Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiction - Runner-Up: A Divorce Tale


There ought to be a new literary genre (actually, it should be a classic, ages-old genre) called “divorce fiction.” After all, Barnes & Noble has an entire section called “Teen Paranormal Romance,” even though teen paranormal romance doesn’t often happen in real life (unless you agree with the guy who quipped, “I thought all teen romance was paranormal”). The divorce rate being what it is, we could use more tragicomic fiction in our lives, to help the many divorce victims cope.

And so, for that reason alone, here is a 100% fictional story I generated entirely out of my own imagination, with any resemblance of any character to any actual person—living, dead, or undead—being entirely coincidental. (“What? There might be zombies?” You’ll just have to see for yourself.)

Runner-Up – A Divorce Tale

See the poor kid painting. He is entirely focused. His home life is hard; his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Is painting a refuge? Is art the only way he can assert a satisfying level of control? Does he long to disappear into the strange undersea world he creates on the canvas?

No, not really. First off, it’s not canvas. It’s cheap construction paper. This is junior high art class. And he doesn’t fancy himself an artist; this work satisfies simply because no matter how bad he screws up, it’s still art. Who is to say he made a mistake? He could literally puke on the “canvas,” and it would still be art. In fact, puking on the painting would probably improve it. Or so he thinks ... his attitude isn’t very good.

And now he’s putting on the finishing touches. Not because the painting seems done, exactly, but because he doesn’t know what else to do, and hopes he’s done enough. But now Ms. Tincture approaches, and gasps. “Oh, Greg, I know just what you need to do to that painting—but I just can’t tell you what it is, that would be cheating! Oh, gosh, I hope you do the right thing!” He freezes, of course, and cannot add a single paint stroke from that moment on, terrified at forever ruining the first artwork he’s ever done that seemed to have any potential. So he screws around with Frank Frymouth for the rest of the hour, the two lads flirting awkwardly with Lisa Westgoober and her friend Wendy Wollrat, a girl who, by virtue of her massive chest, has earned Frank’s devout lust and admiration.

The next day, Greg strolls into the classroom quite casually. He has forgotten all about the state of his painting and its sudden, unexpected artistic potential. Ms. Tincture rushes out to greet him. “Oh, Greg, I’m so sorry, I tried to stop myself but I just couldn’t! I knew exactly what your painting needed and just couldn’t keep from adding the finishing touches! I’m so sorry!” He looks up towards the front of the classroom to see his painting on proud display, with a few subtle charcoal bands added which, frankly, improve the painting dramatically. Greg now knows he can’t get a bad grade on this painting, since the teacher is complicit in it.

The kid, you see, lacks the self esteem to be offended by anything. He lacks the idealism and artistic vision that might have made him take offense to Ms. Tincture’s intervention in his private work. He doesn’t ultimately feel the painting was ever his to begin with. And now, he is probably just glad to be rid of the awful responsibility of figuring out the final touches necessary to turn a class assignment into Art.

And so it feels slightly unreal to Greg when his painting wins a few awards, including a Hallmark nomination. His painting becomes a top-five finalist, and if he wins, he will receive a cash award of $100, which would mean a lot to him—it would enable him to be a big shot among his friends by taking them the U2 concert at Red Rocks in June. And, more importantly, the painting would be reproduced on Hallmark cards, albeit the small ones you buy in packages of fifty to send as holiday greetings.

There is a big awards ceremony in Denver. His mom drives him, and his dad meets them there. His parents seem just as proud as can be. But then, their divorce is on the horizon and they’re already preparing for the upcoming custody battle, so Greg has this unsettling feeling that the real competition isn’t among five paintings, but between Mom and Dad as they attempt to show him (almost for the first time) their loyalty and devotion.

Greg and his parents discover, as soon as they enter the hall, that he has lost the competition. The placement of the blue ribbon announces this ... nobody bothers to break the bad news gently. Greg is just another runner‑up. Of course he is. And of course this means no $100, no U2 concert, no cards to send to relatives for the next twenty years to show that that yes, a Halbrecht had actually made good, that you can brag all you want in your holiday newsletter that little Nathan is only six years old but is learning differential equations from his father, you can write all you want about your National Merit Scholar, you can send photos of your vacation in Greece, but it won’t change the fact that the Halbrecht newsletters this year are enclosed in Hallmark cards that bear a glorious illustration from their very own son. All this vanishes, just like any other mirage. He has lost. How typical.

Still, he was a finalist, and his painting is on display, behind a protective glass, with the other four finalists’. The judges comments are listed below, and the one that really stands out, in regard to Gregs’s painting, is this: “Poor quality paper.” Greg laughs. Not a loud, boisterous laugh, but a little pained chuckle reflecting the disappointment but also the real humor behind it: of course he used cheap paper—this was a school assignment, begun with the intent of satisfying the requirements of the course and getting a halfway decent grade. If he’d had the slightest idea it would be declared “Art” and entered in a contest, maybe he would have used something nicer. On second thought, he wouldn’t have, because he wouldn’t have believed it.

His painting begins to take on a new life as a doomed airliner, its pilot and copilot somehow incapacitated. Greg is cast in the role of the hapless passenger who is forced to try to land the plane (talked down by his teacher, the oddly calm air traffic controller). Of course the plane crashes and burns! Greg looks at the other entries with a strange kind of awe: these were done by actual artists somewhere ... student artists, yes, but good ones, who are confident enough to use high-quality materials.

Greg doesn’t kid himself: these other paintings really do outclass his; he wonders if the judges have given him the nomination as some sort of consolation prize. Still, he gleans a flicker of satisfaction from wondering if the judges felt his ocean-floor corn-on-the-cob had lent a certain reckless integrity to his painting.

See the poor kid leaving the hall and entering the auditorium, where his disappointment balloons dramatically: here he sees hundreds of thousands of other contest winners sitting there. Of course it’s not actually hundreds of thousands, or even thousands, but that’s the phrase that pops lugubriously into his head. “Among these hundreds of thousands of people I feel completely faceless,” declares the narrator silently. He sits right between his parents, of course, to serve as a necessary buffer zone ... a human DMZ.

He cannot look over at either parent without fear of alienating the other, so he can only imagine how they are experiencing this moment. Surely they are either bored, or distracted by their simmering rage at each other. Greg stares straight ahead, watching all the other winners, feeling less and less the nearly-triumphant artist, and more like a chance member of some vast horde. There are so many awards issued—“Man, they’re just giving them away!” he thinks. There are these certificates of some kind, Certificates of Excellence perhaps, and everybody gets one of those. Others, Greg included, get a Gold Key as well, but again, the numbers are huge. He is called up with the others to stand in a long line, to walk across the stage and collect the certificate and the little key. Seeing the table covered with the tall stacks of keys, each in a little plastic box, Greg feels something approaching actual shame. The ceremony ends without any special mention of the Hallmark nominees.

Now, of course, we come to the awful climax of the whole affair: who gets to take the kid home? Well, his mother drove him down, so it makes sense for his dad to drive him home. That’s Greg’s dad’s assertion, and it seems logical to the boy. But his mother isn’t buying it. He almost intervenes, but the spectacle of his parents fighting over him is just so novel. He doesn’t kid himself that he’s the point of the argument; power is the point, and he is merely the trophy. He finds himself paralyzed with morbid curiosity: how far will they go?

Just look at this poor guy. His stomach is starting to hurt. He finds himself buckling in the parking lot under this huge burden, wishing he’d screwed up the painting and could have avoided this whole ordeal. Finally, Mom says, “Well, Greg, if you come with me we have your Pink Floyd in the car.” He is unable to respond, afraid of insinuating that a rock album, of all things, could swing the balance in his mother’s favor. Finally his dad asks, “What is Pink Floyd?” Greg says nothing. He can barely stand up. His mother finally says—with a lightly superior air of teen-culture fluency—“It’s his favorite rock band.” To which his dad replies, “Humph. It sounds like the name of a pig.”

Greg drives back with his mom, brooding the whole way about how seemingly petty decisions like these, once compiled, can form the foundation of a profound estrangement. Will his father ever feel the same way about him again? And what was that way, to begin with?

* * *

William Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” And so, eight years later, with another ceremony looming, Greg’s memory of the Hallmark Affair begins in his gut—at first, as simple feeling, a pain that he gradually perceives as born of unspecific emotion, which then leads into a series of images, and eventually words. This all happens because Greg is trying to decide whether or not to attend his college graduation.

The vague process of knowing remembering believing is responsible for how much strain graduation puts on him. He considers some minor obstacles, like the thesis he still needs to finish, and the two final exams still to go. (If he crashes and burns bad enough on them, they just might make him a fraud, retroactively.) But that’s just an excuse and he knows it. The real problem is that—amazingly enough—his parents are still no better at being civil in each other’s presence than they were on that cold, grey day in Denver, fighting over (him) in the parking lot. He doesn’t want them at his graduation together, but if neither of them watches, why even wear the stupid hat and walk across the stage?

He could tell himself his father wouldn’t come anyway. After all, when Greg graduated from high school, his dad couldn’t be bothered to drive two miles across town to honor him. But this is different—this is college, after all. So Greg decides to take a gamble: he’ll invite his old man, but with very short notice. Exorbitant airfare just might carry the day.

See the young man sweat. He’s no good on the phone to begin with, and since his mom had gotten custody, relations with his dad have been chillier than ever. Stumbling over his greeting, his voice reedy, almost shaky, his barebones reserves of composure hemorrhaging alarmingly, he cuts right to the chase and gives his father the news, and the date. Less than two weeks away.

There is a long silence. What will his father say? He wasn’t even aware that Greg would be graduating. Greg pretends for a moment that his father is overcome with pride, but then has to stifle a bitter laugh. Finally his father says—and this is the first thing out of his mouth— “Are your mother and her husband coming?”

Greg, who is no fool, has seen this coming. “She’s coming, but only because Bruce has a running race in the area anyway.” Another long silence, and then his father, in the same grim tone, asks, “Is she taking you out for dinner afterwards?”

Greg doesn’t answer. He just stands there, staring into space. So it all hinges on dinner? Eventually he becomes aware that his father is talking again, something about a $3 million proposal, something about a deadline, something about plane tickets, and it sounds like his dad is declining. Which is a relief, but also a disappointment.

Look at poor Greg. He’s all bent over, his stomach roiling. Technically, he’s standing there in his little apartment, but he’s not there, not really. In his head he’s back in that parking lot in Denver, still clutching his stomach, still getting punished by a cold wind while his seething parents bicker senselessly over who’s driving him home.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down With Convenience!


“I appreciate the seamless ease….”

That statement is the inspiration for this post.  It’s from a letter a friend wrote me recently.  The point isn’t that he sounds like a TV ad (from the days when ad spokesmen were earnest instead of arch). The point, rather, is that I found this simple statement oddly inflammatory.  I asked myself why.  And the answer is, I should find it inflammatory, and so should you.  Ideally, all my friends would join me in mounting a War on Convenience.  If I can’t have that, well, maybe I can influence a few readers.

A paradox

Of course I was being bombastic and hyperbolic a second ago.  Who doesn’t want convenience in his life?  But I think convenience is like alcohol:  it should be enjoyed responsibly.

Paradoxically, my worldview straddles two seemingly conflicting ideals:  I’m a great lover of efficiency, but I bristle at society’s infatuation with ease and expedience.  “Wait,” you may ask, “aren’t efficiency and convenience pretty much the same thing?”

Nope.  When I say “efficient” I mean that I can get something done exactly how I want it done in as little time as possible.  (Often this involves doing a lot of work up front, like creating macros for a software application.)  When people talk about seamless ease, they’re often referring to systems that are merely intuitive, such as a user interface that can be grasped quickly, without any need for help menus or a manual.  Some products are convenient because they remove tedious steps; other products are convenient because they rescue you from having to learn something.

I think it’s widely assumed that where user interfaces go, intuitive is best.  But this isn’t always true.  Consider the computer keyboard:  to be maximally intuitive, its keys ought to be placed in alphabetical order.  That would make it easier for the first-time user, wouldn’t it?  But of course this idea seems silly, since typing efficiency is more important than making the keyboard layout straightforward for the newcomer.

What’s even sillier is that the QWERTY layout was actually designed to be maximally inefficient, to keep early typewriters from jamming.  The Dvorak layout I use was difficult to learn, but my long-term gains in efficiency were well worth the trouble.

Low-lying fruit

The simplest argument against the embrace of convenience is that it often requires us to forsake quality.  I give you microwave popcorn:  it’s certainly easy to make, but a) it literally stinks, b) it’s more expensive than traditional popcorn, c) it tastes pretty bad, d) it’s full of salt and fat, e) it’s full of chemicals, and f) the excessive packaging is bad for the environment.  The popularity of microwave popcorn makes me embarrassed to be a member of the human race, considering that an air popper is also extremely easy to use, and cheaper, and lets you control how much salt and butter you add.

Whipped cream in an aerosol can is also really convenient, but it’s more expensive and less tasty than what you whip at home, and has the added problem of unpredictability:  it’s hard to tell when the can is low on cream (or non-dairy “kreme” as it often is), so you never know when you’ll foul up your sundae with the liquid dribble that comes at the end.  By whipping my own cream, I can choose an organic product; whip only as much as I need; control the amount of sugar; and save money.

But enough of these convenient examples.  I want to get into the more subtle ways that, through our love of convenience, we sell ourselves short without even realizing it.

The problem of control

Often, complicated systems are made more intuitive, and sometimes more efficient, through a simplification of the user interface and/or automation of repetitive operations.  A little Cessna surely has a simpler interface than a commercial airliner, though it often lacks that handy autopilot feature.

Automation is a fine idea in theory, but in practice, it’s only as good as its execution.  How accurate are product developers’ guesses about what should be automated and how?

Well, here’s a horror story.  My family was visiting some friends in their lovely, sunny home in London.  One afternoon, when our friends were out, I thought, hey, my mother-in-law is always asking for a nice photo of my wife and me.  And here we had this great lighting, so I suggested to my wife that we finally take the time to shoot a nice photo together.  My wife has a tendency to close her eyes in photos, so it took us at least a dozen tries.  Well, on the last day of our visit, our host said, “Hey, why not give us some photos of your visit from your SD card?”  Great idea!  So I took the card up to their Mac and stuck it in the card reader, expecting that I could cherry-pick the best photos of both families.  But to my surprise the operating system seized control, copied every photo off the card, and launched a little slide show, set to music.  This might have seemed really helpful to a novice computer user who hadn’t mastered file management software, but I was appalled.  The software must have chosen to show the pictures in reverse chronological order, because the first two dozen shots were of my wife and me.  We came off looking like the biggest narcissists you’ve ever seen.

Probably there’s a way to tell the Mac not to automatically grab all the photos from an SD card.  But some systems don’t give us a choice.  We consumers often put up with this lack of control because we enjoy the convenience of the overall product.  I see this problem most frequently in Internet-based systems, particularly when the revenue model is more complicated than “you pay me directly for goods or services.”  Things are automated with more than just the user’s experience in mind.

Here’s an example:  the Gmail Adsense engine, which automatically produces custom ads based on my e-mail text, doesn’t exist to serve me.  Were I given the choice to opt out of Adsense, I certainly would.  I don’t even use Gmail, and yet (as detailed here) my e-mails to Gmail users nevertheless produce these tailored ads I like it or not.

But you know what’s even worse than that?  It’s when we’re unaware of how convenience is costing us.  Consider LinkedIn:  it’s very convenient, and a great idea, and I’m glad that it’s free.  But as I’ve only recently discovered, LinkedIn does what it pleases with the information I give it.  Awhile back, because my profile photo was like five years old, I put up a new one.  (The idea was anti-vanity:  I didn’t want people to think I was using an old photo just to look younger to the world.)  To my embarrassment, LinkedIn contacted my 400 contacts on my behalf:  “Dana Albert has a new profile picture!”  As in, “Dana Albert, devoted curator of his own image and his self-important notion of an Albert ‘brand,’ wants you to see his latest self-portrait!”  A few people responded, perhaps snidely, “Nice picture!”  How embarrassing.  (Yes, I am easily embarrassed.  What can I say … I’m an introvert.)

But that’s not all.  I’ve come to find out that LinkedIn evidently does something special for their newer users:  they send an update anytime one of the user’s contacts has made new connections.  Since I don’t get such updates, I’d never have known about this behavior, except a couple of friends commented.  (“Wow, I’ve see a lot of LinkedIn updates on you lately … did you lose your job or something?”)  Once I looked into it, I figured out how to change these settings, but it wasn’t easy—which means that those who thrive on convenience will probably just accept the default behavior.  (Surely I don’t need to go into the various ways Facebook has surreptitiously exploited their users’ tastes, preferences, and purchasing data.)

Are your choices my business?

“Fine,” you might say, “Go whip your own cream, and type on your weird keyboard, and shun Facebook, if that’s what floats your boat—but let me do as I please.”  In other words, you might wonder why your behavior is any business of mine.  Here’s why:  other people’s behavior often affects what choices are available to me.

Here’s how that happens.  Because I worship efficiency, I enjoy figuring out how to make a complicated process go quickly—but not everybody enjoys this process, and manufacturers know it.  New products are often targeted at teens and young adults (to build brand loyalty early), so new consumers’ habits can have an immediate influence on industry.  Streamlining a process, modern consumers believe, should be figured out by the manufacturer and baked into the product.  Thus, the focus is outward on the product, rather than inward on the user.  It’s not “How can I get better at this” but “How can this be better for me?”  The “smarter” our products get, the lazier we’re permitted to be.

(Fortunately, schools are still essentially old-school.  If it weren’t for teachers making kids learn math, do you think these kids would bother, given the ease-of-use of smartphone calculator apps?  And yet, once you’ve learned arithmetic, it’s faster to do it in your head.)

The result of this consumer/producer dynamic is that perfectly valid products are often kicked to the curb.  Consider the manual car transmission, aka stick shift:  is it straightforward?  Not very.  Is there a benefit to learning how to work a clutch?  I think so.  After all, a manual transmission offers better gas mileage, and enables me to roll-start the car if my battery is dead.  My mastery of manual shifting impresses the ladies, and enables me to rent a car in Europe.  The popularity, in this country, of automatic transmissions didn’t used to affect me, until that choice became so ubiquitous that some foreign car companies stopped exporting their stick-shift models here.  When I bought my last Volvo, I couldn’t get one with the transmission I wanted.  I had to settle for an automatic. 

(By the way, that bit about impressing the ladies?  Yeah, that was a joke.  Just seeing if you’re awake.)

Another example:  digital cameras.  What a great invention, and yet the camera industry is really suffering.  You know what the number one camera is today?  The iPhone.  It’s easy to see why:  you’re carrying your phone anyway, so why carry another device?  The problem is, phone cameras are not nearly as good as regular digital cameras—even the more humble point-and-shoot ones.  A phone camera takes inferior pictures because the lens is too small and doesn’t let in enough light for non-flash photography in low-light conditions.  Phone cameras also lack a zoom (their so-called “digital zoom” is pure malarkey—cropping masquerading as telephoto).

Look at these two photos.  The first was taken with a $200 Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera.  The second was with a Motorola Droid phone of the same vintage. 

The point-and-shoot photo is much better, and not because I got out a light meter, set the F-stop, adjusted the shutter speed, etc.  It was as easy to snap as with the phone (easier, actually, because there’s way less delay at the controls).  The only convenience I gave up was having everything in one device.

If the camera industry were healthier, I’d have even better products available to me, and at lower prices (due to economies of scale).  Alas, the market for standalone cameras has been strangled by the ubiquity of camera phones—the more convenient choice.

Whom does convenience benefit the most?

Sometimes the person who seems like the most direct beneficiary of convenience-oriented technologies actually isn’t.  Consider the grocery store UPC reader:  it’s very intuitive, and thus perfect for bringing new cashiers up to speed quickly.  It’s also more efficient, but this benefit does not accrue to the cashier, who is paid by the hour.  The system’s efficiency doesn’t mean the cashier gets a raise; it means he or she is easier to replace, and the store can get by with fewer checkout stations.

Now let’s move beyond human consumers and consider other consumers, like cattle.  Being kept in a small stall in a feedlot is certainly convenient for the cow, in terms of her basic need for sustenance.  Of course this diet causes all kinds of trouble for the poor animal, but her well-being was never the point.  The convenience of the feedlot mainly benefits the meat packer.  Since this arrangement translates into lowered operating costs, which can be passed along to the human consumer, it looks like a win-win.  So it is with cheap, high-margin products like soft drinks and sugary cereal.  Needless to say, in the long term this convenience isn’t benefiting the human consumers, either.  The countless Americans who buy junk food and frequent fast food chains are basically backing in to their own feedlot stalls.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies grasp that there’s big money to be made in drugs that treat lifestyle ailments, and doctors prescribe these drugs because doing so is so much easier than trying to get people to exercise and eat well.  Consumers participate in this lowest-price, lowest-effort economic model without an appreciation for its real costs.  The companies at the top in this economy are the direct beneficiaries of our rampant convenience addiction; by indulging it, they introduce a variety of societal ills.  In this regard, convenience is like secondhand smoke.

Convenience and parenting

If you’re a parent who has made it this far into my essay, I doubt you’re the kind who feeds his kid soft drinks, sugary cereal, and fast food.  But addiction to convenience is also present in the most upscale of products.  I’m talking about PCs, smartphones, tablet computers, and Netflix.

It’s more convenient to park kids in front of the TV or PC than to try to get them to help with dinner or with setting the table.  It’s easier to let a kid use his iPad in a restaurant, while his food gets cold, than to teach him how to behave like a grown-up.  So kids and their parents become co-dependents in a family dynamic that ultimately favors no one.

I won’t lie and say I never give in to such temptations.  But when I do, I don’t pretend I’m being a good dad.  “Shall we sit our kids down in front of a video and let them rot their brains out, just to get them out of our hair?” I’ll ask my wife.  And I’ll say to my kids, “Would you like to put in a video and let your brain be automatically extracted?”  This raises awareness and may help us fend off bad habits.

Do modern kids have the mental space required to daydream?  I’d guess a lot of them don’t.  So when my kids complain that they’re bored, I say, “Good.  It’s good to be bored.”  Necessity being the mother of invention, boredom is a good problem for the mind to solve.  Solving this problem with a library book, a blank piece of paper, or some random household detritus doesn’t do much for the economy, but the economy is not my problem.

“But wait,” you may protest, “Computers can be very educational!”  Yes, they can, but that doesn’t mean just any computer-based activity is intrinsically useful.  Too many parents pretend their Internet-addicted kid might become the next Mark Zuckerberg—because this fiction is more convenient than fighting with the kid about limits on his or her screen time.

My wife and I are all about limits.  This is why we don’t have cable, our kids don’t have phones or tablets, and their PC time is closely monitored and rationed.

“Okay, fine,” you might say, “You’ve identified some troublesome trends, but how are the habits of other families any of your business?”  Well, where the hell are my daughters going to find husbands?  My kids won’t settle for a passive, inert, pasty, video-addled mouth-breather who doesn’t read.  Meanwhile, the boys out there won’t settle for out-of-touch, pop-culturally illiterate nerds who don’t even text.  Sure, there are some boys out there whose parents are just as socially unconventional as my wife and me, but it’s a small pool.

Call to action

If you disagree with all of this, that’s fine—and I thank you for at least reading it.

On the other hand, if you agree with me, you may wonder what I propose to do about this rampant convenience addiction.  The answer is simple (though not easy).  Next time you appreciate the convenience of something, ask yourself if that convenience came at any great cost to you:  to your privacy, to your health, to your family, or to the environment.  Then ask yourself if it’s worth it.  I’ll keep on doing the same.

And at a minimum, if you find yourself using the phrase “seamless ease,” please don’t say it like it’s a good thing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chasing “Andrei Rublev”

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.


This post has given me a bad case of writer’s block.  The topic, the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублев), is just too huge.  I can’t review this just as a movie—it’s much more complicated than that.  It has been called “the greatest movie ever made” and “a very long film about bearded men.”  As The New Yorker observed, the film—about a 15th-century icon painter—was blocked from being shown in the Soviet Union because the government considered it “ideologically ambiguous in places—an error regarded in Russia as more dangerous than mayhem.”  Andrei Rublev is like this giant heavy weight that can bear down on you even when you’re not watching.  What I’m going to try to do here is capture the experience of my monumental struggle of going toe-to-toe with this movie.  Twice.

By the way, before you decide this topic is too nerdy, and/or that this movie is just a snooze-fest for intellectuals—kind of a My Dinner With Андрей—think again.  This movie softens the viewer up with long, dull stretches, only to suddenly shock him with a brutal Tartar raid, a nude bacchanal, or a scene of brazen ideological ambiguity.  It is as harrowing as it is dull.

Why should you read this?

Read this post if you’ve never heard of Andrei Rublev before and/or you’re considering watching it for the first time.  Are there spoilers here?  Yeah, there are, but believe me, with this film it’s better to err on the side of knowing too much than being mystified throughout.  According to one critic, “[Director Andrei] Tarkovsky himself said:  ‘We worked at drowning our idea in the atmosphere, in the characters.’”

If you know you’ll never watch the movie, read this to improve your cultural literacy, and to know what you missed.  Plus, maybe after this post you’ll change your mind and give the film a try.  (Which you should, if for no other reason than its name-brand director.  Another notable film by Tarkovsky is The Steamroller and the Violin, about a boy who is endlessly teased for playing the violin until he befriends a road worker, who teaches him how to drive his steamroller.  Apparently it ends there, before becoming the most badass revenge flick ever.)

If you’ve already seen Andrei Rublev and just love all the endless commentary about it on the Internet, you might be hoping I can offer a fresh perspective.  Could I be better than the 100 IMDb reviewers?  Well, I am a pretty eggheaded guy, but I’m also not afraid to call a spade a “pompous, self-satisfied, overeducated spade”—to its face.  My credentials as a highbrow type, who nevertheless  appreciates lowbrow sensibilities, can be found here.

My first time watching the film

I first encountered Andrei Rublev when my mom, visiting from Oregon, brought it with her from her local library.  This was a two-cassette copy on VHS.  Now, right off the bat, there’s something wrong with viewing an art house movie on VHS.  Here’s what Tarkovsky intended for us to see:

You know that on-screen notice that says, “This film has been modified from its original version.  It has been modified to fit your screen”?  Here’s what that’s referring to:

When a movie is modified to fit the squarer TV screen , a bunch gets cut off the sides.  Directors in the ‘80s and ‘90s actually compensated for this by putting important action in the middle of the screen.  Tarkovsky, needless to say, did not.  But that’s not even the worst of it.  Our VHS copy of this film was of absolutely terrible quality and looked something like this:

It was actually even worse because it was really grainy.  The whole movie seemed to take place during a blizzard.  (“I’m just so cold watching this!” my wife complained at one point.)  It’s hard enough trying to tell the characters in this movie apart (them all being bearded and hooded) without such a poor image.  I couldn’t follow anything and kept falling asleep.  Not being actually tired, I wouldn’t sleep for long, but every time I awoke, the action onscreen had gotten even more confusing and my poor brain—surely in self-defense—would power down again.  I think I fell asleep about forty times.  Once, I awoke to see a character flying high over the steppes in what appeared to be a homemade ultralight, like what killed John Denver.  This caused me a fit of confusion that was just short of apoplectic.  Though I was the first to abandon the film, my mom and my wife eventually gave up as well.  I don’t think they even made it to the second cassette.

Ever since that day, Andrei Rublev has been a running joke among my mom, my wife, and me.  We try to work it into conversation at every opportunity, as in, “I thought Avatar was a pretty cool movie, but it was such a blatant rip-off of Andrei Rublev,” or “Hey, look, the Key Grip on this movie was Mitch Lillian!  Wasn’t he a grip on Andrei Rublev?”

So when, a few weeks back, my wife came home from the library announcing she’d checked out Andrei Rublev on DVD, I assumed she was joking.  She was not.

Why watch this movie?

Don’t let me sour you on Andrei Rublev .  It is a well loved film.  The average IMDb user rating is 8.3, which tops 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker—i.e., the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture.  It has more ten-star IMDb reviews than I’ve ever seen.

That said, this movie isn’t for everyone; it seems to favor the intellectual élite.  Frankly, there seems to be a bit of “emperor’s new movie” effect, with each reviewer seeming to be one-upping the next.   The first ten-star review is titled “The Pietà of Filmmaking.”  I guess I’m just not up to this reviewer’s level because I had to look up “Pietà,” which means “a picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ on her lap or in her arms.”  So how is this movie the filmmaking equivalent of that?  Am I supposed to feel unworthy that I can’t grasp the meaning here and am too lazy even to ponder it?

This review says, “Score it 11 out of 10” and also “It is a difficult movie to follow. One might liken it to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as a work of genius so monumental and complex, and so disdainful of traditional narrative form, that it requires extensive thought and study to understand it.  And even after studying it, watching it repeatedly, and reading Tarkovsky’s own comments about it, one still finds it opaque in many ways.”  Yeah, “one” might liken it to Finnegan’s Wake, if one could manage to read Finnegan’s Wake in the first place.  Who is this “one,” anyway, who has the patience to watch a 3½-hour movie repeatedly?

Of course, it’s not just amateur reviewers who praise this movie.  The original review in The Guardian, in 1973, states, “Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie works through a slow, unstressed accumulation of scenes and images.”  Doesn’t sound like the formula that would get a new movie green-lighted … but maybe that’s what makes this one special. 

There’s something odd going on:  the confusing, misunderstood-genius flair of Andrei Rublev has somehow infected the reviewers.  The Guardian reviewer goes on to say of Tarkovsky, “He pared drama of vision; the deliberate grandeur of perception.”  That’s not even grammatically correct.  Worse, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.  It’s just a tossed salad of words that sound kind of impressive together.  Is that what it takes to describe this movie?  The abandonment of cogent thought?

The New Yorker review from 1969 offers praise that is easier to digest:  “It is a film that is fascinating, enriching, full of the sap and the soup of Russian rural life, of dirt and dirty girls, of trees and fields, and of people.”  Fair enough, but … aren’t dirty girls people too?

Ah, perhaps I’ve just caught the interest of the reader who may not care who said what about this movie, but is intrigued by the “dirty girls” notion.  Dirty as in dirt-covered, or as in libidinous?  Good news:   the New Yorker goes on to describe “a too long spring-bacchanal scene of naked full-busted and full-buttocked girls and bearded naked men.”   (Note that “girls” in this case means “women.”  That’s  the sexist language of 1969 coming through, I guess.) 

I think it odd how the men are described as not only naked but bearded.  I mean, just about all the men in this movie are bearded.  Is “bearded” in this context supposed to be as enticing as the women being “full-busted and full-buttocked”?  And speaking of “full-buttocked,” why haven’t we ever come across this description before?  It would have been so useful to rappers like Eminem (in “Ass Like That”) or Sir Mix A Lot (in “Baby Got Back”).

You might also wonder how a bacchanal scene like this could be described as  “too long.”  And yet, like everything else in the movie, it is.

By the way, promoters of this movie weren’t shy about using the sex angle to garner interest.  Check out this poster, which prominently features a very minor character:

My second viewing

Checking out a DVD from the library means you have all the time you need to watch it.  This is a blessing but also a curse.  Night after night we procrastinated.  The mere thought of tackling the movie again was enough to make me irreparably sleepy.

Finally, one night, we put in the DVD.  We were immediately struck by the excellent video quality.  Not only is the aspect ratio restored to movie screen dimensions (i.e., the sides aren’t chopped off), but all the blur and graininess are gone.  Look:

But what the hell was that onscreen?  Just like you, my wife and I were shocked to see, against the backdrop of a church, what appeared to be a gigantic scrotum.  What kind of sick person would put that into his movie?  As the camera panned down, in its slow, unstressed way, I realized this wasn’t a scrotum but some kind of homemade hot-air balloon.  For like twenty minutes we see a bunch of identical Russian peasants running around yelling as the balloon gradually breaks its tethers, and then some guy flies off in it.  There are no subtitles in this scene to explain what the yelling is about.

Would the dialogue have been discernible to a native Russian speaker?  I don’t know.  The DVD jacket advertises “New English subtitles translating 40% more dialogue,” suggesting that the bar had previously been set pretty low.  (The audio isn’t very good, by the way.  Later in the film, I replayed a brief scene several times to try to learn the Russian for “motherfucker,” but I couldn’t hear the word clearly enough.)

Who knows, maybe you’re not supposed to grasp what’s going on.  We watched this balloonist fly over the bleak Russian landscape for a good while, until he finally crashed.  Who was he?  What was he doing up there?  Was the balloon made for him, or had he stolen it for a joy ride?  Did he survive the crash?  And what did this have to do with Andrei Rublev, the icon painter?  None of these questions was answered.  Nothing made sense in this chapter, the first of nine.

I’m not going to walk you through the entire plot of the movie, but let me share with you some highlights, to convey how difficult—and yet beguiling—Andrei Rublev turns out to be.

The second chapter is almost as mysterious as the first.  Three monks leave their monastery on horseback, muttering something about going somewhere else to seek their fortunes as painters.  It starts to rain.  They seek shelter in a barn where a jester entertains a bunch of peasants with a disturbingly bawdy performance that goes on and on.  Finally the monks show their disapproval, which puts a damper on everything, including the movie.  Then some soldiers arrive and haul the jester away.

Where is Andrei?  What does it all mean?  I tried to shrug this off.  In the third chapter, we come upon a character who at first seems to be dead but turns out just to be really, really old.  He starts up a long dialog with this other guy about painting icons.  Suddenly I’m hopeful:  could the younger guy be Andrei Rublev, meaning that after like 45 minutes I’ve finally isolated a character whose actions and words might actually be important?  I’m on the edge of my seat even before the old guy asks him, “Are you Andrei Rublev, by any chance?”  Now my heart is in my mouth!  There’s a long pause and the young man replies, “Nyet.”  Dammit!

That was enough for the first night.  We broke the viewing into three, maybe four nights because we kept falling asleep, and there’s only so much you can take.  But, with all the snow and blur from the VHS version removed, we found ourselves looking forward, in a way, to picking the film back up again.  (I know this isn’t how you’re supposed to watch this kind of movie, but hey, we’ve got kids, and lives outside of our passive video entertainment.)

On the second night, we did gradually figure out who’s who and what’s going on.  Rublev looks a little bit like Woody Harrelson with a beard and a hood.  If you ever watch the movie, keep an eye out for the guy who looks like this:

The basic gist is, Rublev gets recruited by the old guy, Theophanes the Greek, to be an apprentice and (eventually) paint the Last Judgment on the walls of a church.  There’s a great scene where Rublev says goodbye to Daniil, his mentor at the monastery.  It’s a bit of bromance I suppose; Rublev is really emotional and does an interesting hand-jive on the table, fingers drumming and hands moving around like giant spiders, probably because he’s so nervous.  If you watch this scene a couple times, as my wife and I did, you can stretch the moviegoing out even further.

Wait.  Would you want to stretch it out?  Well, possibly.  There’s something kind of pleasant about this movie, once you relax a bit and give up on trying to comprehend everything that goes on.  It’s a good movie for just drifting along, taking in the unusual scenery and attractive cinematography.  Many reviewers have described the movie as soothing; my wife agreed, saying, “It’s almost kind of narcotic.” 

Before Rublev settles down to paint, there are long scenes of him arguing abstract artistic and religious matters with Theophanes in the middle of some blasted landscape.  Some of the dialog is predictable and boring, but other snatches are very cryptic, like when Rublev suddenly yells at his helper, as they’re out wandering in some grassland, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” and then some old guy comes out of nowhere, cuffs the helper on the ear, and yells, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” as if Rublev hadn’t just yelled this.  (What glue?  What flame?  Where?  Beats me.)  Fortunately, before these scenes become too tiresome, we’re on to the pagan bacchanal scene.

Indeed, these women are full-busted and full-buttocked and nude.  They’re not bad-looking, but fortunately not that good-looking either, which would be silly (like the heroine in Braveheart who is not only really pretty but has unrealistically perfect teeth).  There’s a lot of frolicking in the forest, and Rublev is caught spying on the action by some pagans who tie him up and vow to come kill him in the morning.  He’s freed by a full-busted and mostly nude pagan woman, Marfa, who later flees through the woods, showcasing her full buttocks.  It’s a strange butt, not just ample but oddly square, and my wife said to me at this point, “Please tell me I don’t have a Marfa-butt.”  (She assuredly does not.)  I am quite sure that phrase will be immortalized in the specialized jargon of our family.

Finally, Rublev shows up at the church in the city of Vladimir to do his work.  There’s just one problem:  Rublev doesn’t actually paint.  It’s like a stalled-out government contract job.  We’re supposed to grasp that there’s an artistic dilemma involved here, between what the government wants (a cautionary tale of some kind, I guess) vs. Rublev’s desire for something that expresses the essential humanity of all involved and charts a new course for Russian painting, etc.  But how do you convey that?  Rublev just comes off like a slacker, and it doesn’t make for very exciting cinema.

Maybe that’s why we suddenly get an endless scene of Tartars sacking the city of Vladimir.  (The plot of Andrei Rublev is a bit like how Pauline Kael describes the James Bond movies:  “One damn thing after another.”  Come to think of it, Rublev being rescued by a babe, who’s supposed to be the enemy, is right out of a Bond film, innit?)

There’s a lot to alarm you in the Tartar raid scene (e.g., people’s eyes being gouged out, women being dragged off, dwellings getting torched) but what really jarred my wife and me was a horse falling backward down a staircase.  In this pre-CGI era, how did they get this footage?  We feared for the horse.

The New York Times review from 1973 says, “I wondered … how the director got a horse to fall down stairs.  Was the horse hurt?”  I’m glad somebody else was bothered by this.  What is it with Russian artists and horses?  In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment a horse is brutally tortured; in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Vronsky (distracted by Anna) crashes his beloved horse during the steeplechase and the poor creature must be put down; in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time the hero literally rides his horse to death.  Such depictions are disturbing enough in literature, where actual animals aren’t involved in the rendering.  I discovered this tidbit on IMBD:  “For the scene where the horse falls down the stairs, it was shot in the head.  The crew acquired the horse from a slaughterhouse, and it was going to be shot the next day, so they decided to use it for the film.”

Perhaps the coolest part of the movie is toward the end when this teenager, bluffing, tells the authorities that he has learned, from his late father, the secret to forging bells (like the kind you’d put in a church tower).  So he gets a commission for this giant bell, which hundreds of poor Russians help build, in the middle of a damn field, casting it in a huge clay-lined pit with a raging bonfire.  It’s the polar opposite of our modern 3-D printing, and an impressive sight to behold.  Could you just rent the movie and fast-forward to this part (perhaps pausing along the way to take in the nude bacchanal)?  Well, you could, but I think it helps to be in a stupor when you get to this scene.

At the very end, the movie switches from black-and-white to full color, and the camera passes (in its slow, unstressed way) over the still-extant icons that the real Andrei Rublev painted.  Many critics have been really impressed by this part, but my wife and I found it infuriating.  The footage is too close-up, like trying to look at an elephant from six inches away.  I knew from what I’d read that this was the end of the movie, but as far as my wife knew, we could have only been halfway through.  When the credits started rolling she gasped, “That’s it!?  We’re done?!  You mean we actually did it?!”


Our great intellectual adventure behind us, we decided that the next thing we watched would be more on the lowbrow side.  (I was particularly interested in something more frivolous, as I’d been reading a novel about a 17th-century English village ravaged by the bubonic plague.)  So a few nights later we watched the first episode of Mad Men on DVD. 

Wow, what a comedown.  Every point it made—Women were treated so badly!  Everybody smoked back then!—was so glaringly non-subtle, I found the show tedious, like being fed with a baby spoon.  “Man, is this like a two-hour pilot episode?!” I finally asked, before toggling the display and discovering that we’d only been watching for 45 minutes.  It only seemed long.  I guess after a difficult movie like Andrei Rublev, typical media fare just isn’t difficult enough.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fiction - One Halloween Night


Ideally, I’d have had the idea for this story in time for Halloween, but I just plain didn’t.

What follows isn’t a ghost story, exactly, but I hope it can give you a little chill.  All characters, situations, cultural traditions, observations, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions are fictitious, coincidental, accidental, or are used fictitiously.

One Halloween Night

Robert’s first batch of Trick-or-Treaters came at around 7:30:  a bug, a robot, and a witch.  A trio of parents hung back in the darkness beyond the span of the porch light.  A few minutes later, the second Trick-or-Treater, a very small kid dressed as a sunflower, was solo except for his mom, standing six feet back and prompting him:  “Say ‘Trick or Treat!’  Remember to say ‘Trick or Treat!’”  Robert held the candy bowl at the kid’s level and the kid finally mumbled the magic words and took a fun-size Snickers.  “Say ‘thank you!’” the mom reminded him.  The kid seemed paralyzed by the push-and-pull of free candy on the one hand, and a terribly frightening social engagement on the other.

Robert fondly remembered his own kids’ first Halloween, when he too prompted them—at every house—to say “Trick or Treat.”  He could relate to this mom:  somehow, a kid just standing there waiting for his candy was violating a social contract.  The words were important, and of course the gratitude.  Robert chuckled remembering the first time he’d prompted little Amanda to say thank you:  he’d nudged her and whispered, “What are you forgetting?”  Amanda looked back to the homeowner and said, “Oh, yeah … can I get something for my dad, too?”

The girls were older now, almost too old for Trick-or-Treating and certainly too old for a parental escort.  Robert fretted about the possible danger in this nighttime tradition.  Why did Amanda have to go as a raven?  Could she possibly have chosen a less visible costume, what with drunk drivers all over the road?  And little Sarah was so sociable, she chatted up everyone who answered the door … which was just fine in their own little neighborhood, but these days it seemed like she wouldn’t need to stray too far to encounter that over-friendly whacko who might (gasp!) invite her in.

Of course, as much as Robert worried, he also kicked himself for being so paranoid.  He’d always had an overactive imagination, and it didn’t help that he was lately consumed by a growing addiction to true crime novels.  For the last six weeks, walking Sarah to school  and back, he’d been watching the painstaking construction of a haunted house a few blocks away, which was so elaborate they practically needed a building permit.  Why go to so much trouble?  Surely he wouldn’t have been so suspicious if he hadn’t read The Lovely Bones, in which a psychopath builds an elaborate underground clubhouse and lures in an innocent teen, correctly supposing that her curiosity would overcome her parents’ admonishment about talking to strangers.

The next wave of kids were perfectly behaved:  they  remembered the Trick-or-Treat, the thank-you, and even wished him a happy Halloween.  Robert was charmed, but also slightly relieved, for he couldn’t help but evaluate Trick-or-Treaters, with his entire opinion of humanity hanging in the balance of the kids’ behavior.  One year he left his post for about ten minutes to have a drink with the neighbors, leaving the candy bowl on the porch with a sign reading, “Please take just one.”  When he got home, the entire bowl was already empty, some little lardy scofflaw obviously having dumped the whole thing into his bag.  This offended Robert inordinately, as did kids who grabbed a whole handful of candy when he held out his bowl.

The next time the doorbell rang it was a duo of pre-teens in inscrutable costumes.  Dark lords of some sort, Robert guessed.  They didn’t say anything at first and then one elbowed the other, who said, “Trick or Treat, Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat,” and then, in a barely audible mumble, “Or smell my feet.”  Robert wanted to say, “Look, if you’re going to play that card, you have to step up and do it right.  Own the insult.  Look me in the eye and say, ‘Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.’  Don’t tack the ‘smell my feet’ part on at the end.  Now let’s try it again.”  Instead he just held out the bowl.

Of course, as a kid Robert hadn’t had the verve to say those words at all, as much as he and his brothers dared each other.  When it came down to it, they were all craven, and this manifested in unfailing politeness.  That is, until they became full teenagers.  The last year Robert had trick-or-treated, he wore this giant foam monster head his brother had made, and he could barely see out of it, which (it turned out) made him a sitting duck for a candy mugger.  The jerk had pretended to admire young Robert’s costume, and then grabbed his whole candy bag—a haul representing over two hours of hustling from house to house—and ran.  The rest of the night, Robert had been driven around at high speed in the back of his brothers’ friend’s Jeep, looking for the thief so they could avenge the crime and get Robert back his candy.  Futile as this was, it felt like turning the page from childish rituals to manly acts of courage.

“How many can we take?” the next kids asked.  Robert replied, “Just one … I’m running low.”  He was pleased that the kids were polite enough to ask.  Following this there was a lull, and Robert was able to wolf down some of his dinner before the doorbell rang again.

To his surprise, there was no kid there, but an adult starting to walk away.  Normally when Robert was slow to answer the door, the kids would leave off ringing the doorbell and start knocking on the door, sometimes two or three at once, and one time a kid accidentally tumbled into the house when Robert opened the door.  Such impatience was understandable:  for kids fixated on hitting as many houses as they could, time passed differently, with each moment of waiting seeming to stretch out toward infinity.  But here, since it was obvious someone was home—given the porch light, the lights on in the house, and no fewer than three lit jack-o-lanterns on the porch—any adult should have been more patient.  And where was this guy’s kid?

The guy smiled sheepishly.  “My daughter ran off,” he explained, before turning toward the sidewalk and calling, “Katie, come back!”  He paused for a moment and said, “Oh well, I’ll get her something.”  This seemed perfectly reasonable, until he proceeded to grab a whole handful of candy before walking off.

Robert was perplexed.  On the one hand, parents—particularly in this earnest community—were always bending over backward to do right by their children.  On the other hand, wasn’t the classic post-Trick-or-Treat dilemma all about how to get all that candy—with its sinister corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavor, and PGPR—out of your kid’s hands?  What parent would want to add extra candy to the stash?

Robert almost shrugged it off, but then walked out onto the porch and watched the man walking away.  So far, the guy hadn’t reunited with his daughter.  And another thing:  he was carrying the candy bag.  What parent carries his kid’s candy for her?  And what kid would even allow this?  The guy was heading south and it was a long block.  Robert went inside and phoned his friend Mark, who lived ten houses down.

* * *

Mark’s doorbell was broken and he had a sign:  “Please knock loudly!”  Kids took this to heart and tended to pound the crap out of his door, especially because Mark was a bit slow getting there.  So when he thought he heard a light knock, he wasn’t sure and stayed on the couch.  The knock came again; he drained his beer and went to the door.  He’d have been surprised to see only an adult walking away, except for the call he’d had from Robert.

“Oh, there is someone home!” the guy said as he turned around.  He added sheepishly, “My daughter ran off.”  He looked toward the sidewalk and called, “Katie!  Come back!”  With a little shake of his head he said, “Oh well,” and reached for Mark’s candy bowl.

“Wait,” Mark said.  “Before I give candy to my Trick-or-Treaters I like to see their costumes.  Like, I won’t give candy to un-costumed teenagers.”  He stepped out the door and escorted his guest to the sidewalk.  “Now, which kid is your daughter?”  The guy pointed at a little girl halfway to the next house.

Mark called out, quite loudly, “Hey Katie, you forgot something!”  The girl did not turn around.  She was dressed in a darling little Totoro costume but had evidently found the fabric head stifling and had pushed it back like a hood so it dangled down her back.  “Hey Totoro, you forgot something!” Mark yelled, and now the girl looked back, confused.  “Hey, is this your dad?” Mark called out.  The girl looked stricken and ran ahead to an adult whose hand she grabbed.  Her actual dad.

The guy with the candy bag started to quickly walk away but Mark grabbed him by the wrist.  “What the hell is your problem?” Mark demanded.  “Why can’t you go buy your own damn candy?”  He looked the guy up and down.  The guy wasn’t homeless or anything.  Good shoes.  “What, are you like some kind of kleptomaniac?” Mark continued.  “You get off on abusing people’s trust?  You some kind of sicko?”  The guy just stood there, frozen, his face stuck in a half-smile.  Was he enjoying this, too?  Or was this half-smile just a manifestation of his abject awkwardness?

Now the guy grasped the full murderous menace on Mark’s face and managed to wrestle free and run for it, his candy bag slapping his leg as he went.  Mark shook his head and went back into the house.

What could he do?  Call the police?  What would be the charge?  Trick-or-Treating Without A Costume?  Trick-or-Treating While Adult?  Identity Theft?  Impersonating a Parent?  Unspecific Non-Sexual Perversity?  There was no specific crime committed, and yet his transgression was so very, very disturbing.

Mark phoned Robert.  “He’s headed back in your direction, in a full run,” he said.  “You wanna go out and at least trip him or something?”

About the Type

This blog post was set in Calibri, a typeface based on a sans-serif New Wave face used in a variety of 1980s teen-coming-of-age novels.  Calibri was cut by Lawrence Spitspoon in Taos, New Mexico, and was brought to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA by a hitchhiker on his way to a salmon-fishing job in Alaska in 2007.

Depending on your web browser, its configuration, and your computer operating system, this blog post may appear in Georgia, a typeface cut with a crude hunting knife into the trunk of a Mongolian oak (quercus mongolica) in Izborsk, Russia, in the early 1800s by Ivan Ivanovich Zakareishvili in memory of Tsar Alexandar I.   Georgia was first introduced to the web in 1997 when bundled with the Internet Explorer 4.0 supplemental font pack.