Form follows function.

I guess it’s obvious why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about design lately — what makes it good, what makes it appealing, what people want from it. This story today, in which the Detroit News took a bunch of Motown everyfolk through the auto show and paid attention to their reactions, made me think about it more:

“The Imperial is gorgeous,” said Detroit teacher Zora Callahan Jones, 48. “If I drove it, it would say I’m a classy lady.”

I think the Imperial is a gorgeous car, too, but one I wouldn’t buy if I had all the money in the world and you held a gun to my head. And the thought of what “it” would say about me, as opposed to what I would think of myself for choosing such an overfed pig of a ride, doesn’t even enter my head. When it comes to cars, the thoughts of the message it might send about its driver is so far off my list of considerations, it’s in another county.

To me, great design — whether in a car, a computer or a hammer — is all about how it facilitates the job it has to do. Form always has to follow function. A great dress should make the wearer look great. A tool should do its job and feel as good in your hand at 5:30 p.m. as it does at 8 a.m. An electronic device should be easy to figure out. A saddle should be comfortable for both horse and rider and put you in a position to facilitate communication between the two.

I used to ride horses, and developed a lot of ideas about design from the time I spent in barns, working over and under those beasts. People have been riding horses for thousands of years, but someone’s always trying to build a better currycomb, so to speak. I was a sucker for geegaws for a time, until I finally figured out that no geegaw can substitute for hard work and understanding, and the whole business is expensive enough that if you can substitute hard work for a $20 geegaw, you’re better off.

Some advances really are — breeches made of modern miracle fabrics are better than those of wool. But spare me the saddle made of synthetic fibers; I don’t care if you can wash it with a garden hose, it’ll never beat leather.

One of the things I really liked about my particular discipline — hunters — was how every piece of equipment had a purpose, or else you didn’t bother with it. Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you how everything worn by the pink-coated foxhunter and his horse has a specific purpose beyond the obvious.

Even the flask. When a person is suffering from a broken collarbone, a little brandy can be a powerful anesthetic.

Enough of that, then. On to the bloggage:

I’m so out of it — how out of it are you? — I’m so out of it that when the news of James Frey’s nonfiction-as-fiction caper broke last week, I had to do some supplemental reading. I’d never even heard of this book, probably because I pay little attention to memoirs and even less to Oprah’s book club choices. And oh dear lord, but if I wasn’t sure I was right before, I certainly am now, if the passage Seth Mnookin quotes in his very fair-minded column about Frey is any indication:

A Man walks out on stage and Everyone starts clapping. I recognize the Man as a famous Rock Star who was once a Patient here. He holds up his arms in triumph and he smiles and he bows and his black leather is shining and his long, greasy black hair is hanging and his patterned silk shirt is flowing … He claims that at the height of his use he would do five thousand dollars of cocaine and heroin a day mixed with four to five fifths of booze a night and up to 40 pills of valium to sleep. He says this with complete sincerity and with the utmost seriousness. … Were I in my normal frame of mind, I would stand up, point my finger, scream Fraud, and chase this Chump Motherfucker down and give him a beating. Were I in my normal frame of mind, after I gave him his beating, I would make him come back here and apologize to everyone for wasting their precious time. After the apology, I would tell him that if I ever heard of him spewing his bullshit fantasies in Public again, I would cut off his precious hair, scar his precious lips, and take all of his goddamn gold records and shove them straight up his ass.

My tolerance for writing this bad ends after one paragraph. (Why does he capitalize “Public?” Me no getta.) More to the point, in all the discussion about whether it’s OK to embellish in a memoir and whether people should get their money back and whether Oprah damaged herself by defending this heap of bilge (no, yes, yes), only Mnookin, a recovering addict himself, seems to see the problem here: Recovery only takes place when one is honest. Isn’t that one of the 12 steps, the “searching and fearless moral inventory?” How can you do that when you’re spinning a web of lies about spending three months in prison, when what you really did was spend a few hours in a police station?

It is to puzzle. I’m not a huge Mary Karr fan, but she gets it exactly right: Call me outdated, but I want to stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at least a century.

Elsewhere in the theater of Truth and Consequences, here’s one reason to be grateful I never went to work for People magazine. I could have spent the weekend freezing my ass off, standing outside the security perimeter of Eminem’s second wedding.

He remarried his first wife, the mother of his child, the mother of another child (whom Em adopted), his teenage sweetheart, his…god, you can’t call her a “muse,” can you, when he writes stuff like this about her: Sit down bitch / If you move again I’ll beat the shit out of you.

Ah, but that was another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Everyone’s grown up now, they’ve been down the bad roads, and hope springs eternal. The bride wore white. Their daughter was flower girl. Nobody’s perfect, and everyone deserves a second chance. All happiness to them.

Posted at 11:00 pm in Uncategorized |

12 responses to “Form follows function.”

  1. basset said on January 16, 2006 at 12:20 am

    hadn’t read the Frey book myself, someone insisted that I do because it was just so wonderful and had all these profound insights.

    so I did, and it was reasonably interesting, and after about the second page I was tired of unnecessary capitalization, and not long after that I was thinking “wait a minute, this stuff can’t be right.”

    finished it, and the next day, the NEXT day, all this Smoking Gun business came out.

    the fight with the police I could pretty much believe until it was proven wrong, same for the teenage misbehavior, but “an Addict and an Alcoholic” graduating from college in four years? after he got some girl killed in a train wreck back home?

    he just happened to meet a Mafioso addict who paid for his crack-whore girlfriend’s second shot at rehab? in the same clinic as the Federal judge who mysteriously got his charges from the cop-fight reduced?

    and I’d like to see the airline, in the USA anyway, that’d let a passenger on board passed out and bleeding from the face.

    but I am neither Oprah’s buddy nor a best-selling author, so what do I know…

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  2. Maureen said on January 16, 2006 at 1:00 am

    Similar story here in San Diego. A new year’s houseguest left the book for me to read, along with her fervent recommendation. After having spent the fall quarter reading a three foot stack of philosophy and theology, I said sure, I’ll read anything without footnotes. But the book was so fake, I became very impatient. Guy loses his religion because a lecherous priest puts his hand on his knee – wow, there’s some unplumbed depths, just to cite one of 1,000 examples. It was all so fakey-fakey, that it didn’t work as fiction at all. Later, when I read that it was actually published as NON-fiction, I about fell out of my chair. I have NO literary training – I was educated in the hard sciences and finance. I am a devoted, but completely recreational reader. But if someone had given me this manuscript with the notation that “this really happened”, I would have checked the calendar for April’s Fool. Scary.

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  3. brian stouder said on January 16, 2006 at 9:20 am

    1. an interesting article related to Dr Martin Luther King day.

    Somewhat disconcerting to reduce the courageous resolution of MLK to an Ipsos opinion poll – but there you are.

    2. A very good book with very odd punctuation is The Yard (a non-fiction about the building of a guided missile destroyer at Bath Iron Works). The guy (a print journalist!) refused to use quotation marks, for no reason I could ever understand.

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  4. Dorothy said on January 16, 2006 at 9:31 am

    IMHO, writers who do things like that are attempting to call attention to themselves in someway, in an effort to make their work stand out in the crowd. It’s an artist-y thing to do – e.e. cummings, k.d. lang, etc. come to mind. k.d. doesn’t need any tricks, though. Her voice is commanding enough!

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  5. Kim said on January 16, 2006 at 11:17 am

    About Lyin’ Frey: I read the book before O chose it. Found the style annoying, the Hazelden background interesting and Frey’s decision to go it without the 12 steps appealing (tho I am not an addict and don’t play one in my life) because it’s always seemed that a cold-turkey giving it up to the higher power was merely addiction replacement therapy that is doomed to fail without some truth/belief to support it. Also found the circumstances a bit, um, beyond what reality might support.

    But I dismissed that, thinking surely someone over at the publisher’s house vetted this memoir. You know, that genre built squarely on a nonfiction foundation? Silly me!

    I had to tune in to Larry King after TSG revealed Frey as a liar. Hadn’t seen the guy before and cannot stand Larry King, but wanted to hear how he could defend this. Totally pissed me off (from the part where he kneels at the altar of Larry onward) but what really really really got me was how this addict let his mother cover for him once again. If you believe what he’s written, his upper-middle class folks were ignorant or covered for his addictions and behavior from the time it started rolling in early adolescence. They even drove him to and paid for Hazelden. How dare he let his mother go on TV to cover for him again. As if success and money is the great equalizer here.

    As for O, what a foolish woman! To say the memoir is fallible and that it’s acceptable to “compress time” (wtf does that mean?!?) is bizarre, but to say it’s cool to appropriate someone else’s experience as your own memory is pretty Zelig — especially when you rationalize it as a greater good sort of thing.

    The darkly hilarious part about all this is that Frey told Larry that he’d never write about himself again. Many would probably say he has yet to do that.

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  6. mary said on January 16, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    I find a lot about Oprah and her role in our culture very troubling. Her endorsement of this book certainly fits in with the faux earnestness, the faux “soul” she radiates and earns a living from. She brought us Dr. Phil, people. She’s selling crap but she’s black and formerly hefty, so we think it’s righteous crap.

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  7. alex said on January 16, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Don’t be so hard on Oprah. She probably had no idea what a monster she was creating when she introduced us to Dr. Phil. And Frey’s wouldn’t be the first crappy book to win her endorsement either. I have no beef with her except for one thing she did several years ago for which I think she ought to be flogged.

    She felt it necessary to hold a press conference and deny being a lesbian. This was in response to some silly tabloid story about Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres being lovers. You have to wonder just how open-minded and unprejudiced this woman really is in light of this incident. The tabloids have said far worse about her, have linked her romantically to all kinds of people including Martians in space, and yet at no other time did she feel the need to defend her reputation against them except in this one instance. For that she lost my respect.

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  8. vince said on January 16, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    I heard an interesting discussion of this today on CBC. (A great side effect of a drive into British Columbia.)

    It was a rationale, calm discussion. One comment jumped out.

    One of the fellows interviewed had heard of Frey’s book being shopped around before it was published.

    Apparently, before publication it was being pitched as fiction.

    Interesting how its marketing changed — and could have opened up this entire can of worms.

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  9. mary said on January 17, 2006 at 10:36 am

    Oprah’s endorsed lots of crappy books. She’s also launched other windbags, besides Dr. Phil. The last time I watched her show, she spent about 20 minutes saying she was going to get her ears pierced on the air. She kept saying, “Ok,do it,” then “no no no.” That’s worth a TV show? A woman afraid of getting her ears pierced? Have you ever seen one of her shows when she gives away lots of stuff? It’s like an orgy. SNL did a terrific send up of it. Just perfect, and very close to reality.

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  10. Nance said on January 17, 2006 at 10:47 am

    The giveaway orgies are astounding. I watched one with my neighbor, who had tears in her eyes. Then I came back to our house and explained what was going on to my decidedly less sentimental husband. “Jeez, don’t those people know how much they’re going to owe in taxes on all that crap? And you know it was all donated and doesn’t cost Oprah a dime.” Quite true.

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  11. mary said on January 17, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Oprah’s Picks are good too. Every year she publishes her list of things she thinks are simply faboo, and they sell like crazy. When she was not let into Hermes in Paris after hours, she said she would never say positive things about Hermes products again. She owns several Hermes Birkin bags already, but forget about her ever hustling that Hermes stuff on her Oprah’s favorites list, guys. They wouldn’t let her in when the store was closed. I know I feel that way about my local Lenscrafters. I hope none of you ever go there for glasses.

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  12. joodyb said on January 18, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    Did anyone see the furiously hyped Oprah appearance on Letterman? Having returned recently to Dave’s flock, i was happily sucked in to the joke (or not) that was Dave’s longstanding fear of her based on his stupid Uma-Oprah thing YEARS ago, in TV time.
    It was the Broadway opening of ‘The Color Purple,’ which she apparently bankrolled. She was absolutely gorgeous, though overdressed, i thought; the meeting was of course anticlimactic. They made up, if there was ever any making up to do; she was all hugh Oprah smiles. Dave fawned over her like the tv royalty she is, they talked nonsense; then he personally escorted her to the theater (she had arrived on set dressed to go, and outside they went). I felt sorry for her. I don’t know why. I can’t watch her show; it upsets my stomach. But I kept wondering what a normal day was for her, and did she feel really good about anything in this world other than that ridiculously beautiful dress she was wearing?

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