Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Disney Star Wars

I kinda don’t care.  I mean, a big company spent a lot of money to buy something.  Big deal.  Or: a massive, ginormous soul-less corporation buys something deeply loved by millions of people.  Okay, getting there.  Or this: icky yucky grody Disney just bought my youth. There, that captures it.

The Disney Corporation just bought Lucasfilms.  This will in no way impact my life or the lives of anyone I know, aside from the fairly horrifying probability that another Star Wars film might result.  The price tag is high, and it may be seen as something of a gamble for Disney, but I doubt much of one.  And it might be seen as an omen or a microcosm or a harbinger or a warning, of where Big Business is and what it does, except that I don’t know anything about that world, and don’t care.  It does mean that today’s filmmaking world has changed in ways that make it all the more difficult for a young George Lucas to pursue his or her vision.  That’s a bad thing, but indie film continues to survive, and the Riann Johnsons of the world still get three picture deals.

But. Someone involved in the deal was quoted as saying that this mean there will never be another John Carter.  Ha ha ha!  You can practically hear the chortles.  Fact is, I loved John Carter.  I liked pretty much every thing about it. I think the narrative there is something like ‘never again will we let some ‘visionary’ spend a lot of money making a crazy movie we can’t market; we’re exercising corporate control to a much greater degree.’  So that sucks.  Except we’ve seen that before too, after Waterworld, after Heaven’s Gate.  Those corporate pronouncements about control, and not letting the inmates run the asylum tend not to last, is my point.

No, the real fear is this: another Star Wars film.  Yikes.  Was a time when I would have thought the prospect of a seventh Star Wars the awesomest idea ever.  Nowadays: yikes.

Star Wars was the first movie I saw when I got home from my mission.  In fact, on the plane on my way home from Norway, I read a magazine article about this crazy sci-fi flick that was changing everything in Hollywood, and thought, “man, I have to see that.” And I did see it, and it was also the next eight movies I saw; I mean, the next eight times I went to see a movie, I saw Star Wars. With eight different girls, one of them my aunt.  Okay, my super-cool Aunt Janice, who wanted to see it, but didn’t want to go alone.  And who paid for my ticket.

And yes, I know it’s Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.  Blarg.  It’s Star Wars.  The second movie is The Empire Strikes Back.  The third movie is Return of the Jedi.  I’m perfectly aware that the second trilogy is a prequel, and that The Phantom Menace is episode I, but I don’t care: it’s the fourth movie.  And it’s the beginning of Star Wars sucking. Then, after Phantom Menace came The Really Stupid One with Hayden Christensen, followed by The Only Slightly Less Stupid One where Hayden Christensen’s Face Melts.  I don’t remember their actual titles, and I don’t care.

Here’s what George Lucas never seems to have gathered: Star Wars is great not because the movies are great, but because they’re bad.  They’re great bad movies.  They’re B-movies, serials.  They’re ludicrous, silly.  That’s what makes them so much fun.

Case in point: this. It’s better with the Benny Hill music.  But, okay, Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are in the Death Star, and need to be separated, for plot reasons.  So how does Lucas do it? He has Han just go insane, run right at a bunch of Storm Troopers, who unaccountably react by running away.  The Emperor’s elite forces, just losing it, a whole squad of ’em.  It’s the dumbest scene imaginable, and it really only works because it happens fast enough that we hardly notice it.  But it’s ludicrous.  And I love that scene.

I mean, the funniest line in the movie is Obi-Wan’s, examining blaster damage: “only Imperial Storm troopers are so accurate”.  This, about white-suited clowns that never can hit the broad side of a barn the whole rest of the movie.  But that’s what makes Star Wars great: its over-the-topness, its complete willingness to just be ridiculous.

That’s why I didn’t mind stuff like the Ewoks.  Return isn’t as good as Strikes Back, but it’s awfully good; those forest chase scenes on those flying motorcycle-y dealies were about the most exciting things I’d ever seen up to then.  Okay, cuddly little teddy bear guys don’t entirely fit the Star Wars universe; but only because they’re not as funny as all the creatures in the bar scene; ‘cuddly’ felt wrong as a matter of . . .  feel.

And then came Phantom Menace.  And I know this has been said a million times on the internet, but it really is as though Lucas took himself much too seriously.  So many wrong turns, so many bad choices.  So bad choices, in no particular order:

The idea that The Force is a blood disease.

Jar-Jar Binks.  I know, everyone beats up on Jar-Jar, but it’s only because everything about the character is annoying.  Everything.

The big race scene with the kid.  It was a very cool big race scene.  But it didn’t mean anything. The kid is racing for . . . spare parts?   So they can maybe fix their ship?  Stakes not high enough.  Turns a cool chase scene into a major yawn.

The politics of it all. I’m an American; darn it.  I want separation of powers; I want checks and balances.  I hate hate hate all the scenes involving the Imperial Senate.

Hayden Christensen.  And especially his embarrassingly bad love scenes with Natalie Portman.  And she’s a great actress, but not in those scenes.

Plus, you know, what exactly does it mean to ‘turn to the dark side’ of the force?  Annakin commits basically genocide, plus also the Slaughter of the Innocents, but he’s still redeemable?  Ties in nicely with the worst part of Return: the way Vader’s deathbed repentance works.  That it’s efficacious.

Worst of all, though, the whole idea of the second three movies, the prequel trilogy.  The way they try, ineptly, to turn melodrama to tragedy.  The way we lose the fun of the whole enterprise.  The fact that the movies begin to not just invite but require us to consider issues like politics and theology, and how badly Lucas fails us; how he introduces political and theological questions he’s not up to exploring except superficially and unsatisfyingly.

I mean, they’re not a complete waste.  Watching Yoda’s fight scene was great. The only watchable four minutes of Send In The Clones (okay, Attack of the Clones, I lied, I do too know the title of the second/fifth movie of the series).  They didn’t know what to with him, but it’s always fun to see Sam Jackson in anything.  Likewise Ewan McGregor, likewise Liam Neeson, likewise Natalie Portman.

I waited in line for hours to see Phantom Menace, and it took me days to admit to myself just how bad it was.  Hearing that Disney is planning to push on, make Star Wars VII: The One Without George Lucas, fills me with dismay.

Worst of all: I will see it.  I won’t be able to stop myself.  Addiction is a terrible thing.





So let’s talk about the weather.

All morning, I’ve been watching. We can’t do much else.  We could give blood, we could make some kind of donation somewhere.  But it’s there, back east, and we’re here, safe and protected.  Hoping, praying.

I’ve tried to keep up with friends and family.  Facebook’s great for that, though of course, a lot of folks in New York don’t have electricity, let alone internet service.  I did hear from my niece, Marilyn.  She’s there, in New York.  She’s a hurricane pro, actually.  She survived one a few years ago, in a sailboat in mid-Atlantic.  True story; she was sailing from New York to France, just her and a friend, and they ran into a hurricane.  She survived it, though the boat did not, but by pure happenstance; she was rescued by a boat of Portuguese fisherman.  After that, hunkering down in her apartment probably seems comparatively safe.

You just don’t think of New York City getting clobbered by a hurricane.  Miami, yes.  New Orleans, maybe Jacksonville or Charlotte.  But New York?  But Sandy is a rule-breaker.

Stu Ostro of The Weather Channel (and boy have those guys been heroes here) said this:

“History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, one which will occupy a place in the annals of weather history as one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States. . . . PEOPLE IN THE PATH OF THIS STORM NEED TO HEED THE THREAT IT POSES WITH UTMOST URGENCY. (Emphasis his) A meteorologically mind-boggling combination of ingredients is coming together . . . .This is an extraordinary situation, and I am not prone to hyperbole.’


Ostro then described some of those ‘mind-boggling ingredients:

One of the largest expanses of tropical storm force winds on record with a tropical or subtropical cyclone in the Atlantic or for that matter anywhere else in the world; a track of the center making a sharp left turn in direction of movement toward New Jersey in a way that is unprecedented in the historical database, as it gets blocked from moving out to sea by a pattern that includes an exceptionally strong ridge of high pressure aloft near Greenland; a ‘warm-core’ tropical cyclone embedded within a larger, nor’easter-like circulation; and eventually tropical moisture and arctic air combining to produce heavy snow in interior high elevations.


Well, we’ve seen it.  Flooded streets, damaged homes, destruction. The crane leaning over 57th street.  The mid-town explosion of the Con Ed power plant. NYU Hospital had to close, and rescue workers had to help patients down several flights of stairs, including infants-in-arms from their neo-natal intensive care unit. Fires, electric lines down. The subway system is seriously damaged; we see images of platforms overlooking what looks like an underground river.  I keep thinking of essential services that must have been disrupted: Meals on Wheels, ambulances, dialysis. My daughter kept noticing the lights; we’re not used to seeing night-time photos of New York with no lights showing.

David Letterman taped in front of no audience.  So did Jimmy Kimmel.  Other shows taping in New York went black, as did the theatre district. The stock exchange has been closed for two days.  I found myself remembering 9/11, which Letterman handled so perfectly.  He was equally terrific last night; found just the right balance between comedy and compassion.

Other heroes: Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey–and strong Romney supporter–who set partisanship aside and worked with the President to get help into his state.  Likewise Mayor Bloomberg in New York, Governor Cuomo in New York. The Red Cross.  FEMA.  The Coast Guard.  Firefighters, cops, EMTs, doctors and nurses, hospitals and clinics.

Of course, there are always villains too.  Natural disasters bring out both the best and worst in people, and The Donald lives in New York.  Donald Trump’s Twitter feed has brought new meaning to the phrase ‘sociopathic self-absorbtion.’  Twitter trolls, right and left, have joined him, reminding us again what the first four letters of Twitter are.  But I’m not sure anyone can top this fine Christian: John McTernan of Defend and Proclaim the Faith ministries in Pennsylvania, who insisted that Sandy is God’s punishment for gay rights and marriage equality.

There are two natural responses to natural disasters.  One is to try to make theological sense of it, fit it into our pre-existing dogmas.  Another is to pick up a shovel or a bucket and pitch in.  Here’s a link to the American Red Cross. Help however you can.








July 12, 1968, Cincinatti.

I played Little League baseball.  I was terrible at it, but I played.  I was skinny and clumsy; I couldn’t field or throw; I could hit a little.  Mostly I played right field, which is the position where they put guys who can’t field or throw. And clumsy; OMG clumsy, you don’t know clumsy unless you could see me at the age of 12. (And at 14, I was even clumsier).  Mom says that once, on my way from the bench to my position, I tripped and fell three times. A woman behind her in the bleachers said ‘who is that big awkward kid?’  My Mom was too embarrassed to admit she knew me.

I did have one triumphant game, though.  Our first baseman was Davey Williams, the coach’s son.  And one game, Davey mouthed off at his Dad, who promptly benched him.  We didn’t have anyone else on the team who could play first, except for Marc Lunsford, who was pitching.  Coach Williams looked down the bench, settled on me, sort of shuddered a little bit. Closed his eyes, as if in terrible pain. Probably threw up in his mouth a little.  And then, with a resolute look of desperation, sent me out to play first base.  First.  Base.  The infield.  Where a batted ball might actually come my way.

First player hit a ground ball to short; our shortstop fielded it cleanly, threw to first.  I caught the ball, tagged the base.  Routine play, handled routinely, but I felt like I’d won the Gold Glove.  Later, same game, I came up to bat.  It was a close game; we were up a run.  I swung hard, singled to right center, knocked in a run.  It was the best day of my life, up to that point.  Later, I even stole a base.  Still not sure how.

I was easily the worst player on the team, but it was a very good team; sponsored by Kinser Lumber, if memory serves.  Marc Lunsford was our best player.  He later became quarterback of our high school football team, then was recruited by Arizona State, where he started at QB for three years.  Marc was our best shortstop and pitcher, but we also had Jamie Foutz, another terrific pitcher, and Terry Phegley, our team leader and catcher, a tough competitor, also a bully and a thug.  But he was good at baseball; I’ll give him that, though he stole my lunch every day in 6th grade.  Plus, of course, Davey Williams, a good hitter when he wasn’t mouthing off.  Coach Williams told us that if we won City, he’d take us to a Cincinatti Reds game as a reward.  And we did, and he did.

On the bus trip to Ohio, some of us sat in the back and did jello powder.  That was our drug of choice.  You bought jello (you know, the powder you add water to to make jello), and put it in a baggie, then you’d wet your finger in your mouth, dip it in the jello, lick it off. It was sweet and sticky and, for some reason, against the rules.  Grandview Elementary School was death on jello dipping, and teachers were always checking your fingers for that tell-tale stain. But the boys’ bathroom had this industrial strength corrosive soap powder that was great for eradicating jello stains; also for removing the top layer of your skin. I never did get caught. Did I succumb to peer pressure, break a school rule?  You bet I did. You had to.  Guys would sort of saunter up to you and say, “do you . . . dip?  I’m carrying.”  And he’d pull out a baggie of jello.  A challenge. You either licked and dipped, or you were despised as a weenie and a dweeb.  Me, I certainly dipped. I even became a dealer. Charged fifty cents for a baggie of jello, which I stole from my Mom’s pantry.

Re-reading this post, it occurs to me that my Mom comes across badly, which I feel terrible about.  My Mom’s great.  But I know I baffled her terribly; always bugging her to buy more jello (which somehow mysteriously disappeared from the pantry), and asking for three sandwiches every day for lunch, not knowing that two of them went to Terry Phegley and Charles Robinson, the school bullies.

See, I was a good kid, a university professor’s son, an A student, on the rare occasions that I turned in my homework.  I was the quiet kid sitting in the back of the class, reading.  I wasn’t a trouble-maker, not really.  I didn’t spend recess like most of the other kids did, clipping off grasshoppers’ heads with a toenail clipper, to watch headless insects hop.  I was on the school’s safety patrol, an honor I loathed.  A few favored kids were chosen by the principal for safety patrol, which meant that you got this white belt-with-shoulder-strap thing you were supposed to wear, especially at recess. The purpose of the belt thing, I now realize, was for the convenience of the school’s bullies, to let them know who should be beaten up first. As a safety patroller, if I saw kids breaking school rules, I were supposed to narc on them.  Turn them in.  I never did, of course, but it didn’t matter; the belt was enough to get you thoroughly thrashed. I had to do something, so I became a hard-core jello dipper. And jello trafficker.

So, anyway, we jello dipped in the bus to Cincinatti, and then got to the ballpark way early, so we could shag flies during batting practice.  It was amazing, to run around on the field of a big league ballpark.  The Reds were playing the San Francisco Giants, and all my teammates were Reds’ fans.  Above all, we wanted autographs.  We’d brought our gloves (essential anyway for shagging flies), and our sharpies.  Of course we had sharpies.  They were a new thing back then (first marketed in 1964), but they were perfect for autographs.

My teammates and I saw Pete Rose, and ran over, to get his autograph.  Rose was the Reds’ best player, already an All-Star, already a household name.  He was just 27 that year, and as beloved a player as could exist.  Pete hustled.  Pete cared.  Pete played hard all the time.  And we saw him, just rubbing down his bats as I recall, and we asked for his autograph.  Me, Davey Williams and Jamie Foutz.  And Pete signed their gloves.  My turn, and I don’t know, but it was probably the jello stains on my fingers or something, but he turned away.  And I said something, like ‘But Mr. Rose. . .”, something plaintive and probably annoying–I could be a real whiner–and he turned back, said a bad word and then: “kid, get lost.”  As though he’d decided he didn’t like me. Personally.

I did not want to cry. I was a baseball player too, you know, and baseball players don’t cry.  Tom Hanks said.  But I wandered off, and, yeah, I was in fact crying, my teammates all off wherever.  And this shadow fell over me, and I looked up, and this big black guy put his hand on my shoulder.  And he said, “Kid, what’s the matter, man?”  And it was Willie McCovey, the Giants’ first baseman.

And he invited me to the Giants’ dugout. And he introduced me to his friends.  Willie Mays; I met Willie Mays, and he smiled at me, and said ‘say hey,’ and he signed my glove.  And Jim Ray Hart, the great third baseman.  And Hal Lanier, the shortstop, nicest guy of the bunch.  And I met Gaylord Perry, and he signed my glove, and I met Juan Marichal, and Ron Hunt and Dick Dietz and Jesus Alou, and their rookie right fielder, Bobby Bonds, a great player who had a son, turns out, even better. And they all signed my glove. Which my Mom threw out when I went on a mission seven years later.  But that’s okay.  I know what happened.

Anyway, I was there, in the Giants’ dugout.  And I obviously couldn’t stay there, so I finally left and found my teammates, and sat with ’em, and they all rooted for the Reds, and I rooted for the San Francisco Giants, quietly, on my own.  I’m pretty sure this is the box score.  I know the game was in Cincinatti, and both Willie Mays and Willie McCovey hit home runs, and I remember Jim Ray Hart hitting two.  I also remember the game was shortly after the All-Star game that year, and I knew it was in mid-July.  I also knew better than to cheer aloud.  I remember maybe wanting to cheer for Pete Rose to strike out or make an error, but he didn’t play, I remember; he may have been injured. But I wanted, more than anything, for my guys to win, for Willie McCovey, who was kind to me, to get a hit.  I did jump up when he hit his homer.  And Terry Phegley looked at me and said, “what’s your problem?  He’s on the wrong team.  Hey, guys, Samuelsen doesn’t even know which team to root for!”  And I got made fun of.  The worst players on good teams always get made fun of.

But he was wrong.  I did know who to root for, and why I was rooting for them.

The San Francisco Giants have been my team ever since.  I was smart enough to marry a girl from San Jose, so whenever we go to visit her family, I’m able to sneak in a game.  And they play in a ballpark with a statue of Willie Mays in front, and the ocean just past right field, an inlet called McCovey Cove.  And this year, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal threw out the first ball in the World Series.  Which, for the second time in three years, we won.  They won.  We won.  They are my team, and always will be, ’til the end of my days on this planet.  Willie McCovey was kind to a sobbing child, an unattractive skinny awkward child with weird stains on his fingers.  And got his friends to sign a glove with a Sharpie.  How can I repay him, except with my lifelong loyalty?

And last night, we won the World Series.  And once again, I discovered how good a simple baseball game can make you feel.

In defense of Richard Mourdock, sort of

I feel kinda bad for the guy, honestly.  Richard Mourdock, former Indiana state Treasurer and the Republican candidate for the US Senate, in a recent televised debate, said this: “Even when pregnancy results from that horrible situation that is rape, I think that God intended it to happen.”  And so it began.  Boom.  Explosion.  And Mourdock became a punch line.

The outcry that followed was predictable, furious and rapid.  Governor Romney, running for President, who had previously endorsed Mourdock, distanced himself from his comments, though he remained an endorser.  Jon Stewart weighed in, as did Leno, Letterman, Conan, all the rest of them.  Commentators on the Left pointed out that Mourdock’s comments, outrageous though they might have been, were not vary significantly from the Republican platform or other positions from other conservative politicians. We all know how this game is played; a politician says something bizarre and extreme, and everyone piles on, takes partisan advantage.

What struck me, though, about Mourdock’s comments (and his subsequent ‘clarifications’) was how agonized the man seemed to be.  He seemed horrified at the suggestion that he wasn’t morally outraged by rape.  He seemed genuinely torn up.  When he said that he had struggled with the issue, I believed him.

And his comments have a certain loopy theological foundation.  I mean, if you genuinely believe that God is completely in command of absolutely anything, that God wills everything, then certainly a pregnancy resulting from rape is in His purview.  So are earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis.  So are wars and murders and violence.  To say “God intended” a rape victim to get pregnant is like saying ‘God intended’ for someone to die in an auto wreck; something of a funeral talk commonplace, that one. Taken too far, God becomes either ineffectual, or monstrous.  As Archibald MacLeish’s famous couplet puts it: “If God is God, He is not good, if God is Good, He is not God.”

While I certainly think most Christian sects view the problem of evil in more sophisticated terms theologically, it’s not like Mourdock said ‘boy, isn’t rape wonderful.’  When he said he was personally appalled by acts of violence towards women, I did believe him.  His comments were more in the realm of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’  And his answer to that question would seem to be ‘we don’t know why.  But we trust God.  And we know that awful things seem to be consistent with His will.’

That’s not how it was received, though.  Because his comments were in the context of a debate over policy, over what laws a Senate candidate would support.  And what Mourdock said was that women who become pregnant as a result of having been raped should be forced by law to carry that pregnancy to term.  And that’s a horrifying thought, and would be an indefensibly extreme requirement, in the unlikely event it became law.

Some years ago, I was sitting in a priesthood meeting in Church, and one of my good brothers offered the opinion that there were no gray issues, morally; that all issues were black and white.  There was simply right and wrong and no middle ground was even conceivable.  I offered the alternate view; that essentially all issues were gray, that there were almost no moral absolutes.  That uncertainty and paradox and moral ambiguity were the water in which we swim. After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, the instructor changed the subject, but I came to a realization that day; that for my good morally absolutist brothers, even to suggest ambiguity was frightening.  That to them, thinking of the world in black and white terms was reassuring, comforting.  That they found my rejection of moral binaries incomprehensibly disorienting.  And what I was not able to express was my own discomfort with their certainty.  That to me, to think in black and white, right and wrong terms was as terrifying as they found my embrace of uncertainty.

It’s a cliche to say that abortion is a polarizing issue, but what’s underneath that polarization is something more fundamental, a basic approach to the world, a fundamental way of apprehending reality.  For Mourdock, I think, abortion is wrong. Morally wrong, period, unambiguously wrong.  It’s the slaughter of the innocents, it’s an American Holocaust, it’s institutionalized murder. So of course, even if pregnancy results from something as horrifying as rape, that act of violence should not be compounded with more violence, with violence towards an unborn child.  Abortion’s bad, therefore all abortions are always bad.  And some in the pro-choice movement, perhaps, see it in equally absolutist terms; to restrict any woman’s decisions over her own body, her own medical decisions, is wrong, is evil.  Always, ever.

But there must be another way to see it.  I would suggest that abortion is the very definition of a morally ambiguous issue; that nearly everything about the issue is gray.  It’s about desperation and fear and pain, it’s about a horrible horrible decision that absolutely has to get made, it’s about how women, to give birth, risk death.  And it’s an issue men can get pretty darn glib about.  So what if something as violative as rape’s involved? Pain and fear multiply exponentially, do they not?

And what about even the rapist himself?  Is rape unambiguously wrong?  Sure; that’s how we define the term. It’s wrong, period.  Sure.  But how do we judge the rapist?  Maybe there are even ambiguities there. We don’t know how damaged and vulnerable and angry and ill he is.  We don’t know what his history might be.  It’s a crime of violence and control, and often abusers were themselves abused.  Does acknowledging that possibility diminish the pain of the rape victim, her helplessness and terror and horrific violation?  No.  But if we’re going to place God somewhere in the equation, it’s there, in the need for eternal compassion, genuine justice, actual mercy, endless atonement.

In Utah, we recently have followed the horrendous account of the Josh and Susan Powell case.  In December, 2009, Susan went missing.  Circumstantial evidence suggested that her husband had murdered her, but police never had a case they could take to court.  Josh Powell lost custody of their two sons, but was allowed supervised visitation; during one such visit, in February 2012, he murdered the boys, then committed suicide, setting his house on fire.  It’s not difficult to see Josh Powell as epitomizing evil, as the ultimate bad guy; triple murderer, killer of children.  But we’ve learned a bit about Josh’s father, Steven.  He was recently arrested on child pornography and peeping Tom charges.  Steven’s now in prison.  So where does guilt lie, where was damage done, what mental illnesses factor in?  We don’t know.  We’ll never know. I do think, though, that a ‘Josh Powell=inhuman monster’ meme inadequately reflects the complexity of the case.

I say I’m ‘pro-choice.’  But what I really am is ‘pro-ambiguity.’  Pro-complexity, pro-nuance.  Does this make me a moral relativist?  No, that would imply that morality itself doesn’t exist.  But the alternative isn’t absolutism. Mormons aren’t absolutists, not really, even though many of us describe ourselves that way.  What we believe in is contextual morality, a morality that takes all factors into account. And I do mean all factors.  God’s judgment will be just, we think, which means complex, difficult, far-reaching.

I do think that Richard Mourdock would make a poor U. S. Senator.  But can we also acknowledge even his pain?


Doing the little things: World Series, Game 2

Here’s a shocker; I’m rooting for the Giants to win the World Series.  I mean, heck, they’ve been my favorite team for forty plus years now: figured I’d stick with ’em for the Series.

As I’ve previously noted, I’m perfectly aware that rooting for a professional sports team is absurd.   And yeah, it’s arbitrary, especially when a kid from Indiana, currently living in Utah, just, like, decides that the San Francisco team is the one.  And over the years, my allegiance to the Giants has been sorely tested. Take the ’79 team, for example. (The shortstop that year: Johnnie Lemaster.  Affectionately known as Johnnie Disaster).  Or ’88.  Or ’05. Some real stinkers in there.

What made the 2010 World Series winning Giants so special was how unexpected it all was.  The previous WS champs were way back in 1954, when I was negative two years old. Good teams since, even three World Serieses; ’62, ’89, ’02.  Now we’re back in the World Series, one of the most unlikely Series’ teams in history.

First round of the playoffs: we played the Cincinatti Reds.  The Reds are really good, scary good, great hitting team with terrific pitching.  First round series are best 3 of 5, and after we lost the first 2 games in San Fransciso, we had to win 3 straight in Cincinatti.  And they hadn’t lost 3 straight at home all season long.  And, game 3, their starting pitcher, Homer Bailey, allowed 1 hit.  One. Uno.

But we won. Fought and scraped and Ryan Vogelsong pitched like a mensch, and we got a run on a hit batsman, a walk, a bunt, and a fly ball, and then finally got Bailey out of there, and won in 10 innings, on a Reds error. And then won two more to advance.

Second round of the playoffs: the Cardinals.  Lost 3 of the first 4 (in a best of 7 format), and had to sweep the last 3 games to pull it out.  And did.  Right now, this Giants team has faced 6 games they absolutely had to win to stay alive in the playoffs.  They’ve gone 6-0 in those games.  They’re tougher than a two dollar steak, harder to kill than Rasputin.  They’ve climbed out of more graves than Bela Lugosi.

Last night’s game, though, gives some idea why this team is so hard to beat when it counts.  If you value good old American competence, quiet confidence, back to the basics, savvy, skill, moxie, old school fundamentals, ‘git ‘er done proficiency, then you’ll like this Giants’ team. Here’s Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated:

If the Giants win the World Series by playing like this, this will be the first official World Series DVD that will be released as an instructional video. They turn every double play that needs to be turned, run the bases with speed and smarts, make every play on defense, don’t walk people and, even when they miss cutoff men, have people in the right spot and execute flawlessly.

Three plays, last night.  Second inning: Madison Bumgarner, our absurdly talented 23 year-old pitcher, starts the inning by plunking Prince Fielder, the Tigers’ first baseman. Fielder likes to lean over the plate; Madbum tried to back him off with a fastball in, and got it a little too far inside.  The Tigers’ next hitter was Delmon Young.  He ripped a double down the left field line.  Here’s the play. A few points:

First, our left fielder, Gregor Blanco, is a 29 year old career minor leaguer, who has been bouncing around looking for a job his whole life, basically.  He’s fast, a terrific fielder, a great bunter, but he’s not much of a hitter; he starts for us because Melky Cabrera crashed and burned.  You can see on the video; he overruns the play at first, but recovers incredibly quickly.  There’s been a lot of criticism of Gene Lamont, the Tigers’ third base coach, for sending Prince Fielder home on that play, but he saw Blanco overrun the ball; he can’t have anticipated Blanco’s fast recovery.  Blanco’s throw was off-line; he’s supposed to hit the shortstop with that relay, but Marco Scutaro, our second baseman, was exactly where he’s supposed to be, backing up Brandon Crawford.  Scutaro had a tough throw, too.  Prince Fielder’s a big guy; a lot of the time, that relay throw hits the runner in the back.  But Scutaro threw it to the front of the plate, instead of straight to home.  And Buster Posey, our catcher, made a perfect swipe tag.  The whole thing is just a perfect example of fundamental baseball.

Second play came in the 7th inning.  Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ best hitter, starts the inning off with a great at bat, fouling off several pitches before Madbum just missed with a slider outside for ball four.  So, leadoff guy on first, no out, in a tie game.  Prince Fielder then hit a hard ground ball up the middle.  Bumgarner fielded it cleanly, then waited just a second before making the throw to second.  Now, that double play, the 1-6-3 double play, is a tough one; I see it get screwed up a lot.  The pitcher’s throwing to a moving target, the shortstop, coming across second.  But Bumgarner, first, didn’t rush the throw.  He waited until Brandon Crawford, our shortstop, was in position.  Then he threw it to the third base side of second.  So Crawford could catch the throw, tag second for the out, and have the bag between him and the sliding Cabrera.  I know, it was just a routine double play. But this Giants’ team executes.  They make those plays.

Tom Verducci’s story focuses on Gregor Blanco’s perfect bunt, which set up the first run of the game.  It was, indeed, an exquisite bunt, if a little lucky.  But I want to focus on Hunter Pence’s at bat in the 8th.

So, 1-0 game, bottom of the 8th.  The Tigers are an excellent hitting team, and I think most Giants’ fans were worried about the 9th inning.  Our closer, Sergio Romo, is one of the goofiest guys in baseball, and one of the most awesome.  He’s famous for this thing he does, when one of his teammates is being interviewed, of sneaking behind the guy and making faces, ruining the interview.  Love the guy.  Anyway, he’s good, but a 1-0 lead is worrisome.  You just had this feeling; another run would put this away.

So, bases loaded, one out.  A fly ball with score a run.  Hunter Pence batting.  We traded for Hunter back in July, and he’s one of the most interesting guys in baseball.  He does everything wrong: he runs funny, throws funny, bats funny.  Only Hunter would do this.  I was worried last night, though, because he swings at a lot of bad pitches. A strikeout in that situation would not be good.  But he hung in there, fouled off pitch after pitch.  And finally, he did his job; just lifted a normal, routine fly ball to center, to score that much needed insurance run.

That’s the Giants.  They hit fewer home runs than any other team in baseball this year.  But they led all of baseball in . . . sacrifice flies.  They execute, they’re fundamentally sound, they’re a team built on guys who do their jobs.  I love that kind of competence.  They’re my team, and I’m rooting for them to win.  But they’re a team that’s easy to like.




Our duty

Jon Stewart wasn’t very funny last night. And his show has never been better.

Jon’s entire episode dealt with one issue; the debt America owes to its soldiers and their families, both as they serve, and when they return.  He had three guests.  The featured guest was Dakota Meyer, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and Afghanistan veteran, who has created a foundation to provide scholarships for veterans.  His other two guests were former staff sergeant Meg Mitchum, and former specialist Daniel Hutchinson, both Iraq war combat medics.

The two medics were terrific.  Mitchum was affable and charming; she was clearly thrilled to be on the Daily Show, and she kept sneaking looks at the camera.  And she told an amazing story; about treating three soldiers at once, victims of an IED, keeping ’em all alive, and stabilizing ’em until the helicopter could get them out of there.  Hutchinson, on the other hand, seemed angry, as indeed he should be; he talked about treating gunshot wounds in the middle of a firefight.  He has applied for a job as a school nurse.  He can’t get it, because, officially, he’s not qualified.

No matter what the TV commercials say, military training does not always meet the specifications for the certifications you need to get civilian jobs.  Mitchum, officially, qualifies at the level of a basic EMT; she’s ‘qualified’ to take vital signs.  Obviously, her combat experience involves practicing medicine at a far more advanced level.  She should be able to find employment at the intermediate or advanced level, perhaps even at the level of paramedic.  She can’t.  She could, of course, take an EMT course and qualify that way, but requiring her to do so would be redundant and foolish; she’d have to spend two years, hundreds of hours to qualify to a job she’s perfectly capable of doing right now.  At least, seems to me, being able to practice combat medicine, keeping desperately wounded soldier alive with bullets whistling around your head, should mean you’re able to ride around in an ambulance.

And this seems so fixable, so easy to solve.  Congress could do it; could pass a bill requiring civilian certifying agencies to take into account combat experience.  Could even pass a more detailed bill, specifying which levels of experience equal which kinds of certification.  And not to get all partisan on y’all, but this is also a partisan issue; a bill doing all that is currently stalled in the US Senate, blocked by Republican senators threatening a filibuster. It’s a billion dollars; they say we can’t afford it.  They were perfectly willing to put the Iraq war on a credit card; sorry, but they can sure as heckfire find some money for the guys who fought it.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to say this too: I question their patriotism.  I don’t care how many American flag pins you wear on your jacket lapel; if you block legislation intended to provide needed aid for returning soldiers, you are not a patriot. I don’t usually go there; I’m inclined generally to give folks the benefit of the doubt, and I try to resist looking at most issues as black and white.  I like nuance, I like ambiguity.  Not on this one.  We have no more important moral obligation than the one we owe to returning soldiers.

Personally, I would like to suggest that any Congresspeople blocking legislation to provide employment for returning veterans should be tasked with field-testing experimental parachute designs.  Or, say, how about this: a law that says that every nickel spent on campaign TV ads, they have to match with a donation to Dakota Meyer’s foundation.  That could reduce the number and frequency of political ads on TV. Win win.

Because Meyer was Jon’s last guest on The Daily Show last night, and man was he impressive.  Just an honest, smart ex-Marine, who showed his courage and integrity on the field of combat, has written a terrific book about it, and now wants to give back by providing educational opportunities for returning soldiers.

Here’s what I find embarrassing: twice as many military families qualify for and receive food stamps than civilian families.  Soldiers’ educational benefits have been cut.  Combat deployments last longer than ever before, and some soldiers have been deployed over and over, in combat again and again. We’re fighting unnecessary wars on the cheap.  We’re tasking soldiers with jobs they’re not trained for, and then we stare in amazement as they do those jobs brilliantly.

I read a book a few years ago about the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  It was one of the most glorious military victories in English history, and one of the crowning achievements of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.  And when we think of Elizabeth, we associate her with the age of Shakespeare and Bacon and Ben Jonson, we think of the Virgin Queen, beloved by her people.  But she was also a terrible cheapskate, a brutally callous tightwad.  She refused to pay the sailors who had saved her nation.  Hundreds of them were confined aboard their rotting ships at harbor, the ships that had defeated, against all odds, the greatest navy in the world back then.  Men died, of scurvy, of typhoid, of dysentery and of sheer starvation, while she bought herself fancier and fancier gowns and wigs and jewelry.  Reading that account has colored my entire view of Queen Elizabeth.  Her positive achievements pale in comparison. She refused to honor the fighting men who had saved her reign.  I cannot imagine anything more contemptible.

I do think, right now, as the federal government looks to reduce spending, that military budgets can and should be cut.  I don’t think we need to maintain seven golf courses in Guam.  I don’t see a lot of reason for a continual military presence in Japan, or Germany.  I don’t think we need an air force base in Salt Lake City.

But what we cannot cut, what we must in fact expand, is pay for military families, and money for education and job training for returning veterans.  These men and women served our country with integrity and courage and honor.  We need to respond in kind.

I know a lot of former and current soldiers, and I know they don’t necessarily want charity.  They don’t want to get rich.  They want a job, they want adequate pay to support their families, they want good medical care, they want an opportunity.  If Congress does nothing else the rest of this term, they can at least do this: pass a bill to increase veterans’ benefits.  Anything else is unAmerican.




The Third Presidential Debate

I thought President Obama won. He got off more, and better, zingers.  Not sure that it matters; the debate was so lost in fantasy-land, it served more as a deconstruction of foreign policy rhetoric than a consequential discussion of important issues.  To wit: this gem from Romney.

“My strategy is very clear: to go after the bad guys.”

Yep, that’s where we are nowadays.  If the actual conduct of foreign policy is like a John Le Carre movie, this debate was Taken 2.

The third Presidential debate took place Monday night; I’m watching it now, Wednesday morning.  So my analysis here is hardly fresh-baked, straight from the oven; it’s more like something off the day-old rack. But my gosh, it’s dispiriting.

I’m going to focus on Romney a bit, because he’s the one at a presumed disadvantage in a debate on foreign policy.  That’s the conventional wisdom: Romney’s good on the economy, inexperienced on foreign policy.  So. Early on, Romney was talking about what we need to do in the world of Islam. “Key to what we have to pursue,” he said, “is get the Islamic world to reject extremism on it’s own.  We don’t want another Iraq” (a war he consistently supported, but never mind).  He laid out a program: “we need to go after the leaders of these anti-American groups, these jihadists.”  (In other words, anti-American=terrorist).  He then cited “Islamic scholars” who laid out this program.

1) More economic development.  (Fine, I agree, unemployment is a huge issue in the Middle East; sustainable economic development would be great. Could also point out that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the UAE–they’re all swimming in oil.  These are not impoverished nations. They’re cursed with wealth.)

2) Better education.  (Great.  Fine.  So what, we’re going to export school teachers?  Iran is a very educated country.)

3) Gender equality.  (Awesome! Yes, it would be great if the world of Islam embraced gender equality.  I’m all for it.  How exactly does America get them to do that?)

4) Rule of law. “We have to help these nations create civil societies”. (No disagreement there.  How exactly do we do anything of that.”

But, Romney continued, “what we’ve seen instead is this tumult, this rising tide of chaos.”

Well, yeah.  What we’ve actually seen is democracy. We’ve seen people reject their dictators, their secret police and state-controlled media and oppression, and demand something better.  And then they’ve voted, and sometimes have voted for people we Americans would rather they hadn’t voted for.

Here’s what President Obama really can’t say in a debate, though.  He can’t say ‘yeah, and that’s all good.  It’s called self-determination, and it’s a good thing.’  It’s a debate; it’s supposed to exist in a fantasy world, governed by a magical President who can do anything, anywhere.

So how did President Obama respond to this seemingly-coherent-but-actually-ludicrous four point list of really nice outcomes we sure would like to see happen. With snark.  He quoted Romney’s comment about how Russia is our greatest geo-political threat, and then commented “The 1980’s are calling and they’d like their foreign policy back.”  Very clever soundbite, nicely played, sir! “You want the social policies of the ’50s, and the economic policies of the ’20s”  Yes!  He’s not up to date!  Well done!

So, okay, if you’re a conservative hearing that exchange, you could well think to yourself, ‘Governor Romney had this solid four point plan, shows a mastery of foreign policy, and all Obama can do is make some joke about a comment Romney made a month ago.’  Win for Romney, on substance.  If you’re a liberal, you could think, ‘Romney’s some kind of neo-colonialist, and Obama smacked him down for it.’  Win for Obama, on soundbite cleverness. What has not happened, though, is any kind of illuminating conversation on foreign policy.

When they both talked about Syria, and about Bashar al-Hassad, the dictator there, who continues to cling desperately to power there, I thought both men did well, largely because they don’t basically disagree.  Hassad is a thug, on his way out; we also have no dog in that fight, and no legitimate reason to intervene militarily.  Since they basically agree on Syria, they were free to talk sensibly.

But that was also part of the problem; the two men don’t actually disagree all that much on foreign policy.  Their differences are more a matter of style than substance; Romney, because he’s a conservative, his rhetoric tends to be more belligerent than the President’s.  They do disagree on the economy, and so Romney kept swerving, turning a question about the Middle East into an answer about balancing the budget.

And when the budget talk came around to military budgets, the President spanked Romney. The ‘horses and bayonets’ line became a huge Twitter meme, and should have; it was first-class, grade-A snark.  And in fact, it’s an area where Romney is vulnerable; I have no idea why he wants to increase military spending, but the President is right; no such budget increases are even being requested by the joint chiefs.

I actually found the conversation about Iran kind of comical.  They kept topping each other, about how much neither of them want Iran to have nuclear weapons.  ‘We should increase sanctions on Iran, we should indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for war crimes, we should turn their diplomats into pariahs.’  We should require all the men in Iran to wear comically large shoes.  Oh, yeah, well, we should also make them wear propeller beanies.  Oh, yeah, well, we should make them play ONLY old school video games.  Q-Bert, Asteroid, Space Invaders.  That’ll show ’em.

Okay, so here’s a country that absolutely should not have nuclear weapons.  Pakistan.  Pakistan is a politically unstable country, with a strong Taliban presence, an ostensible ally in the war on terror, and a country that has hated, and continues to hate a close ally, India, with whom they have been in conflict, at times armed conflict, for decades.  Plus Pakistan is really angry at America, because we violated their national sovereignty by sending Navy Seals in to kill Osama bin Laden, who was living openly a five minute jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point.  And we’re not happy with Pakistan either, in part because Osama bin Laden was living openly a five minute jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point.  Plus, they’re not wild about our unmanned drones hitting terrorist targets, with inevitable civilian casualties: collateral damage.  Pakistan is very high on the list of nations that really, truly, should not have nuclear weapons.

But Pakistan has nukes.  So does India.  North Korea has carried out nuclear tests. Is that desirable?  Of course not.  But here’s the United States nuclear policy regarding the rest of the world.  It’s in three parts:

1) We can have nuclear weapons, as many as we want.

2) But you can’t.

3) Neener neener neener.

And countries like Iran, with their history and their culture, can perhaps be forgiven for finding that attitude annoying.  Who knows who even runs Iran; it’s certainly not Ahmadinejad. We don’t know what Iran’s plans are regarding nukes; they appear to be developing them.  Is it hopelessly naive to suggest that it’s not really our business?  Or that preventing it may not be all that easy?  Might I gently suggest that no one needs ’em, that we should maybe get rid of ours too, while we’re at it?

Okay, so, but: Here’s the sequence that really drove me insane.  It had to do with Governor Romney’s favorite criticism of the President; that he started his Presidency by going on an ‘apology tour.’  The President ‘apologized’ for America, presumably, showing weakness instead of strength.  And strength is good, weakness bad: fine.

But here’s the line: “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations.  We have freed other nations from dictators.”

Are you freaking kidding me?

I suppose it’s barely possible to defend Governor Romney on the grounds that he’s describing is some kind of Platonic ideal for a foreign policy that we have never actually had, but that he would like to implement.  But would he genuinely like to suggest that the United States did not depose Mohammed Mossedegh in Iran, that we did not prop up the Shah for twenty years, that we did not turn a blind eye to the murder and torture of his secret police, that we did not arm him?  Is he genuinely suggesting that Hosni Mubarek was not an American client in Egypt, that Saddam Hussein was not a CIA asset, that we didn’t sell him the weapons he turned on his own people?  Is the Governor genuinely not aware that we propped up Sukarno Suharto in Indonesia for thirty years, or Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or Idi Amin in Uganda?  That’s been our foreign policy post WWII; to prop up dictators.  That’s who we are.  Not who we’d like to be, but who we’ve actually been.

Should America project strength internationally? I guess.  We spend more money on our armed forces than the next ten countries combined, and we have military bases basically everywhere, so, yeah, we’re projecting American strength abroad.  But to suggest that American foreign policy has historically been about ‘freedom’ isn’t just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense.

Now, I suppose that a conservative watching this exchange might well conclude that Governor Romney did well, that he stood up for America.  I suppose that a liberal watching it might think the President did well. But what neither side is likely to acknowledge is that the entire exchange is completely and utterly preposterous. It  reminded me of Metallica’s Enter Sandman: “take my hand, we’re off to never never land.”

And so the debates are concluded. And they were never about policy, of course; debates are about presentation, and essentially irrelevant to the hard task of governing. And this one was particularly devoid of substance.  Depressing.  The world’s a dangerous place. We should maybe take it seriously.



Thick as a Brick in SLC

“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.  My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout.”

I went to a rock concert last night.  Two and a half hours of incredible music.  Superb musicianship, marvelous showmanship.  One of my favorite performers at the top of his game.

And we heard two songs.  Two.  Well, three, counting the encore.

Here’s the stance used to play the flute: you stand on your right leg, balance.  You lift your left leg, then place your left foot just above the right calf, just below your right knee.  And you hold that position, perfectly still, in perfect balance, and play.  This is what it looks like.  Now try it at the age of 65.

1972, my cousin Steve took me to see Jethro Tull at the Salt Palace.  It was their Thick as a Brick tour.  I was completely blown away by them, by the musicianship, and especially by that song.  That one, incredible, hour-long song, “Thick as a Brick.” (I don’t even know how to punctuate it: Thick as a Brick? Thick as a Brick?  Like this?) The sound; it was definitely rock and roll, but with kind of an English folk music vibe, crossed with jazz and even classical music. I mean, is “Thick as a Brick” a song?  A cantata?

The main singer also played acoustic guitar and flute, plus some violin, some saxophone.  The keyboard music was organ and piano and synthesizer and harpsichord, at one point even some celesta.  Basic lineup: lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards, and then that flute.  Music with nuance and dynamic contrast and rhythmic complexity.  I’d hear quarter note and eighth note triplets, other kinds of syncopation.

“And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away, in the tidal destruction, the moral melee.  The elastic retreat rings the close of play, as the last wave uncovers the new-fangled way.”

The Jethro Tull lineup back then, in ’72, was Martin Barre on guitar, John Evan, keyboards, Jeffrey Hammond, bass, Barrie Barlow, drums.  And Ian Anderson, flute, acoustic guitar, and lead singer.  Barre and Anderson have been with the band from the beginning, in ’67.  And they did Thick as a Brick for that one tour, in ’72, and then only performed excerpts from it thereafter.  But I bought the album, and wore it out.  I’ve probably heard it, in its entirety, two hundred times.  More, easily more.  On LP, on CD.  Heck, probably even on 8 track, back in the day.

Last night, it was just Ian Anderson.  Apparently, Barre didn’t want to do Brick again, and neither did Dave Pegg, Andrew Giddings, Doane Perry; the Tull lineup since ’91.  So it was just Ian Anderson in concert, well, “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson,” on my ticket.  The rest of the lineup: David Goodier, bass, Florian Ophale, guitar (he’s very young, and terrific), John O’Hara, keyboards (and accordian), Scott Hammond, drums, and, in an odd twist, Ryan O’Donnell, sort of back up lead singer and (on the website), ‘stage antics.’

Ian Anderson’s 65, as I said, and his voice is shot.  His guitar playing is still terrific, on that weird little guitar he uses; custom built for him by C. F. Martin.  And of course he’s still an amazing flautist, but he really can’t sing much.  He especially can’t hit the high notes (and Tull’s music doesn’t require vocal pyrotechnics.  I can sing all their songs, and I’m a bass.)  He kept taking alternate low notes.  But O’Donnell is a good singer.  For “Thick as a Brick,” he probably sang 60% of the time.  While he wasn’t singing–and Brick features very long instrumental passages, in between vocals–he’d sort of clown around.  I didn’t mind, actually.  It freed Anderson up, to accompany singing with flute playing. And it reminded me that Thick as a Brick does sort of tell a story; the ‘son’ who rises, takes power, exercises it badly, loses.  O’Donnell kind of played ‘the son.’  I mean, it’s more elliptical than I’m making it sound; Thick as a Brick is poetry, not narrative.  But ‘O’Donnell wasn’t an afterthought; he was used well.

Watching it last night, I was reminded how much of the piece is built on unlikely duets: flute and electric guitar, flute and drums, flute and keyboards.  They would trade off licks, they did a lot of improvising.  I know the album pretty well perfectly, but hearing it live last night allowed me to go on a journey with that very familiar music, allowed me to rediscover it.  Fall in love all over again.  Yes, it was familiar, but then Ophale would take a familiar Martin Barre guitar lick and improvise off it; he had Barre’s musicianship and willingness to subordinate his solos to the needs of the entire song, but he also added his own imagination and energy.

And I was also reminded that Thick as a Brick was initially intended as a parody of pretentious prog rock concept albums (while also being the best one ever), that Tull’s music is influenced, yes, by classical music and folk music and jazz, but also with fairly heavy doses of Monty Python.  O’Donnell, for example, was dressed in trousers, tee shirt, vest, but then I realized the colors were a jester’s motley. At the half-way point (the part of the album where I always had to flip the record), Anderson stopped everything last night to do a comic bit about the importance of having regular prostate exams; a bit of sketch comedy.  O’Donnell wasn’t afraid to play the fool a bit too.  The music was accompanied by background video, much of which involved a chap clomping through an English village wearing scuba gear.  A reference to Aqualung, perhaps?  I have no idea.  But Tull was always weirdly comic: remember, halfway through Passion Play, ‘the story of the Hare who lost his Spectacles?’

“Spin me back down the years, and the days of my youth.  Draw the lace and black curtains, and shut out the whole truth.”

Thick as a Brick, the song and album, was about 44 minutes long.  In concert last night, it took around an hour and ten minutes.  I knew they were improvising, building on the album’s musical themes, but I didn’t realize for how long; I was just basking in it.  Another twenty minutes of Brick was something I was fine with. Then came the intermission.  And then they came out and performed Thick as a Brick 2.

The conceit for Brick was that it was written by an 8 year old boy, a young genius named Gerald Bostock, ‘the little Milton,’ as he’s described in the fake newspaper that was the Brick album cover. Brick 2 (or TAAB 2, as Anderson’s taken to calling it) imagines Bostock forty years later.  What might have happened to him, where might he have gone, what might he have done?  It’s a five movement cantata, imagining five possibilities: a greedy investment banker, a homeless gay man, a soldier in Afghanistan, a hypocritical televangelist, and an ordinary bloke, unmarried, who runs a shop.  It’s a far more serious and contemplative work, building on musical themes from Brick, but informed by a powerful social consciousness.

Hedge funds, wraps and equities. Lackeys, aides in fierce attendance. Trusts and gilts, reserve currencies. Liquid gold in safe ascendance. Banker bets and banker wins, never missed yet, for all his sins.

It’s a sober, powerful work, musically sophisticated as always, but darker in tone.  It’s a new work–the reason for the tour is to promote it–and in performance, it seemed to involve less improvisation.  I only listened to the album a dozen times or so; don’t quite have it memorized yet.  I will.  It’s a work that will reward further listening; of that I am certain.

Fresh start, another day, another life, a quiet cafe. Starbuck euphoria. Count my blessings, crossword ready. Soon, pipe and slippers in the study by the telly. I seek forgiveness, I beg your pardons at number 9 Mulberry Gardens.

By the end of the concert, I was exhausted, with the kind of exhaustion that comes from complete investment in a great work of art.  I tottered out to my car, and drove home with my best friend, Wayne, both of us basking in a great evening well-spent.

Oh, and they did “Locomotor breath” as an encore.  And that was great too.



Oslo, August 31st

Oslo, August 31st is the second film by the marvelous Norwegian doctor-turned-filmmaker, Joachim Trier. (If you’re wondering, he’s a distant relation to world-famous Danish director Lars von Trier.)  The first, Reprise (2006) explored the lives of two young novelists, friends, trying to find some purpose and meaning in their lives through their work and friendships and love.  It was a brilliant dissection of the restlessness and anxieties of the young Norwegian middle class.

Trier’s second film also stars Anders Danielsen Lie, who was so completely riveting in Reprise.  Lie plays Anders, a drug addict, who is granted a day’s leave by the rehab clinic where he’s in recovery, ostensibly to go to Oslo for a program-mandated job interview.  While in Oslo, he visits his best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a young academic, who lives with his wife and two children in a crowded apartment, he tries to see his parents and his sister, goes to a party and meets a girl, and eventually scores some drugs.  This brief description doesn’t do it justice.  It’s a stunning and powerful film about a talented, bright young man whose life is going down the drain, and who seems unable to prevent it.

My father is Norwegian.  He came to the US as a teenager, with his family, and settled in Utah.  I served a mission in Norway, and did most of the research for my doctoral dissertation in Oslo.  I continue to translate Ibsen’s plays from Norwegian to English, and often read Norwegian newspapers on-line. And I have a lot of family in Norway still, including a second cousin I’m quite close to. But my Norwegian is rather old-fashioned; it was interesting to see how Norwegian has been corrupted: words like ‘clean’ and ‘sorry’ are just the English words, despite perfectly usable Norwegian alternatives.  But it’s part of what the film’s about; a film immersed in pop culture, in American pop culture.  As one of the characters in Reprise said: in modern Norway, you have to like the right kind of music and read the right books, and watch the right movies; all of them American.  It’s part of the sense of displacement, of cultural de-centering that informs both of Trier’s films.

Norway is a stunning country, and I was filled with nostalgia at the various Oslo locations. But it’s also a country with a problem; young people who have everything, and don’t know how to handle it.  In an early, lengthy scene, Anders’ friend Thomas, who initially comes off as a bit of a pedant (finding just the right Proust quote, the perfect bon mot, to respond to Anders’ own feelings of hopelessness; fortunately, his wife, Rebecca (Ingrid Olava) calls him on it, laughing), describes what his life has become.  He can’t bring himself to publish anymore.  He has lectures he’s supposed to be preparing that simply bore him.  And he and his wife’s entire relationship can be summed up by their nightly games of Battlefield, which they play on their Playstation 3.  A game, Thomas confesses, that Rebecca plays with such savage enthusiasm, he’s a little afraid of her.

Salvation, for Anders, may be found in his ex-girlfriend, Iselin, the one person, he thinks, who genuinely loved him.  We never meet her; throughout the movie, he keeps leaving increasingly desperate phone messages for her, which she never returns.  He loves his parents, and knows they love him, but they’re not home when he visits; he learns they’re moving, selling the family home to pay for his rehab.  He sets up a lunch appointment with his sister, Rita, but she can’t bring herself to come, sending her domestic partner instead, to what becomes an incredibly awkward and teary conversation.

The film begins with a scene where Anders, on a walk on the rehab center’s grounds, finds himself on the shore of Oslo fjord. He fills his pockets with stones, and walks out into the water to drown himself.  The camera holds forever on the water; ripples subside.  Then he breaks the service.  He hasn’t been able to go through with it.  Later in the film, he meets a friend, at a party with two girls.  He hooks up with one of them, a lovely young woman (uncredited).  They go to an outdoors swimming pool, and the other guy and both girls go skinny dipping.  Anders’ girl looks back at him, asks him to join her.  He can’t.  These two scenes; a failed baptism into death, and a rejected baptism into life, sum up the power of the film.

I won’t give away the ending.  It’s incredibly sad, and seems completely inevitable.  Let me just say, this beautifully filmed and acted and written little movie got to me like few other films I’ve seen lately.



“Clean” as in off drugs


Battlefield, HBO,

Lance Armstrong

So the big sports news this week has been Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour de France, and therefore the greatest cyclist in history, and the evidence that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he cheated.  Doped.  Took performance enhancing drugs.  This week’s Sports Illustrated laid it all out there.  Based on an investigation by the USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency), the case made in SI is thorough and damning.  I think it’s safe to say that the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard has been met here, at least in the court of public opinion.  I don’t think think there’s much doubt that Armstrong built his success on a foundation of PEDs.  And thus comes the recommendation that the UCI, the Union Cycliste International, strip him of his titles.

SI‘s story points out something rather interesting; the difference between US and European attitudes about doping.  It’s quite a bit like the difference in attitudes towards the sexual philandering of politicians.  Francois Hollande, the current President of France, for example, is quite open about his mistress, Valerie Trierweiler, who was, also openly, mistress to Patrick Devedjian, minster of finance in the government of Nicholas Sarkozy.  This despite the fact that all three were married to other people.  But nobody in France thinks anything of it.  It’s all considered no big deal.  Uh, we Americans don’t see it the same way.

But in France, it’s just expected that the winner of the Tour de France was doing, well, whatever, steroids and human growth hormone and blood doping and whatever. You can’t win that race if you don’t.  Or couldn’t. Bradley Wiggins, this year’s winner, says he didn’t dope, and protocols have been beefed up to the point that he probably didn’t.  But was this true in the past? As SI quotes five time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, “You’d have to be an imbecile or hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants.”

SI‘s story suggests the same.  Armstrong cycled as part of the United Postal Service team, a hand-picked cadre of top flight cyclists, all of whom doped, and all of whom have now come clean about doping.  The cyclists against whom he competed all doped as well.  The evil genius in all this, Dr. Michele Ferrari, was an expert on the newest methods of doping and masking agents, and a close advisor to Armstrong’s team, but he consulted with many other riders as well.

The language the American sports media uses to describe the use of PEDs tends towards the moralistic: cheating, a fraud, doping. (I just did it too, calling Dr. Ferrari an ‘evil genius.’)  But how can an action be ‘cheating’ if everyone in the sport is doing it?  How can administering prescription drugs be illegal if they’re prescribed by a doctor?

Lance Armstrong has always seemed like an immensely competitive guy, a guy who is so driven to win, that no other considerations seem to matter much to him. The guy he reminds me of most in all of sports is Michael Jordan.  They’re both guys whose need to win almost seems pathological. I had a friend like that in high school.  Real average guy, Tony, not all that big, not all that fast.  He was a running back on our football team, and when the game was on the line, you basically couldn’t tackle him.  He just wanted to win more than anyone else on the team.

The language of sports suggests that’s a good trait to have.  We talk about guys giving 110%, we quote Vince Lombardi (‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’), we give massive props to guys who lay it all on the line, who leave everything on the field, who want it more than the other guys.  Sports is the ultimate meritocracy, and merit means effort, especially if it leads to winning.  Is there a dark side to sports success?  Of course there is.  But we don’t emphasize it much. Sometimes, when we look at the battered body of a retired sports hero, we notice how a guy we once admired, even sort of worshipped, can’t climb stairs anymore, can’t remember the names of his children.  Or we see them give up.  End it.  Pace Junior Seau, requiscat Dave Duerson.

But our favorite sports narrative ever is the guy who just flat out won’t quit, the guy who absolutely must win, no matter what, regardless of cost.  Kirk Gibson hitting a game winning World Series home run on one leg.  Kerri Strug sticking the landing on a broken ankle.  Michael Jordan barfing on the bench, every time out, then willing his team to victory.

And Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, and seven time winner of the Tour de France.

Barry Bonds set himself the task of becoming the greatest hitter the game of baseball had ever seen.  He allowed no other consideration to intrude on his pursuit of that goal. Lance Armstrong committed himself to the goal of becoming the greatest cyclist in history.  He refused to let any other factor dictate his fate. He made it.  They both made it.  Now they’re both reviled as cheaters.

I get that it’s not as simple as saying that Armstrong cheated in a time when cheating was rampant.  I get that cyclists who would much rather not have jeopardized their health by using steroids were essentially forced to go along with the crowd, quite possibly to their own detriment.  SI‘s story describes a cyclist named Christian Vande Velde, who Armstrong put on the Postal team, who didn’t want to dope, and the pressure Armstrong put on the guy to go along with the other guys on the team.  Let’s say Vande Velde develops health problems relating to HGH or something.  Could his illness be blamed Armstrong? In a sense, yes, I suppose so.

But if the UCI takes away Armstrong’s medals, if it declares that Lance Armstrong did not win the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005, wouldn’t it be saying something absurd?  He did win those races.  He was the greatest.  Those are the historical facts.  I suppose some kind of sanctions might have some deterrent value, might prevent future riders from doping.  But don’t re-write history.  Contextualize it, explain it, but what happened, happened.

Grown-ups make choices, and live by the consequences of those choices.  Lance Armstrong chose to endanger his health in pursuit of a goal.  I’m uncomfortable with all the moralizing.  If a sport, or sports federation, chooses policies to protect the health and well-being of its participants, then yes, rules should be established, consequences defined. But both major league baseball and world-class cycling chose to bury their heads in the sand. Lance Armstrong was the most exciting, charismatic athlete ever to choose cycling as a career.  Cycling profited, both materially and in terms of publicity, from his success.  He also inspired millions of cancer patients with his story (incomplete and falsified though it was).  I’m uncomfortable with a current PED witch hunt that ignores those realities.