February 13, 2018

A Damn Good Prayer

From Boethius, circa 521 CE:

O Thou who bindest bonds of things
Look down on all earth’s wretchedness;
Of this great work is man so mean
A part, by Fortune to be tossed?
Lord, hold the rushing waves in check,
And with the bond thou rul’st the stars,
Make stable all the lands of earth.

November 29, 2017

Babette's Feast

Grounded by surgery, I spent Thanksgiving eating burgers and watching Babette's Feast, which I had not seen for many years. I first saw it in the 80s, during the heyday of foreign films in art houses, before their screens were taken over by the American indie wave of the 90s. Although some shots seem overly obvious now, it still has its magic.

The story is of a pair of spinster sisters in 19th-century Denmark. They live in a tiny village where their father was the leader of a small congregation. We see them in flashbacks as young women, passing by the opportunity for love in order to care for their father and his flock. Now they are old women, bringing soup to the infirm and trying to keep their increasing querulous congregation in a state of grace and harmony. One day a woman arrives on the doorstep from Paris, fleeing political persecution. She has nothing, is cold and homeless, and the sisters take her in. A note from a long ago acquaintance asks them to welcome her, mentioning that she can cook.

To say more would ruin any first viewings, but there is a feast, of course, heralded by the title, and it brings moments both comic and poignant. The movie touches on themes of loss, ascetic and self-indulgent tendencies, and the evanescence of both beauty and pain. Most of all, it offers slow art, which we are so in need of. To reap its rewards, you have to sink into the film's own rhythm and timeline—which turns out to be a lovely place to be.

November 17, 2017

How Life Informs Good Art

Today I’m watching Arrival on TV as I rest at home after surgery.

As Amy Adams’s character ascends into the alien spaceship with her protective jumpsuit on, after getting some inoculations and experiencing the ship’s weird gravity, she struggles for breath as others in her party exchange information and banter.

I find myself riveted by her drama, which is the drama of biological survival. I now know what it is like to struggle for breath and consciousness while the world carries on as normal around me. The bad feeling all through my body. The way everything else is a blur. How is takes all of my resources—attention, effort, muscle power—just to breathe. Everything else is kind of gray and fuzzy. And I recognize the way her team leader speaks to her: authoritative but kind and encouraging. How many times have I heard that precise tone from EMTs, nurses, and orderlies over the last few months.

Suffering leads to wisdom—one of the great truths of human life. Experiencing that wisdom in art feels like a little blessing.

October 22, 2017

The Mountain between Us

I'm a fan of the wilderness survival genre in film, so this movie was a must-see with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba starring. Elba plays Ben, a neurosurgeon, and Winslet plays Alex, a conflict photojournalist. Both are stranded at the top of a mountain in the Rockies when their prop plane goes down. Alex is badly hurt, Ben less so. After some back and forth, they ultimately decide that help is not on the way and they will try to go down the mountain together to look for help.

Like most of the critics, I found it to be a good movie, not a great one. The cinematography was beautiful, but the biggest surprise was the script, which went light on some of the movie cliches about a man and woman thrown together. The two were strangers at the beginning and they acted like it, polite but not chummy. They chit-chatted like you do with acquaintances, neither hostile nor overly intimate. There were no overreactions, no stupid arguments, no undermotivated blow-ups.

At first I wondered about Ben being the neurosurgeon and Alex, the woman, being the severely injured party. On the surface it looks like a repetition of an old dynamic in which the man is competent and the woman is helpless but feisty in a way that is both nonsensical and allegedly charming. But my fears were quickly dispersed. Alex is a war-hardened professional photographer and is tough in her way without being a capital-T Tough Lady. They interact like equals, and Alex ultimately gets her moment of saving Ben as well.

Most importantly the script allows Alex to be Helpless While Female. That is, her injury doesn't reek of femininity, doesn't have a gendered feel to it, and neither does his medical competence. This is tricky in the way that so many artistic decisions are in an era of sincere attempts at acceptance and equality. Is it okay for a woman to be portrayed as dependent on a man? Is it okay for a dyke-y lesbian to be the villain of a short story? Can non-gay comics joke about effeminate gay men? It's a tightrope but, in terms of the male/female dynamic, I want women to be allowed to be weak or injured or just average. One romance novel writer said that she allowed her heroines to be in need of help or healing from the male lead because, although it echoed the old damsel-in-distress trope, doing otherwise put the heroine in the position of always serving to nurse the needs of the hero.

Here's how I would put it: The film was non-gendered. You could have flipped the gender of the two leading roles without it feeling off. And that's a rare experience in the movies.

October 7, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

It's impossible for me to write about this memoir as anything but a person with cancer. Paul Kalanithi was a talented neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties and died two years after diagnosis. In the last year of his life he wrote this memoir. He's a good writer, but for me the value of his book is in those moments of recognition along the cancer journey.

The state of mind that Kalanithi tries to convey is the one that has dominated my own mind since I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer earlier this year: confusion. It's hard to even relate what the confusion is—it's that confusing. There is nothing new, in a way. None of us know how long we will live. All of us know that we are way behind the eight ball in achieving our dreams.

But the imminence and certainty of death throws everything into disarray. Nearly every day brings an image or idea that I have to immediately backpedal on: "I guess I'll never . . . "  get to Paris, write my book, start a career in graphic design, hike the Appalachian Trail. But that's just the beginning. There's also:  learn Photoshop, repaint the bedroom, know what it's like to live without financial worry, build library shelves, live in the country on a lake, own a little motor boat, lose weight, sit on the porch with my husband in our quiet years drinking tea and reading poetry to each other, be there for my beloved dog when he dies.

Not knowing if you have six months, two years, or six years is disorienting. Kalanithi knew how he would spend each of those time budgets: six months—quit work and spend all his time with his family; two years—write his book; six years—continue pursuing his career dream of running a neurosurgery and research center. The uncertainty manifested in him—and in me—in a reverse five stages of grief: acceptance, depression, bargaining, anger, and denial. I found this extraordinary to read about since I had this exact same thought. My first stage was utter acceptance: I'm going to die, and soon. Then depression at that fact. Then a sort of bargaining, I suppose, though perhaps not the one Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described; more of a bargaining with myself than with God or life. How much do I need to give meaning to the time I have left? Do I devote my time to fighting for the kind of world I believe in? To spending time with friends and family? To plowing through all the pleasures I'd hoped to spend my later years enjoying, from Tolstoy to Tarantino? Or is it acceptable to just sit in my recliner and play Candy Crush? I mean, who really cares, other than me, and do I really care? However I spend the days, they will be spent.

I can't quite relate to the anger stage, though that may come. But I found myself recently in the denial phase that Kalanithi described so well. After about a year of treatment, Kalanithi had a CT scan that revealed beautifully clear lungs. The mottled scan of his early diagnosis was gone, and he was looking at something that looked very much like remission and hope. He started doing surgery again. He went on an interview for his dream job. He started thinking about the future. But his next scan was catastrophic. The mottled scan and the clear scan were now replaced with a scan of a monolithic tumor that took up half his lung. I related so well to this. I'd seen my blood markers fall from 1150 to 38, the latter number well within the under-50 normal reading. I began to think that this was an illness, like the flu. Something to get through. Kind of no big deal. I suppose it may still turn out to be that, but I'm not counting on it. A new tingling in my fingers or the caginess of a doctor's response and the knowledge of reversals keeps me aware.

Kalanithi comes to some conclusions about how to give meaning to his life in these tragic circumstances. For me, however, the greatest value of his testament is how he documents the disorienting difficulty of that when the very bedrock of meaning—time and future—are removed from the equation.

July 23, 2017

"The Past Is a Devourer"

"The Past Is a Devourer"
 Lynn Weber

I can still feel the album cover in my hands
the smooth thin cardboard
the vinyl inside not yet embossing its surface
the tall, thin man-child with his flowing blond hair
his beauty, his high cut cheekbones
He's an old man now, bald with a round puffy face
Like mine
I see him online, a grandfather, his magic vanished
like the vanished romance of life altogether
So little thrills me now—a geysir, my namesake's girlish ponytail,
my nephew's height and happiness
Even the mountains of Alaska seemed to pass me by
as I sat on the deck, squinting at their grandeur

I want to throw myself on a clifftop in Iceland
exposed to the stars and the dark and the night
and all those beautiful words and things
till I'm crushed, destroyed, decimated
like a crying newborn, red in the face, starting over.

July 8, 2017

Audiobook Recommendations

Here is the list of recommendations for good audiobooks from my friend Debbie Justice.

Deb, when exposed to bad writing

Debbie listens to a lot of audiobooks (she's a marathon runner), and she is also the best writer that I know. Even a seemingly plain request like “Send me your favorite audiobooks” results in a mini-masterpiece like the following:

Books Both Well-Written and Well-Produced Audiobook-wise: In No Particular Order

all Tana French Dublin Murder Squad books

Forward, Abby Wambach’s memoir

Wild, Cheryl Strayed—THO: a cancer tragedy features, so avoid if this will eff with your peace of mind.

all Malcolm Gladwell—He's right up there with Ta-Nehisi and Barack in amazing self-narration.

As You Wish, Cary Elwes’s delightful recollections of filming The Princess Bride

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shrill, Lindy West’s memoir—hilarious and smarty-pants. Best combo.
anything narrated by Anna Bentinck, especially the production of Jane Eyre she did

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall—not just for runners! A seriously fascinating story.
all David Sedaris

Orange Is the New Black, Piper Kerman (I was so impressed with this voice actor)

Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe—next-level funny; this would be my first pick for you.

The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne—catnip history of our girl's life, times, and cultural milieux

Crocodile on the Sandbank Elizabeth Peters—tho u will have to navigate some effed-up racism that was sadly invisible in 1980-whatever to this otherwise forward-thinking author.

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand—Dude. This story. This guy. I mean.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama—Worth it cuz he narrates it.

all the Harry Potter books—seriously, Jim Dale's narration is a revelation. He brings something completely separately masterful to this amazing series.

anything else narrated by Jim Dale

Ruth Ware’s thrillers—excellently narrated, which could possibly get you over the this-book-is-annoying-me hump; my theory is that I liked them so much more than you did because I listened to them on audiobook.

same with the Sonali Dev romances; I was really taken with the voice actor’s skill.

same w Paula Hawkins's thrillers—possibly awesomer to me than to u bec. = audio.

Sunshine, Robin McKinley—excellent sci-fi/fantasy w hot vampire, written long before Edward Cullen was a twinkle in his father's eye. U will crave cinnamon rolls I’d u listen so #Beware.

Big History, David Christian—about thirty-ish hours of Damn, Son!-level macro history; SOWORTHIT. Became famous after Bill Gates mentioned in an interview that he was making his way thru the series and was riveted. SOGOOD.

I have listened to maybe two different Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (the inimitable Dorothy L. Sayers), by different publishers, and both productions were quality; so, worth considering; if you're not interested in the whole series, I'd say to read the ones that feature Harriet Vane (Strong Poison, then, I think, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon).

Books I Loved but Have Only Ever Read: Yet Still I Think You Should Try Audiobooking/Good Luck

Troublemaker, Leah Remini—I read this and loved it, but I can only imagine Leah’s reading of it will be superb

the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King—Wonderful reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’s world, plus competent feminism infusion. A delight.

Amy Poehler’s and Tina Fey’s memoirs—these have to be super well-narrated, right?

all Kinsale—she hired a legit actor and is a control freak, so these have to be pretty good productions, right?

Open, Andre Agassi—either still, bemulleted waters run deep or this is the best ghost writer in the business. Either way, impressive if you were conscious during The Age of Acid-Washing.

The Writing Class, Jincy Willet—I was belly laughing; I just hope there's somewhere an audiobook production worthy of this book.

the Reverend Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries by Julia Spencer Fleming—excellent books, alternating between cold-weather and hot-weather mysteries (finally an author with a brain who recognizes the importance of body temperature as it relates to murder mystery enjoyment!!!)

Morning Glory, LaVyrle Spencer—Oh, I hope they found a good voice actor. Yearning. Heart-breaky. Poemical. Sadly, think this is a one-off coup for Spencer; I have been trying for about three-ish years to get through another of her titles, which is hoooooorribly dated/sexist/awful/blech.

Sweet Everlasting, Patricia Gaffney—Exact same as above (except for all I know her other stuff # awesomesauce. Haven’t read anything else.)

Try the Leo Demidov books by Tom Rob Smith; solid Soviet-era thrillers.

Endurance, Alfred Lancing—Of a piece with Unbreakable; astounding stories of the triumph of the human spirit and blah-blah-blah except for really.

Consider revisiting any Sittenfeld! Of course, my favorite of hers is Prep.

The John Carlisle and Lise Delorme thrillers by Giles Blunt were quite captivating on the page; I think I read maybe the first two point five? Cold weather all, if I recall.

Worth Mentioning

The Gillian Flynn thrillers are likely super well-produced, right? I was really mad at how Gone Girl ended, but I still bet the rest are worth checking out.

I kind of a little bit suspect that in real life Mindy Kaling is petty, superficial, self-servingish, and Republican? But she narrates her memoirs well enough and has some fun celebrity dish.

I wonder if the Fever sci-fi/fantasy series—Karen Marie Moning—would be awesome in audiobook; I found the reading frustrating, but they have a rabid following, and maybe excellent voice acting is what's needed to bridge the persnickety reader divide; in any case, worth trying the first one as a litmus test.

Ooh! Do you think they let Carrie Fisher narrate her own books??

Podcasts that Will Make Your Life a Better Place to Live

Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is like a master’s lit seminar led by your most-ever compassionate, clever, smarty-pants friends; listen in order. They recap every chapter under discussion at the top of each episode, so no need to reread beforehand if you don’t want to. I went to a live recording of one of their Book 3 chapters last month! It was awesome.

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell; if you love his books, you’ll love his podcast, tho he’s definitely saltier/judgier here (which is a delight and all oh-girl-no-he-di’int when I agree with him, which is often, because he’s very convincing).

Nancy—funny LGBTQ-celebratory series with heart

This American Life—Ira Glass and his team always manage to tell a great story; plus, HIS BALMER ACCENT THO

Radio Lab—same (except for accent thing)

Radio Lab Presents: More Perfect—spin-off series deep-diving into SCOTUS.

Mystery Show hasn’t posted anything since 2015, but the lone season that stands is a delightful and absurdist exploration of little, rando mysteries (like, for example, How tall is Jake Gyllenhal really? A deep-dive into a roiling Internet conspiracy theory; With a cameo by the actor himself), by one of the producers at This American Life.

If you haven’t listened to season 1 of Serial yet (Baltimore teen murdered; ex-boyfriend is in provision for it; but did he really do it?), you haven't lived. Season 2 (How the hell did it go down wi Bowe Bergdahl?) is pretty good, too. This show is what made podcast a word-thing. Another TAL producer.

Code Switch is a brief, thoughtful, weekly look at a story concerning people of color; NPR produced.

The NPR Politics Podcast team has garnered a pretty damned devoted fan base since their RNC/DNC coverage last summer; they are like THEBEST dinner party w your smartest, informedest, considerate-est, dad-jokest friends ever. I love them. They made my first post-Trump foray into news not scary. Well, less scary.

Podcasts I Will Be All the Hell Over When They Finally Drop

Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel—famed psychologist SOMEHOW GETS HER THERAPY PATIENTS TO CONSENT TO RECORDING THEIR REAL SESSIONS. I listened to an intro episode This American Life presented this past spring and was riveted. Episodes to be released in October. I think she maybe specializes in working with couples trying to heal after an infidelity?

Worth Mentioning

Revolutions is just some amateur history buff self-nollijing like crazy on history's most notorious revolutions and Cliff’s Notesing them for us over the course of multiple episodes; I listened to maybe the first couple (starting to cover the English civil wars/House of Stuart/Commonwealth) and plan to one day get back to it. This reminded me of your Great Books: A Linear History reading project.

And Consider

. . . nerding out on the Hamilton cast recording. Almost the entire show is sung, so you can get virtually the entire plot line by carefully listening. I enjoyed my first go-through, began to pick it apart in my second, and was well nigh on my way to rabidity by my third. If you enjoy it and wish to further nerd out, Lin-Manuel Miranda has published a history of the making of the musical, under the same name, ably narrated by Mariska Hargitay, and the Ron Chernow History on which the musical is based is also available on audiobook (and on my holds list at my local library).

This should get you started.

July 3, 2017

The Joshua Tree, U2

I played his album obsessively when it came out in 1987. I listened to it recently for the first time in probably 25 years, and I love it even more. It's complex and poetic—my favorite combination in music.

The last song on the album, "Mothers of the Disappeared," has always been a favorite. It refers to the group of mothers and grandmothers who started protesting daily in front of Argentina's Casa Rosada, the presidential residence, to find out what happened to their sons and daughters who were "disappeared" during Argentina's "Dirty War" in the 1980s. During this time, the military government would come for young people who opposed the regime and they would never be heard from again. Much later we learned that some had been tortured and killed, some dropped from airplanes, young pregnant women kept alive until they gave birth—blindfolded and in silence—and their babies taken away from them. Two good movies about this time period and the aftermath are The Official Story and Captive (Cautiva).

Here are Bono's lyrics to "Mothers of the Disappeared":

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat.

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears.
Hear their heartbeat, we hear their heartbeat.

Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue.
Hear their heartbeats
We hear their heartbeats.

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall.

We live in a political moment when right and wrong, compassion and justice, are openly dismissed as immaterial, risible at best and tyrannical at worst. Since the 1960s liberals have incessantly demanded we right our wrongs—to pay attention to race, the environment, the effects of our foreign policies, to the poor. 2016 felt like a revolt against the psychological pressure that this moral responsibility was exerting, and those who have revolted are glorying in their freedom. How nice to be able to boast about one's whiteness, to dismiss responsibility for the suffering, to be cruel and not feel ashamed of it; this, for some, is a liberating state.

The revolting right wing fancies itself strong and daring, the new punk, the heirs to Howard Roark and John Galt. But it's just weakness, being unable to tolerate the discomfort that conscience and knowledge bring.

Taking care of each other is all that we are here for. Those young people in Argentina had lives, parents who loved them, dreams, and something really terrible happened to them. The experience and memory of suffering are sacred. This song . . . this is what we are supposed to be.

June 18, 2017

"Life with a Candle," by Hiram Larew

Photo by Lynn Weber

I discovered the poetry of Hiram Larew at the recent launch party for the Summer 2017 issue of the Little Patuxent Review. Among others, he read this poem, "Life with a Candle," which I found extraordinary for its ability to convey the wonder and depth of feeling that we sometimes feel in nature. This is a very time-worn theme in poetry, so the fact that he could summon the actual feeling anew is an achievement.

Equally poignant is the theme of longing:
Before there were hills
Or even eyes to up over
There was a distance beyond us
A long far away that can never be near
No matter how fortunate we are, how much we have, what we dreams we have seen realized, there's is always, always, a longing for something—eternity, perfection, childhood, a place, a time, some expression or experience of the fullness of love—that remains, a sore spot in our soul that can flare up when poked.

When you read it, aloud or in your mind's voice, go slowly, like Larew did when he read it.

Hiram Larew

I want to marry this field
Truly and simply
With its wings curving the corners
And its smoothness stunning my knees
My heart is here far around me
And there’s humming and leaning—
Even the trifling breeze

I want this field for my living
To vow to its edges
That nothing comes true
Without greening
Nothing seems bold as my longings
Except sloping
Nothing wakes on my shoulder
But rustling
I hope the strangest hopes in this field
Ever bending

From here
I know that this much of my all is clear—
Before there were hills
Or even eyes to up over
There was a distance beyond us
A long far away that can never be near
There was wishing

I want to carry this field
In my arms
By its being and dust
To a maybe that’s certain
So that our future flickers on grasses
And our children wave from the clouds.

June 17, 2017

Legacy: Alice Porter Schafer Weber

Here she is, my mother as a young woman, passed away eleven years ago today:

Here is one of the things I most admired about my mom: She was very traditional, in all the right ways. We had dinner together every night, made from scratch—a meat, a vegetable, and a starch, and usually a dessert, even if it was just canned pears on a piece of lettuce with some cheddar shredded on top. We said prayers on our knees by our bed every night. There was no swearing in our house. We went to church every Sunday. She taught us to be polite and friendly. She was the straightest of arrows.

She was also a feminist. She hated that her friend, age 50, had to ride her bike to work every day, even in cold and snow, because the husband wouldn't "allow" them to buy a car for her. (Needless to say, he did not bike to work.) She hated how women were treated around the world. One of my favorite stories from her college days at University of Maryland was when  she and a friend, walking across campus, were gestured to by a man in a car. My mom said, "I'm not going over there. He doesn't have any business with us." But her friend couldn't resist the social pressure of ignoring him, so she went to the car—where he exposed himself. She had backbone, agency, and self-respect. She always said that if she won the lottery, her dream for the money would be to start a foundation to help women develop self-esteem.

For her, there was no contradiction between being traditional and being modern, in being a feminist and a homemaker, a professional (nurse, in her case) and a family-first mother. Values were values. She embraced the new ones without rejecting the traditional ones that had true worth.

In her honor, my sisters and I created a group called Team Alice with the charitable organization Kiva. Kiva makes micro-loans to people all over the world to help them pursue their potential and become self-sufficient. Even $25 can go a long way for someone in Bolivia or Pakistan. And when the loan is repaid, you can lend the money out again, blessing person after person with the same initial investment.

If you are interested in supporting women in this way, please go to the Team Alice page on Kiva.com to learn more:


May 23, 2017

Falling on Black Days

Photo by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

Viktor Frankl lived the darkest of black days, stubbornly refusing to die in Auschwitz and helping others whenever he could. He expressed his formula for life in the concentration camp—and anywhere else, for that matter—like this:

May 19, 2017

Water on the Rock, Boughs Shaken on a Tree

Suicide is nearly incomprehensible. Wanting to end pain, whether psychic or physical—and they both can feel unbearable—we understand. Putting your loved ones in that hurt locker like no other . . . we can't.

Chris Cornell was the last celebrity I would have expected to kill himself. He had talent, a creative life, and a family he was very close to. Like Eddie Vedder, he seemed to have emerged into a mid-life that was healthy and happy while still being a compelling artist.

We don't know what was going on with him leading up to his death, and it's possible that his death was the result of a prescription drug related state rather than a truly deliberate suicide. But two artists have helped me make sense of at least the idea of suicide this week.

One is the singer-songwriter Sara Groves, who wrote a song about addiction called "On Your Mark." (Listen to the song here.) These are the lyrics that struck me:

Days they turn into lifetimes
Water it drips on a rock
What could be stronger in time
Than our fears and our thoughts

Soft water wearing down hard rock is a well-used analogy, for good reason. The relentless pressure of bad thoughts can wear down even the strongest rocks of our lives: love, children, hope, reason, even the fun and thrills and small delights that light up existence. This is the power of time.

The other artist is John Knowles, who wrote the high school curriculum classic A Separate Peace. If you haven't read this short novel, you may want to skip the rest. In the novel, the teenage protagonist makes a split-second decision that has terrible repercussions. Simmering with resentment at the annoying good fortune and charm of his best friend, he has an impulse to shake the bough of a tree that his friend is perched on. This friend, this golden boy, falls to the ground and breaks his back.

The frailty of the human body has always seemed one of the best arguments against intelligent design. Who would design a body that, if deprived of air for a minute or two, expires? That can be destroyed by a passing accident? Bill Cosby described how, when he was a child, his older brother died and he stood by the coffin thinking, "Just get up." It seemed crazy that his brother's death was irreversible. It just takes a second to alter everything. This is the power of the moment.

Suicide is the lethal collision of the power of time and the power of the moment. The wearing down of the mind—whose attachment to family and the prospect of happiness normally keep us bolted to life—weakens us so that our momentary bad judgment becomes irreversible.

A man who survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge spoke with NPR about the experience. He was, of course, depressed and suicidal. But, he said, the moment he jumped, he instantly regretted it. He knew immediately that it was a terrible mistake. He miraculously survived, but for most, immediately is just not quick enough.

May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell

"Times are gone for honest men
 and sometimes far too long for snakes"

May 4, 2017

The Virtue of Cheerfulness

Let me introduce you to someone. This is my father:

He has some faults, like all of us. Some that have annoyed me quite a bit over the years. But it is only recently that I have realized that his seemingly innate cheerfulness is not just a personality feature (one that I, sadly, do not have). It is a virtue. A moral virtue.

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I was inadvertently exposed to the official meeting between Barack Obama and the putative winner of the election. The election of an amoral fraud and narcissist was devastating to me, and the fact that Obama would have to shake his hand and make nice . . . it made me ill. Still, I watched the clip, dreading what I would see.

What I saw was so improbable: Barack Obama looking as chipper as ever, conducting himself with grace and self-possession. And as I watched him, I felt something I didn't expect: a lightening of my heart. I hadn't realized till then how fearful I was of the devastation that Obama must have felt. Nor how critically important his lack of devastation would be.

In the months following the disastrous political travesty of Trump's election, I have mostly been depressed—and kind of militantly so. My war-weary liberal friends would post on Facebook with a forced tenacity that we couldn't crumple, that there were people in the world who needed us to be fierce and fight for them. I was all, Eff that—I'm crumpling. Something terrible has just happened. Can't we take a minute and mourn it?

But then I think of Barack Obama on November 9 in the White House with Trump, looking confident and unruffled. And I think of Hillary Clinton on November 9, hiking in New York and looking chill and happy with a supporter she met on the trail. And I think of my father at 90 years of age, battling sciatica and still ending each phone call with "Call me if you need me!" And I think of the doctor's office I visited today after getting lost and arriving late, and how nice and upbeat the staff was, such a balm on a difficult day. I thought of my own guilt as I've crawled inside my sadness for weeks on end, and my husband who still always has a smile and a sympathetic ear, no matter how high up the laundry piles and how many times a night he has to listen to me sigh like a martyr.

Cheerfulness is powerful because it lifts people's spirits. And when their spirits are raised, people feel like they can fight another day. Cheerfulness puts a mosquito net around our own pains and tries, as much as is practical and healthy, to protect those around us from being stung a hundred times a day by our misery. Cheerfulness acknowledges that the world is more than us, that whatever we're feeling and going through, others have their own worries and cares and joys and jobs to do.

I'm not good at cheerfulness. And I'm cognizant of the way a melancholy temperament can free people to be open about their own sadness, to let down their guard, to feel like they don't have to be striving and winning every damn second of the day. But I appreciate cheerfulness, the expression of a resilient spirit that rallies us to change.

March 2, 2017

Hometown Boy: John Rawls

No, this is not John Rawls:

The foremost political philosopher of the twentieth century was born right here in Baltimore in 1921. John Rawls' philosophy is especially relevant in these times when so many government policies that were enacted to promote fairness and the common good are under attack.

Rawls said that we should decide upon what kind of society we want in the following way: Imagine yourself in a room with other people tasked with making up the rules and format of society. You are all under a "veil of ignorance," however: You know nothing about your identities—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, handicapped or not, brilliant or slow-minded. How would you then want society to work? Rawls called this the original position.

Rawls also endorsed the difference principle, which would ensure that (quoted from Wikipedia) "those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged."

People like Trump and his supporters believe, among other things, that government should spend the least money possible on public projects—essentially enough military spending to ensure our supremacy and not much else. Nearly everything else—from public beautification to potable water—should be cut so taxes remain extremely low. While this proposition is often defended on principles of frugality and freedom, here is what it would really do: turn the United States into a Third World country.

Third World countries are not defined by poverty; there is plenty of money in those countries. They are defined by inequality and the privatization of the common good. In Third World countries, a small sliver of the population has the wealth to provide for themselves the goods and services that First World countries' governments provide for all: security, infrastructure, safe food and water, beauty, nature. The wealthy have houses that are fortresses, with security systems and guards. They buy safe water. They fund roads that they themselves need. They go on vacation and hold land. They fly to Europe or the United States for medical treatment. The rest of society is left to fend for themselves. The roads are dilapidated, the communities filthy, the food and water of poor quality, the health care very basic.

The Republican hegemony in government right now is cutting school lunches while paying for Trump to maintain three "White Houses"—New York, Mar-a-Lago, and the real one. They are killing off the EPA (and planning on axing employees) while arranging additional tax breaks for the rich. The problem with our country isn't that we don't have money; it's that we have ceased to care about the common good. 

Looked at this way, there are multiple reasons, even for the rich, to expand the public sector:

First, it means that, in the long run, your children will inherit a First World country rather than a Third World country. They will live in a variant of Switzerland or France rather than a variant of Nigeria or Bangladesh.

Second, it passes the veil of ignorance test. If, right now, you had to enter a lottery in which there was a ticket for every person in the United States showing their exact history, education, physical condition, and level of wealth or poverty—if in essence your life were randomly switched with another US resident—how then would you want society to function? You might end up as a middle-class person in Ohio; a wealthy Texas oil man; a white construction worker with chronic health problems; or poor black man in prison. Informed of the odds, knowing your likelihood of being assigned any of these lives, would you vote for more tax breaks for the rich, or would you vote for universal health care, green spaces in cities, school lunches, and prison reform?

Of course, you would have to know what life is like for other people. This is something many well-off people resist knowing. Studies show that wealthy people who live far away from struggling people tend to contribute to charities geared toward arts and higher education, whereas wealthy people who live close to poor communities contribute to food banks and housing and the like. There may be self-interest involved, but they may also simply be more familiar with the struggles of poor people.

Third, expanding the public sector means we are honest about something: our circumstances may change. The "life lottery" described above isn't simply a thought experiment—it's a real risk. The stock market could crash, we could develop a debilitating illness, natural disaster could destroy our homes, a cyberattack could debilitate our economy. We may individually fall, or a chunk of the comfortable class we feel securely part of could be sheared off like a glacier calving.

A small, unlikely image may best convey this reality: the handicap-accessible crosswalk.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 as a type of overarching legislation guaranteeing rights and protections, much like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Among its provisions was that public services and spaces must be made accessible to those with disabilities (within reasonable limits). There was some hue and cry about the cost and "pampering" people—conservatives' eternal complaint when it comes to anyone but themselves—but the law was passed and accessible crosswalks and entrances became the norm.

It was when I worked for a publisher specializing in disability issues that I first ran across this truth: nearly all of us will at some time be disabled. We will break a leg or be recovering from surgery. We will walk with groceries in one hand and steer a baby stroller with another. We will walk alongside an elderly relative in a wheelchair. We will ourselves become that elderly relative.

This is the upside of the common good. We may pursue it because of our moral obligation to care for others. But we are part of the commons ourselves. Behind the veil of ignorance, we may allow for inequality: not everyone has to be a millionaire. But we would surely choose for a baseline quality of life for all.

March 1, 2017

La La Land I Love You But

As happy as I am for Moonlighting's success at the Oscars, I hate that it was accompanied by the denigration of La La Land as some sort of white fantasyland.

But, although I heartily dispute the casting of La La Land in that light, it's not helped by this shot that takes place in a jazz club in the heyday of the characters' romance:

Why, WHY, Damien Chazelle?? Did not one person say, "Dude, this is not good"? Did he learn nothing from Game of Thrones?

I really think he should re-edit that scene when the DVD comes out. Just snipping out a few of the most egregious moments would help tremendously. Or CGI a couple of white people in the crowd—even that do it.

February 10, 2017

Trump, Sociopath

It appears that we have a sociopath sitting in the Oval Office with his hands on the nuclear codes. Of all the reasons to want Trump out of the White House, this is the most compelling.

A sociopath is someone who is unable to relate emotionally to other people, who sees other people as objects, and who lacks a conscience. A sociopath can’t be diagnosed with precision; all designations, including this one, are ultimately guesses, a matter of “he appears to be . . .”

But every action and word from Trump makes perfect sense in the context of sociopathy. He is not [read: appears not to be] motivated by human relationships, empathy, or spiritual concerns. He is motivated by only a very few, clear things: attention, status, power, and pleasure.

What a Sociopath Lacks: The Interior Life 

Imagine your life devoid of your relationships. You have a spouse, perhaps, but he or she has no greater emotional impact on you than a table or vase does. Your friends are bodies in a room. You are walking through the world, but it is empty of feeling and connection. This is your reality, every day.

By all accounts, this is Trump’s reality, every day. Those who have socialized with him long-term tell the same story: He will walk through parties, shaking hands and joking but never talking with anyone in-depth. He will play golf with acquaintances, but doesn’t have friends. His marriages were superficial and he was a philanderer. Even now he appears extremely distant from his wife and young son, who don’t live with him.

This inability to understand or even experience the emotions of others explains some of his most famous faux pas. He was once placed at a table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner next to the model Vendela, who left the table after an hour in tears because, she said, he talked about nothing but the comparative attractiveness of the breasts of the women at the dinner. This is very strange behavior, so tone deaf it nearly defies belief, but it makes perfect sense for someone who has no feeling for those around him. You can see it, too, in those photos of him striding forward holding the sole umbrella over his own head while the women with him scurry behind; or how, at his inauguration, he exited his limousine to meet the Obamas, leaving his wife Melania behind. He is trapped in his own head, his own concerns, needs, reality.

You might think that his grown children are exceptions to this lack of connection. His children are enmeshed with him and, through family and business ties, are uniquely loyal, the trait that he most values in others. Also, they are extensions of his ego: he takes great offense at any public slights to them. But there is no evidence of true warmth or a personal relationship there. A 2016 meme compared how Trump and Obama talked about their daughters. Obama talked about their character and future; Trump talked about Ivanka’s body.

His lack of an interior life is evident in his mocking of Chuck Schumer for shedding tears over the plight of refugees. Trump proudly announced that he hadn’t cried since he was a baby. Think about that. If all you knew about someone was that they had never cried, it would be enough to raise red flags. Not only do the myriad tragedies of the world have no impact on him, neither do the pains, losses, and sadnesses of his own family. He never felt hurt by a childhood friend or wrestled with difficult emotions as a kid. He didn’t cry when his parents died, when his children went through difficulties, when the Twin Towers came down. We know, in fact, that when the Twin Towers came down, one of his first remarks was this: that now his building was the tallest building in New York.

And you can see it too in the most chilling moment of all of the 2016 presidential season: when, after the election, in a briefing by top government officials, he reportedly asked, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” It’s a stunning statement, absolutely shocking, an indication of the most harrowing disconnect from human life. His son Donald Jr.’s statement that keeping all Muslims from the US was like refusing to eat a bowl of Skittles was eerily similar: refusing to eat a bowl of Skittles hurts no one; refusing to give refuge to suffering people hurts many. It’s not just the insensitive imagery that worries; it’s the true lack of understanding of human suffering. This is sociopathy at its core: other people are as real as a bowl of hard candies.

What a Sociopath Has: The Limited, Sick Pleasures of the Narcissist

If you are a sociopath without normal feelings toward other people, what is left for you? In a mental world without relationships, what will fill your days, your thoughts? You have the same psychic energy that all people have—the simple buzz of consciousness—but very reduced means of engaging it.

What is left to the sociopath are bodily pleasures, thrills, and the most elemental of mental pleasures—game-playing. It’s hardly worth the time to dwell on the former: Trump’s history of self-indulgence is well-known, from his constant philandering to his gold-festooned residences to his impulse to touch women’s bodies without their consent.

The mental pleasures are just as notable. Sociopaths are obsessed with status and winning, which occupy the mind-space that is taken up with more diverse concerns in normal people. After winning the election, most presidential candidates are eager to start learning everything they need to transition to this most weighty of positions. But Trump decided to go on a “thank you tour” of the states whose electors supported him. He simply didn’t want the pleasures of the campaign—having thousands of people focusing their energies on him in adulation—to end. Now that he is in office, those close to him say he has no attention span, isn’t interested in the job, spends most of his time watching TV or on Twitter. He couldn’t stop tweeting if he wanted to: the constant obsession over his status, the need for attention, the feeling of power and domination—these are the only things that can interest his stunted consciousness. Without the feeling of mass worship, governing is a bore.

The sociopath’s instrumental view of other people and obsession with status explains even his infamous tweets about Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson. He urged Pattinson to dump Stewart, who had flirted with another man. Trump said Pattinson could do so much better, inviting him to come to the Miss Universe pageant and take his pick. We know that for Trump, men are valued for their wealth and status, women for their attractiveness. If a woman reduces your status by cheating, go get a different one. The idea that you forgive someone who made a mistake because you love them, because you have a relationship with them, makes no sense in his world.

The same can be said for his interactions with men. He hobnobs with other wealthy and famous men, but if there is the slightest hint of criticism, he dumps them. When Jerry Seinfeld, with whom Trump had socialized and worked, said he was uncomfortable coming to an upcoming Trump event because of Trump’s growing birtherism, Trump immediately turned on him and called him a failure. Just as, for Trump, women are either “10s” or “dogs,” men are either “great guys” (= unqualified support) or “losers” (= anything less).

The Appeal of the Sociopath 

Psychologist Martha Stout points out that it’s very hard for people to recognize sociopaths because most people are normal. They simply can’t imagine that a person would act the way a sociopath seems to be acting. So they make excuses: Trump is just being Trump. He doesn’t really mean it. Take it seriously but not literally.

There’s another angle, though. Although Stout is quick to point out that not all sociopaths are charmers, as is often the stereotype, there is something inherently charming about their lack of conscience—at least from afar. When supporters say they like Trump because he “tells it like it is,” “He’s not afraid to say what he’s thinking,” or “He’s like me—just says it straight,” they are acknowledging that he flouts social propriety. This is something that we all dream about but—rightly—seldom act on. It’s the appeal of the flight attendant who quits his job by opening the emergency hatch and jumping down the slide. It’s the TV detective who goes up to the rich bastard suspected of murder and flicks him on the nose. The fantasy of acting on our instincts without worrying about repercussions dovetails nicely with the thrill-seeking, boredom-avoidant behaviors of the sociopath.

The daring of the sociopath and lack of shame can make him a great storyteller. We can hoot and cheer when Trump says he’s going to lock Hillary Clinton up or build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it. So bold! What will he say next?! One likely sociopath I know was an extremely popular guy with many, many acquaintances and a bucketload of great stories. There was the one where he gave a ride home to a blind work colleague and started driving erratically on the highway, terrifying the guy. Or the tricks he played on neighborhood kids on Halloween.  They’re hilarious to listen to, but when you start imagining actually doing these things, you realize how unnatural it would be. When this guy died, it turned out he had used his last months on earth spending his wife’s money—the wife who had solely supported him and had falsified paperwork to retroactively add him to her insurance—on prostitutes and other women (including some of his nurses). It was all there on his phone and computer, no effort to hide it. It was bold, no doubt, a big, fat middle finger to propriety and our little social conventions. It was also stone-cold sociopathy.

The Upshot: We Cannot Have a Sociopath in the White House

It’s abnormal to not worry about repercussions. It’s abnormal to flout social convention. It’s abnormal to comment on your daughter’s breasts, to decline to pay people you’ve employed, to install a white nationalist web publisher in the Oval Office, to bring the mistresses of your opponent’s spouse to a debate, to casually consider nuclear strikes.

For many reasons, including his ability to buy his way out of real consequences, Trump has gotten away with sociopathic behavior his entire life, as he himself is eager to tell you. But such a person cannot be allowed to hold the highest, most powerful office in our country. He is immoral and dangerous. He must be removed.

Note: The information about sociopaths in this essay comes from various writers and psychologists. I highly recommend Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door for anyone seeking to learn more.

January 16, 2017

Resistance Is Not Futile: The Illusionist

The 2006 film The Illusionist had the bad luck of coming out at the same time as another movie about a magician in Belle Epoque Europe, The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman. But while The Prestige was an enjoyable puzzle movie with a twist ending, I've always preferred The Illusionist, which pitted Edward Norton's peasant magician Eisenheim against Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Leopold is ambitious and cruel. He is engaged to Sophie, Eisenheim's childhood love, and she is terrified of him. The film follows Eisenheim's attempts to free her from Leopold, including a tense scene in which Eisenheim briefly humiliates Leopold during a magic show. From that moment on, Leopold, with his pride and hatred, is determined to destroy Eisenheim.

What I like about The Illusionist is its theme of power. Leopold has everything he needs to destroy the lives of these two innocent people: power, money, an army, spies, control of vast resources. This shot illustrates this dynamic: Leopold has the fancy uniform, the luxuries of the palace, servants, the army generals, and Sophie herself, all on his side of the frame. Eisenheim is alone on the right, in his simple black suit. He has only himself.

But it may be that he is enough. He has resources that are less obvious and impressive but ultimately very powerful: talent, public support, fame. In this historical moment where resistance seems futile, he finds ways to resist. This is the basis of so many of our oldest stories: from David standing against the superior Philistine army to John McClane taking down the terrorists at Nakatomi Tower. The Illusionist is a beautiful version of that essential tale.

January 7, 2017

Why Emma Stone Should Win an Oscar

The great onscreen duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up La La Land, an amazing joyride and my favorite movie of the year. These two are the improbable successors to Tracy and Hepburn. I mean, just look:

Of all the awards I'd most like to see La La Land receive at the Oscars, the one I hope for the most is an acting award for Emma Stone. The final scene of the movie shows why.

The movie is rich with the ingredients that make great cinema. Look at the lighting, the color, the composition of this shot:

Or the freshness and energy of this one:

Throughout the movie, Stone and Gosling dance, sing, emote, and dazzle. They play scenes that are playful, poignant, creative, sad, energetic—everything. But nowhere is Stone's talent more evident than in the last scene, in which her character, Mia, performs at an audition for what could be a breakthrough part. We've seen Mia pursue her acting career with varying levels of humiliation and dashed hopes, and this feels like her last chance. She comes into the audition room, and there is no direction and no script. The producers ask her to just  . . . perform.

The whole lengthy scene is as plain as can be. Stone is wearing a simple, pale gray sweater. There is no set design, no clever cinematography. It is just Stone standing in front of a blank wall. And she begins to talk: "My aunt used to live in Paris . . ." Her plain talk soon evolves into a light, sweet song, and we're off. For minutes on end, we do nothing but look at her face and hear her voice, and it's magic.

Emma Stone is unprepossessing in appearance here, but that's the point: the ineffability of talent. The whole movie is a demonstration of the joys of art: the dancing, the music, the emotion, the visuals. But the director seems to be saying, in this last scene, that art isn't a matter of tricks and spectacle. You can take away all of the yummy treats that the movie has offered and be left with one single, simple offering, and it's still a feast.

December 17, 2016

Moby-Dick and the Virtues of Straight Talk

The Left's relativism and postmodern sensibility have been turned on them. After decades of preaching about the bias implicit in every source and message, we found our ideology successful beyond our dreams, to our horror. Fox News railed against the mainstream media's bias and asserted the legitimacy of their abject partisan nonsense—and it was only the gateway drug to Breitbart and InfoWars and all their despicable brethren. It turns out there is such a thing as truth and objectivity, and the surging subscription rates at the New York Times post-election show how keenly we on the Left have come to appreciate the importance of affirming that.

The fractured and competing narrative voices of contemporary novels are legitimate in their own right. We all see the world differently—just ask any pair of siblings about an event from their childhood, or last week even. Our minds are entire universes but parallel ones, or rather oblique ones, where the overlap in consciousness and perception is always partial. The stream of news, flowing into our heads from radically different sources, only mirrors the stream of perception in general. And the differential in those streams of perception are nothing compared to the terrible, beautiful, radical difference of our minds.

But despite the honesty of the postmodern  project, I can't help but wonder if the annus horribilis of 2016 will yield an artistic return to simpler narratives and affirmations of objective reality. I find myself shying away from the flip, jaded voices of new fiction and turning toward what feels like the solid ground of classics. Moby-Dick, my most recent read, is the most postmodern of non-postmodern novels (some refer to it as "pre-postmodern") for its humor, pastiche nature, variety of mental states, and debatable realism, and yet it feels sturdy and reliable and rich. Those ropes and winches and anchors attach us to a real experience and provide an escape from the paranoid fantasies of a new type of Other. What are the limits of empathy for the Other when those Others are chanting "Lock her up" and saluting like Nazi sympathizers and asserting that Obama is a Muslim ("and no one will convince me otherwise!") or a one-time male prostitute in Southeast Asia?

If bringing to life the variety of experiences in the world and learning to inhabit the consciousness of others was one of the artistic tasks of the late twentieth century, then perhaps rediscovering our connection to reality and objectivity—without retreating into a simplistic reductionism—will be the artistic task of the decades to come. Relying on satire won't do; for all its brilliance it alienates the Other in a way we can't afford. Because artists are artists, it probably won't take any form we can predict. But a turn must be coming.

There can hardly be a more important mission at this moment. A few days ago a man of right-wing persuasion burst into a DC pizza parlor with his gun blazing because he read on a website that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from its premises. I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's warning: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." Finding a path back to a shared rationality is critical to preventing more.

November 10, 2016

The Whispering Enemy

In 1944 Budapest, a woman walked down the street disguised as a peasant. She was part of a wealthy Jewish family that was now hiding from the Nazis. On the street she was recognized by an acquaintance she and her husband had socialized with at glitzy government affairs. Upon being asked if there was anything she could do to help the family, the acquaintance brushed the woman off. And as they parted, she whispered to the Jewish woman, "Now it's our turn."

The incident is recorded in Marianne Szegedy-Maszak's family memoir I Kiss Your Hand Many Times. Among the many horrible stories recounted from her family's past, I found this one the most distressing. It is a reminder of the fissures that lie beneath the surface of even well-functioning communities.

These fissures were evident in the Rwandan genocide as well.  Hutu villagers who had lived and worked peacefully beside their Tutsi neighbors for years turned on them and literally hacked them to death with machetes—hard, vigorous work to hack to death 1 million people over three months. Many of these Hutus were compelled by the military hierarchy to do so on pain of death themselves, but some took to it with enthusiasm after being exposed to a wave of hate radio in the preceding months. Radio was an influential medium in Rwanda, and hosts called the Tutsis "cockroaches" and proclaimed God required them to rid the earth of the Tutsi evil.

The role of local newspapers in Nazi Germany was similar: to inflame or unleash hatred among the citizenry. A book I worked on once on this very topic told of a old Christian woman who had gone to the funeral of her best friend, a Jewish neighbor. Another neighbor wrote a letter to their local newspaper denouncing the woman's attendance at the funeral of a Jew. To which the Christian best friend responded, in perhaps my favorite historical quotation, "Are you drunk?"

These are the moments that come to mind as I begin to process the political events of the last months. One moment of the campaign coverage stands out to me: a video of one of Donald Trump's many campaign rallies. The rally has ended and attendees are leaving the auditorium. One reporter's camera is rolling as an older man in jeans and a red cap walks by. He looks to be in his 60s, maybe 70s. His hair is white, but he has one of those good, solid midwestern faces: nice-looking, like someone who'd be a fantastic grandpa. But he turns to the journalists gathered there and launches into a vile, hateful tirade against the journalists. Letting out an intense emotional hatred for people who had done, essentially, nothing at all to him.

One reason this election season has been so depressing is that it revealed the veiled hatred so many of us have toward one another. Tee-shirts that read "One rope, one tree, one journalist, some assembly required." Statements about "draining the swamp" that are all too reminiscent of previous references to "vermin" and "cockroaches." People writing that Hillary Clinton is "evil, EVIL—she wants to destroy America," inflamed by the emergence of a powerful alt-right media. A Republican official stating that if Trump doesn't win, he's going to pick up his musket. To do what with, exactly? He won't say explicitly, but what do muskets do other than kill?

Some black writers have commented that what white liberals are feeling today is what other minorities feel all the time. And I know that liberals have indulged in hateful rhetoric not just toward the candidate but toward fellow citizens. I appreciate that we have been sheltered, and also that these trends have not yet consumed us. But at one time the neighbors of Rwanda greeted each other warmly each morning. And Hungarian acquaintances dined in shared luxury. And a German woman and her Jewish best friend laughed and chatted as they hung the laundry together in a land not yet torn by war.

September 23, 2016

Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson, who passed away this week, made the type of movies that are becoming more rare these days: neither genre nor totally arty. There was L.A. Confidential, which launched the career of Russell Crowe and put Guy Pearce on the map; 8 Mile, which convincingly portrayed Eminen's early life; Wonder Boys, with Michael Douglas playing a rumpled professor; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, one of the best thrillers ever made; and The River Wild, a thriller set on a whitewater rafting trip. I'd watch any one of these movies again in a heartbeat.

L.A. Confidential and the thrillers come closest to genre, but not in any kind of cliched way. I always think of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) in tandem with Fatal Attraction (1987)—two movies made within a few years of each other whose villains are disturbed women in the throes of a personal crisis, wreaking incredible evil but retaining their complexity and even a touch of sympathy.

But in some ways Wonder Boys is my favorite. It's lovable for its appealing mess of a main character and also for its . . .  I don't know, mildness is actually the word I think of. It's not intense or a rush or hilariously funny or spectacular or sexy. It's just a story, one that offers the lovely and increasingly rare allure of the mid-range. Though I haven't seen it yet, this is the kind of movie I imagine Florence Foster Jenkins to be. Mild, funny, charming, and not without depth.

I also appreciate that that he adapted Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes, a lovely film based on the novel by the quintessential "woman's author." That Hanson saw past the cultural framing of Jennifer Weiner's work as maudlin and feminine, that he saw it as art worthy of cinematic treatment, is one of the most admirable traits of Hanson's career.

September 1, 2016

Suspicious Reading

A lot of talk about literature and culture is knee-jerk. From grad schools to websites, we've learned to take an almost hostile view toward items of popular culture, especially if the cultural product is American and middle-brow (and, I would argue, feminine). We think we have a superior view of a book or movie and can see (unlike the masses) how reactionary it really is.

This viewpoint is the foundation of critique. It is the approach that sees art as disguised ideological messages or conundrums that even the author is likely to be unaware of. Reading becomes an exercise in unpacking the harmful dominant messages that the seemingly innocent text is foisting on us.

There's a lot of merit to that approach. As a feminist critic myself, I do critique all the time. And I still remember with admiration one of the first pieces of critique I read, Terry Eagleton's analysis of The Mill on the Floss.  But it's become a really unthinking and reflexive mindset—horribly superficial and self-satisfied. So it was with great pleasure that I read Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, which takes apart pretty thoroughly critique's death grip on our critical faculties.

Felski's argumentation is too varied to convey here, but to give a taste of it: She discusses Eve Sedgwick, the queer theorist who has begun to question the hegemony of critique: "Sedgwick wonders at the ease with which suspicious reading has settled into a mandatory method rather than one approach among others. Increasingly prescriptive as well as excruciatingly predictable, its effects can be stultifying, pushing all thought down predetermined paths."

"Pushing all thought down predetermined paths" says it well. How many people's response to, say, Twilight is immediately (and predictably and stultifyingly), "It dresses up stalking as romance." Well, it really doesn't, but of all the narratives we've been taught to be suspicious of, romantic ones top the list. Romantic narrative is nearly always interpreted as being bad for women, despite the fact that women seem to love it (a love that is then framed as stupidity or naivete or lack of self-esteem). This kind of interpretation amounts to scanning the horizon for key words or key situations that the critic then gloms onto and pastes a label on. What it's missing is thoughtfulness and an attention to evidence.

Felski's book is academic (which means, among other things, it's way too long and jargony), but it's a good documentation of our efforts to break through the cage of critique and interact more freely—and intelligently—with art.

August 29, 2016

Southside with You

Southside with You has an unlikely inspiration: the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, in Chicago in 1989. Barack and Michelle would marry three years later, but Michelle was resistant to the young law student at first. She was his liaison for his law internship at her firm that summer, and she was wary of how the firm would view any attachment between them—and of his smooth confidence.

The movie takes place over one entire day. Barack asked Michelle to go to a community meeting with him, but after he picks her up, he sheepishly announces the meeting isn't for another few hours. They go to a museum, then lunch in a park, then the meeting, then a movie, and finally the drive home.

This is the first thing I like about the film: its unusual structure. Each event has its own atmosphere: the feel of the streets at morning or night, the changing light and sky. And each event moves their relationship forward, though not always in a straight line. Also, I suspect that most couples have a day like this—a moment early in their relationship where they spent all day long together and that remains memorable because of what was revealed over the course of that many hours together. There have been apt comparisons to Before Sunrise, but I think this film is actually better because more happens. Before Sunrise is a bit of a slice of life, but Southside with You is that plus more.

For one, it's funny. Michelle comes from an accomplished family, and when Barack pulls up in his disintegrating yellow Datsun, Michelle climbs in and finds a rusted hole where her feet should go. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle, and her wry disapproval of Barack is played a little too often—the script's fault more than Sumpter's, I think. But still—funny.

The acting would be virtue number two. Sumpter is a good, solid Michelle: grounded, smart, independent, and lively. But Parker Sawyers is a brilliant Barack Obama. There were times when I had to remind myself that it was an actor and not really Obama on screen. He was the closest to the real subject that I've seen in any biopic. But it's more than just mimicry. Sawyers creates a plausible version of his subject as a young man on the brink of his future. Michelle can see, and we can too, that he could almost go either way. He's so adored by those around him (the folks at the community meeting, for example, not to mention the partners at the law firm), and he's just on that edge between confident and arrogant.

Here's where the day-long format works to advantage. The film provides opportunities for Michelle to see past what might look like overweening cockiness. She's annoyed that he misled her about when the meeting started, but they go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and their mutual absorption in the art brings them back together. They go to the meeting, and the neighborhood's almost cloying love for him makes her roll her eyes; but that's countered by the realization of his obvious investment in these people's lives and community.

Obama's speech at the community meeting was one of the weaker moments of the movie, but only because of the frequent cuts to members of the audience looking skeptical and then eventually nodding sagely. The director could have used a lighter hand here. But the speech itself was everything it should have been, showing his incredible oratory and his unshakable belief in the power of pragmatic, incremental change. While the community's appeal for a recreation center has been turned down, Obama urges them to take "no" as "on"—as in "carry on." The no is just a first step. Then you figure out why they said no and what you can do to address that before trying again.

This principle comes in handy when they go to see Do the Right Thing and Michelle's worst nightmare comes true. They are spotted together by a senior partner. They muddle through, but Michelle gets in the car with a declaration: "now this [meaning them] will never happen." Now he is driving her home and they are subdued. But if we think he's leaving it at that, we don't know Barack Obama. He pulls the car aside at a Baskin-Robbins. Earlier in the day he had bought her a piece of pie, but she turned him down: "I'm more an ice cream kind of girl." As he said at the meeting, figure out someone's objection and then address it. The sweetness of the gesture and his determination, which is insistent but also gentle and respectful, creates an opening for them.

The give and take between them is so key. They are both brilliant and accomplished, but otherwise quite different. She has the most solid of loving families, and he was essentially abandoned by his parents. She is cautious, and he is daring. He challenges her to be less fearful. She challenges him to forgive his parents. Parker Sawyers' understated portrayal of Barack's pain in this regard is just beautifully done. The director, Richard Tanne, never lets the characters slip into caricatures or types. She's serious but not prissy. He's smooth but also soulful.

Likewise the film itself is never a caricature or a type. It has its own unusual rhythm and feel. Quiet and leisurely in a way, it's never political or obvious. But I found it quite extraordinary. Not perfect, but beautiful.  

August 23, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Recently Robert Reich shared a link to an interview on The American Conservative website with the writer J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia in poverty and has just published a book about Appalachia called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. The topic at hand in the interview was why poor whites support Trump, but Vance discusses much more than that.

Vance talks about the challenges facing the type of poor white communities that support Trump. Poor whites are one of the few demographics that you can still mock with impunity. Multiple social crises plague these communities—drug addiction, loss of jobs, family violence. And poor rural whites often like Trump because Trump sounds like them: he's not political or careful. Trump "actively fights elite sensibilities" and spurns the condescension that has been poured on them for decades.

Vance also talks about the virtues of these communities—about his grandmother and others in his community who were admirable and decent and interesting. He notes that the Scots-Irish culture of honor is deeply rooted there. These people aren't stereotypes or cartoons; they are individuals who are persevering amid terrible circumstances and who have rich, worthwhile lives.

Where he falters, I think, is when it comes to politics. There's a strain of criticism in recent years toward liberals who think of themselves as such humanitarians but are revealed to be prejudiced jerks. The 1997 film Waco: The Rules of Engagement is a case in point. The filmmaker toured the country taking down prosperous liberals who sneered at southern idiots who joined David Koresh's cult. The novel The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter skewered white progressives for their hypocrisy and hidden racism. Vance has a bit of this. While Republicans put too much emphasis on personal responsibility and values, ignoring the role of economic hardship and throwing up their hands at the cultural problems, he takes liberals to task for dismissing the agency and dignity of poor whites.

These are not equivalent faults, however. Vance tips his hat at Ta-Nehisi Coates and admits, "Too many conservatives look at that situation, say 'well that’s a cultural problem, nothing we can do,' and then move on.  They’re right that it’s a cultural problem: I learned domestic strife from my mother, and she learned it from her parents.  But to speak 'culture' and then move on is a total cop-out. There are public policy solutions to draw from experiences like this: How could my school have better prepared me for domestic life? How could child welfare services have given me more opportunities to spend time with my Mamaw and my aunt, rather than threatening me–as they did–with the promise of foster care if I kept talking? These are tough, tough problems, but they’re not totally immune to policy interventions."

As for liberals, he offers: "Neither are they entirely addressable by government.  It’s just complicated." Liberals tend to look to economic solutions: to provide financial support and to throw money at schools.  He warns that you can throw money at school, but that won't solve problems if the entire culture is permeated with family violence and drug addiction. In addition, liberal handouts are insulting to a people for whom honor and dignity are so important.

The longer I thought about this, the angrier it made me. It's unfortunate that "handouts" are humiliating to receive, but financial help is better than no help. Schools absolutely cannot make up for toxic home environments, but they can at least provide basic skills and a safe haven and maybe even decent air conditioning and heat and plumbing–and yes, even life skills to avoid repeating the mistakes of past generations. A culture of honor, even if it has roots in "Scots-Irish" heritage rather than ghetto street values, is nothing to be admired, especially if it results in scapegoating and short-term emotional payoff at the expense of long-term well-being.

It's also unfortunate that poor whites respond to these challenges by scapegoating foreigners and Muslims and progressives, who are actually the only ones attempting to understand and address their problems. Vance claims that neither party has done anything to help these communities, but that's patently untrue. It is consistently liberals who try to implement policies to help people help themselves: addiction counseling in jail, early childhood intervention programs, vocational training, safe lead paint removal. Vance claims that poor whites are humiliated by the "Bush/Obama" foreign policy and military failures, that they join the military in disproportionate numbers but that their experience in the army leaves them nothing to be proud of. Well, I'm sorry that we can't conjure up a just war so that people can feel good about their military service; that's a ridiculous thing to expect. And the military failures are, again, not equally the fault of Republicans and Democrats. One party got the US into an untenable fight, and another party recognized it and got us out.  

Vance says early on in the interview: "We need to judge less and understand more." That is precisely the liberal ethic, one that is broadly mocked by conservatives. Liberals are both more idealistic and more pragmatic than conservatives: We believe that we can observe reality, try out practical measures, and see what works. The point is not that culture isn't important–it's everything. But you can't wave a magic wand and change culture. So instead you chip away at the things that might affect culture, things that you might have a chance at influencing: jobs, health care, drug addiction, law enforcement reform. And you, ideally, don't let ideological biases get in the way.

I see ideological biases in conservatives when it comes to issues like legalizing pot or providing easy access to contraception. Vance sees ideological bias in liberals when they fail to admit that troubled communities are characterized by both poverty and single-mother households. He sees this as a turning away from facts and reality–his only example. But liberals de-emphasize single-mother households for a good reason: they are a symptom, not a cause. And in any case, single mothers aren't the problem; absent fathers are the problem. In communities like these, mothers stay and fathers don't. If you don't think women should have children unless they're married, please remember that a marriage license does not create commitment; rather commitment creates a marriage license, or at least something equivalent. Simply bemoaning a culture of single motherhood doesn't help anything. But supporting access to birth control and women's choice does.

I also see ideological bias in statements like these: Vance says, "My biggest fear with Trump is that, because of the failures of the Republican and Democratic elites, the bar for the white working class is too low.  They’re willing to listen to Trump about rapist immigrants and banning all Muslims because other parts of his message are clearly legitimate." I find this statement absurd: that Trump's hostility to immigrants and Muslims is somehow tangential to his appeal. As Vance himself acknowledges just a sentence or two later: "A lot of people think Trump is just the first to appeal to the racism and xenophobia that were already there, but I think he’s making the problem worse." There we can agree.

Vance sees Democrats and Republicans as failing equally when it comes to addressing his native culture. But it takes some fast dancing to make this stick. He seems to have evangelical Christian beliefs, so maybe he has a religious and cultural attachment to conservatism that makes it hard for him to own up to the unequal failures of the two parties. Because, trying to understand? Liberal. Trying to help? Liberal. Avoiding mocking vulnerable demographics? Liberal. And arguing that poor whites can be excused for making bad decisions regarding politics because they feel condescended to? That's a much greater insult to their agency and dignity than anything liberals have offered.