Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Little girl lost

Other evening, I was browsing through the stacks, looking for something to watch that night and ideas for movies to put in the old Netflix queue. Picked up and considered the following.

Game 6. Michael Keaton. Screenplay by Don Delillo. Two pluses right off the bat. Robert Downey Jr. Another plus. Bebe Neuwirth, possibly getting naked. Hard to tell from reading the box. But even if she keeps her clothes on, Bebe's a definite plus. Game six of the the 1986 World Series featuring as the McGuffin that drives the plot. Ok, it's rented already. Clincher. Keaton's character's a playwright living in terror of a vicious drama critic. The world I left behind.

Wodehouse: Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime? Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Robert Downey Jr again. Val Kilmer doing comedy. Real possibilities. Had mixed reviews. Into the queue.

Proof. Gwyneth. Hopkins. Enough said.

Syriana. No brainer. Surprised at myself for not having it in my queue already.

While I'm working my way along the stacks, the monitors in the stores are showing trailers for a hundred movies there's no way I'm going to see unless I'm forced at gunpoint onto an airplane and one of them's the in-flight film and I forgot a book and can't borrow a magazine and I can't get drunk fast enough on those tiny little liquor bottles to make myself pass out.

So I'm not paying the least bit of attention, until I hear...

Her voice.

Zooey Deschanel.

I snap to attention, find the closest monitor, and look and find I'm watching the trailer for Failure to Launch.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey in a movie that answers the burning question, Just how cute and adorable can Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey be together?

There's a long tradition of movies that are about nothing except how cute and adorable the two stars are and won't it be just thrilling when they smooch?

I give most of these the skip. Half the time they don't even register. Failure to Launch came and went at the cineplexes without my noticing. If I had been aware of it, I wouldn't have gone, and I wouldn't be giving it a thought now except for Zooey Deschanel's being in it, because I want to know:

Who makes a movie and casts Zooey Deschanel as second banana to the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker?

(Failure to Launch also looks as though it's another movie pushing LOVE as the solution to everything that's wrong with you and your life, which means it's mush.)

While I was watching the trailer, which went on forever, as too many trailers do---I don't need to see the movie now, probably---I had another question.

Just how much longer can fortysomething Sarah Jessica Parker go on playing twenty-two?

This is not an age-ist attack on her looks or her being a fortysomething romantic lead. She looks great, except for being like just about every movie actress these days too thin, and she can play early to mid-thirtysomething with a minimum of soft focus and flattering lighting, which is what I think she's supposed to be playing in Failure to Launch.

But what the script calls for and what the director and she are doing with the character appear to be different things.

Parker's a terrific physical comedian, and cute as a bug, but isn't it time she put her talents to work playing an actual grown-up?

From what I saw, Parker was doing her little girl lost act once again, the same act that began to wear so terribly towards the end of Sex and the City.

The premise of Sex and the City was, in the first couple of seasons, that life in New York for the young and beautiful and single is a wonderful adventure. But under the frothy surface there was a darker theme swimming along like a shark ready to rise.

All four of the leading characters were not that young. Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte were in their early thirties. Samantha was pushing forty. Yet they were all still living their lives exactly as they might have been when they were in their 20s or even, if they'd gone to college in New York, in their late teens.

While the lives of their married and settled contemporaries were usually portrayed as living nightmares to be avoided at all costs, whenever they came in contact with twentysomethings whose lives paralleled their own, they recoiled with another kind of horror. There was a shock of recognition. The places in time and space they were occupying and desperately trying to hold onto belonged to other, much younger women---to girls.

None of the characters admitted it out loud, but they were all conscious that there was a competition going on that they were bound to lose, and if they didn't change their lives themselves, find a new space to occupy, a new role in life to play, when they did lose, when they were pushed out by the younger women, by the girls, there would be nowhere for them to go, except into caricature, self-parody, and absurdity.

They were always on the verge of becoming jokes to themselves.

What all of them---except Carrie---were hunting for was not a man to save them, but a path to a more grown up way of living their lives.

By the final season, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha had all completed their individual progresses towards real adulthood. There was some criticism of the last episodes that the show had gone soft and consigned all the leads to lives of happily ever aftering in the arms of their men. But that misses the more important changes in Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte.

All three were forced by painful circumstances into giving up their illusions about themselves.

This was most obvious in Samantha's case. She had to admit more than just that she was not going to be young and beautiful forever. She had to admit that she was going to die.

At the end it looks as though Sam's rewarded with the enternal love of her young god, Smith, but Sam knows. At some point, sooner or later, she will have to give him up. This bout of cancer hadn't killed her, but that doesn't mean there won't be another that will, and even if she's lucky, time catches up with all of us and we are forced to let go.

Samantha, who wanted it all and thought she had it, finishes by accepting that life isn't a matter of getting and having, it's all about what you have to give up.

Miranda has to admit that she is not a lone wolf and that she cannot continue to live as though she has no responsibilities to anyone else and no one is responsible for her. What I really liked about the way the writers handled this was that Miranda never does go soft. She doesn't like having to give up her independence, and when she finishes up chasing after Steve's mother through the streets and bringing her home and cleaning her up, you can see, thanks to Cynthia Nixon's brilliance, that Miranda is not happy and knows she is not going to be happy that this is the path her life is going to take, but she also knows that this is what she wants anyway.

What a terrible and terribly grown up idea. That what makes us happy can also make us miserable and that sticking with it is the right thing to do despite its making us miserable, because giving it up would make us even more miserable.

Charlotte gets off lightest. Her illusion was that she was born to be a princess but had somehow been evicted from the castle. But because she was always the most good-hearted of the four, the producers decided to reward her without making her learn the hard lessons Sam and Miranda had to learn. When Charlotte gives up the idea that she is meant to be a princess, that she will ever have her dreams come true, her dreams come true. She doesn't learn the lesson consciously, she just lives it---it turns out that she has always been a real princess.

Still, in having to give up her illusions, to let go some of her dreams, to realize that she can't have everything she wants just because she wants it (and even deserves it), she becomes a real grown-up.

The actresses who played them, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis, recognized what was happening to their characters and they not only played them accordingly, they let themselves start to show their age.

This didn't mean they let themselves appear less beautiful. If anything, they all grew more beautiful, especially Nixon, who up until the last season seemed sometimes to go out of her way to make herself the plainest Jane of the four.

But they let themselves look tired. They let themselves look weathered, so to speak, lined, careworn, too busy or frazzled or demoralized to care how they looked, resigned to the fact that they were not as young and glamorous as they were when the show started.

They stopped playing their parts as girls. They started to act middle-aged.

Sarah Jessica Parker went the other way.

By they end she was visibly desperate to pass as twenty-two. She wasn't simply trying to look twenty-two. She was acting even harder to move and react as if she was still twenty-two.

Carrie was the one who had the fewest illusions about herself. What she had instead was a single dream.

That dream was for a man to come along and gather her up and take care of her.

It was a little girl's dream.

In the end, the dream comes true.

Big comes back and gathers her up---he picks her up off the floor---and he's clearly going to take care of her forever.

The other three's happy endings all require them to become grown-ups. For Charlotte and Miranda this is made manifest in their becoming mothers and in having familes to take care of. For Samantha's it's realized her in imminent death.

There's also a sense in which Sam becomes responsible for Smith as if he's not just her family, but her child, and I think it was implicit at the end that Samantha knew there was going to come a time when like a mother she was going to have to push Smith out of the nest. Someday, even if she didn't die, she would have to give him up. Another woman, one his own age with whom he could have a family, would appear and Samantha seemed to know that it would be up to her to make sure Smith did not miss his chance to become a grown-up.

However it would come about, loss and responsibility for another person were going to be defining facts of her future.

But Carrie doesn't have to give up anything or accept responsibility for anybody or anything.

She's going to go on and on and on as Big's little girl.

She would have him all to herself, and he would devote himself entirely to her.

She would never have to grow up.

Which was fine for the show, I guess.

But I wish Sarah Jessica Parker didn't seem intent on a career of keeping Carrie Bradshaw a little girl forever.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Next time we'll wear sneakers

Amazingly, we can't find a place to get a cup of coffee on this part of Broadway at 1 in the morning. Coffee's probably nearby if we just hunt hard enough. But one of us is wearing a pair of brand new shoes that have been doing a number on that one of us' feet and a lot of walking's not in the cards. We wander a block, down to 8th Ave. and have a choice between a too brightly lit bread and dessert place and a not too dimly lit bar. We choose the bar where the one of us with the new shoes thinks she can kick them off under a table where no one will see or care.

Close to last call, the place is nearly empty except for a group of tall, burly middle-aged men in jeans and workshirts at the bar.

"Bears," Uncle Merlin tells me the next day when I tell him about it. He's thinking like a gay man.

"Stage hands," I counter, thinking like a theater buff who knows the bar's around the corner from Studio 54 where the Roundabout Theatre Company's staging Threepenny Opera and figuring that at this time of night, the final curtain having been wrung down a couple of hours ago, the props have all just been put away and the stage dressed for tomorrow's performance and now it's Miller Time.

I suppose we both could have been right, though we were both just as probably wrong.

Whatever they were, they all smiled at us and nodded as we came in, and the middle-aged waitress who had just cashed out and was on her way home welcomed us and showed us to a back table as if she had been able to tell at a glance we were looking for a little quiet space to ourselves and she apologized in a sincere and friendly voice that she couldn't take our orders herself but the bartender would be glad to help us, which he was, and he didn't care that all we wanted was a couple of sodas and he pretended not to see when the new shoes were kicked off and so we finished the night there, talking quietly, sipping sodas, relaxing and unwinding, content and happy, but thinking next time we'll wear sneakers.

A determined little blonde

After midnight, in the West Village, things just beginning to happen for the young and beautiful, but it's feeling like time for us to call it a night and head back up town. Go to catch a cab at the corner where Hudson intersects with West 14th and 9th Ave. The broad cobblestoned intersection empty of all cars except cabs. Dozens of cabs. All full.

We stand beside a trio of young men waving at passing cabs. Before long there's a group of young women behind us.

A cab finally pulls over and the young men move towards it. A pretty little blonde in a green party dress steps out of the group of women. She has a very determined look about her.

"Wasn't that your cab?" she asks us as the young men pile in.

No, we say, they were here ahead of us. She eyes us skeptically. Something about us makes her think we're too innocent and non-New Yorkerish to be trusted out without a lead. We're the type who'd stand there all night letting pushy people steal our cabs. Determinedly, she steps out into the road and waves down another taxi.

"This one's yours!" she says, opening the door. "Get in!"

We obey. She closes the door behind us and looking even more determined goes after another cab for her and her friends.

Pity the fool who tries to steal a cab from them.


In my college days when I used to get to the City a lot I spent most of my time in the East Village. The friends I stayed with were theater types and we never wandered far from the off-off-Broadway precincts where they worked and went to school. Which was fine by me. There was a whole world there that I never came close to completely exploring. I don't think I ever made it much closer to New Jersey than Washington Square Park in those days, let alone all the way to the West Village.

So when, in answer to my demand that someone name a place where we could get coffee and dessert and sit and talk in relative peace and quiet, a modest, unassuming voice said, "Florent," I had no idea where or what Florent was and in accepting the suggestion, for all I knew, I was about to navigate us into a leather bar or an Italian social club or another, pretentious, trendoid hot spot like the place we'd just left.

And looking down into the shoebox of darkness that's Ganesvoort at 11 o'clock at night was not reassuring. There looked to be nothing alive and awake down there except for a lone slim-figured female in a party dress with a puffed out skirt, wobbling drunkenly on her high heels into the deeper darkness of an overpass half a block on. I was half-inclined to give up on Florent then and there but I decided we'd better follow the girl at least until she was out from under the overpass. Besides thinking we might need to rush to her rescue from hands reaching out from the shadows, I was hoping she would lead us to Florent.

We didn't, and she didn't, but the sharper-eyed member of our party spotted lighted windows shining between the parked cars and trucks on our right. The drunken girl turned a corner into the light on Washington Street and we crossed the street to see what was what behind those windows.

The steel lettering over the awning that spanned the storefront spelled out R & L Restaurant, but there was a small pink neon sign in the window. florent.

Now at this point in my narrative I should be beginning my own description of Florent. I could do it, although all I have to work from in my notebooks is:


Ancient Chinese busboys.

Very tall, very thin, very light-skinned, very handsome, very gay black waiter with a shaved head, wearing Hawaiian shirt and rimless glasses.



Fortunately, Donald Westlake did all the work for me. Serendipity strikes! Last night I read this in Drowned Hopes:

At three in the morning, the only action on two-block-long Ganesvoort Street, in the middle of the wholesale meat section of Manhattan, south of Fourteenth Street in the far West Village, is Florent, a good twenty-four-hour-a-day French bistro operating in an old polished-chrome-and-long-counter diner. The diner's short end is toward the street, so the counter and tables run straight back under the vivid lights, with hard surfaces that bounce and echo the noise of cheerful conversation. While all around this one building the meat packers and wholesale butchers are closed and silent and dark, the bone trucks all empty and hosed down for the night, and the metal gates closed over the loading docks, the cars and limousines still wait clustered in front of the warm bright lights of the bistro, which seems at all times to be filled with animated talking laughing people who are just delighted to be awake now.

Westlake wrote that in the late 1980s, but nothing much has changed. There were no limos out front, that's about the only difference. And Westlake didn't mention the blueberry pie, which was terrific.

But his last point is still Florent's best feature, the place was full of animated talking laughing people delighted to be awake right then.

Including and especially me.

The Hog Pit

Restaurant staff is moving furniture around us. A couch floats over people's heads, carried by a pair of tall waiters in black. Discussion's breaking up anyway. The suggestion to continue the party somewhere else rises up from several quarters. Where to though?

Personally I'm all for any place that offers one:enough quiet to make holding a conversation possible and pleasurable, two: coffee by the potful, three: proof that I'm still in New York City.

The group decision's a place that doesn't sound as if it's going to supply any one of the three---a barbeque joint on the corner. The Hog Pit.

If I'd had a guide book handy I'd have known for sure I wasn't going. Country Western music on the jukebox, a little piece of the good ol' South, a honky-stomping air? But even without advanced warning like that, the idea of pulled pork at this hour is less than appetizing. I start making plans to kidnap the company I most want to keep and make a dash for the first place that looks like Edward Hopper might have painted it or Dawn Powell put it in a novel.

Funny thing happens on the way out the door. Our group breaks into two, and the half I'm part of gets lost in the maze of stairwells trying to find the coatcheck room in order to retrieve jackets, briefcases, and one mysterious canvas bag that looks like it contains groceries. By the time we make it to the street the rest of the group's nowhere in sight.

Mosey on over to the Hog Pit, right up to the door, and stop. We're all balking at going in, everybody having the same thought. This is not what we had in mind. The more literarily-star-struck of us start making the case for taking a cab up to the Algonquin where we can rub elbows with the ghosts of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and other wits and writers of the early days of the New Yorker. But nobody knows exactly where it is, not even those of us who live and work in Manhattan, and our leader, Tom Watson, has been waylaid by an ex-Marine down on his luck who's looking for money for a sandwich. Tom, being a good-natured sort and in a convivial mood, has the ex-Marine telling him his life story, and, not surprisingly, while we're waiting for the Marine, who of course is no minimalist, he's a regular Tolstoy of verbal autobiographers, to bring his memoirs up to date, the air starts to go from people's sails.

Work in the morning. Long drives and long train rides home. Spouses, partners, and pets waiting.

"Ok," I say, "This is the Village. There's got to be 6000 places around here that offer coffee, relative quiet, and the sense of being trapped inside an Edward Hopper painting. One of you supposed Manhattanites name one now!"

And one of them does. And just like that, after some hasty goodnights and (sincere) promises to get together again soon, I'm on my way to having all three things I wanted plus sole possession of the company I most want to keep.

Turns out the rest of our group wasn't even in the Hog Pit. They'd passed it up to go in search of burgers.

Andrew Young

There was a silent auction going on at the DMI benefit. One of the prizes was you get to be editor of the Nation for a day. Kos opened his speech by saying that if he won the first thing he was going to do was fire Alexander Cockburn.

I didn't get the joke. But most everybody else laughed. Maybe it was just a "Hey the famous guy just made what he thinks is a witty remark" laugh. Probably, though, there's some history between Kos and Cockburn I'm not in on. I'm usually not in on these things.

At any rate, maybe Kos' poke at Cockburn explains why Andrew Young began his introduction of Wynton Marsalis talking about Jimmy Carter.

Young, Carter's ambassador to the UN, is the chair of DMI's board of directors. He knows Marsalis from way back. Knows him from when he was a kid. Knows him because he was friends with Marsalis' father, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. Ellis and Young went to the same high school. Young was ahead of Ellis and he told Wynton that he likes to kid Ellis about how he failed to take care of the school. "I left your daddy in charge of the place, and a year later they closed it." I suspect this was where Young had planned to begin his speech.

But before he got there he talked about Jimmy Carter because of Kos' shot at Cockburn. It reminded Young he didn't much care for Cockburn either.

Way back, in 1975, Cockburn wrote an article in which he accused Carter of being a racist. That made Young mad.

"Jimmy Carter was a lot of things," Young said, "But he was not a racist."

Young wrote something defending Carter on that score. Short time after it appeared somebody from Jimmy Carter's campaign called Young and asked him if he'd like to help out. Young was skeptical. No way in hell an obscure ex-governor of Georgia gets himself elected President of the United States, Young told the Carter aide. The aide said, come down and talk to the Governor anyway, see what you think after that.

Next thing I know, Young more or less told us, I'm the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

Young is still proud of his service, still proud to have worked for Jimmy Carter, still proud to call Carter a friend.

"We achieved all our foreign policy objectives, we didn't start any wars, and we did it without killing anybody or getting anybody killed," he said. This is mostly true. I don't think it's right not to count the soldiers who got killed in the botched attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. But in the main it's true.

That's why we all cheered.

Young went on, "I don't know why that's all considered weak, but it is to some people."

Some people would rather the United States failed on all fronts, just as long as they could feel good that we'd killed a lot of our enemies while we failed.

Failure is strength, success is weakness, war is peace.

Anna Burger

Anna Burger told us about a man she knows who worked in meat processing plant. Smithfield Foods. The man stood all day in a room where the temperature routinely broke 100 degrees and caught the carcasses of hogs coming down the line from where they'd been slaughtered. The carcasses weighed up to 400 pounds. He caught them on his shoulder and handed them to someone else who hung them up on a hook so that someone else could start slicing them up into hams and roasts and chops.

All day he did this. "The line never stops," he told Burger. The work broke many strong men. They couldn't take it after a while and walked right off the job. Burger's friend said there were plenty of times when he wanted to walk away too. He never did. He couldn't. He had a family to support.

He made 11,000 dollars a year.

The CEO of the company made 11 million. Before bonuses and incentives and stock options. The CEO made more before lunch on January 1st than Burger's friend made all year.

Company's Smithfield Foods.

The workers had no health benefits. They had a half hour for lunch but because it took ten minutes to walk off the floor to the lunch room and ten mintues to get back so they had to wolf down their sandwiches. No chance to relax, no chance to think, no chance to be human beings for even a little while.

They were organic parts in a machine.

One day the guy got hurt. He needed time off to recover. The company gave him all the time he needed.

They fired him.

This is life without unions.


People used as meat machines.

This is how the people running America now want it to be.

Europe in the Middle Ages. Russia under the czars. South America under the dictators and military juntas.

There are rich people and there are meat machines.

The rich people are happy with this arrangement.

This is why the Drum Major Institute was honoring Anna Burger.

She's not happy with the arrangement.

She's working hard to change it.


At McGee's Pub, the young curly-haired waiter with the soft Irish brogue answers all requests with an enthusiastic "Absolutely!" Pronounced "Ob-sah-looootely!"

Can we have a Coke and an iced tea?


McGee burger and chicken quesadilla?


Some extra napkins?


My credit card back after taking care of the check?


Ah, well, no. A fact I don't discover until 1 in the morning.

Is McGee's closed for the night when I discover it?


Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect, and no more jelly donuts

Came into New York Thursday by way of the GW Bridge, took the Henry Hudson Parkway into midtown, and headed up towards Broadway on W 54th, which took me past, among other landmarks, the studio where The Colbert Report is taped---a small, blank-looking brick building with a bare wooden door and some sawhorses out front for the would-be audience to line up behind---and the Midtown North Precinct House, where there was something odd-looking to me about the crowd of cops hanging out on the sidewalk by their lined up white patrol cars.

They all looked too neat, the cops and the patrol cars, actually. The cops were standing around with the too purposeful attitudes of guys with nothing to do trying to look like they were busy and on the job, and that was normal enough. But they also were all of a type. Well, cops are traditionally all of a type. These cops weren't of that traditionally type, though. They were all youngish, all in excellent shape, but trim and wiry like runners not bulked up like the weight-lifters.

And they all looked short.

Has something changed in the culture of New York City cops? Are there new health and fitness requirements?

Or does only a certain physical type get posted to Midtown North?

And what happened to the blue and whites? And what's with the motto CPR---Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect? Somehow that's not reassuring to me. It would sound fine as the motto of a long-distance trucking company, the kind of company that wants you think it's serious about the How's My Driving Call 1-800--CAN-MYAS stickers on the liftgates.

But while I would hope that police officers practice courtesy, demonstrate professionalism, and show respect for citizens and their rights as a matter of course, when I call a cop those qualities aren't the foremost on my mind.

Ah well, nevermind. It was a gorgeous day, despite the heat, and even though the precinct house was in the shade, the colors of the flag flying over the doorway and the blue of the cops' uniforms were as bright and pretty as a watercolor.

Friday, June 23, 2006

My New York City

First time I was on my own in New York City, I was 15. I was there on a class field trip to see a play. A matinee. We had a few hours before the show to wander about and get some lunch, both of which I did, the first part, the wandering about, in the pouring rain. I wasn't wearing a raincoat and I didn't have an umbrella and I didn't much care. I was 15. I'd been planning to grab a hot dog from a vendor in front of some landmark like the New York Public Library or Grand Central Station. The rain put the kaibosh on that plan. So I didn't know where to go for lunch, all I knew is that I didn't want to go to McDonalds. I wanted to eat lunch in a real New York City kind of place. I found a little diner, went in, and sat down at the counter, dripping wet, and trying to read the menu while wiping the water out of my eyes with my sleeve.

A waitress peered at me from the far end of the counter. She didn't look glad to see me. But she moved down to wait on me.

She was middle-aged. To my 15 year old eyes she looked grandmother age, which means she could have been as young as 40. She was solidly built, with heavy, muscular arms, and big fists that she put on her hips as she stood there, frowning hard at me. I began to worry she was about to tell me that I wasn't allowed in there for some reason.

She frowned at me for what seemed a very long time and then she reached under the counter, came up with a clean white rag and slowly, very gently, wiped the water from my eyes and from my forehead and then smoothed back my wet hair and gave it a little tousling to dry it a bit and smoothed it down again. When she decided I was dry enough and presentable, she put away the rag, and took out her pad and pencil.

"Whatcha havin', dear?" she said. She never stopped frowning. But her eyes were laughing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Shelley, what were you thinking?"

I've always thought Shelley Long's been given a bum rap.

Her name's become a synonym for really bad career move because of her decision to leave Cheers to pursue a movie career that never amounted to much, unless you think the two Brady movies are masterpieces of high artistic camp.

But given the information she had to work with at the time, a good case can be made---and I'm about to make it---that hers wasn't a bad decision at all, just apparently unfortunate. In fact, all things considered at the time, it might have been the smart decision.

It may not have worked out all that well for her. But it turned out to be great for the show.

At the time she left, she'd already put in five seasons as Diane Chambers, about four years longer than 75 per cent of all situation comedies stay on the air, Cheers wasn't the ratings powerhouse it would become, she couldn't predict the show would continue for six more years and only finish its run because Ted Danson didn't want to come back for a 12th season, and she may have looked at the direction the writers and producers were taking her character and seen, I think correctly, that they were driving her and the show down a creative dead end.

After my post on Diane as prototypical blogger went up Sunday night, a friend dropped me a note expressing surprise that I prefered Rebecca to Diane. She didn't elaborate so I don't know if she meant the characters or the actresses who played them or why she thought I'd have been more of a Diane/Shelley guy. Maybe she thinks that pompous, pseudo-intellectuals are more my type or maybe she assumes, like a lot of people who know the hair color of the person I'm married to, this gentleman prefers blondes. Maybe Shelley/Diane is her type.

But I didn't mean that I prefered Rebecca (or Kirstie Alley) to Diane (or Shelley Long). I meant that the show, on the whole, got funnier after Diane left.

And I think the reason it did had nothing to do with either of the two actresses, but everything to do with getting rid of Diane.

She had begun to gum up the works.

The first big mistake the producers were on their way to making was marrying Sam and Diane.

Shows about happily married couples can be funny. Dick Van Dyke, Mad About You, before the baby, Cosby, for a while, both of Bob Newhart's best shows, Roseanne, really, and the Honeymooners. Shows about unhappily married couples are a matter of taste. Most sitcoms about married couples try to have it both ways, like Everybody Loves Raymond. The couple bickers, trades insults, and works at cross-purposes in everything, including and especially raising the kids; they avoid romantic gestures and they do not have sex, which is usually an occasion for jokes humiliating the husband while implying all women over 30 are sexless, castrating, joyless shrews; and then after a half hour of straining to make us laugh at their misery and foolishness the writers bring the couple together for a hug and a kiss and a declaration of undying love.

The husband still isn't getting any though.

Without drastic changes in their characters, Sam and Diane were headed for an unhappy marriage.

In order for the marriage to have worked---I'm talking about their marriage as a fictional conceit; I'm not offering free couples counseling---the writers would have had to pretty much write away the defining fact of Sam's character, which was not so much that he was a hound, as Carla liked to think, but that he was a lone wolf. And they would have had to complete Diane's character arc well before it was ready to be completed.

Diane's original role in the show was that of an outsider who longs to join a family. Her problem was that she looked down her nose at all the people in that family she wanted to join and she could never resist insisting on her superiority to them or demanding that they acknowledge it.

She was a snob, pure and simple, but she was trying. And she was learning. For a while.

Sometime in the third season, while she was dating Frasier, the producers, maybe unconsciously, began to see Diane not as the love interest but as the femme fatale.

She was a destructive force.

Carla had always seen Diane as a threat to the family. She instinctively understood that in order for Diane to become part of the group, the group would have to change too. Diane had to become more tolerant, more egalitarian, less full of herself, more open to different virtues and different ways of expressing virtue, but to accomodate her the gang would have to become...grown-ups.

Diane was, originally, a civilizing influence, a fact that was most noticeable in her effect on Sam, who was the gang's leader, the one who held it together.

Carla probably thought of herself as uncivilizable and therefore she'd be pushed out when civilization came. (If Neddie Jingo can rouse himself from his painkiller induced stupor he's welcome to chime in here with parallels to Deadwood's Al Swearengen. I'm not kidding.) Diane, as far as Carla was concerned, was the end of life.

But then the writers began to see things from Carla's point of view.

Diane became purely destructive. She was a threat to the gang as a whole. She was a threat to the two leading men, Sam and Fraiser, not just to their sanity but to their masculinity. She was no longer civilizing, or even domesticating. She was a rampaging ego that swallowed other people whole.

I can see how Shelley Long might not have enjoyed playing her anymore.

As a devouring monster of self-absorption she became the butt of every joke. So much so that Cheers was still getting laughs out of making fun of her years after she'd left.

This is why I always thought it was stupid to have brought her back for the final episode. There was nowhere they could go with it and no point they needed to make that they hadn't made already. Some day I'll make my case that the real final episode of Cheers was Woody and Kelly's wedding, with the first episode of the last season as a fitting coda, and every episode that followed a total waste of time and talent.

Long might also have seen that her character had already been recreated and split into Fraiser and Lillith, making Diane redundant.

Cheers never had a particularly rosy view of marriage to begin with. If Long hadn't left, we probably would have seen a lot of shows about the wife as villainess.

If the writers softened their views and the characters, then Cheers would likely have turned into a version of I Love Lucy, with Diane as the foolish wife constantly embarrassing her long-suffering husband Sam, or The Honeymooners, with Sam as the conniving overgrown child trying to scheme his way past his longsuffering wife's attempts to make him act his age. Either way, I think we'd have seen the last season or two of Cheers.

But with Diane out of the way, not only was Sam freed up to be more himself, the writers were freed up to make more of all the other characters. That damned Diane and Sam romance took up way too much time even before it had grown stale and angry.

Rebecca Howe was brought in to be a new love interest for Sam and in some ways she was another Diane, someone who was "above" Sam and whose love he would have to earn by bringing himself up to her level by civilizing himself and becoming a real grown-up.

And Rebecca's career ambitions were like Diane's literary pretenstions. She aspired to be part of a world the gang at Cheers could never join. To be part of the gang, she would have to give up her too high opinion of herself, just as Diane had to.

But there was an important difference that the writers were quick to recognize and exploit.

Diane was a true outsider. Rebecca wasn't. She belonged at Cheers from the moment she arrived. Diane stayed because she had fallen in love at first sight with Sam. This always meant that Diane had to choose between love and self-interest, always a disasterous position to find yourself in. Rebecca stayed because she had fallen in love with Cheers.

Of course she would never admit this about herself. Diane was a snob. But Rebecca was vain beyond all get out. Diane had reason to think she could be a poet or a writer or a college professor. Rebecca had no reason to think she could become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, not because she wasn't smart enough or lucky enough or talented enough, but because that wasn't who she was.

Her brains and her talents were all meant for other things, one of which was to be her own person, not a corporate stooge. She was born to run her own small business. But she had high hopes, high hopes, mile in the sky, apple pie hopes, and luckily, the writers of Cheers, unlike the writers of the song, were realists about pie in the sky.

Rebecca provided lots of opportunities for them to write about an ant trying and failing to move that rubber tree plant. Which was funny for a number of reasons, not least of all because we knew what she didn't, that her failures didn't really matter because they always brought her back to where she belonged, Cheers.

On top of this, the producers discovered that Kirstie Alley was very good at something they'd never really called on Shelley Long to do, physical comedy.

Alley could be funny with her body. She could do farce.

So could Ted Danson. He was a brilliant physical actor. Watch a few episodes and you'll be amazed and thrilled to see how much of Sam Malone was created through small gestures and postures and---no real actor will be surprised at this---the way he walked, which changed subtly depending on Sam's moods and intentions.

With Alley and Danson, Cheers had two leads who could play farce and so the writers wrote farces for them to act in.

And the show became funnier as a result.

Another post for another time is how it was Kelsey Grammar, of all people, who brought physical comedy into Cheers and the first signs that the show could change from light romantic comedy into farce were in episodes that featured Fraiser get knocked around.

I'm sure Shelley Long could have done farce if they'd thought to let her, but that's not the direction the show was headed when she left. It was headed towards black comedy.

So I think from her point of view it was reasonable for her to get out while the getting was good.

As for her anticipated movie stardom never materializing, I think that was because of bad career moves, on her part, and her agent's, and all but one of the directors' who cast her in their movies.

They all made the mistake of thinking she was a leading lady.

What she is is a gifted character actresses who happened to be able to play one particular romantic leading character well.

If you want to see the kind of movie careeer she should have pursued, rent Robert Altman's Dr T and the Women. Not bad Altman at all, as far as that goes, but the best thing in the movie as far as I'm concerned is Long's turn as Richard Gere's lovelorn office manager. The way she pines for him all movie long and desperately attempts to show him she's the woman for him with her efficiency and devotion to his business is heartbreakingly funny, but the scene in which she dolls up, making herself absolutely gorgeous, by the way, and throws herself at him, to his shock and dismay, is devastating.

Guess Shelley was never meant to get the guy.

Gratuitous sexist and lookist epilogue: Mannion's Bar regular harry near indy is a passionate Kirstie Alley champion.

diane chambers was too prissy for my tastes, but as for rebecca howe, when you have a beautiful woman (and alley is beautiful, while long is just pretty) who does slapstick .... ah, paradise.

Now I admit that Alley had the more voluptuous figure and you could lose yourself for a year happily in her hair and those gray cat's eyes of her are riveting. But I think Shelley Long was at a severe disadvantage. She was on the show in the early and mid-80s when there was still enough of the insanity of 70s fashion tastes lingering, particularly in matters of hair styling, but also in clothing. Plus, the costume designer decided that Diane would always dress to downplay her best features, which meant for Shelley Long long skirts, which was really too bad.

Alley had the curves up top, but Long had the better legs, and I've always been a leg man.

And that, folks, explains more about the physical type I'm married to than the hair color.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Tidal politics

On my way to Night Bird Lizzy's house late Sunday afternoon for a meet and greet with Democratic Congressional candidate John Hall, I found myself waiting at a light behind a red pick-up truck with a couple of heartening bumper stickers.

The pick-up looked to be about 10 years old, with some rust on the gunwales, and enough scratches and dings around the gate to convince me this was a truck that did real work. The driver was wearing a ball cap and looked a little scratched up and dinged himself. You can't go by these things, and for all I know he was a lawyer or a doctor with a boat to haul or many cords of firewood to carry up to his county house on the weekends. But considering where I was, on the border of the hardluck city of Newburgh, leaving a neighborhood where the Price Chopper stands at the highest end of retail, I thought it was a better bet that the driver was on his way to or from some job site where he worked with tools or machinery than on his way up into the Highlands for cocktails on the deck of his McMansion overlooking the Hudson, a guy who if he voted Republican voted that way because he believes that the GOP's tougher on national security issues and won't let the social fabric unravel any more than it already has rather than to give himself another tax cut.

Big if there, on his voting Republican. This is New York. We still have lots of union men and women here, still have lots of Irish and Italian and Jewish and black and Hispanic and Polish and Asian and White Anglo Saxon working men and women who know that the Republican Party is the party of the suits and the owners and the bosses and the Democratic Party, no matter how vague and inattentive it sometimes seems to be towards its blue collar base, is the Party that will work to protect their pensions and benefits, put their kids in good schools, take care of their elderly parents and newborn babies' health care, and generally stand up to the suits and the owners and the bosses on their behalf.

Maybe nationally the Party doesn't stand up quite as tall and quite as fimly on its feet as it used to, but here in New York Democrats are still Democrats not Republican Lites, even Hillary.

But as blue as the State looks on an electoral map, we've got plenty of patches of purple and some big chunks of red, and where I was, and the district Hall is running to represent, is red enough to have a Republican Congresswoman who up until this year could consider her seat safe.

What I'm saying is that it's as likely as not that the pickup truck in front of me sported a W sticker back once upon a time and it wasn't unreasonable for me to think, looking at what he had plastered to his rear bumper now, that something good is up.

First sticker: IRAQ! THE NEW VIETNAM!

Second sticker: We're Making Enemies Faster Than Bush Can Kill Them.

A lot of people, lifelong Republicans and Independents who usually voted Republican have had enough. This guy might have been one of them. My uncle sure is, although right now all that means is that he won't be voting Republican next time out, not that he'll be voting Democratic, because as he puts it, "Where am I to go? I got no home. One party's stupid and the other's evil."

Wish he could have met John Hall the other night. Might have changed his mind about the one party being stupid.

Hall's a sharp guy and right on the issues and I'll be blogging some more on things he said at Lizzy's Sunday. But one thing right now:

Turns out Hall's had on his mind what I was thinking hopefully while reading those bumper stickers and that was one of the things he talked about.

Hall's out campaigning full tilt because he has to win a primary first before he can take on the Republican incumbant, Sue Kelly,---he's the front-runner at the moment though---and, he told us, everywhere he goes people have been coming up to him to tell him pretty much the same thing: "I've been a Republican all my life" or "I've never voted for a Democrat" but "I'm fed up."

I didn't press Hall on this, didn't ask him if he's been counting. The actual number of people who've told him this may seem like a lot more than it really is to an enthusiastic and optimistic candidate out on the hustings. But let's say it's as high as 200 people. Two hundred Republicans have announced they're jumping ship.

Those two hundred people might be representative. There might be 10 or 100 more for each one of them.

Or they might be two hundred people.

But Hall is hopeful. He thinks there's a big change a-coming. He says that it's as though the tide's gone out as far as it can and now the sea's about to come back in in a rush.

The wave will wash a lot of Republicans out of Congress.

I hope so.

Sue Kelly probably thinks of herself as one of the good Republicans we still produce up here from time to time, moderate, bipartisan, socially liberal. But she's part of the Republican Class of '94, a signer of the Contract With America, which means from the start she was a creature of Newt and after that a creature of Tom DeLay. She doesn't really represent her district. She represents her Party and like almost every Republican in Congress ought to appear in the newspapers as Sue Kelly (R-Rove).

She's vulnerable. A lot of Northeastern Republicans probably are.

But here's my worry.

I think a lot more people will be voting Democratic this fall. But I'm worried that the results of this will be that Democrats who were going to win anyway will win in landslides while Republicans who were expected to win handily will win squeakers, which is kind of what just happened in San Diego, and when the dust settles it will turn out to be something of a repeat of the Senate races in 2004 when a majority of Americans voted for Democrats but the Republicans still picked up seats.

No use wringing my hands over this, though, when I ought to be out ringing doorbells.

Hall seems like the real deal. (As usual, Shakespeare's Sister was way ahead of me.) I liked what I heard and what I saw. He's got an unusual background for a Congressman. And he's raising the kind of money that's needed with the help of some friends, like this guy, and this lady.

Unfortunately, I can't vote for him. Not my district. But I'm going to do my share of envelope stuffing and phone calling and doorbell ringing.

Maybe when the wave crashes ashore in November there'll be fewer R-Roves from the Northeast.

Here's the link to Hall's webpage.

Meanwhile, up in my uncle's district, the 20th, where the evil party reigns, this guy is being opposed by this woman.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


When I think of 9/11 and the World Trade Center, I think of the people on the planes and in the offices in the twin towers who were killed, and I think of the firefighters and cops and EMTs who went in to save them and died there.

I don't forget that there were people who got out and others, a few others, who were rescued from the rubble. It's just that the horror of the others' deaths dominates my imagination. Now and then a story comes along and reminds me that to have survived that day was not always the same as to have escaped and for some people that day is not yet over. Take James Buckley.

Buckley was working as a stagehand on Sept. 11 for a cultural arts group when the plane crashed into the North Tower. Buckley, who lives near Albany and grew up in Monroe, was buried beneath the rubble.

Buckley suvived. But he doesn't feel like he escaped. He is a sick man these days. He's sick in the ways that a lot of people---8,000 people---who worked at Ground Zero, sifting through the rubble, looking for survivors, finding what was left of victims who didn't survive, helping to clear away the mess.

Experts estimate more than 40,000 people worked at the World Trade Center site sifting through rubble; a class action lawsuit against the federal government includes 8,000 workers who are suffering from health problems.

The air in and around Ground Zero, legal and health experts said yesterday, contained chemicals ranging from dioxin to mercury to asbestos to lead. It's caused otherwise healthy people to develop asthma, cancer and heart and lung problems, according to [speakers at seminar sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Public Health Project: "The Toxic Aftermath of 9/11: An Emerging Health Crisis."]

Buckley got as close to the rubble as anybody could have, of course, and he believes that what he breathed in and touched and was touched by made him sick.

He's lost the sight in his left eye. He has trouble breathing. His lymph nodes are enlarged. He hasn't been able to work for years, he's been that sick. He believes what's the matter with him was caused by what happened to him at Ground Zero, but he isn't sure. He wants doctors to tell him, one way or the other, but he has a problem.

It's been a fight to get any doctor to go beyond a diagnosis of "environmental causes" and make the connection to Ground Zero air, Buckley said. That's making workers compensation claims a nightmare.

He's reached out to hospitals and doctors studying the effects of Ground Zero air. He said he's told he doesn't qualify for the tests because he wasn't a rescue worker, but he's invited to get the tests - for a fee.

You can read all of Kristina Wells' story for the Times Herald-Record here.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Godless, she calls us.

Some of us are.

Most of us aren't.

What we aren't is God-ed in the way they are God-ed.

They are God-ed this way.

They tell God what they want to do---get rich, buy a house, score a touchdown, become President---and God says, Ok, go ahead.

They've told God they want to fight wars, hate dark skinned people, deny rights to various sorts and shapes of people, and God has said, Sure, why not?

You're special.

There's an argument that an ethical system that doesn't include God, or a God, is flawed because it has no rock bottom. There is no absolute authority to say, stop, do not go beyond this point, and without that people can reason their way to all kinds of unspeakable crimes.

God, the argument goes, is there to say, stop quibbling. You can't do this because I say it's wrong.

The trouble with that argument, besides how it shows that the person making it hasn't studied their philosophy lately, is that God rarely tells anybody to stop.

He has a bad habit of telling the faithful to go right ahead. Do it. Take it. Own it. Kill it. Hate it.

The history of this country is the history of God-ed people doing whatever they want, mostly in pursuit of money or power or land or self-importance, all of them assured in their own minds and loudly assuring anyone who questioned them, that God told them it's ok.

You're entitled.

You're special.

God-ed people nearly wiped the Indians off the face of the continent.

God-ed people turned "godless" Africans into slaves, into two-footed livestock and organic machines.

God-ed people started two wars to expand slavery and one to save to it.

God-ed people stole land and mineral rights, they built factories and mines to make money off the land they stole, and they worked men and women and children to death in those factories and mines.

They treated men and women and children like lovestock and machines and whenever the men and women and children complained and tried to do something to insist on their being treated like human beings, the God-ed bosses sent cops and goons to beat them up and shoot them and otherwise terrorize them into accepting their condition as livestock and machines.

And when Godless liberals came along and told the God-ed they couldn't treat human beings like livestock and machines anymore, they stopped for a while...until they figured out they could move their factories to countries where treating human beings like livestock and machines was allowed.

God-ed people poisoned the air and the water and land and the lungs and tissues of every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, including the creepers that were supposedly made in God's image. They did it to get rich and powerful and comfortable and satisifed and self-satisifed. They did it with God's blessing. They didn't stop doing it, although they had to do it less often, and less openly, even after Godless liberals told them they couldn't do it anymore, at least not so much.

Now that the God-ed people are running the show in Washington, other God-ed people are poisoning the air and the water and the land with impunity again.

God-ed people are telling everybody that God won't permit what God is obviously permitting, the disasterous warming of the entire planet thanks to the burning of coal and oil, and furthermore they are telling everybody that God wants people to continue to burn the coal and the oil so that some God-ed people can continue to grow richer and richer and the rest of the God-ed people can continue to be comfortable and satisfied and self-satisfied in ther ownwership of large, shiny gas guzzling machines.

It's all ok, because God told them they're special.

God-ed people have done almost all of the evil that has been done here and in other countries in our name.

This is probably just a demographic fluke.

There have always been far many more God-ed people than Godless ones here.

But looking at the record of the God-ed people should make you wonder how much worse the Godless people could have done.

The evidence is clear that being God-ed makes you no more likely to be a good person than being Godless.

This is not an argument for or against religion or a belief in God. I think I've made it clear I'm not on one side or the other in that debate. It's just a statement of fact. History shows that whenever someone starts talking about what God wants him to do, the prudent response is to hold onto your wallet and head for the hills.

I've said it before. Going by the evidence, I'd say that being God-ed makes a person more likely to be rotten.

Going by the evidence, all talk of God and Godlessness in this country has always been a bamboozlement. Either God-ed people are fooling themselves into believing that God wants them to do what they were going to do anyway because it was in their self-interest or God-ed people are fooling other God-ed people into letting them get away with what they're planning to do in their own selfish interest, no matter what opinion God might actually have on the matter.

A Godless person, contemplating a crime of self-aggrandizement against his fellow human beings---crimes of self-aggrandizement are those committed in pursuit of things we often celebrate in story, song, and magazines and TV news: wealth, celebrity, power, personal glory---can't turn to God and say, Is it ok if I do this, if I aggrandize myself at the expense of people around me, if I use them to make myself rich, powerful, famous, secure, comfortable, satisfied? And they have no God to say, sure, go right ahead, you're special.

Our individual and collective specialness in the eyes of God permits us everything and absolves of everything.

God-ed people lied us into a war in Iraq. God-ed people have been torturing prisoners and excusing torture and celebrating torture. God-ed people want to nuke Iran. God-ed people are telling Michael Berg that he's less than human because he refuses to hate the now dead man who had his son Nick killed.

But it's the Godless Americans are supposed to fear and despise.

Because the Godless are a threat.

Godless people don't believe that there's a God who exists just to tell the God-ed, it's ok, do whatever you want.

You're special.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

One mad soccer dad

The 10 year old’s soccer team, the Green Geckos, is coming to the end of a rough season.

They started out looking strong, taking two of the first four games, and three of those were hard-fought close ones—2-1, 2-3, 3-2. The other game they got trounced, 1-6. But they came back after that to pick up their second win.

Unfortunately, it turned out that they’d played three of the weakest teams in the league. The weakest team is the Green Geckos.

They’re just too young. In a division of third, fourth, and a few fifth graders, their roster’s overstocked with 3rd graders. Little third graders. Jack is one of the few fourth graders and one of only three boys. They’ve lost three in a row now, three games in which they haven’t scored a goal, and all three were against teams that were heavy—literally heavy—with fourth grade boys, plus a few large, fast fourth grade girls. The Geckos have no natural scorers, and no real goalie. Jack plays defense all game but he’s not quick enough to play goalie. The girl who tends goal most of the time is quick and scrappy. She’s going to be a good player someday. But she’s barely four feet tall, if that.

There’s nothing that can be done about this. Luck of the draw. The kids are well-coached and they’re doing a good job of learning the game. They’re just young and small and intimidated by the bigger, stronger kids on the other teams. Our strikers—usually three little girls, and I’m describing their size; they are little girls even among little girls—can bring the ball down pretty well but they have a tendency to flinch when a defender charges them.

You can’t blame them. It’s their 60 pounds dripping wet facing 95 pound juggernauts. Actually, you watch them and you’re amazed they stand their ground at all.

What I’m saying is that if you’re the coach of the opposing team and you look out at the Geckos at the start of a game and see their tiny goalie and pint-sized strikers you have to think to yourself that as long as your team doesn’t keep driving at the big blond kid playing right corner you have a pretty good chance of scoring at will.

The coaches of the three teams the Geckos lost to before today saw their advantages in height, weight, speed, and experience and, being good sports, coached their games accordingly, leaving their subs in longer, having their best players play defense more than offense. They played to win but they understood that they had the games sewn up by half time and relaxed.

The league has a gentleman and gentlewoman’s agreement that when a team gets five goals ahead, it stops trying to score. Which is why the scores of the those three games were 6-1, 5-0, and 5-0, when the poor Geckos could easily have lost each of them by 12, at least.

The opposing coach today was no gentleman.

He had his team up 5-0 by the half.

They started the second half by scoring another goal.

Our coach went over to talk to him to remind him of the league’s 5 point rule. He told her he was willing to abide by it, normally, but there was only one game left in the season after today, and a couple of his players hadn’t scored a goal yet all season and he figured they had their best shot against the Geckos.

This was like asking our coach if she minded if he used the Geckos for target practice.

Had it been me I’d have told him to take a knee.

But our coach decided to let it go.

The game continued.

But the other coach, instead of putting his subs in to let them have their goals, left his two best strikers in. Both of them already had two goals apiece.

They each got one more.

They’d have scored three more apiece if Jack hadn’t gotten mad. He left his position on the right side every time they brought down the ball and bulled into them.

I think the ref was on our side by that time. She grew suddenly blind to fouls by the Geckos.

Game ended with the score 8-0.

Our coach had words with the other coach after the game.

He was a loudmouth as well as a welsher. I heard him from the sidelines defending himself, claiming that he’d honored the agreement by having only the two strikers. “I had four kids back on defense!” he yelled. “Four back there not trying to score.”

And incidentally making sure the Geckos didn’t score either.

He’d left his starting goalie in too, and that kid was not four feet tall.

Got to give the Geckos a big hand. They didn’t quit. They played hard right to the end. And they were in much better spirits at the end of today’s loss than they were after last week’s.

Not me though. I was sore as hell. And I didn’t try hard to hide it from the 10 year old on the walk home.

There are lots of ways to learn how to be a good sport. One is to accept your losses with grace and a stoic resolve to play all the harder next time out, learning from not only from your mistakes but from all the things your opponents did right in order to beat you. This lesson includes taking pride in the things you did right, even though you lost.

That was the lesson of the last two walks home.

But there are other lessons. And today’s lesson was that some grown-ups are not good sports.

They are, in fact, jerks.

Lying, double-crossing jerks.

Not anybody you want to grow up to be like.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Evil minds

The question of the week has been, Does Ann Coulter believe all the crazy, hateful, lying, vituperative, vile, nasty, and just plain weird things she writes and says?

Or, to put it in a way Time Magazine would approve, is her playful, witty, satirical eloquence all for show?

Matt Lauer asked her if she believed herself.

She said yes, and I'm inclined to take her word for it.

I think she believes all of it...and none of it.

Ann Coulter believes in Ann Coulter and in the worship and adoration of Ann Coulter.

Back during the Impeachment Crisis she learned that she could inspire worship and adoration just by saying whatever nasty thought popped into her head.

She didn't have to be right, she didn't have to have any facts to back up her opinions, she didn't have to think. She just had to say something and a crowd cheered, the cameras swung around to focus on her, and money rained down upon her from the skies.

In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the gods of every culture are dying out. Gods exist in Gaiman's world only as long as people believe in them. Their power and their force diminish as the numbers of their worshippers shrink. Jesus is at this point just some guy wandering the back roads of America, lonely and ignored. Amazingly, Odin still has enough adherents for him to be a main character.

But people who are gods and goddesses in their own minds also only exist as long they have worhippers.

As long as the faithful flock to their altars, people like Coulter are justified to themselves.

The proof of their rightness is in the intensity of their followers' devotion.

Knowing that she's adored proves to her she's right before she says a word. After she finishes saying something and sits back basking in the applause she can tell herself that she was right to think she was right. This saves her the trouble of having to listen to herself, think about what she's saying, or care about what her words mean or the pain and damage they might cause.

You can say she's just in it for the money. And you'd be right. Of course she is. The money is proof of her divinity. It's the slaughtered goat, the burnt hecatomb, the virgin tossed into the volcano. It's the sacrifice of her devotees showing their love.

You can say she must know how awful she is.

But evil people don't have to "know" they are evil.

Nevermind evil people. People don't have to know they're doing evil to do it.

To know if you're doing right or doing wrong, you have to think.

Most people don't think. They react. Mostly what they react to are their own needs, appetites, and desires.

They react to the demands of their egos, vanity, and pride.

Their "thinking" on most everything is mostly cover. The words they use are chosen to justify their reactions not guide their behavior.

The artist who declares she will never sell out.

The athlete who promises he will never use drugs.

The business owner who vows never to cheat a customer.

The politician who promises to get to the bottom of this.

All of these people are using words to flatter themselves at the moment. They're not thinking, and they're certainly not tying themselves down.

When the time comes for the artist to sell out, she'll find a new set of words to describe selling out as her growing and as artist and dismiss old friends who point out her hypocrisy as jealous and small.

When the time comes when the athlete can't continue his career without chemical assistance, he'll find a way to explain it away---everybody does it, he needs to keep going to support his family, his teammates are counting on him, and what's the difference between steroids and vitamins and cortisone shots anyway?

The businessman will blame the cheated customer for being a sap or expecting too much or not reading the contract.

The politician will treat his high-minded words as if they were actions, as if saying he would challenge the Vice President to explain himself was the same as actually challenging the Vice President.

And for the most part people do not remember themselves. What they said and did last week, last month, last year are not part of who they are today.

Remembering ourselves may be impossible anyway. All our memories of our past selves are informed---tainted---by all that happened to us between then and now.

It may be that we don't remember anything in and of itself anyway. We remember the last time we remembered it.

Making sense of ourselves to ourselves---making a sensible self---making a self---is a matter of reconciling memories with feelings, comparing now with then, correcting, learning lessons, consciously recognizing the need to change our minds and our behavior, forgiving or not forgiving mistakes, allowing for changes of heart, disallowing them, recognizing changes in circumstances, recognizing that we are changing, honestly facing up to all this, sternly and earnestly trying to put it all together into a consistent and decent whole. Integrating. Having integrity.

It's difficult, daunting, hard, and exhausting. It's beyond most of us so most of us don't even try. We just let ourselves be.

And we assume that's enough.

That's us. That's who we are.

We assume a consistency, an integrity, that isn't there because we didn't force it upon ourselves.

As far as I can tell, Ann Coulter is no different than most people. She has no integrity.

She isn't ashamed of anything she's said because it isn't real to her. She exists only in the present.

Scrooge, begging for mercy from the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, vows to reform by remembering.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut away the lessons that they teach.

One of those lessons is that Scrooge has been a bad man.

Not something he knows about himself at the beginning of the story.

At the beginning he's quite pleased with himself. He's the smartest, funniest character he knows. The person with the most sense. He's happy. He thinks.

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" he asks. "If they had rather die than they had best do it and decrease the surplus population."

He's being funny. It's a joke. He cracks himself up.

Does he mean it? Who knows? Who cares?

He's been told that many people would rather die than go into the workhouse. But right after his joke, his Coulter-esque joke, he says he doesn't know that it's true, that they'd rather die. It's not his business to know.

Scrooge doesn't care if they live or die. He says what he says about decreasing the surplus population because it deflects the demands upon his conscience, upon his time, and upon his wallet.

Does he mean what he says? Does he believe it? For all practical purposes it doesn't matter. The effect is the same. Children will go hungry.

Does Coulter believe what she says? Does it matter? The effect of what she says is the same. Stupid, angry people grow stupider and angrier.

Scrooge is just being himself. He's reacting to his feelings at that moment.

Scrooge believes in Scrooge's comfort. He believes in Scrooge being left alone. What he says to make himself comfortable, what he tells people to make them leave him alone are just words, words used as tools to get what he wants.

Coulter wants applause, she wants celebrity, she wants money, she wants power.

She wants Ann Coulter to be right.

The words she uses as tools to get what she wants work, so she believes in them.

Getting her to care about what words she uses, to think about them, to regret the ones that are wrong and hurtful, to correct herself, is impossible because once she uses them they're gone. Did she mean the 9/11 widows are happy their husbands are dead? Did she really mean those words?

She meant their effect. She meant them to sell her book. She meant them to outrage her opponents. She meant them to excite and enthrall her worshippers. They did the trick.

She exists!

Thanks to Susie Madrak, Avedon Carol, Kevin Wolf, Crooks and Liars, Red Tory, and the Heretik.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Veni, vidi, vici

Mr Wolcott, paging through the New York Sun the other day, drifted away from that paper's sports and arts sections and wound up on the op-ed pages where he came upon a piece by a Right Wing radio talk show host and writer named John Batchelor who seems to think the US Army invaded France on D-Day for the same reason Caesar invaded Gaul.

Or something.

Batchelor, a once-upon-a-time promising novelist who went by the name John Calvin Batchelor, and whose first couple of books I've read, thinks the United States is an empire that's not doing a good enough job acting like one. We need to follow the model of Imperial Rome, he declares

Not in throwing people to the lions or instituting week-long orgies or having horses appointed to the Senate.

Just in adopting a policy of military impressment of young men from our client states into the fight to maintain and expand the empire.

Batchelor thinks we're running out of cannon fodder. Clearly he accepts the idea that middle class American white men are expempt from military service. We need, he says, to make the Poles, and the South Koreans, and the Japanese join the legions.

That Poland and South Korea and Japan are sovereign nations and not conquered territories doesn't bother Batchelor.

In the Right Wing worldview there are no sovereign nations anyway. There are rogue states that haven't learned their lesson yet, and there are "allies," grateful and subservient allies if they know what's good for them, who defy our leader's will at their hazard. France and Germany dared to decide they didn't want to join our President's trumped up little war for profit and ego? Surrender monkeys!

The idea that we are an empire and this is a good thing is not new. What flabbergasted me is that there is a literate, well-educated, intelligent person who thinks that the Roman Empire is a positive model for anything, even an empire.

I know the effects of education are limited and transitory if not reinforced. Good little conservatives begin to teach themselves an alternative history of the United States in their frat houses and continue their re-education in country club locker rooms and corporate offices, telling themselves that the New Deal failed, the Civil Rights movement was a well-intentioned mistake, the Civil War was about States' Rights, slavery was beside the point and on the way out anyway and besides the slaves were happy and well cared for, Joe McCarthy was right, liberal intellectuals and journalists colluding with the peaceniks lost Vietnam, the same people are stabbing us in the back in Iraq, and everything bad that's happened since 2001 was Bill Clinton's fault.

But that the Roman Empire was a swell idea?

And Right Wing politicians, apologists, and hatchetmen and hatchetwomen, will say anything, deny facts and invent them, rewrite history and science and even the Bible. They will contradict themselves shamelessly and argue for mutually exclusive ideas in the same breath---activist judges are evil, except for the ones who made George W. Bush President; leave it all to the states, except where and when it appears the states might have other ideas---they hold themselves to no intellectual or philosophical standards that might interfere with their real goal in any debate, which is to shout down and shut down opposition.

But Rome?

Empire I understand. The dreamer of empires is the monster inside the isolationist. If you are afraid to engage with the world because it is full of threatening, uncontrollable, unpredictable Others, then you withdraw from the world. But if the world won't let you withdraw, if it insists on moving into your neighborhood, if it threatens to make you part of its neighborhood by denying your ability to pretend you are the whole of creation that matters, well, then, the world must be put in its place. The world must be controlled. It must be conquered.

The party of isolation must become the party of empire or risk admitting a loss of power and control which is the same as admitting a loss of self.

But still.


Batchelor, whose novels show that he has read some history, has ignored the fact that the point when the Romans couldn't control their own outposts with their own troops was the point when the empire began to fall apart. The same thing happened to the British.

Overreach is the natural end of imperial dreams.

If we are an empire and we have reached the point where we can't fight our own wars then we have reached the end of our empire.

Obviously, Batchelor is not a deep or serious thinker. But then the Right has a hard time developing and keeping deep and serious thinkers. If they're honest and decent-minded, deep and serious thinkers realize pretty quickly that they are in the position of defending a runaway corporate state-less imperium that is determined to reduce all the world to the condition of an old-fashioned Central American banana republic with a very small ruling elite made up of the obscenely rich, a small but tractable middle class struggling to maintain a substince living, and a large pool of millions of disposable peons too poor and too defeated and too ignornant to insist on their own humanity.

At which point Right Wing intellectuals have two choices, break ranks or become dishonest and indecent, and then their thinking stops being either deep or serious.

But Batchelor seems to have found a third way.


Now, I don't know the man, so I can't say for sure, but it's possible that Batchelor's ability to ignore inconvenient historical details is a sign that his op-ed piece is really an expression of a personal delusion. It's not that he thinks that the United States is or ought to be Rome. It's that he thinks he's Julius Caesar, and this is his sideways way of telling us. He could be one of those people going quietly mad who are yet still in control of enough of their deteriorating minds to know that the rest of us might think a has-been novelist doesn't make a convincing Roman dictator.

He knows he should keep his delusion to himself, but it's becoming unmanageable. His inner Caesar will out. He must cross that line dividing sanity from madness as surely as Caesar had to cross the Rubicon.

So he writes his op-ed piece in which he, with apparent reasonableness, posits a reality in which the existence of an emperor not only makes sense but is required.

The telling part is the way he uses his father's service at Normandy on D-Day to aggrandize himself, blurring the line between his father and his own ego.

He sees himself charging up Omaha Beach and planting the flag of empire atop the ruins of a Nazi bunker.

So I'd just pity and ignore the poor deluded chump, except...

Except that he's not in his own room pushing model legionaires around on a tabletop battlefield and muttering to himself about how all Gallia est monis divisa in partes tres and boasting to the cat how he came and he saw and he conquered.

He's raving on the op-ed pages of a major metropolitan newspaper.

Media outlets that when cornered call themselves "conservative" but that are basically arms of the Republican Propaganda Machine and newspapers and magazines and television networks that hate themselves for being "liberal" give platforms to types who in a better world would be left waving their bibles and The End is Nigh signs on street corners, legitimizing all sorts of crackpot ideas, and if the notion that we should aspire to be the Roman Empire doesn't stick, another equally weird and scary one will pop up next week.

On top of which, I don't really think Batchelor is crazy.

His attempt to turn his father into a heroic surrogate of himself isn't nuts, and it's certainly not particularly conservative of him.

It's simply narcissistic and all too human.

This goes on every day. Lots of us treat the achievements of others---of our children, our spouses, our parents, our favorite rock stars and movie stars and baseball teams, our chosen political party, anyone we admire---as points of pride, as if we had done the things ourselves.

Lots of us?

Probably all of us, at one time or another, to greater or lesser degrees.

But Batchelor has discovered that thanks to the Right's rejection of the serious and the factual he can argue anything in the service of his narcissism.

What's more he's discovered that the logic of the Right is the logic of the narcissist.

People have wondered how it is that so many thieves and perverts and other brands of shameless hypocrites keep turning up in high places in the Republican Party.

One reason is that normal is a good place to hide. Since the Republican Party began touting itself as the party of normalcy and family values, it has made itself very attractive to the perverse and the deviant by providing them the perfect camouflage.

But I think even more self-destructive is the fact that since the Gilded Age, when the businessmen began to take the party from the Reformers, a process that accelerated with the banishment of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party has made itself the Party of "I got mine and the rest of you can go suff."

The Right's willingness to argue for everything and anything and mean none of it has a logic. It's the "logic" of the narcissist, the logic of people who have only one real goal---self-fulfillment. No taxes, limitless oil, limitless personal wealth, no consequences, no deficits to worry about, no climate change to worry about, no rules that apply to me only to thee, whatever we want when we want it---it's the logic of the husband justifying leaving his wife and kids for another woman, the businessman justifying layoffs at Christmastime and the gutting of pension plans, the banker foreclosing on widows and orphans, the politician accepting a bribe, the student cheating on her exams, it's the logic of anyone to whom the whole world is a personal playground and other people only means to an end and that end is the narcissist's self-aggrandizement and the satisfying of the narcissist's appetites and will.

And, yes, I know this is exactly what they accuse the Baby Boomer Left of being.

But we know how fond they are of accusing other people of their own sins and failures.

And it isn't the Left that's pushing dreams of empire so that a very small segment of the population can continue to drive Escalades to the mall to buy clothing made by children chained to sewing machines.

And it isn't the Left insisting that it's up to other people's children to lay down their lives for that empire.

Thanks to Matt Stoller at My DD, the Heretik, Media Matters, Me4President, Sean-Paul Kelly at the Agonist, and Brad Plumer.