Friday, December 19, 2014

Computer Love Song

They say that losing a spouse through death or divorce, getting fired, and moving, are the most stressful things we commonly live through. 

Not far down the list, I think, is losing a computer.

It isn't that we loved our computer so much. But so much of our selves is invested in it, sustained and remembered by it, that getting a new one is hardly a satisfactory solution—though it may be the beginning of a solution.

And to make matters worse, we don't really know how the darn things work.

I don't, anyway.

It's like the human body. Muscles, bones, oxygen and blood running around every which way. We rely on it, but who really knows what's going on in there?

I can remember all of my computers, from the IBM-XT that drove my huge daisy wheel printer, back in the 1980s, to the Macintosh Performa that crashed, to the Gateway (Windows Millennium) with 32 gigs of disc that was so easy to buy on-line.

Then there was the Compaq Presario with the boxy screen and 250 gigs of disc that I bought used from my brother-in-law Paul for $300. I was moving up.

That machine was doing fine, though nine tenths of the memory was gone, until just recently, when it got finicky about  turning on. It's disturbing when you push the button ... and nothing happens.

Maybe it's the switch (I thought). Or maybe there's some storage battery inside that's wearing out. The machine was using the XP operating system, which was becoming  a little risky in itself.

Meanwhile, my InDesign program was taking five minutes to appear on the screen. Once it showed up, it was usually fine. But I knew the time had come to move on.

I don't like to buy new things, especially when the thing I have still works. I'm "uncomfortable" with change, to adopt that ever-so-cautious post-modern phraseology. But after some cursory research at Best Buy and MicroCenter and a few emails to my friend Tim (who's a computer expert, among many other things) to get some advice about graphics cards and RAM, I pushed the button indicating the purchase of a Windows 7 machine with a huge screen and a terabyte of disc from CostCo.

So my two machines were sitting side by side, and they both worked. (I didn't turn off the Compaq for weeks.) I moved most of the files from one to the other using a terabyte external drive. But what about the program files?

Now the hard part begins. First of all, I've got the get some virus security on my new machine but don't want to drop it on the old machine. I finally arrange a "network" deal at no additional cost to me, thanks to some customer service rep who genuinely sees the situation.

I reload the Adobe Creative Suite using the discs I've saved in the basement. Then learn from Rashmi (my on-line chat interlocutor in India) that the discs won't work. I must download from the website. But he fails to mention that the serial number I bought and paid for and preserved so carefully no longer works either.

Further "chat" a few hours later  reveals that there's a generic number no one told me about.

All of this is complicated by the fact that a while back I upgraded the InDesign program (part of the suite) to 5.5 without upgrading the rest of the suite—which you're not really supposed to do. But we won't get into messy details. My Creative Suite is finally in place. (Though I downloaded some parts of it to the wrong folder. Oops!)

But not so fast. The InDesign program seems to be missing a lot of the fonts it used to have! I should have known that I'd have to reinstall the ones I bought—including my trusty Sabon, Bembo, and Trend—and the free novelty fonts I've downloaded over the years for a specific purpose, including Babelfish, Croomby, Woodplank, Alien Ornaments, Litterbox, Fabulous Fifties, and Jokerman. But what happened to Giovanni Book and Jenson Pro?

So I went back into the old machine and somehow downloaded most of the fonts I was missing onto a flash drive. Two hundred in all. Then installed them en masse on the new machine.

By this time days had past, and I was getting frazzled. I could hardly bear to think what I'd forgotten about or what might happen next, and was incapable of doing any real work. Then I got to thinking about my WinZip software? And my barcode creator from SNX? (Out of business, I'm afraid.) And my FTP Commander, which I need  to access and modify the websites I maintain? (I always loved that name. Every time I logged into it some sort of tune would surface on the order of "Up in the air, Junior Birdman," which is from an old radio program my dad used to listen to.) 

And what about my Abby Finereader OCR software? Fortunately I'd purchased it recently enough that there were no problems re-downloading.

Then there was the driver for my Scanjet 5300c flatbed scanner. I don't even know what a driver is! After a good deal of on-line research, I spotted that device on a list of items that HP no longer supports. Oh, great!  So I needed to download a driver from a third-party with the hokey name of VueScan ($40) or buy a new scanner ($200) The second option would allow me to scan some old slides from Europe. How much is that worth?

And what about the addresses in my Outlook Express 6.0? (Export as a CVS file—or whatever—transfer to a flash drive, and then upload into the new system, dummy!) And what about my cherished game programs? Bridge? Backgammon? Impulse purchases from the check-out line at Office Max long ago. Those CDs must be lying around somewhere.

The new computer doesn't even come with a free cell program.

Perhaps the Dreamweaver XS 2004 saga is the worst. I paid real money for this program, which I use to make web pages. It works. But when I re-installed using the CD it wouldn't accept the legitimate registration number that I miraculously saved for all these years! It recognizes it as valid (green check mark) ...but claims I'm not connected to the internet!

Yes, I know. Adobe bought Dreamweaver a long time ago. And my version is too old. Adobe reps have no advice to give me except to consult the chat forums. If worse comes to worst, I guess I could download a copy of GoLive using the generic serial number they gave me?

For now, I'm watching the trial use date on Dreamweaver drop, day by day. I've got 14 days left. The question is this: If it's too dumb to accept my registration number, after all these years,  is it also too dumb to cut me off when my time is up?

We'll see. If it does, I suppose I could just re-install it using the disc. But once every thirty days? That would get old.

I know what you're going to say. "Your programs are old, you cheapskate. By some new ones."

Trouble is, the old programs work fine, and the new ones have all sorts of unnecessary "enhancements." Besides, the programs I've mentioned here would triple the cost of the new system. 

Then there are those who would say, "Hire a professional to do all that." But it should be obvious that I'd have to tell him my life story before he got everything right.  

About a week ago, I plugged an external hard drive into the old machine to extract a few folders I'd missed the first time and it bombed off again—with a little pop. It's never come on since.

I still push the on-off button every morning, but nothing happens.

Since then I've removed the keyboard from the desk, and I hauled the screen to the basement a few days later. The tower is still there at my feet; there's a pale green light blinking in the back, as if it's in a coma. And the memory lingers on...

Someone at Micro-center told me yesterday that I could remove the hard drive from the tower  physically and attach it via a special cable to the new machine to use  as a separate drive. "It's not a big deal," he said. "It's on the left, just remove a few screws."

I have my doubts. The cable was $15, but I didn't buy it. Maybe I'll try that some day.

Here are the silver linings. The new computer is darned fast! Microsoft supports it (for now). And the screen, as I mentioned, is huge—I'm getting a sore neck just looking at it. (The last screen looked huge, too, when I got it.)

The screen-saver allows me to set up a succession of rotating images, which I could never do on the Windows XP—or didn't know how to.

Right now I'm looking at a close-up of a white cleome from the summer garden.

I like it. I'm seeing things I never saw before. It's quite remarkable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

John Berryman at 100

The University of Minnesota hosted a three-day event celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the poet John Berryman’s birth. Hurray!

I signed up for the first afternoon’s talks, but when I actually saw the schedule, my enthusiasm withered. Rather than asking themselves how Berryman’s work relates to life, the presenters were asking themselves how it relates to T. S. Eliot’s work and the plays of Shakespeare. Those who attended on the weekend were blessed with analyses of how Berryman’s poetry related to the poetry of Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. The lecture on Berryman’s unorthodox use of pronouns might have been the best of the lot. (I was out of town, alas!)

It's too bad, I think, that no one considered delivering a paper on the subject of Berryman’s connections to the evangelist St. Paul. Berryman taught at the U of M for many years, but as I recall (I should look it up) he was in the Humanities Department, not the English Department, and the course he taught was on the letters of Paul.

I didn’t take that class, but I heard Berryman speak in the men’s lounge on the second floor of Coffman Union a few times. By that time he’d won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and I was surprised that only eight or ten people showed up for these free afternoon lectures.

Berryman slurred his words quite a bit at those events. I was naïve; I thought he had a speech impediment.

Two of the things he said in the course of those talks have stayed with me. 1) You should never ask a rhetorical question in a poem; 2) Wallace Stevens liked the color blue.

I also remember two remarks Berryman made during a drunken interview in Ireland with the BBC. At one point he confessed: “I didn’t want to be like Yeats. I wanted to be Yeats.”  And when questioned by the interviewer about his recent awards and celebrity, he responded: “I have twelve readers.” And he began to name them.

My favorite Dream Song in those days—perhaps every adolescent’s favorite—begins

Life is boring. We must not say so…

 My life wasn’t boring, but it was amusing to hear an adult admit as much. Another of my favorites began

Horrible Henry Huffed      the day
Unappeasable Henry sulked.

I wasn’t aware, or more likely had forgotten until I picked up the book again this morning, that these are the lines with which The Dream Songs open.

Much of the pleasure in reading Berryman’s poems comes from the effort required to make the rhythms fit the lines. More than most other poets, he sounds like someone declaiming to an audience, or at the very least, trying to work up muttered interior monologues into something orderly and substantial. There’s something almost Byronic about it all. Word inversions and the substitution of non-words for common ones help mask the banality of much of the subject matter. There are half-rhymes and fractured syntax, missing words and dropped word endings, but such effects and affectations soon grow tiresome, at least to me.

It may be that if you immersed yourself in The Dream Songs, reading them all at one sitting, out loud—you could do it in a few hours, I’ll bet—you’d burst through their melodramatic theatricality and self-loathing to latch more firmly onto Berryman’s unceasing interior struggle to make the music (and the humor) in the words somehow ennoble a life that’s out of control.

But right now, I can think of better ways to spend my time. For example, I’d prefer to reread Berryman’s subsequent book, Love & Fame. It’s true that many of these poems might just as well have been strung out into paragraphs. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little prose now and then. Is there?

Back in college, what stuck with me especially was the section titled “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” Something about a blue chair stuck in my mind.

So I went down to the basement and located the Berryman books. A slight scent of mold arose when I opened Love & Fame and began to read. The first address is so good I’m tempted to repeat it in full. It goes like this:

Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake, 
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon, 
thank  you for such as it is my gift.

I have made up a morning prayer to you 
containing with precision everything that most matters. 
“According to Thy will” the thing begins.
It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.

You have come to my rescue again & again 
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy 
and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.

Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs: 
how can I ‘love’ you?
I only as far as gratitude & awe 
confidently & absolutely go.

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view 
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case 
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention 
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

In these lines we hear vestiges of Berryman’s characteristic attempts to be honest (who else would refer to God as an “inimitable contriver” or to “the boring Moon”), and to be humorous (“as unknowable as I am to my guinea pigs”).

We also hear his penchant for archaic word order (“I only as far as gratitude & awe confidently & absolutely go”). Yet the sentiments seem less desparate and distracted, more humble and sincere, than the ones we too often find in The Dream Songs; as if an exhausted spirit, once hungry for love and fame, had finally said to itself, “What’s really going on here, beyond the confinements of my literary antecedents and ambitions?”

Am I suggesting that the only good poet is a Christian poet? Of course not. What I am trying to suggest is that poetry is a defense and a celebration of experience. Once you’ve analyzed the literary origins and influences, the psychological causes and the linguistic techniques, you’ve still got to establish whether the writer in question has anything of enduring importance to say to us.    

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Birdman - the Movie

An edgy film about the theater. An arty film about art. Imaginative. Almost Godardesque.  The opening credits could have been copied from Pierrot le Fou. Maybe they were?

A soundtrack that's mostly played on a trap set? The Sound of Music this ain't.  Long takes with handheld cameras in confined spaces, difficult to get your bearings. Who are we rooting for, here?

Doesn't it remind you a little bit of Arthur Penn's Mickey One

Michael Keaton, serious actor turned Hollywood superhero, now finds himself on the tail-end of celebrity and wants to reestablish his artistic integrity on the Broadway stage. The fact that he not only wrote and stars in the play, but is also producing and directing it, lends an aura of willed self-importance to the enterprise that could easily be taken for delusions of grandeur. (Think—Steve McQueen doing Enemy of the People.)  

Keaton is naturally fraught with anxiety and anger as opening night approaches, and the fact that he can levitate himself four feet off the ground while he meditates doesn't help him much. Yes, suspension of disbelief starts with the opening scene. Which is good.

But the meat of the film, which might almost have been a play, consists of a small group of talented performers interacting in a heated environment of ego and insecurity, artistry and desperation, as opening night approaches.

Zack Galifianakis, who plays Keaton's lawyer, manager, and best friend, ballasts the film with his common sense enthusiasm and trust. Emma Stone plays Keaton's mixed-up daughter, who recently got out of treatment and hangs around the dressing rooms, running errands and smoking cigarettes. 

Naomi Watts, one of two lead actresses in the play, suggests that Keaton hire her erstwhile boyfriend (Edward Norton), after Keaton fires one of the principal actors just a few days before the opening. Norton is well-known on Broadway, both for his dramatic intensity and his cocky unpredictability.

Throw in Keaton's ex-wife and the second lead actress (who announces early on in the film that she's pregnant with Keaton's child) and you have an enormous potential for tense, two- and three-way conversations and confrontations in the halls and dressing rooms backstage.

Theater-dramas tend to be amusing. They have a can't-lose narrative arc leading up to irrevocable triumph or disaster of opening night. Such works as A Chorus of Disapproval, Orson and Me, and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows come immediately to mind. (So does Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, though I can hardly remember it.)
One problem with Birdman is that Keaton isn't terribly likable, and it's hard to tell if he's even a very good actor. He's tormented by the voice of Birdman, the superhero he once played, who tries to convince him that no one cares about traditional theater; it's an utter waste of time. Thus the entire film simmers not only with latent violence and but also with incipient insanity—qualities that the jumpy camerawork tends to reinforce.

As the film progresses tender moments crop up more frequently, but we never really get the feeling that thing are going to be "all right." It's hard to imagine that even a resounding Broadway triumph will be enough to assuage Keaton's demons for long. 

Yet I walked out of the theater saying to myself: "Wow, that was something!" I'd been wrung through the wringer and then hung out to dry.

The film doesn't say anything new about art or life, but there's a lot of art and life in it.