Reality is What You Make It: Steve Jobs and Walter Isaacson

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Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?—John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

 

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This essay was written on a MacBook Pro, and that should hopefully speak to the quality of the book.  Product endorsement really isn’t my strong suit, and so I suppose starting this essay off by noting my shift to Apple products might not be the best way to begin writing about Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, and in fact if it were not for my grandfather I doubt I would have made the actual switch.

My grandfather, as long as I can remember of the man, was the sort of person who could not tolerate small talk.  The annual birthday meetings between him and my parents were not the casual get togethers where people would talk about television shows and try to treat desperately about the weather.  I never remember small talk because my grandfather couldn’t do small talk.  Rather the conversations would be about the FullSizeRenderwritings of Thomas Aquinas, the politics of the day, my grandfather’s thoughts about the history of the Catholic Church, his success with certain carpentry tools, and sometimes his early fascination with computers.  I tend to recall more his conversations about Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic philosophers, which is somewhat amusing given the fact that the man was married three times putting him into something charmingly referred to as a lapsed Catholic.  But I do remember on the few occasions he spoke about his preference of personal computers, a term I really wouldn’t appreciate until reading Steve Jobs, and I remember him talking in great esteem of something called a Macintosh.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the computer my grandfather was gushing about positively were the exact same computers I was using in my computer classes at school to Steve_Jobs_by_Walter_Isaacsonpaint pictures and play educational games.  Apple products were apparently always around when I was young, but I couldn’t see the fruit for the trees.  That’s a play on words you see because Apple’s logo is an actual apple.  On an entirely separate not I’ve also ordered a white mug with the multicolored logo that bears the inscription “Think Different,” and since buying my MacBook Pro, I’ve looked into getting an iPad
and eventually a desktop iMac.  My little sister has charmingly decided to call me an “Apple Whore” after she saw the Apple logo keychain I had printed up using the library’s 3-D Printer.

I suppose I am one now, and observing this metamorphosis I realize that, even after death, Jobs has managed to continue to inspire individual people using his awe and charisma that, some would argue, tended to overshadow the man’s faults.

Before I finally sat down to read Steve Jobs (listen is the more appropriate word since I’m slowly chugging through the audiobook) I was aware of the book because my IsaacsonWalter._V164348457_grandfather had a copy.  The book came out and became a sensation, and it seemed for a while that the proliferation of the book was akin to actual Apple Products, you just couldn’t get away from it.  Somehow or another I avoided having to actually sit down and read it, largely because I discovered Christopher Hitchens about the time the book came out.  It was thankfully then through Hitch that I determined the quality of Walter Isaacson as a biographer.  I read his Benjamin Franklin , and I intend to sit down and read his Henry Kissinger and Einstein as soon as I get the chance.  It was because of these connections that I knew enough about the book to know it was worth my time, and I borrowed it from my grandfather intending to read it.

It’s been within the last year or so that his dementia started, and so I’ve lost the grandfather who was such a powerful intellect.  But I still had his copy of Steve Jobs, so I started it and have now become an Apple Whore.

1337256000000.cached_2Isaacson deserves every bit of credit he gets for Steve Jobs, because even during the most pedantic periods of the man’s life feels vital and important to understanding the qualities of Jobs as an individual man.  Passages that describe board-room meetings and phone calls become part of the great drama that became Steve Jobs’s life, and even when discussing the jargon ladened aspects of computer design Isaacson’s books never loses its sense of pace or direction.  The reader is constantly observing the man of Steve Jobs.  They see his highs his lows, his individual strengths, and his faults that at time have left me both shocked and repulsed.  Isaacson deserves credit for this previous point as well given the fact that the temptation of biography is at times to write about the idea of someone rather than the real actual meat and bone of a human being.BxMHal8CQAAJzMi

And the first impression from Isaacson’s book that really hits me is how much I relate to Jobs in a sense of impending doom.  In one passage he cites Jobs’s notion of his own mortality:

Jobs confided in Sculley that he believed he would die young, and therefore he needed to accomplish things quickly so that he would make his mark on Silicon Valley history.  “We all have a short period of time on this earth,” he told the Sculley’s as they sat around the table that morning.  “We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great and do them well.  None of us has any idea how long we’re going to be here, nor do I, but my feeling is I’ve got to accomplish a lot of these things while I’m young.  (155).

Recognition is one of the most powerful feelings someone can experience.  It was “recognizing” Bruce Bechdel on the cover of Fun Home that helped me realize that I was queer, and it was “recognizing” Brian’s confession to Stewie i127638n Family Guy that I really saw my suicidal thoughts for what they were.  Reading Steve Jobs, I recognized someone again, because I’ve recognized a similar trait in myself.  It might just be my soul-crushing morbidity that I write off as it’s own form of practicality, but I’m always aware of some kind of feeling that my life is not going to be terribly long.  Part of this is rational understanding of genetics, my family doesn’t have a great track record (unless you’re a woman on my mother’s side) of a long life.  The other half of this is just some kind of irrational premonition.

A person’s perception of their own life and world can be a powerful thing, and not just because it can drive you to success overall.  What is consistently remarkable about the man Steve Jobs is how much I find myself remarking that the man was an unconscionable prick.  There are numerous passages in the book of Jobs being either purposefully spiteful to friends, employees, competitors, or even people he simply didn’t know.  It’s a common occurrence in the book to hear the man speak of a person’s work as “shit” to their face, and this became part of the man’s personality to his friends and workers.  This dramatic honesty could work in both ways and the reader is quick to learn of something called “the reality distortion field.”

0*OsK4HRGASMmhlx8wIf the reader has never watched Star Trek (don’t feel alone I’ve never watched it either) Isaacson explains it in chapter eleven.

Tribble said that Jobs would not accept any contrary facts.  “The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” Tribble explained.  “Steve has a reality distortion field.”  When Hertzfeld looked puzzled, Tribble Elaborated.  “In his presence, reality is malleable.  He can convince anyone of practically anything.  It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.  (117-8).s-l300

Isaacson continues this character trait on the following page offering a more detailed analysis:

At the root of the reality distortion was Job’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him.  He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires.  Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained into his character.  He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one.  “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi, and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them,” says Hertzfeld.  “He hold Chrisann this.  Once he even hinted to me that he was enlightened.  It’s almost like Nietzsche.”  Jobs never studied Nietzsche, but the Philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him.  […]. If reality did not comport with his will, he would ignore it, as he had done with the birth of his daughter and would do years later, when first diagnosed with cancer.  Even in small 000-was2939232-aba78143135-original-webeveryday rebellions, such as not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces, he acted as if he were not subject to the strictures around him.  (119).

The reader can surely find their own examples of Jobs’s prickishness, and I should address that before the reader raises concerns.  Isaacson’s biography never sugar-coats Jobs’s behavior, and when they arrive at the conception and rejection of his first child during the early days of Apple they’re sure to consider putting the book down wondering why they would ever want to learn more about a man who accused his lover with sleeping half the population of the world.  I don’t have any defenses for this behavior, nor do I offer any.

Jobs was a man who, obviously, lived life by his own rules and that at times created unnecessary conflict and behavior that is, to quote my little sister, “slap-worthy.”  What then is the relevance of reading about the man’s life?

Jobs could be, to borrow one of Isaacson’s favorite adjectives, “Cold” and this behavior isn’t always excusable.  But to neglect understanding of Jobs simply because he was an asshole is to ignore the man’s contribution.  As I’m want to do in these Krauss-Hitchens-1200circumstances I tend to return to the examples of two of my influences: John Wayne and Christopher Hitchens.  In the case of Wayne the man was an asshole who said some truly heinous things concerning the issue of race equality and anyone who wants a more specific details can simply Google Search his May 1971 Playboy interview.  I will never defend those positions and arguments, and I will always be the first person to remind people about his bullshit attitudes towards race.  At the same time, John Wayne helped establish the idea of the “movie star” and in his time, he produced a wide bodies of films that, in my mind, are still some of the finest movies ever made.  Likewise with Christopher Hitchens the man was an unfortunate chauvinist going so far as to write an article titled OpenMind-reportaje-5-inventos-1-MacintoshWomen Aren’t Funny and then a subsequent article Why Women (Still) Don’t Get It to defend his original position.  Hitchens was a brilliant man, but in this instance, he was still talking out of his ass.  In spite of this the man wrote some of the most important works of Nonfiction on the twentieth century and contributed more to the form of the essay than any writer of his time.

I could go on and provide a list of authors and geniuses who were contemptible assholes, but hopefully these two personal ones provide enough of my point, which is, just because somebody was an asshole doesn’t mean they couldn’t change the world.

Reality really is one’s perception of the world.  What is possible and what is impossible, and the stories of science fiction are enough to prove this.  As long as people could imagine changing the world, there were people who could figure out how to.steve-jobs-5_2019403c

One passage clearly demonstrates this, as Jobs explained a vision he had for the future of computers.  He was addressing his MacIntosh division in 1982 about an idea he had, while also expressing his contempt for market research:

At the end of the presentation someone asked whether he thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted.  “No,” he replied, “Because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”  Then he pulled out a device that was about the size of a desk diary.  “Do you want to see something neat?”  When he flipped it open, Steve-Jobsit turned out to be a mock-up of a computer that could fit on your lap, with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook.  “This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid- to late eighties,” he said.  They were building a company that would invent the future.  (143).
Now technically the very first “laptop” was not an Apple computer, but in fact something called an Osbourne 1.  Just looking at a picture of it is enough to throw out the reader’s back, and the design concurs up images of the giant insect monster movies from the 50s.  Even the first apple “laptop” was nowhere near the magnificent flat machines that help achieve Twitter greatness while checking out Instagram accounts and drafted infinite Pinterest pages.  What’s important about this passage was, when I read I actually received a little moment of chills.  This is not because of the content of the biography itself, but again because Isaacson manages constantly to write Jobs’s life into something meaningful and profoundly important for the future of human civilization.5E9C8095-28C9-4B70-81EA-548514CF3AA2_w650_r0_s

Jobs imagined the laptop computer as something useful, but also important to people’s lives.  He foresaw the opportunity to make the personal computer something that wasn’t just utilitarian for the individual consumer, but a way of enhancing and changing the market and lives of individual people.  And the strength of the previous passage reveals that, even if Jobs suffered from his “reality distortion complex,” it worked.  It’s impossible to picture a world without Apple or Apple products, whether it’s their software or else their actual physical products.

And Isaacson offers a key insight into one of the lasting legacies of Jobs:esq-john-lasseter-steve-jobs-0611-lg

Jobs was able to encourage people to define themselves as anticorporate, creative, innovative rebels simply by the computer they used.  “Steve created the only lifestyle brand in the tech industry,” Larry Ellison said.  “There are cars people are proud to have—Porsche, Ferrari, Prius—because what I drive says something about me.  People feel the same way about an Apple product.”  (332).

I typically roll my eyes at the idea that one can express individuality through corporate products, largely because so many of the products being sold are ultimately the same.  Drinking Coke or Pepsi, eating a Reese’s or a Snickers, or buying McDonalds or Burgeripod_timeline-5220492 King can never in my mind craft a rhetoric about the way I choose to live my life.  These
products are designed to be consumed and then shit out, and at the end of the day shit is just shit.  Yet all of these companies, in fact almost every company tries to generate advertisements that sell their products as means to express yourself.  And all of this can be traced back to Apple because they succeeded.

I give Apple, and other computer companies to be fair, a pass on this rhetoric because the personal computer really can say something about the way you live your life.  That’s largely because the personal computer is no longer a black screen requiring long complex code entries that are encased on monstrous floppy discs.  The point-click interface altered the way computer users actually worked on computers, and from there innovation has steadily helped shape the lives of entire industries.  The way an individual person approaches computers, or really, the way they use computers does shape their lives.young-steve-jobs

And again, as I noted at the start of this essay, this review was written on a MacBook Pro.

I try to wait until I have finished a book before I take the time to write a review of it.  I need time to digest a book, figure out it’s place and space in my world, and then try to impart the significance of it to the reader.  Steve Jobs was different because though I still have around 200 pages left, I recognize how important this work is.

Reading through my grandfather’s copy I regret terribly that it took me so long to read this book and discuss with him the life of Jobs and the history of the personal computer industry.  It would have been an interesting conversation with a man who influenced me tremendously intellectually, and I might have invested earlier than I did in an Apple computer.  But the cards fell where they did, and even though I’ve missed the chance to have that conversation, in his own way my grandfather succeeded.  I own and will continue to own Apple products now, almost certainly till the day I die.Applelogo

It’s a platitude, but it’s one that remains true.  The people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world tend to do so.  It’s because they are people driven by their passion and conviction that life can be changed, and that reality is exactly what we make it to be.  Sometimes this can manifest in manic and even wretched behavior, but there are positive stories.  It’s because of Jobs that I learned as a child how to type and learn the basics of point-click interface.  It’s because of Jobs that my mother is able to write up her reviews and musings on her own website.  It’s because of Jobs that the smart-phone revolution started and the idea of what a computer actually is was changed forever.

Jobs’s reality was one where the computer wasn’t just a tool, it was part of your life.  And that “distorted” reality eventually became the real thing.

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*Writer’s Note*

All quotes taken from Steve Jobs were derived from the Simon & Schuster Hardback first edition copy.

 

**Writer’s Note**

If the reader is at all interested in Apple as a company, I’ve provided some links to articles about Apple and Apple Products and businesses.  Some are positive, others negative, but it’s important to get a wide variety of outlooks.

https://www.wired.com/story/apple-becomes-a-chipmaker-to-one-up-smartphone-foes/

https://www.wired.com/story/apple-campus/

https://www.wired.com/story/how-apple-finally-made-siri-sound-more-human/

https://www.wired.com/story/steve-jobs-opera/

https://www.wired.com/2011/09/st_essayjobs_ceo/

I’ve also included an great article by Wired about the influence Jobs has had on tech company founders and employees aspiring to the emulate the man and his method of management.  It feels not only important, but vital for any and all people who work for, or plan of founding computer companies:

https://www.wired.com/2012/07/ff_stevejobs/

 

***Writer’s Note***

I didn’t get a chance to include it in the essay, but if the reader is at all curious about the first laptop, the Osborne 1, they can follow a link to an article on Business Insider which describes it and it’s history.  Enjoy:

http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-laptop-2011-6

 

****Writer’s Note****

On one final note, I probably am, most assuredly am, an Apple Whore as my little sister says, and my wife has begun to call me that as well.  I asked her briefly when she knew I was one and she responded simply, “when you bought that mug.”

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This is fair, though at the same time, I mean, look at the design.  Simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.

 

*****Writer’s FINAL NOTE*****

Because I have to, please enjoy this Robot Chicken sketch featuring a PRETTY ACCURATE presentation of Steve Jobs, as well as a fair, completely fair, critique of both CDs and the Zune.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzRBtToSarE

 

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Frozen Eyes and Self-Repair: A Complex Emotional Reflection about Eyes and Blade Runner

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It’s been six years since I got my first pair of glasses.  That would make me twenty-two at the time, and it’s a lovely realization that the loss of my virginity would coincide with my ability to see.  It wasn’t long after getting my glasses that I decided to get a hair-cut (I looked something along the lines of Slash and Cousin It’s love child) and shortly thereafter my wife, who I had known because she sat behind in biology class, accepted a date that eventually became the most significant relationship in my life.  OptometryThe glasses that I bought not only served as my ability to see, they also managed to serve a secondary purpose: aging the individual who compliments them.  I post a lot of photos of myself on this blog, and so my reader is able to see I wear thin wire frames in the shape of perfect circles.  I’ve noticed that people really seem to like them and I’m used to people offering compliment in the vein of “I love your glasses.”  However they don’t just say this.  As I said before my glasses “date” the person offering the compliment because one half of them will usually say, “I love your Harry Potter glasses” while the other half says, “I love your John Lennon Glasses.”  This second compliment has started to dwindle and so I have to remind people about this second person.  It’s because of John Lennon that I picked these glasses in the first place, but I was part of the Harry Potter generation and I’m actually rather terrified of the day when people stop calling them Harry Potter glasses for that would mean I’m becoming a rather old man.Blade_Runner_poster

None of this would really explain why, going to the optometrist again recently I was inspired to write about Blade Runner.

Sitting in the chair that offered no lumbar support I looked around the room.  There of course wad a chart filled with photos of various eyes suffering from a wide range of disorders and disease.  To my left were the binocular machines which would test my vision.  And to my right was the doctor who was telling jokes that could only come from a refreshingly dry humor that’s impossible to find in this territory.  The thought of eyes though inspired me to think back on the film Blade Runner which I had watched again recently with a group of friends.  There was something about eyes that I kept going back to.

This association isn’t unfounded because eyes play a critical role in the film because the way to determine the difference between a Replicant (the name LlCOQfor the humanoid slave robots) and humans was something called a voight-kampff exam which is an eye exam.  You also have the fact that the film begins with an eye looking over a wide city-scape.  When Batty, the central replicant who wants to extend his life, confronts his maker Tyrell he murders him by digging his thumbs into the man’s eyes before cracking his skull.  There’s also the scene in which Batty confronts Hannibal Chew, a genetic engineer who makes eyes, and one of the other replicants slowly places eyes on his bare shoulders and Batty offers up this brief exchange:

Batty: Yes!

[smiles]

Batty: Questions… Morphology? Longevity? Incept dates?200_s

Hannibal Chew: Don’t know, I don’t know such stuff. I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.

Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!

The examples of this constant eye imagery and association could fill up an entire word document so it’s not necessary to list them all out.  I simply want my reader to recognize that it was probably because of this frequent eye imagery that I began to think again about Blade Runner.Blade-Runner-1982-Ridley-Scott-02

The film has, since its release in 1982, become a cult classic and an icon of both science fiction and film noir.  It doesn’t hurt that the film was directed by Ridley Scott when the man was in his prime of his carear and riding high off of the success of the film Alien which had been released just three years earlier.  On one side note there existed this beautiful period of great science fiction movies that, while I won’t say hasn’t been repeated, just hasn’t been matched in my estimation.  Watching Blade Runner is an experience unlike any other because the film creates a new world in which the viewer is left to disappear completely into.  The darkness of the city is matched only by the near constant neon lights that seem to screen-shot-2015-05-15-at-3-02-08-pmilluminate only the figures of the people moving about the place.  Advertisements tend to be more real than the human beings walking around because despite their mass-production reality, there’s a human charm to them.  The near constant rain becomes not just an atmospheric aesthetic, but part of the landscape of the world.  And all of this combines together to establish a place that was labeled as “cyber-punk” that has helped create a new genre in and of itself of science fiction.

Blade Runner takes in the distant future of the year 2019, which is a disappointment in and of itself because humanity has barely managed to acquire workable iPod minis let alone advanced robotics.  The filmz.ru_f_110473Tyrell corporation has created humanoid robots known as “replicants” which serve mainly as payless workers (slaves, let’s call it what it is), and the story begins when four replicants escape the off-world colonies.  A former police detective named Rick Deckard is brought back onto the force in his former position of Blade Runner.  His job is to hunt down the replicants and terminate them (kill them, let’s call it what it is.  The rest of the story follows Deckard as he tracks down the replicants who are themselves trying to sneak into the Tyrell corporation to see if there is a way to extend their lives since Replicants are controlled by a four-year life-span.

MV5BMTMzNDgxMjU4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTQ3NDU4Mw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1521,1000_AL_Batty is the leader of the replicants, played brilliantly by the elusive Rutger Hauer, and as driven more than any of the group to find some way of extending his life.  Throughout the film there are small shots of his hand trembling while looking like dying tissue, and I believe it’s this idea of degeneration that actually inspired me.  Going to the eye doctor is repair; it’s a check to make sure the system can still run.  While my hand doesn’t regularly crinkle into a trembling fist which is itself a portend for my ultimate death, I have observed the fact that my body is beginning to show some signs of wear.  And thinking of such wear I’m immediately reminded of the therapist monologue in the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty:MV5BMjE2NDQyMDkxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDk1MTcwNA@@._V1_

I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth or wipe my ass.  Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure.  There’s no way to do it so wrong that you might die.  It’s just work.  And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work and some people, well, some people would rather die.  Each of us get’s to choose.

Choice is everything, and so as I contemplated the degeneration of the body while I sat in the doctor’s office, looking at those eyes on the chart, I thought about Blade Runner and how the idea of choice and time and repair becomes so wrapped up in our ideas of memory.  Who I am is built upon my memories, and those in turn shape who I want to be and become.  And so as I sat in the chair paying attention to how terribly my eyes had degenerated I wondered about what new glasses I would get, and what famous celebrity or fictional character people think about when they saw my new specks.

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*Writer’s Note*

All quotes taken from Blade Runner and Rick and Morty were taken from IMBD.  The definition of Robot was provided  are of the Etymology Online Dictionary

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve included here a link to the Pickle Rick episode, specifically the therapist monologue that I’ve quoted here.  Unlike the Twitter Troll Bots who seem to rail constantly against the new season and the writing thereof, I can’t help but remind them that Pickle Rick is evidence enough of how amazing this season really is.  If the reader would like to hear the monologue in its entirety they can do so by following the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUHECxS6IEU

 

 

Hive of Endless Inspiration and Oh S*** there’s a Bee in My Coke: Bee Wilson’s The Hive

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Bee anatomy

I am unashamed whenever I confess that I am a nerd for bees.

My father’s a Pest Management Professional, which is the actual name for Exterminators just FYI, and so growing up I always had access to books about bugs, actual bug collections, and even slides (yes slides I am that old) that showed different types of arthropods and various facts about their anatomy.  There was a brief period where my father worked for a small retail outlet and I remember the coolest part was spending hours just staring at the Mexican Red tarantula and the Emperor Scorpion.  If it wasn’t these educational treats that made insects and arachnids so cool it was being the only kid in school who could identify different types of ants, spiders, and sometimes cockroaches that would stumble into the class rooms.  I could tell the difference between a wolf spider and a brown recluse better than anyone and never understood why my classmates, who would often screech at the sight of a wolf spider the size of a dime, never took the time to learn the difference.  There’s at least one book about insects and arthropods on every one of my bookshelves, and every night before bed I read a little bit from a DK book simply entitled Insects.  This is just a long way of saying that there’s 7146QICIGrLsomething about arthropods that I’ve always found fascinating.

Several months ago I went in for an official job interview at the library.  I was technically interviewing for a job that I had been working as a temp for at least five months by then, and during the interview one of the questions was: “if you had to recommend a book to someone what would it be and how would you do it?”  This was a bit of a joke since all of the supervisors knew me and knew that I was always reading something, or several
somethings, and I had actually brought two books with me to the interview.  One of them, and I swear this isn’t me trying to be cute or clever, I’m never cute, was the Simon & Schustwer book of Insects, and the other was Bee Wilson’s The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us.  I had picked the book up earlier in the week because one of my jobs in closing the place up is going around the second floor and looking over the shelves to find books people have left about.  It’s far more common than the reader would think.  People will often remove a book they have a passing interest in, and then rather than leaving it in designated places that are marked with signs they’ll just leave a book sitting on the shelf.  I was looking through the hard sciences when I spotted a book I had seen in the card catalog before, and so being the bug-nut I decided to give it a try.  I could honestly say to my bosses then, looking at the book, that I would recommend The Hive because I had never read a cultural history that was so well-written, so approachable, and a book that managed to pack every sentence and paragraphs with facts and never lose my interest.12-0272-03D.feature

I got the job and a week later I bought The Hive.

Wilson’s book is a cultural history which means rather than a chronological order or events, her method is to understand how the idea of bees has changed over time.  Rather than just look at the methods ancient and modern peoples have used to raise and control bees her aim is deeper.  Bees have evolved alongside human beings in a mutualistic relationship, and given the fact that human beings are meaning-making animals Wilson is able to show that bees have provided human beings with more than Bee Wilsonwax and honey.  In fact, bees have inspired almost every level of society from politics, architecture, sexuality, food, agriculture, and economics.  The bee has always been with mankind as a source of inspiration and so The Hive is an attempt to understand how that inspiration has worked and what ideas have developed from that inspiration.

And what better way to observe this than by looking at bugonia.  Wilson explains this odd origin story for bees:

Perhaps the oldest of all the various theories about the origins of bees is the belief that, instead of generating themselves, bees were spontaneously fashioned out of the dead body of an ox.  As the Latin poet Ovid (43 BC—AD 18) put it, ‘Swarms rush from the rotten ox; and one extinguished life produces a thousand.’  To us the theory that a dead ox could give birth to living bees seems frankly nuts.  Yet this oddity did not prevent it from being an accepted explanation for existence of bees for more than 2,000 years.  This was part of a reflection of the yearning of men to control these miraculous creatures, and thereby to control death itself.  (71).

There’s obviously more to this, we’ll call it a notion because “bat-crap-crazy-idea” may be too harsh, but this paragraph is enough for me to demonstrate the appeal and strength of The Hive.  This is one paragraph of the book and yet Bee Hive insideWilson is able to name a concept, explain what it is, offer a quote which provides an examination of the idea, place it in contemporary perspective, and then offer the significance of the idea to humanity all while managing to write a paragraph that isn’t boring.  Almost every paragraph of The Hive manages this same feat.  And if it isn’t clear at this point that leaves me insanely jealous as a writer, but extraordinarily satisfied as a reader.

My regular reader may object, so what?  Why should I bother reading a book that sounds like nothing but a lot of empty trivia about bees?  I don’t even like bees, in fact I fuckin hate bees.  They get in my soda and sting me.  What’s relevant or useful about a pest?Bee Hive

It’s tempting then to suggest that the pure appeal of The Hive is the fact that the book is just an opportunity to collect lots of trivia about bees.  For the record even if it was I would still recommend reading the book because as my opening suggests bees are fucking awesome.  But more than just the empty trivia The Hive is a fascinating observation to observe how human beings have tried to understand their reality, and how knowledge develops.

One early passage in the book examines this as Wilson discusses early scholarship of bees:

The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) was the main source for more or less everything written about bees until Renaissance times.  In his pastoral poem the Georgics he realized the charms of beekeeping and bees.  Virgil noticed that, on a blossom-scented spring day, different bees spent their days in different ways—some ‘busy in the fields’ and others ‘indoors’ gluing up combs.  His theme was taken up again in the Middle Ages, when bee writers really developed the theme of how bees ivied up their labor.  If we were to attach a reason to this we oldbeekeeper1might say that the hive echoed in the feudal structure of medieval Europe, in which there were those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed—all of them sinners with an allotted role in God’s order which must not be questioned.  In addition, medieval writers about animals were more unselfconsciously fanciful than their ancient counterparts.  They were apt to see animals as hieroglyphs sent by God with moral lessons inside them for men.  The whole world was composed of hidden messages, and everything held together as part of a single Creation.  […]  Everything meant something.  (24).

I’ve observed in my writing lately that I keep repeating the same phrase over and over: humans are symbol making creatures.  It’s becoming a theme, or maybe a Bee sciencerunning gag.  Rather than worry about my developing mantra though I look at the quote I just provided and this statement feels perfectly relevant.  If there is a message of The Hive it’s almost certainly that human beings are always looking around at their reality and trying to find some kind of self-reflective meaning in it.  Whether it was the trees, lightning, flowers, mountains, or even something as minuscule as bees, humans observe their reality as something separate but at the same time as something that can inform them about their personal self and place in the universe.

Virgil was looking for the role of man in the universe as he pondered in the fields, and he found bees.

This passage says as much about human beings tendency to self-create as much as it does about scholarship though because as Wilson notes, the writers and scholars of the world were quite content to follow Virgil’s ponderings rather than try to observe new data.  Now part of this has to be attributed to the incorrectly named “Dark Ages.”  On one small tangent the only reason the Medieval period is referred to as the “dark ages” was because historians writing during the Bee Keeperlate renaissance and early Reformation period looked to the lack of political center and named it as such largely out of elitism.  You can thank Petrarch mostly because he thought the period was not as “pretty” or “bright” as the classical ages.  It’s important to note that because the Roman empire was crumbling internally at the time, and let’s be honest crumbling is a polite word for the steady festering that the empire suffered from, it became difficult for scholars to establish knowledge that could be widely, or as easily distributed.

It’s hard to get your new knowledge of bees out and about to the world when there is an absence of solid political authority and people are more concerned about the Vandals and the Goths.

Wilson’s brief observation here is a chance to observe however the way human beings tend to arrange and rely on data and information.  Virgil’s original Beekiping_on_Stamp_of_Ukraine_2001observations represent a real scientific method, and while his findings were off by several crucial details, the man was working with the best means he had available.  There was nothing wrong in Virgil’s conclusions ultimately because he did begin the study, and much like Charles Darwin his writings would be, not abandoned completely, just corrected over time.  Humans beings need original observations in order to build real knowledge and establish actual facts about the world around them.  What’s important about Virgil’s observations is that they became accepted partly because of his direct observations, but more importantly because they reaffirmed the political and social philosophy of his world and the world beyond it.

Humans beings looked to the bees as a validation that they were living their lives according to the will of nature and the will of god.  Science, and ideas period, are received positively when the culture that supports it are ready for it or willing to accept it.scott-hive-honey-bees

I realize that I’m waxing philosophic and not really digging into bees in general but that’s largely because The Hive has provided me with so much material and so many opportunities to reflect on what I have actually learned.  Great books are supposed to leave the reader with more questions and aspirations and ideas to consider and even though it’s been somewhere around several months since I finished the book I’m still finding myself stopping and considering elements of the text.  I’m still considering the image of the beekeeper and what role that figure plays in the culture.

It’s not too much to say that beekeepers are not revered in contemporary society, and in fact observing the animosity towards bees it’s a wonder that beekeeping still retains Beewhatever grace and dignity as a profession that it does.  The beekeeper is not a man in my eyes, but a timeless being who is aiding the community by collecting the honey.  And it’s important to note that this image is not unique for even a man like Lev Tolstoy thought as much.

The last chapter of The Hive discusses beekeepers, examining their history as well as their contemporary place in society and between these two ends of the arrow Wilson manages to discuss Tolstoy and his penchant for beekeeping.  She writes:

During Tolstoy’s youth, beekeeping was just one estate activity among many, and he himself was wedded more to the manly pursuit of hunting than to the slow ways of the bee-men.  But, as time went on and he became more and more attached to the peasant ways, his hives came to have a special place in his life.  (268).

Wilson continues this later by noting:beeswarm5148

He accumulated followers—the Tolstoyans—many of whom kept bees.  Tolstoy also turned to the bees of Yasnaya Polyana, both for honey and for wisdom.  Hunting was now out of the question for him—it was too violent—whereas beekeeping seemed more natural.  In his main religious work The Kingdom of God is Within You(1893), Tolstoy used the bees to attempt to bring men to God.  Men in their current state, he claimed, were “like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster on a branch’.  But this was only a temporary state: men, like the bees, must find a new place to live—the place of God.  The bees are able to escape their position on the branch because each of them is honey_comb_fb‘a living, separate creature endowed with wings of its own’.  Similarly, men should be able to escape their current toils because each is ‘a living being endowed with the faculty of entering into the Christian conception of life’.  (269-70).

Now my regular reader will hopefully remember that I’m an atheist and therefore conclude that I cannot agree with Tolstoy’s final vision.  They’re correct in this matter, but even if I disagree with the final conclusion I am willing to admit that Tolstoy’s philosophy of the bees is still a beautiful idea.  Even if this passage is riddled with Christian sentiment, at its core Tolstoy is offering up some kind of hope for the individual human mind to find its own path.  The path still leads to god, but it does at least offer some hope for the individual to overcome the chaotic mass of civilization.

Tolstoy’s assessment is just one of the many philosophies contained in Wilson’s The Hive and it reveals the overall thesis of the book which Wilson concludes beautifully, and because I lack her ability with prose I’ll just provide her final quote here:Bee skull

However much human beings have projected themselves on to the hive, identifying themselves with drones, workers, and the queen, and idealizing the morals of the waxen community, there will always remain mysteries about the life of bees which men can never discover.  And it is for this very reason that humans will continue to search for truths about themselves in the gold of the honeycomb.  (271).

There were never any bees in my father’s bug collections, but they were found within his Audubon Society Book of Insects and Arachnids and I remember looking through the pages studying the differences between the sweet honeybees and the bulbous gluttons that were the bumble bees.  I remember being stung as a child by honeybees and hating them for it, and being stung again just a year ago and hating myself for having to pull the bee off me knowing that it would die.  In the last year I’ve helped my father set up new walls in his beehive, and found myself feeling a sensation that almost borders on the sublime as I look between the panels and see the live body that is the hive.  Those little arthropods sometimes look like they’re made of soft gold and their buzzing, collected together, is almost a discernable song.o-HONEY-facebook

The Hive did not jumpstart my love and intellectual curiosity of arthropods, but it has rekindled my love of them.  A book like The Hive is a real boon for the culture because it is a chance for real self-reflection and metacognition.  After reading the book I’ve rediscovered again that human beings are always looking for something, some quality, some force, some outside body or organism to provide them inspiration for the way they are to live their life.  While there is most certainly a narcissism in this task, there’s also a real chance for intellectual beauty.Bee Hive Insurance

Humans have written poems, constructed buildings, crafted structures and machines, and drafted philosophy just by watching the ways bees live and behave, and this is an encouraging thought.  Insects are often seen as grotesque “others,” beasts that offer nothing but corruption and profit from death.  The Hive takes another look at this attitude and shows the reader that insects are far more noble in fact.  They can offer inspiration and even substance both physical and spiritual.

Humans will always look to the bees and while they’re sure to suffer a few stings, that discomfort will almost surely lead to the next great discovery.

bee-hero

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes taken from The Hive were from the hardback First U.S. Edition, by Thomas Dunne Books.

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve provided links to two book reviews originally published in The Gaurdian if the reader is at all interested:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/17/featuresreviews.guardianreview18

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/sep/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

 

***Writer’s Note***

Because I am a huge fucking nerd for bees, while I researching and writing this essay I found numerous documentaries on YouTube about bees.  If the reader would like to learn more about the insect or at least try to find some kind of appreciation for the little bugs, they can follow the links below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaRF17lMVbE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBmlwx_6A8Q

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU0oNncWhwA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9boqHQrtpbA

“America the Beautiful”, Or The Saving Grace of Comics and Soda-Pop: Lolita Part 2

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Utah

Pedophilia and sexual corruption really shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the great plateau’s of Utah. Fortunately it isn’t.  My first actual thought goes to John Ford’s The Searcher’s.  There’s plenty of shots of John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter riding their horses over those endless seas of orange sand looking for Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) who’s been kidnapped by Indians and most likely sexually assaulted by them and by just following that line of thought I’m right back to where I started.  The desert is supposed to be a tabula rasa but instead, it seems, it’s just a breeding grounds for perverts.book-cover-lolita1

With that lovely observation however I think back to Lolita and my recent attempt to write about the novel.  My first essay about the book was to observe the sexual assault that is the primary content.  Humbert Humbert, a rambling European pervert, stays in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze who has a young daughter named Delores who Humbert renames as Lolita.  He marries Charlotte, and when she dies in an automobile accident, he gains possession of Lolita and spends the rest of the novel traveling with her around the United States raping her until she escapes and takes up with another sexual deviant, a writer named Quilty, who Humbert eventually kills at the end of the novel.

Lolita is a book that is written in many reader’s minds before they have even picked up the book because Lolita as a word has gained a magnificent potency in our society.  Referring to a girl as Lolitaesque is enough to suggest that she is a sexual being that looks incredibly childlike.  Looking through the “key terms” section of my stats for White Tower Musings I can usually expect lovely search combinations like “Black Dick Lolita Fuck” or “Lolita suk dick,” “Lolita bukkake,” “Lolita pussy porn” or perhaps the ever lovely “paid money school legal cute Lolita teen blowjob dick.”  The tragic part is at this point I tend to be more depressed at the constant and atrocious grammar and spelling errors than I am by the fact there are people who want to fuck “legal” Lolitas.

Lolita-Kubrick-2011

Well, no, actually.  I’m seriously fucking bothered by this, but at some point the grammar becomes an issue.

The reader may be wondering whether there is any real artistic merit to Lolita other than using it as a means of discussing rape and pedophilia, but as I was reading the novel again I was reminded by another interpretation that’s been buzzing in my skull since graduate school.

As I mentioned in my previous Lolita essay, a friend of mine taught the novel to a group of largely unresponsive undergraduates who couldn’t, or in some cases wouldn’t, look past the rape to see if Nabokov was aiming for something different in terms of an aesthetic approach.  He attempted to bring in outside articles and critics to the debate, but the content tended to keep most people stubbornly resolved in their assessment.  My complete memory is a bit fuzzy, but as I recall he told me that one argument about the novel Lolita was that, rather than being solely a book about pedophilia, it was largely a satire about Eurocentrism and mocking Americans that are duped or suckered in by it.

Vladimir Nabokov was traveling the country with his wife and children collecting 7e6d899d49fd6f4f22276d5c573c625b--vladimir-nabokov-vintage-photographsbutterflies while he was writing Lolita, and this exercise allowed him the opportunity to really see the territory of the United States.  Many scholars have noted this inspiration in their many articles about the novel, one of which was a book review in the New Yorker entitled Nabokov’s America.

The essay appeared in The New Yorker in 2015, and in the article John Colapinto discusses biographies of Nabokov along with his travels and turbulent life.  In one passage Colapinto discusses a biography of Nabokov and uses it as a means of exploring Nabokov’s creative focus at the time:

Much of the novel’s energy derives from the love-hate relationship Nabokov had with America’s postwar culture of crap TV shows, bad westerns, squawking jukeboxes—the invigorating trash that informs the story of a cultured European’s sexual obsession with an American bobby-soxer who is, as Humbert calls her, the “ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that “Lolita” merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took overt joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of “Lolita.”

Colapinto’s article is sporadic, jumping 56a903796e83bc51eb8e08b70299c893from point to point, and in fact after reading it again recently I’m not entirely sure it’s a boon in terms of commentary about Lolita, but within this paragraph at least there’s the start of an idea, which is that contained within the novel there is an examination about consumerism and the way the American landscape and consciousness feeds this passion.

The United States as a country and as an idea has always been intimately connected with the notion of enterprise.  The early European settlers who came to establish colonies for religious freedom were possessed by the idea that this “new world” held an opportunity.  The new land (or really “home” to the people who were living there already) was athumbnailImage chance to make a new life, establish a new society, and find an agency that hadn’t existed in the old world and the old life.  Even after the American Revolution this notion continued because with the sale of the Louisiana Purchase news ideas of Manifest Destiny were created to justify the Westerward push of Europeans deeper into the continent.  And even after the United States had pushed to the very Edge of California, the Klondike and Alaskan Territories offered new wealth, and the islands of the Pacific offered tropical paradises.  Consistent with a study of the history of the United States, there is the idea that this country is the “New World” and promises hope and possibilities for those willing, or brave enough, to try and conquer it.3760252_orig

But beneath this rhetoric there is always a heap of bodies and people getting screwed, both literally and figuratively.  Which leads me back to Lolita.

The character of Humbert Humbert seems a perfect embodiment of this rhetoric because Lolita is his story, his narrative of personal satisfaction and agency, and the reader would do well to remember that his victim never gets her story told.  While Lolita is a story about rape in the sexual sense, the far more pernicious element is the symbolic and psychologic abuse of Dolres Haze and the American landscape which allows the rapes to occur.

While reading Lolita, and reading more and more essays about the novel, I came upon a small quote which, delightfully, managed to sum up everything I’d been trying to say up to that point:001gwaBAzy732SOL3q343&690

And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight.  We had been everywhere.  We had really seen nothing.  And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.  (175-6).

On one side note I can never read this passage without cringing.  Granted there are plenty of passages in Lolita that leave one queasy (that is assuming you have a soul), but the image of Delores Haze caught in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere crying in the same room as her rapist is a hard image to forget, and, honestly, I don’t want to forget it.

This passage is one of many in which Humbert manages to reveal his true self throughout Lolita, and like each of his reveals, his repulsive character becomes clearer to the reader who at first is simply disgusted with him for the outright sexual assault.  Looking at this passage the reader gets the sense that it’s not just Delores Haze which has been molested by Humbert, but in fact the landscape of the American territory.  The plains, mountains, valleys, plateaus, villages, towns, tourist traps, forests, and cities in the great expanse of country are nothing but empty sights for Humbert who is honest 007_ltaabout the fact that he does not really care about such sights.  In fact he admits openly in one passage that the appeal of such wonders is simply for his own sick amusement:

[…]but also the fact that far from being an indolent partie de plasisir, our tour was a hard, twisted, teleological growth, whose sole raison d’etre (these French clichés are symptomatic) was to keep my companion in passable humor from kiss to kiss.  (154)

Behold ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the lord hath offered him unto my hand.  After reading this passage Humbert has more or less given away his entire position, because it’s clear that no matter how beautifully he expresses his adoration of the American landscape it’s all just bullshit to cover his criminal offences.  If one just looks a few pages earlier the reader is able to see such a bluff:

By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my best LargeEthnicToleranceMapfor hours on end to give her the impression of “going places,” of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight.  I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilts of forty-eight states.  Voraciously we consumed those long high-ways, in rapt silence we glided over theit glossy black dance floors.  Not only had Lo no eye for Scenery but she furiously resented my calling her attention to this or that enchanting detail of landscape; which I myself learned to discern only after being exposed for a quite a time to the delicate beauty ever present in the margin of our undeserving journey.  (152).

I suppose at this point my contester is probably owed the chance to speak.  So what?  We’ve addressed already that Lolita is a weird book about a creepy pedophile who rapes a little girl while traveling around the country.  What’s the point of digging deeper into that?  Once you get to the issue of sexual assault what could possibly be worse than that?

This is a tough question because it’s one I’m not entirely comfortable answering.  I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t care about Delores Haze, or about actual rape victims because I do.  Humbert Humbert is a sick creep but his offenses reveal a larger issue which can tie into the dilemma of rape and sexual violence.  Lolita is most certainly an examination of sexual assault, but by that same line of reasoning the book is an attack against Eurocentrism.vladimir-nabokov

If the reader doesn’t know this term it’s unfortunate because it’s a concept that every citizen of the U.S. should consider.  Eurocentrism refers to the practice or idea that European culture is inherently superior to American society, language, or culture at large.  The reader has probably experienced this in some capacity whenever they listen to British actors speak.  There is a lingering notion that the British accent is somehow more refined or sophisticated than the American accent, and while I could write whole volumes about this, all I need from the reader right now is recognition.  Humbert, when he appears in Charlotte Haze’s home is seen as this worldly, heavenly being simply for the fact that he can speak multiple languages and has some vague background in academia.  Humbert’s good looks and European accent hide his true nature to the Americans he interacts with.  And if I can push this a little further Humbert’s manipulation of Delores Haze ultimately reflects a larger trend of European people’s looking to the New World to find what they want.  Lolita bookIn the case of Humbert this involves the rape of a twelve-year-old girl, but looking at the way the man can become a symbol for the larger historical trend Humbert is simply another in a long line of Europeans who came to America and built a life at the expense of the people already living there.

Delores Haze loses everything in her life: her mother, her home, her magazines, her friends, her freedom, and even her name.  Humbert strips Delores, performing a kind of psychological imperialism until the girl is almost completely bare of something she could call her own.  At this point then the reader may complain, where is the hope then, for Delores?  Funnily enough, it’s in the idea of the American territory and consciousness that Lolita finds some kind of saving grace.

During the long road trip Humbert explains that while he is controlling virtually every aspect of Lolita’s life, but something is missing and remains beyond his grasp:

How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty.  And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a Secret Heart Lolitagood pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette’s body!  My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.  On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap.  There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.  Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters […]; she studied the photographic results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures naked-thighed-beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses.  (165).1938-actioncomics1

I recognize that it’s near impossible to get past the graphic imagery of this passage, but the reader should try because what’s taking place in this scene is ultimately what redeems the novel in my eyes.  Delores Haze loses so much territory to Humbert Humbert as the narratives progresses, but what he cannot take away from her is that small ounce of integrity and personal territory which is her personal self.  He effectively rapes the landscape of the United States with his perversion and at the same time he attempts to control the territory of her body.  While he succeeds in this first endeavor he cannot take her independent spirit which, while it may seem largely shallow in its consumerism, is still some semblance of the American mindset.Lolita soda

Delores is a young woman who wants to read comics, drink soda-pop, and play with boys her own age.  That mentality may not be distinctly American, but at the time Lolita was written it was intimately tied up with consumerism and capitalism which was the defining American Philosophy.

There’s a victory then in Lolita, for even if Delores Haze is the victim of Humbert’s vicious and corrupt sexual deviance, he cannot manage to colonize and strip her of that small spirit which wants to make a real life for itself, free from the grasp of this failure who can only find in the beauty of the American countryside a few motels to work out his sexual problems.

Majestic Vista of the Grand Canyon at Dusk

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note:

All quotes taken from Lolita were cited from the [].  All quotes from Nabokov’s America were taken from the New Yorker article which I have provided a link to below.  Enjoy:

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/nabokovs-america

 

**Writer’s Note**

While working on research for this essay I found a documentary entitled How do you Solve a Problem Like Lolita?  Apart from envying the title (then again I used this bit for my Eraserhead review so what the fuck am I jealous for?) I found it useful for these series of essays and thought my reader might be interested.  You can follow the link fellow for the first part of the documentary, and the other three parts should be on the suggested titles side of the screen.  Enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy6d6x29weI

The American Dream is DEAD…Wrapped in Paper-The Founder: A White Tower Review

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F18

 

The Founder isn’t Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation because by the end of the film my heart went out to McDonalds, or really the two men who founded McDonalds and lost everything to one man’s greed and personal failings.  This didn’t stop me however from going out to McDonalds the very next day to buy myself a big mac so I guess in a way the film succeeded and failed simultaneously.

Then again it’s hard to say no to a man like Ray Kroc who opens the film with a pitch, one the viewer is expected to hear again before the end of the film:

[first linesTF_D01_TR_00075.ARW

Ray Kroc: I know what you’re thinkin’… What the heck do I need a 5-spindle for… when I barely sell enough milkshakes to justify my single-spindle. Right? Wrong. Are you familiar with the notion of the chicken or the egg Mr. Griffith, I mentioned… that there’d be costs. Well, I think it applies here. Do you not need the multimixer because, well heck, you’re not selling enough milkshakes. Or are you not selling enough milkshakes because you don’t have a multimixer? I firmly believe it’s the latter. Because your customer comes in here and he knows if he orders a shake from your establishment… that well, he’s in for a terrific wait. He’s done it before and he thinks to himself, well by golly, I’m not gonna make that mistake again. But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches…then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic?I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you sayF7

The answer to this long pitch is an immediate no, but hopefully the viewer, by the time Michael Keaton is done delivering this opening soliloquy, will say yes and then immediately ask themselves the same question I was asking throughout The Founder: Where the hell has Michael Keaton been for the last decade and why is he only just coming back?

I checked The Founder out more out of impulse than legitimate curiosity.  I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I work at a library, so much so that my regular reader has probably learned to skip these opening intros because they realize they’re usually now just I found DVD or Book X at the library.  But in all seriousness though the fun part of my job is the day to day discovery of a book or film that I didn’t know I had access to.  Now because it’s summer and families have more vacation time due to summer vacation I tend to have to leave my job at the desk and help the staff of circulation because their DVD rack gets filled at least three times a day.  That isn’t hyperbole it literally fills up with DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks every day at least three times a day and of course every tenth DVD is missing from the case.  While the Circ staff checks out patron’s items I’ll usually go over and check items in and one day a week or so back The Founder crossed F16my path.  I’d seen previews for it on YouTube, and maybe it was those original previews, or perhaps the dynamic cover of Michael Keaton standing between those golden arches, or maybe it was my desire to start watching more films, but whatever the case I placed a hold on the DVD and as soon as it came in I watched it and was left amazed and left with a real sense of injustice.

The Founder is a biopic about Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake-maker salesman who wants, to quote Belle from Beauty and the Beast, more than his provincial life.  Ray is looking for something that will lift him into something larger than himself.  While on his cross-country trip he discovers a restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers who have started up F10a burger joint using something called Speedee system in which people are able to purchase burgers, fries, and a milkshake and get it the moment they place an order.  Ray listens to the brothers tell their story, and after trying to return to his original life he decides he has to help the brother franchise their business.  They resist but ray persists until they draw up a contract with him and he begins establishing McDonalds’s across the United States until he eventually becomes the de facto CEO of the company.  The McDonalds brothers are eventually forced out of the company and Ray becomes the “founder” of the company running the brothers out of their business and leaving them little if any financial compensation.F14

The plot synopsis should hopefully explain why, at the end of the film, I was left with a real feeling of injustice.  Michael Keaton shines as Ray Kroc, and his performance as this character has already garnered some critical observations that, apart from being screwed out of an Oscar nomination, he has established the Ray Kroc character into an icon of corporate corruption.  Much like Gordon Gekko in WallStreet, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Ray Kroc is a man who rises to power not because he has any kind of special individual talent, but because he has more or less risen to power off of the sweat, labor, and inspiration of other people.

Ray isn’t even too proud to admit that’s more or less exactly what he did.  In one of the closing scenes between Ray and Dick McDonald (played by the beardless but ever stern and uber-masculine Nick Offerman) he offers Dick his observation of why he ultimately took the company from them.F17

Dick McDonald: I just have to ask you one thing. Something I’ve never understood.

Ray Kroc: Alright.

Dick McDonald: That day we met, when we gave you the tour…

Ray Kroc: Uh huh. What about it?

Dick McDonald: We showed you everything. The whole system, all of our secrets. We were an open book. So why didn’t you just…

Ray Kroc: Steal it? Just, grab your ideas and run off, start my own business… using all those ideas of yours. It would have failed.

Dick McDonald: How do you know?

Ray Kroc: Am I the only one who got the kitchen tour? You must have invited lots of people back there, huh?

Dick McDonald: And?

Ray Kroc: How many of them succeeded?F12

Dick McDonald: Lots of people started restaurants.

Ray Kroc: As big as McDonald’s?

Dick McDonald: Of course not.

Ray Kroc: No one ever has and no one ever will because they all lacked that one thing… that makes McDonald’s special.

Dick McDonald: Which is?

Ray Kroc: Even you don’t know what it is.

Dick McDonald: Enlighten me.

Ray Kroc: It’s not just the system, Dick. It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. That’s compared to Kroc. What a crock. What a load of crock. Would you eat at a place named Kroc’s? Kroc’s has that blunt, Slavic sound. Kroc’s. But McDonald’s, oh boy. That’s a beauty. A guy named McDonald? He’s never gonna get pushed around in life.

Dick McDonald: That’s clearly not the case.

Ray Kroc: So, you don’t have a check for 1.35 million dollars in your pocket? Bye Dick.

Dick McDonald: So if you can’t beat’em, buy’em.F4

Ray Kroc: I remember the first time I saw that name stretched across your stand out there. It was love at first sight. I knew right then and there… I had to have it. And now I do.

Dick McDonald: You don’t have it.

Ray Kroc: You sure about that? Bye Dick.

I’ll admit freely that I was just about screaming at my television set during this scene.  I’m sure at this point in our marriage my wife is used to me talking during the movie, either my comments made towards characters or else just my examinations of the various shots and camera angles made by clever directors, still I should shut up more and just enjoy the movie.  Apart from my rage at the TF_D20_DM_06282015-7415.cr2character of Ray Kroc however was just a general sensation of being constantly amazed at all the excellent little details of the film.  The Founder is a gorgeous movie for the way it presents the time period, the characters, the costumes, the landscapes, and if it hasn’t been addressed already virtually every actor in The Founder manages to give a career-defining performance.  If it isn’t Keaton slinging his Midwest accent and giving us a man who’s constantly hungry for more it’s Nick Offerman winning every scene he’s in, and even John Carol Lynch who manages to be the most pitifully delightful human being in a movie since I can’t even remember.

But I want to return to an earlier point made which was that The Founder is yet another in a long line of American films which examines corporate greed and how ultimately kind people are screwed by the frenetic individuals who aren’t satisfied to break even.  Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc as a constantly moving man who isn’t satisfied to stand still in one place or space, he is constantly speaking about expansion and the possibility that is McDonalds.  During one passage of the film the reader is able to watch Ray give more-or-less the same speech to a room full of Shriners, jewish council members, board-room executives, and casual people in a school gym and Ray’s dedication to expansion is presented in his rhetoric.

Ray Kroc: I’m looking for a few good men… and women. Who aren’t afraid of hard work. Aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves. I’m looking for scrappers, hustlers, guys that are willing to roll up their sleeves. They’re livin’ on F13drive, they got a little fire in their belly. I stand right here before you today, I’m gonna offer you something as precious as gold. And you know what that is? Anybody? Anybody? Opportunity. It’s opportunity. Opportunity. Opportunity to advance, to move forward, to move up, to advance… To succeed. To win. To step up. The sky’s the limit. The sky is the limit. Grab the brass ring. To give yourself a shot at the American dream. Put your arms around the American dream. Opportunity. Cause I’ll tell ya somethin… At McDonald’s? It’s like this great nation of ours… Some of that elbow grease. I guarantee ya, if you got the guts… the gumption, the desire… I guarantee ya you can succeed. There’s gold to be had. At the end of… those Golden Arches… Golden Arches. F 11Golden Arches. Now who’s with me? Who wants to jump on that ladder to success? Be part of the McDonald’s “mishpokhe”. Now who’s with me? Come on, lemme see some hands.

One of the greatest criticisms of The Founder is that is tries to tell the same story that There Will be Blood or Wall Street did only with less character development.  Most of the reviews of this film have complained that Michael Keaton’s performance is one long series of fast-paced speeches, and the New York Times in their review more or less compared him to the Road-Runner.  Obviously I have nowhere near the ethos that the New York Times has in terms of film criticism, but I would like to think that I have an ethos when it comes to Loony Tunes and I didn’t see Michael Keaton go “beep-beep” once in this movie.  Keaton plays Kroc as a man who is never satisfied.  Kroc is always moving from one scheme to the next because he’s TF_D14_DM_06182015-5178.cr2always seeing or looking for something bigger than himself and so it makes sense why he eventually has philosophic differences with the McDonalds brothers.  It makes sense why he leaves his wife who is always wanting him to just settle down and be happy with what he has.  It’s easy to look at Keaton’s performance of Kroc and think that he’s playing him up as a kind of cartoony Gordon Gecko on speed, but if the reader really listens and pays attention to Kroc hopefully they’ll see that the reason there isn’t too much introspection of Kroc’s character is because the man isn’t the contemplative kind.  He isn’t deep and he isn’t truly original.

Ray Kroc is a persistent man.  That is his defining quality, and in this trait he is successful.

In one of the closing scenes Ray is preparing a speech for a dinner he’s going to have with then governor of California TF_D08_DM_03277.cr2Ronald Reagan, and speaking once again to the camera Keaton manages to once again win his viewer, not because he’s a decent man, but because his conviction is real.

Ray Kroc: Now, I know what you’re thinkin’. How the hell does a 52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman… build a fast-food empire with 16,000 restaurants, in 50 states, in 5 foreign countries… with an annual revenue of in the neighborhood of $700,000,000.00… One word… PERSISTENCE. Nothing in this world can take the place of good old persistence. Talent won’t. Nothing’s more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius A McDonald's Big Mac and French Fries arwon’t. Unrecognized genius is practically a cliché. Education won’t. Why the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all powerful.

The Founder as a film may be an opportunity to explore the downsides of capitalism and remind the viewer that there are always going to be sleazebags like Kroc who will steal someone else’s vision and manage to get away with it, but my final impression of the film is something entirely different.  Regardless of the man’s personal character, and regardless of the fact that I would always end the film calling Kroc a contemptable prick, McDonalds as an idea does speak to something of the American vision.  I wish I could find the quote specifically, but when Kroc sells his idea of the franchises to the McDonalds brother he compares the golden arches to the cross and the flag, the idea being that McDonalds can be a place where American people, break bread, find bodily sustenance, and share ideas.  This seems like a ridiculous notion, until I remember my own upbringing.

I was a spoiled child, and as a kid I would often complain about food made at home.  I complained because I wanted to go to McDonalds.  I loved the playground, I loved the cheeseburgers, I loved the fries, and I loved meeting other kids and playing with them and making new memories.  Kroc may F19have been a contemptable prick, but he was onto something when he realized that if you sell a company, not just as a burger joint, but as a space where people can find something, something like family, the American people would buy it and buy into it.

I went out and bought a big mac with fries the day after watching the movie, and in the store I saw a man writing on his laptop, a family eating and talking and laughing, and two friends eating cheeseburgers and laughing.  McDonalds is still an American icon, and still an idea that people are buying.

Unlike a movie like Wall Street, where corporate executives dressed in ties and suspenders read The Art of War and buy up abstract stocks, The Founder digs into the meat and bone of the American landscape and the desire of those living within to be successful, not just at a local level but something more.  The film is a chance to try and understand why Americans are so driven to push and drive into new territories and make something in that new space, or, at the very least, why they’re trying to make something new where you can buy a cheeseburger for under fifteen cents.

F9

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from The Founder were provided by IMBD.

 

**Writer’s Note**

While I ultimately disagree with their final summation of the film, I have included the New York Times review of The Founder here if the reader is interested in a second opinion.  Enjoy:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/movies/the-founder-review-michael-keaton-mcdonalds.html?referrer=google_kp

 

***Writer’s Note***

There are many, many opinions about McDonalds, some fair, some unfair, some that are about lizards who dance the polka and buy Weird Al albums, but perhaps the best opinion I’ve heard expressed is the one by Jim Gaffigan in his Mr. Universe Special.  It’s become something of a private joke between my friend Kevin and I, and I include it here in honor of our friendship.  Love you bro.

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Swanky Panky

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19 August 2017