“Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” part II: David Sedaris’ book of essays

For part I of my “Lets Explore Diabetes With Owls” review, click here.

***

Instead of posting something midway through David Sedaris’ latest book of essays – “Let’s explore diabetes with owls” – like I intended to do, I plowed through the final 190-plus pages in a handful of sittings over the last week or so because I was committed to answering our initial question.

What in the hell could a title like that possibly mean?

In the first post, I wrote “I suspect I’ll have an inkling” at the end of the books as to what the title means, and here I am, with no more pages left to parse through for clues, and … I don’t have a great answer for you.

Here’s my best wild guess: “Diabetes” could be taken as a representation of Sedaris’ relationship with his family or, more specifically, his father.

It’s a disease. Some days it makes him deathly ill. Other days it’s merely an inconvenience. Curable? No. But it’s manageable with the proper amount of care and attention.

If you really want to stretch the metaphor, Sedaris’ wit and self-deprecating nature are his insulin, the only things that allow him to survive a lifetime of barbs and condescending remarks without being pushed to the point of vacating all sense of heritage and ancestral connection.

The “owl” part could be taken a couple ways. The chapter “Understanding Understanding Owls” begins with this:

Does there come a day in every man’s life when he looks around and says to himself, “I’ve got to weed out some of these owls?” I can’t be alone in this, can I? And, of course, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Therefore you keep the crocheted owl given to you by your second-youngest sister and accidentally on purpose drop the mug that reads “Owls Love You Always” and was sent by someone who clearly never knew you to begin with.

In this context, the owls could be pieces of a preexisting life that you adopted for various disingenuous reasons. It’s what you thought your parents want; it’s what you believed was necessary to fit into a desirable crowd; it’s part of a young dream that you’d grow to realize was nothing more than fantasy.

Not until you grow older and come into yourself as an adult do you see the shards of adolescence that must be shed if you’re going to live your life and not another’s version of it. I suppose this could be one interpretation of “owls” in the title.

I prefer to see the “owl” here as David himself. He describes a time in the late 1990s when he was living in New York with his boyfriend Hugh, who had a painting business. Here’s the next part, quoted from the book:

One of his clients had bought a new apartment, and on the high, domed ceiling of her entryway she wanted a skyful of birds. Hugh began with warblers and meadowlarks. He sketched some cardinals and blue tits for color and was just wondering if it wasn’t too busy when she asked if he could add some owls.

It made no sense naturewise – owls and songbirds work different shifts, and even if they didn’t they would still never be friends.

Through the contentious interactions with his family and the serially awkward events of his childhood, it’s clear Sedaris struggled to fit in with the warblers and meadowlarks of his younger days.

He worked his own shift and for a variety of reasons – from his sarcastic intellect to his sexuality – didn’t mesh with the primary occupants of his life at that time (i.e. father, other family members, neighborhood kids his dad wish he’d be like, etc.)

So through my admittedly liberal translation of “Let’s explore diabetes with owls,” I read it as exploring Sedaris’ relationship with his father/family through all the uncomfortable ways Sedaris could never be what he/they wanted him to be, but only his own imperfect, estranged self.

This is the point where I self-consciously envision Sedaris laughing his ass off in a London coffee shop, as I carelessly put words and meaning in his mouth and publish them to the world, and thinking, “You idiot – you’re not even close to understanding what I meant.”

I blush at the mere taste of that shame. But, alas, I’m grasping at short straws and this is my best shot at interpretation. So please, Mr. Sedaris and readers, forgive me if this is a woeful failure.

***

I want to end, appropriately I think, with a note about the second-to-last chapter in the book called “The Happy Place.”

On the surface, it’s about getting a colonoscopy. Sedaris’ father told him for years to get one, but it wasn’t until his sister, Lisa, told him how great it was – because of the drugs they give you and the wonderful feelings those induce – that he decided to do it.

When the anesthesiologist is loading patients up, they tell them to go to their “happy place” right before they pass out. For Sedaris, that ultimately was a place with much deeper meaning. Here’s Sedaris, in his words, after he got home from the procedure and his father called:

I wanted to thank him for all the years of pestering me, to concede that he’d had my best interests at heart, but instead, unable to stop myself, I said, “Dad, they found something. And Dad … Daddy … I have cancer.”

It’s horrible, I know, but I’d somehow been waiting all my life to say those words. During fits of self-pity I had practiced them like lines in a play, never thinking of the person I’d be delivering them to but only of myself, and of how tragic I would sound. The “Daddy” bit surprised me, though, so much so that tears sprang forth and clouded my vision.

This made it all the harder to see Lisa, who was listening to me from the other end of the sofa and mouthing what could have been any number of things but was probably, emphatically, “You will go to hell for this.”

“The important thing is not to give in to defeat,” my father said. He sounded so strong, so completely his younger, omnipotent self, that I hated to tell him I was kidding. “You’ve got to fight,” he said. “I know that you’re scared, but I’m telling you, son, together we can lick this.”

Eventually I would set him straight, but until then, at least for another few seconds, I wanted to stay in this happy place. So loved and protected. So fulfilled.

There’s both tremendous beauty and pain in that passage.

Your first reaction is negatively visceral – how utterly horrible it is to lie to anyone, let alone a parent, about having the deadliest of illnesses.

But, for me, that quickly morphed into empathy for Sedaris.

All along, there’s this great distance between him and his father that has never closed and likely will never close, and Sedaris does a masterful job of crafting a self-serving façade with the uncanny sharpness of his humor. But tear that down, and what’s left is universal: a son seeking a love and validation that can be passed down only from a father.

Sedaris has a great talent for making fun of the oddities of his life, for creating humor at the expense of his own ostracized character, but his true gift is a poignancy that reminds us all lives share the simplest of bonds.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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True Detective’s women

My consumption of the consumption of the latest True Detective episode began like it usually does, with a read of Alan Sepinwall’s review in Hitfix, but then quickly veered into the first broad-view discussion that has gained traction with Nic Pizzolatto’s crime series.

The discussion coming out of the series’ sixth episode, “Haunted Houses,” drifted away from direct plot-related questions and took up an examination of True Detective’s treatment and usage of women.

It’s not a coincidence that a few prominent reviewers of this show latched onto the same theme after episode six, and I suspect it’s because ‘Houses’ is the first episode where a woman – and not the two male stars, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart – is handed the keys to the story.

In this case, Hart’s wife (and/or ex-wife, depending on the time period), Maggie, is brought forth with the development in her role as a narrator and as the linchpin of numerous relationships – hers and Marty’s, Marty’s and Rust’s, perhaps the police’s relationship with their currently unsolved case. Let’s run through the different perspectives quickly, as they’re all thoughtful and unique.

Emily Nussbaum has a strong criticism in The New Yorker of the shows total mishandling of female characters, writing that there isn’t one complex female character but rather only shallow, soulless caricatures who are merely props for the game the men are playing.

I appreciated Emily’s subtle sense of humor in warning that if you’re enjoying True Detective, which most people seem to be, then you won’t like her subsequent analysis, before proceeding to obliterate the story’s purpose and objective.

True Detective’s resistance for developing a female role beyond a vengeful wife or a hooker (at least up until now) clearly has taken away from Emily’s enjoyment of the show, and she compares it to “The Fall,” a crime series on BBC that she argues empowers female characters and broaches this discussion with much more tact than Pizzolatto’s vicious slog through desolate Louisiana lands.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the show and also thoroughly enjoyed Emily’s take – it’s certainly fair and reasonable.

In something of a rebuttal to Emily, Tom Hawking wrote a terrific piece for Flavor Wire, beginning with a sensible foundation: That while, no, the women don’t come off well, we should remember that nobody comes off well in True Detective. Hart and Cohle are a pile of soulless thoughts and reprehensible deeds unto their own (which, of course, doesn’t in itself refute Emily’s premise).

The larger point Tom delicately made is summed up nicely by this line: “Above all, the thing to remember is that it’s a mistake to conflate what a show depicts with what it endorses.”

The reason we may be seeing the female characters in the way we are is because that’s specifically how the twisted, egotistical Hart and Cohle see them. That doesn’t mean the show in its entirety is about the degradation and mistreatment of women.

Willa Paskin in Slate, however, writes that’s the whole point of True Detective, this sickly display of female roles and the wasteland that’s left behind the detectives and the case they’re pursuing. (Willa had a particularly good analysis of the “female hierarchy” Marty is continually oblivious to.)

I also liked Molly Lambert’s piece in Grantland, as she went in a different direction than Emily and wrote about the complexity of Maggie.

I would lean with Molly on this one – Maggie, to me, is fascinating. If we’re ranking characters based on personal investment of how this all ends for them, Rust would be far and away my No. 1, but Maggie would be second ahead of her cheating husband, Hart.

The possibility of her holding the code to seemingly every meaningful plot line in this show – certainly the relationships regarding both Rust and Marty, and who the hell knows what she knows about the case or the Yellow King or anything else – is tantalizing in the way that there’s still time for a female character to flip most everything that’s been established. I’m ready for anything with Maggie and am all in her continued development.

One more thoughtful piece worth reading on this subject: Alyssa Rosenberg’s take in Think Progress on why what’s good for women can also be good for men in this show.

How come it took us six episodes to make the women of True Detective the centerpiece of a nuanced discussion?

I don’t know for sure, but two thoughts:

One note Sepinwall makes in his review is that every character besides Hart and Cohle have been two-dimensional and therefore little more than roadside cones passing by in a blur as we remain fixated on the two rugged and thoroughly screwed up detectives.

This show is so heavily driven by their viciousness and failures that even in the scenes that draw more attention to women (such as Maggie having revenge sex with Rust, thus driving a dagger into her relationship with Hart and Hart’s relationship with his soon-to-be ex partner), we’re left wondering what it says about the male character, Hart or Cohle or a killer.

The second thought: “Haunted Houses,” an episode that stepped back from tension-filled scenes and applied glue to the broader puzzle, is the first time we’ve been able to breathe and contemplate anything (at least for me, anyway).

Hell, the fact we’re still talking about the six-minute single shot at the end of the previous episode is one clue as to why we haven’t yet delved into something deeper:

Until now, True Detective hasn’t been a delicate crime show for the thinker as much as its been a five-episode blast furnace on our sensibilities. The fight against visual paralysis has left little time for the fight against misogyny or gender classification of any kind.

In this way, it feels like Emily – and the others who chimed in today – pushed ahead of the game and brought us to the second tier of True Detective discussion.

I’m admittedly slow to analyze anything – choosing first to let the show, movie, book, whatever, wash over my senses – so maybe I feel more behind than others and the role of women and every other twisted moral line has been gnawing at most prior to episode six.

Try as I might, the only question I’ve been able to muster after each episode this season is, “Wait, WHAT!?!?!” (Alas, this is probably why the pros write about this stuff for a living and I just enjoy it with the rest of you).

But finally, with two episodes to go, we’ve reached a place beyond grisly killings and Cohle’s endless supply of cigarettes. As Emily and Tom and everyone else has noted, it’s not fair to nail the final judgment down before the series is over. So we can wait a couple more weeks for that.

By then, maybe Maggie has changed the female tune.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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Now Reading: Internet ruining TV, write like Hemingway, dating apps, LeBron James in GQ, bullet wounds

A selection of stories I read around the Web today …

How the Internet sucks the joy out of TV shows

Vijith Assar had an interesting essay on Wired the other day about how the Internet, and how we align social media with our consumption of television content, is ruining House of Cards for him.

Like many, Vijith likes to follow Twitter while he watches a show, enjoying the jokes and the barbs and general snark the platform provides in abundance, but in the case of House of Cards, he would quickly fall behind as he stopped and rewound the show to watch scenes again. He found two competing desires – participating in the social conversation and giving a show the attention it requires – that struggle to coexist. And so he explains the ramifications or this for him, among delving into other points.

I don’t know if I agree with Vijith’s premise – I’m leaning towards not agreeing – but it’s a thoughtful piece. My feeling: Twitter and the Internet in general is a huge net positive in how we consume stuff. It enhances, enlightens, enrages, enriches and otherwise engages in such a variety of ways that wouldn’t be possible without it. This isn’t to say it’s all good; it’s to say engaging with these is a choice, and choices are good.

I say this as someone who has largely stopped engaging with social media while watching something live, be it a TV show or a sporting event. The enlightening moment came for me during the Super Bowl. I pretty much shut off Twitter during one of its busiest times in the sports world and found that I enjoyed the Super Bowl experience (the game itself wasn’t good) more than I could ever remember.

The reason is simple: I actually watched the game and listened to the broadcast and paid attention to details and thought about things in real time – you know, consume the product. I wasn’t spending 70 percent of my time scrolling through my Twitter feed like I had done during most games on most nights for quite a while. I was a bit surprised how much I didn’t miss it and how much more I enjoyed watching a game again. I regret I didn’t do this during the 2013 MLB playoffs, with Boston’s superb story unfolding.

I watched and enjoyed – and Twitter did add a positive element to the experience – but it didn’t feel the same. The whole reason for having a second screen is to improve how you watch, to make the time more valuable, to give it more weight. In many ways, I experienced the opposite – hollow, fleeting, unsatisfying. It was pretty weird.

Anyway, it’s a simple decision to put the Internet aside, enjoy your show or game, and then go back to the Web for reaction, analysis, jokes or anything else that makes following something fun. All of that is still there. No, the real-time commentary isn’t an option, but it’s also a small price for connecting with material in a way you probably haven’t since social media didn’t exist.

Hemingway app makes you a better writer

As a writer, reader and someone who just cares about and appreciates good work, I don’t know how to feel about an app that can make some write like Hemingway.

It truly is an incredible creation and use of intellectual and technical ability.

And yet … this just shouldn’t be allowed. Sucks to be a creative writing professor now, I guess. Cheating’s never been easier.

Relationships in the tech age

These are presented without further comment: There is an app that lets you bet on friends’ relationships, and there is another app that listens into date conversations and tries to offer advice.

This world we live in …

GQ cover piece on LeBron

I really liked this GQ cover story on LeBron, written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. It’s an interesting look at LeBron as a mature man – the differences from his Cleveland days to now are incredibly, particularly his self-awareness and commitment to being someone people from his hometown can look to as an example of how to make it out of non-ideal circumstances.

Cynical people are probably thinking, “What, be blessed with 6-foot-8 height and otherworldly basketball talent?” But that’s not the point. It’s more about empowering yourself and making choices to change something you don’t like, rather than feeling controlled by it.

Also liked his thoughts on African Americans and change. Here’s a snippet:

So, second of all, regarding change, of course he’s changed. “Good! That’s like a good thing,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Thank you.’ Shit. I’m 29 years old with a family—I’m married with a family. I—of course I’ve changed. The problem is, you haven’t changed. And that’s why you dislike what I do, you know.”

He leans forward. He’s not going to be interrupted on this point. “As an African-American, we hear it a lot where we grow up. You’ve changed.” He’s sick of hearing it used as a criticism. “Because you’ve tried to better yourself and because you’ve made it out. ‘You’re not the same person that we used to know.’ Of course I’m not. I’m trying to better myself. Change is not a bad thing. Thinking that it’s bad, you know, that’s one thing I think is a downfall for African-Americans for sure.”

Really good read.

A new tool that seals bullet wounds in seconds

This is a cool development – a sponge-based tool that plugs bullet wounds almost instantly.

The military is looking into developing it into a product that can be widely used on the battlefield.

Bret Easton Ellis interview

Acclaimed author and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis on writing, the film industry, our social culture and a generation of mentally soft people is worth a look.

Rob Harvilla profiles Eric Church

When I posted a Now Reading the other day with an Eric Church piece in it, one of my buddies said to check out Rob Harvilla’s profile of Church in spin.

Good advice, as it’s a really entertaining read. Check it out.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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Now Reading: Eric Church, Bill Murray’s career, Netflix vs. HBO, Michael Sam, amazing photos, Roger Angell

A selection of stories I read around the Web today … What did you read?

Eric Church profile

I stumbled across the profile linked above through this shorter post from Patrick Doyle in Rolling Stone on Eric Church, and both are worth a read, although the profile from a couple years ago is particularly interesting and should be read first.

It captures Church as a still-rising star in the country music business, an aggressive rough cut of the man he will become a couple years, and millions of records sold, down the road. He’s edgy, vulgar and projects the aura of strained artist, a craftsman who promises to never be softened by fame and money and forever driven by his work.

He’s a drinker, a hard-liver, a personality inevitably headed for burnout. “Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is,” he says. “I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I f—ing starve.”

After spending a little time with that Church, it’s wild to read the second post about the Church who’s just produced his fourth album, “The Outsiders.”

“S—, I don’t know if we’ll make another one,” he says. “I can’t imagine continuing to try to push the envelope. How do you keep doing that?”

Church is 36, a young man in both life and business. Does that sound like the same guy who said he’d “starve” for his music? Not at all, which isn’t to suggest Church has softened. Just that he seems exhausted, which makes this parallel look from the profile to the recent post fascinating, the wearing down of an entertainer’s treads.

They’re both good reads, and I particularly enjoyed Church’s almost obsessive competitiveness for his music and selling more tickets than some of his industry brethren. Good stuff.

Bill Murray’s career timeline

Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve went through every movie Bill Murray has ever appeared in and analyzed his career arc. It’s an incredible well of information for those who aren’t experts on Murray’s career and an astonishing commitment from Rabin.

I thoroughly read some pieces of it and skimmed others, as it’s very long, but just the sheer amount of work Rabin poured into this makes it worth the click. Bill Murray himself probably thinks Rabin is crazy for this project.

The battle between Netflix and HBO

David Carr and Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times dig into the increasingly public battle for premium television’s No. 1 spot between Netflix and HBO, a good look at the most compelling TV content competition.

What makes this fun is both companies are producing a high-level content currently, and yet it feels like the programming “arms race,” as one source in the story put it, is just beginning. That, of course, means great things for consumers of television. I’m fascinated by the dueling approaches to creating content these two companies take.

Netflix offers more autonomy to writers and directors, allowing them more editorial control over the product, while HBO and its executives are more heavily evolved in the development of content. Both have proven to be successful paths, but I wonder if in the future that will be one of the tipping points in this battle – if more prominent writers and directors and actors choose the great freedom (without taking a cut in pay) Netflix offers or if HBO’s long history of success provides an element of security for a small price in control.

Michael Sam’s marketing potential

Good info from Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick on how Michael Sam announcing last week he is gay will affect his marketing opportunities as he’s, presumably, selected in May’s NFL Draft and embarks on a professional football career.

Some thought that Sam would see an immediate boom in endorsements given many companies are interested in partnering with a high-profile gay athlete, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not initially. Sam’s agents told Soshnick they want to limit the opportunities in the interim, and Soshnick nails the whole thing with his opening line: “Michael Sam’s income from off-field activities will be determined by his on-field performance and not his sexual orientation.”

As it should be.

The stories behind 2013’s best news photos

This is really cool: Max Fisher, a foreign affairs blogger for The Washington Post, collected the overall winner and the five news category winners in World Press Photo’s 2013 competition and included the background story for each.

Given my professional obligations in sports and heavy interests in content and digital media, I don’t get a chance to consume as much writing as I’d like outside of those areas. I get to as much as possible, but inevitably I miss a ton. Anyway, this is quick snapshot of the incredible humanity seen across great content every day.

Good reminder of the power of content when created to tell a story.

Roger Angell on life in the nineties

This man is 93 years old and writing like THAT?

A master at work.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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David Sedaris’ “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” part I

Next up is David Sedaris’ latest book of essays, “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” and I ripped through the first 84 pages within a day or two of picking it up.

First off: I have no idea what the title means. None at all. I suspect I’ll have an inkling at completion of the book – and I’ll be actively thinking about it while I’m reading the rest of the way – but for now my best guesses even come up short.

That aside, from the first essay in the book – titled “Dentists Without Borders” – it’s pretty vintage Sedaris. Witty, sarcastic, pointed humor, poignant undertones, playful, intentionally or unintentionally (hard to tell) melancholy at times.

For me – and this may be an odd and possibly inaccurate way of describing this – the most enjoyable part of reading Sedaris is the range of emotions he drags you through. At the top, he’s brilliantly funny. Brilliant.

Take this bit from Chapter 2 – “Attaboy” – where Sedaris is comparing the brutal parenting he received as a child to the softer variation he witnesses now:

There was no negotiating, no “parenting” the way there is now. All these young mothers chauffeuring their volcanic three-year-olds through the grocery store. The child’s name always sounds vaguely presidential, and he or she tends to act accordingly.

“Mommy hears what you’re saying about treats,” the woman will say, “but right now she needs you to let go of her hair and put the chocolate-covered Life Savers back where they came from.”

“No!” screams McKinley or Madison, Kennedy or Lincoln or beet-faced baby Reagan. Looking on, I always want to intervene. “Listen,” I’d like to say, “I’m not a parent myself, but I think the best solution at this point is to slap that child across the face. It won’t stop its crying, but at least now it’ll be doing it for a good reason.”

I don’t know how these couples do it, spend hours each night tucking their kids in, reading them books about misguided kittens or seals who wear uniforms, and then rereading them if the child so orders. In my house, our parents put us to bed with two simple words: “Shut up.”

I am almost spit out my water when I read that.

It was a legitimate moment of joy, the kind that doesn’t come too often for me when reading, the kind where all outside thoughts that like to trickle through my mind in the middle of a page – that make me go back and reread the entire last paragraph at times – totally dissipate. That’s the best part of reading Sedaris.

At the basin of the Sedaris Emotional Spectrum is a heavy loneliness usually delivered through the distance between Sedaris and his family, most prominently his father.

In Chapter 4 (“Memory Laps”), Sedaris recalls growing up in Raleigh and earnestly searching for his father’s approval. Of course, he never seems to capture it. Whatever he does – swimming competitions, school, even growing up and writing a best-selling book – is met with condescending barbs from his father.

You never get the sense that Sedaris believes his father doesn’t love him, only that he rarely, if ever, feels that love. From the chapter:

It’s not my father’s approval that troubles me but my childlike hope that maybe this time it will last. He likes that I’ve started swimming again, so maybe he’ll also like the house I bought (“Boy, they sure saw you coming”) or the sports coat I picked up on my last trip to Japan (“You look like a goddamn clown”).

Greg Sakas would have got the same treatment eventually, as would any of the other would-be sons my father pitted me against throughout my adolescence. Once they got used to the sweet taste of his approval, he’d have no choice but to snatch it away, not because of anything they did but because it is in his nature. The guy sees a spark and just can’t help but stomp it out.

There’s a density to Sedaris’ writing, wrapped in a quilt of quick-witted one-liners, that settles heavily in your chest once the comedy stops.

I guess that’s what ultimately makes his work enjoyable and satisfying. Without that emotion, this book of essays would be like any other frivolous collection of pages that deliver laughs without an anchor. Hopefully the remaining chapters of this book uphold that same standard.

Left off: Page 86

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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Vanished, part II: The end for the Arnett airmen

For part 1 of my “Vanished” review, click here.

***

In the last “Vanished” post, the remarkable World War II book by Wil S. Hylton, I wrote that two things in particular would gnaw at me until they were resolved: What happened to Jimmie Doyle (and how that affected his son Tommy) and what’s driving Pat Scannon to continue on with this search mission, through all these years and all these hurdles.

The actual history at hand was a distant third interest to me, even though it was meticulously reported and genuinely interesting.

All that held true through the end of the book, but I do have to amend the third point a bit. As Hylton dug into the fighting more and fleshed out the failed mission, I became more riveted in the events themselves that took place and, for a moment, less hitched to the two nagging questions mentioned above.

Specifically, an inside view of the Japanese kempei and the mass grave on Police Hill, where the kempei buried the Americans they execute, was captivating in an unsettling (more so than thrilling) sense.

According to war documents, three American airmen who bailed out on the B-24 over Koror were imprisoned by the Japanese. Art Schumacher, Alexander Vick and Johnny Moore were held for days and interrogated before Aritsune Miyazaki, the kempei’s leader, received orders to execute them. The men were put on a truck and driven out to the Japanese jungle camp, where an execution team awaited and took them out to the jungle, into the darkness up on Police Hill.

Three holes had been dug and Miyazaki called for the first American, Schumacher, to be brought forward, where he was ordered to kneel in front of his grave before being shot in the back of the neck.

The next American (accounts couldn’t clarify if it was Vick or Moore) was delivered before his grave, and after a long slash of a Japanese sword through the back of his neck, he toppled headless into the ditch.

The third American received both treatments: a failed beheading – the coward who swung the sword eased up and couldn’t drive it all the way through – before being shot in the back of the head. The graves were filled with dirt, and Police Hill’s tally expanded.

It’s a gruesome, chilling account and one of the few moments in Hylton’s book where I felt entrenched in the ugliness of the South Pacific rather than the family narratives at play. It was one of the only times I felt like this was a war book, not a story about a single character searching for the missing piece of their own life.

Of course, it was the latter that drove me through the book, and that never changed. From the beginning to the end, it was always Tommy Doyle’s relationship with his father and Scannon’s own motives that kept me turning pages.

When the Arnett plane was found, an update was posted online that Nancy and Tommy Doyle read from home in West Texas. Nancy called Scannon to confirm, but he couldn’t. That was against strict military orders. According to policy, only the military could verify the plane and then notify families. Scannon, if he wanted the military’s continued cooperation, had to respect that.

“I can’t tell you it’s Jimmie’s plane,” Scannon told the Doyles. “Here’s what I can tell you: It’s a four-engine bomber, it’s in the water and it’s near Koror. The only four-engine bomber that flew over there was the B-24, and there were only three that went down near Koror. We’ve found the other two. So you have to decide for yourselves.”

A few months later, Tommy Doyle had received his diving certification and he and Nancy were sitting on a boat in Palau with Scannon, Jimmie’s plane in the water below. Tommy splashed into the water and headed for the ocean floor, accompanied by another diver.

When he reached the plane, the other diver, Joe Maldangesang, backed off to give him some space. Tommy touched the plane and swam around to examine different parts of it. He stuck his head inside for a closer look at where the airmen positioned themselves. Emotion rushed through him. On the other side of the world, on the ocean floor of the islands of Palau, some 60 years later, Tommy finally felt close to his father.

The excavation crew would locate a ‘DOYLE’ dog tag later, along with human bones and boots and parachute material and other artifacts, finally putting to rest a complicated family theory that involved Tommy’s father abandoning him for a new life after returning from war. When Tommy visited with other families and asked them about their experiences, he found others had similar theories.

He never really understood why this theory existed or where it started or how it carried on for all those decades, but that small piece of the mystery that would forever remain unresolved seemed insignificant now. Tommy didn’t much care about the reasoning behind a fake tale. He was able to make peace with a hole in his soul that had haunted him. That would be more than enough.

As for Scannon, I can only speculate about what personal void truly drove him to do all of this, but it’s probably accurate to say the history and thrill of mystery sucked him in and the people and their family stories kept him there.

Hylton mentions in the Acknowledgments that Scannon told him he would someday see this as something much bigger than Scannon’s own story. That became abundantly clear even for the reader, someone who didn’t invest the emotion and effort required to produce this book.

Seeing this search through was Scannon’s own way of serving his country, the kind of calling and tedious work that couldn’t be accomplished unless you were blessed with Scannon’s research expertise and singularly obsessed mind. I can’t imagine many people possess the combination of both that digging up the Arnett plane required.

I figured after the search was complete, Scannon would salute the men he helped find and head back home to his previous life, but that wasn’t the case. He had already moved onto the next mission.

The book ends with Scannon and a team of people trudging through mud in the island jungle, retracing the maps of the Japanese kempei and locating their battle camps. They found the foxholes the Japanese hid in to fire at American planes, and now Scannon felt pulled to continue the search for Police Hill and the mass grave of countless other Americans who never made it home from World War II.

Why he’s doing this, I don’t really know. I don’t know if he’s, like Tommy Doyle, searching for something in himself that he’s never been able to find, a sense of familial gratitude or patriotic servitude or something. Maybe, like the reason behind the Jimmie Doyle conspiracy theory, that’s not something for us to know.

The only thing that’s clear about Pat Scannon as “Vanished” comes to a close is this: If he commits to finding the graves of the unknown number of Americans who trudged to their death up Police Hill, to honor them like the Arnett airmen and close family narratives like that of the Doyles, you believe that he will.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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Now Reading: Philip Seymour Hoffman, a better Twitter, CVS cigarettes, Amazon pilots

‘Now Reading’ is a collection and sharing of online stories and is meant for minimal consumption by the few readers of this blog. Topics include books, food, culture, photography, media and technology … there are no rules. Have a story to add? Share it in the comments.

Philip Seymour Hoffman reads

With the Super Bowl last Sunday and then a busy few days in the college football world with National Signing Day, I was a bit late to all of the Philip Seymour Hoffman reads that circulated the Internet after his sad death a few days ago.

So I collected a handful of the ones I read and will lump them all together here in case you, too, were late to the content and would like to read a few of the good pieces out there.

Derek Thomas on The Atlantic discusses Hoffman’s incredible versatility and all the different roles he not only performed but performed so extraordinarily.

This seems to be the most common theme among the written Hoffman memorials – that he was brilliant in becoming entirely different kinds of people over and over again, effortlessly playing contortionist with his acting talent. This was the source of Hoffman’s on-screen magic but also, possibly, a driving force in his drug addiction and eventual overdose (hold that point).

Alex Pappademas runs through Hoffman’s career arc in his obit on Grantland.

Michael Wilson in The New York Times did good, if incredibly sad and depressing, work piecing together the final days of Hoffman’s life. It’s still a mystery – and maybe always will be – why after more than two decades sober, Hoffman turned to heroin. In the last days of his life, though, there were signs things weren’t right to those who saw him in public, as you’ll read in Michael’s piece.

Jeff Deeney, a recovering addict, writes an important – and quite polarizing – piece in The Atlantic based around the question of how to best handle heroin users. The number of heroin users is quickly rising, and Deeney advocates for legal injecting sites like Vancouver has. He writes that these sites allow for users to be monitored by doctors, and overdoses can be potentially reversed with a medicine called Naloxone.

Deeney writes that we need to forget about the idea that this keeps people using drugs and focus on what it does do – keep them alive and give them another hope of getting clean. Dead people, as Deeney writes, can’t get clean.

This will be an uncomfortable viewpoint for many – giving people a place to “safely” inject heroin – but Deeney is certainly more informed on the subject than most people, and the premise of his thinking is something we can all agree on. That is, that only thing that matters is finding the best way to prolong an overdose knowing that time, if nothing else, gives people a chance.

Mark Harris writes in Grantland about Hoffman’s New York legacy — how he represented the people in many ways – and Lee Siegel writes in The New Yorker how Hoffman could amazingly sink into his characters and also the cost of that kind of artistic expression.

I want to link those two piece together, because they both tackle that question of cost, which I think is the most mysterious part of Hoffman’s decline and, ultimately, his death.

As mentioned above, people seemed to love more than anything Hoffman’s ability to become different people. But when we begged for more of this from him, did we ever ask, “If Philip Seymour Hoffman can so easily and magically become all these different people on screen, then who actually is Philip Seymour Hoffman?”

This snippet from Mark’s piece was particularly poignant:

On the nights I watched him play Willy, I found it impossible to imagine what he did after the curtain came down. How do you live one man’s apocalypse six days a week and then step back into the intact and undisturbed self you left somewhere in your small dressing room? What does it cost? Like all of his stage work, his Willy Loman felt, to me, dangerous.

The “suffering artist” narrative is a slippery cliché that I think is far overused, but I don’t say that to dispute its veracity in totality.

I think pain, in some form, does exist deep in many brilliant artists, but it seems (to me) to be more of a wandering pain than a suffering pain. When you give yourself totally and fully over to characters, who are you? Are you anyone, precisely? Do you “own” your life anymore, or are you predominantly a caricature, drifting from script to script for money, and “real life” is very much just another role to be filled?

It’s a weird, philosophical thought, and I don’t actually intend to get so “deep” on that, but it makes some sense, right? If you can easily be 10 people, you can’t possibly so easily be one.

What did that contortionist talent do to Philip Seymour Hoffman? Is that what drove him to drugs, this elusiveness of self inside him?

I have no idea. These are just thoughts.

A better Twitter

Twitter has been taking a bit of a public beating with its recent underwhelming earnings report, and its less-than-impressive user growth is the issue at hand here.

Robert Hof writes in Forbes about the four ways Twitter CEO Dick Costolo plans to improve the platform.

How Amazon forced CVS to stop selling cigarettes

I thought this Marcus Wohlsen piece in Wired about how CVS is trying to stay ahead of Amazon’s jaws by ditching tobacco products and rebranding itself as a place of wellness rather than just a place to buy an assortment of goods was fascinating.

Speaking of Amazon, a promising new comedy pilot

Margaret Lyons in Vulture discusses the three comedy pilots Amazon recently released, even writing one is “my favorite pilot in years, and by a lot.”

Scroll down to the third pilot – “Transparent” – for the goods.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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A new book review style and Vanished, part 1

We’re gonna try something a little different: When books are the content type of choice on this blog, I’m no longer going to wait until I finish the book to write about it.

Instead, I’ll post blogs while I’m reading it, hopefully sharing that experience along the way and making the process of consuming books more engaging and fun.

This is how we write/talk about television shows – it’s commonplace to post episode reviews, which makes following the show over a course of weeks more enjoying and interactive. Right now, like many, I’m watching HBO’s ‘True Detective’ and look forward to reading Alan Sepinwall’s thoughts each Sunday night or Monday morning, or scanning different culture sites.

For some reason, nobody that I know of has taken this approach with books even though we can draw parallels between these two forms of content – both are carried by narrative arcs, with a chapter being a book’s “episode.” So why not engage them in a similar way?

I’m going to now, and hopefully it’s a fun way to read (with the only difference being I won’t take weeks upon weeks to get through a book, I promise).

***

Let’s start with a book I’m in the middle of now and loving – “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II,” by Wil S. Hylton.

I’m 158 pages in and have felt the narrative – at least from where I’m reading – shift.

The book sinks its hooks into you immediately by getting you to invest in the search for Tommy Doyle’s father, Jimmie, who allegedly was one of 11 men who went down with an American plane over the Pacific islands of Palau in 1944. Army mission reports stated the airplane crashed in shallow waters, but investigators could never come across the wreckage when they traveled to Palau.

This fostered conspiracy theories that the men made it home alive but didn’t return to their families, that they were hiding in the United States for reasons unknown. A story rippling through the Doyle family in West Texas went like this: Jimmie made it back alive and was in California living with a new wife and two daughters and didn’t care about a relationship with his son anymore.

Tommy didn’t believe that tale, necessarily, but odd things happened as he grew older. The Army sent his mother letters indicating they were looking for Jimmie. They offered conflicting information about what happened, saying some men survived but never identifying who specifically. It remained unclear if the Army was withholding that information or really didn’t know.

Tommy grew up, played college football at Texas Tech and then became a high school football coach in West Texas. Through all those years, questions about what really happened to his father gnawed at him, but he never made an effort to seek answers.

He knew that inside a large wooden trunk at the edge of his mother’s bed was a lot he didn’t know about his father – a collection of letters Jimmie wrote to his wife from war, detailing the emotions and thoughts he wanted on paper if he never had the chance to deliver them in person – and possibly even some evidence to piece together a case about what happened in ’44 and what had transpired since. Tommy saw that trunk and always dodged the urge to open it.

When Tommy’s mother died in 1992, he and his wife Nancy inherited the trunk, and it found another resting place, this time in his home, to sit unopened. For two years, Tommy ignored it while Nancy was mesmerized what might be in that big box. It was more than letters, surely; it was the plug to the hole in Tommy’s life. Finally, in 1994, Nancy asked Tommy if she could open it and dig through the contents by herself. Tommy said fine.

Nancy started reading the letters and became ever more engrossed with not only Jimmie, but the other men who supposedly went down in that plane too. She began making phone calls and trying to track down information. Most of her attempts failed to produce anything of significance.

After six years, Nancy was ready to quit the search when she came across Pat Scannon, a scientist who had been six years deep into a personal journey to find that plane. Scannon made numerous trips to the islands on exploration missions of sorts, keeping notebooks on what he found and relentlessly seeking sources that might be able to help piece together the truth or at least a passable semblance of it.

Early on, there’s no dominating motive for Scannon other than his own fascination with scientific mysteries, but as he keeps on, he becomes pulled by a strong obligation to honor the soldiers who went missing. He devoted countless money and time into something lacking a tangible benefit but whose intangible reward suddenly became powerful and enthralling.

After becoming immediately hooked on Tommy’s story and the search for his father, I now find myself much more interested in Scannon as a character. I still feel compelled to know what happened to Jimmie, but more in the sense that the book would feel incomplete without knowing.

For Scannon, it’s something more. I’d be bothered if the resolution to his request isn’t revealed, because there are so many questions about why he’s doing this that “patriotic obligation” doesn’t sufficiently answer.

Wedged in between those two narratives are a lot of nuts-and-bolts World War II history, meticulously reported by Hylton and interesting to even the moderate history person. Because of Hylton’s easy storytelling ability, you don’t need to be totally fascinated by history in order to enjoy this part of the book.

Still, the history is a distant third among my interests. I’m not nearly engaged with what actually happened to this plane during the war as I am with what happened to Jimmie Doyle in relation to his son Tommy and what void remains in Scannon’s own life to compel him to see this through.

Those are the two answers I’m seeking from here on out in “Vanished.”

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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The archive of the Internet

Apropos of nothing, over the weekend I was thinking about the mere hours a significant amount of content is relevant on the Internet.

It probably was spurred by the deluge of stuff around the Super Bowl and how something posted Sunday morning had long been forgotten about – and maybe was already off the page entirely on some sites – by kickoff around 6:30 p.m. ET.

For an industry obsessed with page views and social media shares and milking value from these digital links, this is, quite literally, insane.

It’s counterintuitive to the mission, but it’s also how the Web has conditioned us. A 24-hour shelf life for a piece of content feels abnormally long, never mind something that people consume for a whole two days. We create, we blast to our social channels, we wash ourselves off and go again.

Because that was already rattling around my brain, I connected with this Benjamin Wallace piece in New York Magazine about Ezra Klein and his new venture at Vox Media that he’s currently creating.

The piece picks at Klein’s mission with his new project, trying to read around the edges and determine what this new thing Klein calls ‘Project X’ will actually look and feel like. I’m not that interested in guessing what Klein’s new site will be exactly – so I won’t speculate on his plans here, as I have no idea and am more than cool with just waiting for his unveil — but one little nugget that he divulged to Wallace is fascinating, in my opinion.

Here’s the important snippet from Wallace’s piece, which is a good read:

While Klein is being circumspect about the operational details of Project X, he suggests that breaking-news squibs could be very short and attached to constantly updated background articles, a bit like Wikipedia entries written by professional journalists. Long features might be regularly freshened up.

From the way I interpreted that (and other parts of the piece that I won’t spoil but will encourage you to go check out in Wallace’s story), part of the essence of Klein’s vision is news and stories move so fast that they leave people constantly fighting the current to keep up. Media is rapidly producing new content while forgetting preexisting information that is essential to understanding what’s current.

The tendency of the Internet, it seems, is to say, “Hey, here’s something new! Consume!” Rarely is it, “Here’s something new, and now here’s what you need to know to actually understand it.”

As noted in the NY Mag piece, Klein seems to believe in the power of the digital archive and allowing content to live and evolve rather than just killing it off and creating something fresh. He notes The Wirecutter, a tech site that advises people on the best products to buy, and how information is always contained to a single page but the information itself on the page changes frequently. So, a page about the best TV to buy right now isn’t recreated over and over but rather just refreshed.

Another example from the story is a Serious Eats page that Klein referenced when he wanted to find the “secret” menu at In-N-Out. The Serious Eats piece lists every one of them and has more than 75,000 like on Facebook.

“And the reason isn’t that when it was published it was a huge newsbreak,” Klein tells Wallace. “The reason is people keep going back to it.”

I’ll leave it there without trying to further interpret Klein’s vision, as I don’t want to misrepresent him.

But it scratches the surface of an interesting conversation regarding content and digital media: We trumpet the strength of the Internet as a place devoid of space or time limitations, and yet we hardly tap into its incredible recall ability in terms of content.

The most robust content archive around is (mostly) dormant, because all of our energies are put towards something new.

How we reinvigorate that archive and keep content alive and serving a purpose seems to present a valuable opportunity.

At the very least, it’s an interesting concept to spend a few minutes on when you’re watching content that’s been posted seven hours ago dwindle further down the screen and then off into a dark place the Internet was supposed to be designed to keep lit.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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Now Reading: The digital media bubble, American Hustle’s flaws, Brian Stelter’s rise, prayers

‘Now Reading’ is a collection and sharing of online stories and is meant for minimal consumption by the few readers of this blog. Topics include books, food, culture, photography, media and technology … there are no rules. Have a story to add? Share it in the comments.

Carr on the online news bubble

David Carr of The New York Times followed up on a piece he wrote recently about Ezra Klein leaving The Washington Post for Vox Media with a deeper look into what’s going on in the digital content industry. Specifically, Carr is interested in one question: Is the digital boom we’re seeing in the media business a bubble or simply the foundation upon which the future of news will be built?

The executives and media types quoted in Carr’s piece firmly believe the digital movement is just beginning, which seems true; we’re certainly not going backward from here. The idea of a digital bubble popping up is compelling, but I don’t see it – it’s not like our world is getting less mobile or our culture is going to cease being fascinated with the advancement of technology.

What’s more interesting – and practical, in my opinion – is the discussion of how to compete and survive in this kind of industry. Carr addresses this and asks others about it – give his piece a read for differing perspectives on how to approach business in an industry where product is so easily ripped off.

We’ve learned in the early growth of digital media that there are ways to make lean livings, but some of those come at the cost of content. This system of packaging and engineering content to go viral on the Internet isn’t debilitating in and of itself, but it can be at some point if too much of the Web does this without investing in the production of original content. At that point, we’ll just be cannibalizing ourselves.

The best sites, I think, will always be the ones that create the most original and smartest and most compelling content. How do you do that while being a profitable business? There’s some room to experiment with different models in that framework. It may be that the expensive forms of journalism find fewer homes around the Web – such as ambitious projects that require writers being on the road for extended periods and racking up thousands upon thousands of dollars in bills – or that, if you want to be in that business, you need to create a multi-stream model to sustain it.

Whether that comes from digital video revenue or television money or a subscriber system for exclusive content or something else, I’m not sure, but it could be difficult for a site subsisting solely on one form of ad revenue to compete with those backed by larger coffers.

However it works out, I think content always wins. What outlets do with that content to monetize it will change, but if you can produce the goods, you should be a leader in an industry where so many sit back and react.

Willa Paskin takes “American Hustle” to task

I’m not that familiar with Willa Paskin’s work as Slate’s TV critic, but I thoroughly enjoyed her piece on “American Hustle” and how the film is flashy but ultimately empty.

I saw Hustle and was entertained by it, but I didn’t love it and that’s probably due to one of Willa’s main points: The film consistently backs itself out of even semi-threatening situations or discussions. In Willa’s words:

The film pulls back, chickens out on the realistic possibility of anything life-threatening happening in this underworld of low lives, scam artists, shady characters, and wise guys. Ugly consequences wouldn’t be any fun at all.

Good read – give it a look if you’re into biting culture commentary.

The remarkable rise of Brian Stelter

The New Republic recently ran a profile on Brian Stelter, CNN’s senior media correspondent and the host of “Reliable Sources.”

Stelter is a fascinating guy, but I don’t find his appeal in his age – although to do what he’s done by his late 20s is pretty extraordinary – but rather in how he built his profile in the TV news industry.

In college, Stelter started a blog based on his infatuation with the television industry, and he was early enough in the Internet wave to smartly exploit an advantage over newspapers covering TV: He could publish as frequently as he wanted, and by posting rumors and gossip and tips, his blog became must-read if you wanted to be current on the whispers of the industry.

That earned him the attention of executives, who became trusted sources, and off Stelter was into a career of robust media coverage.

Prayers of the dead

I can’t adequately describe this story from Casey N. Cep in The New Yorker about an old woman who wrote out prayers in code as she was dying.

All I can say is it’s fascinating and not very long and you should read it.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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