Skyfall: The Best Bond Film Yet?

from louderthanwar.com

(I was going to put this in reviews, but honestly, it delves so much into Bond movies in general that it seemed to stand alone.)

What constitutes a James Bond movie is different for everyone. The first few 1960s films established a routine amazing mainly for its spectacular and unvarying success: tall attractive male lead with touch of British dry humor and menace, fine tailored suits, fancy cars, explosions, three acts, anywhere from one to five Bond girls, and exotic locales. There may be minor tweaks re goofy gadgets and variety in chase scenes and the amount of violence (realistic or otherwise), but all in all, the formula has remained the same. And what makes the best James Bond movies is how they update and interpret that basic formula.

To trace the evolution of the Bond series is not so much to evaluate different Bond actors as to ascertain whether the particular movie interprets that formula adequately. Critical consensus displays this admirably: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Goldfinger, and From Russia With Love all are feted for stripping down and sticking to the bare bones of that formula, albeit with extra flourish depending on the film. The actor who plays Bond is crucial, yet only because he is the central element of the formula. A decent Bond like Brosnan couldn’t rescue a movie like Die Another Day that sunk under the weight of its excessive flourishes, for example.

And of those four movies above, I would contend that Skyfall is the best James Bond film yet due to its singular interpretation of that formula. In order to lay out my argument let’s break down the formula further.

1: The lead. Justifiably, people criticize the Bond series for glorifying or promoting Western male imperialistic attitudes. Some films unconsciously do so, others lampoon that attitude, and still others skilfully employ their villains to accuse Bond of arrogance and crimes. Since the Bond movies are clearly escapist, most of that debate seems rather irrelevant to me, but I can accept its validity. Consequently, Skyfall’s focus on James Bond’s personal history and role in a world that no longer has true empires is the canniest treatment of the issue. In the movie, Bond’s motives for staying loyal to MI-6 are laughed at by Raoul Silva, the villain, as he speculates Bond of stubbornly clinging to notions of Queen and country, which were antiquated even in the 1960s.

But Silva misses the point that Skyfall, in building off Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, intends to make. Bond isn’t a spy for Queen and country: he’s a spy because it’s a job that he is uniquely well suited for. He isn’t motivated by patriotism, but by his relationships and paychecks. Casino Royale set this up fairly well, displaying a Bond who is ready to give up service because it’s a soul-killing job and because he found someone. Quantum of Solace showed Bond in turmoil, grimly doing his job because it’s what he does best, after all, and someone needs to do it. Plus, of course, he enjoys it, and although it may turn him into a murdering machine, at least he does it well, and the people who pay him are usually on the right side.

Earlier Bond movies made this point somewhat. The first few Sean Connery films showed Connery as a dashing agent who was devoted to Queen and country, but mostly to winning and personal professional satisfaction. Every Bond movie shows Bond cheerily flouting protocols in favor of personal rewards, either in the form of women or revenge or the thrill of confirming his skill and egotism. Skyfall does this best since it shows the final thing that really ties Bond to his job: his relationship with M, which powers his sense of duty. Is that sense of duty merely the Queen and country, imperialistic attitude? No, it’s merely a sense of duty to his job, which, luckily, usually results in Bond being the good guy.

But not really a good guy, as Skyfall shows. Bond may have a spark of conscience left, but he follows orders more to the letter than ever before, a far cry from the Bond of Casino Royale who disobeyed orders to cruise the Mediterranean. He leaves a comrade to die and uses a woman to get closer to Silva; with regret, of course, but still, he’s a good agent…not a good man.

Earlier Bond movies tried to have it both ways. You’re always supposed to cheer Bond on, but Skyfall made it clear that when we place ourselves in Bond’s position, we do terrible things to people for sometimes unclear reasons. Obviously, it’s all coated in a veneer of panache and snappy sardonic wit and usually clean moral goals (since this is escapism, after all), but Skyfall makes that point better than most.

2: The three acts. Skyfall’s plot has its own issues, but its true success comes with it capping the Daniel Craig trilogy of Bond films; in short, being the perfect third act, or the end to the meta-formula. Other fans have delved into the Bond universe, detailing how James Bond could be a secret identity and code name, and thus continuity between the films is actually ensured, since it’s simply different British agents with similar backgrounds who assume the identity of James Bond. Others ask why we even go to that bother, since they’re just movies. Still others poke holes in the theory, showing how in Skyfall James Bond’s parents’ gravestones are actually shown, and how Lazenby’s wife was killed, but Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever seems rather ticked off that his wife is dead, and Roger Moore visits Lazenby’s wife’s grave…all of which can be explained away fairly easily by some contorted reasoning.

But let’s establish the background. Let’s presume that Daniel Craig portrays a brash, bold secret agent in his early thirties who is picked to be the new 007 and James Bond, mainly because of his skills, but it just so happens to be that his real name is James Bond (not that uncommon of a name, actually). That takes care of the back story and continuity. In Casino Royale, he attains 00 status, meets the love of his life, and encounters a huge terrorist ring. The first act, so to speak, which ends in his gradual growth as an agent. In Quantum of Solace, he becomes an even better agent, brutal and ruthless, and takes down the terrorist ring.

Skyfall is the third act, in which Craig’s Bond is now presumed to be in his late thirties or early forties, and it is some years after Quantum of Solace. He is veering fairly close to the age where secret agents (and really all combat soldiers) start assuming desk jobs. Even if you stay in excellent condition, your body simply starts breaking down in your late thirties on average, and Bond worries if he is obsolete, along with M. (This physical concern mirrors his dissatisfaction with his job and the fading allure of what he does, referenced above.)

However, he proves himself once more, showing there’s a place for a 00 even in the 21st century, and the movie ends with a perfect segue into the first few James Bond films: Moneypenny, Q, simple gadgets, and even a male M. Skyfall ties together not only the trilogy, but also (admittedly with holes and gaps along the way) knits together a plausible theory of the entire series, as well as the winning Bond formula in a nutshell. From here on out, Craig’s Bond will be more like Connery’s Bond, with a familiar cast of supporting characters, a firmly closeted past involving a dead wife/lover, and the wit, wisdom, and war-readiness of a seasoned spy.

(Quick edit: On Reddit and elsewhere there are claims that Skyfall shows Bond was human and failed at virtually every mission, and ended the film with the greatest mistake of all: taking his boss alone to an old mansion with no backup. I’m not quite sure how the film consists of Bond’s failures. True, collateral damage occurs, and Bond is reminded that he is human, but he does take out a squad of terrorists, initially capture Silva, defeat the man who shot him in the opening scene, and overall show that even if he makes mistakes, he’s still one of the best agents MI6 has. As for taking M to Skyfall, thematically it fits the close of the trilogy with Bond returning to his roots (and the cinematic Bond Craig returning to the old structure of Q, a male M, Moneypenny, and more). And the move to Skyfall does make sense: there’s less collateral damage. M and Bond don’t know whom Silva has corrupted, so they take refuge in each other. Plus, last but not least, thematically M and Bond have the mother-son relationship Bond never truly had. In essence, she is the most important woman in his life, but in order for him to become an even better secret agent, he has to lose her too, in order to become the Connery Bond.)

3: The acting, cinematography, whatnot. Every single shot in Skyfall could be a painting. Trust me; I’ve seen it far too many times. Daniel Craig has never been more assured as Bond, and even manages to come close to Connery’s levels of charm and menace in scenes with Moneypenny and Silva. Ralph Fiennes and Judi Dench are superb, as to be expected, while Naomi Campbell and Ben Whishaw both take on the familiar roles of Moneypenny and Q with gusto. The action scenes are well-choreographed and filmed, with the usual death-defying Bond stunts still managing to impress.

In short, what I like best about Skyfall is that not only does it serve as a great reboot film of the series (and having Casino Royale as a reboot makes the most sense, with the whole James Bond saga starting over after every 20 films), it also pays homage to the most successful elements of the Bond formula that enabled it to get to 20 films in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

Khakis vs. Chinos

(image from dappered.com)

The other day I was shopping for a new pair of pants on Amazon, Frank and Oak, and Bonobos. As I clicked through link after link, hunting for something elegant yet durable (I only buy used jeans at thrift stores, as they are so comfortably, beautifully worn), a horrible realization dawned on me: despite my pretense of being at least somewhat stylish, I hadn’t the least idea of how to differentiate between khakis and chinos.

Consequently, I decided to do a little research, emphasis on the adjective, beginning with the background of both types of pants. As I discovered, khakis and chinos are inextricably intertwined in history, running as parallel as the creases on corduroy.

According to Mr. Porter and Historical Boys’ Clothing, khakis originated when the British army transitioned from scarlet and white uniforms to the stony, dusty khaki uniform, the better to blend into mountainous, desert regions. Given its cheapness, heat tolerance, and durability, the uniforms were made from cotton. And thus the official khaki was born, the word khaki coming from the Urdu word for dust.

(from thehistorybunker.co.uk)

But what about chinos? Chino is a Spanish term for Chinese (confirmed), and once the U.S. acquired the Philippines in the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, China became a major manufacturer of trousers for American troops stationed in the eastern theater. And the name chino gradually came to refer to the tapered pants American troops would tuck into their boots.

Of course, chinos were directly descended from khakis, as they were of similar color and fabric (given that cotton’s properties rendered it useful in tropical climates). And although they were more of a military garb at that time, the World in the world wars eventually made the sight of khaki uniforms and trousers familiar to everyone. ManToMeasure posits that the G.I. Bill was responsible for spreading khakis and chinos in American universities, which then spread into the American way of life, which eventually became substantially influential around the world.

Which leads us to present day, wherein chinos and khakis are sold and classified distinctly. What happened in between?

Well, those original khakis were made from cotton twill, with criss-crossing ridges woven together. No pleat, no fancy ornamentation, merely flat-fronted or tapered pants with a few functional pockets. And chinos were khakis in all but name, originally. However, as time has gone on, ManToMeasure states that chinos are more comfortable and possess fewer pockets than khakis. There is no data in that source to back this up, so I delved into the depths of the Interwebs myself to riddle this out.

(Via sucker4clothes.com)

This is what I discovered: chinos are the slightly more fashionable brothers of khakis, nowadays. What has happened since the GI Bill in the 1940s and 1950s is that chinos, the less-familiar name, were seized upon as the segment of casual cotton pants that could be tinkered with, leading to more tailoring and color experimentation. Nowadays, khakis connote flat-front, un-creased, four-pocketed, light brown cotton pants.

Chinos, on the other hand, although very similar, are more likely to be classified as such when the pants are tapered, slim-fit, brightly colored, or in some other way distinguish themselves beyond the supposedly drab khakis. Hence they are supposedly somewhat more fashionable, according to AskMen.

So there you have it: they’re basically the same, historically speaking, and only differ as a marketing term or classification today. Of course, there are some who claim that chinos differ in the cut of the front, with less overlap between the fly and also fewer pockets on average, but those differences are piddling, and fall under my prior classification.

Alt-J’s Weird Sweetness and the Buzzwords of Job Listings

Alt-J performed in the KeyArena at Bumbershoot, a giant venue that, as the keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton put it, “may be the biggest place we’ve ever played in”. I was in the crowd, amid packed flocks of people (most of whom seemed younger than me…or else I look and feel older), during their show.

Alt-J’s genre has been described as reedy rock, or chillwave, or that eponymous label indie rock. But they are more genre-spanning and indefinable, uniting choral harmonies with somewhat atonal, arrhythmic instrumental lines, before submitting more familiar melodies. Joe Newman, the vocalist, determinedly stays high and nasal as he sings what are probably Alt-J’s defining characteristic for me personally – the lyrics.

What’s odd about them is that even though they are weird, they’re ultimately quite sweet. Breezeblocks is probably one of their biggest hits, and it captures this contrast perfectly. The music video is gorgeous, a perfect little dark story of obsession and manslaughter, that ultimately inverts your expectations of the apparently formulaic story by telling the story in reverse. The weird darkness reveals itself to be ultimately sweet. Other songs reference sharks sniffing blood in the water, and draw comparison between that and memories of a lost love.

That flip is what I think drew the crowd to Bumbershoot; just enough of a melody to make it hummable, but enough depth to lend gravitas. Sadly, however, depth doesn’t translate necessarily to a huge, packed crowd. I had the strangest vibe while in the crowd that even as they swayed to whatever recognizable bass and drum combo that occurred, there was a very real lack of connection between the music and the audience.

It wasn’t the artists; Alt-J put on a fine performance. It’s just that their music isn’t quite danceable. It doesn’t need to be, but it felt like the crowd wanted it to be. Rather an interesting disconnect, and one that I have observed more and more frequently while perusing job listings.

They have the same buzzwords across pretty much every industry: “customer obsession”, “ambition”, “compelling”, “data-driven”, “passionate”…I have to give props for Redfin for employing “tenacity”, “grit”, and “fire”.

It is similar to the standard rock that Alt-J inverts, and I think that listings could invert expectations and drum up more interest by doing something similar. Hence I propose these alterations:

“customer allurement”

“gut-rumbling hunger for rewards in this world and the next”

“data-riding”

“reasonably engaged”

 

Post-Grad/Syria/Electric Lady/LinkedIn

Given it’s a meme, rather unsure of its copyright, but most likely nonexistent

The 3rd degree contact at LinkedIn is always such a tempting target. Should I reach out through the tenuous thread of relationships to exploit opportunities? How do I do so in such a way that people feel happy to do so? This study appears somewhat relevant. In which case, I should just ask people for help in everything…

NBC News

…which leads me, very tenuously, to an interesting point that arose in a discussion of Syria last night. My father, elder brother, and I were debating as to what the proper course of action was in the whole tragic debacle. My brother opined that humanitarian refugee camps were the only suitable option, as aiding either side could result in another Afghanistan. My dad stated that there was simply a dearth of information. The fog of war obscures too much; were the rebels possibly committing war crimes also? Could the use of chemical weapons be confirmed?

The answer is, of course, that there are no good choices. There are only varieties of thorny, slippery choices, which may very well prove to be wrong in coming decades. I’m of a mind with my brother as the refugee camps being the lesser of these evils; people are desperately pleading for such help, and providing refuge is not something that can breed as much resentment as feeding supplies to one side. It really comes down to who sheds whose blood and by what means, and in that case, the refugee camps seem the best option…

Image from josepvinaixa.com

…I don’t really have a segue here, but the omnipresence of smoldering conflict in the Middle East got me to thinking about other surprisingly long-running things, and I’ve been enjoying this album heartily ever since I got wind of it.

Ms. Monae has steadily built a rather intriguing story-line of human-android society, weaving a tale of rebellion and oppression through soul and R&B while casting a futuristic veneer of electronica and dance. Her vocals are astounding, the production tightly wound, while the genre mash appeals to all of my sensibilities, but in the end, what is most intellectually intriguing is her casting of a future android as basically a civil rights leader. She envisions a dance-filled, fanciful yet serious future wherein androids as human-robot hybrids stand up for their rights.

Whether or not this will actually happen is beside the point. What’s more interesting is that she at least attempts to grapple with some of the ethical implications of intelligent human hybrid life. Ms. Monae is firmly on the side of the androids, drawing directly from the ongoing rights clashes of not only race but also gender in the past few years. That, in the end, is perhaps the album’s only intellectual weakness (although frankly in a dance electronic pop album, I hardly look for intellectual content); she is so firmly android that perhaps she misses out on the chance of hopping over the fence and looking at androids with more skeptical eyes.

The Name of the Girl from the Corner Cafe – Part 2

V. (The present.)

But today, today was going to be different, he said to himself. He was going to stride up to the counter firmly once he caught her eye, say something pleasant and personal, order something sophisticated, and then engage her in witty conversation as she rang him up.

He had carefully read through several articles on various websites (always diversify your sources, he thought) on how to engage in meaningful small talk, so he felt reasonably prepared. He’d also jotted down a few notes in his perennially present notepad. Plus, after all, he had his Grenafaux-spotted, tangerine tie. That, in and of itself, was a conversational gold mine.

 He stood in place, and shifted his weight to one leg, affixing his gaze upon the menu board in what he hoped was a casual, friendly manner. From his peripheral vision, he noted that she was baking something in the back; a shimmer of heat and the scent of rising bread wafted his way as she noted the arrival of a customer and scurried his way.

Her face brightened as she saw him – whether it was familiarity or fondness, he could not tell. He hoped it was both. “Good morning!” she said heartily.

Her eyes were looking particularly richly brown today, and her hair was mussed carelessly. She wore a white tank top and black apron, her customary getup. He mused that she didn’t even wear makeup…then again, her eyelashes were so dark, and her eyebrows so prominent, she didn’t really need any. In fact, she looked better without.

He realized he was staring abstractedly at her, and said automatically, “Yes, good morning, thanks, and how’s it going?”

He felt it was too many words, but she simply said, “I’m doing well. Busy day. What can I do for you? The usual?”

“Yes, please, drip coffee, medium.” He shuffled forward a little, his voice slightly hoarse, and coughed as quietly as he could.

She turned to grab a sizable brown mug. “Some room for cream…wait…just a little bit, right?”

She tilted her head to look at him in confirmation, and he nodded dumbly. She then switched on the grinder and he closed his mouth as she quickly went back into the kitchen. He thought rapidly…comment on her clothes? Nope, she was wearing same outfit as always. Was the tattoo too personal a topic? Did it mean anything? Was it the painful residue of a drunken night?

He glanced at her as she drew the loaves of bread from the oven, and saw the tattoo shift and coil as her muscles tautened. It was an interesting spiky spiral of some sort, but most of it was obscured by her white tank top.

“Excuse me, was that all you’re getting?” Angela asked, her tone of voice somewhat off – was it amused? He quickly looked back at her, then at her hand as she slowly depressed the plunger of the French press, and the rich black coffee filtered slowly into the top of the cylinder.

“For now, yes,” he said almost absentmindedly, and Angela’s other hand darted to the cash register, danced over a few buttons, and then she announced: “That’ll be $2.10, then.”

He handed over his credit card, and the girl came back in, carrying a giant pan stacked with loaves of bread. Strong fragrant scents of wheat, ciabatta and baguette assailed his nose, and he breathed in deeply. The white receipt paper spooled out, and Angela handed it and his card to him with a smile, saying, “There you go, Percy. Nice tie, by the way!”

For a brief moment, he thought of simply asking Angela, or responding to the compliment, and hopefully extending the conversation, but the girl was right there behind Angela…what would she think if she overheard him? Moreover, even if he waited until she was gone, and asked Angela, what would he say? He was interested in her? Simple as that, wasn’t it?

He was rather a timid man.

So instead he smiled at Angela, shambled back to his favorite little table adjacent to a window half-obscured by a coiling potted fern, and collapsed into a chair. He still held the receipt and card in one hand, his coffee in the other. He stared blankly at the receipt, and wished for the dozenth time that they printed the names of cashiers at the bottom at the Corner Cafe.

A fierce internal monologue erupted:

Why the nervousness? She’s quite nice, and she won’t be taken aback if you just ask her her name, if you do it graciously, just say something like, “Pardon me, but I forgot your name”…but she knows you don’t know her name…doesn’t she? Maybe. Maybe not. Damn it. Maybe you can ask Angela. How is it so easy to ask Angela her name? Because she wears a name tag? Damn it, why doesn’t SHE wear a name tag? Too hip…wait, are name tags not hip? Wait, who says hip anymore? It’s always been cool. Don’t say hip. Say cool. Damn you, you are hopeless. Well, maybe it’s not cool to wear a name tag. Maybe not here. Maybe she doesn’t want people to know her name, and so she doesn’t wear her name tag. Or maybe she only wears it when you’re not around. Damn it. How would she know? You’re far too paranoid. Go up there, like a man.

VI.

“You know he has a ridiculous crush on you, right?” Angela asked the girl, and she turned to glance quickly at Percy, seated in the corner, sipping his coffee with careful dejection.

“I’m not sure…I mean, he hasn’t even asked me my name,” she said doubtfully. “Not even a number.”

“He’s a little weird, not going to lie,” Angela stated firmly, turning her back on Percy.

“I mean, it’s probably his mother or something, naming him Percy, for heaven’s sake. But still, he seems nice, and he’s decent-looking.”

“What’s with the tie?” the girl asked with interest, rinsing out the French press. Angela carefully preserved the discarded coffee grounds in a wooden pail.

“It’s quite eye-catching,” Angela agreed. “Maybe normal for a singer. He can pull it off, though, I guess. Well, whatever.”

Percy’s vagaries were only mildly interesting to Angela; she sensed his fundamental wishy-washiness on some level, and didn’t quite care for it. She turned and faced the girl, smiling excitedly. “Did you hear back from the agent?”

“Not yet,” she sighed, “but she said she would get back to me in a few days.”

“I’m sorry,” Angela said sympathetically. “That must be frustrating.”

“It is somewhat,” the girl agreed, “but I’ll just keep shopping it around. They don’t have an exclusivity rule.”

“I’m sure it’ll get picked up,” Angela said, pushing one hand through her hair while using the other to wipe off the counter. “It was pretty damn good. Very innovative, striking style and strong voice…it’ll get picked up.”

At that moment a customer came in through the door, and hailed Angela. The girl smiled at her as she turned, and then saw Percy approach her, his jaw set, faint frown creasing his brow, with a complete focus on her present location. Such a complete focus, as a matter of fact, that he bowled over a chair in the way and nearly tripped into an elderly man’s bowl of tomato soup.

She instinctively moved forward to forestall a crisis, but Percy recovered his balance just in time, and within a few seconds stood before her.

VII.

“Could have been quite a red-letter day,” she said, with a smile, and almost immediately regretted it. What if he took that as a very feeble pun? She hadn’t even meant it that way.

But she overestimated Percy’s ability to multitask by several tasks. He pursed his lips, looked her straight in the eye, and said, with an unnaturally firm and loud tone of voice:

“I’d like your name, please.”

She was rather taken aback, and answered almost without thinking: “Erm, okay, it’s Callie.”

His face had abruptly flared with regret at his word choice, but at her statement he and his face fell completely silent. Then he moved his lips slightly, and said, diffidently, “Callie.”

“Yes, Callie.”

He fell silent once more, as a red flush began to meander up his neck, and the tips of his ears happily jumped the gun and transformed into vivid crimson.

“With a K?” he asked, after a pause for a quick gulp of air.

“Nope,” she said, restraining a wild desire to laugh, as clearly Percy was embarrassed, “with a hard C.”

He pondered that revelation for a moment, and also thought of fleeing at that point, and never returning ever again to the Corner Cafe. The snazziness of his tie could not save him in this moment. It probably was clashing horribly with his uncontrollable blush, he thought, but he was in too deep already, so some strange impulse shook his vocal cords once more:

“Any Y’s, or double E’s, or anything of that sort?”

“No, C-A-L-L-I-E.”

Percy fell silent once more. He brushed his hair back with one hand, nervously. Callie regarded him gravely, her composure impeccable.

“Well,” he said, straightening his tie with both hands, one at the knot, stiffening it into place, the other extending the tie. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Callie said, kindly. “Is there anything I can get you?”

He paused once more, and then said, “No.” He shuffled his feet slightly as he said it, and tilted slightly to the right, as if gravity was tugging him toward the floor, where he could wriggle away. But then, that would be rather noticeable, and even odder than just walking out, he thought, quite seriously. No, that was not the way.

She had fallen silent in turn, and they stood there for a moment, and she didn’t quite know how to salvage the situation without possibly embarrassing him, until she saw him fiddle with his tie, and she said even more kindly, “That’s quite a striking tie.”

His eyes almost lit up internally, and he said with unexpected authority, “Yes, it’s a new pattern of dots, really, called Grenafaux, almost a blend of the small diamonds on a normal paisley pattern, but combined with a polka dot. I think they’ll be quite popular this coming fall season.”

She nodded, somewhat surprised, and then he looked down at the tie, and then back up at her, and she asked curiously, “But why tangerine?”

“I thought you might like it,” he said, with disarming honesty. And then, he almost blushed once more, but manfully resisted it, and said, his voice growing hoarse, “You told me once you liked tangerines.”

“I do,” she said, touched. “You have a good memory.” She leaned back against the counter, relaxing somewhat, wondering at the rather strange yet likable person Percy was revealing himself to be.

“Only for a few things,” Percy said, feeling that this honesty tangent seemed to be developing well. “I have a small pad for most other things.”

He adroitly flipped open a small pad from somewhere on his person, and saw in it a note that he had written to himself days before, after encountering it online. A sudden fire kindled in his brain at sight of the note, and he knew exactly what to say.

“For instance, phone numbers,” he said, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, and put one elbow on the counter, directly into a glass jar of dog biscuits. He ignored the placement; this could not wait. “If you could put yours in here, that’d be great.”

Callie was quite surprised. Based on the past few minutes, she had anticipated it to be a few more weeks before Percy asked for her number. She took the pad silently, grabbed a pen from the cup crammed with writing utensils near the counter, and as she was about to write her number, saw this written in the pad:

#32. If you have your pad on you, and the topic of your bad memory comes up, say that you can’t remember all things, so you have the pad for some things, and then ask for her number.

This would have given her pause, had she not realized from the past few minutes that Percy was quite an odd creature. And after all, she had Angela to back her up or intimidate anyone who became onerous…Callie paused to glance toward Angela, who was half-hidden to the side, chopping carrots, leeks, and parsley.

Angela looked up, glanced at Percy, and nodded approval. Callie scribbled her number, and then handed the pad to Percy. Percy looked at it, almost in disbelief, and then smiled at her; not widely, not a boisterous grin, but a baffled smile of wonder. He pocketed the pad, and plunked down a five-dollar bill for no reason.

“You have a good day,” Percy said, his voice somewhat distant and dazed, and then he left abruptly. His bag was still in the corner near his seat, but that appeared to be unimportant. Callie thought of calling after him, but he had already whipped hastily around the corner.

“So he finally asked your name?” Angela stated more than asked, coming up to Callie.

“Yes, and even my number.”

“Was that what the notepad was about?”

“Yes,” Callie said, and chuckled slightly. “What an odd duck.”

“Well,” Angela said, reaching for the blender as another regular came in, “hopefully he wrote everything down, so he doesn’t forget.”

If Percy had heard her words, he would have scornfully guffawed at them. He nearly jogged down the street in his jaunty, effervescent stride, practically bleeding confidence all over the street. He had had the guts to ask her name. And even her number. He had had an honest-to-God conversation. He had even acquired the correct spelling of her name! And he mentally laid it out in giant black letter blocks:

C. A. L. L. I. E.

Or wait, was it C.A.L.L.Y.? Or even, C.A.L.I.? He consulted his notepad, and saw no hints, no clues.

Damn it.

The Name of the Girl from the Corner Cafe – Part One

I.

He walked with the alert alacrity of a man who had doused his morning coffee with freshly ground nutmeg. The sun already shone a warm, embracing yellow, but its rays seemed even fresher and finer to him. The sky seemed bluer, the scamper of traffic a hum of happy productivity, the passersby only a handshake and hello away from friends. And all due to one word…a name, actually.

II.

Of course, he still didn’t know how to spell her name. You never could tell with spellings these days, he said to himself for the second time that day.

He had said it to himself for the first time as he carefully Windsor-knotted his Grenafaux-dotted, tangerine tie earlier that morning while staring at his list of incoming tweets. (The spelling of Quvenzhane Wallis’ name had prompted this thought.) Given his job, he had to stay connected to the financial pulse of the world.

He took a few steps to the left, ended up in his bathroom, and pursed his lips as he eyed his reflection. Tangerine was a bold choice, but he needed something bold and eye-catching. On his wall was a diploma stating he had graduated with a degree in computational finance; when he popped up in photos of official events, editors tagged him as “Generic White Guy”; he was an ordinary-looking fellow, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, average height, and an average face; to cap it all off, his parents had once actually contemplated naming him Keith. 

He was aware of all this, of course. So he needed something that could be a good conversation starter, something to stand out, and the tie would serve well, or so he hoped. The dots were quirky, the knot substantial, the color striking. He wagered that it had nearly as much personality as he did, at least on first sight. (He was fairly confident that he had more personality than his tie, at least, after the first hour or so of conversation had eased things.)

A fruit fly buzzed in front of his face as he took one more look in the mirror and absentmindedly swatted at the fly. He detoured into the kitchen briefly on his way out, in order to check his homemade fly trap. He had poured molasses in the bottom of a glass jar, mounted a cardboard turret atop the jar, fastened it with duct-tape, and then inserted a tube with a hole cut facing the molasses through the cardboard. The fly trap was abuzz with flies, and he thought momentarily of releasing them into the wild. (He was a gentle soul.)

But then he steeled his heart, and the tangerine tie flopped gracefully as he bent down, laced up his shoes, and straightened the cuffs of his khakis. Then he stood up, picked up his brown briefcase, stuffed one overly boisterous flap of his shirt back behind the firm barrier of his belt, and launched out the door.

Today, he was going to learn her name.

III.

The Corner Cafe couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a pub, a cafe, a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a brewery. Whether this was due to the owner’s oddities or market demand, its identity crisis had created a loyal base of customers.

After all, if you wished for a fresh cup of coffee, you could see the harassed barista tramp downstairs and retrieve some recently-ground beans from the midsize grinder. Or if you wanted a morning glass of Sangria, the kitchen in back always seemed to have blueberries and raspberries and the requisite wine and brandy on hand. There were even stainless steel vats of modest proportions down below employed for brewing some beer (although the type and composition of beer changed dramatically every week).

It was only two stories (one above ground, the other below); the upper was crammed with small wooden tables and chairs, window-seats, a long, winding wooden bar, and a kitchen, while the lower was devoted to the equipment mentioned above and supplies. Consequently it always felt jam-packed.

And despite the jam-packed-ness, it was probably teetering on the edge of financial collapse most of the time, according to the man in the tangerine tie’s odd financial intuition. After all, there was never any expansion, nor any new equipment, nor extra staff to assist the three harried baristas/barmaids/brewers. The Corner Cafe was essentially a place of stasis, with an oddball, unchanging appeal, which is probably why the man in the tangerine tie felt oddly reassured as he strolled in that fine sunny morning.

He made a beeline for his favorite spot: approximately five feet in front of the bar and the giant chalkboard menu. White words sprawled across the chalkboard with vague clarity. You couldn’t simply read off the menu; he had once ordered a blackcurrant espresso shot with mixed greens at 7pm. When it had arrived, he was so mortified (both physically and mentally) that he consumed it in silence, and then was compelled to leave by dreadful gut rumblings. (Or borborygmi, his word of the day, he thought to himself, as the memory of the incident rippled through his mind.)

It was his favorite spot, of course, because he was certain to see her.

IV.

He had no idea who she was, or even what her name was. All he knew of her was that she wasn’t new, but rather had recently returned from a vacation or other absence, which explained why he hadn’t seen her in the two months or so he had frequented the cafe. He had gleaned that morsel of information from the very first day he had seen her.

(Flash backward nearly a month.)

Her back was to him, as she spoke to Angela, who was slender, tall, animated, and remarkably quick. (She was a law student at the nearby university.) Angela always made him nervous, mainly as he suspected she already knew everything about him…her intelligence was so readily overpowering it was almost unbearable. Looking at her, he had known in his heart that the only reason women hadn’t taken over the planet was that they were smart enough to realize it wasn’t worth it.

So the conversation went on, and he was hesitant to interrupt. He normally had the confidence of a freshly neutered tomcat, and that, coupled with Angela’s proximity, led to extreme reticence. He consequently paced in place, with a sort of odd foot shuffle combined with intense scrutiny of the menu board, as if the choice between a latte and an espresso was of great importance.

“Sorry, how can I help you?”

And he pulled his gaze down, and met hers, and then frozen. She had the most striking eyes and eyebrows, you see: dark and strong and thick, tapering off at the ends (her eyebrows, that is), while her eyes delicately teetered on the fine line between darkest brown and lightest black.

He became aware that the dark eyes were growing puzzled, and he promptly said the first thing that came into his head: “Chocolate.” (He had been mentally categorizing the color of her eyes.)

“Hot chocolate?” she had asked, and he had realized what he had said, but there was no way out now, so he mildly had said, “Yes,” even as a hot breeze from the 80-degree morning wafted in to punctuate his sentence. He wasn’t quite sure why he was unable to speak casually with her, but then his tidy, orderly mind rustled around for a moment, and efficiently produced the answer: he found her so attractive he had absolutely no desire to say or do anything that could be wrong, in her eyes.

She smiled pleasantly, displaying white even teeth, and then promptly whisked around to the refrigerator. Her hair was a thick dark shining mass, while her faintly freckled nose was firm, small, and pert. A tattoo stretched in some spiraling pattern on her brown left back shoulder, exposed by her white tank top and black apron. He had sufficient time to contemplate the ramifications of his decision, as she grabbed a small iron pot and a bar of chocolate. (They made real hot chocolate at the Corner Cafe.)

Meanwhile, Angela took over the register and rang him up. She coughed significantly, and his gaze ambled over from the tattooed brown shoulders moving briskly behind the bar.

“That’s all you’re getting?” Angela asked, with a cheery smile, adjusting the comb in her Afro.

“Yes, for now,” he said, and automatically reached for his wallet.

“So that’ll be four dollars, then.”

“Sounds good,” he mumbled, and placed a five-dollar bill in front of her. She regarded him with interest, one eyebrow that had been plucked into skinny submission arching slightly, even as she handed him one dollar back. He promptly deposited the dollar in the tip jar, and then an inactive silence congealed between them in a fatty, leering manner, until he could stand it no more.

“Seems like a hot day,” he said, feebly, conscious of her gaze, and knowing that it was most likely related to his order. What business had a grown man ordering hot chocolate on a hot day? Why mention the weather? Weather talk was the stale toast of conversation. He cleared his throat with a skittering hrrrmmph, aware of sudden dryness in his mouth.

“Yeah, but you don’t seem to mind the heat,” Angela said, glancing back at the stove. “Hot drinks cool you down somewhat, I guess.”

“It’s for my throat,” he said, for some reason. As the words left his mouth, he looked down at his paisley-patterned blue tie and contemplated a self-gag.

“Do you have a cold? Are you a singer?” Angela asked, her keen mind already leaping to deductions.

“Yes, a singer,” he stated, and his mind, somewhat removed from the conversation, watched the falsehood exaggerate with the fascination of an engineer eyeing a trainwreck. “Dry, strained throat.”

“Did you just get out of a performance, or have you been rehearsing a lot?”

“You know,” he said, vaguely gesturing, and then, mercifully, the chocolate had been ready. The girl came over, and placed a thick green porcelain cup filled with hot brown liquid chocolate right next to him. Her slim brown fingers moved deftly and accurately. He idly noted her fingernails had been nibbled down to the thinnest line of white.

“There you go,” she said kindly, and then added, “watch out, it’s really hot.”

Indeed, wisps of steam curled up from the hot chocolate, yet he willfully ignored them, and grasped it firmly about the base. Slow heat began to assault his fingers, and he immediately realized he had made a grave miscalculation. Yet he had already begun the slow shift of his heel to turn, and so he smiled almost helplessly at Angela and the girl.

“Do you want a tangerine slice?” the girl asked, looking down at the chocolate almost critically. “I always like pairing it with a little fruit.”

“Sure, sure,” he said, and thought for a moment he could see his knuckles smoking. She plopped a few tangerine slices down on his plate, and smiled at him once more. He would have smiled more nicely in return, had moisture not begun to collect in the corners of his eyes.

“Thanks, have a nice day,” he said, then quickly pivoted, and scurried for a table in the darkest, deepest corner of the cafe, where he could blow on his hands, and pretend to drink his piping hot chocolate. He managed to actually down some of it before he realized with a jolt that he hadn’t even had the balls to ask the girl her name. 

The Fascinating Depths: Yeezus, Vampire Weekend, and Mad Men Season Six

The experience of looking down from a great height is intoxicating. After all, why do people climb mountains, if not to look down from a great height? (Unless they’re really into sweat and thin air.) Whether literal or figurative, depths are fascinating.

I recall submerging in Lake Chelan’s limpid green waters, ten feet down, and looking out through the cold clear waters as my heartbeat rang in my ears. I recall standing on top of a bridge, peering down at the flowing river far below, and leaping on a sudden whim, even as my breath caught in my throat. It’s a strange fascination…not exactly a death wish, but rather some odd desire to know exactly what depths we can plumb.

And of course, in Mad Men, those depths are nearly all metaphorical. Don Draper has descended to the depths of depression and depravity before, but this season most heavily underlined those themes than any prior. It opened with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, just to ram that point home. Even though Don grappled with crushing depression and alcoholism in season four, and prior seasons saw suicides and deaths, this season was even darker, not merely in its portrayal of a nation reeling in the dark late 60s, but also because the darkness pervaded every area of Don’s life.

He tried to be an attentive father and husband in season five, while balancing professional demands, and yet he wasn’t able to pull it off. Throughout the sixth season, Don failed his marriage, failed his children, failed in his work, and even failed in his latest extramarital fling. And yet, in the penultimate episodes, he had to explore the depths even further. Don had to blow work off and take his colleagues’ sacrifices and his place for granted. He had to betray his friend and canoodle with Mrs. Rosen once more in an attempt to rekindle his savoir faire, and consequently fail his daughter more grievously than ever before.

These dark depths are seductive, especially when lived vicariously. It’s no coincidence Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most powerful and compelling shows on TV right now, both explore evil in a very realistic world. Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner know that building a narrative in which we are slowly, almost blindly led into seeing exactly how easy it is to do terrible things, into the depths each of us is capable of sinking to, is how to play to the intoxication of depths.

It took several listens (heck, I’m listening to it right now) for me to realize that was Yeezus‘ appeal also. It’s a different kind of depth; after all, it’s not as if Kanye is capturing his darkness. Rather, what Kanye West seems to be doing with this hasty, intriguing record is plumbing the depths of his imagination, creativity, and audience.

Why did he rush the album through production, and throw in vocals haphazardly? Some critics have guessed that the sound matters the most, or that it’s simply Kanye’s experimentation or boredom with the radio and his own public image. I think some of those are close to the truth, but what’s even more important is that the haphazard nature of the album speaks more to someone who’s rooting out the closet just to find what’s in there.

Tracks like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ showcase West’s self-absorption at its most self-aggrandizing, and also his deep urge to address racism…while also conflating such issues with his own past heartbreak. He then mines obscure sounds and throws it all together in Yeezus (which really is best listened to as a whole album rather than singles) in an exploration of his creative depths and those most potent, latent, rooted themes that have pervaded all his work.

Rummaging around in the depths is what also makes Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, intriguing. These themes are extremely religious and relationship-centric. ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’ focus on heavy Biblical themes and doomed relationships, tying together philosophical musings along with the fundamental realities religion grapples with. The depths may not be ego-centric and culture-heavy as those in Yeezus, but they are creative, personal, and spiritual depths all the same.

In the above link Koenig speaks of how he sees this latest album as dealing with more adult issues, which is virtually the essence of true depths. Once you’re a grown-up, the amount of damage you can inflict on not only yourself but others is astronomically greater than the flailing of even the most petulant ten-year-old. Once you’re old enough to grasp how far you can fall is precisely when the depths become most fascinating.

Another critic (the name escapes me, sadly) mused that Yeezus is Kanye’s clean-up record, his method of dealing with all the issues of previous albums, before he embarks on fatherhood. I have no idea whatsoever, but all I know is that the album sounds like someone determinedly creating a meal with whatever was left in his pantry that looked good.

But in the end, the depths are most fascinating because they are what we hope to eventually ascend from to the heights of our dreams. The sixth season concluded with Don’s realization that he simply couldn’t achieve what he wanted if he built everything on a lie (just a snippet of excellent analysis of Mad Men by Todd VanDerWerff which was invaluable to my understanding of the season). Yeezus ends with a cheery chorus and repeated assurance of “Uh-huh honey”, while Modern Vampires of the City overall packages its most disturbing lyrics in its second-catchiest tune, ‘Unbelievers’.

Plunging into the depths wouldn’t be nearly as fun if we couldn’t climb back up on the bridge, or eventually kick our way to the surface, and climb back out into the sun.

(All images are reproduced from non-licensed material, I believe. My dad’s a lawyer; I was trained to exercise due diligence.)

Mad Men Season 6

A friend of mine once observed that she’d stopped watching Mad Men because she had begun to identify too much with the characters. Whether true or not, there is something of a seductive quality to the characters on Mad Men. Not only are they beautiful people living in an enviable fashion, with peerless interior decoration, expensive tastes and absorbing jobs, they also are human in a very tantalizing way. They make mistakes, fail in marriages and other relationships, exude frustration midst their material comfort, and most of all seethe with a faint uneasiness…and look good enough doing it that I can both relate and desire to be them.

To me, that is the mark of Mad Men’s greatness, and it is exemplified best in this current season. I’ve read some mixed reviews on this season, namely in the Atlantic, and it’s tempting to see how the sixth season, thus far, could be somewhat sputtering. There’s not much forward progression, it appears, for numerous characters. Pete and Trudy separate, Don’s affair with Sylvia Rosen intensifies, but nothing too surprising or apparently momentous happens. Indeed, there are hints of professional and the ever-present personal troubles, but even the show almost seems to dismiss them offhand (the consequences of Heinz Baked Beans jumping ship, for instance, seem minuscule).

Yet this slow-burning momentum is the thing that I love best about Mad Men, and what, to my mind, renders it so seductive. After all, even though a show structured like Mad Men requires compression of time and events in order to remain compelling, it is one of the shows that most successfully captures the slow shift that comprises actual life. Few life-changing events wholly occur in a short amount of time. Rather, the tectonic grind of clashing personalities in professional and personal spheres gradually changes the landscape of daily life until sudden eruptions occur. Even the cinematography reflects that sentiment this season, with slow shots, careful framing, and sober color contrast (at least with the most conflicted characters…Peggy, for instance, wears bright colors, along with Megan; both are not nearly as conflicted as Don).

I think Todd VanDerWerff at AV Club voiced a similar sentiment, mentioning how Mad Men was great at proffering small events, almost as if they were insignificant, and yet weaving many such small moments into something far larger and important than previously assumed. Don’s marriage to Megan was one such event. I was surprised, at first, at the nuptials, but then, after rewatching much of the first four seasons of Mad Men, realized how it was not only presaged by Don’s character but also small events built up throughout the fourth season.

And that’s what I think this sixth season is, to an even greater extent than ever before. The shifts are gradual, with ostensible showy events on the surface (losing Heinz Baked Beans, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, Don’s affair) that seem to fade, but all build to something, piece by piece. What is that eventual point? I don’t know. I know what I hope for, or at least I think I hope for, and that is something Sylvia said to Don: peace.

That elusive peace is one of the most seductive elements in Mad Men. We live our lives as stories, and each of us is the hero and narrator of our tale. But we are trapped in these stories; the average of our weeks, months, and years may even out to a recognizable arc filled with joy and sorrow, satisfaction and unease, peace and discord, but in the day-to-day, peace is elusive. Mad Men exaggerates emotions by virtue of a fast-paced, highly-charged environment and profession in a colorful time period and lucrative field, but even so, it evokes the plodding evolution of longing very well.

Above, I referenced the fallible nature of Mad Men’s characters as seductive elements. The stories we live abound with our own foibles, so mirroring flaws is merely canny and candid. Yet what’s even cleverer than that is showing how those foibles come about. They all derive from that sense of unease, that longing for something, whether it be some vestige of happiness or a different satisfaction altogether (happiness would seem to be the obvious answer, but we don’t always do things because they’ll make us happy).

Whether or not you can identify with Mad Men’s characters, or even if you want to, the show does succeed in capturing that particular nature of our own lives. And, of course, delivers it to us in as attractive a packaging as possible, which may or may not be a meta-commentary on the show itself. Even if we do want to see part of our own lives played out onscreen, we want to look good, after all.

 

P.S. Several other reviewers have speculated this season’s theme to be something akin to Purgatory. With explicit religious overtones in Don’s affair with Sylvia, it’s an interesting take, but something that may take a few more episodes to truly develop, in my opinion.

Random Thoughts on Humility Nowadays

The oddest of all virtues, to my mind. It exists to be unnoticed, when it is truly successful. And as for its popularity, one could look around the plethora of articles and rambles decrying the self-absorption encouraged by the advent of social media, personal gadgets, and so on (here’s an example from the Atlantic). The articles are interesting, although often quite unintentionally humorous; in fact, almost as humorous as the consequent denials. 

And one could argue that the rise of self-expression coupled with the increasing access to avenues of such self-expression, along with a comfortable cocoon of friends as your audience, could lead to self-absorption getting a free pass. But I’m not so sure. After all, it’s not as if this is anything quite so new. As I said before, humility is unpopular. It’s the least appealing of all virtues, even less so than temperance (I had to go get a Boatswain Double IPA just upon the mere contemplation of temperance). Self-absorption, whether or not it is now even more observable due to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, what have you, always has been around. We’re just seeing more of it, as before it existed only in people’s heads.

Now, lest I fall into the category of people who claim it’s all right, I think the above article has a fair point. The unprecedented increase in the ability of people to draw crowds in virtual realities has never happened before. And I’m sure my self-regard has not been damaged by the preening profile I often present on Facebook.

But is a virtual reality really that effective in establishing a narcissistic bubble that can be sustained in human interactions? The neurological synapses can be fooled by chemicals inspired by online interactions (think pornography or interactive flash games), but can consciousness, really? By this I do not mean that I think arrogance, or lack of humility, can NOT be amplified by self-absorption online. I just happen to think that a combination of that, and the opposite, which is the exposure to numerous other perspectives and opinions online (even in a close circle of friends) may make the narcissistic or even self-absorbing effects rather ambiguous.

Plus, there is already a sizable backlash in mental attitude toward online self-absorption among my peers, and even younger age groups. Having an online profile may be somewhat necessary, but immersion is the mark of the unsavvy (which, according to Google, isn’t a word, but it should be, so there it is). Self-awareness, I’d argue, is the prime characteristic inculcated by my peers’ attitudes toward online absorption in this age, along with a desire to manage personal image to not the most popular configuration, but to a reasonably appealing one.

And that self-awareness, sadly, is not humility. (It often can be, but from personal experience, I am all too aware that being self-aware does not lead to humility…just because you can see your terrible haircut does not mean you acknowledge how bad it makes you look.) It involves doing what everyone does on a daily basis – try to be someone they want to be, especially in public – but it is not the realization and acceptance of personal flaws.

Which is what humility is really all about, right? And why it’s the least popular of all virtues. It’s obscenely difficult. I have to detach myself from my actions and not only think about the mistakes I have made, or am likely to make, but accept that I will probably make some anyways. And I have to be at peace (there HAS to be a better word for “be at peace” in English than that vaguely clunky phrase, but I do not know it) with that fact. So, not easy, whatsoever.

And, hypocritically, I may go on to add it really is a sad thing that there’s not more of it. Being able to admit you were wrong, and that you are capable of making mistakes, for example, is something that is justly admired in a politician (usually after they are dead), on rare occasions. I wish that I had that option on my tests every time I take a test (actually, I have written that down, on one occasion, but it rankled greatly). If bankers and financial pundits could admit they did not know what was going on, but this was their best guess; if we could admit that we make mistakes, being human, and thus risk should be spread around as much as possible; if institutions that depend on a few human choices could willingly proclaim their ignorance and caution…well, that institution would probably go underwater, human nature being what it is.

Perhaps in this information-soaked age, it’s hard (for me, at least, especially as I’ve cultivated a reputation of knowing things – ah, those subtle, sinister effects of successful successive bar trivia nights) for those who feel they SHOULD know because the evidence of what they should know is so easily obtained, to admit they don’t. Reputations are ultra-fashionable suits: they wear very well for the season, but can become tiresome, difficult to wear, or anachronistic quite quickly.

On the other hand, reputations, when best fashioned, really are the classic black suit. They never go out of fashion, and while they may need to be taken out or in, they are about as timeless as an article of clothing can get. Humility may not always be fashionable, but it’s timeless. Even if not very appealing…because, let’s face it, other qualities are much more marketable. Strength, honesty, prudence, even temperance (in an increasingly health-conscious age)…

Well, I forgot chastity. Never mind, humility is always more appealing than that.