United: We Never Stop Fucking You; also, Hilton Hates You Too

Apparently, there is now only one daily from the Naples area back to Houston, so despite being done early I’m still waiting until 5:12 PM to fly home.

This is my fifth — and final, it turns out — year attending this conference here in Naples. Each year, the flight options have gotten worse. United reducing service (because fuck you) is just one more reason I’m glad I won’t have to come back here, or to this hotel either.

You: The hotel? What’s wrong with the hotel?

I’m glad you asked! It’s called the “Waldorf Naples,” but this is a goddamn lie. At some point, Hilton bought the real Waldorf, and immediately set about ruining that venerable hotel name by applying it willy-nilly to garden variety “full service” properties in pseudo-lux destinations like Naples. It’s not a Waldorf. It’s a run-down Hilton with delusions of grandeur. The rooms are shabby, the carpet’s worn, and they’re too snooty to have vending so you have to use their shop or coffeebar if you want a Diet Coke. Before 8, it’s just the coffeebar — where a 12 ounce bottle of DC goes for $2.85. Because, again, fuck you.

Every time I’ve stayed in a hotel since 2009, I’ve mentally compared it to the Hyatt Place hotel I used in Overland Park. Absolutely no hotel emerges from such a comparison looking good. Hyatt’s created a line with everything you need and nothing you don’t, and with a brandwide culture of “yes” when guests ask for things. It’s not fancy, but it’s done very well. There’s no full service restaurant, but you can get sandwiches and whatnot made to order 24 x 7. The wifi works well, and is included. The free breakfast is full of fresh fruit and good cereal options. I love some high-end stuff in my life, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that the whole IDEA of “high end hotel” is being executed very, very poorly; I haven’t seen a single so-called fancy hotel in the last 4 years I’d choose over a Hyatt Place, if given the option.

Patrick Stewart is a goddamn hero.

Here is why. Mrs Heathen and I were there at Comicpalooza for this; it was an astonishing and honest and open moment, and I would be a liar if I told you my eyes were dry by the end.

I’m glad this was captured, and I’m glad people can see it.

Dept. of Darkly Hilarious Corporate Infighting

From Talking Points Memo, we find this story, attributed to internal documents recovered by the AP in a building abandoned by terrorists in Mali:

After years of trying to discipline him, the leaders of [this organization] sent one final letter to their most difficult employee. In page after scathing page, they described how he didn’t answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings and refused time and again to carry out orders.

Most of all, they claimed he had failed to carry out a single spectacular operation, despite the resources at his disposal.

The employee […] responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group.

What makes this weirdly funny is that the organization is the North African branch of al-Qaida, and the employee is terrorist rising star Moktar Belmoktar. The funny stops quickly, thought: since leaving the old, hidebound organization, Belmoktar has

carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger just last week.


Dept. of Whoa.

This 14-year-old girl plays the everliving FUCK out of Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.”

This should give new meaning to “plays like a girl.”

Also, it’s good to see that kids today still appreciate the classics. Had I as a 14-year-old tried to learn a piece of music of similar age, by the way, I’d have been kinda out of luck, since 1948 was basically a musical wasteland — rock and roll was years away, and musically interesting rock-specific guitar playing even farther.

It’s odd to consider now, but the middle 1970s were still pretty early in the development of modern popular music — Elvis’ commercial breakout was only 20 years before. If we consider 1957 as the first year of rock-and-roll hegemony on the charts (which may or may not be defensible for more than a blog post), then a Van Halen fan in 1977 has just 20 years of rock to draw from. Plus, the evolution of the form was so dramatic that few folks enjoyed both the hits of the late 1950s and the kind of post-Beatles, post-Hendrix, post-Zeppelin music that came in the next decade.

In 2013, we’re closing in on having SIXTY years of rock and roll to choose from, and even if we dismiss the first decade of essentially playful bits and start at 1967 instead, we have a half century. That’s a big buffet, and it makes it more remarkable that this kid found that first Van Halen record. (I suspect good parenting.)

Books of 2013, #21: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Robinson deserved every single award she won — and more — for Gilead. It’s tremendous and amazing, and took my breath away with its painterly language and absolute grasp of its reader at every moment. I really can’t say enough nice things about it, but I’m also at a loss as to how to explain its hold on me without veering into the trivial or banal.

I’ll try anyway.

John Ames is an old preacher in 1950s Gilead, Iowa, and he knows he’s dying. Married young, he lost his first wife giving birth to their daughter — who then died soon after. Ames then spent the bulk of his adult life as a bachelor pastor, caring and being cared for by his flock. His closest friend, another local pastor named Boughton, cares for Ames deeply and sort of incorporates him into his own family, as much as was practical; he even shocks his old friend by naming his son John Ames Boughton, about which more later.

Ames gets the surprise of his life when, at 67, a single young woman joins his church and effectively captures his heart. They are soon married, at her instigation, and soon have a son. The book takes the form of a long letter written to the young son he’ll never see grow up, a situation that weighs heavily on Ames’ heart.

The letter is not a tedious sort of Polonius-to-Laertes monologue about borrowing and lending, though; instead, it’s mostly full of his own recollections of his life — he’s acutely conscious of the fact that he remembers clearly things like the Civil War that will seem distant, ancient history to his son, for example. Another good chunk of the recollection is spent on his own theological and philosophical grappling, but not in any sort of evangelical way; Robinson is a practicing Christian, but this book isn’t a work of proselytization. What she does do, quite well, is paint a beautiful portrait of John Ames’ mind, his memories, his loves, the conflicts of his life — past and present — and the ways in which he prepares for his own looming departure. It sounds simple. In a way, it is, but in so many ways it is not.

It’s pretty rare that I find myself profoundly moved by a book. Gilead did it. It is a thing of rare beauty and grace, and you will find yourself better for making time to read it.

In the years since Gilead was published in 2004, by the way, Robinson has published Home, her third novel. Home is a contemporaneous story to Gilead, told from the perspective of the Boughton family (mostly adult daughter Glory) as Old Boughton nears his own end, and as the prodigal son John Ames Boughton returns. I am deeply tempted to return to the world of Gilead, Iowa, through this book, but I’m holding off and savoring the window I’ve just finished, and wondering how much I’ll miss John Ames’ voice when I inevitably return.

Books of 2013 #20: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

By my count, NOS4A2 marks the first author repeat of the year: Hill also wrote Book #7, Horns, which I wrote about back in February. The broad praise I had for Hill three months ago stands; in fact, I’ll double down. With NOS4A2, he really takes it up a notch in terms of storytelling and creating that all important “ripping good yarn” that keeps you up past your bedtime reading just one more chapter.

I’m not really sure how much I can tell you about this book without spoiling anything for you; it’s been discussed as sort of a modern vampire story, but it owes little to the bloodsucking tradition beyond the titular pun. Mostly, it concerns the life of a woman named Vic, who, as it turns out, has a curious ability to find things using a special shortcut bridge available, apparently, only to her. A parallel narrative exists regarding someone else with some special abilities, though his are far darker; Hill deftly intertwines the stories to create a far more complex narrative than you typically enjoy with something that might get labeled “genre fiction” by those obsessed with, well, labeling things. More than a few times you sort of feel the story going in a predictable direction for a moment, only to be surprised by how Hill carries the story into a new and interesting direction.

Here Hill also amuses the astute reader with countless allusions — both to his dad’s work (Vic’s shortcuts themselves, for example, harken back to the elder King’s short story “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” from 1985’s Skeleton Crew collection) and to others. I think my favorite nod was to David Mitchell, whom Hill is on record as regarding as the finest novelist of their generation. If you’re a fan of Mitchell, you can’t miss it.

Obviously the larger shadow is that of King himself, though. It’s here, for sure, and not just in the allusions Hill sets up. The villain, Charlie Manx, at times feels like someone who could’ve been written by the old man. The idiot minion certainly does; both King men seem to have a solid line on building convincing inner monologues for various kinds of creepy and dangerous guys. I saw this first in Horns, with Lee, and again in a different way with Bing. This isn’t a bad thing at all, and it doesn’t make these books any less Hill’s own — writing horror in a post-King world means having been exposed to King’s versions of these characters, some of them morally ambiguous (The Stand‘s Lloyd Henreid, or the childlike Trashcan Man) and some clearly not (Randall Flagg, or more mundanely the various bullies who haunt much of his work). Hill isn’t being derivative here; he’s definitely doing something of his own — but it rhymes with his dad’s work, so to speak. And given his dad’s success, this can only be a compliment.

Given that my to-read pile already includes one of his dad’s latest books, and that his brother’s new book is also getting raves, I think it might be fun to shoot for the family trifecta in this little reading project.

In Case You Missed It

Saturday was the acknowledged swan song for SNL favorite Bill Hader, who got a great send-off via his Stefon character wedding (“This wedding had everything — German Smurfs, human fire hydrants, Furkles, Black George Washington, puppets in disguise, HoboCops, Jewpids, infamous gay running back Blowjay Simpson, Gizblow the coked-up Gremlin, a screaming geisha, Hannukah cartoon character Menorah the Explorer, DJ Baby Bok Choy, Ben Affleck…“) but what got less press was that Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen are also almost certainly leaving.

The final sketch on Saturday was a return of Armisen’s “Ian Rubbish” punk character, together with his ersatz band — most of which were also making their exits. Sudeikis played drums and Hader played bass; only second guitarist Taran Killam is expected back for the 39th season.

The tune, a lovely happy little number (all punk trappings aside) grew in charm as special guests joined the band on stage — first Armisen’s Portlandia partner and Sleater-Kinney vet Carrie Brownstein, then the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, then Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis and KIM FUCKING GORDON, and finally Aimee Mann and Michael Penn.

It was lovely. Watch here if you have a couple minutes, and note the inscription on Armisen’s guitar strap — which to my mind kind of settles the question of Armisen’s intentions.

How Felicity Came To Live With Us: A story about paintings, movies, Rob Norris, and ten-year quests

Ten years ago, almost to the week, Erin and I went over to Austin to see the joint AFI/Alamo Drafthouse Ten Year Reunion showing of Dazed and Confused. Most of the cast was going to go; they were showing it on a giant outdoor screen “at the moon tower,” complete with keg beer, etc. Tickets were reasonable! We had very little money at the time — I was working, but my client wasn’t paying me often or enough — but we squeezed this out by eating cheap and whatnot.

We made it a weekend, and had dinner at a nice little bistro down on the quiet end of Sixth Street, where we dined with Ol’ Mr Rob at his suggestion — which is its own story, since Rob was in the early stages of dating Mrs Norris at the time, and was sufficiently smitten in an adorably obvious way that he rushed off at meal’s end to visit her at her coffee shop job. (Erin and I ended up getting married not very long after Rob and Joanna, as it happens.)

After Rob made his exit, Erin and I walked around the little gallery-cluster near the restaurant before heading back to the hotel. They were all closed, which is a crucial bit of data, but we saw something amazing and wonderful that resonated immediately with both of us. It was a completely serious painting of a very Victorian and proper-looking otter, done in a very formal style, entitled (in our memories) “Eugenia Smelt, Spinster.”

We made a point of going back the next day, but the price was completely out of reach. I remember it being something close to $1,000, which we simply couldn’t do at all. We left without her, full of regret, and in so doing made a critical error: we did not capture the artist’s name.

Time passed. Money became less tight again, finally. Five or so years ago, I remembered Miss Smelt and hatched a plan to find the painting, or another one by the same artist, as a gift for Erin. And so I began to search online for this phantom artist. I called the gallery, which had (inevitably) changed hands, so they had only a vague idea of the artist I was trying to find. I’ve been told any manner of stories about who she was, or what happened to her in my years of searching, and none of the stories were encouraging. She quit painting. She moved to Ouagadougou. She had a nervous breakdown. No one knows where she is. Her name? Oh, no idea.

All of this sucked. It sucked more because I had a really hard time constructing Google queries that didn’t produce page after page of hits for people who paint portraits of your pets — we loved Bob, but no thanks.

At some point, finally, I figured out who the artist was: Sarah Higdon, and she was clearly still painting. Suddenly, she was on the Internet, and I even managed to find a photo of the Eugenia Smelt painting (which Higdon named “Eugenia Smelt, Unmarried” — I figure the gallery owner took liberties, because Erin and I both remember it the other way).

Here it is, for reference:

Sarah Higdon Eugenia Smelt

Well, with a web presence, contacting her must be easy, right?

You’d think that. Not so much. I hit a couple email addresses at various galleries, and even one or two that I thought would be the artist herself, but never hit pay dirt. I even wrote to people who had other of her works. They always either bounced, or garnered no response at all. I’d really almost given up, until this April when I thought to try one more time. Here’s what I said:

Ms Higdon,

Some time ago — I think in 2004, but I may be mistaken [I was a year off] — my wife and I were dining at Cafe Josie in Austin on a trip over to see the AFI “Dazed and Confused” anniversary viewing. We remember the trip well, not just because of the fun we had on Saturday, but also because we saw some paintings through a gallery window near Cafe Josie that we really, really liked.

We visited the gallery on Saturday, and admired the works some more, but could not at that time justify spending money on art — the tech downturn was hitting our house kind of hard at the time. Thankfully, that state of affairs didn’t last, but it did keep us from taking one of the works home with us at the time. Foolishly, though, we failed to note the name of the artist whose work we liked so much.

Since then, we’ve periodically tried to figure out the artist whose work we saw then, but only recently have we made a real quest of it. That’s why I’m writing to you today: I think it’s your work we saw, and that it’s your work we want to hang in our house.

The paintings we saw that weekend were decidedly and delightfully odd: they were paintings of anthropomorphized animals in odd or vintage clothing, in the style of late-19th/early-20th family portraits. The animals are mostly, but not completely, realistic — more than cartoony, but definitely not photorealistic.

I think, at long last, that you are that artist. I first found your web site at SarahHigdon.com, but the clincher is that I think “Eugenia Smelt, Unmarried” (pictured on your Facebook page) was the painting we so fell in love with 9 years ago. Are prints available of that piece? I assume the original has long since sold, but do correct me if I’m wrong…


Chet Farmer

Sarah replied in less than two hours. When the first line of her mail was “Yay! Quests!”, I knew it was a good sign. Eugenia was of course long sold, and no prints exist, but she’d be happy to paint something similar for us on commission. Would I be interested?

YOU BET YOUR ASS I WOULD. Paypal ensued. The original plan was for this to be Erin’s birthday present — in July! — but when Sarah replied and delivered so quickly, I knew I couldn’t possibly wait.

The new painting arrived on Monday. I somehow managed to keep my mouth shut about it, and just left the box on the couch for Erin to discover when she came home from work.

Heathen Nation, please meet “Felicity Elkins, Alone with her Clam”. We are very pleased, as I think this photo makes obvious:

2013 05 20 18 13 21

Yay for Sarah Higdon, yay for cool paintings, and yay for QUESTS FULFILLED.

Finally, an asshole served in full

Bitter, dejected, and fundamentally unsuccessful writer Robert Clark Young has had a pretty bad couple of weeks, and it couldn’t happen to a better asshole.

Young came to my attention first several years ago when he was instrumental in the derailing of a friend of mine’s career over false allegations that my friend stole work from another author. Brad had written an award-winning book, and was set to begin a tenure-track career at Mississippi State when this whole thing hit. Despite clear evidence he intended no wrongdoing and no small amount of support from the actual literary community, his book was pulped and his job offer rescinded. Watching this happen to a very talented friend was really, really awful. (The book was eventually republished — which tells you all you need to know about the plagiarism allegations — and you should read it, because it’s fantastic.)

Young was off my radar for a few years, until this spring. Remember that scandal about female writers having their articles on Wikipedia moved out of the “American Novelists” category and into the “American Women Novelists” category? The writer Amanda Filipacchi wrote about it for the New York Times, which shed a great deal of light on the normally fairly obscure process of Wikipedia editing. She had her article at Wikipedia vandalized and trivialized for her trouble — largely by a pseudonymous editor named “Qworty”.

It turns out Qworty had a host of “revenge edits” to his credit, frequently sliming writers he, for some reason, didn’t care for — including literary giant Barry Hannah, a mentor of Vice’s. When taken in toto, it became clear that the “list of writers Qworty hates” was overwhelming similar to the list of writers Robert Clark Young is known for hating. Imagine that.

The first link contains Salon’s rundown of the whole affair. The second is a drier but no less interesting discussion at a sort of ombudsman site about Wikipedia itself. Read both, and join me in the schadenfreude. Young has no job offer to rescind or recent book to pulp or awards to withdraw, so we’ll just have to content ourselves with the public shaming of a deeply creepy and vindictive jackass.

I’ll take it.

In these pics: LOTS AND LOTS OF JOY

Of general interest, perhaps, are pictures of The Joy Formidable playing at Fitzgerald’s earlier this month.

Of more narrow interest are deeply joyful pictures of Frank and Hadleigh’s wedding weekend in Jackson, which was SO SOUTHERN.

(Heathen Nation: “How Southern was it?”)

Well, I’ll tell you: It was so southern that the officiant was a blood relative of Flannery O’Connor.

Finally, because if I don’t include this, someone will complain: one more pic of Joy.

Posted in Pix

Astros to Houston Area Women’s Center: Drop Dead

The heretofore anchor donor for the Houston Area Women’s Center’s fundraising efforts has pulled out and abandoned them.

Help the HAWC with a single donation here. Or, better, do as I do and give them a monthly donation. You never notice it, but they damn sure will.

I joked about refusing to support or care anymore after their move to the AL, but this is seriously bullshit. They can fuck off as far as I’m concerned, for now and evermore. I’ll take what little baseball amusement I need from the Nats.

Par for the course with the GOP, of course

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is so upset about the IRS targetting anti-tax Tea Party groups that he’s insisting that the IRS commissioner resign.

What makes this hilarious? Rubio is apparently unaware that, at present, there is no IRS commissioner, and hasn’t been since Bush’s appointee resigned last November. This is, in no small part, because the Senate Republicans are more or less refusing to confirm anybody for anything, though Obama’s folks aren’t pushing that point nearly hard enough.

Consequently, dear Marco, there is no head to roll here because there’s nobody in the office. Oops!

Two Bits about the IRS and the Tea Party

First: I get that it seems untoward, but it’s a group hostile to taxation and shot through with some wingnuts. Complaining about increased IRS scrutiny seems a lot like NORML complaining about the same thing. Neither should happen, but when you have people paid to find lawbreakers and groups dedicated to changing/breaking those laws, well…

Second: there is, obviously, more to it than you’ll see on TV.

Saban’s Halo

It appears Saban’s gridiron success is resulting in a dramatic uptick in applications to UA, and the upshot is a LOT more out of state tuition revenue:

Since 2007, Tuscaloosa has swelled its undergraduate ranks by 33% to over 28,000 students. Faculty count has kept pace: up 400 since 2007 to over 1,700. But it’s more than growth — it’s where the growth is coming from. According to the school, less than a third of the 2007 freshman class of 4,538 students hailed from out of state. By the fall of 2012, more than half (52%) of a freshman class of 6,397 students did. Various data from US News and the New York Times shows that the school’s out-of-state tuition cost — nearly three times higher than the rate for in-state students — rose from $18,000 to $22,950 a year during that period.

Add it all up — more students from outside Alabama paying ever-increasing premium tuition bills — and the school realized $50 million more in out-of-state tuition revenue for last fall’s incoming class than it did for the same class in 2007 ($76 million vs. $26 million).

It’s not just money, either:

For the admissions office, more applications mean more selectivity. Six years ago, 64% of students applying to the University of Alabama were accepted. By 2012, the acceptance rate had dropped to 53%. About one in four students from the 2012 freshman class carried a 4.0 high school GPA. The class also includes 241 National Merit Scholars, more than any other public university in the U.S.

Roll Tide.

This is immensely, profoundly fucked up.

And I say this as a notional beneficiary:


Yeah, that’s right. The top-paid state employee is a coach of some kind in 40 states (unless I miscounted), excluding only Nevada, Montana, the Dakotas, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska.

Via Deadspin.

Politifact is still truly, deeply awful

Maddow covers it in depth here, but the precis is that they’re rating Martina Navratilova’s statement that one may be fired in 29 states just for being gay as “half true” instead of (as it actually is) COMPLETELY TRUE because of weaselword weaselwordweaselword. Check it out — even though they completely admit in the article that her statement itself was true.

Politifact is so deeply afraid of being seen as left-leaning that they repeatedly make up reasons to represent statements by those on the left as mendacious when they clearly are not.

Fuck. Them.

Birds of Prey Know They’re Cool

Tiny HD cameras have made high-quality video way easier to do; what these guys capture would impossible without it.

What is it? Oh, just point-of-view footage of a falcon diving at 200MPH+ to snag a duck from above. Taken with a camera mounted on the falcon’s back.

Link fixed.

Life in the Future

It’s sort of weird the degree to which I no longer think it odd that I need to coordinate business activities in any given day across more than 3 or 4 time zones.

My personal high is eight: Singapore, all four in CONUS, the UK, Vienna, and Abu Dhabi. It would’ve been nine, but by that point we no longer had an Indian subsidiary.

Every programmer’s conversation with finance people, ever

Programmer: So we’ll see only record types A, B, and C, right?

Finance: Yes. That’s all.

Programmer: Never D? We have some D here.

Finance: Actually, yes. You need to do $special_thing with D records.

Programmer: Okay, so A, B, C, and D after all. That it.

Finance: That’s all. We promise.

(Weeks later)

Finance: Where are my E records?

It’s distressing to me the degree to which rigorous logical thinking is completely alien to corporate finance people. I am reminded of the wise words of my friend R., who said “Normal people don’t see exceptions to rules as a big deal, so they forget to mention them. This is why programmers drink so much.”