the safety net of wealthy parents).

Snipe, a guitar player, decides to return to music and places an ad in the local newspaper looking for a group to jam with. Inexplicably, the ad is answered by Eno Twilight, who invites him to play country music with his clan every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. Snipe drives out to a lonely, mountaintop farm with a hand-painted sign over the front door: “God Forgives.”

Snipe joins the Twilight clan playing passionate, soulful country music – the likes that Snipe has never heard before. Snipe dreams up another get-rich quick scheme imagining himself as the player manager of the group: albums, tours, country-music promotions. He’s got it all plopped out, but he has one major obstacle – Eno Twilight. Eno, who is much older than Snipe, has no desires for fame or riches. He’s content to play their music every Wednesday evening on their farmhouse porch – the only audience themselves. Eno represents another brand of masculinity – quiet, confident, but rigid and unwilling (perhaps even afraid) to change.

Rather than confront Eno, Snipe takes the easy way out and focuses his attention on Nell, the band’s talented singer and quiet leader. “She (Nell) was fat, richly, rolling fat, and dressed in black. Her face was beautiful, with broad, high cheekbones and glittering black eyes. Genghis Khan would have loved her.” His own relationship on the skids, Snipe builds up Nell as an escape away from his mounting melancholy and discontent. She brings the promise of “the freedom of dirty sheets.”

On impulse one morning, Snipe drives to the farmhouse and seduces Nell, where they make quick sex while standing up in the kitchen. Eno and Rudy (another Twilight and part of the band) return from cutting down trees with chainsaws and Snipe wears his guilt like a neon sign. He confesses to loving Eno’s daughter, who it turns out is no daughter, but a wife. Eno chases Snipe off the property vowing to “get him.”

Snipe’s brief period of happiness playing with the Twilights has come to a ruinous end – destroyed by his uncontrollable appetites (his desires always come first – like some big, immature toddler) and his own inability to be satisfied with what he has. Snipe can’t live in the moment because there’s always the promise of hidden gold under the next rainbow. Snipe patches things up with his girlfriend and plans to abandon the mess he’s created in Vermont for greener pastures in New Mexico or Arizona, where he sees himself as a romanticized loner out in the desert.

Proulx hits pay-dirt in “Heart Songs” and with one evocative story earns redemption and forgiveness for The Shipping News.

Read our literary criticism of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of Red Death"

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Under God's Right Arm: A Wedding Gift to Heterosexuals

By: Rev. Colson Crosslick

President Bush has given heterosexuals a glorious wedding present --- a gaily wrapped amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage. That’s why I support his decision to offer a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Christians should flock to the president’s side to protect our children from gay marriage, which the Bible clearly labels as morally repugnant and an attack on Jesus.

Do you remember Lot? Two beautiful angels landed at his house and after he fed them and sent them to bed, the men of Sodom surrounded his house and demanded: “"Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." Lot decried this foulness and said: “No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Genesis 19).

Even way back then, Lot knew it was better to sacrifice a couple of pre-teen virgins than to indulge in the sins of homosexuality. I mean that in the respectful manner of the Bible. It's time to realize that the good old days when gays were content to be pop singers, intertior decorators, and Catholic priests are over.

Now before the politically correct among you strike, let me say right off the bat that I don’t hate gays, lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites or those buff male prostitutes you can often find trolling the byways of parks in any major city after midnight. Gays and their ilk have a right to many of the same freedoms as the rest of us normal citizens. I respect their right to have TV shows like Will & Grace and even their innate sense of fashion. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to get married.

There’s a powerful reason beyond the virtues of Christian belief why homosexual marriage should be banned. And that’s because gay marriage will increase the nation’s crime rate and send more of our trouble, young people to prison.

Many rational people might scoff at that notion, but part of my duties as pastor of the Pretty Good Shepherd Ministries in Ripsaw, Arkansas, is to visit troubled young men who are confined in prison or jail. What do these confused, tattooed prisoners have in common? From my own personal observations and from many outstanding studies done by religious, but non-affiliated colleges, these young men come from broken homes.

Broken homes, my friends, is the major cause of all crime – including bank robbery, murder, burglary, car theft, purse snatching, and soliciting male prostitutes (even if you claim to be just talking a midnight stroll to get rid of jet-lag). When the sanctity of marriage is attacked, the inevitable conclusion is more broken homes. How do we know this? Because we have the example from our liberal friends in Europe.

In Norway, Denmark, Holland, and other socially communist countries, the right of homosexuals to get married has been around for many years. Since same-sex marriage was legalized in these countries, the out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. This is because gay marriage undermines regular, normal marriages and makes heterosexuals disrespect the institution of marriage.

It’s a sad fact that few gays even take advantage of same-sex marriage even when it’s legal because it isn’t part of the “gay lifestyle” of bar hopping, Barbara Streisand movies, Broadway musicals, and hot tub orgies. It appears if gays just want to get married because heterosexuals can. It reminds me of a small, greedy child who wants to be allowed to play with the new toys and not the old, broken ones.

Many left-wingers in this country would have people believe that writing intolerance into the Constitution is bigotry. That our greatest living document should not be used as a tool for sanctioned racism. That’s nonsense! President Bush has stepped up to the forefront to support the Marriage Protection Amendment and we all know that this great president, known throughout the world for his honesty and integrity, would never steer the American people wrong.

I urge my fellow Christians to reach out to your Congressmen and Senators and tell them that you proudly support President Bush and want to add prejudice to the U.S. Constitution.

(The Rev. Colson Crosslick is pastor of the Pretty Good Shepherd Church in Ripsaw, Arkansas. In the past, he has called for a boycott of all Nathan Lane movies. He also writes the regularly appearing column Under God's Right Arm for DaRK PaRTY.)

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Sunday, June 04, 2006
Essay: Killing Fields: From My Lai With Love

"War crimes like My Lai rightly arouse horror, but the psychology of such episodes is related to the psychology of much “normal” combat. Of course, the deliberate massacre of defenseless civilians is morally different from fighting armed enemy forces. Morally different, but in its psychology disturbingly close.”
-- Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

The alleged mass executions of civilians by U.S. troops in Iraq have brought up the inevitable comparisons by the mainstream media to My Lai, the infamous massacre of Vietnam villagers on March 16, 1968. Without diminishing the loss of life in either of the Iraqi episodes, neither one of them comes close to the scale of horror and destruction that was My Lai.

The most recent Iraqi case was the alleged murder of 11 villagers in Ishaqi, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. forces were conducting a raid on a known insurgent safe house, according to the Pentagon, when they engaged and killed four people, including an insurgent. The Pentagon acknowledged nine collateral deaths in the fighting, but concluded that U.S. troops acted appropriately.

Iraqi police, however, have accused the U.S. soldiers of deliberately executing innocent civilians, including five children and four women, and then hiding the murders by bombing the house where the alleged crime took place. To make matters worse, the BBC last week broadcast videotape that appeared to corroborate the Iraqi police’s version of the events.

The second Iraqi case took place in November 19, 2005, when U.S. Marines claimed that they were targeted by a roadside bomb in Haditha and then came under enemy fire. They reported that 15 Iraqis, including insurgents were killed. New evidence, however, questions the validity of this story and, according to the New York Times, 24 civilians may have been murdered in cold blood. Even worse, U.S. Marine commanders allegedly covered up the massacre.

Both Iraqi cases are under increasing scrutiny, but it remains to be seen if U.S. troops acted improperly in either case (although the mounting evidence seems to indicate guilt). It’s grossly unfair, however, to compare either case to My Lai – which may be the worst documented atrocity by U.S. troops in history. According to an account given in Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, this is what happened at My Lai:

One hundred and twenty soldiers from “Charlie Company” were sent to My Lai because, they were told, it was a Viet Cong stronghold. The company had been under intense combat for weeks with four soldiers killed and another 38 wounded. Before the raid, the U.S. troops were told to expect enemy soldiers and armed civilians in the village.

Landing by helicopters, the soldiers attacked the village – shooting people and animals as they moved in. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of Viet Cong activity in the village or any return fire (in fact not one shot was fired at the soldiers), Charlie Company went on a four-hour murderous rampage. They raped women and children. They slashed open the bellies of pregnant women, they disemboweled and tortured people, they executed villagers by lining them up and machine gunning them down, and they burned down every house. In the end, 500 people were murdered and My Lai was a smoking ruin.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the two Iraqi cases, but they are a far cry from My Lai – where justice was again thwarted when only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was tried, convicted, and spent a paltry three years in prison.

What’s perplexing about the Iraqi cases isn’t that they happen – atrocities always happen in war – but that the United States continues to naively believe that it doesn’t happen to us. There seems to be an enormous disconnect in this country about the meaning of war (this disconnect got more severe after 9/11). As former war correspondent and author Chris Hedges wrote in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, war is always exposed for what it is: “organized murder.” War means murder, rape, torture, and atrocities because that’s what it is at its essence.

The idea behind “civilized and lawful” wars sounds nice during UN debates and on television talk shows, but once the bullets and bombs start to fly and people die, the rules don’t mean anything anymore. War breeds savagery and lawlessness. When you start a war – Ishaqi and Haditha – are inevitable consequences.

Yet, the United States widely supported the Bush administration on its march to war in Iraq – because we’re a country that still doesn’t understand war. That’s why these same supporters are now turning against the war in huge numbers as the unavoidable consequence of real combat now reveals itself.

War is ugly, which is why it should be the last possible option for resolving any crisis. It means children die, women are raped, and civilians are tortured. It means war crimes and mental illness. How dangerous is war for civilians? It’s more dangerous than being a soldier. Here are some disturbing figures from another Chris Hedges book What Every Person Should Know About War:

- Between 1900 and 1990, 43 million soldiers died in wars compared to 62 million civilians

- In the 1990s and the advent of “modern” warfare, civilian deaths constituted between 75 and 90 percent of all war deaths, including two million children

These are the messages the mainstream media should be reporting to people – not the smug, morally superior outrage at the predictable consequences of starting a war. We can now expect the witch hunt to commence. Over time, the Bush administration will throw us a few scrape goats – most likely enlisted men and low-ranking officers. The media will savage them, and we can safely go back to believing our myths about war being honorable, controllable, and ethical.

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