Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: Review

There’s a scene late in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, playing Wall Street supersalesmen Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff, decide to try some super-strong Quaaludes Azoff has been saving for a special occasion.  They’re in Belfort’s mansion, and they ceremoniously open this pill bottle, and take one pill each.  Nothing happens.  They notice an expiration date on the bottle–the pills are several year’s older than should be safe.  They take a few more.  Again, nothing.  They take some more.  Suddenly, the pills kick in, and they find themselves deprived of most motor functions–they can’t really walk, swallow, talk coherently.  At that point, Belfort/DiCaprio gets an urgent phone call from his private detective friend–the FBI have bugged the phones in his home, and he needs to get to a pay phone for further instructions.  Somehow, he makes it to a nearby country club and uses the pay phone there, but can’t make himself understood on the phone, and collapses on the floor.  But now, he realizes he needs to get back home, and he can’t walk anymore.  He crawls over to the front door of the country club, rolls down the stairs, somehow drags himself along the ground to his car, and incredibly, drives home.  (He thinks, safely–later we see the trail of destruction his car left behind).  At home, he sees Azoff/Hill on his home phone, likewise incoherent, but talking about all sorts of illegal things that he knows the FBI shouldn’t hear.  He fights Azoff/Hill for the phone, thrashing together on the kitchen counter.  Azoff/Hill sees some cold cuts on the counter, and eats some ham, only he can’t swallow either, and begins choking.  Meanwhile, Belfort/DiCaprio notices his daughter, staring at him, shocked, while a Popeye cartoon plays, unnoticed, behind her.  But seeing Popeye eating spinach gives Belfort/DiCaprio an idea. He finds his kitchen stash of cocaine, and pours it down his nose.  This stabilizes him enough to perform CPR and save his friend’s life.

I describe this sequence in some detail because it seems key to understanding Scorcese’s approach to the material. First of all, it’s a very very funny extended sequence.  I heard a lot of laughter in the theater, and I was laughing out loud myself.  It’s farcical, watching Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio thrashing around, fighting clumsily over a phone, wrapped in a phone cord.  Equating Popeye/Spinach to DiCaprio/Cocaine was funny. It’s both horrifying and hilarious to think of DiCaprio trying to drive when he’s so incredibly impaired. And throughout the sequence, you think, ‘these guys are morons.  How in the world do they not get caught?  How in the world have they stayed out of prison?’

The film is based on Jordan Belfort’s book, about Stratton Oakmont, the tony sounding Wall Street firm he created, and its rise and fall.  It’s not just about Belfort and Azoff.  It has juicy roles for a wonderful array of character actors playing founding stockbrokers for the firm–P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zabrowski.  Kyle Chandler plays the FBI agent who finally sends Belfort to jail, and the extraordinary Australian actress Margot Robbie is astonishing as Belfort’s not-terribly-long-suffering second wife, Naomi. (Naomi takes as little crap from him as she possibly can).

The film’s three hours long, but it’s a super-charged ride, brimming with brio and raw animality.  The characters are almost entirely repugnant human beings, which is typical of farce–the film’s comedy comes from piling on excess after excess. In one of the earliest sequences, Stratton Oakmont employees throw velcro-wearing little people at targets, with cash bonuses awarded on the spot depending on where they stick.  That scene’s not terribly funny–it’s pretty horrifying, actually–but it sets up a later/earlier (later in the film, earlier chronologically) scene, a meeting of the firm’s leadership where they, in all seriousness, plan that event. (‘They’re built for this,’ they reassure themselves).

Above all, it’s a film about selling, about the exuberance and unleashed joy (and unabashed misanthropy) of pure sales.  DiCaprio is incredibly compelling here–Jay Gatsby’s comic foil–and his motivational pitches to his team are fevered odes to pure greed.  You want to apply for a job with him.  You want to start selling securities.  You want to sell worthless crap to people who can’t afford it, and use the money to buy high-priced garbage.  And lose your humanity in an orgy of sex and drugs.

It’s a film that sells a certain lifestyle, and then deconstructs its own success at doing so.  It’s a film that urges us to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of vulgar excess, while maybe a small part of us wishes we could get a little for ourselves.  It’s exuberant, excessive and over-the-top, and very funny.  One example; vacationing on his yacht off the coast of Italy, Belfort gets an urgent call from his Swiss banker; he has to get to Geneva and it can’t wait, or he’ll lose twenty million dollars.  He asks the yacht captain if they can get to Monaco quickly.  The captain hesitates, says something indefinite about ‘chop.’  Belfort turns on the salesman’s charm–“sure you can!”  The captain, clearly very reluctant, agrees.  Cut to the yacht foundering in thirty foot waves.  ‘Chop’ indeed.  And Belfort shouts to Azoff that he needs him to go back to the yacht’s stateroom and get the Quaaludes.  “It’s three feet underwater!” shouts Azoff into the storm.  “Get my ‘ludes,” shouts Belfort. “I will not die sober!”  Funny, horrifying stuff.

The film’s also really really really seriously R-rated.  More F-bombs dropped than in any other Scorcese film ever, with 506, and considering that this is a Martin f-in’ Scorcese film, that’s saying something.  Nudity throughout, depictions of drug use throughout, excessive party scenes like something from ancient Rome.  So if you’re squeamish about those sorts of images/language, do NOT go to see this.

But as a ‘take down the rich,’ income inequality, Occupy Wall Street, seriously righteous examination of where we are as a nation (or at least where some of us are), this film can’t be topped.  This is the first farce about income inequality, and it’s incredibly funny and true and shattering.  It’s a tremendous political film, one that never mentions politics.  Marty Scorcese, age 71, has made the most youthful protest film of the year.  I’m in awe, frankly.

Saving Mr. Banks: A Review

In Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke plays Bert the Chimney Sweep, using one of the worst cockney accents ever recorded for film.  Friends of mine who teach acting dialects classes routinely refer to his performance as a bad example, as accent work in its worst incarnation.  P. L. Travers, who wrote the novels on which the Disney film is based, thought Van Dyke was a dreadful casting mistake.  And if you’ve had occasion to see Mary Poppins again recently–it was just on cable a few days ago–you’ll know that none of that matters at all.  Because Dick Van Dyke gives one of the greatest comedic performances in film history in Mary Poppins.  He’s an extraordinary screen presence; ebullient, kind, cheerful, wise, a delightful foil to Mary Poppins’ starchiness.  In 1964, Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for a forgettable and forgotten caper film called Topkapi.  It should have gone to Dick Van Dyke. He’s sensationally good.  And the accent doesn’t matter at all.

P. L. Travers was wrong about Dick Van Dyke.  She was wrong about a lot of things.  In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Travers as an outspoken, tart, acerbic defender of her own creation, and brings to bear her usual crackerjack wit and incomparable comic timing.  But she also shows Travers’ peppery personality is a mask, that underneath it, she’s terrified.  Afraid, first of all, of an ever-beckoning poverty which, due to declining book sales and massive writer’s block, hangs over her. Afraid, too, of her past. Above all, she doesn’t trust Walt Disney.  She thinks he’s a vulgarian, a maker of ‘cartoons,’ which she despises.  She thinks he’s going to trivialize Mary Poppins, who she loves.  She loathes the idea of turning her stories into a musical.  She despises the color red, she says (while wearing bright red lipstick and nail polish), and doesn’t want Mr. Banks to wear a moustache.  She thinks the lyric “Let’s go fly a kite,” is bad English; it should be “let us go and fly a kite.”  And she drives Walt (a wonderful Tom Hanks), and the head writer (Bradley Whitford is superb as Don DaGradi), and the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively), completely to distraction.

Her sessions with the writers were recorded, on Travers’ insistence, on those awkward old reel to reel recorders.  When the movie ended, almost nobody left the theater, because they play one of the actual recordings under the closing credits, and we get to hear the real voice of P. L. Travers.

And, again, if you see Mary Poppins again, you’ll realize that what she feared did come to pass.  The film is lighter in tone than her novels.  It makes light of important issues–women’s suffrage, for one thing, and the horrendous plight of children working as chimney sweeps, for another.  Mary Poppins doesn’t teach children valuable lessons about the importance of house work–she uses magic to clean their room.  She’s all spoonfuls of sugar, and hardly any tough medicine.

And again, it doesn’t matter.  Because Mary Poppins is one of the triumphs of American popular culture.  It’s a brilliant children’s film, as charming and delightful today as it was in 1964.  Everything about it still works.  It’s a beautiful and lasting and important piece of filmed musical theatre.  Watching it again, objections melt away, and you sing along to those great tunes, to “Feed the Birds” and “Supercalifragilisticexpeladocious” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

I was expecting all that.  I’d read reviews that said that Saving Mr. Banks, the film, is a valentine to Walt Disney, that it’s marginally frightening, even, in its celebration of Disney’s pop culture hegemony.  That when we see Emma Thompson, as Travers, snuggled up in bed with a giant stuffed Mickey Mouse, it’s more than a little creepy.  That the cultural values of Disney Inc. aren’t even subtly Borg-like–that we really will, all of us, be assimilated.  All those fears came true, a little, sort of.

And none of that matters either.  Because to me, this film wasn’t really about P. L. Travers and her fight to keep her vision of Mary Poppins alive against the genial threat of Walt Disney.  It’s not about that at all.  It’s about Helen Goff, and her life-long struggle to come to terms with her memories of her childhood.  That it’s about a little girl nicknamed Ginty, and about Colin Farrell’s ravished performance as Travers Goff, her beloved, loving, imaginative, alcoholic, self-destructive father.

The film tells two stories, and one of them is pretty funny and mildly compelling.  And we know who wins; heck, we’ve all seen Mary Poppins, we know the film got made and we’ve all seen it a dozen times.  We know that Pamela Travers lost that fight.

But that wasn’t her real name, and she wasn’t even British. She was Australian. Half the film, in fact, is about Helen Goff, Ginty, the child who grew up to call herself P. L. Travers, (wonderfully played here by a child actor named Annie Rose Buckley).  And she had two younger sisters, one a babe in arms, and her long-suffering mother, Margaret (a tremendous Ruth Wilson), desperately unhappy, suicidally depressed, in part due to Travers Goff’s inability to keep a job. And the real-life Mary Poppins was Ginty’s Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths).  And her father was a banker, and has, when we take up the story, been fired repeatedly, and is down to what seems to be his last possible chance, a tiny town at the very end of an Australian rail line.  Which he seems intent on blowing.

It’s interesting; go on IMDB, and read the description of the film’s story-line, provided by the Disney marketing folks.  It’s all about Walt and Pam Travers, and their artistic differences.  It never mentions Australia once.  But this is inaccurate. Half the film is told in flashback.  And to me, it was far and away the most powerful, compelling, tragic story told in the film.  The flashback sequences were heart breaking, watching Ginty watching her wonderful father–her romantic, charming, fun, loving father–drink himself to death.

Near the end of the film, Walt flies to England in a last-ditch effort to save the picture.  He has a conversation with Travers, and tells about his own childhood, about his own troubled relationship with–in his case–a demanding and abusive father.  He opens up to her.  And Tom Hanks is great in that scene, and the film badly needs him to be.  Because up to that point, Saving Mr. Banks was two very different films, a light comedy and a powerful tragedy, and something needed to happen to stitch them together.  Hanks pulls it off, as does Emma Thompson. Because in the final scene in the film, Travers attends the film’s Hollywood premiere, and sees, in David Tomlinson’s performance as Mr. Banks, echoes of her own childhood, and her own father, and nearly collapses in cathartic tears.  And just as Hanks did earlier, Thompson’s performance allows the film’s two main stories to come together, and we see that Pamela Travers was, in a very real sense, a badly damaged Ginty, trying desperately to move on, to mourn.

I haven’t even mentioned Paul Giamatti, who brings a gentle humanity to Ralph, Travers’ long-suffering Hollywood chauffeur.  Nor have I said enough about B. J. Novak, outstanding as the crippled Robert Sherman, the one ‘artistic collaborator’ least interested in putting up with Mrs. Travers’ crap.  I should also mention Director John Lee Hancock’s fine work here, who somehow manages to make two really good, really different films here, and find a way to tie them together in the end.

Saving Mr. Banks is tremendous, anyway, and I think it wouldn’t have been with lesser actors.  Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell are all great here, and they make something powerfully affecting out of reasonably slight material.  It’s something more than just a Disney film. But it also reminds us that even the flimsiest of pop culture artifacts can be, maybe a little . . . redemptive.



Marriage Equality in Utah

I live in Provo, Utah.

That’s liberal, progressive, gay-friendly Utah.

It’s been an amazing week.

Okay, so, last Friday, I’m on Facebook, and a friend messages me, and says, with multiple exclamation points, “Federal judge just ruled Third Amendment unconstitutional.”  Here’s how clue-less I was; my first thought was, ‘Third Amendment?  So . . . the federal government can now quarter troops in our homes?  What?’  But no.  That’s the third Amendment to the Utah Constitution.

I think.  Searching for the Utah Constitution on-line this morning, I couldn’t find the darn thing.  I saw lots of stuff about the amendment process for the Utah Constitution, but all I could find on marriage was this: Article 1, Section 29 of the Utah Constitution, to wit:  “(1) Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman.  (2) No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect.” Our old pal Wikipedia’s article explains.

Last Friday, Dec. 20, a federal judge, Robert Shelby of the U.S. District Court for Utah, found that language, Amendment Three, Article 1 Section 29, unconstitutional, on Fourteenth Amendment grounds.  This article does an effective job of breaking down the legal arguments on both sides, and the reasons given by Judge Shelby for ruling the way he did.

And so, people started getting married. Salt Lake County instantly began granting marriage licenses, and Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker began to perform marriages.  A minister and his long-time partner asked if they could cut to the head of the line, so they could marry, and so he, the minister, could then also begin marrying people, for those who wanted a pastor to officiate.  As the lines grew ever longer, a local Boy Scout troop stopped by with pizza for the County Clerks working late into the night.  Since Friday, hundreds of couples have married, mostly in Salt Lake County, but also elsewhere.  At forty bucks a pop for marriage licenses, the state coffers have been enriched to the tune of (do I multiply here? let’s see, carry the four) lots of money.

The state has tried to stop it.  Which is perhaps the most hilarious aspect of the whole thing, actually, since it’s the State Attorney General’s office that has to file requests for emergency stays and motions and stuff, and that office has been in disarray for months.  The previous AG, John Swallow, turns out, was a crook, but it took forever to force him out of office, with local papers doing stories day after day exposing various kinds of malfeasance by the guy, while Governor Herbert hung in there, defending him.  So when it came time to file a request for a stay (stopping the marriages while filing an appeal of decision), the AG’s office basically just repeated the same arguments they’d used earlier, the arguments that Judge Shelby had just rejected.  Not surprising when he refused to grant the stay, nor when the 10th District Court of Appeals also refused to grant one.  I’m not an attorney, but it does seem to me that if you lose a case before a judge, and then appear before that same judge asking him to stay his opinion pending appeal, you might want to try different arguments than the ones that just lost.  Just sayin’.

And so the weddings continue.  And the Deseret News has been in fine fettle all week, with two big op-ed pieces fulminating against Judge Shelby’s ‘judicial activism.’  I was particularly struck by this passage in the first of those pieces, titled ‘Judicial Tyranny’.

It is true that state efforts to restrict marriage on the basis of race have run afoul of the federal constitutional protections against racial discrimination. But as we scour the legal landscape, we find no 10th Circuit or Supreme Court precedent that prevents Utah from adhering to a traditional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, Judge Shelby’s blithe mix-and-match approach to legal argumentation has, for the time being, created a new class of same-gender applicants deemed “married” under the Utah Constitution.

Hmmm.  On Christmas, the DN published a more optimistic piece, suggesting that Utah has a ‘historic opportunity’ to vigorously defend traditional marriage in court.  Here, though, is the second paragraph of the piece:

The unprecedented overreach by Judge Shelby — and most especially his refusal to temporarily stay the effects of his decision — has come at high cost. The immediate outcomes from Friday’s decision include a high dose of legal uncertainty for those licenses being issued under the court order as well as polarization of pubic opinion around these understandably emotional issues.

I don’t really see how Judge Shelby’s decision came at any particularly high cost. A lot of people who have been in long-term relationships got to get married.  No one was hurt; no one was harmed.  But there it is again: ‘legal uncertainty.’

In short, in both these piece, the DN is suggesting, strongly suggesting, that the marriage licenses issued by the State of Utah since last Friday may only be temporary. That Utah is seriously contemplating telling hundreds of married people that they’re not married anymore.  That people who have, for example, filed joint tax returns may have violated tax law in doing so, may have to face penalties for doing so.  What if some of those couples, over the next few weeks or months, choose to adopt children?  You’re saying they’re going to lose their kids?

I understand that feelings are high right now.  And since the Deseret News is choosing to see this as an opportunity to defend traditional marriage, once and for all, in court–imagining a sweeping decision ending all this same-sex marriage nonsense once and for all–then may I gently suggest that any such strategy has a public relations component?  That seeing what we’ve been seeing for a week now, which is hundreds of happy couples embracing and kissing and holding hands and laughing and crying for joy as they marry the people they love is really super appealing and positive and awesome?  And that coming back a year from now and telling all those people that they’re not married anymore might not, uh, play so well?  In addition to being cruel beyond imagining?

There’s clearly a lot of push-back against Shelby’s decision.  Famously conservative State Senator Stuart Reid published a really extreme op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, kind of a ‘blood will run in the streets’ thing, imagining that the commitment to ‘rule of law’ by the good citizens of Utah may come to an end over this issue.  I just don’t think so, though.  Maybe I’m optimistic, but I really think most folks will take this in stride.

I know that I’m not exactly objective here.  Two of my closest friends on earth right now are a theatre director I’ve worked with frequently, and his husband, a superb actor who has appeared in several of my plays, with more to come in the future.  They’ve adopted a wonderful little boy, cutest tyke on the planet, and are deliriously happy with him and each other. The boy calls one of them ‘Papa’ and one of them ‘Daddy.’  It works great, and they’re conscientious and caring parents, as good as any parents I know. These aren’t just people I work with professionally, or people I’m acquainted with.  These are people I love.

I also have a nephew who’s a kind of Youtube celebrity.  His marriage proposal is now up to over 11 million views, over 8,000 comments.  He and his fiancee were on CNN this morning, talking about this week’s events.  They’re wonderful guys, and I love them both dearly, and can’t wait for their actual wedding in February.

And I have more gay friends, many more, former students and current colleagues.  I’ve spent my life in the theatre; I know a few gay people.  My father was an opera singer, I grew up with gay people.  Gayness isn’t weird or wrong or unnatural or foreign or odd to me.  It’s just normal.

That’s what we’ve been seeing for days now.  It’s become extraordinarily ordinary, remarkably unremarkable.  We’re seeing all these very average looking people, ecstatically happy as they commit their lives together.  Standing in line, in a snow storm, to commit their lives together.  Utah is now
the 18th state in which gay marriage is equal.  Mindblowing.  Normal.  Wonderful.



A few years ago, my wife and I were in a very good choir, Canti Con Brio.  And for our Christmas concert one year, we did a song none of us had ever heard of before–I think it was called Room at the Inn.  Anyway, I remember one verse in particular:

The Master of the inn refused

A more commodious place

Ungenerous soul, of savage mold

And destitute of grace

Terribly unfair, of course, as a judgment on that Innkeeper, about whom the Gospel of Luke says absolutely nothing, including whether he (or she) existed.  But a story of redemption and love and atonement requires opposition in all those things, and at the heart of most great Christmas stories is an ungenerous soul, of savage mold, destitute of grace.  Who, sometimes at least, is redeemed.

The list of souls redeemed by pop culture’s version of Christmas includes Buddy the Elf’s biological father (James Caan) in Elf, Billybob Thornton’s deliciously Bad Santa, and, of course, the Grinch.  But Christmas stories are also full of mean-spirited adults who go ahead and stay unredeemed.  That’s including, of course, A Christmas Story, my all-time personal fave-rave.  The adults in Ralphie’s world aren’t so much hard-hearted as indifferent. He wants one thing for Christmas; a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and he wants it for eminently sensible kid reasons–it would be awesome, plus also cool, plus you never know when your home will be invaded by bad guys.  And the grown-ups in his life keep telling him that it’s fool’s gold, a Godot, a cheaply made object that he thinks will bring meaning and joy to his life, but which will, in fact, put his eye out. Sadly, they’re right. The world of A Christmas Story is a world of disappointment, of consumer goods that promise a happiness they can never hope to deliver.  But in the end, Ralphie gets the gun.  His father’s hard heart has softened, maybe, kinda.  Probably because of the leg lamp.

Dreams are rewarded at Christmas.  At the end of Rudolph, Hermey the Elf does get to open a dentist’s office, and even the Abominable Snowman moves from the naughty to the nice list, while of course Rudolph gets to lead the sleigh team.  Mr. Potter remains incorrigible, but at least Jimmy Stewart doesn’t got to jail, and Kris Kringle passes his psych test and reconciles Macy and Gimbel, while the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye team’s Big Show saves the Vermont Inn.

But any talk of pop culture Christmas stories starts, of course, when pop culture itself started, in the 19th century.  Dickens and Scrooge.  Even the name says it: Scrooge.  Dickens piles on the descriptors: he’s “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.”  Sinner, yes, but what exactly is his sin?  He underpays his assistant.  He won’t pay for coal to warm his offices, and is indifferent to the health-care needs of his employee’s family. He is, in other words, a Republican.

Kidding!  Scrooge also refuses to attend family parties, nor give to charity for the poor, neither of which would be true of the many Republicans of my acquaintance, all of whom are very big on family values and personal charity. And of course, we like real-life Christmas stories involving acts of charity.  My favorite this season, Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, buying toys for every kid in Houston in child protective services.  Give those kids, in tough circumstances, in ‘the system,’ at least a few nice Christmas toys.

I love hearing about acts of private charity, about the bell ringer finding thousands of dollars in his Salvation Army kettle, or about the Baptist church in Oklahoma City who decided to turn a Sunday School annex building they owned into another homeless shelter, since the city shelters were overcrowded and turning people away.  Good for them.

But there are still hungry people in America.  And we’re the richest country in the history of the world.  And all over the world, children starve, and parents can’t find work, and housing’s inadequate.

But suppose we just keep it here; in America.  There are three rather unpalatable facts that we need to acknowledge and account for.  The first is, there are an awful lot of poor people in America.  There is still no room in the inn.  Read this extraordinary story in the New York Times, about this twelve year old girl named Dasani.  Named that after the bottled water brand, by her mother, who thought the name was aspirational, that it stood for wealth.  An exceptionally bright little girl, an A student, a fine dancer and athlete, who essentially serves as Mom to her younger siblings, sleeping on a tattered mattress, one of 280 children living in a single shelter. This young woman exhibits more courage every day than most of us are called upon to show in a year.  But her teachers wonder what hope there might be for her.  ABC News did a story about her recently.  Asked in school to describe an ideal parent, Dasani responded, “drunk.”  Asked why, she said, “’cause when they’re drunk, they don’t say no, and you can get things you need.”

Second unpalatable fact: private charity does a remarkable job sewing up the tears in our social safety net.  But private charitable organizations, great as they are, important as they are, don’t have anywhere near the resources that the federal government has.  Right now, the House of Representatives is talking about reducing the amount the federal government spends on food stamps.  We spend about 80 billion right now. Okay, if right now, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘well, that’s too much,’ think again. Think instead: ‘that’s the baseline for need.’  Last year, private charities raised about 5 billion for food kitchens and food provided in other private efforts.  There’s simply no precedent suggesting that if we cut 80 billion intended to feed the poor, that it would be replaced with equal funding from private sources.  In fact, that’s a preposterous notion; that some kind of magical spell will suddenly conjure up 40 times the amount in private donations that’s coming in now.

Third unpalatable fact: the only possible way to alleviate poverty is to take money from rich people and give it to poor people.  Call it ‘socialism’ all you want to; some people have more than they need and others have nothing.  It would be very nice if a wealthy population full of Scrooges and Grinches would suddenly have massive changes of heart.  But in the real world, ghosts of Past, Present and Future don’t show up to scare rich elderly misers out of their gold. Taxation is NOT theft; it’s how We the People pay our bills.  And King Benjamin suggests it’s a bill we owe.

(A fourth unpalatable fact, if you can stomach it–really super-rich people didn’t get that way through virtuous hard work and rugged self-discipline.  Some did, but most inherited it–the richest people in America are Sam Walton’s kids.  Hard work and risk-taking and frugality and clean-living may help you make your first million, but in time economies of scale add up to very very large incremental revenues, and even inheritors of really huge fortunes can spend a few generations just drifting.  I have a friend who made his considerable fortune in Wall Street; he managed a hedge fund.  He’s writing a book about it.  The secret to his (massive) success?  He’ll tell you: pure dumb luck. Accident and happenstance.)

The House just passed a budget, and it gives the unemployed a very nice Christmas present: unemployment benefits for over a million Americans run out Dec. 28.  You can at least burn a lump of coal.  The theory is that unemployment benefits cause unemployment.  And hospitals cause disease.  But that’s how the Right defends it; unemployment benefits provide a disincentive for people to get jobs. Except there’s no evidence supporting that idea.

Anyway, that’s what I’m hoping for this Christmas.  For Past, Present and Future to haunt the House of Representatives.  For the Grinch-y hearts of conservative policy-makers to grow three sizes some day.

Because we want charity to make a difference.  We want it to be effective and effectual.  And that requires resources beyond those of private organizations or individuals.  It requires government.  Always has.  When there’s no room at the inn, you can let people eke out their lives in freezing, uncomfortable mangers.  Or do what Utah just did.  Give poor people apartments.


An amazing fraud

So, this morning, made me some pancakes, poured a glass of moo-juice, sat down to watch some TV with my breakfast, as is generally my wont.  I’d taped last night’s Daily Show, and started there, as usual.  Jon Stewart began with this story and I sat there, jaw dropping on the floor.  John Beale, you are my newest hero.

Sort of hero. Villain, I meant.  Boo! I mean, Boo!!!!  Bad EPA administrator!  Bad!  I guess, kind of.  You did what, again?  Seriously?  Wow, that’s amazing.  I mean terrible.  That’s what I mean.

Like most Americans, I have a kind of sneaking admiration for conmen and hucksters; hence the continued popularity of caper films.  I mean, we made folk heroes out of sociopathic thugs like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd; we turned Willie Sutton into a lovable scamp, Billy the Kid into myth, Jesse James into legend.  Made hit movies out of the exploits of Butch and Sundance and Bonnie and Clyde.  And don’t get me started on Robin Hood. In all his iterations.

In real life, we don’t.  In real life, we’re delighted to see Bernie Madoff get perp-walked into the slammer.  If you’ve ever been the victim of a real-life scam, it sucks. My wife and I got identity-thefted a couple of years ago, and even though we didn’t end up losing anything, and did get our money back, the whole experience was frustrating, draining, aggravating.  We don’t really like crooks.  We like clever fictional crooks.  We like the Dortmunder gang.  We’re fascinated by Keyser Söze. We like Saffron (the wonderful Christina Hendricks, pre-Mad Men), and get that Mal’s into her because he’s as much a scamp as she is.  (Sorry, you either get Firefly references, or you don’t; they take too long to explain).  We watch the Oceans‘ movies, marveling at the cleverness of Pitt/Clooney/Damon because, after all, who’s really getting ripped off here?  A worse bad guy?  We’re connossieurs: The Sting or The Italian JobThe Illusionist or Brothers Bloom?  (Don’t know of a movie with a better opening than what that clip shows).

We also admire/don’t admire workplace slackers.  We love, Wally, for example, in the Dilbert world, who somehow keeps his job year after year, which seems entirely to consist of walking around with a coffee cup in hand.  We like the Simpsons’ episodes where Homer displays yet again his awesome incompetence.  We love The Office and Office Space, where Steve Carell and Gary Cole, respectively, demonstrate the world’s worst bosses.  And we cheer, in Office Space, when Peter Gibbons decides to stop doing his job, stopping by work only to clean fish he’s caught while slacking, and as a result, gets a raise and promotion from his clue-less bosses.

John Beale, however, takes the cake.  Beale had a government job, in the Environmental Protection Agency, as a deputy assistant administrator, in the office of Air and Radiation.  Okay, ‘deputy assistant adminstrator’ doesn’t sound very impressive–it almost sounds made-up.  But Office of Air and Radiation?  Dude, we want good people in that job, do we not?  We sort of need air, and we’d prefer it breathable.  And radiation? If this guy’s in charge of the office monitoring levels of radiation. . . .

Plus he’s a climate change expert, apparently.  A well-respected published scientist.

But at some point, he seems to have made two important realizations about his life, and one very important decision.  The first realization seems to be that he didn’t want to go to work much anymore.  That he’d way rather get paid to hang around at home, or go on trips on the government’s dime.  The second realization seems to have been that the people he was working for were, for whatever reason, astonishingly gullible.

So for the past ten years, when he wanted some time off, he told his bosses he was, in addition to being an EPA administrator, a spy.  A CIA operative.  And that he therefore needed to not come in for a few weeks, so that he could fly to Pakistan or someplace and be James Bond for awhile.

He got raises.  He got retention bonuses.  He got free first class tickets to California, to see his family, and London to see shows.  He even got a personal parking space near the building where he worked at the job he was busy ditching, because of the malaria he’d contracted in Vietnam.  Even his wife thought he was a real CIA agent.

Except, of course, he wasn’t a CIA agent, and he didn’t have malaria, nor was he a Vietnam vet.

So what did he do with all his time off?  He’d fly to California. . . to visit his aging parents.  He’d sit at home, and . . . ride his bicycle.  Or catch up on his reading.  He’d vacation in Cape Cod.

My guess is, the thrill of getting away with it is what drove him.  He didn’t steal money out of the company safe; he stole a salary he didn’t earn, plane flights he wasn’t entitled to.  He stole time.  When you get a job, you agree to trade your time for their money.  Your employer is entitled to tell you how you’ll spend a certain number of hours–in exchange, he pays you.  John Beale liked the pay part, and seems to have been very good at the work part.  But, I don’t know, maybe he was getting older, maybe the work had gotten stale.  Going all Walter Mitty on the US government must have seemed . . . exciting.  More exciting, certainly, than monitoring air quality.

This seems like it might be one of those rare political news stories without a partisan angle.  I did enjoy the clips I’ve seen of the House Oversight Committee, seeing Jason Chaffetz’ look like his mind had been completely blown by this guy.  And then, the ranking Democrat on the committee wearing exactly the same expression.  Politico reported that they’re talking about federal legislation, making it super-duper-double-bad illegal to not go to work and get paid and make up stories about it.  Knock yourselves out, Congress–this is probably not going to happen much, or ever, again.

Beale got caught, eventually.  Agreed to pay a little shy of a million in restitution, and will spend two and a half years in prison.  He’s such a mild looking guy, undistinguished middle-aged man, balding, a little dumpy.  Hardly a criminal mastermind. Maybe Paul Giamatti plays him in the movie. Please please please let Wes Anderson direct.  Isn’t there a part of you rooting for him?


Billy Jack: RIP

Tom Laughlin died last Thursday, of complications of pneumonia.  He was 82. With him, died a significant part of my adolescence.  Just a few days ago, I mentioned Billy Jack in a blog post about growing up in Indiana, and basketball, and a friend of mine, a basketball genius, who loved the film enough to dress like the character.  So I thought Laughlin (and Billy) deserved a blog post of their own.

I mentioned Laughlin’s death on Facebook, and a friend linked to a Nick Gillespie tweet: “Re: deaths of Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine and Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, only latter was culturally transformative by making DIY film.”  I agree. Laughlin was the quintessential independent director.  He co-wrote (with his wife), directed, starred in his films himself, and took personal control of the marketing.  The Trial of Billy Jack was the first film to be given a wide release in the modern fashion, opening simultaneously in 1200 theaters nationwide, with Laughlin renting the theaters and controlling box office receipts.  DIY indeed.

So Laughlin was an indie film pioneer, a remarkable mix of leftist politics and marketing savvy.  He created an iconic character, and played him in four films, the first three of which were box office successes.  He was also a devoted husband and father; his screenwriting pseudonym, Frank and Teresa Christina was simply the first names of his three children, and his wife and oldest daughter also had starring roles in his work.  The films are also execrable. But they were execrable in interesting ways, which I think may be worth interrogating a little.

Some history first: Billy Jack made his first appearance as a character in The Born Losers (1967). For years, Laughlin’d been scuffling along in Hollywood, doing some TV, small parts in bad films, while trying to market an Indian Rights script about a half-Indian former Green Beret loner named Billy Jack.  He met an actress, Elizabeth James, also scraping by, and the two of them hastily wrote a motorcycle gang movie, which were in vogue then, with starring roles for them both.  They got $400, 000 from Roger Corman, to make it, and Laughlin directed.  Billy Jack is a loner with mad martial arts skills, who defends a motorist being terrorized by bikers.  He’s captured and badly beaten; James plays ‘Vickie,’ who is raped by the same gang, but who agrees to become a ‘biker’s mama’ if they’ll spare Billy Jack’s life.  They do.  This sets up the ending, where Billy rides up with a rifle and shoots most of the baddies, rescues the girl, and rides a motorcycle off into the sunset. . . . where he’s accidentally shot by a clue-less cop.  It’s a fast little grindhouse action movie, brutal and mean, but it made buckets of money for American International, which Laughlin, apparently, couldn’t help but notice.

Billy Jack came out in 1971, when I was a sophomore in high school. I saw it several times–everyone did that I knew. I wish I could say that I recognized, even at 15, how bad it was, but no, I was callow and stupid and thought it was a masterpiece.  It was built on two ideologies that would seem incompatible–hippie-ish odes to peace, love, happiness and pacifism, and an atavistic, primitive, Old Testament sense of justice, in which unrighteous asses are righteously and thoroughly kicked by a hapkido expert.  It’s basically about The Freedom School, built on an Indian reservation and dedicated to all that pacifist turn-the-other-cheek stuff–run by a teacher, Jean Roberts, who was played by Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor.  (Pauline Kael, whose review of The Trial of Billy Jack outraged me back in the day, compared Delores Taylor’s ability to weep on command to a kind of duck press, squeezing out the moisture).

Billy Jack is back, again a half-Indian former Green Beret, but also now supposedly converted, by Jean, to the kinds of ideals you probably recognize from songs like ‘Imagine.’  Or maybe this. But the town closest to the school is essentially populated by racist thugs, and so Billy Jack also gets ample opportunity to show off his martial arts skills. Which was the main thing my friends and I wanted to see–Billy Jack taking off his shoes and beating bad guys up.

This scene gets to the heart of the film, I think.  First, a group of kids from the Freedom school show up at this ice cream shop. Two hippie chicks, two Native American kids, a little girl–five kids all together.  (And don’t you love the hippie chicks; girls with the white lipstick and the long straight hair and the leather vest over a skimpy revealing tee shirt). They order ice cream cones; the owner, behind the counter, ignores them, then refuses, saying he’s out of cones. One Freedom School girl shows him a box of cones and calls him a liar, and it looks like a confrontation is about to escalate.  But ‘Bernard’ (David Roya) intervenes. Bernard is the film’s villain; in one crucial scene, he rapes ‘Jean’.  And Billy eventually kills him.  Of course.  (Ironically, David Roya really was a martial arts expert, and carved out a nice little career subsequently playing villains in martial arts films).

So.  Bernard points out that, since the problem is the skin color of the Indian kids, all that needs to happen is to turn them white.  And he takes flour from some container (ice cream shops always have barrels of flour in there among the tables), and pours it over the Freedom School kids, humiliating them.  One kid protests; Bernard’s thuggish friend punches him. One of the pacifist hippie chick girls slaps Bernard.  And then Billy Jack strolls into view. And gives a speech that I, age fifteen, practically memorized.

“Bernard.” (Billy takes off his hat, rubs his face in perplexity, sighs).  “I want you to know, that I try.  When Jean and the kids at the school tell me that I’m supposed to control my violent temper, and be passive and non-violent like they are, I try, I really try. But when I see this girl, of such a beautiful spirit, so degraded, and I see this boy, beaten up by this big ape here, and this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her God’s Little Gift of Sunshine . . .” (pause, Billy’s close to tears by now), “and I think of the number of years that she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours. . . “(shakes his head sadly), “I just Go BERSERK.”  (And beats Bernard and his sidekick up.)

A few points to make about this scene:

First, both Bernard and then Billy get to make long, polemic speeches, completely uninterrupted by each other or the other people in the shop.  Nobody calls the cops, nobody intervenes. Everyone just sits there politely, letting the other guy make his big speech.

Second, where’d the flour come from?

Third, Billy may not initiate, but he absolutely escalates the violence.  Bernard dumps some flour on kids’ heads.  Then, his thug does punch the one kid in the stomach.  But if the kid who got punched is in medical distress, wouldn’t getting him out of there be a higher priority?  Billy punches Bernard, a nasty rich punk to be sure, but someone whose only crime, at that point, had been mostly verbal,with some flour added for emphasis.  Billy whales on him.  I’m not a lawyer, but that’s assault, is it not?  And the thug, the sidekick, gets thrown out a window, and lays there in the street, clearly injured.  Aggravated assault? Do I have my felonies right? But it’s okay, because they’re racist jerks?

The scene is simplistic–cardboard villains, and Billy Jack being righteously heroic. It’s hypocritical and politically confused. I remember sitting in a movie theater back then, and when Billy Jack says ‘I go berserk’ we stood up and cheered. Yay for us!  But isn’t the message of that scene essentially this: Dr. King was wrong?

And yet, and yet.  This is a lunch-counter anti-segregation scene too, is it not?  Involving Native Americans, not African-Americans, sure, but it’s basically a scene about a guy refusing to serve food to customers because of their race.  It’s a Greensboro lunch counter scene.  It plugs into the most iconic images of the civil rights movement. There’s a Woolworth’s lunch counter protest scene in The Butler, and it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, but that’s a film from this year, 2013.  2013 also featured 42, which I really liked, well-made film about Jackie Robinson. And that’s terrific, and it’s great to remind us all today about what Jackie Robinson accomplished and the obstacles he faced.  (And yes, there was a 1960 film, which even starred Jackie himself).  But my point is, mainstream Hollywood, in 1971, wasn’t making films with Greensboro lunch counter scenes.  Mainstream Hollywood, in the late ’60s and ’70s, could not have been more timid about civil rights. They thought they were being courageous when they did Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or To Sir With Love.  All those sadly noble Sidney Poitier vehicles.

So Tom Laughlin puts a ‘Greensboro lunch counter scene’ in Billy Jack, in 1971, and yes, it’s crude and stupid and badly written and acted, and it’s used exploitatively, to make Bernard-the-cartoon-villain seem terrible, and the burden of the message contradicts Martin without rising to the level of Malcolm.  All true. But it is there, that iconic set of images.

Laughlin did it again in The Trial of Billy Jack–put a My Lai massacre scene in there, and yes it feels gratuitous and obvious and crude there too. And Trial ends with a Kent State-style shooting.  And if you happen to see it, like if AMC does a Tom Laughlin tribute marathon or something, you may well be forgiven if you find everyone at the Freedom School so self-righteous and annoying that you find yourself rooting for the National Guard. I did, when I watched it recently. But in the early ’70s, at least he was referencing My Lai and Greensboro and Kent State. Hollywood was way way way too bwack bwack bwack chicken to deal with any images that incendiary.

And sure, Tom Laughlin’s use of those reference points was obvious and crude.  He was neither a profound nor an accomplished filmmaker. He had guts and passion–what he doesn’t seem to have had was talent, or any sort of ability to self-criticize. (Remember: in the ’90s, Laughlin kept running for President.  Three times, he ran for President of the United States, whatever that says about his judgment and ego).  But Billy Jack matters, and not just because Laughlin was sort of a marketing genius. A confused and foolish courage is courage nonetheless.  And one tin soldier rides away.











The Book Thief: Review

Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, was, for me, one of those well-reviewed, oft-recommended books that you check out at the library and bring home with great anticipation, but then can’t ever quite get into.  I tried, several times, to read it, but kept setting it aside to read something else instead.  The difficulty for me was the book’s central conceit: it’s narrated by Death.  I have no objection to a book with a first-person omniscient narrator, and it seems particularly appropriate for a book set in Germany in the early 1940s.  But I felt like I was so busy peering around corners and into windows to follow the story, I couldn’t really get into it.  A shame, because the story itself, about this little girl and her journey from illiterate to book-addicted budding writer is really lovely.

The movie still includes Death, providing an occasional voice-over commentary on the action, but his role is very much muted, and the focus much more on little Liesel. This is especially welcome given the lovely child, Sophie Nélisse, they found to play her. Nélisse has an unaffected emotional directness that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as the story unfolds. She’s just superb, and completely capable of carrying the movie.

Brian Percival directed, fresh from directing the third season of Downton Abbey, and The Book Thief movie is much in the same style–unfussy camera work, a focus on fine actors doing great work.  I am sometimes a little irritated by movies set in, say, Germany, in which English actors affect a German accent.  Germans don’t speak German in German accents; they just speak German. And in this movie, I found the decision to have some of the dialogue in German and some in English somewhat puzzling.  But there were times it was quite effective, especially in a scene in Liesel’s school auditorium, where she and the other children, apple-cheeked and innocent, all sing this ghastly Nazi propaganda song.

The film begins on a train, Liesel, her mother and brother on their way to a town, where the two children will be handed over to foster parents.  We never do learn why their mother gives them up, but the ravaged face of the fine German actress Heike Makatsch, who plays her, tells us enough; this woman is utterly desolate.  Along the way, the brother dies, and is buried by the side of the tracks–Liesel finds an opportunity to steal a book from the grave digger.  They arrive in a small German town, and Liesel is handed over to a middle-aged childless couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is kind to Liesel; Rosa furious, because she expected two children, and therefore government payments for two.

Liesel, we learn, has never learned to read.  Quite likely, she’s never attended school.  But she does own the one book, and Hans, ruefully (and cagily) confessing that he’s a poor reader too, offers to help her with it.  Teaches her to read.  It turns out to be a manual for gravediggers.  But then, when a downtown Nazi rally includes a book burning, Liesel rescues a book from the smoking pile.  And now, she has two.

She also makes friends quickly, especially with a blonde kid named Rudi (Nico Liersch), with his omnipresent soccer ball.  Rudi clearly has a crush on her, which she affects not to notice, but as the film progresses, we also see his disillusionment with Naziism, and the two of them, united, shout ‘I hate Hitler’ in a (we hope) empty woods.

Liesel ties the film’s two worlds together–the school and the other children in town, especially her friend Rudi, and home, with Hans and Rosa.  Hans is a sign painter by profession, a gentle, but not an ambitious man. Rosa, we sense, has to pick up the slack, and does laundry for the village’s one rich (and Nazi) family.  Both Rush and Watson are astonishingly good in this film, especially Watson who only gradually reveals an essential kindness and goodness beneath her character’s stern exterior.  When a Jewish friend, Max (Ben Schnetzer), desperate, asks for asylum, Hans and Rosa provide it without hesitation, hiding from the Nazis in the basement.  And Liesel and Max become close friends as well, and fellow readers.  And when Liesel is befriended by a sad-eyed rich Nazi woman who she visits delivering clean laundry, she has a new source for books.

We don’t often see movies about Nazi Germany that show this perspective; decent, ordinary people who detest Hitler, protect Jews, but find themselves powerless to affect much change.  At one point, Hans is drafted into the Wehrmacht, and we sense he’s about as ambitious and effective a soldier as he is a sign-painter–it’s actually a relief when he comes home, wounded.  And during air raids (and it takes an effort of will to think–those are American and British bombers, I should actually be rooting for them), as Hans and Rosa and Liesel and their fellow villagers huddle together in someone’s basement, it’s Hans who staves off gloom and fear with his accordion.  And later, it’s Liesel filling that role, telling stories from the books she’s read.

It’s easy to see this film reductively: Nazis bad/reading good.  But I found myself thinking of my father.  As a child, living in Norway during the war, he sang in bomb shelters, entertaining the neighbors and keeping everyone’s spirits up. Those were his first public musical performances, in a career that led to opera gigs all over the world. My father served in the US Army post-war, and was stationed in Germany, and he got to know lots of ordinary Germans much like Hans and Rosa.  We mustn’t assume that all Germans supported Hitler, or that no Germans sheltered Jews, or that all Germans were anti-Semitic.  And it’s a human tragedy whenever a book is burned, and a human triumph whenever one is rescued.  The resolute chutzpah of a German child stealing books from Nazis so she can share them with her Jewish friend strikes me as wonderfully hopeful, even amidst the horror and destruction of war.  Which the film also gives its full dramatic and tragic power.

This is a lovely little film, a human and humane film about an inhumane time in our world’s sad history.  See it if you can.


The budget deal

The big Washington news this week was the announcement of a budget deal between Paul Ryan, who chairs the House budget committee and Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate committee.  I’ve been checking out the details of the bill, as best I can, and from what I can see, it’s awful.  Exactly the wrong thing for the country right now, likely to hurt people and further weaken our economy.  It’s also probably the best that could be hoped for, should pass, and some version of it likely will.

First, the good news: House Republicans and Senate Democrats might actually agree about something.  The most dysfunctional Congress in US history might actually accomplish something.  One of Congress’ constitutional duties is to pass an annual budget.  They’ve punted on it for years, keeping things afloat with a whole series of continuing resolutions.  The idea that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray actually sat in a room together without permanently rupturing the space/time continuum is, perhaps, cause for some very very quiet huzzahs.  yay. rah. hurray.  awesome.  I can’t even bear to capitalize.

I don’t want to get into what’s wrong with the entire bill. No stimulus for the economy, cuts in vital programs for the poor, no cuts in military spending to pay for it, the back of the hand for federal employees.  It’s a rotten bill.  But here’s one specific: 1.3 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits on December 28. Merry Christmas.  Murray fought for an extension of those benefits.  That turned out to be a deal-breaker for Ryan, and that extension is not part of the bill.  Democrats will try to pass such an extension as a separate bill.  Prediction: it will pass the Senate, and not even come up for a vote in the House.

Just as hospitals cause illness and trained medics cause war casualties, many (probably most) Republicans believe that unemployment benefits cause unemployment.  Because some unemployed people receive up to 40% (yes, 40 whole percent!) of their previous salaries as unemployment compensation, they’re not motivated to look for a job.  Or, as Paul Ryan once famously put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains of their will and incentive to make the most of their lives.”

Welfare dependency is a favorite conservative meme; by giving people food stamps and housing benefits and unemployment insurance, we’re creating a permanent underclass of people uninterested in working.  Talk to conservatives about this issue, and I promise, you’ll hear all sorts of anecdotal evidence: “my brother-in-law/cousin/guy-that’s-dating-my-niece/neighbor/guy-I-heard-about-on-Fox is this worthless bum who can’t be bothered finding a good job.  McDonald’s is hiring.  Flip burgers if you can’t do anything else.”

Lots of economists have investigated this question, and concluded that there’s something to it, that welfare dependency does exist, that some people really would rather get food stamps and live in subsidized housing than work.  It happens.  Its effects, however, are tiny.  Most people on unemployment/food stamps/other kinds of welfare really really hate it, and only receive such benefits for a very short period of time.  Ending unemployment benefits is going to hurt lots of people, and there’s no evidence that it will do any good whatsoever.  There are still three job-seekers for every job.

I love this song by the great Stan Rogers. “Well, I could have stayed to take the Dole, but I’m not one of those. I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose.” The song is called “The Idiot” and I love it’s defiant spirit.  “The government dole will rot your soul.” But I don’t see this as an anti-welfare song.  Rather, it’s how it feels to face the possibility of welfare.  It’s a song that says ‘I’ll do any job, anywhere.”  That’s the attitude of the huge huge majority of poor people in America.

I vividly remember a time when I was in grad school in Indiana when my wife and I learned about a government program that would help us pay our winter heating bills.  Our apartment was poorly insulated, and we were cold most winters.  So we went to a local welfare office to apply for this heating bill subsidy.  I was in grad school then, working two jobs and taking a full load of classes, and we had three small children at home. We were assigned a case worker, and she went over our circumstances with us.  It turned out, we were poor enough to qualify for absolutely everything. Food stamps, housing, medicaid; we qualified for everything.

We ran out of there.  I mean it; packed up our stuff and took off.  It terrified us.  We did end up getting the heating subsidy, for just one winter.  But mostly, we weren’t so much offended as we were frightened. We were doing fine, we thought.  We paid our bills–we were hanging in there.  I was a grad student, for heaven’s sake; making provisions for my future.

And in my experience, that’s how most people see it.  Most folks are under-served by federal and state agencies dealing with the poor, not because those agencies are incompetent, but because it’s kind of humiliating to apply for aid, and you end up only applying for the minimum you need.

I’m not saying welfare dependency is a myth.  I do say that worrying about it is a poor guide to policy.  We’re the richest nation in the history of the world.  And we have children who don’t have enough to eat. That’s kind of disgraceful, is it not?






Yesterday’s post, about junior high and bullying, has me feeling nostalgic, and I thought maybe I should write about something more positive.  So I thought I’d write about basketball.

I grew up in south-central Indiana, which means I played basketball.  My Dad was an opera singer, often gone, a gig somewhere, and my Mom was a school teacher, which meant I was a latchkey kid; came home to an empty house.  Poor poor pitiful me; I loved it. I didn’t come home to an empty house at all.  I came home to a house with a basketball standard in the front driveway.

Every day, basically, we’d play.  My brother and I and some neighbor kids–Mike Rogers especially, also Bruce Ramage and Hig Roberts and Andy Hughes and, oh, I can’t name them all, anyway, we’d play.  Rob and I would play by ourselves if no one else was around, but usually other kids would join us soon enough.  When my Dad came home, he’d play with us too, even though he didn’t really dribble very well, but he did have a one handed set shot he could score with. And Rolf, our younger brother; he’d play, though he was eight years younger than me, and worse, a lefty–harder to guard.

The weather didn’t matter.  When it got dark, we’d turn on the porch light and play by that.  Indiana winters can get sleety and freezing cold; we’d play.  We’d play when it was so cold, the ball would hardly bounce, and the rain and sleet would turn the ball hard as concrete, and our hands were bright red from cold and jet black from the crud on the wet driveway, and still we’d play, every night we’d play.

The goal was half-way up the driveway, on the south side of it, and of course it was a driveway, long and skinny.  So most of our shots were from the baseline; the top of the key was basically out of bounds.  I was skinny and not very tall at first, and then got a growth spurt when I was thirteen and grew fourteen inches in a year, which meant I was tall, skinny, and incredibly uncoordinated.  I wasn’t much of a ball handler, but I could shoot, a little, though I was very streaky.  My brother, Rob, was younger than I was, and therefore shorter, but he was an athlete; faster, quicker, more coordinated, a better jumper.  Since we played against each other a lot, he had to figure out how to get his shot off against a taller kid.  So he developed a fadeaway jump shot that was absolutely deadly.  I couldn’t block it no matter how hard I tried.  I was a head taller than he was, and he’d back into me, and turn and float this high arching shot up there, and I was helpless. That was his shot when, as a six-three center (often playing against kids eight or nine or ten inches taller than he was), he averaged twenty points a game and made All-State his senior year in high school. He honestly could have played college ball–his game was very similar to Adrian Dantley’s.

The driveway was just big enough that you could comfortably play three on three.  Four on four was just barely possible, but traffic under the basket could get pretty rough.  I vividly remember one day, I was in high school, when Jeff Chitwood came to play.  Jeff was a pick-up game legend, the best teenaged basketball player in the city.  He loved Billy Jack.  Remember Billy Jack?  Tom Laughlin, man; my gosh it was a horrible movie.  But much beloved in my high school.  Chitwood dressed like Billy Jack, he wore a hat like Billy Jack, and he wore boots like Billy Jack.  (He had long hair, though; he would only take hero-worship-mimicry so far).  And he’d show up to pick-up games in his Camaro, and he’d carefully take off his hat, and his boots, and he’d pull on these raggedy sneakers.  And then he’d torch everyone.  He was a fabulous player, quick as a cat and a phenomenal shooter.

He didn’t play on the high school team.  The rumor we heard was that he showed up to the first try-out as a sophomore, and the coach said ‘you’re gonna have to cut your hair to play on this team.’  And Chitwood looked at the coach, quickly took ten straight jump shots, hit ’em all, then looked back at the coach, said ‘not interested,’ and walked away.  I have no idea if that story was true, but it ought to have been true.  Chitwood ended up playing city league–a fifteen year old playing grown men–and dominated.

Anyway, it was an honor if your pick-up game was considered good enough for Chitwood to show up, and he did once, just once, to ours, and I’ll never forget it.  It happened to be one of the rare games when my shot was falling, and he turned to me once and said ‘good shot.’  Forty years ago, and I remember every detail. . .

(I’m convinced that the writers of Hoosiers named their star player Jimmy Chitwood because they’d remembered Jeff from a pick-up game.  They were in college in Bloomington at the right time, anyway.)

We mostly played two on two, I remember; usually Rob and I on opposite teams.  I probably played three thousand basketball games against my brother–I was calculating it this morning, and making the most conservative assumptions, it has to be over three thousand.  And I’m sure his teams beat mine more than my teams beat his. Add normal sib-riv tensions, and you’d think we fought all the time.  In fact, we really didn’t.  Still don’t, even now, when he’s a businessman and I’m a playwright, and maybe we don’t have all that much in common.  But we’re still great friends, close friends, and always have been, and I’m absolutely certain that the reason is basketball.

(We do disagree, of course we sometimes disagree. Usually over really really serious crucially important issues, like who the greatest center in the history of basketball was; him clinging obstinately to Wilt Chamberlain, when the obvious answer is clearly Bill Russell.  I mean, come on.)

Here’s the thing; I love other sports as a fan.  Love baseball, probably more, as a fan, than I love basketball.  Love soccer, and still do follow American football. But that’s as a spectator, as a follower.  As a sport to play, it’s basketball.  Always will be.

And above all, it’s basketball as played in Indiana.  We grew up rooting for the Hoosiers, the Indiana University basketball team; went to many games, and watched all of them on TV.  Professional basketball was cool too, and we grew up loving the Pacers.  That is, the ABA Pacers, from the American Basketball Association, the upstart league that barely clung to survival from 1967-1976.  They played with a red, white and blue ball, and had three point shots (which were later adapted by the NBA and colleges and high schools–every level of basketball uses the three-pointer, but it started in the ABA).

I didn’t know that the NBA, the older, more established league, looked at the ABA with disdain, considered it a minor league, thought the level of play was sub-par.  I liked basketball, and the Pacers were our local team.  And they were good, won the ABA championship in 1970, ’72 and ’73, and finished second in ’69 and ’75.  I can still remember the lineup (and I’m doing this from memory): Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Billy Keller.  Keller was short and balding and chunky, but he hustled like crazy and was a terrific shooter.  The Pacers signed him because he was college roommates with Rick Mount, who was a superstar at Purdue, and the Pacers thought maybe Mount might be willing to consider playing for them if he could play with his best college friend.  And it worked, but Mount turned out to be a bust, a mediocre pro player, and Keller, through sheer hard work and determination was much better, as a pro.  And Darnell Hillman, who I loved, because he could jump out of the building and had the baddest ‘fro I’d ever seen on a human being.

My gosh, the memories.  All those games, on TV, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington (IU) and at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (Pacers), and later at Market Square Arena (Pacers again).  But the real memories are of our driveway. The uneven bounces, the freezing weather, the frozen ball.  Every day, every single day, Rob and I and neighbor kids shooting hoops, scoring and rebounding and dribbling and passing. The best of times, and the best of times.