Monthly Archives: December 2012

32 years

My computer was down on my anniversary this past week, preventing me from writing something excessively gooey.  It still astounds me, though, to think that I’ve been married for thirty two years.  32.  Three tens, two ones.  Hard to believe.

I mean, when we got married, Jimmy Carter was still President, Ronald Reagan having just been elected, but not yet inaugurated.  The Iran hostage crisis was still going on–wouldn’t be resolved until mid-January.  Five days after the hostages were released, the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XV, the TV coverage for which I remember as a tasteless patriotic orgy.  Actually, what I remember most about that Super Bowl was a question a reporter asked Raiders’ quarterback Jim Plunkett at the Super Bowl media day: “is it your mother who’s blind and your father who’s deaf, or the other way around?” Still the tackiest question asked a professional athlete ever.

It was a great year for movies, and a horrible year for music. Ordinary People would win Best Picture, defeating Coal Miner’s Daughter, Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, and Tess. Terrific movies, all.  Sissy Spacek and Robert DeNiro won Oscars, along with Mary Steenburgen (I forgot she ever won one!) and, (I’m not kidding), Timothy Hutton. The first Muppet Movie came out that year, and we all heard “Rainbow Connection” for the first time, re-kindling the perpetual romance between Miss Piggy and Kermit.  On the other hand, Xanadu also came out that year.  The Electric Light Orchestra was considered cool.  Honest, they were.

Here’s how long ago that was: the music in Ordinary People was Pachelbel’s Canon, which worked in that picture, because most folks didn’t know it; we hadn’t all gotten sick of it yet. I just thought it sounded pretty. But look what won the Grammy for best album: Billy Joel’s 52nd Street.  Billy Joel was considered cool that year.  And Donna Summer (Donna Summer!) won a Grammy for best rock (rock!) performance. Big songs that year included AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Pat Benetar “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and Blondie’s “Call Me.”  The big issues back then had to do with disco. Mostly, you had to hate it, but I did see Saturday Night Fever, and liked it a lot. But, boy, stuck in the middle of the disco era–what an awful year for popular music.

1980. The biggest sports news of 1980 involved a hockey game; the USA defeating the Soviet Union in the Olympics, then defeating Finland for the gold medal.  Remember Al Michaels: “Do you believe in miracles?”  I didn’t even like hockey, and I thought that was awesome.  Made all the more poignant by the fact that the US didn’t send a team to the Summer Olympics that year; Jimmy Carter’s response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  Remember the Cold War?  When I got married, there was a Cold War.

The San Francisco Giants finished in fifth place that year, in a six team division. Their shortstop was Johnnie LeMaster, fondly remembered by Giants’ fans as Johnnie Disaster.  When I got married in December, the World Series had just concluded, with the Mike Schmidt Phillies finally winning. And the LA Lakers won the 1980 NBA championship, with rookie Magic Johnson playing maybe the greatest game of basketball in history, in a game that wasn’t broadcast.  Can you imagine that today?  That’s how long ago I got married–Magic Johnson had the greatest game of his career, one of the greatest played by anyone ever, in a championship game, and we had to read about in the newspaper the next morning.  Also, we had newspapers.

And how did we follow all that sports news?  We could maybe have barely caught it on ESPN, on Sportscenter.  ESPN started broadcasting in ’79.  But we didn’t have cable TV back then, and when we finally got it, it was still broadcasting stuff like Australian Rules Football.  (Which was awesome, BTW.)  We could also have watched cable news when we got married–CNN began broadcasting in 1980, if we’d had cable then.  But FoxNews?  MSNBC?  CNBC, C-SPAN?  Not a chance.  We watched the three networks for our news.  We watched Dan Rather.

And I owned a leisure suit.  I even wore it, when my wife let me.  I had gnarly sideburns too.  I also had this sports coat, it was sort of brown and green plaid.  I thought it was the bomb.  It was a happenin’ suit.  Later, my oldest son borrowed it; wore it to school one day, for ‘wear something funny’ day.

My wife and I were big sci-fi fans, and that was a good era for sci-fi movies, I remember.  In ’79, we were dating, and did the ‘wait in line all night’ thing to see the first Star Trek movie.  It took us awhile to admit to ourselves that it was kind of a bomb.  But then, the summer before we got married, we got to see The Empire Strikes Back.  Waiting in line to see it, some jerk drove by in his car and shouted ‘Darth Vader’s Luke’s Dad!’  Even that couldn’t ruin what I still think of as the best Star Wars movie ever.  And two years later, in ’82, while my wife was pregnant with our oldest son, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan came out, with Ricardo Montalban as the best Trek villain ever. It was great–Star Trek v. Star Wars was actually a debate you’d have with people.  In ’87, I was in rehearsal for something, and my wife stayed home and watched the first episode of the new Star Trek TV series; The Next Generation. That first season was pretty lame, but we didn’t think so then; we thought Picard was great, loved Riker, loved Data. That’s right, there wasn’t a new Star Trek TV series until we’d been married seven years.

32 years. A lot of jokes, a lot of laughs, a lot of late night giggle-fests.  Four kids, the oldest of whom is now in grad school.  A lot of prayers and a lot of books read and shared, and a lot of TV watched, and music listened to and sung together.  Mostly, laughs.  I figure, between us, we changed around 6,000 diapers, more or less.  And told maybe 30,000 jokes.  Which strikes me as a good enough ratio.

32 years, and I wouldn’t change one of them.  32 years, and counting. And the best, yet to come.



The Hobbit: A review

Before seeing The Hobbit last night, my wife and I were having dinner, when some old friends came up to our restaurant table; smiles, hugs, ‘how you doin’?’  They were going to see Les Mis, told us they’d seen The Hobbit last week.  “Lord of the Rings Lite,” they called it. Boy, did they get that right.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine.  It’s a perfectly watchable entertainment.  It looks great, and the music’s lovely, and the acting is all just fine.  It’s not Lord of the Rings, not by a long shot.  But it has a nice nostalgic feel.  It’s enjoyable.  I liked visiting Middle Earth again.  New Zealand looked as gorgeous as ever, and the production design and cinematography were both as first-rate as expected.

I didn’t see it in 3-D, of course, because I’m old and 3-D gives me a headache.  Plus, I don’t care.  I’m perfectly well that technological marvels abound in movies like this.  I don’t care about that either.  What I care about in movies is the story and the characters.  And the simple reality of The Hobbit is that the story isn’t as compelling as in LOTR, because the stakes aren’t as high; not even close.  The characters aren’t as rich and interesting, because the forces against which they contend aren’t as powerful or frightening. Martin Freeman is a wonderful actor, and he’s great as Bilbo. But Bilbo Baggins is a fat and comfortable hobbit, who goes on a quest because he’s a little bored and thinks an adventure would be fun.  He’s not Frodo, haunted, desperate, terrified Frodo.  Richard Armitrage is suitably courageous as Thorin, the dwarvish king fighting to restore his kingdom–the main plot thread in The Hobbit.  But Armitrage isn’t a tenth as charismatic and exciting as Viggo Mortensen was in LOTR, not because he’s not as good an actor, but because his character isn’t an Aragorn.

Everything in this movie is lower key, less tense, less dramatic, lower stakes.  In LOTR, early in Fellowship of the Ring, a group of adventurers gather at Rivendell, to consult with Elrond and the other elves there.  The result is the forming of the Fellowship, as Gimli and Legolas and Boromir and Aragorn vow to serve Frodo in a quest to destroy the Ring of power and save all of Middle Earth.  It’s a grim meeting; resolute men making a last-ditch effort to save their world.  In The Hobbit, a similar meeting takes place.  Mostly it involves Saruman lecturing Gandalf like he’s a naughty schoolboy whose been caught running with the wrong crowd.  Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, beautiful as always as Galadriel, reads Gandalf’s mind, and seems to have a better take on things, but doesn’t really say much; just lets Saruman blather on.

Instead of a Fellowship, The Hobbit features a crowd, a whole bunch of dwarves distinguished by truly astonishing varieties of facial hair, but by not much else.  They were all named things like Balin and Dwalin and Bofur and Bombur; the names didn’t help at all.  I mostly tried to tell them apart by either their weapons–the one with the bow, the one with the really big sword–or body types–the really fat one, the one with the big eyes.  An early scene where they eat Bilbo out of house and hearth was pretty amusing, and I liked their singing, but I couldn’t tell the dwarves apart, and, worse, didn’t care that I couldn’t tell them apart.  They were just this crowd of guys, who spent most of the movie either fighting orcs, falling off things, or running away from nasty looking critters.

As a result, their last second rescues and victories and spectacular (but non-lethal) falls, though amusing, weren’t particularly engaging.  It turned action sequences into pratfalls–the fight scenes were mostly comedic in tone.  It felt very Keystone Kops–this crowd of guys in full being-chased mode, followed by a larger and uglier crowd of guys, doing the chasing.

Check out this scene from Fellowship.  What I love is the look on Aragorn’s face, as he marches towards this regiment of Orcs, that look of determination and courage and, I don’t know, warrior-ly anticipation.  There’s nothing like that in The Hobbit, nothing that approaches that level of moral seriousness. I don’t know, maybe Thorin’s apology to Bilbo comes close, after Bilbo saves his life.

What The Hobbit lacks is a sense of tragedy.  I have previously argued that the three LOTR movies are each structured as tragedies: Fellowship is the tragedy of Boromir, Two Towers, the tragedy of Smeagol, and Return, the tragedy of. . . Frodo, who never actually does manage to destroy the Ring. And the powerful redemptive drama of Aragorn overlays it all. The Hobbit is the story of a bunch of guys who want their gold back from the dragon that stole it from them. And the tourist, Bilbo, who they bring along for the ride.

Plus, boy does it fail the Bechdel test.  You know the Bechdel question–does the movie have any scene, any scene at all, in which two women talk about anything other than the men in their lives.  I would argue that while LOTR probably does fail the Bechdel test, it does include enough awesome female characters to make up for it–the Eowyn plot thread is tremendous, for example.  Not the Hobbit.  Only one female character in the entire movie, Galadriel, who is in the movie for four minutes, though she is pretty memorable.

So it’s not as good as LOTR.  Granted.  One scene kind of redeems it; the long scene in Gollum’s cavernous pool where he and Bilbo spin riddles together.  Bilbo has stolen The Ring, his Precious, but Gollum doesn’t know it yet, and the riddles are mostly just a game for him, at first, though they are playing for Bilbo’s life.  It’s a wonderful scene, with Andy Serkis’ voice work animating the most richly complex character in the series.  The riddle scene is very long, but it’s completely captivating, especially since Bilbo doesn’t seem initially aware of just how dangerous and treacherous Gollum is capable of being.  And it’s actually a scene with three characters, given Gollum/Smeagol’s split personalities–Gollum is the deadly one, while Smeagol is smarter, better at riddles.

So it’s a movie with one great scene, some terrific visuals, and a really good Bilbo.  And it’s great to see Ian McKellen’s Gandalf again.  Likewise the all-too-brief cameos from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood.  And I really loved Sylvester McCoy’s wacky wizard Radogast, Gandalf’s forest-wizard pal, with bird poo all over his matted hair and his amazing rabbit sleigh.  I thought everything he did was delightful.

It’s a fun movie, an entertaining and enjoyable movie.  Unfortunately, it invites comparison to three of the finest films ever made, and it certainly falls well short of that standard.  I don’t regret having seen it, and will see the next two Hobbit movies.  But Tolkien’s Hobbit book is a lesser achievement than the three LOTR books, and we shouldn’t expect the movie versions to make up that difference.


Fiscal cliffmageddon

My computer’s been on the fritz for over a week now, leaving my blog addiction unsated.  All sorts of political/economic news I’ve not been able to talk about, much of it involving movie stars.  Plus, the collapse of the US economy.  What’s that Chinese curse?  May you live in interesting times?

My favorite political headline of the week was this one: “Jon Huntsman for Speaker of the House.”  Yep, there it was, page B-1 in the Deseret News. Some think tank thought this would be a dandy idea.  And in fact, I think Jon Huntsman would probably do a fine job.  Coupla little problems, though: first, Jon Huntsman isn’t, you know, in the House. He can’t be Speaker.  Plus, he’s waaaaayyyy to the left of most current House Republicans.  You know, the people who would be voting for him. I mean, I think Joss Whedon would be a dandy choice to direct the new Disney Star Wars movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Too bad Huntsman’s not a movie star–that seems to be a good political career path.  Follow me: President Obama just named John Kerry Secretary of State, apparently because Susan Rice, his first pick, turned out to be a no-good-nic. Rice, a superbly qualified academic and diplomat went on Sunday talk shows a few days after the Benghazi attacks, and did her job; repeated the talking points given her by the intelligence community.  For that detestable act of high treason, she was deemed unqualified to be Secretary of State.  (Unfrickinbelievable).  All right, John Kerry gets the job, and he’ll do well.  But recently defeated Massachusetts senator Scott Brown is expected to run for Kerry’s now vacated seat. Enter . . . Ben Affleck, who is active in politics, from Massachusetts, and famous.  It’s hard for me to see how appearing on a Sunday talk show is considered a crime against humanity, when making Gigli isn’t, but I could get behind Senator Affleck, if it’s only for two years.  Argo was an awfully good movie, though–hate to see him lose that momentum.

Meanwhile Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, is up for re-election in two years, and is apparently kind of worried about it, because none other than Ashley Judd is considering running against him.  That’s right: Wesley Crusher’s girlfriend from Star Trek TNG.  Actually, she could well be a formidable candidate–she’s been very active politically, working with YouthAIDS, a education program to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, and also working to fight genocide in the Congo.  I’ve seen her speak on both issues, and she’s articulate and informed.  She’s got charisma, name recognition, and at 44, her movie career’s kinda stalled.  And she’s a massive Kentucky basketball fan, married to a race car driver.  Fast cars and hoops; she’ll do well in Kentucky.

We’re fast approaching the final days of the 112th Congress, and it’s hard to see how adding a couple of movie stars could possibly make things worse than they are right now.  The latest news is that milk prices could well go up to 8 bucks a gallon next year, because the 112th couldn’t get an extension of the farm bill passed.  Like all the other stuff they couldn’t get passed.

Like a budget.  And that’s where we are right now, a couple of days away from going over the fiscal cliff.  Credit Ben Bernancke for that particular metaphor, though actually cliffs are rarely self-created, and this one is; a completely artificial, man-made crisis, a set of Congress-created consequences so dire it would absolutely require Congressional action to prevent it.  Here’s the fiscal cliff; I know I have to apologize to my neighbor.  I don’t want to.  I don’t like the guy.  But I know it’s the right thing to do.  So I say to myself: I MUST do this, go up to the guy and say I’m sorry. I HAVE to, so, okay, the next time I walk past him without apologizing, I will DIVE into a VAT of ACID. And take my children with me.  That’ll MAKE ME do it.  And now, guess what, there he is.  And I still won’t. Won’t shake his hand, won’t be civil.  Don’t want to. The acid awaits.  Dang.

Here are five main misconceptions about the fiscal cliff negotiations:

1) The biggest problem is that the Republicans, as a matter of principle, refuse to raise taxes.

Not true.  Essentially every proposal made by Speaker Boehner and supported by House Republicans involves raising taxes.  President Obama got them to pass a payroll tax cut; he wants to extend it.  Republicans are against it.  Payroll taxes hit poor and middle class people the hardest–that’s the tax that really nails the working poor.  Republicans want to repeal that specific tax cut–which means, essentially, a tax hike on poor people.  What Republicans oppose is only this: a tax hike on rich people.

2) The President has been completely intransigent in these negotiations, insisting that all compromises be made by Republicans.

On Sunday, on This Week with Snuffleupagus, Peggy Noonan repeated this particular canard, and went, of course, unchallenged.  In fact, the President, in these negotiations, has repeatedly offered deals that frankly have Democrats horrified–cuts in Social Security benefits, domestic spending cuts.  And he’s compromised on the tax hike on rich people. And he won the last election.  John Boehner has budged a little too, but it didn’t matter–the Speaker has essentially lost his conference.  His plan B (tax hikes on incomes over a million), a complete non-starter in the Senate, still went too far as far as the Republican House members were concerned.

I think Republicans want, I don’t know, some kind of pain points in these negotiations. Actually, maybe both sides do. Like: raising taxes on rich people is so hard, so excruciatingly painful for us conservatives, we should get all kinds of concessions for even considering it.  You should have to give in on everything else.  Whereas from my liberal Democrat point of view, raising taxes on rich folks is the obvious first step.  That’s the step that hurts the fewest people the least–that’s clearly where you start. Everything else–cutting Social Security benefits, or Medicare, or food stamps and Meals-on-Wheels, that all hurts a lot of people a lot. Me, I don’t think giving in on taxes should get conservatives any consideration at all.

3) Democrats want the nation to go over the fiscal cliff, because they’d get most of what they want.

Speaking as a Democrat, uh, no.  Wow.  Essentially the fiscal cliff means way too much austerity way too fast.  It would throw our economy back into recession, which, guess what, we’re against.  The domestic spending cuts would be devastating, as would the tax increase on the middle class.  All we’d get are some cuts in Defense spending, which most liberals do favor, plus a tax hike on rich guys, because we liberals hate rich people.  (That last one’s just funny: remember, two of the President’s strongest supporters are Warren Buffet and Bill Gates).

4) In the election, Democrats won the White House, Republicans won the House.  So Americans want divided government.

True: more voters supported President Obama than they did Governor Romney.  Also true: more voters supported House Democrats than they did House Republicans.  If not for massive gerrymandering after the 2010 election, Democrats would have won the House too.  I know, we do it too.  But when, oh when! will the Supreme Court declare gerrymandering unconstitutional?

5.This problem could be solved, if both sides could just get together and compromise already.

Not so. The Democrats, under President Obama’s leadership, have shown a tremendous willingness to compromise. The House Republicans are holding up the deal.

Here’s the thing; I actually kind of respect the Tea Party guys.  They think that the federal government is completely out of control.  They think that this long-standing series of compromises and deals and negotiations that has been politics as usual for the last fifty years is completely corrupt and is destroying the Constitution.  They think compromise is unprincipled.  They think the federal government is hopeless, corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, way too costly.  And that we’re handing a horrible fiscal mess to our (their) grandchildren.

My son thinks the Republican party shouldn’t be called the GOP anymore; it should be the OWP.  Old White People.  But I remember vividly a political conversation I had with my Dad a few months ago, in which he said, “you have no idea how pissed-off grandpas get when their grandkids are in trouble.”  I get that, I do. They look at the deficit and the debt and they get worried about the youngsters, the rising generation, and they get angry and scared.  And compromise starts to look like a bad thing.

So look at the debt ceiling.  It’s going to have to be raised again in a few weeks, probably some time in February, and that’s just a huge issue for the Tea Party.  It’s a symbol of overspending and profligacy; it’s crippling our future, and OWPs really are all about the future.

It’s just–they’re wrong.  About all of it.  The debt is bad, but we know what caused it and we know how to get out of it. Spending is not out of control–the problem is lowered tax revenues, caused by high unemployment.  Right now is the time for more stimulative spending, not less.  And not raising the debt ceiling–which isn’t about future debt, it’s about paying off our existing obligations, it’s extremely important–really would be catastrophic. That fear, the fear that we wouldn’t raise the debt ceiling, that’s the fear that keeps me up at night.

Right now, even as I write, the President, Speaker Boehner, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, those four people, are meeting.  I know what I hope they’ll do.  Get Pelosi and Reid to agree to a deal based on Simpson-Bowles (the big bi-partisan debt commission plan that got shelved almost immediately after it was announced).  Get the Senate to pass it.  Get Boehner to call for a vote on it, get Pelosi to get all the House Democrats to vote for it.  And desperately hope there are 25 patriots left in the House Republican caucus.

Otherwise, it’s off the cliff we go.  Plus eight bucks a gallon for milk. Interesting times indeed.



Media violence, games, and Newtown

It doesn’t take long after a major gun-related media event, like the recent school shooting in Connecticut, for reactions to fall back into quite familiar patterns.  The Left and the Right in this country have become ideologically ossified, responses and reactions and counter-reactions as routinely choreographed as those dances we see in Jane Austen movies, every move part of long-standing pre-determined patterns.  The trouble is guns–we need stronger gun laws.  No, it’s mental illness–we need to do more to identify and treat dangerously mentally ill people.  No, it’s moral; what do you expect in a land ruled by moral relativism.  My local fish-wrap, The Deseret News featured this letter quoting old Ben Franklin on public morals. Yes, we need to return to the wisdom of the Founders.  I might respond that Ben lived in an era where guns took ten minutes to reload, rusted out in weeks, and misfired a third of the time.  Also, Ben Franklin’s own morals did not prevent dalliances as with as many French ladies-in-waiting as could be persuaded to bed an septuagenarian. Not sure he’s the guy we should be turning to.

It doesn’t seem to me that the problem in Newtown had anything to do with virtue.  Victoria Soto gave her life protecting the children huddled in her classroom closet.  Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook principal, lunged at a heavily armed assailant, after turning on the school public address system to let her teachers know it was time to protect the kids. I have many many family members who have worked and do work as teachers–I don’t know one who wouldn’t have given his or her life to protect children.

The problem with Adam Lanza wasn’t that he was evil, it was that he was crazy.  This strikes me as rather an important distinction.

I watched Wayne LaPierre’s press conference yesterday, offering the NRA’s suggestions on how to prevent future attacks.  I tried to keep an open mind, and I did think he had some good suggestions.  I rather think having an on-duty police officer at each school isn’t a bad idea. There was a cop at my daughter’s high school–he taught a class in law enforcement, and he did a nice job investigating when some schmuck kid cyber-attacked her. LaPierre also suggested a national registry for dangerously mentally ill people.  That registry is already on the books, but it’s badly maintained, in part because the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is so desperately underfunded.  Heck, they haven’t had a director for six years.

But then Lapierre went after video games.  Specifically violent video games, first person shooter type games, where you, the player, have the point of view of someone shooting bad guys.  Call of Duty is an example.  How healthy can it be to spend hours playing a game in which you take on a persona who kills people?  How dangerous must it be for you psychically to go around shooting people?  And such games have really amazing graphics–it really looks realistic.  Adam Lanza loved FPS games, played ’em all the time.  Did they contribute to the mental illness that caused him to go berserk?  How could they not have done?

Well, has this been studied?  Have there been peer-reviewed double blind laboratory studies on links between video game violence or other media violence and actual violence?  I mean, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Hours spent vicariously killing people has to have some affect. ‘As a man thinketh, so is he’, right? We live in a violent society because our young people (our young men, especially) are immersed in violent media.  And so, yes, there have been such studies, you can find them on-line, violent video games are liked to aggression. You bet.

This article in Slate offers the counter argument. Most such studies are badly designed and deeply flawed–some researchers, shockingly, were mostly looking for support for their a priori conclusions.  And while they may seem intuitive, they’re also counter-factual. Teen boys in the Netherlands spend, on average, twice as much time playing violent video games, especially FPS games, than American boys do.  Their society is half as violent as ours.  Canadian kids play more games than we do, and their society is much less violent.  The availability of violent games has increased exponentially over the past thirty years, coinciding with an exponential decrease in actual violence.  Games, it seems, may be cathartic, not noxious.

This is, as it happens, a very old debate.  Plato’s Republic first advanced the argument that seeing bad things leads to bad behavior.  Check out Book II: he wanted to censor ‘the writers of tales,’ to make sure they only wrote about virtuous people behaving virtuously, so kids wouldn’t get wrong ideas from fiction. Thank heavens the one equally important philosopher of his day, Aristotle, knew this to be nonsense, or I wouldn’t have an art form; the Poetics suggests ‘katharsis’ as an alternative function of violent literature.  (I just re-read this last paragraph and threw up a little in my mouth at this simplistic portrayal of the ideas of two great philosophers, but let it go–this is a blog, not a class in dramatic theory).

The fact is, kids play video games because they’re super fun and really cool and look great and are frustratingly, tantalizingly hard to get good at.  They play them for hours because you have to in order to gain any kind of mastery.  The graphics are amazing because this is a multi-billion dollar highly competitive industry and graphics are a selling point.  The latest version of Medal of Honor sold 1.4 million units in one week.  That’s one game, one week.  The numbers of kids who play FPS video games internationally is not in the millions, nor the tens of millions, but hundreds of millions.

And it’s not just kids.  Adults play ’em too.  I’ve never played Medal of Honor, but I have played other FPS games, especially Doom and Quake.  I suck at ’em, because I’m an old guy with bad hands, but I get the attraction–they’re fun.  And when you finish a long session playing, I don’t know, Call of Duty or something, I promise, you don’t want to go out and shoot people.  First, you really need to go to the bathroom. Then you kind of need to see a doctor for your carpal tunnel issues.  But mostly, you just feel satisfaction, the satisfaction that comes from mastering a difficult task.

Old people love to freak out over the things young people do for fun.  I was reading an account of my pioneer ancestors crossing the planes.  They had this game they all played.  While a wagon was rolling, you’d grab the wheel, and try to hang on through one whole revolution. All the way around, just hanging on to the wagon spokes. There were rules against it, and wagon masters were always telling folks to watch out for kids doing it, because it was dangerous, but kids did it anyway.  Pioneer children may well have sang while they walked and walked and walked, but my guess is they got into all kinds of mischief too.  Because they were kids.

Adam Lanza was a gamer, and especially enjoyed FPS violence. He was similar, in that regard, to tens of millions of young men all over the world.  He was also a loner, socially isolated, a troubled kid, pulled in and out of schools by what seems to have been a desperate mother. That would describe hundreds of thousands of young men. Most of them . . . get through it.  But he was also sick in a way that finally exploded into the worst violence imaginable. The place to start looking for an explanation and maybe even a cure is there, not in what he had in common with millions of non-violent kids, but the specific ways in which he was so tragically different. We all want answers, and we specifically want answers that fit our ideological preferences and preconceptions.  Figuring this out is going to be harder than that.


Christmas Songs

My wife and I went to a play in Salt Lake on Tuesday, and since we were up there, and it was a nasty cold night, we decided to make a real date of it. First to Trader Joe’s, for cookies, then dinner, then a play.  (Okay, we ran short on time, and dinner involved a Wendy’s, still, it was fun.)  And on the way home, my wife and I turned the radio to a station that plays nothing but Christmas carols.  I have no idea what they play the rest of the year, but starting on Thanksgiving, it’s Yuletide all the time.  And it occurred to me what a deeply weird mix of songs gets played on stations like that.  It seems to me they come in three categories: religious Christmas songs (like “Silent Night” or “Carol of the Bells”), secular Christmas songs (like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells”), and sort of generic Holiday songs (like “Frosty the Snowman”), that don’t actually have anything explicitly to do with Christmas per se, but get played a lot this time of year anyway.  And this station just jumbles ’em all up together.

It makes for an odd driving-and-listening experience.  You’ll hear something sort of sexy and saucy, like the gold-digger anthem “Santa Baby”, which has to go close to the top of the Wildly Inappropriate Christmas Song list, right next to “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Seriously, no kidding, listen to “Santa Baby”: it basically suggests that Santa, if he comes through with the right gifts, could very well get, uh, lucky.  Mrs. Claus, beware!  Then the very next song turns out to be something completely awesome, like Josh Groban singing “Little Drummer Boy”. (Don’t say it: I happen to like Josh Groban, I think he’s got a beautiful voice). Followed by Bing Crosby singing “Mele Kalikimaka“, almost certainly the Christmas song he’s best known for.  (Rimshot!)

But for all the tacky “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” type novelty songs, Christmas really is about the music. For years, my wife and I were in a terrific BYU alumni choir, Canti Con Brio.  We did two concerts a year, one of them a Christmas concert, and it was amazing. Every Christmas, many many Christmas albums come out, but it seems every year we’ll hear some great new song or arrangement.  The great new addition for this year, for me, is BarlowGirl, doing Carol of the Bells.  Great band, great arrangement. Or the extraordinary (though oddly named, considering they’re mostly about the cello) Piano Guys, doing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel.

There are always tons of Oh Holy Nights.  That’s a song that’s very close to my heart.  Growing up in Indiana, my Dad always sang it at the Lutheran’s Christmas service, which I loved.  I sort of  dig Mariah Carey’s really splashy gospel version, though I realize that it’s an acquired taste.  But there are many many versions: Kelly Clarkson, Charlotte Church, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood, Pavarotti and Nat King Cole, Martina McBride and Celine Dion, the cast of Glee and King’s College Choir.  It’s supposed to be sort of showy, what with the high note on ‘oh night, di-VINE.  But I really love this one, by the Celtic Women. Beautifully, and for once, reverently sung.

In the wake of the Newtown Connecticut shootings, Saturday Night Live opened their show last week, not with a comedy sketch as is their wont, but with this, a children’s choir singing “Silent Night.”  A sweet and quietly appropriate gesture.  “Silent Night” is the greatest of Christmas hymns, so deceptively simple.  I love this beautifully haunting version by Sinead O’connor, but there are many other lovely ones, including this one, by cats.  But even Elvis covered it, actually quite beautifully.  And yet, somehow, it’s above all, a song for children’s voices.

Some of the most unlikely people have recorded Christmas songs.  Like, BareNaked Ladies singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And singing it well!  Or Sufjan Stevens singing “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel“. With banjo. And it’s great. Sufjan has an entire Christmas album that’s amazing.  Or the Muppets chicken-intensive “Joy to the World”.  Or, (and I’m not kidding, do NOT click on this link), the horrendous “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” by, again not kidding, Twisted Sister. A misogynist, heavy metal “Oh Come all Ye Faithful.” You clicked on the link, didn’t you?  I did warn you.

One of the great Christmas bands touring this time of year is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  I’ve never seen them live, to my eternal regret, but they’re incredibly great in recordings, if you like your classical music with electric guitars and rock backbeat, which I very much do. (So why is this great, and Twisted Sister horrendous? Don’t know. It just is.) Try this Christmas Canon, for an appetizer; one of the many Christmas arrangements that uses Pachelbel’s ubiquitous canon to set a Christmas song. (When I was ward choir director, we used an arrangement of “The First Noel,” that also employed Pachelbel.)  Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Carol of the Bells” is pretty awesome too.

What’s the worst Christmas song ever, the ne plus ultra of tacky awfulness?  I’d nominate this: “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. I chose a video version showing the lyrics, on purpose.  “What’s in this drink?”  He slipped her a roofie!  It’s a song that has nothing whatever to do with Christmas; it’s about a jerk seducing a nice girl.  And yet, there it is, in steady rotation on our Christmas station, though at least they use the Zooey Deschenel version from Elf.

And what’s the best, the greatest Christmas song ever?  Aside from “Silent Night,” aside from the Christmas carols, the “Joy to the Worlds” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehems?”  Of the old Tin Pan Alley songs, songs by (mostly Jewish) songwriters for the Nat King Coles and Mel Tormes and Frank Sinatras for their Christmas albums and TV Christmas specials? Which ones still resonate?  I’d nominate three.

I love the sweet melancholy of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I love Frank Sinatra’s, with overtones of “Silent Night” in the arrangement, but Rascal Flatts has a beautiful version too.

Second, “The Christmas Song,” the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” song, is sweetly nostalgic.  Justin Bieber (shudder) has covered it, but the classic Nat King Cole version is unsurpassed, though there’s a sweetness to the She and Him cover; love Zooey Deschenel’s phrasing.

Finally, of course, White Christmas.  Bing Crosby’s stardom used to baffle me–I found him neither good-looking, charming or charismatic.  But the voice was beautiful, and there’s a sadness to the song, heard in isolation from the (to me, kind of unwatchable) movie. Shoot me, but I’m also down with a recent cover by, I’m not kidding, Lady Gaga. She even adds an extra verse, which isn’t half-bad, either: “I’m dreamin’ of a white snowman.”

Christmas music makes the season, even more than the lights and the presents and the tree.  Christmas is about the music, nostalgic music, worshipful music, even sometimes sort of playful music.  Merry Christmas everyone.



Radio Hour: Sherlock Holmes

Went to Salt Lake last night, to see (and especially hear) Plan B Theatre and KUER’s production of Radio Hour: Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle.  Plan B and Radio West does this every year, get together to do a radio drama live, simulcast on the station.

RadioWest‘s Doug Fabrizio is a local institution. He has an hour-long show daily, talking politics, history, culture–basically anything that strikes his fancy, with an emphasis on the West and on Utah.  He’s a fantastic interviewer, and such a smart, informed radio presence.  There’s no question in my mind that Doug could go national–could become a host of a show like All Things Considered or Morning Edition.  He stays here; Utah is fortunate to have him.  I’ve been interviewed by him a few times, and it’s an amazing experience; you feel so comfortable, like you’re chatting with a life-long friend, and then you listen afterwards and you think, ‘gosh, I didn’t sound half bad,’ and you realize how much he’s gotten out of you.

Anyway, Doug played Sherlock Holmes in the radio show last night, did the whole show as one of just four actors.  Bill Allred played Dr. Watson, and Jason Tatom and Jay Perry played everyone else.  Jay Robinette was the Foley artist, and Bill Robinette was the engineer, working with director and sound designer Cheryl Cluff.  And Matthew Ivan Bennett wrote it.  Matt and I are co-playwrights-in-residence at Plan B, but in this case, I was there to learn from him; he’s written a number of these radio plays, and I never have.  And I need to learn how to, because I’m up next year.  I was there to study his craft.

Which is considerable.  Radio drama is terrifically fun to see performed live.  I expected that a lot of the fun would be seeing Jason and Jay vocally create this entire cast of characters.  It’s a little bit like when you see an animated movie, and then you see the ‘making of’ feature on the DVD extras, and you see, I don’t know, Antonio Banderas doing the voice for Puss in Boots, and you realize, he’s acting.  He’s not just reciting lines.  He’s creating a character, he’s involving his entire body in an act of creation.  You’re not creating a character walk or body attitude, it’s an incompletely physicalized characterization, but it’s still, you know, acting. Doug Fabrizio did it too; when he was Holmes, the voice was different, the movements more precise.  And then he’d go ‘this is Doug Fabrizio and this is Radio West,’ that voice Utahns know so well, and he’s putting on a different persona, his ‘Doug Fabrizio’ persona.

I’ve done two drafts now of my radio drama for next year, and seeing Matt’s last night, I realized how much more work I have to do. It’s not just an hour-long play with two short breaks for station IDs.  You need a three-act structure.  My earliest plays were three act plays: Gadianton has three acts. But as I’ve progressed as a playwright, I’ve gone more and more to a two-act structure.  Instead of writing beginning-middle-end, you truncate the exposition, and basically start in media res: you write middle-end. Plan B, however, likes a long one-act structure.  My play Borderlands is really a three act play, but I was able to tighten it down to a semi-reasonable, though very long, one act.

But Sherlock Holmes really was genuinely three acts.  Watching it, I realized that you need that first act, because it’s radio.  You do need the exposition, you need to take the time to really orient your audience in time and place.  Settings and costumes and movement in a space can’t help you–you have to create all that aurally.  And because it’s radio, and because radio dramas aren’t really done anymore, you need to accustom the listening audience to an unaccustomed exercise in story-telling through dialogue and sound effects.

And the world was created.  Through the simplest of effects, we were transported into a world, Holmes’ London, late nineteeth century.  We heard the crackling of fire in the fireplace of his Baker Street apartment, we heard the horse hoofs in city streets, and the sound of a goose being slaughtered–crucial to the plot of The Blue Carbuncle.  Which, let’s face it, is not a very satisfying Holmes story.  Yes, he cleverly unwinds the plot, and the nefarious jewelry thief is captured.  And then released, let go, Holmes acting as sentimentally as a Dickens’ hero.  Never mind that another poor schmuck has been accused of the robbery, and even if unconvicted, has his reputation irreparably tarnished!  Holmes waves such concerns airily aside.  The pleasure of Holmes is in the details, the way he can look over a man’s hat and confidently describe his history and character.

Anyway, part of me enjoyed a thoroughly delightful evening in the theater, (and my wife and I made a night of it, quick shopping trip to Trader Joe’s, dinner, and then a good play in good company).  And part of me spent the whole time in a state of dawning horror, as I realized just how inadequate my last radio play draft was, and how much work I have before me.  But re-writing is its own kind of pleasure, after all.  Kudos to a wonderful company, and a terrific evening’s entertainment.


The Swerve: A review

Sometime in the middle of the first century before the birth of Christ, a Roman philosopher and poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, wrote his only surviving work: an epic poem entitled De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. It was well known in antiquity, but lost almost entirely after the advent of Christianity, until 1417, when a papal secretary and humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, an avid book collector, found a copy in a monastery in Germany.  The story of that poem, its discovery, and its subsequent impact on Renaissance thinking is the subject of an extraordinary new book, The Swerve, by the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt.

Poggio’s letters suggest that he mostly admired the poem for the beauty of its Latin.  But philosophically, it was dangerously radical.  Lucretius’ book argues that the world consisted entirely of infinitely tiny particles called atoms, and that there were therefore no particular difference between the atoms making up human beings and the atoms making up bedbugs, or rocks, or the sun itself.  All that existed were either atoms or void, and the atoms that encompassed existence were in constant movement.  But the movements of atoms are not entirely predictable.  Some times, atoms . . . swerve; randomly change direction in the minutest way, and this is the process of change in the universe.

Lucretius rejected the Gods, or indeed any supernatural phenomena.  We simply exist, and when we die, we cease to exist; immortal souls are an illusion.  It is the height of folly to live our lives in fear of eternal punishment or in hope for eternal reward. Since our lives are ephemeral, we’re best off simply living for pleasure.  But this does not mean a life of riotous excess or debauchery.  A life filled with quiet contemplation, in the company of good friends, committing ourselves not to governments or institutions but simply to those people we care most about, is a life well-lived.  And sexual pleasure–the pleasures of Venus–are best enjoyed in the context of love and fidelity and mutual satisfaction.

Lucretius was, in other words, an Epicurean; a disciple of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. And subsequent generations came to ridicule Epicureanism as grotesque. Even today, an Epicurean is often synonymous with gourmand–a fat and lazy aesthete entirely obsessed with the pleasures of the table, and perhaps, kinky sex. The sole biographical description we have of Lucretius, in fact, is almost certainly a libel–Church Father, St. Jerome, describes Lucretius as a suicide, driven insane by a love potion.  But the Epicurean ideal was for an abstemious and quietly modest life, a contemplative life with a community of friends; the life Epicurus himself modeled.

Greenblatt’s book about this great poem and its impact is a marvel.  I couldn’t put it down last night, read until much too late, woke early and picked it up immediately again.  Early chapters read like a mystery, as we get to know Poggio and his humanist associates, filled with marvelous historical details about the Papacy of anti-Pope John XXIII, Poggio’s corrupt and venal (and superbly competent and capable) boss. (After he vacated the papacy, his name, John XXIII was vacated as well, until rehabilitated in 1958 by new Pope Guiseppi Roncalli, who initiated the Vatican II reforms).  Poggio, out of a job when the Pope was removed, had some lean years, but worked his way back into the good graces of the curia, lived a long and happy humanist life, collecting books and statuary and publishing widely, especially specializing in R-rated books of scabrous gossip about the Papal bureaucracy, as well as conventionally moral and pious works of philosophy. Poggio, without family contacts or Church allegiance, thrived nonetheless for essentially one reason–he had beautiful handwriting, a gorgeous script of his own invention.

We learn about the practices of medieval scribes, who kept ancient texts alive, not because monks and their superiors thought old books had inherent value, but because copying was boring enough to have value as a mortification of fleshly temptation.  Then Greenblatt traces the variously subversive paths Lucretius wore into the uncongenial Christian landscape of the early Renaissance.  As an atomist, Lucretius was savored by Copernicans like Galileo; as a philosopher, Montaigne’s Essays show his unsettled attempt to reconcile Lucretius to a sixteenth century world-view.  Thomas More’s Utopia was the response of a brilliant but orthodox Catholic to a book that seems to have shaken him profoundly.  He found it persuasive, and his imagined paradise is full-on Epicurean, but with a theistic foundation.  The Jesuistic Florentine Synod banned Lucretius, confessing that schoolteachers might be tempted to teach De rerum natura because of its gorgeous Latin, but sentencing those who did teach it to eternal damnation, plus a fine of 10 ducats.

The chapter that moved me the most, however, dealt with Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who, in the 1580’s incorporated Lucretian philosophy into his master work, the impishly delightful The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast.  In this work, Mercury describes all the tasks Jove has assigned him.  It’s all trivia, a reductio ad absurdum of the notion that not a sparrow will fall without God’s knowledge and consent.  So Mercury finds himself regulating the subsequent behavior of every beetle found in a dung heap, accounting for the hairs that fall from a tinker’s head when he scratches it.  Bruno ran afoul of the Inquisition, naturally, and was burned at the stake–Greenblatt’s evocation of his trial and execution shook me as few other pieces of writing ever have.  I guess mostly because I like the Bruno he describes so much.

And then came the Enlightenment, and the dangerous subversiveness of Lucretius became, well, mainsteam.  Atomism triumphed–it had the virtue of being true–and the need to contain that subversion subsided.  One final Lucretian, however, expressed the essence of De rerum natura in a single pungent phrase.  Thomas Jefferson loved the book; owned several copies, translations in various languages.  And in imagining what America could strive to be, he concluded with a uniquely Epicurean phrase: “the pursuit of happiness.”

But one of those translations owned by Jefferson was one of the first into English, a particularly supple and attractive version by the least likely of translators: Lucy Hutchinson.  She was a Puritan, wife to Colonel John Hutchinson, lawyer and regicide.  She was a brilliant woman, who lived in a society and time when the brilliance of women was a light hidden in a bushel. And she loathed the poem–thought it impious and atheistic and morally dubious.  All of which, of course, it is.  And yet, she couldn’t stop herself, apparently.  She found the ideas of the poem dangerously, enticingly seductive.  And she sat at a desk just outside her nursery, and while her children played, she grappled with Lucretius’ Latin, all the time wondering what on earth she thought she was doing.  And then she burned it, every copy.  Except one.

I get that.  I totally do.  The seductive allure of great ideas, the challenge they pose to world-views that have become settled and stagnant. And we’re comfortable, we know what’s what, where we fit in God’s universe.  And then we read something new and wonderful, something that opens up new and glorious horizons of thought. And ideas that had remained inchoate and buried come again to our consciousness. And we start to rethink. Atoms and void, atoms obeying no divine mandate, atoms as pure phenomena.

And we swerve.

And it’s wonderful, liberating, dangerous, challenging.  And our interior worlds are never quite the same.

That’s the power of a great book. The power of a Darwin, a Freud, an Einstein, a Heisenberg. That’s the power of a swerve.  Greenblatt did it once before, when, with his essay Invisible Bullets, he invented the New Historicism.  Subversion subverted, subversion contained. . . for a moment.  No wonder Stephen Greenblatt has such love for Lucretius.  You will too, when you read The Swerve.


Rock of Ages: Review

Someone said to me, “but the Beatles were anti-materialistic.”  That’s a huge myth.  John and I literally used to sit down and say “now, let’s write a swimming pool.”  Paul McCartney

Two thirteen year-old boys, major heavy metal fans, and therefore imagining a world where they’re best pals with, like Journey and Motley Crue, plus lots of pretty girls, but with a secret crush on the Christian girl in their math class, sat down to write the most awesome rock musical ever; Rock of Ages is what resulted.  The same two guys grew up to become executive producers on Glee.

Finally saw Rock of Ages on Netflix, and it genuinely was as bad as I expected.  But with movies, there’s bad and then there’s bad.  Some bad movies are just pretentious and stupid and sad: Megan Fox in Passion Play comes to mind. Other bad movies, though, are kind of fun. I still remember with some fondness a double feature a friend and I saw sat through at a drive-in some 35 years ago. Kidnapped Coed and Hitchhike to Hell; movies of such all-encompassing crappiness they remain the ne plus ultra of B-movie drive-in fare.

So Rock of Ages is a musical about 80’s hair metal.  Julianne Hough, the Utah girl from Dancing With the Stars, plays Sherrie Christian (the whole reason for her last name, far as I can tell, is so the musical can plausibly begin with Night Ranger’s anthem “Sister Christian”) a nice girl from Oklahoma who moves to LA to pursue fame and fortune.  She meets a nice kid, Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the Bourbon Club, a bar where Arsenal–you remember Arsenal, right?–got its start. (Hint: Arsenal actually never existed as a rock band, but should have–great name for a band.  Not to mention an English soccer club).

The club’s manager, Dennis Dupress (Alec Baldwin) is barely keeping the place financially afloat, assisted by his irrepressible sidekick Lonnie (Russell Brand).  But Arsenal has agreed to return, a free gig arranged by Arsenal’s ravaged lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), but reneged on by his oily manager afterwards, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). (Apparently nobody in the ’80s music biz ever heard of contracts.)  Before the concert, Stacee Jaxx gets interviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine’s perky young reporter, Constance Sack (Malin Ackerman), and falls in love with her. (The movie gets two whole songs out of one interview: “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “I wanna know what love is.”)  Meanwhile, the Mayor of LA, Mike Whitmore, (Bryan Cranston) and his Christian anti-rock zealot wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are trying to shut the club down, citing the bad effect rock has on public morals.

See, it hits every cliche associated with rock music.  Christians=bad (and hypocritical).  The Man=bad.  Young love=good.  Agents and managers=bad.  Rock stars=dangerous, but ultimately good.  Rock represents freedom, liberation, healthy youth rebellion.  At one point, Drew is signed by Paul Giamatti, and gets turned into a singer in a boy band; boy bands=bad.  Justin Bieber (who he ends up sort of resembling)=bad.  Selling out=the worst thing imaginable.  Sherrie ends up working in a strip club run by Mary J. Blige.  Mary J. Blige=good, but only for our heroine, when she’s told she needs to ‘believe in herself’ and ‘pursue her dreams’.  All the other strippers, apparently, don’t have dreams.  This leads to my favorite exchange in the movie.  A chastened Drew and despondent Sherrie meet.  Sherrie: “I’m a stripper in the Venus Club” “I’m in a boy band.”  “You win.”  See what I mean: boy bands are the worst. The worst.

Really, the entire movie is an extended episode of Glee, with worse singing and without Glee‘s occasional pro-gay social commentary.  Just as Glee resembles no actual high school ever anywhere, so does Rock of Ages bear no resemblance to anything in any actual rock and world universe. In fact, the artificiality of the project is half its charm.  There are some genuinely funny moments, in fact.  When Stacee Jaxx first meets Constance Sack, the reporter, she’s wearing glasses. I laughed out loud. She’s basically the sexy librarian from every Van Halen video ever.  You know it’s a matter of minutes before Stacee removes her glasses and musses her hair and starts licking her face.

And Tom Cruise is terrific in this thing.  He’s got all the moves, the hip thrust, the snake dance, the kneeling guitar solo.  And he really can sing.  I’ve often felt that the greatest performance of his entire career was Frank Mackey, the cocksman self help guru, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.  Stacee Jaxx is Frank as rock star, but the self-mocking version. He has this pick-up line: he looks at the girl, and he says “I love your heart.”  And then he places his hand on her heart.  Which is to say, her left breast.  Apparently it’s sure-fire. He also seems seriously and comically chemically impaired: hence this exchange with a Rolling Stone editor: Stacee: “I’m looking for Constance” “She’s not here.  She’s at the Bourbon Club, covering the Stacee Jaxx concert tonight, opening his solo career.”  “I have a gig tonight?”

Then he comes to the Club, and he sees Constance.  He holds up a finger, then points to her.  He walks resolutely towards her.  He’s intercepted by a groupie, who begins kissing him.  He keeps pointing at Constance, holding his finger up apologetically while giving this groupie these big open-mouth kisses. Like, ‘sorry, gotta deal with this, be with you in a second.’  Funny stuff.

The music’s sort of weird.  All these metal standards, but often arranged in mash-ups with other rock songs.  Catherine Zeta-Jones protests Stacee Jaxx’s concert; Russell Brand leads a group protesting the protest, and so they sing back and forth: “We built this city on rock and roll,” vs. “We’re not gonna take it.”  At one point, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand sing “I can’t fight this feeling anymore” as a duet, finishing with a big lip-locked kiss. And the final anthem in the movie, the culminating Big Musical Number, involves the young lovers, Sherrie and Drew, and Stacee Jaxx, singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”  Also one of the big songs on Glee, as it happens. Not to mention every sports stadium in America.

Which is of course one of the weird things about this movie; the odd relationship it sorta kinda explores between rock music and commerce.  “Selling out” (Drew joining a boy band) is considered a very bad thing.  It’s constructed thus: an artist violating his muse, wasting his talent, giving up on the spirit of rock.  Letting The Man (in this case Paul Giamatti) win.  But most of the plot, such as it is, involves Alec Baldwin’s struggles financially, trying to keep his club open. And Drew and Sherrie want, well, to perform, to sing, to practice their craft, but also to achieve fame and, yes, fortune.  Stacee Jaxx wants true love, but he also likes being surrounded by pretty female groupies, because he can afford to maintain them.

Mick Jagger had a degree in economics from the London School of Economics, and the Beatles were tremendously market-savvy, and Bob Dylan (tortured artist supreme) hated no one more than Albert Grossman, who he thought ripped him off to the point that he wrote several songs about it.  To survive, Sherrie (who I guess sort of functions as the film’s protagonist, to the extent that it has one), has to sell out by wearing skimpy outfits and writhing sexily in a strip club, but at the end, she wins, she’s Saved . . . by singing with her boyfriend, writhing sexily on-stage in a skimpy outfit. Female commodification and objectification=bad.  Female sexist commodification in the service of rock music=good.  Of course.

Rock of Ages is a big budget Hollywood movie, based on a big budget Broadway musical, that seeks to profit financially by exploiting the nostalgic love people have for a certain style of rock music that’s considered old-fashioned today.  And that pats itself on the back for its fidelity to the rock ideals of freedom and rebellion and anti-commercialism. And that mocks anti-rock crusaders for their hypocrisy.  I’m not, I promise, offended by the ironic crassness of this movie’s supposed ideals.  I thought it was hilarious. It’s too ludicrous a movie to fulminate against.  But you sure could.

Rock music is about finding a musical style people might like enough to pay money to listen to.  Maybe, occasionally, it succeeds in communicating something more exalted than that.  It’s nice when that happens.  Meanwhile, if you liked the hair metal era, and thought Def Leppard was an awesome band, you might enjoy a movie in which your favorite music is performed reasonably well.  That turned out to be enough fun for me.




Boats and guns

Growing up in Indiana, we lived a short drive from Lake Monroe, a big man-made lake just south of Bloomington.  My Dad pretty much always owned a boat, and sometimes, two boats–a sailboat and a speedboat.  We went boating all the time, every weekend during the summer, more often when school was out.  We sailed, we swam, we waterskiied.  I couldn’t begin to count how many childhood memories involve boats.

I remember one day in particular, a weekday in the fall, a cold, windy day.  My Dad’s sailboat, the Viking Queen, was an old tub, slow and ponderous in normal wind.  But on a really windy day, she came to life.  This one day–it was a Tuesday, I remember– after school, my Dad and my younger brother and I took the Queen out in a storm. I was, I don’t know, maybe twelve, thirteen.  These sirens were going off indicating unsafe high winds–we could see all the other boats sailing in, while we sailed out.  And on a gray, sleety, miserable, windy day, Dad and I sailed the Queen.  It was the fastest we ever got the old girl to sail.  My job was to hold the jib, and to swing the jib over when tacking into the wind, and my hands were red with cold, and I was shivering.  And none of it mattered. My Dad and my brother were grinning, sleet pelting their faces, and I felt as elated as they looked. It was one of the happiest afternoons of my childhood.  And I had a very very happy childhood.

My brother and I wanted a boat of our own, saved up our babysitting money, and bought a rubber raft, and, on vacation in Utah, we rafted all the way from Deer Creek Dam to Utah Lake.  My grandmother kind of freaked out–two little boys, rafting down this dangerous patch of Provo River, except it wasn’t really all that dangerous.  It was fun.  I was maybe 11, my brother maybe 9.  But we had life jackets, we were both really good swimmers.  And it really wasn’t all that dangerous a river.

Eventually, the old Queen proved too decrepit to sail, and Dad bought a speedboat, and suddenly waterskiing entered the picture.  That was fun too. And he also got this hard plastic sled thing, called a zip sled, and you’d tie that off to the back of the boat, and lay on it, and the boat would tow you, bouncing across the water surface.You could crack a rib on that sucker, especially at speeds that turned the lake surface to concrete, but it still made for a thrilling few minutes.

I got to thinking last night: What would my childhood have been like without boats?  It’s hard to imagine.  I’m sure it was something of a financial sacrifice for my parents to own a boat, but they had to have thought it was worth it, and they’re right.  That’s one of the best ways we bonded as a family, swimming together, waterskiing together, zip sledding.  Mostly on Lake Monroe, but we took the boat everywhere, to Lake Powell, down the Ohio River.  We took our friends out with us.  We loved, loved that boat.

Dad also owned a gun, an old .22 single-shot bolt action rifle.  It wasn’t much of a gun, but every once in awhile, we’d go out into the woods and prop some tin cans up on a log with a hill behind it, and we’d back off a ways and shoot.  I can remember maybe four or five times we did that–maybe we did it more often, but it wasn’t often enough or important enough to remember.

My childhood would have been tremendously impoverished if we hadn’t had boats.  We spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands of hours, on the water.  We loved, loved boating.  I can barely remember going shooting, on the other hand.  If Dad hadn’t had a gun, and if he had never taken us shooting, my childhood memories would be . . . more or less what they are now.  We still would have gone hiking–the gun wasn’t significant.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as we processed the horrific news from Sandy Hook Elementary, from Newtown Connecticut.  We were a family that loved boats, and who didn’t really care much about guns.  We have family members–mostly people who joined our family via marriage– who don’t have the same boating background my brothers and I enjoyed, but who have similar family memories involving guns.  For lots of families, guns matter. They hunt, they shoot skeet, they go target shooting. Guns are how they bond, just like boats are how we bonded. I know of family members-by-marriage whose childhoods were as much about guns as ours were about boats.

It must be horrendous to be a gun lover, right now, to have grown up hunting, to have bonded with Dad and brothers over guns, when something like Newtown takes place.  Suddenly guns are being blamed for a horrible murder, for something that evil.  You have all these positive gun-related family memories, and suddenly guns are being demonized. As a gun owner, you suddenly become suspect, possibly complicit.  You’re branded.  You’re a ‘gun nut.’  You’re crazy.  You had nothing to do with this insane killer, and you think what he did was beyond horrible, but suddenly you’re being portrayed as someone kind of like him.

I have to think that sucks.  I imagine that would be just awful.

I do it too, judge things that way.  I don’t like guns, don’t like ’em at all.  When our kids were little, and they were invited to play at their friends’ houses, we always asked: ‘was there a gun in the home?’  If there was one, our kids weren’t allowed to play there.  I don’t apologize for that either.  As a parent, my job is to keep my kids safe, and houses with guns are less safe than houses without guns.  Kids explore, kids are curious, kids get into things.  Kids like playing soldier, or cop, or cowboy. Boom.

My emotional reaction to guns is to think ‘unsafe,’ just as my emotional reaction to boats is ‘perfectly safe.’  Logically, I know that’s absurd.  What were my parents thinking, letting an 11 year old and a 9 year old take a rubber raft down a white water river unsupervised?  What was my Dad thinking, taking a sailboat out on a lake while all sorts of sirens were calling all the other boats in?  But I don’t think of those situations as unsafe or irresponsible.  I tend to think the most irresponsible thing my Dad ever did was keep a gun in the house. I’m rationally aware that that’s nonsense, but that’s still how I feel.  Guns=unsafe.  Boats=boisterous adventurous fun. I’m glad my brother and I took that raft ride.

I know that most gun owners are responsible people. I think they keep their guns secured, that they train their kids in gun safety and follow gun safety protocols. But I also don’t regret not letting my kids play in gun owners’ homes. Illogical?  Of course.  But when it comes to our kids, we tend to react emotionally, and not rationally.

I have also heard every Second Amendment argument, and regard them all as spurious.  And if there’s one thing I’m grateful for, one tiny shred of news from Newtown that strikes me as positive, it’s that there weren’t any armed citizens in that school.  I can just imagine it, how much more horrendous the situation could have been, with an untrained citizen returning fire.  How many more kids might have died in a cross-fire?

But that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere, will leave our nation just as polarized over guns as ever.  Eleven thousand handgun homicides a year suggest a real problem. And the President’s comments on Friday suggest that he will be seeking a legislative solution. Now, more than ever, we have to work to find a common ground with gun owners and gun lovers and Second Amendment defenders. Find a way to keep our kids just that tiny bit safer.

I like boats.  I need to start looking for things I have in common with those who like guns just as much.


Horrible, horrible

I have a dear friend who recently retired after thirty plus years teaching costume and make-up design at BYU.  She essentially created the BYU make-up program, many many graduates from which work professionally in Hollywood and elsewhere.  She especially loves ‘gories and grossies,’ teaching make-up artists how to fake horrible wounds and injuries.  Emergency preparedness experts use kids from the theatre program to conduct drills, playing victims.  I’ve done it; it’s great fun.  You get the make-up for some horrible looking wound, and you gather in some location and EMTs and cops and firefighters and ER docs all gather around, and practice triage and stabilization and first aid and all the other stuff that goes with an emergency.  I got a bad head wound, and got to ride in an ambulance to a hospital. The EMTs who treated me did a great job, I thought.

I’ve been watching all day–MCNBC, NBC, CNN.  Newtown, a nice little town in Connecticut, a hour from New York City.  Some guy walks into a K-4 grade school, shot and killed 6 adults and 20 children. Or maybe 18 kids. The information keeps dribbling in.  The victims included the shooter’s Mom.  The kids were all kindergartners.  Or not.  The confusion’s understandable, of course–in this kind of chaotic event, it’s going to take awhile to figure out exactly what happened.  Apparently the initial news reports naming the killer were wrong, for example.

It’s horrible.  It’s beyond horrible.  K-4. Little kids, five year olds.  You drop your child off at school, and you assume she’ll be okay.  You assume she’ll learn, she’ll have teachers who care for her, she’ll make friends.  When that goes wrong–your kid is struggling, your kid is tormented by bullies, your kid’s falling behind– you go to the school and you talk to the teacher or the principal.  But this kind of tragedy?  It’s not even on your radar.

(And two weeks before Christmas.  Those kids have presents with their names on ’em under the tree.  Those kids may still believe in Santa, some of ’em.  Those kids were probably preparing for the school’s Holiday celebration. I can hardly even think about it.)

Far and away the best interviewee I saw this morning was an ER doctor who specializes in pediatric trauma cases, a Dr. Anderson, I think his name was.  He was smart and kind and articulate, and he talked in some detail about what a hospital does when it’s faced with this kind of nightmare.  He talked about the drills they do.  He said that practice was essential, and it was all the more invaluable when actors played victims, and especially when the actors wore makeup suggesting trauma.  I realized, the drills my friend has participated in for years is serious stuff, all those college kids giggling as they outdo themselves giving each other horrendous fake injuries, all the fun of subsequently going to classes outside the Fine Arts building with horrible wounds still visible, all that matters.  Her participation in those drills could save lives.

But listening to this doctor, another thought occurred to me: we’re getting too good at this.  The President spoke this afternoon, and he was compassionate and eloquent as always.  I appreciated his remarks.  But he’s had a lot of practice; has done this too often.  We’ve got a shorthand for it: Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech.  The one a few days ago, in Oregon.  And now Newtown.  Gabby Giffords’ husband spoke up.  So did Mike Huckabee. Here’s Huckabee:

“We ask why there is violence in our schools but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

That’s the kind of comment I find infuriating, but it is a point of view many of my fellow citizens agree with, and I don’t want to merely dismiss it. But with all due respect, there actually is a difference between refusing to allow schools to privilege one religion over others, and ‘removing God from our schools.’  Seems to me God was in Newtown today, hastening the steps of EMTs and cops, standing with teachers guarding kids huddled in closets.

Here’s a point of view with which I’m more in sympathy. Captain Mike Kelly, married to Giffords, the impossibly courageous Arizona Congresswoman nearly killed by gun violence:

“As we mourn, we must sound a call for our leaders to stand up and do what is right. This time our response must consist of more than regret, sorrow, and condolence. The children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and all victims of gun violence deserve leaders who have the courage to participate in a meaningful discussion about our gun laws – and how they can be reformed and better enforced to prevent gun violence and death in America. This can no longer wait.”

And I totally get how annoying this point of view must be to gun owners and gun defenders.  Every time some nutbag goes insane, all these gun-hating liberals want to blame guns.  Want to blame the instrument of violence, not its wielder. I have family members who are NRA members–I’m sure it’s unpleasant to have to stand up for something you believe in and value every time a national tragedy rocks our nation.  And yes, there is the Second Amendment.

We are divided on this, between those Americans who consider the Second Amendment the keystone of the entire Constitution and those–me–who consider it an anachronistic embarrassment.  Sure people have a constitutional right to own guns.  They have a constitutional right to own all sorts of tools, hammers and screwdrivers and blowtorches and staple guns, all of which could be used by unbalanced people bent on violence.  But guns seem to me a different category.  They have only one purpose, to punch a hole in the body of a living thing.  To fill a body with a lead projectile.  They need to be, solely and entirely, in the hands of a well-regulated militia. And yes, I’m familiar with District of Columbia v. Heller.  I’ve read the decision.  11,000 gun homicides a year suggest Heller will be regarded as the Plessy v. Ferguson of Second Amendment decisions.  The Dred Scott of gun decisions.

I know it’s infuriating, when people like me who aren’t any part of the gun owning community to use a tragedy like Newtown to call for stricter gun decisions.  But as my friend Brad Kramer put it: “saying ‘let’s not politicize this tragedy by talking about gun laws or gun control’ is a cheap and especially offensive way of politicizing this tragedy.”

There are laws requiring background checks for gun purchasers. But not for guns bought at gun shows, 40% of gun sales nationally–we can close that loophole nationally.  The guy at Newtown used a 9mm Glock, apparently–a semi-automatic pistol.  Why are semi-automatics for sale to the public?  Assault rifles could be banned. I’m also attracted to a solution my brother has talked about–don’t regulate guns, regulate ammo.

I’m not an expert there.  And I don’t want to take away anyone’s hunting rifle.  But this seems like a tipping point tragedy to me.  It’s time for Congress to act.  It’s time to do more than mourn.