Saturday, July 14, 2007

Friday the Thirteenth

Happy Friday the Thirteenth! Celebrations of note today include a midnight screening of the eponymous holiday movie (1980)* at AFI's Silver Theater,* but I don't think I'll venture out. Another movie missed due to my overwritten two-day semester: Álex de la Iglesia's lusciously black comedy el Día de la Bestia (Day of the Beast, 1995),* a wicked favorite featuring one lapsed Basque priest's attempt to stem the apocalypse using methods cabbalistic and profane. ...Beast sets the tolerance below Iglesia's more jaw-dropping Acción Mutante (Mutant Action!, 1993)* a futuristic revolution so giddily pitch as to put facial staples to ripe comedic use. So what did I see? An immediate reward for curbing any linguistic potential: I was finally able to catch an early afternoon screening of John Houston's parlor pulp masterpiece the Maltese Falcon (1941).* Completely unimpeachable, though I was surprised to note how sedate Huston's direction is here. There are occasional touches of flair: one dramatically-lit foreshadowing finds the camera roving all around the Spade & Archer office seeking deep meaning in cast shadows, for example; but this movie is mostly presented flatly, inertly following long expositive passages with nary a grit of the niorish texture usually present in Houston's rich crime verité. Very well. This is pulp after all, and keeps nicely apace of Dashiell Hammett's complex novel, though without the author's many socio-sexual observations. Need I synopsize? Sam Spade is hired by some dame; but it's okay, Sam knows the dame is lying. What he doesn't know is about this bird statue, see, and a cast of real foxy characters chasing each other for it. But that's okay, too. Key to this movie's untouchable status is yet another flexible and almost diabolical performance by Humphrey Bogart as the hot-and-cold-running nihilist Spade, a shark in crook-infested waters. [Cavin]

Friday, July 13, 2007


After Tuesday's exciting movie* it was difficult to be in bed by midnight for an early Wednesday school day. Or: after Tuesday morning's panic, sleeping was difficult since I was already panicking about Wednesday. Back on Monday, after those first bewildering classes, I'd told myself I'd give this Vietnamese course one week to see if I finally adjusted. By Tuesday night I was feeling more practical: I knew I was going to cancel my classes eventually--they were taking too much of my remaining time, and also squandering too much creative energy. They were sapping my ability to pursue necessary parts of my livelihood. In any event, they were institutionalizing the sort of deskbound existence I'm trying to habituate myself away from. A seven week language course probably isn't enough to imagine much return, in ability, on the seemingly endless investment I felt was necessary to continue. Lastly, Vietnamese is a course of language study I've every reason to believe I can attack with comparable efficacy once I'm actually in Vietnam. I laid in bed thinking these thoughts, unable to sleep. Eventually I got up and politely cancelled my classes in an email to my course supervisor. I feel mostly good about this decision, one I think I anticipated eventually making at the end of the week. Still, I feel a bit like a quitter who didn't give this its proper chance. No matter. I now have time for my few remaining months in the US, dominated by the grueling logistics of travel, weddings, and lingering temporary goodbyes. Also, I was able to wash dishes yesterday, write, and actually enjoy a slow Vietnamese meal with friends. At the restaurant I was able to order coffee in Vietnamese without looking at a menu. My accent was apparently pretty good. [Cavin]

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Yesterday's Update* had to be composed in my head and written at a later date. Between classes and sleep, my time should've been taken up by study, vying for importance with chores relating to housekeeping, health, and creative pursuits like writing. But I didn't do any of those things yesterday. In the six hours between classes and bedtime, I rushed to Silver Spring for a screening of John Huston's much-impersonated prospecting thriller the Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).* The plot is culturally ingrained: down-and-out Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) panhandles around Tampico, México, before befriending fellow good-natured bum Bob Curtain and bunking down near prospector Howard. The latter waxes tragic about a lifetime of gold-digging. Soon enough, the trio head into the Sierra Madres, where high in the hills the panhandlers find a vein and set to digging, panning pure gold in the irrigation of their jury-rigged mineshaft. Calamity threatens: Banditos are afoot, ready to kill a man for his boots. There's another gold-digger aiming to cramp the lucrative but illegal mine. Heck, even their half-baked shaft must cave-in, necessitating a morose rescue. But the real danger to these fortune hunters is the fortune itself: gold fever tempts and threatens and eventually turns the men into fevered paranoiacs. None more so than Dobbs, who by the movie's midpoint has been reduced to a seething, sweaty, bug-eyed lunatic, imagining his impending demise--and worse, the loss of his share--in every gesture or word from his conspirators. This has become passé stuff over sixty years of imitation, but seeing Bogey mastermind a role aped in countless skits and cartoons, it's amazing to witness his manic zeal and natural flexibility--something gestalt in that initial performance which has somehow died in the robotic lip-service of its many sincerest flatterers. [Cavin]

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


To clarify something I said yesterday:* I didn't know my classes were going to be like this. It's a surface, seven-week "fast" course, which I imagined would be less comprehensive than Sunshine's full-tilt fluency track. And it is; but mine are still full-day classes, seemingly more sped-up than truncated. I imagined a couple hours of class each afternoon like a college semester. I thought I'd get acquainted with Vietnamese, not sacrifice two-thirds of the rest of my time here to the intellectual labor of struggling through seven-hour Vietnamese workdays, while relegating all other life considerations to the back burner. Since I started taking classes I've managed nothing else: my interests have been abandoned to the labor of achieving whatever goal is attainable after two months of brand-new language study. I was panicky on the drive to school this morning: I didn't know less than I knew yesterday, but I was certain I'd be expected to know more. This second day of class, without any orientation nonsense, followed what will become my regular schedule: two morning classes beginning at ten thirty, followed by lunch, an hour of self-study followed by lab, then two more hours of classroom time in the afternoon ending at five-thirty. If I left less panicked than I'd been this morning, even less upset than yesterday, I'm still feeling dread: there's no time for homework tonight either. All my own projects are going another day without being attended to. I imagine Vietnamese will just get harder from here. In other news, this is the happy birthday of this here Update Sidebar blog. I've posted 306 entries, with 59 days lost to travel or lethargy. I'd pledge a higher second year count, but I don't know if that's really feasible on the other side of the world. [Cavin]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Last night's long drive had us returning home pretty late. Not late according to my old lifestyle, of course; but any hour actually after dark is late for someone unused to waking up at seven thirty like I did for this first grueling day of Vietnamese classes this morning. At nine, after heavy traffic through the Institute's security gate, over a hundred and eighty students, studying forty-one different languages, were shuffled into a ramshackle campus gym for orientation. This was an inauspicious beginning: the dark brick-and-wood inner-city gymnasium, with retractable basketball apparatus and walls decked with thin red-and-black gymnastic mats, triggered many sinister childhood YMCA flashbacks: which group was I supposed to join? How many laps makes a mile? Was I wearing shoes that wouldn't mark the floor? The orientation speeches and obligatory multimedia presentation took on an aural hue of shouted volleyball cues or Coach rotating us through exercise stations. I'm really glad no one used a whistle. After orientation, we broke into separate classes, and I accompanied my lone classmate (she's married to Sunshine's lone classmate) to what will be our classroom for the next seven weeks, a very professional, somewhat cozy office with four chairs and faulty dry-erase board. Here we held class until our hour lunch break in the clattery Institute cafeteria. After lunch, my classmate and I were pointed to a larger room for several personality-type tests, supposedly to help us identify our learning aptitudes, after which we had one more class where I was expected to know what we'd gone over this morning. I have to admit, I left school upset today. My classmate, who speaks four languages, has already had some Vietnamese instruction, so I'm already behind. Plus, this course is more time- and work-intensive than I'd imagined it would be. [Cavin]

Monday, July 09, 2007


Everybody said the drive to Boston would take eight hours, including directions we generated before leaving. I'd been chirping about how I could drive it in just over six. The train takes three hours and ten minutes to get to New York from DC, and another three to arrive in Boston from there. I add this up as six-ish. I can't remember any time I was unable to outperform slow-ass American train schedules, so I was convinced I'd be able to make the trip to Readercon* this weekend in seven hours. But everything happened wrong. My carefully timed departure, sure to make NYC between lunch and dinner rush hours, didn't account for continuous fifty-five mph speed limits from Baltimore to the Jersey border. Then we promptly missed the proper I-295 exit to the NJ Turnpike (heck, even that legendary speedway was fifty-five down much of its ugly length). So obviously we crossed the George Washington Bridge onto the Bronx Expressway at five pm and slowly inched through Connecticut. We arrived at the Boston Marriott Burlington--hidden behind a bus stop in Burlington, Massachusetts, a tiny suburb north of Beantown--just ten hours and twenty minutes after leaving Falls Church. We had a good time at Readercon, by the way, making new friends* and seeing old ones.* We returned with a number of new books (that number is nineteen), some of which we were able to get autographed. Sunshine even signed something herself: the advanced reading copy of the upcoming Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet anthology, which includes two of her poems. We really figured the Sunday drive home would go much quicker tonight; but nine hours into our eight-hour drive, stuck in Baltimore roadwork just inside the Capital Beltway, we knew we weren't even going to beat Thursday's record. [Cavin]