I'd be a steaming locomotive,
    Tender packed with coal
My fire would burn, the flame releasing
    Power through a spool
Of whirling steel, with engine oil
    Lubricating all.
And when the tender emptied, and
    The dark began to fall
I'd, satisfied, lie down: tucked in
    A roundhouse for a shawl.
And there, would cease - my firebox sated -
    Hollow and sublime.
My fuel away inside a tippler,
    And hours and hours of time
To sleep towards th'Phoenix flame
    Of morning's engineer,
To dream of water in my boiler
    And the Coal-flame's sear
Across the ceiling of my heart --
    Now cold as an ancient bier.
To be reborn, a heart must burn
    Then cease to burn in death.
My tender parts, shut up too close,
    Can't burn -- for lack of breath.

(Image by Osgoldcross)

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Money versus Value

I have been reading Capital by Karl Marx, lately (well, listening - thanks Librivox!) which has my mind on Economics - NOT a subject I normally spend a great deal of time on. Perhaps wrongly so - economics seems boring, but it is also, particularly for the last few hundred years, the force that drives history.

I'm not an expert on Economics - I really know next to nothing - but it strikes me that the world economy in it's current form is unsustainable - either we all will degenerate into a sort of global feudalism where rich countries use poor countries as serfs, and military force is used to keep the rich country's economic needs fulfilled (we're kind of already there it seems, in many ways), or we'll have to transform. I'm kind of hoping for the second one.

Capitalism is complex, I know, and I won't pretend I understand it, but the central tenet of capitalism itself seems to be doomed in our current world: that a free market encourages competition, thereby bringing out the best possible products, the best possible profits, and the best possible world to humanity at large. Think about that for a minute. Think of what competition has chosen as the best products - think about furniture, for instance, where being not-rich means buying fiberboard junk that falls apart in a few years. Now, even assuming that these products ARE the best possible products - is the system that creates them really giving the greatest possible good to humanity? Is the greatest good a good that determines your relative well-being by which country you happen to be born in, how much melanin you have in your skin,  or whether you have a penis? If that's the best we can do as a race, I'm not sure we have much to brag about, really. The thing is that competition doesn't breed better products, it breeds better competitors. I work for Pearson, the largest educational publisher in the world now. Did they get there by being the best at what they did? No. Heck, Pearson started out building bridges, and really only got in education in the last quarter century. Pearson is great because it was clever, it knew how to buy up the right companies at the right time. Does that produce a measurable benefit to us as a race? No. On the contrary, consolidation is an extremely effective way to fight competition, but a terrible way to produce a vibrant, innovative community - Dilbert, after all, doesn't work in a small company, because if he did, they'd be out of business. Only the Fortune 500 can afford to bankroll incompetence.

[Side note - I don't mean to say that you CAN'T innovate in a multi-billion dollar corporation, anymore than you CAN'T hand out social justice from the seat of a dictatorship. It just happens to be far too easy to do the wrong thing and get away with it]

The thing is, this model doesn't just stifle innovation in large companies - it kills it off in small companies too. The dotcom bubble of the last decade was an excellent example of this. In the beginning of the internet (and to be fair, in a strong central culture throughout the internet's history) there was a central culture of innovators - some entrepeneurs, many simply people who loved technology and believed in what it could do. These people innovated, and created something truly transformational in our culture - to be frank, I've wondered over the last few years if, without the growth of computing and the internet, if the US as a worldwide imperial power would even still exist (but that's something to talk about another day). The dotcom bubble was the classical reaction to revolution - the string of people trying to riff of other people's good ideas. This can be good of course. Not EVERY company of the dotcom era was a bust. However, the business model in the dotcom era speaks of an essential weakness: many dotcommers tried to grow as explosively as they could on venture capital and limited revenues, so that they looked lucrative enough to get snatched up and bought by a bigger company. That's why they paid people with stock options, so that they would hang around and work to get the company sold, since they could sell their 'free' stock high and cash out. This pattern continues today even. The problem with it is that it confuses money with value - a successful business is one that can be sold off for money, not one that can create sustainable value. This is the problem that surrounds the Facebook and iPhone application market right now (do you REALLY think that Mafia Wars is the kind of business that will last 20 years? Really? How about PullMyFinger, one of the most popular apps on the iPhone? Are these innovation?).

The confusion between money and value is really gets to the root of the problem with Capitalism - like Utilitarianism in the 19th century, it is easy to measure, but impossible to measure accurately. A bank in this system can make billions of dollars annually, for moving stuff around from one pot of money to another. Seriously - the finance industry makes NO sense to me. Think of it this way: the most profitable company on earth is Exxon Mobil. In 2007, they made almost $41 billion in profit. Not in revenues - in profits. That's how much more we, as a world, paid Exxon than it needs to run. So, all of the world's profits serve three basic social purposes - to reward and encourage innovation, to allow for growth, and to provide a cushion for unforeseen problems. So, how much benefit have we, as a world, gotten for our $41 billion dollars? What innovation are we rewarding? Is that hte most valuable innovation on earth? Do we really WANT the oil industry to grow? Considering the inevitable future don't we want the exact OPPOSITE of that? And as for disasters, well sure, Exxon needs something, okay. But you know, I don't know how often Exxon really has a problem with a year in the red. If they're so worried about disasters, maybe they'd work harder to make sure they don't have oil spills without being browbeaten into it by the government and an angry public. Furthermore - has our energy dollar spending encouraged the best possible product? If you consider oil the best energy source on earth, sure. But it isn't - it can't be in the long term, because we ain't even gonna HAVE it forever. But that's jsut the thing - Capitalism produces the highest possible profits - NOT the highest possible VALUE. Money is a short term measure of success, because it is immediate and palpable. In the long term? Money is both meaningless and unpredictable. Having money may enable us to do good things, but in and of itself, it is not success, and to be perfectly frank, most human beings don't REALLY think that it is. It's fun. It feels good. It's easy. But it's not important.

Because, the thing is, money isn't a product. Money isn't a thing people can use. It's just a token, somethign that sits in your hand so that you can get what you want to use. Money is just a convenience, because converting the price of 20 gallons of gas into ducks or computer-repairman-work-hours is too complicated. We make a standard way to exchange the output of our labors, that's money.

But the thing is, Exxon has nothing that it needs to exchange $41 billion for. There is nothing exxon needs that costs that much. So what does it do with it? It hoards it, in which case the money becomes meaningless, or it jsut buys more of itself, and grows, an equally unprofitable activity in a world that frankyl doesn't NEED more Exxon. Or more Pearson. Or more WalMart. Or more McDonalds. Or more Microsoft. What the world needs is more of the things it DOESN'T have - but capitalism demands that we give our money only to the things we've already got - or we invest it, in which case we put it into companies that we feel will get us more money - not more value, just more money. Noone is investing in, say, Proctor and Gamble because they're holding out for the bottle of Crest that will change the world and fix our problems. They're investing in it, because they know everybody will keep having to buy toothpaste, Proctor and Gamble will end up with billions of dollars and nothing it needs, it will tehrefore buy more Proctor and Gamble for itself, and the cycle will perpetuate itself.

Unfortunately, this is more than just an annoyance. This doesn't mean only that we don't grow. IT means that slowly, very slowly, we're eating away at the value we have left. If all money eventually funnels out into mindless growth cows, and money is our measure of value, then all of the value produced by the world must slowly be sucked in by the exponentially growing corporate vampire companies that we feed. What this means is that the companies ending up gobbling each other up in an endless cycle of merger and acquisition, that must be fed by producing more products and extorting more profits - because a growth vampire no longer knows how to sustain itself except by the value it takes from others (Exxon, again, being a good example). Where does all this value come from? Someone must make it, someone must put some input into the system - well, there are only two forms of value in the world: human activity and natural resources. People must owrk more to make more sellable materials, and more must be pulled up from the earth to sell. Because that's the blood, that's what the vampires drink.

Where do we go from here? IS there anywhere to go from here? I don't know. I know I don't have a lot of readers here, but if you have any thoughts, I'd be thrilled to hear them.

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Gretel (Conent Warning: Disturbing Image)

Every day a dryer bone,
Every day, I feed him,
Press the meat into his palm,
Urging milk against his lips,
But every day a dryer bone,
My little brother, how I thought...


Someday, when she is foolish,
I will play fool,
I who meant to be wise.
Someday when she is foolish
I will burn the kindling to a blaze
With the tinderbox of my hateful eyes.


Every day a dryer bone,
Little brother your lips are colder,
Sometimes, it's like they've shrivelled up
It's like the shiver of your tooth
I press my milk unto them
Every day dryer
Every day


Someday, I will open up her boxes,
Someday, now that she is always sleeping,
Someday I will open up her boxes
And, I'll wrap you up in my arms,
And carry you to papa
With an apron full of pearls.
I will open up the gumdrop door
And cross the river on a white duck
With the shining light of the witch's own wand.
With the wand, and my little Hansel,
And the Duck's white back.


Every day a dryer bone,
Each dessicating year and month and hour,
Alone now, but for you,
My milk has shrivelled up, though I have grown,
And aged,
And withered back again,
And iced the shingles,
Tidied up.
Do you feel lonely too?
Poor little Hansel,
Little boys need playmates -
Shall I find you one?
The wind is cold and smells of rain,
I've heated up my oven,
And the smell of ginger races through the woods...

(Image by Miwa Yanagi, a japanese artist, who has a series of similar images at the site indicated)

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The Death Book Hour (Episode 2 - BBADW)

If you saw last week's post from Death and Baby Death on book buying over on Zen Leaf, you'll probably run screaming from this one. Death and Baby Death discuss John Ritter, BBAW, and a new theme song...

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Cinderella, Beauty, Objectification and Breakfast at Tiffany's

Recently, a blog I happened across pointed me to this fascinating article about Breakfast at Tiffany's (the movie, not the novella). The crux of the story was talking about how Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the main character, Holly Golightly, as she matched the Holly Golightly of the Novella far more closely than Audrey Hepburn did (as he so glibly put it, can you REALLY imagine Audrey being named Lula Mae, and chasing chickens in Appalachia?), but that if Monroe HAD been in it, the movie would not have worked in the way that it did. I have never read the novella (though, on that note, I'm adding it to my to-read list), so I won't comment much on this comparison. What struck me, and has been gnawing at me since, is the very deft description the author gives of what it is that makes the movie so beloved. As someone who LOVE B at T's, I have to admit the synopsis of it's appeal was a little disturbing. Maybe this post is my subtle way of equivocating, I don't know.

Let me begin this post, by stating the simple fact that I have never been a woman. Perhaps you were aware of this (though if you saw me on Halloween 1999 at this place you may be in some doubt. But no, probably not, even then. I didn't make a very convincing transvestite). Due to the relative location of my gonads I've never experienced how difficult it is to be a woman in a still, I'm afraid, very patriarchal world. So, I don't, unfortunately, know whereof I speak.

That being said, the idea of the Cinderella story has always been a disturbing one to me (and, I think, to many people). Let's take the basic outline of classic Cinderella:

1) Pretty girl is made to do ugly work
2) Deus Ex Machina reveals the true worth of the 'servant girl' (that is, she's totally hot, and nice and quiet. In the Disney version she can sing too, which I suppose is at least a talent)
3) Jealous women in girl's life try to hold her down
4) Girl identifies herself by dint of her helplessly dainty feet
5) Man saves girl, takes her to a castle to take care of her and buy her pretty dresses in exchange for marital duties. I mean... he falls in love, yeah.

This isn't exactly a Gloria Steinem bedtime story, is it? The heroic journey of Cinderella (and it does more or less follow the Campbell hero cycle) is basically a quest to learn how to be decorative. That sounds more like a parody, almost.

And really, in a lot of ways, I can see how Ms Golightly is that way, I won't deny that part of the appeal of the story is the same appeal that Cinderella has: a general bias towards pretty, harmless things. Everyone around Holly treats her like an object, and in the end, when Fred/Paul gives his speech, it's not about respect, it's about ownership:

"People do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that's the only chance that anybody's got for real happiness. You call yourself a free spirit, a wild thing and you're terrified someone's going to stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage, you built it yourself..."
That's not an empowering speech: it's a speech that tells Cinderella that, in the end, she needs the prince.

But is that all that it says?

There are a lot of stories, now, that talk about objectification as an empowering thing, at times. How many 'girl power' type stories have the heroine defiantly go out shoe shopping with her friends after getting dumped? And defiant is usually just the word, as if buying sexy shoes was a way of showing the lost man that she is more than he would make her be. On the more 'literary' end of the spectrum, you see the same behaviour. Take this passage from 'A Handmaid's Tale':
The one with the mustache opens the small pedestrian gate for us... As we walk away, I know they're watching, these two men who aren't yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full read skirt sway around me. It's like thumbing your nose from behind a fence... and I'm ashamed of myself for doing it because none of this is the fault of these men, they're too young.

Then, I find I'm not ashamed after all. I enjoye the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us...
Again, the woman here is defiant, in that she seizes her RIGHT to be an object, if she wants to, that she seizes the power and freedom of objectifying herself.

Sex, of course, is the easiest way to show this objectification, and arguably the most common way to make an object of one's self, but not the only one. In a sense, it is the same freedom that makes the horse in animal farm a hero, the freedom to be both more and less than human, when one wishes. It's the freedom of the nun, who renounces the world, and becomes seperate, different, something not quite the same as a woman - and most vitally, in a sense becomes something to many people, rather than someone. There is a power in being something, a very real and very beautiful power, in passivity, the power of renunciation, of knowing that one could have something that they choose not to have.

How does this relate to Miss Golightly? Well, there is an essential difference between Cinderella and Holly Golightly - Holly doesn't let herself win. Where Cinderella would have risen to be a movie star (the closest American's can be to a princess without marrying a Kennedy), Holly abandons OJ Berman to become what is, more or less, a glorified call girl. The glass slipper slips onto her foot, and she walks away. And in the end, when she leaps from the magic pumpkin, there is two interesting things to note: first, that she chooses to pursue the prince who has left her rather than waiting for him to save her, and second, she actually goes to look for Cat, not Fred. In fact, this brings up an interesting part of the story: Holly, in being objectified, does not sublimate (Cinderella in the end becomes a part of the prince, rather than her own person), but rather transforms the entire world into a world of objects, a world where Cat is just an anonymous cat, Paul is forced into the role of Fred, men are just rats, super-rats, or scared little mice, etc. 

But this still doesn't answer the niggling question at the end of the movie: if the world is made of objects, if Paul/Fred is an object, and Holly herself is an object, why does it matter to an object whether or not it is owned?

I don't know, I'll admit that right now. But here's the best answer I can come up with.

See, the thing is, objectification isn't the problem - enslavement is the problem. The problem with men looking at women as nothing more than a collection of feelable, ogleable parts is that men then view women as things to manipulated, used, collected, discarded. Empowering objectification is one in which the object maintains it's own autonomy - like I said, it is not to make oneself inert, but to make oneself simultaneously more and less than human. A God is both more or less than human (or, a Goddess), and in many ways this is what you see in objectification, a consignment of oneself into an archetype - Holly, for instance, refuses to be a sex object, and instead chooses to become Venus - the sex Goddess with all her weaknesses and strengths. The classical nun, in many ways, refused to become the wife-object of a man, and chose to become the divine consort, the Virgin Mary as it were - a role with power for her.

Are these objectification healthy? Like meat and sunshine, the answer involves complex questions of individual needs, and a demand for moderation. I will say that it is, for both men AND women, necessary for survival in a hostile world (tell me, for instance, if you think that Walter in Rilla of Ingleside objectifies himself into Athena, the goddess of just war, any less than Holly objectifies herself into Venus?). It's a messy, ugly, destructive thing, but it's also a purifying, simplifying, and beautiful thing - WHEN it is empowering, instead of belittling, when it is willed instead of forced.

Now, I do want to say, that I don't think it's possible for such objectification NOT to be somewhat sexist and degenerative in our current society - after all, Paul's role as the whore of his 'decorator' doesn't make HIM Venus in any way, and it should. I'm not advocating more books about pretty girls winning because they look harmless. But, I suppose, I'm saying that the question is also too complex for us to be dogmatic.

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My 'Collection' of Emily Dickinson (Weekly Geeks 2009-33)

This weeks topic is one I'm probably not well qualified for:

So, Weekly Geeksters, tell us, do you have a collection, (or are you starting a collection,) of one particular book title? If so, what's your story? Why that book, and how many do you have, and what editions are they? Share pictures and give us all the details.

As a general rule, this is a poor topic for me. As I mentioned in my comments elsewhere, my WIFE has a ccollection that would probably qualify, as she now owns Harry Potter 1-7 in both hardback and paperback, because (no, I'm really serious) she likes to figure out what changes were made in the editing between the two editions. Yeah, my wife, TOTALLY kicks butt. She wants to get the British editions (which, she excitedly tells me, never even mention that Dean Thomas is black!) as well, so if there are any English friends out there, looking for a good idea for birthday presents...

But as a general rule, we don't keep dupes. There's a few books that I've given one edition to the boys, and kept one for us, but generally, if there is two copies, one of them goes to Half Price Books to fund purchases of other titles. The largest collection of any single book that I have (I think) is 2 books - however, I do have probably the distinction that those books are not only the same book, but the same EDITION of the book, and I actually intend to keep both, indefinitely. The book I've collected, then, would be the Johnson edited paperback edition of the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Like this one.

My original copy of Dickinson is (I think) the first book I ever paid for new. I bought it in the latter half of High School at the Barnes and Nobles on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin (an excellent Barnes and Nobles, btw, because it had a huge used book section). Over the next several years (continuing through today, I might add) Emily Dickinson has kept my head above water more than once. In fact, I would be bold enough to offer that thorugh the turbulent period between high school and today, when I was desperately trying to decide who I was, what I believed, and where I was going, Emily Dickinson is the one thing in my life that has not changed. The roots of everything I know and believe has gone topsy turvy so many times that I've exhaustedly given up on thinking that I am capable of any sort of solid, dependable soul, but Emily Dickinson has stood one, my one touchstone through it all.

I'm not one of those people who is clever enough to argue over the particular editions of books, or point out how cleverly a a particular editor might ocllect Dickinson's poems. So, I know that my description of my collection a few paragraphs back might sound snobby and uppity, how specific I'm being, like I'm showing off my knowledge fo the various incarnations of Emily Dickinson (if it's any comfort, I had to look up who the editor was so I could describe - the two editions of the complete Emily I've seen, in my head, are referred to as the picture-of-emily-and-big-block-letters edition and the flowers-on-the-cover-kind-of-like-nine-inch-nails-the-fragile edition). My affection for the particular edition of Dickinson I have has nothing to do with the editorial skills of Mr. Johnson. The real reason this particular one has stuck with me is it's size, shape and texture - or to be a little simpler, it's because this edition is the perfect book for hugging. In difficult moments, or even just moment's of apprehension or worry, there is something extremely comforting about having a nice, stout-sized, soft and not too slippery book to hold. For many-month periods of my life, in fact, my Emily has been my constant companion, put in the bottom of backpack under my schoolbooks, or now, tucked in beside my laptop (which means that the cover and first 20 or so pages are warm with processor heat, which makes the hugging even better).
Of course, constant use is hard on a book, and really the length of time my first Emily lasted is a testament to it's excellent construction, because I am no gentler with my books, I'm afraid, than I am with my friends. It's final trial was when I started to read it with the boys. As they started to get old enough to KIND OF understand poetry, we started reading a poem every night - they like Emily Dickinson poems because so many of them are riddles. So, every night, one of the boys would get to go grab my Emily, and pick a poem out of it for us to read. IT was one night when Laurence (my youngest) picked the book up and held it open while walking, that the horrible, terrible sound came - the tearing of soft, worn coverstock.
Laurence immediately knew it was a 'bad thing,' and I think he honestly thought he'd be in big trouble (a testament, unfortunately, to my over-snappishness as a parent). He wasn't, it wasn't his fault, and I told him so. The book was old, it had had it's day. But, still, there was something very painful seeing my Emily there with it's cover torn off. I honestly wasn't sure I'd even buy a new edition, for a long time. It was hard to do so, and I almost bough the aforementioned flowers-like-the-fragile edition, just because I didn't want to 'replace' my old friend. But, in the end, I didn't, I couldn't. From a selfish perspective, I've not gotten to the point where I still don't need a nice, stout-sized, soft and not too slippery book to hold. Knowing the endless flippant mutability of me, I can't imagine that I'll stop needing one any time soon. Perhaps, at the end of my life I'll have a whole shelf of old, abused copies (god forbid they ever stop printing this edition...).

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