March 10, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 11:55 am

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. […]

–Thomas Hardy, “Hap”

There’s a heartbreaking article in this week’s New Yorker (not online, unfortunately, though the abstract is here) about the use of traditional remedies to fight AIDS. Such remedies are untested, and when tested they’re found to have no medicinal value, but their use has been endorsed by South Africa’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and Director-General of Health, Thami Mseleku, who have claimed that HIV does not cause AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs, the only effective treatment that has been found, are “poison.”

I’ll dispense with the outrage right away; I’m no fan of the pharmaceutical industry—marched on ’em once in New York, over AIDS drugs—and probably if they had built up a higher reservoir of trust (by allowing generic AIDS drugs sooner, by making their profiteering a little less shameless), this sort of quackery wouldn’t get this much momentum. However, this does not excuse high-ranking public health officials from increasing that distrust by making statements wrong enough to be considered, simply, murderous. Tshabalala-Mansang and Mseleku are in a position both to know better and to make a difference, and their refusal to do either (well, they are making a difference) deserves the highest degree of condemnation.

But that isn’t what I’m writing about. I was struck, reading the article, by the following statement from Herbert Vilakazi, a retired sociology professor who is one of the biggest proponents of the use of traditional African remedies to treat AIDS:

“Let us be honest. Who benefits from A.R.V.s (antiretrovirals)? Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars have been spent on research and you have to get a return on your investment. It is the first rule of pharmaceutical companies, and they simply terrorize your opponents. Very frankly, in America … there are a lot of people in the African-American community who feel maybe there is a conspiracy and that racism has a lot to do with it. Why, for instance, is AIDS the biggest problem that exists in Africa? … Is it not a coincidence that Africa is the poorest continent in the world? Did you ever think that it’s in the interest of some people for it to stay that way?”

Vilakazi really believes this; he is not making any money from the sale of traditional remedies. What I want to call attention to, though, is the familiarity of this statement. This happens again and again: a tragedy caused by a horrifying indifference on the part of the privileged and powerful, is made more comforting, perversely, by attributing it instead to a malicious act. Since AIDS became an epidemic, and continuing at least until I was in high school, people in this country liked to say that the disease had been engineered by the government and foisted on the population to kill homosexuals and drug users. After Hurricane Katrina, many believed that the government had intentionally blown up the levees, and thus caused the flooding and devastation that hit black New Orleans.

It even happens with events that were perpetrated maliciously, but by individuals or by groups smaller and more unpredictable than we might like. 9/11 was a “conspiracy,” in that a number of people all over the world worked and planned together to make it happen. However, the idea that a group of terrorists could catch the US government napping on its own soil, and in its own skies, is intolerable. Therefore, people come to believe that the government (or some other feared group, like international Judaism) either knew that the attacks were going to happen and let them happen, or actively carried them out. A murderous government we can live with—we at least know where we stand—but a negligent one, never.

I have a friend (perhaps he’s reading this—hi!) who is a strong believer in both individual conspiracy theories (including those around 9/11) and a generally paranoid world in which events are engineered by an unseen cabal, a New World Order. We’ve talked about this since high school, and we don’t agree on the particulars very often. However, one thing we have agreed on is that this is an insiduouly attractive world-view, for two inter-related reasons. First, as Hardy’s poem demonstrates, it is more comforting to believe that one is being actively targeted than to believe that one is being ignored and left to die; those actively murdered are important enough to die, whereas those killed by the passivity of the powerful are not important enough to live. Second, because the perpetrators of such a conspiracy are by definition all-powerful (“a Powerfuller than I”), one is relieved from the effort of resistance. The crusade for protest and progress, which sometimes seems futile, is shown to be futile.

Of course, for those dying of AIDS along with the rest of their generation (whether in gay America 1985 or South Africa today), or for those whose entire neighborhoods lost their homes and possessions, and some their lives, to a hurricane and flood that were utterly predictable and utterly ignored, the prospect of progress (at least, progress that would benefit and remunerate them) is indeed futile. In those cases, the tragedy and betrayal one experiences is so thorough that that bitter comfort, of having been singled out for suffering, is the only comfort that remains. Those of us who are personally spared by these tragedies, though, have no excuse for laying down our burdens and nestling in the arms of a malevolent god.


March 22, 2006

The more you toot, the better you feel

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:29 am

PVP is one of those online strips I’ve been reading forever–five or six years now–and it’s become a regular, even automatic, part of my daily routine. (Actually, several parts, since the strip always takes hours to update.) I’ve never found it as good as Penny Arcade, or Qwantz, or Scary Go Round, or…actually, it seems that PVP is my least favorite of any of the webcomics I read regularly. It’s funny sometimes, but it’s almost never very funny, and sometimes it’s annoyingly dumb and derivative. Recently, in particular, the humor seems to have been founded on reusals of existing PVP jokes (the panda, Skull’s past) and beloved cultural icons (the Delorean, the General Lee). Currently, for example, it’s in the middle of a plot where Skull and Brent switch bodies…just like all those movies in the 80s! I know it’s free and all, but I question why I voluntarily expose myself to jokes that amount to, “Remember that?”

Normally force of habit would keep me going indefinitely, and that’s sort of what I’ve expected here. I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing a ridiculous blog entry about it. But now a recent strip has me ready to swear an oath on the subject, which is this: the next PVP that features a fart joke is the last PVP I ever read.

February 21, 2006

You let me complicate you

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 4:42 pm

Two creeeeepy sex/relationship stories:

The first one is actually pretty old, but I just came across it. It’s on Salon, and thus requires you to watch an ad to get full access to it, but it’s worth it for the weirdness. It’s about Real Dolls, the Cadillacs of sex dolls, and the men who love them.

I don’t find the existence of men who will pay $6500 for realistic sex dolls all that surprising or disturbing. In human history, there have probably never been as many rich young men who couldn’t get a date to save their lives as there are now. (Admittedly, such people don’t seem very likable; in particular, “Davecat,” the goth who not only calls his Real Doll his “girlfriend” but also says she’s half-British and half-Japanese, and who himself adds affected British expressions to his speech, seems like a tool of the first order.) It’s the fringe stories, mentioned in the article, that get me: the guy who wanted one made of his mother, the Real Doll that was found hacked up in a Dumpster. I’m not against the manufacture and sale of these things, but it does wig me out that a lot of men who already see women as possessions or sex toys can now buy proof of this.

The other story is less ambiguously repulsive. This guy, accused of trying to kidnap his own wife (and of child pornography, apparently?), seems to be a mite controlling, as seen in the four-page wedding contract he drew up, dictating exactly what she had to do for him and complete with a system of merits and demerits. A consensual sex slave relationship is one thing, but this seems to be just a document he unilaterally wrote up and presented to her. Rather than signing it, she turned it over to the police, and now all of us can read it and wonder at what manhole people like this crawl out of. Warning: contract begins with specification of amount of pubic hair allowable above wife’s “vaginal slit.”

November 30, 2005

Get me away from here, I’m dying

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:48 am

I do a lot of complaining about Irvine, and it is 100% deserved. I think people often assume I’m exaggerating, or else simply don’t understand how the town could have ended up this way–in Berkeley over the weekend, I talked to someone who couldn’t understand how Irvine could be a planned community and yet have no downtown. I’ve tried to make use of vignettes to exemplify how barren UCI is aesthetically (judging from photos around campus, it’s the one UC campus that Ansel Adams couldn’t make look good) and socially (the pub is closed on weekends, or it was when it wasn’t closed for renovations). But I’ve never found an example quite as effective as this quote from the UCI library’s temporary exhibit on UCI architecture:

“The Engineering Tower (1970) and the original Computer Science building (1971) are hallmarks of the Brutalist era. As documented in campus photographs, UCI was chosen as a location for the futuristic film The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in 1972 because the architectural style and barren landscape fulfilled the director’s image of a post-nuclear future.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m enrolled in a university that bears a strong resemblance to a ruined world ruled by apes.

August 22, 2005

We live, as we dream, alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 12:46 pm

I got an e-mail from a friend recently, part of which read something like this:

I took advantage of the iPod recycling program and my education discount to get the prettiest iPod I’ve ever seen. It can hold so, so many songs. Yet is it having a negative impact on society’s interactions as a whole?

This last sentence was a parody of the worried dialogue you hear a lot regarding the iPod: is it cutting us off from those around us? Are we so immersed in our portable MP3s that we can’t hear the song of the birds and the kind greetings of our neighbors?

Like my friend, I think this sort of strident complaining is pretty ridiculous. You never hear anyone complaining about people reading on the bus, about what a shame it is that everyone has to bury their nose in the newspaper rather than reaching out and making a connection to their fellow citizens. Is reading the Financial page automatically a higher plane of endeavor than listening to music? And doesn’t it involve the same sort of immersion in media, to the exclusion of personal interaction? The backlash against the iPod is basically identical to the backlash against the Walkman, or the internet. For every neato invention, there’s a paid corps of grumpuses to gripe about how our reliance on technology is leading us away from the good old days when strangers chatted merrily all the way to work. I’m sure some of them believe this. Others, I’m just as sure, know that there’s always good money to be made writing for people who react to innovation with suspicion and anger.

Besides, our portable gadgets are not the prime factor in our isolation, not by a long shot. If you want to pick a single invention that cuts us off from the world, you want to start, not with the cellular phone, but with the car, an enclosed, personal transportation bubble that absorbs one’s whole personality. (As has been noted elsewhere, we say “He hit me!” rather than “His car hit my car!”) If you want a symbol of our isolation, it’s not the millions of pairs of white headphones. It’s the highways of Southern California, where only a tiny fraction of the cars on the road contain the two people necessary to drive in the carpool lane.

However! The other day I had a sobering (and deeply embarrassing–it’s taken me this long to bring myself to write about it) reminder of the iPod’s potential for isolation. I was walking home from downtown Berkeley, with two bags of newly purchased CDs in tow. (Two more contributions to the list of Bands That Sound Like Several People But Are Really Just One: Cat Power [Chan Marshall] and Iron & Wine [Sam Beam].) I was listening to Help! and thinking excitedly about cracking open my new music when I got home. Walking through Ohlone Park, I passed a disheveled woman pushing a shopping cart. As I passed, she smiled a little, held out her hand, and said something. I couldn’t hear her through the music, but I assumed she was asking for money, and I didn’t have any change on me, so I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

As I kept walking, I was dimly aware of the sound of her shouting. Thinking she might be lambasting me, I turned back and took out a headphone to hear what she was saying.

She was yelling, “A GIANTS FAN! I said, ‘You’re a GIANTS FAN!'”

I felt the same helpless nausea that I feel when I realize I’ve overslept for class. She hadn’t been asking for money; she had been commenting on the Giants shirt I was wearing. I had taken a gesture of camaraderie between strangers and assumed it was a plea for a handout. More insulting acts don’t readily come to mind.

With the calmness and clarity of mind that comes from having screwed up royally, I took out the other headphone and walked up to her. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “That was extremely insulting of me. I owe you an apology.”

She was still incredulous and angry. “I said, ‘You’re a Giants fan,’ and you said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you!'” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘what is wrong with this conversation?!’

“I know,” I said. “I’m really sorry, that was inexcusable of me.”

She spat on the ground, then seemed to calm down and collect her thoughts. “I’m a forgiving person,” she said. “And I’ll tell you something else: I didn’t graduate from high school, but: I have been a single mom, I’ve had jobs, I’ve taken care of older people.” She looked at me significantly. “I believe it,” I said lamely.

“It’s the truth,” she said. “But now, I’m getting older. And I’m wondering, who’s going to take care of me?”

“I… I hope… I don’t know,” I finally said.

“I don’t do drugs,” she said after a pause. “I do”–she gestured with her hand–“drink every once in a while. But I don’t do drugs.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Listen,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel bad. You were just going down the street, listening to your music…”

“I am really sorry,” I said again. “That was so selfish of me, I was just absorbed in my own world.”

“I don’t want you to feel bad,” she repeated. “I’ve had guilt trips laid on me, and I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone. I think it was just a misunderstanding.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Lois,” she said. “I’m Tom,” I said, and stuck out my hand. “I’m not really the handshake type,” she said, and showed me her hand. It was weathered, and there was dirt under the fingernails. “My hands get dirty digging in dumpsters.”

“Well, good to meet you, anyway,” I said. We said goodbye, and she said again that she didn’t want me to feel bad. I started walking away. “Peace be with you!” she called after me, making a V.

“Peace be with you,” I replied. I walked home, with the cathartic feeling that comes after the resolution of a stern talking-to.

That meeting reminded me that none of us, no matter how liberal and understanding we feel we are, is immune to cutting oneself off from society, from taking refuge in one’s own reality. My self-absorbtion was a barrier between me and the world, as was, it must be said, having the money to afford a little device that lets me listen to the Beatles while I’m walking around town. Lois was much more gracious than she needed to be, and I got off much easier than I had any right to. But that’s part of the point, too: even after being egregiously insulted by some young punkass, Lois believed my apology and assured me that she didn’t want me to feel bad. Homeless people have every reason to be angry at the world, and I don’t begrudge those that are, but to be so kind and forgiving even after so much provocation, by me and by the world, indicates the sort of understanding and patience that one only meets once in a great while. And if the volume of my music player had been a little higher, I wouldn’t have heard her yelling and wouldn’t have met her at all.

But even then, I don’t think the lesson of this episode is, “Don’t listen to music while you walk around the town.” The lesson (and pardon the obviousness of this) is to resist the easy assumptions, stereotyping, and prejudices that our modern isolation encourages. I’ll continue to listen to my iPod, because I prefer it to the sound of cars going by. But I’ll make sure I can hear what’s going on around me, and if someone speaks to me, I’ll do what I should have done last Friday: stop, take out my headphones, and say, “Sorry?”

May 28, 2005

You can’t see it until it’s finished

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 12:03 pm

My good friend Megan Burns has just graduated from Yale with an MFA in art. Experts estimate that her task of becoming an internationally recognized artist is now 44% complete. As proof, consider the contents of her website: You can see her work and remind yourself why, when you saw her paintings in college, you said “Wow, that’s really good!” and then cursed jealously, under your breath.

May 10, 2005

Did you get me the good ones?

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 11:52 pm

I’m fixing the Coachella entry, and if all goes well, it should be in its completed form below by the time you read this. However, I wanted to take time out from that to say, in my remaining six minutes: It’s my birthday today! I am now 24, firmly within the mid-twenties, where a guy as cool as me belongs. I am one of the senior members of the 18-to-24 demographic.

In five minutes I will be just another 24-year-old shmoe, but right now (four minutes left) I am the king of the day. I hope you enjoyed my time in the sun as much as I did.

March 6, 2005

Nobody seems to think it all might happen again

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:19 am

A high school student in Kentucky was arrested for “making terrorist threats,” or as the headline has it, “terroristic threatening.” (Do we really need that many conjugations for “terrorize”?) His terroristic threatening consisted of writing a short story about zombies overrunning a high school.

I’m so tired of this kind of thing that it’s almost not worth complaining about, but there are two things that caught my eye. The first is that the reason he was arrested is that his grandparents found his story and turned it in to the police. His grandparents. Nice going, gramps and granny. I’m sure the story was very scary. Probably some brains were eaten. But might it have been worth it to talk to him, or even to his parents, before bringing John Law in? Or maybe you should just not read his fershlugginer journal? What eighty-year-old wants to know what a sixteen-year-old is thinking?

The other thing that got me was this fantastic quote from the police detective handling the case. (They have a detective investigating a zombie story. An edgy city, Winchester, KY.) “Anytime [sic] you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it’s a felony in the state of Kentucky,” he said with a straight face. This is an officer of the law. This man has been issued a gun. “Matter involving a school or function”–a yearbook? A wedding invitation? Even when we pass over the easy jokes–let’s say that he meant a sinister matter–this is ridiculous. I agree that threats should be punished, but possession? What is that, “possession with the intent to scare”? Kids say unpleasant things sometimes; hell, sometimes I do too. Last year someone was annoying me so much that I told my friends I wanted to drown her. Getting this off my chest made me a calmer person, just like I’m sure writing the story down helped the kid relax about school. Getting arrested, charged with a felony, and made a notorious media figure probably had the opposite effect. We shouldn’t close off the alternatives to violence, especially when dealing with zombie violence.

People talk a lot of shit about political correctness, and in its extreme form PC is annoying. But this is exactly the same thing: people don’t want to be reminded that other people think unpleasant thoughts. And say what you want about the fascists who don’t want you calling women “girls,” none of them ever arrested you for it.

(Thanks to Ashfae for the link.)

* * *

Am very excited that my girlfriend has been accepted at Iowa. She does the lion’s share of awesome stuff in our relationship, which takes the pressure off me somewhat. Of course, I hold out hope that she’ll get into, and attend, Irvine (her first choice anyway, I’m not being a jerk or nothing), but if that doesn’t work going to the oldest and arguably the most prestigious MFA program in the country is not a bad consolation prize. And from my perspective, a Julie three hours away by air and reachable by phone is a far sight better than one on another continent. (Though they are both very nice.)

* * *

One of my professors hired me to help him move. Let me tell you, when you help a book collector move, you’re earning your money. There were boxes of books for every period of literature, in several languages, and on every topic–art, music, movies, taxidermy. (N/j/k.) And then there was a box labelled “Miscellaneous Books.” What book in the world didn’t fit any of the other categories?

March 5, 2005

Some of our best friends

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 1:38 am

From a pamphlet that came with my electric bill: “Happy Lunar New Year! The Lunar New year was first introduced in the year 2600 B.C., and is celebrated by various Asian American communities in our service territory.”

Tell me that’s not the most sensitive goddamn thing you ever read.

February 28, 2005

A copy of our home game

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 1:07 am

Art imitates life: On page 53 of the February 28 issue of The New Yorker, in an otherwise fairly terrifying article about the avian flu epidemic, we find the following quote from Prasert Thongcharoen, a Thai microbiologist:

“At the very first sign of a problem, the department told the public that the chickens had cholera. But farmers said it wasn’t cholera. If a chicken has cholera, you give it antibiotics and it gets better. These birds got sick one evening and the next day they were dead. That’s not cholera.” (emphasis added)

Those of you who knew me in college will probably remember why this line is interesting to me. If you’re in the dark, there’s a game I’d like to teach you…

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