david cay johnston, bruce chatwin, pitcairn trials

A few random notes picked up in recent days:
A terrific interview with David Cay Johnston, the NYT’s great tax reporter. Interesting insight into the mind of a certain kind of journalist. He’s awesome, but I think he kids himself a bit when he says he’s not ideological — he clearly is. His dodges (“I mean, I can show you reviews of my book that say that I am a populist, that I am a classic conservative, that I am a progressive, that I am a liberal Democrat. I’m glad to see that, that’s good. I’m not an ideologue. If anything I am a professional skeptic”) read like, well, dodges.
It’s an interesting question whether there’s room for a guy like that at a newspaper. His tone clearly belongs at a place like The New Republic or another font of muscular opinion journalism, but his talent is such that he doesn’t deserve to be marginalized at a place like, well, The New Republic, where he’ll only be read by a few tens of thousands. He certainly makes the NYT a better paper, but he also certainly plays into the NYT’s ideological weakness.
– Been reading a lot on Bruce Chatwin, the travel auteur mentioned a few posts back. Such an interesting fellow, although he (not unlike Johnston) offers some warning signs of what not to do.
Johnston certainly doesn’t make things up, but he writes from a clear ideological perspective — which makes his work wonderful but perhaps (?) out of place in the daily newspaper of record.
Chatwin, in contrast, occasionally made things up. Parts of his books were fabricated. At times he tried the old dodge that a certain amount of fabrication was, well, expected by readers. Some of his books he labeled fiction in hidden places, but the fact they were all about this fellow named Bruce who was talking to real people in real places made it clear he had no intention of tearing down the fourth wall.
Now, Chatwin was writing books, not works of journalism. For better or worse, people have grown more used to fibbing in books than in newspapers and magazines. (Does anyone really think David Sedaris’ stories are all literally true? Come on.) But the basic lie of it all remains — people like Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski told falsehoods much larger than anything Jayson Blair did. And they’re globally acclaimed.
(It also helps that they had roughly 1,000 times the talent Blair did.)
I don’t have any wise summary points here — just that people have different expectations of objectivity from different sources, and that some people manage to work outside those expectations. A lot of the time, they produce brilliant work — Johnston and Chatwin and Kapuscinski alike. But it’s unfortunate that every time a journalist writes something of great value, it seems to be tainted, either with perspective or with fabrication. Maybe our expectations are off. Or maybe the writers’ expectations are. Johnston wants the imprimatur of The New York Times on his stories, but isn’t willing to play by the down-the-middle rules most newspapers enforce. Chatwin wants the bracing power of non-fiction but doesn’t want to play by the rules of Always Telling The Truth.
(About Chatwin’s most famous book, The Songlines, about nomadic Aboriginal Australians: “In Songlines, Chatwin takes leave of the facts about the people he met and the places he went. Had Songlines been fiction this would have been forgivable; but Chatwin refused to have his theory regarding the nomadic nature of man reduced to fiction. [Biographer Nicholas] Shakespeare took the time to interview the many people Chatwin spoke with while researching The Songlines. It is very clear they felt completely betrayed by Chatwin. More damningly, they point out Chatwin did not, in fact, spend much time with actual Aboriginals.”)
Another Chatwin link here, touching on his brilliant “The Coup,” one of my favorite bits of travel/foreign reportage, and which may have also been partially fabricated. I just hate being disappointed by the people who I want to be my writing heroes.
– For those of you, like me, too interested in the Pitcairn Island sex trials for your own good, here are the hearing docs from the pre-trial appeal. And Wikipedia has great day-by-day summaries of last fall’s trial testimony. That second link makes for crazy reading for me, since I know most of them. (Well, in that reporter-reportee sense.)

after week one in mexico

Week one has ended, and quite frankly, it couldn’t have come at a better time. My head was near explosive levels by Friday afternoon, packed with enough irregular verbs to fuel a dozen Hiroshimas. (Verbs are extremely volatile chemically, particular the ones with -ir root endings.) My handy dandy flashcards tell me I’ve learned 162 verbs so far. Of course, “learned” is being used here in the “they’re in my notebook somewhere” sense, so I’d hold off on asking me to distinguish sentir and sentar were I you.
And that’s just the verbs! Let’s not even get started on para versus por! It’s like a bad sequel to Ser vs. Estar: The Wrath of Moctezuma.
Thoughts from my first week in Morelia:
– This place makes me feel old. I’m probably the only student at my language school who has to pay full price at the movies. About half are high school students; another 40 percent are college students from Minnesota and Illinois seeking January warmth. Then there are the AARP couples who, while nice, seem more interested in learning new enchilada recipes than in learning Spanish.
I’m also just about the only person here on my own — everyone else comes with a built-in network of dorm dwellers and wives and secret boyfriends and fellow softball outfielders. A reasonable person would try to ameliorate said situation by taking action — meeting people, seeking new friendships. I, in contrast, have funneled my energies into heroin.
(I kid!)
– Down the street from my school is a ferreteria. Upon seeing the sign, I imagined the most wonderful place in the world: a place for Morelians to purchase pet ferrets. Or perhaps to bring them in for cleaning and servicing. Or a sort of ferret social hall, for young ferrets to mingle with their furry peers. I can’t tell you how sad I was to learn it’s just a hardware store.
– Favorite Spanish word so far: “semaforo,” meaning traffic light. I tell more jokes with semaphore flags in their punch lines than any human should, and I’m glad to know the people of Latin America will be prepared.
– Favorite indie-rock discussions with confused instructors (tie): explaining the existence of New York rock combo Yo La Tengo when we got to the verb tener on day two; explaining the wonders of Calexico when discussing the word guero — in particular, its use in the song “Guero Canelo.” Which apparently means something along the lines of “Cinnamon Honky.”
– Favorite instructor vs. dictionary disputes: The article of clothing that covers my legs — is it “el pantalon” singular or “los pantalones” plural? The pant or the pants? Similarly, should the existence of my native land be discussed as “los Estados Unidos es” (singular) or “los Estados Unidos son” (plural)? (Didn’t we fight a civil war over that last question?) In both cases, el diccionario says plural; Jaime, my expert grammarian, insists on singular.
– Relationship thoughts disclosed by one of my teachers (who, for his own protection, shall go unnamed — it ain’t the pantalon-crusading Jaime, don’t worry): American girls are friendly and easy. Mexican girls are snobby and unapproachable. There’s nothing wrong with going after high school sophomores when you’re in your mid-20s. You have to treat women poorly if you want them to like you. Canadian women are waaay hotter than American women, particularly the ones from British Columbia.
– What’s the best way to deal with a big fat blister on the sole of one’s foot? Seeking reader advice.
– My rolled “r” shows no sign of improving. May even be getting worse. I think I injured a passing bird Wednesday when I tried to conjugate reir in third-person plural preterite and accidentally produced a lung bolus big enough to dam a river. Jaime keeps telling me to hold back, to “stop sounding so French,” and to practice. It’s no use. I am immune to instruction at this point — the tongue trill just isn’t in my vocal toolbox, no matter how precise the advice and instructions I am given. I haven’t been told where to put my tongue this often since freshman year of college.
(Boom! The jokes keep on coming!)
– There’s no disappointment quite like meeting someone you think might be cool to hang out with over the next few weeks — then hearing her say her favorite bands are, in order, Bush, Silverchair, Korn, and Jimmy Buffett.

redmond o’hanlon, brit travel writing

Just finished Into the Heart of Borneo, Redmond O’Hanlon’s classic Brit travelogue about tracking a wild rhinoceros through deepest Malaysia. It’s really terrific, and a quick read. O’Hanlon has the eye of a naturalist and serious writing chops — in spots, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. I’ll certainly track down his No Mercy when I get back to the states, although his newest book Trawler (out just a couple weeks ago) seems a bit off. Here’s a great old interview with O’Hanlon from ’97.
Next up on the reading list is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory — fitting for a Mexican journey, I imagined — to be followed by my long-delayed conclusion of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. There’s something about being on the road that makes me crave Granta-style British travel writing.

first impressions of mexico

The good news is that I’ve never spoken so much French in my life. It was my family’s native tongue growing up, and I took five years of it in junior high and high school, but I’ve let my French grow rusty with time. Now I find myself speaking French all the time — a word dropped in here, a full sentence blurted out there.
The bad news is that I’m supposed to be learning Spanish.
I’m staying with a family, Norma and Joel, who live in what I suppose would be Morelia’s suburbs. Seem like nice enough folks, and they’ve got two cute grandkids who pop in and out — one of whom, Eddie, is always dressed up as Spider-Man and tries to play cowboys and Indians with a bottled-water dispenser as a gun. Their house is a 30-minute walk from my language school, which means I’m getting a nice workout. Particularly since Norma insists I come home for lunch — something I’ve tried to fight with little success — which means I’m walking a good two to three hours every day. The health benefits of walking should nicely make up for the health drawbacks of walking — namely, the exhaust-thick air I have to breathe while hitting the sidewalks.
Morelia is really a lovely town. Its center is 20 or 30 blocks of old stone buildings from Spanish colonial days, which look lovely and old. The exteriors are pleasant, but it’s the dramatic interiors that really hit you — they add a sense of theater to the lowliest bodega. Once you get past the center, the next concentric circle is still centuries-old, but more commercial — narrow streets, buildings flush to the traffic, and a real small-town Spain feel. Then, beyond that, you get unspectacular tract homes (like Norma and Joel’s) and, finally, the malls, where you can Pizza Hut to your heart’s content.
School is going well. I’m in class four hours a day, all of it one-on-one with a teacher. They rotate the teachers each hour so you can’t get too bored with any of them. The first day felt like a cruel joke — I’m all for immersion, but not understanding a word your teacher says for minutes at a time isn’t heartening. But I’m picking things up quickly. (Damn those irregular verbs! Almost makes you understand the desire for Esperanto.) Tonight was “conversation club,” in which we pale Americans are teamed up with Morelians who are learning English and chat in both languages. Strangely, I fared better in the English-speaking portion of the conversation.
My teachers view me as equal parts imbecile and prodigy. Okay, maybe 70 percent imbecile. The prodigy part comes up when they ask me to read stories in one of the Morelian newspapers — without fail, I can understand and summarize everything in them. Sometimes I can even critique the quality of the editing. They think this makes me a genius. In fact, it just means I’ve spent the last seven years newspapering — and that newspaper writing is so predictable, so standardized in structure, that it could be in Martian and I’d still get the gist of it.
The imbecile stuff stems from my ignorance of the Spanish alphabet, the days of the week, any number past 10, and all the other things that six-year-olds learn in preparation for their classroom’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. Oh, that and my complete inability to roll an “r” without summoning the phlegm of a thousand emphysemics. I swear, a nice name like “Herrera” trips off the tongue just fine in the States; here, I get sucked into the drama of the moment and start a series of tongue-and-throat spasms — haaiRRRRerrrRRRrRrRrrrrrahhhh. I sound like an agonized daschund with a bone stuck in its throat. I’m a dipthong away from choking on my own tonsils. It’s embarrassing, and I’m not easily embarrassed.
Even if I don’t learn 10 words of Spanish in Morelia, I hope I can come away from this trip with a half-servicable command of all the language’s consonants.

in mexico

Hola, senores y senoras. I am in lovely Morelia, Mexico, after a trouble-free trip, advanced negotiations with an ATM machine, and some tasty arrachera last night. I believe I have scoped out a wireless connection that may make my laptop happy, which is all to the good. And I’m having a grand old time wandering the zocalo’s streets, reading every sign I see aloud in a quest to make my rolled r’s less embarrassing.
One note: It appears I may not have access to my work email account for the next four weeks. (That would be jbenton at dallasnews dot com.) So if you would normally get in touch with me there, use the old standby, jbenton at toast dot net.
One other note: My cell phone works here, if you need to reach me. I will warn you in advance, however, that the roaming charges are such that I won’t be in the mood for a two-hour leisurely chat.

chaos in the jumble

Best letter-to-the-editor ever. “Many of us find momentary reprieve from the world’s turmoil by enjoying simple things such as word puzzles…The Jumble would be much more enjoyable if it could omit such despicable reminders of the world’s chaos and insanity.”
Have I mentioned I’m flying to Mexico for four weeks in 48 hours? My Shiznit To Do list is looooong.

vanderslice, doughty, inwood, decemberists

I never noticed it before, but John Vanderslice has posted MP3s of his 1999 album Mass Suicide Occult Figurines — including the classic “Bill Gates Must Die.”
Mike Doughty, former frontman for Soul Coughing, has a blog. And it’s pretty good, too. “When I was 5, my family moved to Kansas from New York. 1975. We crossed a river and the sign said WELCOME TO INDIANA. ‘Are we really in India?!’ I asked. Yes, my distracted parents said. I spent the next hour staring out the window, spooked, worried about cobras.”
And: “I keep seeing Scarlett Johansson on TV, promoting that movie with John Travolta. I met her at the first celeb 24 Hour Plays, in 2001. I was backstage tuning an acoustic guitar, she was waiting for her entrance. I was talking to her in that kind of nervous, inadvertantly hostile way that you speak to a crushable someone. I said, in an attempt at being flirty that I think came out sounding just ambiguous, ‘I could just whip out “Stairway to Heaven” on you right now.’ Scarlett Johansson said: ‘So do it. Play “Stairway to Heaven.”‘ And I then had to admit, mortified, that I was among the tiny minority of acoustic guitar owners in the world who did not know how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Have you ever met a celebrity, maybe had a moment’s casual chat with them, and from then on you feel a warm bond of friendship with them when you see them being interviewed on the Today show? That’s how I feel about Scarlett Johansson. Also Griffin Dunne.”
FYI, Dallasites, the Inwood Theatre reopened last Friday. All new and renovated. The attached bar is neither new nor renovated.
Also FYI, Dallasites, The Decemberists will be in town on March 31 for a show at Trees. For those of you who have not yet gotten your filthy, nautical-song-loving hands on a leaked copy of their new album Picaresque, I can assure you: It kicks ass. Substantially better than their last two albums, both of which inspired great affection.
(It’s due out March 22, so you’ll have time to memorize the lyrics to the euphoric “We Both Go Down Together” before the Portlanders hit the stage.)

mac mini, baby signs

How powerful is the new Mac Mini? Charles Jade has run the benchmarks, although I believe the yellow and blue bars in the chart constitute unsanctioned use of benchmarking software.
When my progeny eventually arrive on this earth — and during that brief window of time before they summon up their superpowers, no doubt inherited from their mother’s side, and conquer the known world — I am so going to teach them Baby Signs, just like Eric Meyer has.