Friday, December 29, 2006

Beyond Flubber

Can't recall exactly when, but some time when I was a little kid watching too much TV there came a point when it dawned on me that the people I saw on television were not the characters they played. They were people, real people like my parents, with jobs, just jobs that required them to play pretend all the time, like real kids like me.

After that realization, it became great fun for me to spot actors I knew from one show or movie turning up in something completely different. Hollywood being Hollywood and preferring to give the audience the safe and familiar, actors were usually cast to type. They changed shows, changed names, changed "jobs," but they did not change character much.

Paul Ford was always a blustering but ineffective authority figure. Kay Ballard was always loud-mouthed and pushy. Paul Lynde was always snide and sarcastic and slightly cringing and usually put in the unenviable positions of having to rain on the main characters' parade or having to suffer their wackiness to the ruination of his own day.

Often enough, though, someone would be cast in a role very different from the character I knew them best as. Those were startling, and unsettling moments, for Kid Mannion.

Seeing the Professor from Gilligan's Island as a cold-blooded gunman on some Western (Gunsmoke, maybe?) get his in a shoot-out with Marshall Dillon and being glad he was dead came close to making my head explode.

It wasn't until I was a little older, ten or eleven maybe, that I began to appreciate just how much skill it took to play someone who was not yourself convincingly and then turn around and play another someone who was not you and not the other someone else who was not you either.

I think the first time I experienced both the mind-boggling enjoyment and the appreciation of the talent at work while watching an actor I knew well as one particular character play someone entirely different was when our local TV station ran The Comic on the late show.

In that movie, written and directed by Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke plays a silent movie comedian loosely based on Buster Keaton. It's a part, given the physical comedy required, perfect for Van Dyke. Except that the character is not a nice guy.

In fact, the character, Billy Bright, is a complete bastard.

And Van Dyke isn't just believable in the part, he's scarily, creepily, perfect in the part. And he manages it without any big actor's tricks. He plays Billy Bright almost exactly as he played Rob Petrie, not because Van Dyke is limited or lacks imagination, and certainly not because he wasn't smart enough to realize his character was a villain not a hero---there are actors and actresses this dumb, although there are more or who are too smart for their own good, overthinking their characters and trying to turn all their good guy and good girl roles into "complicated" people.

Van Dyke knew that there is very little on the surface that separates the Rob Petries of the world from the Billy Brights and that's what allows the Billy Brights to thrive and triumph. Bastards like that get by because they are nice, charming guys. They fool us by their demeanors. We only know what they truly are after they've screwed us. Van Dyke lets Billy Bright's words and actions convince us that the man is a creep, knowing that the fact the Bright looks and sounds and acts like Rob Petrie will make him all that much creepier.

It's a gutsy performance (aided by some smart writing) Van Dyke never does any special pleading on Bright's behalf. The man's only excuse for living is that he's a comic genius and in the end it's his genius that wins us, grudgingly over to his side.

Still, the first time I saw The Comic, I was unnerved, and it was a long time before I could watch Dick Van Dyke in anything and not see the villain lurking below the surface.

This lurking sinisterness is very much there and effective in the slight, but enjoyable Night at the Museum now playing at a cinema near you.

If seeing Dick Van Dyke play a bastard in The Comic wasn't the first time I both appreciated the talent it takes to change characters without changing personas and realized how naturally "nice guys" adapted to the role of the villain, then it was the second, the first being when I saw Fred MacMurray in the The Caine Mutiny.

Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg is the showy part. But Queeg is too weak and too foolish and too dependent on his crew, particularly on his executive officer, played by Van Johnson doing a fine job himself acting against type, to be a true villain. He's despicable and he's dangerous, but he's not evil.

The evil in The Caine Mutiny---a movie, and a play, and a novel all marred by the hero-lawyer Barney Greenwald's show-stopping self-righteous tantrum in which he lectures us all on the nature of the story's evil as if Herman Wouk didn't trust his own writing to carry the point---is all in nice guy Tom Keefer, and Keefer's niceness and his creepiness are brilliantly supplied by Fred MacMurray cannily playing the part as if he's already working his way towards the quintessential nice guy dad, My Three Sons' Steve Douglas.

The Comic convinced me that TV star Dick Van Dyke can act in movies. The Caine Mutiny convinced me that Fred MacMurray was a great movie actor.

It also convinced me so completely of MacMurray's ability to play the bad guy that I wasn't the least bit surprised or impressed by his work in Double Indemnity, a crying shame, because he's excellent in that one. I just take him for granted when I rewatch it and focus on Barbara Stanwyck.

So I was glad to read the Siren's post on MacMurray's fine performance as a truly nice guy in another movie he made with Stanwyck, the romantic comedy Remember the Night.

Lots there, as there is always lots there in a Siren post. Go read what she has to say about MacMurray, Stanwyck, the movie, and the movie's screenwriter, Preston Sturges---here.

I was also glad that the Siren got in a mention of Stanwyck's "gorgeous legs [easing their way] into the jury's sightlines" in the courtroom scene. Short women with spectacular legs are one of life's often overlooked great pleasures.

Your turn: Who was the first actor or actress who taught you to appreciate the art of acting? In what part in what movie has one of your favorites played a character very different than the ones you were used to seeing them in and truly surprised you with their performance?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sir Luke Skywalker and the Jedi of the Round Table

Twas kind of a Star Wars Christmas here at the Mannions. The ten year old's favorite gift is his Lego Star Wars II game, which is, as far as he's concerned, the whole reason we got the new computer. Can't say he's been playing it nonstop, because we chased him up to bed sometime before midnight last night and I'm pretty sure he managed at least two hours sleep. At any rate he was at the computer when the rest of us woke up this morning.

The teenager asked only for books this Christmas. That's not all he found under the tree yesterday morning, but his books are pretty much all he's cared about. In addition to Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair, the penultimate book in the Narnia series---old-timers, you have to adjust. Lewis' heirs rearranged the sequence so that The Magician's Nephew is now the first book and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the second---which completes the teenager's set, and I don't know how he managed to get The Last Battle before The Silver Chair, Santa brought him Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Alien Species, Star Wars: The New Essential Chronology, Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary, and The Art of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Old Pop and Ma Mannion gave him The Making of Star Wars Episode III.

We're hoping this passes before any conventions come to town.

I've had a chance to browse through a few of his new books and it's given me a little more insight into what's called, in fan circles, The Expanded Universe. The Expanded Universe is the backstory to the movies that's been told, is being told, and will still be told a long time from now, in galaxies far, far away, the way new stories about Hercules and the Knights of the Round Table are still being told, in the comic books, novels, computer games, and cartoons officially sanctioned by George Lucas.

The story of the expanded universe reaches backwards in time several thousand years to the rise of the Sith and the coming together of the first Jedi Knights and forward in time to the adventures of Han and Leia's grown children. And reviewing it last night in the teenager's books I was bothered by the same thing that has bothered me before when I've checked into it.

The history of the Expanded Universe is a history of perpetual war.

Yes, I know the whole enterprise is called Star Wars. And yes, you could say that the history of the Expanded Universe is just mimicking the history of this planet, at least its history since human beings began writing down their part in it.

So I shouldn't be all that surprised.

But the core of the original movies is the tale of the last Jedi Knights, and now I am going to say something complimentary about George Lucas.

Lucas based his knights on the Knights of the Round Table. Luke is King Arthur. (Interestingly, but fittingly, in the Expanded Universe, it's Han and Leia who go on to rule over Camelot, while Luke becomes a version of Merlin. The Jedi don't want power, after all.) Obi-wan and then Yoda share the role of Merlin. That's always been obvious. The three prequels/sequels have underscored it.

And in the first three movies Lucas cared more about his main characters' stories as knight's tales than he did about their roles in the war that drives the plot. The war is only the background to the important stuff, which is why Lucas allows the war to be mainly fought and won by secondary and minor characters. Luke, Leia, and Han help save the day, but Lucas makes it clear that the rebellion itself doesn't need them. This is why Wedge Antilles, Luke's ace pilot pal, is an important character even though he appears only briefly in each of the original three movies. Wedge must be at least as good a pilot as Luke, but as far as we know he's not strong in the force nor is he a famous hero. He's one very good pilot among many. The Rebel Alliance has all the troops, all the Wedges, it needs to fight the war.

Which leaves Luke free to pursue his own ends.

Which he does.

As do the other two "knights" in the originals, Han and Darth Vader.

King Arthur fights his share of wars, but most of the tales of the Knights of the Round Table are not concerned with any epic battles and several of the most important tales---Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, Gawain and the Green Knight, Launcelot and the Cart, Perceval and the Fisher King, and the entire Grail Quest---don't even involve any combat. They are tales of individual derring-do, and usually the challenge to the knight whose tale is being told is moral or spiritual not physical.

That's how it is in Star Wars.

Han's challenge is to learn how to be a good man, worthy of a Princess' love.

Vader is walking himself backwards through his own life to re-confront the moment when he went over to the Dark Side.

And Luke has to learn who he truly is, face his own temptations, and establish himself as the greatest Jedi ever, which, as it turns out in the Expanded Universe, is a matter of his becoming less of a warrior than a teacher.

These are relatively simple tales and it's to George Lucas' credit that he kept his focus on telling them in his first two Star Wars movie, which is partly why A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are so satisfying. They are triumphs of storytelling. The knights tales necessarily moved a little to the side in Return of the Jedi to make room for the wrapping of the war---and Lucas lost his head over the Ewoks and spent way too much time on them when he should have been telling another knight's tale, the tale of the redemption of another fallen knight, which he began to tell in The Empire Strikes Back. Billy Dee Williams, should have been given more to do than fly the Millenium Falcon into a blue screen, and Lando Calrisian should have died.

Lucas' obsession with creating the perfect special effects got the better of him in the recently completed prequels/sequels, and he needlessly complicated, and confused, his own story by caring about the politics behind the rise of the Empire and cluttered up the screen with too many epic battle scenes, but the simple knights' tales are still there.

In The Phantom Menace, Qui-gon Jinn searches for the Chosen One.

In Attack of the Clones, Obi-wan sets out to solve the mystery of who is trying to murder Padme, which reminds me that I promised Jaquandor that I would write a post about Obi-wan's career as the Jedi's top private detective.

And in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin faces and succumbs to temptation.

I can and, given time, probably will write posts about the mistakes I think Lucas made in the tellings of each of these simple knights tales, but for now I'd rather note that Lucas tried to stay true to his original conception all the way through all six movies.

The Star Wars movies are not about war. They are about individuals facing moral and spiritual challenges that come mainly from within themselves.

This is why I was dismayed that the Expanded Universe seems to be so much more concerned with wars and epics battles. All the many writers who have contributed to expanding the Expanded Universe have had before them George Lucas' example and they appear to be ignoring it, which, because Lucas has to approve all the "canonical" stories, means Lucas is ignoring his own example himself.

Of course, the teenagers' new books are all overviews and it's difficult to do a fair job of judging. It looks as though some of the novels, particularly the young readers series, are knights tales, adventure stories about individual derring-do and personal quests rather than war stories.

But it also looks as though some of the war stories are necessary to the telling of one knight's tale.

There are five top Jedi in the saga. Their stories dominate the movies and the Expanded Universe, and all but one of them have their personal legends defined by simple knights tales.

Yoda, Qui-gon, Obi-wan, and Luke.

Only one of them has his legend, and his entire adult career as a Jedi, defined by what he does as part of an army in wartime.

The first four are truly knights.

The fifth never gets to be anything but a mere warrior.

To understand how important this is, all you need to do is remember that the greatest knight of the Round Table, Galahad, never draws his sword in battle.

Which suggests that when he set out to tell his own story of a new Round Table, George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing with Anakin Skywalker.

There's probably more Star Wars geekiness to follow while I'm working up my review of a movie for actual grown-ups, Little Miss Sunshine.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

City mouse, country mouse

Two trips to New York in three days last week. Saturday, after a quiet and enjoyable lunch at the Playwright Tavern and an insane half-hour inside Toys R Us, the Mannions hoofed it up to Grand Central Station where we caught the Number 6 train up Lexington Avenue, aiming for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When we got off at 77th Street, the ten year old declared himself an official New Yorker.

"Because I've ridden the subway now."

The thirteen year old had declared himself an official country boy back in Times Square when the first wave of pedestrians coming his direction swept him up and carried him backwards half a block from the rest of us.

From that moment on he was officially having a miserable time and he began counting the minutes until we would be getting in the car to go home, which turned out to be 420 minutes later.

This was too bad, because he'd been looking forward to the trip. He'd wanted to see the Christmas decorations, visit St Patrick's, watch the ice skaters, re-visit the museum to see the armour and the Egyptian artifacts that he had loved on a class trip two years ago. But his last two trips into New York had been drive-in-drive-outs, the school bus depositing him at the front steps of the Metropolitian and our car delivering him into the basement parking garage of the Museum of Natural History.

He'd hadn't been in the City either time.

I felt, and feel, guilty about his having such an unfun time of it, because I should have known and planned accordingly.

He is hardwired to be allergic to big cities.

Since he was small, noise and confusion have overwhelmed him faster and more thoroughly than they do most kids. He has a hard time sorting through visual stimuli and choosing what he needs to pay attention to. This has made him a great observer, because he sees everything. But there's a point at which there is just too much of everything to see. Most of us just stop paying attention when our limit is reached. (For a lot of people that limit is one more thing than the thing right in front of their noses.) The teenager can't stop paying attention. He just keeps taking it in until his head explodes.

One average New York City block has more to see in it than our whole town has to look at in a month. You can imagine what happened inside his head when he looked down Broadway and saw Times Square's electronic goulash of lights, giant flashing images, animated billboards, and all the other garish and ghastly apparations in that neon, open-air cabinet of wonders.

And walking, still the only sensible way to get around New York, although I haven't tried the bicycle taxis yet, is a trial for him. He has bad feet and is supposed to wear shoes that provide good support and I forgot to check on him before we set out. He was wearing his favorite pair of zip up sneaks. As far as his arches were concerned, he'd have been better off in his bare feet.

Basically, then, we were torturing the kid by dragging him off for what was going to be for the rest of us a pleasant outing in the Big City.

We may get him back down there for a specific event, another trip to the museum, a ball game, a play, but he will want us to promise that that's all we're going to do, zip in, see the show, the exhibit, or the game, and zip out.

People change. Circumstances change. Life takes us places we never thought we'd go. We learn how to deal and how to cope. Experience teaches us to adapt and how to adapt. We look closer and see other ways around. We approach from different angles. Someday the teenager might find that New York is his destiny and he's up to the challenge.

But as things are now, if he has his druthers, he'll make his home in a small town far away from the noise and the crowds and the lights and the confusion.

I expect that he will know, however, not to boast about it.

People have a habit of doing that, boasting about lifestyle choices as if they were proofs of superior virtue, intelligence, class, taste, when it's often the case that their choices were quite literally a matter of taste...and smell and touch and sound and sight. We say that we "like" a thing or a place or an act, but in reality it's our bodies merely expressing a physical preference.

The music we listen to, the pictures we love, the movies we enjoy, the places we feel at home appeal to us sensually. That is, we sense them before we do anything about them. We say they touch something in us. But they are touching us. We touch them. And if we don't like the way they feel we don't "feel" like we like them.

What we don't like, what we despise, look down upon, turn our noses up at, wave away with a lofty gesture expressive our good breeding and sophistication, are often only things we can't physically tolerate because of how we happen to be put together.

The main reason I bothered to write about Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay last week was that it gave me a chance to express my skepticism for evolutionary psychology. The chance to dis Hitchens in the process was gravy.

It’s not that I don’t believe that evolution didn’t—doesn’t—play a role in our psychological make-up. It’s that I don’t think you can explain why people in America in the 21 st Century are the way they are by guessing what people were like as they hunted mammoths and gathered nuts along the retreating glacier’s edge at the end of the Pleistocene era.

My doubt increases whenever the guess tends to explain that the way the guesser behaves and wants to continue behaving is the way evolution designed people to be.

But the fact is we are biological phenomena. We are stuck inside bodies and can only be ourselves to the degree the bodies let us be.

More to the point, our self is what the body containing that self is.

I don’t know if we have a soul, but the mind that wonders about the soul’s existence is a pure product of a brain, an amazing contraption but unreliable, fragile, and so delicately calibrated that the slightest jar or tiniest chemical alteration will tilt it wildly out of whack.

We think therefore we are, but we think with brains and these brains depend on information gathered by eyes, noses, hands, ears, and mouths, and how well do those ever work?

About as well as the rest of the body they’re attached to.

“I don’t feel like myself today,” we’ll say when we’re coming down with something. Who do we feel like then? We feel like the person who inhabits the body that is sick. We are that person. The us we were doesn’t exist anymore. We are a memory of a body that was in better health and a hope that the sick body that is now us will get better.

You are who you are because you have good digestion or you don’t, because you are allergic to this and that or you are not. Your skin is over-sensitive or you have a hide like a rhino’s. Your ear is too well-pitched or you’re tone deaf. Your strength is as the strength of ten and so your heart is pure.

You are you and you like what you like and dislike what you dislike because that’s what the body you are is and likes and dislikes.

In other words, I wonder how many vegetarians really miss the taste of meat, how many nonsmokers have sinuses that are easily aggravated, how many city mice need the energy rush, how many country mice have sensory-integration disorders, and if you ever catch me making fun of people who like cats, remind me that not everybody’s allergic to them.

Whatever we are that isn’t an accident of nature is a result of nurture, but we got nurtured so long ago, at a time when we weren’t capable of understanding what was happening to us, that the only say we had in what our nurturers made of us was a purely physical reaction resulting from how compliantly or how reluctantly our bodies accepted and adapted to the nurturing.

All I’m saying is that self-knowledge is a tremendously difficult achievement. Self-discipline’s a struggle. Self-improvement’s a dream. But not an impossible dream.

We can compensate for our weaknesses. We can hone and refine our gifts and make the effort to use them for good and never for evil.

We can learn new tricks.

We can make allowances, for ourselves and for everybody else who’s stuck in a body and burdened by a past they can’t remember. We can try to understand. And we can forgive.

Meanwhile, the ten year old is a city mouse and can’t wait to get back. He’s up for it. He’s ready to go at a moment’s notice. We can take him anywhere.

Except to a farm.

He can’t stand the smell.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sleepwalking into romance

Today's a red-letter day in the personal history of the blonde and me. It's the milliondesecond anniversary of our first date.

Actually, there's some disagreement about this.

The blonde insists our first date was a week earlier, on December 1st. I refuse to accept this.

We did in fact go out on December 1st, but it wasn't a date. It was just a couple of classmates going out for pizza and a movie.

It could have been our first date, if the blonde hadn't gotten impatient and asked me out first.

Happened like this.

I was planning on asking her out. But I wanted to be casual about it. I wasn't sure she was interested in going out with me. She was a very friendly sort back then. (She hasn't changed much that way.) I thought there was a difference between the degree she was friendly towards me and the degree she was friendly towards other guys, but I saw no point in taking any chances.

Two things I didn't know at the time. She had a boyfriend back home. The fact that she never mentioned him would have been a clue, except of course that she wasn't cluing me in. And just before Thanksgiving she'd assured herself I was working my way towards asking her out so she'd gone home and broken up with the guy. Another good clue that I never got.

So I had my plan. I'd ask her out on a date but I'd ask her in a way that wouldn't sound like I was asking her out on a date, necessarily, and I'd ask her somewhere that wouldn't seem like a place a guy'd take a girl on a date, necessarily.

I was going to invite her out for pizza.

I got a good opening too. Couple of days after Thanksgiving break we bumped into each other in line at the cafeteria at the student union. One of the items on the menu for lunch that day was pizza. It was dorm pizza. I hear dorm food has gotten a lot better but back in those days, children, dorm pizza was a square of overcooked cracker-thin dough with some tomato paste held onto it by a congealed, yellowish goo that masqueraded as cheese.

The blonde and I expressed our mutual disgust at the sight of the pizza looking cold and inedible under the glass. I saw my chance.

"You know where they serve really good pizza," I said, casually.

"Where?" the blonde asked, in her usual friendly way.

"Regina's," I said, even more casually.

"Where's that?" the blonde said, just as friendly before.

"In the North End," I said, so casually now I might have been talking to a stranger on an elevator, "Would you---"

"Let's go this weekend!" she said.

"Er," I said. "Um," I said. "Well," I said.

"How about Saturday?" she said.

"Swell," I said, replacing casual for sullen, I think.

So it was a date. But it was not a date.

I'm not saying that because she asked me out and I didn't think the girl should ask the guy out. For one thing, she didn't exactly ask me. She just jumped the gun. She saw where I was going and couldn't wait for me to get there. This, by the way, should have been a warning to me. It set the tone. A lot of our history since has been her thinking she's seeing where I'm going and rushing to get there ahead of me, figuring I'll catch up since of course I'll want to be wherever she is. This hasn't always been the case, and much of our time together has been a matter of me looking at her standing on some doorstep there's no way in hell I want to climb and having to decide whether or not I'll go over and join her, despite my own feelings, or if I'll stay put and wait for her to wander back to where I am, something that never happens without a lot of shouting back and forth. The problem is that some of the time the places she's actually rushed ahead to have been places I wanted to go, which convinces her she was right to run on ahead, and many other times I end up enjoying myself whenever I give in and chase after her, which convinces her that she knows me better than I know myself so it'll be ok for her to charge off in a direction I do not and will never want to go.

For all she really knew that day, I was just passing along some usual information about living in Boston. Want good pizza? Go to the North End.

At any rate, it wasn't that she asked me that made me not think of our date as a date. It was her unreadable, unchangeable friendliness.

For all I knew, she was just being a pal.

There was something else too. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it.

One of my profs had just handed me a flyer he'd gotten announcing a playwriting contest. "You should enter that play you've been showing in class," he said.

Gulp, I said. No quote marks because I said it silently. I'd been letting on that the play was finished. I'd only written a few scenes. But I wanted to impress the prof and I told him I would enter the contest.

It was November 28. The deadline was December 1st. Entries had to be postmarked by that day. Which was a Saturday. That meant that I'd have to have the completed play at the post office before noon when it closed.

I knew that without a great effort and a lot of luck I was going to wind up pulling an all-nighter, after which I would very likely want to crawl straight into bed. I expected I'd wind up calling her on Saturday afternoon to ask for a rain check.

During the week, I made the effort, but I didn't have the luck of being a genius and genuinely inspired.

Friday I was still working on my play. Friday night I was still working on my play. At midnight I was still working on it. At three in the morning I was still working. At dawn...

I finished at around 11 Saturday morning. I ran to the nearest Kinkos to get it copied and bound then ran to the post office and watched the clerk stamp it with a Dec. 8 postmark just as another postal worker was locking the front doors behind me.

I'd been awake for about twenty-eight hours by then, but I felt pretty good. I went and had some lunch.

Somehow I managed to avoid my apartment and the temptation of my bed for a few hours. When I finally wandered home, I considered taking a nap, but I worried that if I did I wouldn't wake up in time to go meet the blonde. I was still feeling pretty good. A little tired, but not all that beat or even sleepy. I decided I could make our not-really-a-date date. A cold shower and a pot of coffee and I'd be fine. After all, we were just going for pizza. How long would that take? I figured I'd be home and in bed by nine.

I met the blonde at the Kenmore Square T station. She was her usual friendly self and I was...

Suddenly exhausted.

My legs turned to rubber bands. My vision blurred. When we sat down on the trolley I could feel that sinking inside myself that signals the onset of sleep. I don't know how I made it to Haymarket with my eyes open. The blonde says that the whole ride I alternately babbled like a madman and sat stone silent, my eyes goggling.

By the time we got to Regina's, I must have looked like a lunatic or a zombie or a wino crawling out of his cardboard box with the DTs because the waitress at the pizza place took one look and decided to hate me. She was surly to me and overly solicitous of the blonde all night. She was a short, middle-aged woman with bobbed graying hair who wore her glasses on the end of her nose for effect. She would lower her chin and stare over the tops of her lenses to give you---me---one of those hard, cynical, sharp-eyed looks professional waitresses develop, those looks that say, Go on, bub, do the annoying thing you're going to do that will prove to me you're just as big a jerk as I already know you are.

I proved it again and again all through dinner. I couldn't talk straight, by this point. When she asked me what I wanted to drink, I had to think long and hard about what the word drink meant. Trying to decide whether or not to have pepperoni on the pizza or sausage felt to me like trying to decide whether or not to have chocolate sauce on my sushi---none of the items sounded as if they went together. You mean you actually serve meat products on this exotic dish you call a pizza?

I knocked over the parmesean cheese. I knocked over the oregano. I knocked over my glass, which fortunately was empty. I knocked something off the table and I'm not sure to this day what it was because I was too stunned by lack of sleep to take in my own behavior. I just sat there while the waitress bent and put whatever it was back on the table and gave me another look over the top of her glasses and shook her head pityingly at the blonde. When it came time to pay, I pulled all my change out of my pocket with the bills and scattered quarters and dimes all over the booth.

At last, dinner came to an end. I just had to stay awake for the subway ride home.

But during the course of the conversation on our walk back to the T stop something began to dawn on me. The blonde didn't think we were going home. She thought we were going to the movies. Apparently sometime during the evening I'd mentioned that the student film society was showing a double feature, Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam and the same thing that had happened when I told her about Regina's pizza had happened again. She'd jumped the gun and now we were on our way to three hours in the campus movie theater!

I had seen both movies several times. They were two of my all-time favorites. Hers too, as it turned out, which is why As Time Goes By is the song we danced our first dance to at our wedding. At any rate, I had them both pretty well memorized, so I don't know if actually stayed awake through both of them or just dreamed my way through them.

The movies ended. It was close to 11 PM. I had been awake for 40 hours straight. When we got outside, I said goodnight and staggered off towards home.

Yes. You got it right. I left the blonde standing alone on the sidewalk at eleven o'clock at night with a five block walk of her own, on her own, back to her dorm.

To this day, the blonde's story of our "first date" finishes with "And then he didn't even walk me home!"

Forgive me. By that point I was on auto-pilot.

You can see, though, why I wouldn't want that date to be our first date.

And when you hear how I went all out the following Saturday you'll understand why I like to think of our second date as our first date.

Ok, maybe it won't sound like I went all out. But for a college guy I think it was a pretty good effort.

We went to the movies again, another double feature, more Woody Allen, Interiors and Manhattan, but this time to a matinee. Then we went back to my place and I made dinner. After dinner I took her to a Christmas party at a friend's apartment. Not a big party. A small, friendly, quiet party where the blonde and I could sit and talk. Dessert and coffee at a diner after that, and then I walked her back to her dorm.

She invited me in.

We sat in the lounge on her floor. Her dorm was a high rise and we looked out through the big windows across the Charles River at the lights of Cambridge and talked and talked and talked until dawn.

Now, isn't that romantic?

Isn't that a much better memory for a first date?

I probably shouldn't have waited until four in the morning to kiss her, though.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Whoring the language

Warning: Objectionable language ahead.

When it comes to cussin', I've got a mouth like a sailor.

A specific sailor.

Gene Kelly in On the Town.

Honest. When I'm mad I really do tend to say things like, Oh for crying out loud! and Doggone it! and Shoot! Get me good and riled and I'll let go with a thunderous Holy...!

I've also been known to say Sonvuva!

And What the...?!

Being able to curse and blaspheme creatively and persuasively is a talent that some people develop into a fine art.

I believe that, as with any art, if you haven't got the talent, you shouldn't try to do it or you'll just make a fool of yourself.

I don't try to sculpt, play the piano, or needlepoint, and I don't try to talk like Al Swearengen or write like I'm on the staff of the National Lampoon circa 1978.

What's more, people who use words for a living use them in the same ways painters use colors---there are some people who paint with a black base and some who paint with a white one, some who pile on the paint and some who work by scraping paint away. Among wordsmiths there are watercolorists and those who work in oils.

Or to put it another way...Richard Pryor's and George Carlin's comedy is as impossible without their liberal use of the many and various combinations of the seven forbidden words as Bob Newhart's and Bill Cosby's would be impossible with them.

Or...words aren't just about what they mean. They are about the person who uses them too.

Cussin' is like any mode of speech. If you can't do it well, if you don't choose your words carefully, which means choosing them for tone and color as well as for their literal meaning, if you can't make the words your own, then you come off as a foul-mouthed, witless lout with no more imagination or soul than Dick "Big Time" Cheney.

Regular readers of this page have probably noticed that the language here tends to be PG-13. Doesn't stop a lot of the subject matter from being rated R though, does it?

Not about to start congratulating myself on this. I hope I've made it clear that I don't have a reason to. My word choices have to do with my being more of a Norman Rockwell than a Jackson Pollock in my temperament, outlook, focus of interest, and perfered idioms. Cussin', either angrily or with joyous abandon, just ain't my style.

Your style is your style, and you have to write like you.

But I do think that over here on the left side of the bandwidth, we need to be a little more careful, especially those of us who aren't just blogging to see our own words on the computer screen and who want to have some influence on the political debate.

First because Traditional Media types use all the cuss words as an excuse to dismiss us as foul-mouthed, rage-addled, hate-filled, rabble-rousing hippies.

And, I'm sorry, Fuck them if they can't take a joke isn't the right response here.

And second, because the good folks on the Right Side of the Bandwidth use whatever we do as an excuse for their own foaming at the mouth insanities and inanities and in their ravings they manage to make us sound no different from them, which would be no big deal except that it gives their audience a reason not to pay attention to any real arguments and gives the Traditional Media Types all the more excuse not to pay attention to us.

Remember, the Traditional Media pay far closer attention to Right Wing critics than they do to the Left.

I'm not saying we need to tone it down, go slow, apologize, or go all mealy-mouthed. I'm saying, we need to choose our words in a way that presents our arguments and the facts forcefully and doesn't give the people we want to pay attention the wrong things to focus on.

The Bush Administration and its minions in Congress and the Media give us enough ammunition. Usually just writing down what fresh hell they've conjured up is enough to prove that George Bush is a dumb fuck and Dick Cheney is a major league asshole.

But here's the other thing. George Bush is worse than a dumb fuck and calling Dick Cheney an asshole doesn't begin to describe the depth and breadth of his evil.

Simply calling them names, even with all the anger and profanity you can muster, makes them sound less destructive than they are.

And any rhetorical strategy that invites the retort, I know you are but what am I? needs to be re-thought.

The other danger with an indiscriminate use of swearing and name-calling is that the words can be more self-revealing than anything else. It's an act of exhibitionism and you wind up showing the world more of yourself than you really want them to see.

You may have heard how recently Tom Watson called a technical foul on one of the second bananas at Firedoglake for designating a not particularly admirable Congresswoman a whore.

Tom's contention was, quite reasonably, that the word whore has a specific meaning when applied to a woman and that it can't be used metaphorically without that meaning coming along for the ride. Whatever rhetorical effect you're striving for with the word, the actual effect is sexist and misogynistic and demeaning not just to your target but to all women.

Even if you don't intend it and are pretty sure your audience won't take it that way, you've given the other side permission to use the word in exactly that way but with the cover that they're just following your lead.

The second banana thought Tom was out of line. He didn't mean Tom's argument was wrong. He meant that Tom was wrong for daring to criticize him.

Another member of Firedoglake's supporting cast joined in, just as indignant that Tom would presume, and he showed up in Tom's comment threads to dismiss Tom as a Ned Flanders.

To which Tom replied placidly, "Okeley dokely, neighbor."

This second second banana also called Tom a cunt.

Then he defended his