Archive for August, 2010

The Thinker

News to Glenn Beck: Honor was restored in 2008

It must be just me, but I really don’t understand what Glenn Beck’s rally on the National Mall today was all about. Okay, it’s quite clear to Glenn Beck that the rally was about “restoring honor.” Presumably, honor is something we had not yet restored. Presumably the problem has gotten much worse, otherwise such an urgent national rally would not be needed.

As a noun, “honor” has a number of definitions, most prominently “honesty, fairness or integrity in one’s actions and beliefs.” One of them is also “high respect, as for worth, merit or rank.” Why we must urgently “restore” honor is unclear to me, and news reports of the well-attended rally hardly clarified the matter. Service members were praised for their service to country. I don’t know any American who has a problem with that. To honor our servicemen and women, Democrats, despite Republican objections, have succeeded in dramatically increasing funding for the Veterans Administration, including more coverage for post traumatic stress disorder, which the Bush Administration tried to sweep under the carpet. That was an important way to honor our veterans, not with words and flag waving, but with tangible actions for their enormous sacrifice for our country.

Beck also wants us to get in touch with our religious side again, which seems curious because I see no sign that American is less religious than it has been in the past. The diversity of religions in America has increased in recent years, not lessened. Tea Partiers as a class, who presumably formed the bulk of today’s overwhelmingly white rally, are much less religious than African Americans, whose passion for religion and social justice helped reduce their civil and economic disparities. According to a recent New York Times poll, just 38% of Tea Partiers attend church weekly. Yet according to a 2008 Newsweek poll, 85% of African Americans say religion is very important in their lives, and more than half attend church at least weekly. Presumably, Tea Partiers agree it was they, not others who need to become more religious? It’s so unclear.

So what was this “nonpolitical” rally all about? As best I can tell, it’s a show of force of white, conservative America yet minus most of the negative signs and angry rhetoric that have characterized past Tea Party rallies. It should help with Tea Party television ads for the midterm elections. While allegedly not a Tea Party rally, the overwhelmingly white crowd sure looked all Tea Party-ish. Both Beck and “lock and load” Sarah Palin are two of the movement’s key organizers, so it’s really hard not to characterize the rally as a gathering of the clan.

President Obama was not formally on the agenda, but it is abundantly clear from numerous past speeches by both Palin and Beck that he is their target of all they see as “dishonorable” about America. I find this curious, as you would think getting us into an illegal and immoral war as President Bush did would be a very dishonorable deed, so getting us out would be very honorable, or at least a first step to restoring the honor of our country. Curiously, this week, by Obama’s order, the last combatant troops were withdrawn from Iraq, leaving 50,000 American troops on bases, all of which will be gone by the end of 2011.

If it is honorable to fight terrorists and actually win, arguably Obama is doing a better job than Bush ever did. I think adding troops to Afghanistan is a fool’s errand, but the intelligence is clear that expanded and better targeted drone missile strikes in northwestern Pakistan have seriously undermined both al Qaeda and the Taliban in that area.

Presumably, it is neither honorable nor religious to let your fellow countrymen unnecessarily suffer during a terrible recession, which is why Obama and the Democrats pushed for the economic stimulus. Obama has already created more jobs than President Bush created in eight years. Granted, the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high at 9.5%. However, it was the Republicans (aided by Blue Dog Democrats) who resisted further stimulus to the economy, otherwise the rate might now be still dropping and the economy still expanding robustly.

Also, last I checked, GM was getting ready to pay back its taxpayer bailout funds with interest and issue stock again. Many jobs were lost in the American auto industry because of the recession, but it is already clear that the bailout saved tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs in auto and related industries alone and kept the American auto industry from shrinking from three car companies to one. Both Ford and GM are reporting profits, despite the weak economy. Obama and the Democrats are honoring the hard work of the American people through productive stimulus spending and (when Republicans don’t block it) stop gap unemployment insurance. It all sounds quite honorable to me, almost, you know, religious, as in a policy of government to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. It’s like we give a crap about our own citizens. The same could not be said for the Bush Administration, which five years ago this week in New Orleans proved bereft of compassion and concern when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

As a political lever to perhaps show a kinder, gentler side of the Tea Party, as well as the nasty Beck himself, perhaps Beck’s rally was a success. As a means to highlight the “honor” problem within the United States, it strikes me as an abject failure.

Based on international polls, Americans electing Barack Obama was the biggest boost to America’s honor in at least a decade. It strikes me that Beck should have invited President Obama to the rally, and honored him for his single-minded pursuit of raising America’s honorable standing in the world. But, of course, that could not be, because in Beck and Palin’s tiny little mind, Obama is the major cause of all this dishonor, not they and the people they want to put back into power that cause all the dishonor.

None of that past stuff could have possibly dishonored America, could it? Could it?

 
The Thinker

Moving day

The carpet in the lobby may be stained, and I may have had to wait twenty minutes for the truck to actually arrive, but the rental price was right. The Budget truck started well and drove smoothly, but with nothing in its cargo bed, any minor perturbation on the payment made the cargo hold rattle and my teeth grate. Happily, once the 10-foot truck was loaded with cargo, and with our GPS moving me southward toward Richmond, the rattling ceased.

If only I could say the same for the signals coming from my bladder. Loading the truck largely by myself was hot and sweaty work. I kept drinking glasses of water to quench my thirst, but on the two plus hour trip to Richmond, it all decided to come out, requiring frequent pit stops. While my wife and daughter sailed ahead in our daughter’s Honda, I ended up spending time at places like a Virginia Welcome Center on I-95 instead. At least I got to park in the truck lane for a change.

The truck’s cigarette lighter apparently wasn’t working, so the GPS was running on its battery. As I approached Richmond, it warned me of its low battery. I turned it off and followed signs. Once fully downtown I turned it back on and hoped it had enough juice to get me to the townhouse on West Marshall Street where my college bound daughter was to take up residence. I made it just barely. My wife accidentally left her cell phone at home, and I hadn’t written the address down elsewhere. Whew!

My wife and daughter were waving at me from down the street; I went too far and had to double back. Richmond doesn’t believe in many two way streets, so there was some jockeying and red lights to deal with before I parked the truck in front of my daughter’s new abode. Two young men, her new roommates, were ready to greet me and to help haul her stuff inside.

I was nervous about my daughter rooming with guys, but I shouldn’t have been. Mark prefers to spend most of his time in his room with the door shut. Occasionally you can hear his dog yapping and scampering through the floorboards. David was genuinely glad to see Rosie. They got along when first introduced the month before, and I knew he was safe because he was the son of a friend of my wife’s from work. Both seemed impossibly young (did I look so young when I was 21?), but David was a bit on the scruffy side. Both were quiet types, which meant this parent didn’t have to worry about loud boozy parties and drugs from the residents of this house.

Boxes were unloaded, torn open and in many cases their innards were assembled into things resembling furniture: a sort of a desk, steel shelving that would also act as something of a room divider (since my daughter got part of a large living room for her “bedroom”), and something to go behind the loo to hold toiletries. There was also a bed frame to assemble, a foundation encased in plastic and large plastic containers full of the accoutrements of living. Walling off the living room violated the rental agreement, but we were allowed to put a pole across the width of the room, some eleven feet, to provide some semblance of privacy for our daughter. This required some innovative amateur engineering. The steel shelves provided some privacy and storage space. Two long PVC pipes held together with a pipe connector had to be carefully cut, lowered into place and held level with a rope connected to a ceiling hook. Black sheets stitched together with a needles and thread went over these low-tech curtain rods, providing a virtual wall. Eventually the boxes were disposed of, the floor was vacuumed and our nearly twenty one year old daughter tried to settle into her first new bedroom in more than seventeen years.

A few blocks away is her real destination: Virginia Commonwealth University. Her townhouse and neighborhood turned out to be in better shape than I anticipated, given my exposure to too much substandard campus housing. The kitchen looked nearly new. The neighborhood was full of townhouses, most of which were rented by fellow students. However, turn the corner and there is a rougher looking commercial neighborhood. Turn onto Broad Street and you find more than a few scruffy homeless types smiling nicely while begging for spare change.

The sun was steadily sinking when we finished. Before leaving, we made time for a last supper of sorts. Bringing David along, we found a local pizza joint. It had Formica-topped tables and a counter where food was ordered. We ate greasy pizzas and chatted. Over dinner, our daughter’s parents (me being one of them) expressed our nervous worries in a seemingly endless series of nags and reminders, while David smiled and remarked how familiar it all seemed to him.

With dinner beginning to digest, we were back at her new townhouse and giving her hugs goodbye. We took deep breaths and started the engine of our rental truck. As we left, we watched her through the front window of the townhouse. David was already chatting with her, easing her nervousness. David, we could tell, was a good young man. He would find a way to take her gently under his wing, but as a peer, not an authority figure. David, we could see, was her bridge into the next phase of her life.

It was hard not to reflect and fret a little as we drove back north on I-95 to Northern Virginia. Speaking of fretting, our cat Arthur was not happy to be left alone all day. He stared at the door waiting for Rosie to come in. We let him sit on our lap and talked to him, but he seemed to know that his well-ordered world had been disturbed too. To bring some predictability to his life, he went back and sat on his special spot on the living room carpet. Wearily I returned the rental truck to a dark rental lot, putting nearly $50 in gas in it and dropping the keys in its after hours box.

Before bed, a shower was required, no matter how tired I was. I was returning to something that used to be normal: a house where the lights went off when we went to bed and where our daughter naturally fell asleep when we tucked her in. It felt momentarily weird, then gratefully normal.

Each day since we moved her in on Monday, we have fretted a bit about her. We have checked up on her on occasion with an email, but we are also feeling more settled ourselves in our new empty nest. For the truth about childrearing is that if you love them, at some point you have to send them packing. We did, with a lot of love, some stifled tears and great gobs of money.

The house is definitely quieter, and we will treasure those weekend and semester breaks when our daughter deigns to visit us. Nevertheless, we will also be appreciative to have our own couple space again. For the truth is that no matter how much you love your children, you don’t own them. At best, you only rent them. The rent is very high, and the work to raise them is often hectic and at times overwhelming. You know you won’t have turned out a perfect young adult, but perhaps on reflection you can say you did pretty well. You realize, it’s okay to have this loved, cherished and sometimes annoying person spend a couple decades with you and then let them go. It may feel more traumatic than natural, but it is natural.

The parenting role is never entirely over, but a transition is underway which is ultimately good for both parent and offspring. It is as it should be. The new silence in our house is a bit peculiar, but it feels sort of welcoming and well deserved.

I plan to sleep in very late on Saturday.

 
The Thinker

Fraying at the edges

From this point on, Rome had to support herself without the wealth of the eastern part of the Empire on which she had previously been able to draw. Yet the vast bureaucracy which that wealth had spawned and the 300,000-strong army it had funded were both still there, and the only way to support them was by raising taxes.

So began a chain of events which was to lead to the fall of the Western Roman Empire within less than two hundred years, destroyed by it own taxation system. Higher taxes devolved on to tenant of either land or building as higher rents. After a time the tenants had less surplus with which to support their families, so the birth-rate fell. At the same time, administration and collections of the new taxes demanded more bureaucrats, and in order to support them taxes had to raise again, so the population declined further. It was this descending spiral that ruined the West, as the economy faltered and began to grind to a halt.

James Burke
“Connections”, 1978

Life is keeping me very busy, too busy to blog in any meaningful fashion. However, I did find the following excerpt from James Burke’s Connections interesting. I see many parallels with the current state of the United States.

The combination of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire survived for about a millennium, a remarkably long period. The United States has been a republic for 234 years. Although never officially an empire, since its ascendancy at the end of World War II, the United States has carried many of the traits of empires.

Unlike the Roman Empire, high taxes are not currently our problem. At least our federal taxes are currently lower than they have been in generations. Rather, deficits are a symptom of our own republic fraying at the edges, as is the political disunity now in Washington. Curiously, deficits are not really buying us the services that we need to remain an empire. Much of it is going toward unproductive uses, such as needless wars in foreign countries, inefficient health care delivery systems and wasteful agricultural subsidies.

Considering the Roman Republic and Roman Empire existed for a millennium and we have existed for but two hundred and thirty four years, it is reasonable to wonder how much longer our empire has. From the looks of things today, unless we get ourselves together, prioritize what is important and find more productive ways to achieve our aims rather than through force of arms, it may be a much shorter period than we think.

 
The Thinker

Separation anxiety

Our dining room is stacked with purchases and things encased in plastic. Our truck rental reservation is made, although it’s unclear to me whether an actual truck will be available on Monday. With so many college students moving into dorms and apartments, rental trucks are in short supply. We have purchased most of the items needed for our daughter to move to Richmond, Virginia and emptied our bank account in the process. The university’s checklist still has some unchecked spots. The whole application process at Virginia Commonwealth University is confusing and convoluted, meaning that only yesterday was our daughter able to sign up for classes. Because of the incessant delays, most of the classes that she wanted were already filled. She has no appointed adviser yet to guide her, and all the orientation slots are now full. She could call the undergraduate advisor for her department, but this involves her waking up before the sun goes down, something she is loathe to do. In short, procrastination on both her part and on her university’s part is costing time, money and opportunity. It is making this nervous father fret.

Procrastination drives me nuts, which is why I feel like I live my life in constant turmoil. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter are both chronic procrastinators. My wife can quite easily enter into a mindless mode where time, space and pressing deadlines disappear for hours at a time. When she emerges, I often get a predictable, “My goodness! I lost track of time again! I meant to do X, Y and Z.” I cannot complain since she was this way when I married her, but I was sort of hoping my daughter would not pick up her habit. Alas, she has, although I was pleased that she took initiative on a few things in her life recently, like arranging with her doctor for the shots she needed to be admitted.  (Naturally, it happened at the very last moment.)

None of this should be a big deal since she will be twenty-one next month. Yet despite two years of community college, she still is challenged by logistics and life’s complexity in general. Perhaps I contributed to it through a process of learned dependence. Perhaps she needed to fail at things a few more times than she did. Instead, her left brained dad did a lot of her organizational thinking (and nagging) for her, with my wife adding her nervous worries periodically as well.

This all should change on Monday when we pack most of our daughter’s stuff along with a new bed, desk, printer, sheets and much of her other random detritus and move them (along, hopefully, with her) to a townhouse a couple blocks from VCU. She will wall off and inhabit much of the living room, while two young men will inhabit the upstairs bedrooms. All are quiet types. One of the young men is essentially a hermit, emerging only to go to classes. I suspect that she will fit in well with them, once she gets accustomed to her new urban abode. While lately her focus has been more on World of Warcraft than university, an event in her life this seismic is finally achieving a grudging priority. For the first time since she was about three years old she will sleep regularly somewhere else. Like it or not, life is changing for her.

It will be changing for my wife and me as well. The truth is that emptying the nest is both liberating and scary for all involved. I have been doing the parenting thing for two decades and it is now second nature to me. Come Tuesday morning, only silence will come from her bedroom. Our cat Arthur is likely to be puzzled and eventually pissed. When we are out, our daughter provides him with reliable amusement, at least when she is awake. In time, Arthur will likely half forget Rosie, and he will be more in our faces.

Some part of me will be glad for one less occupant in the house and the additional privacy. Some eighty percent of the reason things get disorderly in my house will suddenly disappear. Some other part of me will be concerned that something dreadful could be happening to our daughter. She has a cell phone but she is sporadic about carrying it around or keeping it charged. In addition, she will be two hours away. She could disappear and we might not be able to find her. It will be challenging not to call or text her just to see if she is okay. Since she is not mindful of things like cell phones, unanswered calls or text, contacting her may just cause unnecessary anxiety. Perhaps I need to adopt a policy of not trying. Even if I can resist temptation to call her up, I doubt that my wife can. It’s going to take a couple weeks before we relax.

Our daughter will likely go through similar feelings. Except for her new housemate, whom she met only once and the undergraduate advisor I introduced her to, she doesn’t know a soul in Richmond. As she is introverted by nature, it will probably prove challenging to make new friends. At first, she will probably feel lonely. I know I felt that way when I started at college. Fortunately, I got a very compatible roommate so it did not last long.

I am betting that her loneliness phase won’t last too long. Instead, it will soon be, Living here is a heck of a lot better than at home! There is no need to drive five miles or more to be anywhere of interest. Instead, walk a few blocks or less and community surrounds you: age twenty something people, most of them reasonably intelligent, with all the temptations and richness of a university around her.

I expect we will see her on some weekends, perhaps every weekend. Once I had a car, I tended to come home every other weekend. It worked out great. One weekend to enjoy the city as a single man, then one weekend home with family where my laundry was mysteriously was cleaned and all this wonderful and tasty food was plentiful and freely available. I found that institutional food (and later my own cooking) could only be ingested for so long before my body rebelled. My guess is that once our daughter finds a small group of friends she will be away more than at home on the weekends. Once our anxiety is lessened, we may think about her absence less and less too. At some point, it will seem normal.

On Monday, we have to get sweaty, pack her up, haul her stuff 120 miles south and then leave her in a strange city. Our bodies will course with a mixture of feelings. She will be back home for extended semester breaks and following graduation she will probably want to move back in full time. Nevertheless, she will also have had the experience of living apart from parents. Except for paying for that part of her life, I suspect she is going to like it, even if it means she has to wash her own dishes and bus her own table.

In the end, so likely will we.

 
The Thinker

Review: Chess at Signature Theater

It seems strange, but The Washington Post so far has not sent a critic out to review Signature Theater’s production of Chess. A casual Google search turned up no reviews at all, which leaves it to me, a humble blogger, to fill in the gap for theatergoers. My family and I had front row center seats at last night’s 8 PM performance.

Chess is the late 1980s musical created by two of the powerhouses behind ABBA (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) with lyrics provided by Tim Rice. It’s one of my favorite musicals. Some months back, I reviewed a concert version of Chess performed in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The concert version hewed fairly closely to the original version that ran on London’s West End for three years.

Chess is not like Oklahoma, where you know the words, songs and scenes will not vary in the slightest. Directors seem to feel free to reinvent Chess with each staging; the result is you are never quite sure what you will get. This is definitely true with Signature Theater’s version, which is quite a variant. Director Eric Schaeffer, Choreographer Karma Camp and Orchestrator David Holcenberg felt free to create their own variant of Chess. The result is a leaner version of Chess missing a few of the beloved songs. Those of you hoping for something resembling the London version with the glorious song “Merano” (or for that matter “The Story of Chess”) may be disappointed. The upside is that the creative forces behind this staging make a much more plausible and dramatic version of Chess.

For example, Florence was always a hard to understand character. She is supposed to be Freddie Trumper’s chess second, but in the real world, a top-notch female chess player is highly unusual. In this staging, Jill Paice establishes Florence very early on as an earnest chess player in her own right, capable of tripping up Freddie with her penetrating insight into the game. Florence is still caught up in a love triangle between Freddie and Anatoly but the tensions in their relationships are more plausibly established than they are in the concert version, or in the one other staging I saw some two decades ago at a local community theater. The plot, which seemed to have holes in the past, is now fully connected and plausible, with the level of drama consequently ratcheted up considerably.

Lyrics have also been rearranged, sometimes dramatically, sometimes surprisingly. For example, Florence sings “Someone Else’s Story” in this version near the end of the first act. Traditionally, Svetlana, Anatoly’s estranged wife sings it.

Florence has always been understood to be someone whose childhood was torn apart by the Cold War when the U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary in 1956. What is probably new in the Signature Theater version is a Prologue that graphically shows the separation with her father as a child and introduces what I believe is a new song “Lullaby (Apukad eros Kezen)”.

In the concert version, we have the first match occurring in Merano, Italy. Freddie loses the first tournament and Anatoly defects to the West with Florence immediately upon his win. The second act takes place in Bangkok, where Freddie reemerges as a color commentator for Anatoly’s match against a fellow Russian, while desperately trying to win back Florence. In Signature Theater’s version, we have Freddie and Anatoly first meeting to play in Bangkok, with Anatoly defecting with Florence before the tournament is even decided. The remaining games are played eight months later in Budapest, which of course heightens the dramatic tension given Florence’s wrenching experiences there as a child. In the original version, Freddie spends much of his time trying to woo back Florence in the second act. In this version, Freddie comes to believe Florence is just a “bitch” and he is better off without her. In short, Signature Theater’s version arguably works better as a drama.

Signature Theater has always been an intimate theater, so expect a couple hundred seats and a small stage where all the action happens. As I noticed when I saw Les Miserables there, the orchestra, oddly elevated to a spot above the stage, sounds somewhat muffled. Signature needs to find a way to make sure the orchestra can be heard more clearly. It could be something about being in the front row, but the mixture of hearing live singing with the electronic amplification coming through the speakers is sometimes a little off as well. The theater is small enough where I don’t think voice amplification is even needed.

The actors recruited to play the three principle characters Florence, Anatoly and Freddie are all terrific. Florence is really the central character and Jill Paice will not disappoint, neither as an actor nor as a terrific singer. Paice has a wider resume than most of the ensemble, having played many parts on Broadway and elsewhere. I personally thought Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie had the edge as the better actor vs. Euan Morton’s portrayal of Anatoly. Anatoly’s signature song is “Anthem”, which arguably could use a more powerful voice than Morton provides. The ancillary roles are all competently filled: Chris Sizemore as the Arbiter (he played Enjoras in Signature’s Les Miserables) and Christopher Block as Molokov (who played the less subtle character of Thenardier in Signature’s Les Miserables). This production introduces a new character to Chess, at least that I am aware of: Walter (Russell Sunday) as Freddie’s agent and apparently something of a State Department operative. Svetlana (Eleasha Gamble) has a smaller part in this staging and sings less but has a wonderful voice when she is finally allowed to sing. The ensemble is small like the theater, but arguably could have been used better. In one odd scene, they dance behind Plexiglas. It made no sense to me.

Should you see this version? The short answer is yes! Signature Theater seems incapable of putting out crap and is establishing a high bar in the Washington theater scene, which is already beginning to rival New York’s tonier scene. Signature’s version will be a bit jarring for Chess traditionalists, but Signature has arguably improved the product by making this musical far more plausible and coherent.

There are two scenes where the actors smoke, so if you are sensitive to tobacco get seats away from the front row. (I think the scenes could have been done without cigarettes altogether. I mean they are already wearing stage microphones which are visually intrusive; why use real cigarettes?) Also a personal note to Jill Paice: fabulous boots!

 
The Thinker

Three short movie reviews

Dunno how, but on my recent vacation out west among all the site seeing and visiting friends, I also managed to sit through three movies, one in an actual theater. Capsule reviews follow.

Inception

I was quite surprised to find our theater nearly full to capacity when we arrived to see the movie Inception, even though it was three weeks old by the time we got around to seeing it in the theater. Moreover, the movie was playing on three screens in the same theater. This is a sign that a movie is popular, but would it be good as well? Inception is one of those rare movies that buck the sequel and tried formulas trends. Here we have a movie that is not a sequel and breaks virgin Hollywood plot ground. Moreover, it requires you to pay close attention and to have above average intelligence to get it.

The movie explores the hopefully hypothetical practice of surreptitiously manipulating people’s subconscious while they are in a dream state so they will make choices affecting the real world they would not otherwise make. (It’s already being done when we are awake. It’s called advertising.) That is Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) job: dream manipulator, except I guess working for the NSA or CIA doesn’t pay well enough. Here Cobb has the daunting task of manipulating the heir of an energy baron through his dreams so he retains a false memory which in turn means that he will make the wrong decision, allowing his competitor to control a 21st century energy market. To do it he needs someone more agile than he is to help, but fortunately he gets an up and coming pupil (played by Ellen Page). This apparently involves getting to dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams, which makes for a complicated plot and thus requires the cinemagoer to keep it all straight in their minds too. Surprisingly, I succeeded but even if you cannot the movie is so well directed (Christopher Nolan directs, who did the recent Batman movie), acted (DiCaprio is terrific, but so is all the cast) and the CGI minimal but effectively done that you may not care; you will still feel you got your money’s worth. That probably explains the packed theater. Speaking of sequels, the money that Inception is making should spawn a few, but it’s hard to think they could top the first movie.

In short, it’s great, so go see it. It sort of feels like The Matrix for the 21st century. It’s my pick for best movie of the year so far. 3.5 on my four-point scale.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Cate Blanchett is a great actress, seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance. She’s been great to excellent in every movie I have seen her in. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception and, as usual, it is her role (in this case as a supporting actor) that makes this weird movie work.

In case you missed a synopsis of the plot, Benjamin (largely played as an adult by Brad Pitt) has a backwards life. He was born as a baby in the 1920s but with the face and body of someone dying of old age. He goes through life backwards, moving toward youth while everyone else ages. Strangely, the people around him seem to accept his condition readily enough, as does Daisy (Blanchett), who ends up with a lifelong relationship with him that begins as a fraternal one and closes as an intimate one.

At first, the movie seems principally about exploring the permutations of their odd relationship. In my opinion, the movie instead attempts to provide a better understanding the nature of intimacy, love and individuality. The story’s frame provides a unique lens to help explore these deeper aspects of us.

Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is the primary lens, but there are a host of interesting ancillary characters to enjoy including Jared Harris as the tugboat Captain Mike and Taraji Henson as Queenie, Benjamin’s foster mother. There is also a plot that spans much of the 20th century. Julia Ormond plays Caroline, a continuing character watching her mother die while she tells him about Benjamin, her great love.

While the movie provides a unique frame to view aspects of human relationships and is exceptionally well directed by David Fincher, there is less meat to this movie than you might expect. At the end, the movie becomes very explicit about what we should take away from it: we each have unique talents, each can live passionate lives and then we die. Not to be too sarcastic, but duh! In some ways, the movie is more an exploration of our feelings around mortality and how we manifest them (such as infidelity, or in a relationship with a man who’s life is lived backwards) than it is an expose of the human soul. It’s still a good movie, but perhaps a different plot would have better plumbed this topic. It strives for four stars and feels like it should be a four star movie, but it isn’t really, although it is engaging, well acted, poignant and long. The score by Alexandre Desplat is particularly memorable.

In any event, I pretty much have to see anything with Cate Blanchett in it. I like being under her acting spell. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

The Blind Side (2009)

In The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock proves she can succeed brilliantly at something other than comedy. Hollywood agreed and last year gave her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the slim but surprising Supermom of the well off Tuohy family. The movie traces the improbable but true story of football star Michael Oher and his remarkable relationship with the Tuohy family. Without the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne in particular, Oher clearly would have never risen from obscurity or out of the drug and gang fueled life on the other side of Memphis’s railroad tracks.

A coach of a local private Christian Academy notices Oher. If he can get this academic underperformer admitted to the academy, he hopes to use Oher to make their football team shine. Once in the academy, Oher predictably has trouble keeping up with his classes and homework. No one notices when he becomes homeless. However, Leigh Anne notices him walking the streets of Memphis at night all alone. Her son S.J. (Jay Head) remarks that he is “Big Mike” and he goes to the academy. Somewhat impulsively, Leigh Anne offers Big Mike a room for the night in their gloriously upscale McMansion.

Most women who have a big black guy like Big Mike boarding down the hall will automatically lock their bedroom doors, but Michael settles in to what seems a surreal life with the upper crust. Eventually the Tuohys warm to him, and he to them. Their bond becomes cemented when the Tuohys become his legal guardian. Thanks largely to Leigh Anne’s perseverance and fearlessness, Michael finds his confidence, slowly pulls up his grades and learns to succeed in high school football. His success in football quickly gets him noticed by college football coaches. Soon they are queued up outside the Tuohy’s door to try to convince him to take a football scholarship. It’s all for naught though unless Michael can raise his GPA to 2.5. So the Tuohy’s dig into their well moneyed pockets and hire a private tutor for Michael played by Kathy Bates. Between the tutor and Leigh Anne’s moral support, how could Michael not fail to rise? Of course, he somehow rises to the occasion.

Unless you are unfamiliar with Oher’s story, the plot contains little suspense, but even if you aren’t it’s an easy plot to figure out. Tim McGraw’s portrayal of Oher is competent and necessarily one-dimensional. Most of the Tuohys come across this way as well, although they are a fun sort of football-crazed family. The boy S.J. is the most fun of the lot, just a young but spirited kid but with boundless enthusiasm for football, honest affection for Michael, and who proves he has the makings of a fine agent.

While purporting to be a movie about Oher’s rise, this is really a movie about Leigh Anne. There is nothing to dislike about Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Anne. While she has all the attributes of a remarkable woman, she is also skinny and very attractive. Even as a Supermom, Michael is still quite a stretch for Leigh Anne. In putting her largely unused Christian values into action for Michael, she has to estrange herself from her one-dimensional set of Christian academy wives. She also has to associate with Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue a (gasp) Democrat.

Strip out Bullock’s remarkable performance and this movie would have little to recommend it. Oher’s story is remarkable but what makes the movie successful is Leigh Anne Tuohy’s refinement of an already remarkable character. She is not quite Sally Field in Norma Rae, whose acting of a woman blossoming beyond expectations is even more memorable, but investing 129 minutes to watch Bullock in action is still an excellent use of your time. Too bad the other aspects of the movie don’t much complement Bullock’s remarkable performance.

3.1 on my 4-point scale.

 
The Thinker

Review: How the Scots invented the Modern World

This book, by the historian Arthur Herman is subtitled “The true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world and everything in it.” Even the most casual student of modern history knows this assertion is false, which is why the subtitle is doubtless a publisher’s marketing invention. Still, while most of us are unaware of Scottish influence in our modern world, as Herman documents, the Scots have indelibly imprinted themselves deeply on America’s national character.

While reading Joe Bageant’s book about the poor, struggling working class in his home of Winchester, Virginia, I learned that the white working class in Winchester and Appalachia was populated by “Scot borderers”. Curious to learn more about how Scots influenced American life, I thought this book by Herman would answer my many questions.

Herman devotes two chapters specifically to the Scottish influence on America, which was considerable. Most of America’s signature inventions, including innovations like the telephone and telegraph were invented by Scottish Americans. Scots were also influential in the founding of the United States. Many of our early presidents were of Scottish ancestry. Many of our leading educational institutions including Princeton were either created by or flourished under the direction of Scottish university presidents.

Such accomplishments seemed unlikely for Scotland, which in the 17th century was truly Europe’s poorest nation, which said a lot. Consisting of the upper half of Great Britain, it had only a tenth of its population. Scotland itself was fractured between natives in the northern Scottish highlands and more civilized Scottish communities populating its lower half including the great cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scottish highlands were ruled by well established clan chieftains. Tenants leased land and owed loyalty to their local clan chiefs. Clans frequently warred among each other, but the cold, wretched poverty and martial spirit also made the highlanders excellent warriors. Their tradition of loyalty, along with their ability to survive their wretched poverty, made them very innovative.

For those of you not well versed in British history, for most of its history Scotland was an independent nation and fought wars with England. England’s relative prosperity from trade eventually convinced the Scots to merge with England, creating a larger nation known as Great Britain. As Herman documents, the cost for Scots was steep. To get access to England’s markets and intellectual capital, Scots had to agree to permanent minority status in Parliament. They also gave up much of their national identity, including their native language. The full process of Scottish-English amalgamation took centuries but it is clear that both English and Scots found union profitable.

Before Scotland merged with England, it instituted a number of progressive laws that acted as a catalyst for moving the nation into the modern world. Among Scotland’s early innovations was a first of its kind compulsory public school system, which ensured that all Scots could read and write. This allowed literacy and intelligentsia to flourish. Nor was access to higher education that hard for a commoner to achieve. A sufficiently motivated student of modest means could often work themselves into a university. Scotland’s liberal and open educational environment along with federation with England allowed it to grow rapidly. Glasgow became the manufacturing hub of Great Britain. Its universities in Glasgow and Edinburgh in many ways were superior to those further South in Oxford and Cambridge.

Its emphasis on education, as well as its unique mixture of entrepreneurial and liberal values, proved to be a great catalyst for its rapid progress. Like England, Scotland was also well situated to capitalize on sea trade. It traded extensively with the United States in commodities like tobacco and cotton, which it manufactured into goods and resold. It is not surprising then, particularly when during the 18th century the clan system in the Scottish highland broke down, that there were plenty of skilled and semiskilled Scots available for emigration. Many of them ended up in the Americas, which they adopted as their own. With their traditional warrior cultures and inbred survival skills, Scottish highlanders were not afraid to push into the American frontier. Scots were at the forefront of America’s expansion westward. However, Scottish immigrants had major impacts everywhere they went including Canada, Africa, Australia and India.

My hope to better understand the “Scottish borderers” that Bageant alludes to in his book was only partially realized. It appears that America’s redneck class comes principally from Scottish highlanders, many of whom were thrown off their ancestral lands and who had to emigrate. Poor but proud these people thrived on hard times and learned not to get too attached to place. When things felt too settled they tended to move west and south, which accounts for their heavy influence in the Appalachians and the South, and likely the conservative nature of these states into the present. Red states disproportionately send more people into the military. This likely traces itself back to life by their ancestors in the Scottish highlands and the martial life in clan communities.

Scotland is more than its highland communities. The “lowland” Scottish communities represented the civilized part of Scotland. Lowlanders were more inclined toward liberal values and progressivism in general. While many ethnicities made up colonial America, because of their work ethic and relatively higher educational levels Scots were often its leaders. Their influence can be felt in our constitution, which emphasizes a relatively limited federal government and the separation of church and state. Scots learned powerful lessons about the dangers of state sponsored religions, as Scotland’s Kirk was theocratic in nature. They carried over these lessons to establishing a new nation.

Herman documents a huge array of Scottish innovations but some of their innovations were purely philosophical. Much of our modern philosophy and outlook, including a near reverence for capitalism, has its origins in Scotland. Scots comprised some of society’s greatest skeptics. Perhaps the best known is David Hume, an avowed 18th century atheist. Adam Smith was one of many whose unorthodox philosophical ideas were not well received because they were too radical, even when his theories on economics proved to be wildly popular.

While Herman shows how important Scottish thought and innovation has been to the modern world, he is likely overstating Scottish influence. Unquestionably, Scottish influence has been considerable. Herman does us a favor by making us aware of the oversized extent of the Scottish impact on our world.

Fortunately, the book proves to be quite accessible and readable. It offers a number of surprises as well. It is more of a survey book since it covers centuries, but it does ably put Scotland and Scots under a microscope and lets us understand how Scottish thought and innovation has shaped much of the society we know today, as well as influences the problems we continue to grapple with in the present.

(This is not the first book by Arthur Herman that I have read. You might also enjoy my review of “To Rule the Waves”.)

 
The Thinker

Northwest observations and surprises

To this couple largely attached to the east coast, our driving tour of Washington state and Oregon has proven interesting and occasionally surprising. Here are some of my notes and observations over the past few days:

  • I expected the “Cascade Curtain” (the Cascade Mountains) to let across more moisture than it does. In fact, it seems to stop most of the moisture rolling in off the Pacific coast, making the change startling when you cross over the divide. Very quickly the landscape devolves into desert. It is a desert that looks substantially different than the desert I was more familiar with in the American west where the latitudes are lower. No cacti to be found in eastern Washington state, but there is plenty of sagebrush. During the summer, the land seems awash in pastel colors, principally brown and shades of off-yellow but also a grayish blue from the sagebrush. With its lower humidity come a lot more summer sunshine and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures were particularly noticeable in out of the way places we visited, like Othello, Washington where temperatures hovered in the nineties.
  • Near Othello, Washington is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which few visit but where more should. We ventured deep down gravel roads and into small lakes where wildlife mostly lurk and where visitors can wade into cool, clear lakes such as Soda Lake very far from the maddening crowds. The terrain includes gently rolling mesas that are largely unseen by tourists and that are populated by more than 230 species of birds. It is worth the drive, but our AAA tour book somehow missed giving this off road experience the Gem attraction status it deserves. Maybe it’s best that fewer go there. With more tourists, something doubtless would be lost.

Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

  • The Columbia River in Washington State provides so much water that it seems it can provide limitless irrigation. This is probably mostly an illusion, as the many dams along the Columbia create huge backstops of water. I have eaten plenty of delicious Washington State apples, but I had no idea so much else was grown on what would otherwise be desert land in eastern Washington State. Fruits and vegetables of many kinds can be found growing along the roads of the state, all artificially watered from the sometimes quite distant Columbia River. So many of these crops require humans to harvest them, which probably explains the large Hispanic population in eastern Washington state. Many of the towns we stopped in (such as Othello) seem to be largely overrun with Hispanics with English signs hard to find. Presumably they provide the bulk of the migrant labor the area needs. We stopped at a Laundromat in Wenatchee where we were the only English speaking people in the place, where cashing checks was a big business in the store next door, and where soccer in Spanish played loudly on the TV in the Laundromat. It was a strange experience to feel an alien in my own country.
  • The Tri-Cities area of Washington State consists of the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. We spent a night at a Red Lion in Richland and found Richland to be a delightful and well maintained small city. It was a short walk from our hotel down to the banks of the Columbia River where we found a city dock and dozens of people happily swimming in the water, whilst trim joggers and cyclists inhabited the walkway next to the river. If I were looking for an eclectic place to retire, Richland would be it. It surprised us. It was also delightful to know that the Columbia River was so clean that people could frolic in its waters without a care.
  • And speaking of the Columbia River, a scenic drive along the Columbia Gorge should be on every traveler’s list of journeys. It is a bit like a raft ride through the Grand Canyon, except that for much of it you are hugging the interstate on the Oregon side of the river. The bottled up river gives it a surreal look because it is surrounded by desert hills and mountains. The contrast of the blue Columbia River water compared with the brown hills is startling and the scenery rarely changes over hundreds of miles. For the most part the basin lacks the massive rock strata one sees in the Grand Canyon, but this may be in part because much of it is submerged underwater.

Columbia River Gorge

  • We discovered a few hidden gems along the Columbia River Basin. One was the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum a few miles east of The Dallas, Oregon. While relatively small, it is beautifully constructed and has a prime view of the Columbia River. Inside there are exhibits talking about both the geological and historical history of the gorge along with films you can watch that will kill a couple hours. There are also wildlife rehabilitation specialists at the museum who gave a talk on the many raptors in the area. We got to see up close a great horned owl and a red-tail hawk that were too injured to be released back into the wild and were sheltered at the center. We watched enrapt (and somewhat squicked) as each devoured a dead mouse, skull, tail and all.
  • The museum also provided us with a map of old U.S. 30 that sits next to I-84. Doubtless most of the tourists zipping up and down the interstate are wholly unaware of a set of spectacular falls along this road that dump into the Columbia River. Taking the route proved fortuitous, not only for viewing these spectacular waterfalls, but to get around the traffic that was bottling up westbound I-84. Perhaps the most spectacular of these falls is Multnomah Falls, which plunges 620 feet. It is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Niagara Falls gets many more tourists, but even if you find yourself not too impressed by Multnomah Falls, there are a half dozen others along a short stretch of U.S. 30 to enjoy as well.

Multnomah Falls

  • It’s been five years since I was in Portland, Oregon. This time I am here for pleasure, and this time there is not the unrelenting rain I encountered in 2005. Instead we are blessed with beautiful sunny days and temperatures that don’t quite make it to eighty. Portland is but a shadow of its big brother city Seattle to its north, but arguably it is a much more livable city. Light rail makes getting around much of the city easy. The city is very bike friendly, and its moderate temperatures make biking year round to work a realistic option for many commuters, even in the rain, which rarely amounts to a driving rain. It is a strange mixture of progressiveness and conservatism. On the conservative side is its strange tax structure, which forgoes a sales tax but levies a hefty income tax instead. The result in economic downturns is not pretty and include shortened school years and talk of four day school weeks this year. Yet there seems to be money to extend its light rail system. The city feels clean and safe. Like Richland, Washington the City of Portland also feels like some place that I could comfortably retire.
 
The Thinker

Everybody’s out of town

Where have the people gone
Seems like there’s no one hangin’ on
Look through the window
The houses are empty
Hey, everybody’s out of town
Seems like I’m the only one around.

“Everybody’s out of town”

B.J. Thomas

The bed and breakfast experience can be a mixed bag. On the high side of the experience were two nights we spent this week at the Autumn Leaves B&B in Anacortes, Washington. No matter how clean the rooms, no matter how excellent the breakfasts, the B&B experience is diminished somewhat unless the owners live on premises and are personally vested in your satisfaction. We found this and much more at Autumn Leaves, along with gourmet breakfasts, immaculately clean and impeccably decorated rooms, perhaps the most comfortable bed we have ever slept in, soundproof walls and warm and personable hosts much more interested in us as persons than making a fast buck.

Then there are the more mediocre B&B experiences. In Europe you may find yourself hosted in a children’s bedroom and sharing a common bathroom. More frequently here in America, you find yourself at something of a faux B&B. You never see the owners. The property may not be well maintained. The carpeting may be dirty and stained. Instead, you will be served probably a pretty good but not spectacular breakfast. A rented host may be around during formal check in hours and in the morning to whip up a communal breakfast, but is otherwise absent. You may find instructions and a room key attached to a note on the door when you arrive instead of a human being. Essentially, you are largely on your own. Any socialization that occurs is with random guests that you encounter over breakfast or in the hallways.

Occasionally you get an entirely weird B&B experience. That happened last night at this B&B we are staying at just across the Cascades here in Washington State. I won’t identify the B&B or where it is located exactly, although you can see a picture of it below. As you can see, it is impressive. It sits on a large estate and backs to a river. It is clean and well furnished. Quite frankly, it’s a beautiful place. And we are the only ones here.

This doubtless happens from time to time in the B&B business, particularly during the week, although during prime vacation season this seems a bit odd. What was odder was that whoever is maintaining the property decided to let us stay here all by ourselves. We have not seen her but did talk with her on the phone. However, there was no greeter during check in time. In fact, we found the front door unlocked and the house, filled with beautiful furniture and tastefully decorated, eerily empty. There is not even a house cat to pet.

We found our room upstairs easily enough; the landlady apparently left the lights on in our room. And indeed it is a comfortable room. There are a hundred or so DVDs downstairs in the oversized living room. We selected one of them as our entertainment last night. We locked the front door but found that the back doors don’t lock. The locks are apparently busted. We have no room key, although we can lock our bedroom door.

The house is old enough where it feels like it could be haunted. If it is, ghosts were elsewhere last night although it is a downright creepy feeling to wander its halls after sunset all alone. I kept expecting Freddy Kruger to appear around a door frame. We eventually settled into our room, turned off the lights and fell asleep to the drone of a window air conditioner.

There will be no breakfast this morning. To compensate us, the absent landlady is giving us a 10% credit, which we will apply to a breakfast in town.

I suspect on the weekend the experience here is quite different. Probably all of the four upstairs guest rooms are full, and a large breakfast is splayed out on the enormous dining room downstairs. The gift shop with themed merchandise is probably open and staffed. For privacy, this weird B&B experience probably is hard to beat. If we had the time the Jacuzzi on the back deck could have been all ours and since apparently no one is looking or cares, we could have jumped in buck naked.

For me, socializing with other people, however fleetingly, is an essential part of the B&B experience. It is why it costs more than a hotel room. Which is why I feel somewhat cheated with this experience.

I will probably welcome the Red Lion in Richland where we will spend tonight. At least there will be other people there.

 
The Thinker

Post-its on the road in Washington State

Random thoughts during our fun-filled but so far fairly harried vacation in Washington State:

  • Seattle differs from Washington, D.C. in one important way: it is a real city. Washington, D.C. is, like everything else about of federal government, a political construct. This is obvious from the way the roads are laid out so meticulously and the covenants (such as building heights) are so carefully regulated. Seattle is a big, honking city that has all the essential ingredients of a real city: very tall buildings, a distinct culture, daunting traffic and the feeling that you are someplace wholly unique. In short, except for the rain that inhabits it much of the year (which in some ways makes it unique) it has a lot to recommend it for anyone searching for a real city to live. It also has huge and picturesque mountain ranges on both sides (the Olympic Mountains to the west, the Cascades to the east, both still snowcapped), huge and obnoxious bays and sounds, hills that would challenge a San Franciscan, a quality newspaper, and a distinctly Asian influence. Attention Young Urban Professionals: Seattle is probably where you want to live.

Seattle, view of the harbor looking south

  • The Seattle-Tacoma Doubletree Hotel is amazing, beautiful and enormous, with extended wings, glass everywhere, a large outdoor heated pool and an outdoor Jacuzzi, all available at no extra charge. It feels more like a four star hotel than a three star one. The Asian theme works really well and makes it feel singular instead of your run of the mill hotel. If you have to spend a night at an airport hotel, this is the place. Even better: never heard a jet landing or taking off and woke to see mist rising over a picturesque pond outside our hotel room window.
  • The Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle is very much a no-nonsense four-star hotel which means it is really nothing special, just a very nice, very clean and very well run hotel, which is par for the course for hotels in its league. We enjoyed spending two nights there and being close to everything, including being just two blocks from where we rented our car.
  • Yes, take the Seattle Underground tour. It is worth every penny and the humorous and quirky tour guides make it very interesting. It seems that every nascent city has to burn down at least once, and the same was true with Seattle. At least Seattle learned its lesson and rebuilt right. It did so by relocating dirt from the slopes down into the city, and basically burying the original city. It’s still there if you take the tour. And to think that the slopes used to be even steeper. Yikes! To our tour guide Amelia: you were terrific!
  • When you want to take a ferry across the Puget Sound, it’s a really good idea to have a reservation. We played the role of silly tourist and attempted to take the Port Townsend to Keystone ferry on a Sunday afternoon only to find out the tickets we bought did not actually mean we could cross the Puget Sound the same day. Instead, we could wait three days, drive south and around the peninsula, or wait in line for three or more hours and maybe get one of the standby slots. We elected to drive to Bremerton and wait there more than an hour instead. Despite the hassle, it was worth it to take a ferry ride across the Puget Sound to revel in the view approaching Seattle by sea and feel the wind course through my hair on an otherwise windless day.

Approaching Seattle by ferry

  • Every city has something so unique you simply have to see it. In Seattle it is not the Space Needle (which has a great view and was shamelessly imitated in San Antonio), but the Pike Place Market along the waterfront. It reeks of authenticity and beauty. Blocks worth of beautiful flowers in baskets line the tops of the market. Inside, aside from the huge farmers market selling super fresh as well as eclectic fruits and vegetables are dozens of neat and independent little storefronts full of superior or eclectic products. Any place with hole in the wall booksellers is okay by me and there was not a chain store in sight. To quote McDonalds: I’m lovin’ it.
  • The Seattle Aquarium is nice but relatively small. You can find much more worthwhile aquariums to visit elsewhere.
  • I can recommend Anacortes, a lovely town about an hour north of Seattle as well as the Autumn Leaves Bed and Breakfast, where we are spending a second night. Roger and Jean are the perfect hosts. Their place is beautifully furnished, immaculately clean and our breakfast was gourmet. Roger even carried my luggage in. If you want to see whales, I can also recommend Island Adventures. We saw plenty, though most from three hundred feet away, as close as boats are allowed to come to the whales. Toward the end as we were heading back one of the whales broke the rules and breached the surface close to our boat, sending us whale watchers into ecstasy. A calm Salish Sea, the beautiful San Juan Islands splayed around us and lovely weather made our six hour journey with one hundred or so others very memorable.

Whale off San Juan Island

 

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