Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nostalgia, memory, and why the 1965 Mustang was the last great American car

I have no particular memories of the 1960s as the 1960s.

I remember the decade as the decade when I was a kid and I had a very generic kidhood. Cub Scouts, Little League, model airplanes, comic books and baseball cards, Hardy Boys, school days, school days, dear old golden rule days, reading and writing and 'rithmatic, taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick...

I was vaguely aware of Vietnam, but I didn't think about it or worry about it until I was in eighth grade when I was an altar boy serving the funeral mass of a local kid, the nephew of a neighbor, who had been killed not in the rice paddies but in Texas where he was training to be a helicopter pilot, which pretty much meant he was training to be a sitting duck in the air over the rice paddies and that made him a casualty of the War as far as I could tell, but by then Nixon was President, Vietnamization was the word of the day, and Henry Kissinger was promising us Peace With Honor any day now. We were coming to the light at the end of the tunnel at last. It was the light at the opening back where we went in, unfortunately, but our part in the War was winding to its bitter end just as I was beginning to understand its horror.

Before that, though, for all I really knew or cared about Vietnam, the protests, Lyndon Johnson, the counterculture, hippies, yippies, racial tensions, the riots, the music, the fashions, sex, drugs, and rock and roll and for all it affected the daily lives of us kids, I might as well have been growing up in the late 1940s, the 1920s, the 1980s, or now.

So it's odd to me that I can be so nostalgic for the 60s.

But not those 1960s.

Not John Lennon's 1960s.

John Kennedy's.

Which were of course really the late 1950s.

A time I certainly don't remember.

But that doesn't stop me from missing those days.

I miss the music. I miss the fashions, the gray flannel suits on the men and the flouncy dresses on the women. I miss the cars. I miss the colors. After the 1960s, those 1960s, when somebody turned up the brightness and colors became florescent and blinding, designers of all kinds, fashion, interior, industrial, artistic, and graphic, adopted a more muted palette and even in periods when brighter colors have come back in style, they've only been relatively brighter, not as muddy or sombre as the periods immediately before and after.

I want my Technicolor blue skies back.

Late last night, inspired by the Mad Men live blogging at newcritics and the YouTube clip I posted the other day of Robert Morse singing I Believe in You, his signature song from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I watched the movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

And I realized something.

Something that had begun to dawn on me last week when I watched North By Northwest.

I'm not nostalgic for the actual 1960s.

I'm nostalgic for the movie version, which I didn't get to know until long after I'd lived through the real thing.

I was in my twenties when I saw North By Northwest for the first time.

Since then though I've seen it and the other great Technicolor Hitchcocks---Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief---and plenty of other movies from the period enough times that the look has saturated my brain to the point that it's spilled out of that part where I file my memories of the movies I've seen and flowed over into that part where I keep my memories of my actual life.

Add to this my long-standing love for The Dick Van Dyke Show, my taste in music---Frank Sinatra in his Nelson Riddle-Capitol-Songs for Swingin' Lovers years---and the fact that I was alive and had eyes and ears at the time, even if I wasn't paying close attention to all that grown-up stuff, and the result is that I now "remember" the early 1960s as if I'd been Rob Petrie, Roger Thornhill, or J. Pierpont Finch.

And I miss those times.

Which is ridiculous.

Given that these are mostly false memories, and given that what is actual memory is actually memories of the time in my life when I developed my tastes for the period, my twenties, and given that a lot of what I miss hasn't gone away because what I'm missing are movies I can watch and records I can play anytime I want, I should either be nostalgic for the 1980s or not nostalgic at all.

But I am and it bugs me.

I hate feeling nostalgic generally because it's a roundabout form of self-pity, but being nostalgic about a time you not only weren't aware of you were living through but which isn't even wholly real is a problem when you're trying to make artistic judgments.

(Won't get into it here, but nostalgia is by definition a feeling inspired by a time that never was, as it's the case that when we're nostalgic we're usually remembering the past in a highly selected and idealized way.)

I honestly believe that movies were better then.

That the fashions were better then.

That the music was, if not better, more varied and more complex in ways that made listening to music a better experience, and at any rate listening to Sinatra on the hi-fi was more pleasurable than listening to Green Day on your iPod.

People looked and moved better then.

Ok, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint looked better than Brad and Angelina.

And I know it was the point of Everybody Loves Raymond, but Rob and Laura were sexier, funnier, and cooler than Ray and Debra.

The women were prettier then.

The comedians were funnier then.

The President was better then.

I'm convinced this is all true, and yet it's not, because my judgments are tainted by nostalgia and false memories.

But then...

Watching How to Succeed in Business last night I could see signs of coming changes that were I think objectively changes for the worse.

The movie was released in 1967 but the director and designers seemed to be trying to capture the look and feel of seven years earlier when the musical was on Broadway. I think they understood that those 1960s had taken hold and that the musical already a period piece. The set designs, the lighting, the color schemes, even the cinematography, and definitely the sound, not just the music but the voices and the background noises, were meant to recall an earlier and already vanishing New York City. The street scenes were carefully framed so that the cars rush by in the corners and far background of the shots and you can't identify any makes or models that would fix the time period. The men's suits and hair styles were far more conservative than they would have been even in a corporate office in 1967.

The one aspect of the overall design where the late 1960s impinged and the period feel is broken is that aspect where Hollywood designers have always given themselves permission to be anachronistic---the women's fashions and make-up.

You wouldn't call anything any of the women are wearing "mod"---except for a dumb pink vinyl jockey cap somebody who hated her stuck on Michelle Lee's head in one short scene---but the women's dresses generally didn't flounce the way they should have; in fact, they had that stiff, sack-like blockiness that defined women's silhouettes by 1970 and made even trim and pretty young women like my mother look like they were built like shoeboxes and as if they were wearing army blankets decorated with oversized buttons and wide strips of construction paper.

There's no way you can look at what the women in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying are wearing and what Eva Marie Saint wore in North By Northwest eight years earlier and not think, When did ugly become the fashion?

Maybe it's nostalgia or maybe it's just a matter of personal taste, but it just looks to me that between 1960 and 1970 people forgot how to do a lot of things they had known how to do and do well and they've not learned how to get those skills back since.

Times change, technologies improve, societies rearrange themselves, skills and talents that were admirable, that are still remarkable in retrospect, become obsolete, habits and mores and even moralities evolve, devolve, reverse, dominate, or subvert themselves.

An awful lot of life has gotten better since 1960, so much better that it's trivial-minded of me to lament the passing of the three button suit and the mambo, especially since I never owned the one or danced the other.

But help it I cannot, I cannot help thinking that we've forgotten a lot that we didn't need to forget to get ourselves from then to now.

We forgot how to make movies.

Forgot how to design and wear clothes.

Forgot how to sing a song.

Forgot how to dance.

Forgot how to tell a good joke.

Forgot how to build...well, most anything, but especially cars.

All the other losses might be arguable, but I defy you to convince me that America has designed or built a better car since the '65 Mustang.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Four weeks, five days, nine hours, and thirty-one minutes since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows...

...and I'm done. Finally.

Don't tell the eleven year old.

He and I have been listening to it together. But I got caught up. I had to know. I started reading ahead and couldn't stop.

Which I guess tells you what I think of it.

It's a rattling good yarn.

Measured solely by the energy of its narrative drive and the excitement and chills and thrills it delivers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the best of the series after Prisoner of Azkaban.

If there was a Marauder's Map for this post at this point you'd see your footprints stopping before a sign that says, Here be spoilers.

I'll try to be careful not to let too many loose.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets a little too exciting in spots, I think. The final battles feel rushed and the bodies pile up too fast and too high. JK Rowling promised she'd be killing off some important characters, but I think she couldn't make up her mind which characters. I don't think I'm spoiling if I say that there was no way she was going to kill Harry, Ron, or Hermione---you'd have heard about it by now if she had. But having knocked off Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince, Rowling was left with only two main characters to kill whose deaths would seriously matter, and the death of one of them is a foregone conclusion, not just from the first page of Deathly Hallows, but from the last pages of Half-Blood Prince. And the other one, whose death would have been important just in the amount of tears it would have wrung from her readers, but who could have died in a heroic way that would have brought his character full-circle and elevated him beyond pathetic comedy, she couldn't bring herself to kill.

Or leave dead after the penultimate draft. That's the only explanation I can think of for why he's not in the epilogue. She went back and hurriedly resurrected him.

At any rate, it felt to me that having promised us dead heroes or heroines to cry over, but unable to off any of her three major characters or her favorite supporting player, Rowling was at a loss trying to decide whose death would most move us so she started firing randomly into the crowd.

So four important good guys bite the dust, but three of them go in hurried, apparently unplanned for ways that waste (sorry about the pun) their death scenes and their characters.

The fourth's death surprised me and did choke me up a bit. But the surprise came from the fact that whenever he's disappeared from the books, which he's done for long stretches, I've tended to forget about him. When he finally does go, I looked back in my head and saw that his death has been plotted and foreshadowed from his first appearance and that's why it was so fitting and moving when it came. Plus, Rowling gave his death scene the attention it needed and the character deserved.

The other three are thrown away, their deaths turning out to be meaningless to the overall story or to the last book on its own, except, in the case of one of them, setting up a confrontation in the last battle that will probably be more satisfying in the movie than it is on the page, thanks to the two actresses who'll be on the screen when it comes.

The other two die for no good reason unless it was to help Rowling in the settting up of her next series of Hogwarts stories starring another orphan with a heroic godfather.

(I don't know if Rowling has any plans to return to Hogwarts or to the wizarding world someday. Rumor had it that her next book was going to be a murder mystery. Rumor, as usual, didn't get its facts straight.)

Besides the not quite Shakespearean littering of the stage with bodies, I was also a little disappointed that Rowling resorted to so much expositionary dialog to wrap up the central mystery of the story and I could have done without the epilogue entirely. It didn't tell us anything about the characters' futures we couldn't have guessed while revealing a few things that I, for one, wouldn't have guessed. Rowling dropped in a few clues that Harry doesn't turn out to be the boring, middle-class quidditch dad he's playing the part of on the station platform, but the clues aren't all that insistent or convincing, and there are no clues that Ginny hasn't turned out to be merely a quieter, demurer version of her mother.

And I'd have thought that twenty years on Hermione would be head of Gryffindor if not headmistress of Hogwarts.

Tonks and McGonnagle were blinds. I think Rowling is a sexist. Bellatrix and Umbridge and Rita Skeeter are her real takes on women with careers.

Nevermind. I liked the book. I liked the way she handled Harry's confrontation with his destiny. I liked the way she prepares throughout the book for the moment when he crosses that threshold from teenager to grown man, which, by the way, called my attention to a long-running theme I hadn't been paying attention to.

Once Harry has his moment---when he literally dies as a boy and is reborn as a man; Joseph Cambpell would have been pleased---he becomes the first and only healthy, decent, and serious young man in the books.

Almost all the other men in the books are old, dead, villains, or members of the walking wounded (Sirius and Lupin). The ones who aren't any of those are fussily and impotently middle-aged, like Arthur Weasley and Cornelius Fudge.

I guess I could count Bill and Charlie Weasley as grown-ups but they are sketches of characters.

I shouldn't focus on the maleness of the missing young adults either. Tonks is the only young woman who isn't a ghost or a villainess. Fleur is still a girl. Wizards and witches marry shockingly early in life. I was stunned to find out that James and Lily Potter were only twenty-one when they died. That means that Snape's only about 32 when the series starts, a fact that it's hard for me to get my head around now, but only because Alan Rickman's been playing him in the movies. I think if I went back to The Sorcerer's Stone and started re-reading from the beginning Snape's relataive youth would change my perception of the way his character and story develop for the better.

But the absence of strong, effective, protective adults in their prime, which should have been obvious to me from the start, is something I need to think about, because it's clearly been very important to Rowling. I have to decide what it means. Any ideas?

Finally, for now, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, although as I said one of the two best books, is not the most important book in the series. With it Rowling did a fine job of wrapping up her epic and capping her myth and told a good, exciting adventure in the process, but the other impressive bit of work she did with it was using it to make Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince an even better book.

And The Half-Blood Prince, which I liked very much, by the way, needed to be made better because it's the most important book.

I think I've been very dumb about these books because I should have known this by the time I was half-way through The Order of the Phoenix. Rowling has been telling two stories all along. The main one and the obvious one is the story of Harry's becoming a hero---his hero's journey, to make the ghost of Joseph Campbell smile again. In that story Dumbledore has played the archetypal role of the wise old man who passes along secret knowledge and wisdom to the hero. He's been Harry's Merlin, his Obi-wan and Yoda.

But in the other story, the one I'd been ignoring, Dumbledore is the hero. The tragic hero.

In The Half-Blood Prince Rowling wrote the denoument of both her stories. We see Harry's final steps on his journey. At the end of the book he is a hero, if not yet a completed grown-up. And we also see the end of Dumbledore's story, although it's not clear exactly what that story is or means until the late chapters of Deathly Hallows.

I think I'll need at least one whole post to deal with that story.

It's quite a dark story for what seemed to have begun as a simple boys' adventure tale.

It's the story of Dumbledore's failure.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The police go to Hooters for the famous chicken wings

Nearby town was without police protection the other night.

There were supposed to be two officers on duty, but one of the cops scheduled for the night was on suspension and the other refused to work the shift alone. Didn't feel comfortable about it, according to the town supervisor. What could the chief do? He'd already given all his other officers the night off and they had plans. The chief had plans too.

They were all going out to dinner together.

At a Hooters in New Jersey.

Three carloads of off-duty Deerpark police officers, outside law enforcement officials and residents headed to Hooters restaurant in Franklin, N.J., Thursday night.

While the officers were out on the town, there were no town cops on duty back in Deerpark — 35 minutes away.

The story in the Times Herald-Record describes Hooters as "a sports bar, widely recognized for its scantily clad waitresses and popular wings."

I'm sure the cops all went for the popular wings.

The point of the outing, the chief said, was to "build camaraderie." The department has eighteen officers. Three of them are women. The camaraderie-building trip to Hooters was announced around the station by a flier that none of the female officers received. Maybe their brother officers invited them along anyway. The chief wouldn't say if any of the female officers ate chicken wings that night. He said "it's not relevent" whether or not they were there building some camaraderie too.

Women back in town must feel comforted, knowing their police force was doing all this male bonding over chicken wings.

The supervisor wishes they had picked another restaurant to bond over wings at, but his main concern is that the town was left unprotected except for a state trooper whose patrol takes him through there a few times a night.

The chief is sure the town was perfectly safe. He's sure because nothing bad happened. The fact that nothing bad did happen is proof that nothing bad could have happened.

As for the choice in restaurants? The chief thinks that's no big deal, maybe not as irrelevent as his female officers' inclusion in or exclusion from the camaraderie-building, but not anything to criticize.

"No one was on official duty and no police cars were taken," the chief says. "It was a group of adults being adults."

Hooters is also widely recognized for the very grown-up behavior of its clientele.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sinus headaches are a punishment from a just and wrathful God

Woke up this morning with a sinus headache and the depressing certainty that the box of Advil Cold and Sinus in the medicine cabinet was empty.

Nothing to do but fortify myself with a pot of coffee and set out for my bi-monthly encounter with the Patriot Act.

But I had to wait an hour. It was eight o'clock. Our regular drugstore doesn't open until 9:30. The nearest supermaket opens at 8 but its pharmacy doesn't open until 9, which until a couple years ago wouldn't have mattered. I'd have just grabbed my medicine off the shelf and taken it to the register. Can't do that anymore. My sinuses are stubborn. They will only respond to doses of pseudophedrine and you can't buy anything with pseudophedrine straight off the shelf. You have to ask for it and have it handed to you from behind a counter after you show some ID and sign your name.

The ostensible reason for this is that pseudophedrine can be used to manufacture methamphetamines and the best way to stop meth makers is to inconvenience law-abiding folks with swollen sinuses.

A few years back, several states, including, I'm ashamed to say, New York, thinking they had an epidemic of meth addicts on their hands, or worried they might, or wishing they might, because the war on drugs means government grants and lots of new fancy toys for local police departments, passed laws inconveniencing people like me that I'll bet without doing a single Google search's lick of research have not much inconvenienced the meth makers or helped their customers kick habits.

The Feds got into the act when some nitwits slipped the Combat Methamphetimine Epidemic Act of 2005 under the umbrella of the Patriot Act, and helping prove that a better name for the Patriot Act would be the Oh What the Hell Let's Just Make It a Crime to Be Alive and Let the Police Sort It All Out Act, inconvenienced sinus sufferers and honest pharmacists all over America while doing nothing much to inconvenience meth makers.

In fact, laws like this tend to do nothing but create more criminals. I'm sure there's been an increase in the trade of illegal IDs, the corruption of many formerly law-abiding friends who have been prevailed upon to go to the drug stores whenever the makers and addicts get worried they have gone there too often too recently (if buying boxes of Advil is even the best and easiest way to get your hands on enough psuedophedrine, which I doubt), and quite probably a sharp uptick in the enlistment of bribed druggists, delivery truck drivers, and pharmacy clerks.

On top of this, it's probably done what all laws that inconvenience honest citizens without actually preventing the crimes the laws are supposed to prevent do, made a whole lot of honest citizens more cynical and suspicious of the law and the cops and government agents who enforce the laws.

This is what happens in all authoritarian regimes---the people become criminal in their sympathies.

Commenter came along the other day who didn't like my review of Weeds last week. Commenter thought I wasted my time, um, reviewing the show, and incidentally making fun of the smugness of my smug pot smoking friends back in college and grad school. Commenter thought I should have devoted the post to advocating for the legalization of pot instead.

As it happens, I think pot should be legalized.

I think all drugs should be legal. Marijuana, coke, heroin, acid, ecstacy, meth, you name it.

It's not that I think drugs aren't bad for you. Obviously they are terribly destructive. Even pot does more than make you unbearably smug and goofy. It's just that the criminal drug trade destroys, ruins, and corrupts more lives than the cops fighting the war on drugs save.

And I won't bother getting into the waste of money and manpower.

I'm of the opinion that, generally, laws that are designed to prevent bad behavior tend only to make people more ingenious in their determination to behave badly.

We don't have laws to prevent murder, bank robbery, kidnapping, or assault.

We have laws that punish murder, bank robbery, kidnapping, and assault.

I'm all for punishing any destructive behavior that results from people using drugs.

As I said, though, drug laws, like the Combat Methamphetemine Epidemic Act, are intended to prevent bad behavior, and they don't do that. They just let government agents intrude and spy (and I'm sure let insurance companies intrude and spy now too) on honest people's lives and inconvenience us.

If this were really a law designed to prevent meth makers from making meth, then it would be based on the assumption that criminals are happy to play right into the hands of the cops, as if criminals are dumber than the mice we used to have who learned how to take the cheese from the other side of the traps.

The meth makers were supposed to go out to the their local drug store and buy a suspiciously large amount of Advil using their real names and the cops, reviewing the books a month or so later, would swoop down and pounce on them, finding them at home, waiting with their hands out and their wrists already locked together to make it easier to put the cuffs on them.

But it's not desinged to be effective. It's like all laws that have as their announced goal preventing bad behavior; it's something for the politicians who passed it to wave in front of frightened voters and brag about: "Look what I've done to protect you from the bad guys!"

I say, leave us sinus sufferers alone. Leave us all alone. Leave the self-destructive alone to self-destruct, and leave the rest of us free to decide if we want to self-destruct or play around with the possibility for a night.

Legalize it all.


We can't do that. The second after we make drugs legal every teenager in America and half their parents will rush out to shoot up, light up, snort, pop, sniff, lick, swallow, or absorb by osmosis anything and everything that's handy.

This is the authoritarian's view of human nature, that the only thing standing between a person and the moral, ethical, or psychic cliff he might throw himself off of is a stern and earnest God promising eternal damnation or His earthly representative swinging a club.

When certain conservatives, like George Will, try to explain their opposition to progressive social and economic programs intended to improve the general lot of humankind, they will say that those programs depend on human beings behaving well and the difference between liberals and conservatives like themselves is that liberals have a Polyanna view of human nature while conservatives, being smarter and more realistic, know that human beings are on the whole fairly unreliable.

They mean people stink and they are stupid and self-destructive.

I happen to agree.

The difference between me and George Will is that I think people are even worse.

I think we're lazy and timid and terrified of pain, hard work, and death.

And this is what keeps us civilized and on the path to enlightenment.

Conservative authoritarians think that people will run off moral cliffs like lemmings into the sea unless we erect tall fences with barbed wire and post armed guards. I think that all we need is a few signs pointing out that while the fall might in itself make for a pleasurable rush, the rocks and crashing waves at the bottom of the cliff will insure an uncomfortable and painful ending to the ride and most people will read the sign and say to themselves, Let's find an easier way down.

To put it another way, I believe that most people will arrange their lives in ways that increase their comfort and security.

A few minor laws that encourage and reward their pursuit of comfort and security don't bother me. I just don't think we need many laws to force them into that pursuit.

I'm not a libertarian, though. People do stink and they are stupid and they will find ways to turn the pursuit of comfort and security into its opposite. They do this mainly by pursuing comfort and security with too much energy. That is, they get greedy.

In our society, money is the great ensurer of comfort and security, so people want money. Lots of money.

Unlike some of the other deadly sins---lust, gluttony, sloth---greed never results in a victimless crime.

Consequently I think we need laws to discourage greed, control it, and punish it when it results in destructive behavior towards other people, which it almost always does.

Now, speaking of the deadly sins, many conservatives these days like to pride themselves (committing one of the deadly sins right off the bat, the sin of vanity) on being more rigorously and absolutely moral than us relativistically moral liberals.

The fact is these conservatives usually only object to three of the deadly sins; the other four, they've turned into virutes.

The seven deadly sins are Anger, Vanity, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth.

In the authoritarain-conservative's moral universe, the only ones we need to police, and we need to police those hard, are Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth.

Lust: If we don't regulate people's sexuality, if we don't make young people ashamed of their bodies and their natural desires, if we don't punish young women for failing to remain chaste by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term and then shaming and stigmatizing them for being single mothers and making it nearly impossible for them to provide for their babies, if we don't railroad people into marriage and make it hard for them to get out of a bad one and cement them into wedlock by burdening them with lots of kids, if we give them access to birth control and let them learn sex can be fun, then we'll wake up one day to find ourselves in a coast to coast orgy, writhing, naked bodies everywhere, with none of those much noticing or minding if the body they're writhing with at the moment is of the same gender or not of the same species.

Gluttony: Give people access to recreational drugs and that's all they will do, recreate on drugs. We'll have a nation of addicts and thieves stealing and murdering to feed their addictions---ok, we'll have more of that. Lots more.

Sloth: If we weave together a decent safety net, if we guarantee people good health care, if we put good schools in every neighborhood, if we promise that if they get sick or if their children or parents get sick and they need to stay home to take care of them they won't lose their jobs, if we don't make them work nonstop, if we pay them enough so that they can get a bit ahead, put some money in the bank, have something to depend on if there comes a day they need to stand up to their bosses and say I quit, then we'll wind up with a nation of lazy bums who won't go to work or lift a finger to feed or take care of themselves, they'll just sit around, probably smoking dope and having sex, when they're not zoned out in front of the TV, while they wait for their check from the government to arrive.

But as for the other sins, Anger, Vanity, Envy, and Greed?

Well, it's ok if we have a foreign policy based entirely on Anger and Vanity, if whenever another nation wounds us or wounds our pride, no matter how slight the wound, or makes us feel the least little bit afraid, or the least little bit as though we are not the most powerful nation on earth and entitled to every other nation's abject worship and terror, then we have a right to send in our armies or drop a bomb on them just to show them, as Thomas Friedman says we should show them, that we can do it.

And it's good that our entire economic system should be based on Envy and Vanity and Greed, although let's call the Envy and Vanity "competition" and claim the desire to accumulate wealth and power and status isn't a sign that we think too well of ourselves or want to think a lot less of our neighbors in comparison.

And Greed...well, do I even need to go there?

Reading over this post I see that it is rather ill-tempered, not to mention disjointed, rambling, and pointless.

I'm sorry.

I've got a headache.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hawk rise

Red-tailed hawk took a tour of our neighborhood this morning. I was out on the front porch having coffee, facing west. The hawk flew up from the east, appearing from the fields behind our house. Because of the angle of the morning sun, above and behind it, its shadow arrived well ahead of it. A large shadow that darkened the roof of our car in the driveway, then spanned the crown of the tallest maple in our neighbor's yard across the way. The shadow flapped its wings once on the neighbor's roof, covered the whole of one dormer, ran over the shingles, and vanished in the shade of another tree, and that's when the hawk itself appeared, looking smallish in comparison to its expansive shadow-self but as it glides in at treetop level forcing my eye to recalibrate and my mind to acknowledge, That's a big bird.

The hawk circled that tall maple, followed the line of the neighbor's roof, then chased after its now-gone shadow and disappeared after it behind the trees.

Pretty morning here. Heat's broken. Zip humidity. You might need a jacket. There's a stiff breeze that keeps the branches of the trees fidgeting between gusts and there's a constant hissing in the leaves as they dance and the neighbor's laundry, white and yellow towels and pillow cases, bounce on the line.

Hope it's as nice where you are.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shakespeare's flowers

Recently started reading The Shakespeare Riots, by Nigel Cliff, my new second-favorite book about Shakespeare, although it's not actually so much about Shakespeare himself or his plays; it's about the mania and passion for Shakespeare and the theatre in early Nineteenth Century America and how it led to mayhem and violence in the streets of New York in 1849.

My favorite book about Shakespeare is about him and his plays. James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

So, at any rate, I'm reading along in The Shakespeare Riots and I came across a passage that reminded me of comment Lou left here a couple of weeks ago on my post The past is another country. Responding to something I wrote about people who think that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare because the real author of the plays knew too much about the intimate lives and thoughts of kings and queens to have been a mere commoner from the sticks, Lou wrote:

I'd turn your observation about Shakespeare around about the realism of his portrayals of court. I've always dismissed the conspiracy theorists because the funniest and most realistic of his characters always were his commoners. Would someone who spent all their life at court be able to do that? Servants can observe the habits of their employers pretty closely. The employer (or at that time, master) seldom knows a thing about the servant.

I tend to agree with Lou, but it's a debatable point. If the portraits of Henry V, Prince Hal that was, and Hamlet are portraits of noblemen by a fellow nobleman then they are portraits of two noblemen who could have written very well about the lives and thoughts of commoners by a nobleman who could write very well about commoners himself. (Untangle that sentence, and good luck to you if you try, and you'll see there's a point in it somewhere.) But there's a larger point in Lou's argument that isn't as debatable: There is more in Shakespeare than is dreamed of in your philosophy.

That is, Shakespeare knew about a great many things, far more things than intrigues and romances at court. He knew about flowers, for one thing. And not any flowers. He knew what grew and thrived in the fields and woods and gardens around Stratford. Michael Wood makes this point in his documentary In Search of Shakespeare. Based on evidence from the plays, it's clear that whoever wrote them was from the country, and from a particular part of the country.

Shakespeare didn't just know what the countryside around Stratford looked like and what grew there. He knew what it was like to live there. He knew the rhythms of speech and accents and habits of thought of country people. He knew their folktales and folk wisdom, their work, the comings and goings in their daily lives.

Trying to explain in The Shakespeare Riots why Shakespeare's plays were so popular on the American frontier, Nigel Cliff finds the answer in Shakespeare's being a rude, indifferently educated, half-wild boy from the country---that is, Americans living two-hundred years after he died saw him as something of a proto-American pioneer:

His plays, the settlers saw, were too vital to be mired in respectability. Shakespeare's imagination might have spanned the world, his ear might have caught the legion tones of life, but hte country boy from the English Midlands was also wild, vulgar, and bloody; his goriest scenes, the eye gougings, child murders, and wife suffocations, were too much even for frontiersmen and were banished offstage or whisked behind a curtain. His writing was rooted in the countryside and its folklore, its witches, monsters, and spirits; throughout the plays, the daily rhythms of shepherds, fleeces, and feed, of foot soldiers, gravediggers, and pimps, of merchants, markets, and hard-won lives, act as a check on the elevated stories of lords, ladies, and kings. Macbeth has its drunken porter; King Lear finds its heart in a hovel on a storm-torn heath.

To put it another way. Whoever wrote this:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Also wrote this:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Wacky tabacky

Back in my salad days, a good measure of how much you loved your friends was how long you could stand to be around them when they were stoned.

For me, though, the tougher test came before the first joint was lit, sometimes hours before, at that moment when someone let it be known that there was some righteous weed available, if anyone was interested----and you could tell who was interested by the look of sly smugness that came over their faces. It was bearing the company of that smugness that was the test.

I don't think anyone has written extensively on the smugness of potheads back in the day. Weeds, however, which is starting its third season tonight on Showtime, has captured it perfectly.

The smugness of the soon to be toking could and did pass as a hipster's cool. There was that insider's confidence that they knew something only the truly with-it knew and something of a rebel's delight in taking on and defying the Man. But it wasn't a true rebellion, not for the crowd I hung with, upper middle class suburban white kids, because real rebels put something on the line.

They might have liked to think of themselves as glamorous outlaws, but their smugness was really the smugness of spoiled brats. They knew they were about to do something that their parents, teachers, priests, ministers, rabbis, the cops, Nancy Reagan, and even many of their friends thought was wrong, or just dumb, but they didn't care. They didn't care because they knew they were going to get away with it no matter what.

They were upper middle class white kids. Nobody was going to punish them for doing something as goofy and harmless as smoking pot. They knew the hypocrisy behind the war on drugs. They knew it was just a cover for a war on poor young black men. They were safe. Their coolness lay in their being among the privileged.

They were congratulating themselves ahead of time for being invulnerable.

In the middle of the first season of Weeds there's an episode in which Nancy, our heroine, the pretty widow making ends meet by dealing pot, expands her market onto the campus of the local commuter college---a school, it's made plain, that isn't like commuter colleges in more working class areas where kids who can't afford to go to private colleges go part-time when they're not at their jobs; this is a school for upper class underachievers who were too lazy, or too distracted, to earn the grades they needed in high school to get into a good college. It's a place for them to hang-out for four years while they wait for their family and social connections to rescue them.

And as Nancy makes her rounds, drumming up business, shopping her wares, that familiar look of smugness appears on one pretty, bland, young face after another.

It was during this sequence that I almost gave up on watching the show. I wasn't put off by the smugness, although the nostalgia it induced was hard to bear. But I made the mistake of thinking the writers and producers wanted us to cheer the fact that Nancy had successfully opened up a new market. I thought, Oh, I see, we really are meant to take Nancy's dealing as just a business and through it see the hypocrisy that underlies legitimate business.

Then Nancy got busted by the head of campus security.

She's cuffed and thrown in the back of his SUV and her smugness dissolves away in a flood of tears. She pleads and she begs and she even flirts with the cop, trying to convince him to let her off with a warning, on the grounds that she's just a poor widow woman trying to support her family and suddenly my attention was riveted. It finally dawned on me.

She has no clue!

I realized something I'd been missing because Nancy is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who is adorable, and I was making the mistake the show wants us all to make at first, attributing Parker's adorableness to Nancy.

Nancy has a lot of little tricks, gestures, expressions, cute little habits of speech that she shares with Parker and that help give the impression that she's just as adorable as Parker, plus she is as beautiful as Parker and has great big gorgeous brown eyes like Parker's that you just want to throw yourself into.

But as her dealing partner Conrad says somewhere in Season Two, You showed me those big brown eyes and I fell into shit.

Nancy isn't adorable. She's a reckless, self-deluded, dangerous narcissist.

She truly expects the cop to let her go. She expects him to accept her version of herself over the reality and feel sorry for her.

And when it turns out that the cop is actually shaking her down---although Nancy, because she is too busy feeling sorry for herself, doesn't figure this out---and he "relents," having had no real intention of arresting her, he just wants to get his hands on her merchandise, and lets her go with a warning but holds onto her pot, she starts pleading and flirting again, trying to convince him to let her keep it so she can sell it to make her mortgage payment.

She thinks she's talking to an honest cop and she's asking him to give her back her pot as if he wouldn't and shouldn't care she's going to use it to continue dealing.

Nancy doesn't know she's a criminal.

She doesn't see herself as a drug dealer.

She believes she is a nice, fairly decent person doing something she should be congratulated for, taking care of her family.

And it's not as though she's developed a mobster's double-think about what she does. Mobsters consider their criminal activities "business" with a set of hard and unforgiving rules, and while they don't necessarily think of themselves as bad guys---they get around having to face this by insisting there are no good guys. One way or another, everybody's on the take, they'll be glad to inform you, and it's hard to argue with them on that point.---they understand on some level why civilians don't like them.

Nancy knows that drug dealers are bad people. But she's not a bad person. Therefore she can't be a drug dealer.

She's not a businesswoman either. She's not focused enough on what she's doing. She's always looking past the moment to the future payoff, when she has the money in hand to pay her bills, not paying attention to how she's earning the money, but fixating on the image of herself as having succeeded in doing what she says she's doing, being a good and responsible mother.

This is how she navigates through all her daily chores and errands, how she handles all her obligations and manages her love life, by looking past the actual moment to the future payoff and the time to come when everything will be well and happy for herself and her family again.

The writers of Weeds don't go in for flashbacks or long expositionary speeches, so we're never sure if Nancy's self-flattering state of permanent denial has always been the main feature of her personality or if it's a reaction to her grief. She might just be a narcissistic flake or it might be that if she lets herself actually focus she'll have to face the awful, central truth of her life: Her husband is dead and she isn't up to the job of surviving without him.

It's the possibility that it's the latter that allows us to forgive the appearance of the former, to a point.

That point comes quickly in the second season when Nancy's fecklessness helps corrupt the so far only real grown-up in the show and her general inattention leaves her sons to descend into their own forms of corruption and out and out criminal activity.

And we're way past that point by the time Season Two comes to its cliffhanger ending with five guns pointed at her and Conrad's heads and an important character lying dead on a garage floor because of her.

Nancy's inability to accept that what she is doing is real, even at a remove, as a "business," makes her dangerous, and the professional criminals in her life, her supplier Heylia, her now former partner Conrad, and, as Season Three gets underway, her new boss, U-Turn, know she is dangerous and know why she is dangerous. She brings the cops with her everywhere she goes because she doesn't believe she has to worry about them.

Each of these three criminals tries to make Nancy see the truth. They try to make her grow-up and take responsibility for herself and her actions. In doing so, they come across as close to being actual grown-ups themselves.

But they aren't. We're not meant to take Weeds as a 21st Century re-play of those early 70s movies in which the outlaws are the real good guys. Conrad is a coward. U-Turn is a remorseless killer. And Heylia, it turns out, is in her own way just as narcissistic and just as in denial as Nancy.

In the first season, Heylia seemed to be the show's most grown-up character, insisting that Nancy face up to what she's doing and follow the rules. Heylia appeared to have an ethic---a ruthless busineswoman's ethic, but she kept to it and tried to teach it to Nancy. Whenever she tried she managed to sound somewhat wise and adult, at least when it came to their business.

But in the second season it turns out that her ethic is only a rephrasing of Look Out for Number One and that her apparent responsibility towards her family, her nephew Conrad and her pregnant daughter Vaneeta, isn't based on love but on yet another narcissist's inability to see other people as not mere extensions of herself. She turns on Nancy because Nancy steals not Conrad's love or loyalty but his usefulness to her---when he's out following Nancy around he's not there to do Heylia's bidding. He's her extra pair of hands and legs, that's all.

Heylia isn't a very smart criminal, either, as it also turns out. Being a version of Nancy, she doesn't really see herself for what she is, despite all she's said previously. The fact that she thinks she has a chance of marrying a devout and extremely priggish follower of the Nation of Islam (a plot development that parallels Nancy's thinking she can date a DEA agent) shows the extent of her self-delusion. But she's even more dangerous than Nancy. Nancy is self-centered and self-aborbed, and can be careless of other people's persons and feelings. But she's not mean and not entirely selfish. Heylia is mean. And like anybody who never questions their own righteousness or self-importance, she's capable of anything, including murder---Nancy can get people killed, but so far, she's been incapable of having them killed---and incapable of remorse, shame, guilt, or even taking responsibility.

As Season Three gets underway, the immediate threat to Nancy's life is coming form U-Turn and the Armenian drug dealers. But the long-term threat has to be from Heylia for whom Nancy is a narcissist's worst nightmare, an unflattering mirror.

This is how Nancy survives as a character worth our sympathy if not our affection.

Bad as she is, everybody else is worse.

Except for her eleven year old son, Shane, but he's trying. Thanks to the tutalege of his cheerfully amoral Uncle Andy, Shane's on his way to becoming a precocious pervert.

Nancy's eldest son, high school senior Silas, has already come close to ruining his girlfriend's dreams of a career and robbing her of her chance to go to Princeton by deliberately and coldly, calculatingly getting her pregnant. He's also a thief and he's trying to muscle his way into his mother's business, apparently with the intention of expanding her product line io include heroin.

In fact, there isn't a truly likeable or even half-way decent main character on Weeds. All of these people are sociopaths. They are criminally narcissistic when they aren't out and out criminal. They have their charms, even some good qualities that border on actual virtues. They do and say things that make us forget for a moment what terrible excuses for human beings they are. Mostly, though, the show's writers and producers make sure we don't forget what they are or let us make excuses for them. They let us identify with them, even sympathize. They are all in desperate staits, of their own devising, but we've all been in those ourselves. Just when we're ready to pass judgment, to loathe and despise one of them they way they all deserve, another one of them comes along and does something even more loathesome and despicable to them and we are forced, despite ourselves, to feel their pain and humiliation.

But ultimately the show never lets us lose sight of the fact that all of them, Nancy included, are a collection of amoral, destructive, and self-destructive jerks.

It's kind of our Restoration Comedy.

Weeds is a very funny show about people who wouldn't be at all funny to know in real life. It's a very moral show about amoral people that achieves its moral ends by never being moralistic or judgmental.

And it's not a show about weed. It's about the smugness of those pot smokers I used to know extended to everything. It's about people who think they never have to worry about getting caught because they know that consequences are for other, less privileged mortals.

Tonight we'll find out if the character we think is dead really is dead, how Nancy and Conrad escape getting shot by U-Turn and the Armenians, if Silas is going to wind up in jail and if Shane will wind up in Pittsburgh.

But almost as important to me is that we'll find out if Zooey Deschanel's going to be coming back for more episodes.

Episode One of Season Three starts tonight at 10 PM, Eastern and Pacific. David Duchovny's new series, Californication, premieres immediately afterwards at 10:30. Over at newcritics, Dan Leo gives his review. Short version: Fun if you what you want to see is David Duchovny do the wild thing, which he does, a lot.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Seasons One and Two of Weeds available on DVD through your friendly neighborhood aStore.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Toad of Toad Hall crosses the Rubicon

I imagine that at about ten of nine, Tuesday morning, Uncle Merlin was standing outside the door of his local video store, rapping on the glass, and calling to the sleepy-eyed clerks inside getting ready to open up, "Let me in! Let me in now! I have to rent it and watch it immediately."

"It" being the second season of Rome which came out on DVD this week. Uncle Merlin watched season one with all the ferver and exegetical attention of a recent religious convert. He is not just a fan of the show, he has become a virtual citizen of Rome, the ancient city, the vanished Empire, the decaying Republic.

Rome may not have been built in a day, but his obsession was established after a single episode, and since that first, revelatory viewing Uncle Merlin has been deep into researching the glory that was Rome and hardly a day goes by when I don't receive an email with a link to something he's turned up in his obsessive googlings of all things Roman. When we were down on vacation he was so absorbed in Anthony Everitt's biography of Cicero that one night he had to be dragged bodily off the front porch and thrown into the back of the car to get him to his favorite seafood restaurant. I was glad that his now two-years old, Brokedown Mountain-inspired enthusiasm for Country Western music still has him wearing his cowboy hat and pearl-buttoned shirts everywhere otherwise we might have had to face the sight of the six feet six of him appearing at the breakfast table some morning in a toga and a plumed helmet.

This has always been the way with him. Uncle Merlin has never had interests or hobbies. He has enthusiams. Manias! Restoring old automobiles, repairing and selling vintage appliances, refitting his house with steam heat; Country Western music, Marantz receivers, smoothies, English bull terriers, Rome---when something comes along that grabs his interest, it grabs his heart, mind, body, and soul along with it.

The joke around the Mannion house is that Uncle Merlin is really Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows. Toad, you probably remember, was regularly carried away by his manias, his enthusiasm for automobiles being the catalyst for Toad's main misadventure and the cause of his temporarily losing Toad Hall to the weasels and stoats.

So far, fortunately, none of Uncle Merlin's manias has resulted in his having to disguise himself as an old washer woman to escape from prison.

Me, I'm nothing like Toad. I don't get carried away by anything. In fact, I resist enthusiasm. If I'm like any of the characters in Wind in the Willows, I'm like Badger, grumpy, withdrawn, inclined to be solitary, and that's on my good days.

Thinking about this the other day, when I was imagining Toad outside the video store...I mean Uncle Merlin...I wondered if I was like any character from children's literature.

I kid the blonde that she's the Little Red Hen, but really she's Harriet the Spy.

But who am I?

Robin Hood?

Long John Silver?

In my dreams.

I know who I am. I've known it since I was a little kid. I recognized myself the first time I heard the story on Captain Kangaroo.

I'm Mike Mulligan.

You remember how it goes, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel?

How Mike always said his steam shovel Mary Ann could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, although he was never quite sure that was true? How Mike took such good care of her that she never grew old? How...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who cut through the high mountains so the trains could go through...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who lowered the hills and straightened the curves to make the long highways for the automobiles...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who smoothed out the ground and filled in the holes to make the landing fields for the airplanes...

And it was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who dug the deep holes for the cellars of the tall skyscrapers in the big cities...

I always liked that apparent throw-away phrase "and some others." It captures Mike's pride in Mary Ann and the reality that of course they didn't do any of this alone without taking readers' attention off the most significant fact in each sentence. Mike and Mary Ann had done important work and done it well.

I identified with Mike from the first and I even felt that like Mike and Mary Ann I always worked a little better and little faster when people were watching.

I'm not sure what work I thought I was doing when I was seven years old.

But then:

...along came the new gasoline shovels and the new electric motor shovels and the new diesel motor shovels and no one wanted Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann any more.

It was that feeling of being unwanted that grabbed me and stuck with me.

How a little kid wound up feeling that the world and time had passed him by is beyond me. There's a simple explanation, but I don't like it. By the time I was in first grade I had four little brothers and sisters, a very young age to become your parents' lowest parenting priority. Mom and Pop Mannion didn't neglect me, not by any measure, but I'm sure I must have often felt like they didn't have time for me any more. That's too pat, though, and I prefer to think that my identification with Mike has a quirkier, more psychologically colorful explanation.

Come to think of it, Captain Kangaroo read a bunch of stories that had a similar theme. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, Hercules: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Fire Engine, Virginia Lee Burton's other great children's book The Little House---makes me wonder if that feeling of having been left-behind is universal among children of a certain age.

Whatever the explanation, in my head I am Mike Mulligan---what or who's my Mary Ann is another mystery---and I'm looking to find my way to Popperville to dig the cellar of the new town hall to show that Mary Ann and I can still dig as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week, although I'm still not sure this is true.

I would, though, make all the corners neat and square.

But there are days when I'm not Mike Mulligan, days when I'm Pooh and other days when I'm Eeyore. I've been Aladdin and Natty Bumpo and the boy who cried wolf. I was Frank but never Joe Hardy.

Joe is the athletic, impetuous one. Frank is the more thoughtful older brother.

And I've known some other characters. I've known Peter Rabbits who can't resist going where they've been told they should never go. I've known Cats in the Hat, cheerful troublemakers who think that the rest of us should accept and forgive the mayhem they cause because it was so much fun. (The character of Andy on Weeds is a Cat in the Hat, come to think of it. His ex-girlfriend, played by Zooey Deschanel, is even more so, and is significantly named Kat.) I've known all three of the little pigs.

I've known Cowardly Lions, Tin Woodsmen, Scarecrows, and humbugs hiding behind curtains, pretending to be great and all-powerful wizards. I've known Dorothy.

I've known Tom Swifts, Tom Sawyers, and Tom Tom the Piper's Sons. I've known Pollyanas and Peter Pans of both sexes.

I've known Ramonas who were pests and Ramonas who weren't.

And, of course, I am friends with Toad of Toad Hall.

Your turn.

I like putting it this way.

Who are you?

Who do you know?

But I guess the better way to put it is probably "What work of children's literature meant or still means the most to you?"

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and other favorites of the Mannion boys when they were small are available through my aStore.

So is Rome.

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Friday, August 10, 2007


Other night, I'm at the video store, looking to pick up the next disk of Season 2.0 of Battlestar Galactica and maybe a movie for family movie night (Note to the Siren: Thanks for the recommendation. The Crimson Pirate was a family movie night feature last year. Big hit.) and there were two couples in the store, in different aisles, arguing over what movie they were going to watch.

Not discussing. Arguing.

And in both cases the refrain was, "We always watch what you want! Why can't we watch something I pick out for a change?"

And in both cases the person claiming to never get to pick the movie was the woman.

And in both cases the reason she never got to pick was the same. He will only watch action movies.

It was all I could do to keep from going up to both couples and saying, "That's it. End it. Break up now. Your relationship is doomed for a variety of reasons, not least of all because he's a bully or a baby."

I might have added that if he always has to get his way when it comes to choosing the movies, maybe it's because he doesn't get his way in anything else. Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, and genders, and work in mysterious ways their emotional intimidation to perform. But although that's a possibility, it's not the likeliest one.

Run, I wanted to say to the women, run now, and ran far, and run fast.

I also might have added that if your guy has to feel like a GUY all the time and watching action movies makes him feel like a GUY, and if when he doesn't feel like a GUY for even the hour and a half it would take to watch Music and Lyrics he feels he is not being a GUY, he is not a man, and he's going to take his lack of real manliness out on the world in one way or another.

Run, run now.

This of course is a prejudice and it's based on my assumptions of what these two couples define as an action movie.

Bond movies are one thing. Steven Seagal movies are another. In this video store Space Cowboys, Excalibur, The Searchers, Heat, Blade Runner, all the Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, and Lord of the Rings movies are shelved in the Action section, along with Jet Li's oeuvre, Starship Troopers, The Transporter, Total Recall, and Robo-Cop 2, but not the original.

If by action movies, these couples mean movies from the Action section, then it's possible that thanks to the him they never watch anything but great movies, while if her definition of more light-hearted and interesting fare is mush, Nacho Libre, or Saw III, he's saving her and himself from watching drek.

On the other hand he may be forcing her to watch nothing but drek.

But beyond the questions of whose taste trumps whose and the amount of bullying involved and who's actually bullying whom, I was also thinking that if these people don't enjoy the same movies, then they just aren't compatible.

And that's a different prejudice based on something else, the fact that not only do the blonde and I tend to like the same kinds of movies, it was movies that brought us together. I can't remember exactly how and when we started getting friendly, but I know our first long and serious conversation began when we discovered that we both loved an obscure little independent film called Between the Lines.

Things took off when it turned out that our favorite movie was Casablanca.

Naturally, we don't always like all the same movies. Once, when we were dating, I made her cry by revealing I hated Fame. We don't always like or dislike the same movies to the same degree. We don't always want to watch the same movies. She's not going to watch Inland Empire with me when it comes out on DVD next week. (It's generally the case that I want to watch more movies than she does, and I'm willing to try movies she's pretty sure sound boring or dreadful or not a whole lot of fun. Then again, she took the boys to The Simpsons and enjoyed it, while I refused to go.) And I'm sure if we each made a list of our top 25 favorite movies of all time, after Casablanca there'd be a lot of disagreement.

But there's never been a night when we wanted to watch a movie together that we couldn't agree on what movie to go see or what movie to rent or watch on TV.

So when I hear that there are couples who don't like the same movies, ever---or overhear them---I'm baffled.

I can't believe that their couplehood will survive.

But here's the thing.

One of those couples was college-aged. The other, however, was well into middle-age. I don't know if they were married or how long they'd been together, but except for my prejudice about shared taste in movies there was no reason for me to think they weren't married and hadn't been so for a while. They sounded married.

The blonde and I like the same movies. But we do not like the same books. We don't like the same TV shows. We don't like the same foods. We don't like all the same people. We don't have the same feelings about God, the Catholic Church, or religious faith in general. We don't even like each other all the time.

And our apparent compatibility when it comes to choosing and enjoying movies may actually be a sign of something else about us.

We aren't the kind of people who just show up at a movie theater and decide what movie to see based on which one is starting soonest. I don't understand those people at all. And we almost never run out to the video store at the spur of the moment to pickup whatever looks good just to have something to watch that night. When one of us goes, it's usually with a short list of two or three movies we already know we want to see.

It may be that the reason we never argue about what movie to watch is that we learned a long time ago how to avoid those arguments.

It may be that we spend so much time talking about movies we've heard about, read about, or seen in the past, that we've practically unconsciously negotiated and come to an agreement well before we decide to head out the door.

It may be that over time we've shaped each other's tastes.

It may be that our conversations about other things have taught us so much about each other that we don't even think to suggest a movie the other wouldn't like.

And it may be that it's just one of those flukes of personality.

For all I know, movies are the only area of disagreement for both those couples.

For all I know, when they're arguing about movies they are unconsciously coming to terms about a dozen other important matters in their lives, that they are learning about each other's feelings generally, and even though they're disagreeing about what they're going to be doing tonight, they are coming to an agreement about what they're going to be doing over the next couple of years---they're agreeing about how to raise the kids or how to divie up the housework or whether or not they're going to move or buy a new car.

For all I know, arguing over movies is a useful and necessary way for them to blow off steam so that they can discuss those other matters calmly and rationally.

For all I know, arguing over movies might be their form of verbal foreplay and it doesn't matter what movie they finally take home because when they get home they're going to be too busy to watch it.

And for all I know, they might just like arguing.

When you get right down to it, all I know is that if the blonde and I hadn't both seen Between the Lines I'd have probably kept chasing that wan, willowy, sad-eyed brunette and I'll bet you dollars to donuts she wouldn't have appreciated Casablanca at all.

By the way, family movie night this week's going to be The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines.

The whole family enjoyed the first one in the series.

Still not looking forward to the Friday night when The Simpsons Movie is the feature.

Your turn: Lots of points for commenting. What brought you and your significant other together? What do you like that he/she doesn't and vice versa? What movie do you both love? What movie do you both hate? What does she/he like/hate you can't believe he/she likes/hates? What do you like/hate she/he can't believe you like/hate?

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Mitt Romney gains new appreciation for the political genius of Bill Clinton

So, guy running for President walks into a diner in New Hampshire and winds up in an argument with a waitress over health care.

Guy happens to have been governor of the next state over and he brags about the great health insurance plan that got implemented down there while he was in office.

Waitress says that's all well and good for the folks in that state, but how's he going to see the rest of us in all the other states get the same benefits? And the guy doesn't have a good answer.

Because the guy's a Republican and the state he was governor of is Massachusetts and no Republican's going to win his party's nomination by promising to turn the whole country into a version of Taxachusetts.

Fact is, the guy's whole campaign platform to date can be pretty much summed up like this: "Folks, those four years I was governor? I was kidding!"

Still, Mitt Romney seems to have done a pretty good job of it, talking to an actual voter who has no reason to like him or trust him or play along with his make believe Man of the People moment.

But maybe the TV reporter just left it out and Romney did ask the waitress the questions he should have asked her.

If the exchange went exactly this way though, Romney has a lot of work to do before he comes close to matching Bill Clinton's talent for talking to people:

The waitress then explained that she has two daughters with health problems and that one was recently taken out of school and no longer has health care.

"Well, one of the things I think is important to do... is to find a way to get health insurance to all of our citizens," Romney said.

Think Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton wouldn't have stopped things right there to ask what her daughters' health problems are and how old they are and how the one daughter's coping with being out of school and how the waitress herself is coping and whether or not the daughter's under a doctor's care, health insurance or no health insurance?

Like I said, maybe the reporter left it out, but Romney appears to have changed the subject back to himself and his Presidential ambitions awfully fast.

One of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits was one that ran just after Clinton was elected and starred Phil Hartman as Clinton. In it Clinton shows up at a McDonald's after jogging and as he goes from table to table talking to the diners about their problems and his plans as President he's stealing fries from their trays, sips from their shakes, bites from their burgers.

Hartman was brilliant as Clinton, generally, but this skit was inspired. It got at Clinton's weaknesses, his self-indulgences and his vanities, but it also captured his greatest talent---his ability to talk with people as if what they have to say and what they they think about what he says matter.

Almost as good is the scene in Primary Colors, the mediocre movie starring John Travolta based on Joe Klein's awful book, in which the narrator-protagonist, campaign staffer Henry Burton, goes looking for his candidate, Governor Jack Stanton, in their hotel late at night and discovers that Stanton is not in his room. Burton has a moment of panic as he jumps to the conclusion that the philandering Stanton is out tom-catting around. But then he happens to glance out the window and sees across the parking lot a near empty diner where Stanton is sitting on a stool deeply involved in a cheerful conversation with the counterman.

Despite what I was saying last week, sometimes fiction captures the truth about life better than journalism, history, or biography.

Few politicians have that talent. Bobby Kennedy did. FDR. George Washington, amazingly, but only amazingly if you can't picture him outside of his portraits.

Pop Mannion could do it.

For the benefit of the few Beltway journalists who happen to read this: That talent is a part of a politician's character, and it's a virtue in a leader in a democracy.

Democrats---well, most Democrats---have an advantage when they walk into diners. They don't have to pretend that their honest answer to a waitress' question about how they plan to help her take care of her family isn't, Whatever your bosses and the corporations they work for tell me I can do, which very likely will be...nothing.

But having that advantage doesn't mean they know how to make the most of it. I haven't seen any of the Democratic contenders, except Hillary, work a crowd, and Bill was with her at the time.

I've heard Obama's good one on one, but that's just it, I've heard it.

Still, that advantage is why Democrats don't only appear before carefully screened crowds of proven and unquestioning loyalists.

I hope that visit to the diner won't be the last time Mitt Romney tries to mingle with regular folks again.

Actually, I hope that visit helps him win the New Hampshire primary.

I'm praying the Republicans nominate Romney.

Of course, that's primarily because I think he'll be easier to beat than Rudy Giuliani.

But it's also because it would prove that the Republicans still care a little bit about who gets to be President of the United States.

Besides having been a competent governor of an important state (Please, gang. Competent does not mean politically acceptable. Competency is a neutral virtue.), as opposed to being the divisive and not nearly as effective as he brags of being mayor of admittedly the most important city in the country, Romney is a relatively decent human being. Nevermind the stupid mistake with the family dog. (Decency is not a neutral virtue, but it is a minimum one and a fairly easy one to manage. That's why it's often called common decency. Having common decency is not the same as being a saint by a long shot.) He is also disciplined and responsible and he's worked hard. Giuliani isn't lazy but he's arrogant and thinks he can skate by without working hard, and he's intellectually and morally empty, and he's nasty. He treats everybody, including his children, far worse than poor goofy Mitt treated the family dog that one time.

And I believe what he told to the waitress, that if he gets to be President he won't just sit around and talk about problems, he's going to try to do something about them.

I don't expect to like what he tries to do.

And I think his health care plan amounts to little more than hoping the Democrats force him to sign something that's not totally unacceptable to the insurance industry.

But that's a far better plan than Giuliani's, which as Ezra Klein points out is not a plan at all, just an excuse to harsh on the Democrats as a way of endearing himself to the Radical Republican Right:

The twice-divorced, pro-choice, pro-gay Giuliani knows he's not conservative enough for the Republican base. But if he cannot erase his ideological heterodoxies, he can at least demonstrate some partisan reliability. Attacking Democrats as socialists and blasting Michael Moore ably demonstrates Giuliani's commitment to the vilification of liberals. Hating the right people is almost as good as believing the right things And having something that looks kinda sorta like an actual health care plan gets the press to cover his attacks on the Democrats as if the two sides were engaged in something worth reporting on -- say, a discussion of how to reform the American health care system. It's a smart political strategy for Giuliani, and comforting, in a way. At least we know he's got a plan for something.

Best part of the story about Romney's visit to the diner, though, is the ending:

Following the exchange, Griffin expressed her frustration with the entire poilitical process and said she wishes politicians could live in her shoes.

"Maybe they should live in our shoes... just to see how it is. It's not pretty," she said. "I'm just so sick of the nice clothes, all these fancy cars. They walk around like (pauses)... you know?"

"He was in here for what? Over an hour? That's money off my table," Griffin said.

This is what it means to be working for the minimum wage in America. Doesn't matter what a Presidential candidate's promising to do down the road, and it wouldn't matter if it it was a Democrat in there instead of a Republican; at the moment, what's a a far bigger worry is that by holding things up at the diner, the candidate was robbing her of tips.

Related: Charlie meets Bill.

Update: Apparently Romney got a little testy with the waitress. Over at Shakesville, SpaceCowboy has a link to video of Romney's visit to the diner and to a Washington Post article that reports that one of the waitress's daughters is diabetic and the other has Crohn's disease.

Big thanks to Julia. Thanks also to Avedon Carol, Kevin Drum, and Steve Benen.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Two weeks, nine hours, and forty-seven minutes since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows...

...and I'm only two chapters in.

The blonde and the teenager had been hogging our copy, trading it back and forth between them, and playing keep away with me.

So I don't have anything much to say except that if Snape is a double-agent, he's so deep undercover he's in a worse postion than Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Departed and I hope they hire Martin Scorsese to direct the last movie because the ending's going to be a bloodbath.

And I'd rather not hear anything about it yet.

Ok. Maybe a little bit. But no spoilers, please!

I've been avoiding reading anything about Deathly Hallows, but I couldn't resist this post by Sara Robinson at Orcinus about why Christian Fundamentalists hate the whole Harry Potter phenomenon.

Sara makes some excellent points about the role of doubt in helping to create the paranoid worldview of the Fundies and how Harry Potter frightens them by encouraging doubt. She also shows how authoritarian figures foster that doubt as a way of solidifying their own power. Authority becomes the shield against the very doubt it has exacerbated and exploited, and again Harry Potter is frightening, this time by undermining authority.

Implicit in this is the idea that all authority is necessarily, rightfully external. The fate of the entire world depends on how completely we can give up our desire to control our destinies, and submit to God and his appointed earthly overseers. This obsession with the need for external authority is, in a nutshell, is why fundamentalism is a form of religious authoritarianism.

Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God -- a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children -- or anyone else -- learning how to do.

Sara's post is a follow-up to a post by her Orcinus colleague, Dave Neiwert, in which Dave includes a clip from Jesus Camp showing an anti-Potter rant and this bit of a cartoon published by a Potter-bashing pastor named Jack Chick:

Don't think there are any tarot cards or ouija boards in any of the Potter books, and I don't remember if even Professor Trelawney uses a crystal ball, but if she does then crystal balls would be just as much a target of Rowling's satire as Trelawney herself.

Magic is one thing in Rowling's storytelling universe, the necessary gimmick that props up the whole adventure, but fortune-telling is another. Rowling makes it clear that divination is crackpot "magic." Predicting the future is only possible if the future is pre-ordained and people have no control over their own fate, an idea that is rejected by one of the books' most important themes---Harry is not destined to be anything or anybody but who and what he makes of himself, and the same goes for the rest of us.

Sara, Dave, and a number of commenters on both posts point out that this theme is another reason for Fundamentalists to hate and fear Harry Potter. If we're in charge of our own lives, what's God supposed to be doing? What's the point of there being a God if He's not controlling our lives?

Of course, as other commenters point out, most of the anti-Potter crowd don't know this is a theme of the books because they haven't read the books. They don't dare. They've been told by their preachers to avoid them like sin.

As sin.

The books depict witches and warlocks as "good" and even heroic characters and show magic being used as a force for good and we all know that witches and warlocks work for the devil and their magic is Satan's power transmitted through them.

Sara's points are dead-on and psychologically penetrating, but I think best applied only to the Fundamentalist/authoritarian churches in general and some Fundamentalists in particular.
The fact is that a lot of these people believe that the devil is real and here and hard at work on earth.

They believe that there are witches and warlocks because they believe in magic.

They don't believe it all because they are Fundamentalist Christians and the Bible tells them so.

They believe it because they are human beings and apparently most of us are inclined to believe in the supernatural.

Professor Trelawney is a caricature of a very real type, a type we call a New Ager, but a type that existed way before the term was coined.

There are people who aren't Christian Fundamentalists who believe in witches and warlocks.

There are people who believe they are witches and warlocks.

Flying saucers, the healing powers of crystals, angels---not every believer in angels is a Right Wing Christian or even Christian at all---feng shui, horoscopes, the Force, ancient weapons and hokey religions, are all signs of a general human tendency to believe that some mystical power controls our destinies and that if only we learn the trick we can tap into that power and save ourselves from...

Well, from the awfulness of being human.

Fundamentalist Christians believe in a God who works magic on a daily basis, although, unfortunately, and conveniently for the preachers who would speak for Him and divine His will and interpret His plans, not always when you need Him to or in a way you'd like Him to. And in a world that works by magic, but one in which there is only one Magician and He's unpredictable and working on His own agenda, the temptation to acquire some magic power for oneself must be great. There is only one source to go to for that power, though, and that is Satan.

No wonder then that letting their younger children read Harry Potter would be for Fundie parents like giving their teenage sons and daughters a subscription to Playboy.

If these Christians actually read the books they might learn something that would make them hate Harry Potter even more.

When all is said and done, Rowling makes one very key point about magic.

It's not important.

Harry does not succeed because he is a great wizard. He is, as it happens, not particularly adept at being a wizard.

Magic isn't what saves the day. To say it does is like saying that the hero's gun saves the day in a Western.

Magic is just the technology of the wizarding world and Rowling makes it clear that putting one's faith in magic is a sign of stupidity (the folks at the Ministry) or inhumanity (Voldemort and his followers). To trust in a tool or a technology is to give up thinking for one's self or to give up one's soul and make a tool of one's self.

To make a belief system out of trusting in tools over people is an insanity.

It isn't hard to make the leap from that to the conclusion that Rowling isn't fond of any belief system that encourages people to put their trust not in their own selves but in the authority of the belief system and its ruling elders.

Dumbledore, the greatest wizard ever, performs very little magic over the course of the first six books, and he teaches Harry very few tricks.

His main, and almost his only lesson, for Harry?

Think, Harry! Think!

As always, all the Harry Potter books and the CDs are available through my aStore.

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