Archive for March, 2011

The Thinker

Fanfare for the Workingman’s Man

Joe Bageant passed away a couple of days ago at age 64. Most likely you are saying “Joe who?” For those of us who haunt his site or have read his books, life without more of Joe’s writing is a huge blow. Just one reading of his seminal work, Deer Hunting with Jesus where he explores the hassled life of the working class of Winchester, Virginia convinced me that he was in the top dozen best authors I have ever read. If you read Deer Hunting with Jesus, you will find that the book will haunt you. Never again, if you come from a family of some privilege (and Joe would include middle class people like me as privileged), will you be able to tune out the working class around you.

Joe Bageant

Before reading the book, I was more likely to tune out the guy who empties the trash in my office, the roofer, the clerk on the express lane at the superstore, or the guy haunting a booth at the gas station. Perhaps I turned away in part because I worked that life for a while and was glad to forget it. I spent my teenage and young adult years in suboptimal employment. The jobs I had back then paid enough to get by, if you lived with Mom and Dad, or failing that didn’t mind depending on public transportation and living in a room in a house with multiple roommates. None of these jobs paid enough to allow you to thrive. My workingman experience was designed to be brief. I wanted better things: a house in a nice neighborhood, a car, an office and enough money to indulge regularly in my passion for the arts.

It was unthinkable that I would be a workingman for life, but plenty of people live this sort of life who are constantly living on the edge. Joe chronicled them because he was one of them, and he knew intimately the world of the redneck. Something very weird though happened to Joe. He became part of a social experiment called The Great Society, served in the Navy during Vietnam, and was the first in his family to go to college thanks to government largesse. In college, Joe had a great awakening. In college he became exposed to a larger world and yet somehow he also remained a redneck to the core. He scraped together a living writing for military journals. Thirty years after he left Winchester, Virginia, Joe decided to move back. In his book, he chronicled the sad decline of the working class there. His writing is so good, so personal that you cannot help but step inside the souls of the working poor white people of Winchester. He wrote with such vividness, such empathy and so poignantly that the book was hard to put down even while it was at once both heartwarming and heart wrenching.

Joe knew what’s what better than just about any person I have ever read. His vision of society was largely nihilistic but fundamentally clear-eyed. After reading his essays it was impossible not to agree with him. Even if you could not agree with him, it was impossible not to be blown away by his prose. His discerning gaze saw everything and pierced through all pretenses. Joe was so totally grounded in real life. In style, his writing was much like Hunter S. Thompson, except Joe carried with him a keen sense of empathy and pathos. Joe didn’t like lots of people including, arguably, people like me cocooned in the safety of the middle class. He seemed beyond hate, but certainly not above disdain and loathing. Those of us in the middle class, but particularly the politicians, lawyers, and stockbrokers of the world he saw either explicitly or implicitly as pimps, who turned the backbreaking work of the working class into unearned wealth in the form of 401-Ks, sports cars and McMansions. He knew that the working class were largely unseen and when seen at all, judged with some disdain and contempt by their “betters”.

I enjoy writing, but I will never be as good a writer on a good day as Joe was on a bad day. Never will I be able to write sentences that grab you like two hands with a vice grip on your throat like these:

Below it all are the spreading pox-like blotches of economic and ecological ruins of dead North American towns and city cores, such as downtown Gary Indiana, Camden, Newark, Detroit — all those places we secretly accept as being hellish because, well, that’s just what happens when blacks take over, isn’t it? Has anyone seen downtown Detroit lately? Of course not. No one goes there any more. Miles of cracked pavement, weeds and abandoned buildings that look like de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street. Hell, for all practical purposes it is uninhabited, though a scattering of drug addicts, alcoholics and homeless insane people wander in the shadows of vacant rotting skyscrapers where water drips and vines crawl through the lobbies, including the Ford Motor Company’s stainless steel former headquarters. (See the works of Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara.)  It is the first glimpse of a very near future, right here and now for all to see.

Once you got a taste for Joe’s writing, it grabbed you and you just wanted more. So you haunted his website and you joined Feedblitz so you were quickly notified when he made a new post because you knew it would be good. Only, Joe had to go all mortal on us. Apparently, Joe smoked, some things legal, some allegedly not, and perhaps because he was a child of the 1960s he ingested things that would land him in jail today. Perhaps that is why he spent so much time in Mexico. His lungs were bad, probably a product of smoking, and his habits probably contributed to his premature encounter with the grave. Doubtless, Joe met his maker pragmatically. He might have even been glad to punch his exit ticket. Joe saw, as do I, that mankind is entering a sad, resource-competitive phase likely to bring out the worst in us instead of the best. If he had been able to do so, I am sure he would have had an amazing essay or two about the overreach by Republicans in states like Wisconsin as just more evidence of a nasty class war already well underway.

Sometimes in tons of rock you will find a diamond. Joe was one of those diamonds. He was a glorious accident whose writing touched me (and thousands of others lucky enough to discover him) to the core. If you haven’t read Joe, check out his website as it may not be around forever. And yes, you absolutely must read Deer Hunting with Jesus. Your humanity will stretch in the process and your eyes will open wider than they ever have before. You may find yourself like me, sadly wiser on the ways of the world and appreciative of the workingmen and women all around us who make civilization possible.

 
The Thinker

Review: Rango

You have to be a certain age (like my age) to remember a short-lived television series starring Tim Conway called Rango. I don’t recall watching it, but this 1967 show had an inane theme song that is still stuck in my head. In the TV show, Conway apparently played an inept Texas Ranger named Rango. I imagine this lackluster show must have inspired something about the new animated movie Rango now playing in theaters. Thankfully, the movie Rango is much better than the television show, in part due to mega superstar Johnny Depp voicing the part of Rango.

The television show Rango takes place in Deep Wells, Texas, known for its peace and serenity. The movie Rango takes place in the Mohave Desert, also known for its peace and serenity, as well as excessive heat and dryness. The exception seems to be the highway that cuts through the desert, which leaves a lot of roadkill. Rango is a lizard that lives in a terrarium with a dead insect and a plastic, wind-up goldfish. Rango aspires to be a thespian but opportunities seem limited in his terrarium, which is in the back of a car speeding down that desert road. An unfortunate accident causes his terrarium to end up on the highway. There Rango encounters an armadillo run over by a truck who is in the immortal words of Monty Python “not dead yet.” Thus begins Rango’s amazing parched and overheated adventures in the Mohave Desert in and around a town for animals called Dirt.

Rango is a hard movie to describe except to say that it is both original and succeeds by shamelessly parodying many other movies that proceed it. Just as Galaxy Quest got funnier the more you were vested in the Star Trek fan culture, your enjoyment of Rango is likely to increase the better your knowledge of movies in general is, not to mention classical music. For example, if you are familiar with Richard Wagner and his Ring trilogy, the scenes of flying bats will be hysterical. Without it, those scenes will seem a lot less funny.

I probably fell in somewhere around the median for this group, which means I found the movie quite funny and enjoyable, but likely not as funny as those more vested in Hollywood and high culture in general. This quirky animated movie featuring lots of animated desert critters posits a Western town in the middle of the Mohave Desert sized for desert animals but shaped like any Old West town. The town of Dirt comes complete with its own saloon, mayor and sheriff. Well, maybe not the sheriff, who has a tendency to turn up dead. Rango, practicing his acting skills, soon has the townies convinced he killed seven outlaws with one bullet. His credentials are further enhanced when through a freak accident of nature he manages to kill the local hawk that likes to terrorize the town. The mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) quickly appoints him sheriff, but even with the hawk gone the town is suffering. Water, always hard to find in the desert, becomes even harder to find. The local bank, which stores water, is down to a few days of water. Can Rango find who is stealing all the water and allow the good citizens of Dirt to survive? This is what passes for a plot in this movie.

As is true of most movies created by computer these days, the CGI is lush and gorgeous, making most scenes in the desert indistinguishable from real life. All that computing horsepower and fine directing by Gore Verbinski make for a very rich and very familiar western town full of animated creatures. The characters are all quirky and interesting, and Rango is just one of many who is full of spirit and bluster. There is also spirited Beans (voiced by Ilsa Fisher), whose property the Mayor wants to acquire, Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) who play the villain, as well as a whole host of ancillary characters to enjoy, one whose voice is a dead ringer for Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney, if you are old enough to remember Green Acres.)

You can take small children to this movie, but it’s really a movie more aimed at adults than children. Much of the humor of the movie will be lost on children, although they should enjoy Rango and the three owls in the Mariachi band that help frame the movie. Children will probably feel bored and the movie may last a little too long for their attention spans. As an animated work marrying fine directing, animation, CGI, story and characterization, the quirky Rango strangely enough sets quite a high bar and it is very humorous to boot. So chances are you will enjoy this weird movie enough to recommend it to your friends, as I am doing with you, friend.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

I may be talking to myself in this review. Is there anyone who has not see Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire? Besides my wife and me, I mean. Okay, I am sure there are some of you out there but this was as hard a movie to miss. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it turned into a sleeper hit, but this movie was a foreign film to boot, an almost certain strike against it. It racked up eight Oscars in 2009 including the most coveted: Best Picture. It was nominated for two others. But somehow I had not gotten around to seeing it, in part because my wife thought a movie anchored in the slums of Mumbai was too depressing to watch. So I Netflixed it and watched it alone last weekend.

My wife was right: it is a very hard movie to watch unless you are somewhat inured to poverty. Most of us Americans blessedly have not beheld poverty on the scale of what exists in parts of India. Moreover, Danny Boyle does not try to hide any of its ugliness. If you have visited the Third World, it looks all too familiar, but married as it is in the metropolis of Mumbai the actual poverty seems much worse, because it is so pervasive, concentrated and because it happens in the shadows of skyscrapers. In them is a much more moneyed set of people who largely tune out the poverty around them.

As I understand it, that’s the way things have been in India forever, so if I lived there I might grow inured to it as well. The slums of Mumbai are much worse than we can imagine, because not only are you poor, but because you are preyed upon mercilessly. And then there are the race riots. So it goes for Jamal (Dev Patel, as an adult), Jamal’s elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl from the slums. Jamal’s mother is killed in a race riot, leaving Jamal and Salim not just wretchedly poor, but orphaned and forced to fend for themselves. At least before their lives are blown apart they get some schooling, enough to read and write but once orphaned they are on their own. For a while they end up in what seems to be an orphanage, until, as they learn to their horror, their hosts simply want to use them as beggars. They manage to escape Mumbai by hitching a ride on the roof of a train, visit other places in India and get by for a while. And somehow as they move toward adulthood they escalate slowly up India’s economic ladder as well as lose touch with each other.

The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks while the adult Jamal plays as a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Jamal improbably gets on the show and even more improbably ends the show one question away from winning twenty million rupees. The telegenic show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) is also part owner of the show, and is convinced Jamal is cheating. He has him roughed up in an effort to figure out how a poor Muslim from the Juhu slum can possibly know the answer to obscure questions like who was the third musketeer from The Three Musketeers. Like Sauron blind that his all-powerful ring was about to be destroyed right under his nose, Kumar cannot conceive that life circumstances serendipitously allowed Jamal to correctly answer all the questions.

The plot of Slumdog Millionaire is as old as the story of Cinderella, but like Cinderella the fable never loses its charm. What makes Slumdog Millionaire harder to endure is the retching poverty, misery, horror and despair that permeates the film. However, harsh circumstances like these can (but usually do not) make people amazingly resilient. Jamal in particular seems to be able to bounce back no matter how much crap life throws at him, or how much crap he literally covers himself in in order to get an autograph. He’s not happy about his circumstances but he deals with each obstacle with equanimity. What he wants more than anything else is to reconnect with his lost childhood sweetheart Latika, who has grown into a stunningly attractive woman. She plays something of a reluctant concubine to a local gangster.

Combine a Cinderella-like story with India’s appalling poverty, exceptionally good acting and directing and numerous doses of unexpected humanity and you end up with a surprise hit from India that wins Best Picture. As a bonus, you get terrific dancing on a train platform as the credits roll. I found the movie horrifying and endearing at the same time, and I suspect you will as well. It probably did deserve Best Picture, not because it was so incredibly exceptional, but because 2009 was a lean year for top-notch movies. The competition included Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader.

Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent feel-good movie. You may find yourself crying in both joy and sorrow at the same time. 3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface

I understand the appeal of social networks, but the more I use Facebook the more convinced I am that it is an example of how to not build a social network user interface. Yeah, I know they are more popular than God and they have something like 600 million users worldwide. I know that Facebook and other social media forces like Twitter are the key tools bringing democracy to the Middle East. Maybe it is just me, but I find Facebook annoyingly difficult to use and it seems to get more that way with time. It’s like the Windows 3.1 of social media. Using it is frustrating and often counterproductive.

I notice a lot of my Facebook friends use it even less than I do. Perhaps that is because they find it as baffling as I do. Yes, I do have certain very social friends who spend what seems to be much of their lives on Facebook. I wish some company like Google could make a social network site that is usable and kill this monstrosity. Yet, like Windows, Facebook seems impossible to kill simply because everyone else is using it. Gah!

I have two choices. I can disconnect from Facebook and maybe tick off my friends, or I can stay on Facebook and hope that for all the billions its owners are making they might spend some time to make it usable. Granted, if all I want to do is make a short and inane post, it’s fine. I assume most Facebook users rarely get beyond this level of usage.

Let’s take posting as an example of why it sucks. First, there is a limit on how much you can post, and you get no feedback like you do on Twitter on how many characters you have left. I don’t know why there is a limit in the first place. The limit does not seem to apply on certain places, like on your wall. Moreover, you cannot dress up your text with italics, underlines, bolds or colors. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach. For a while there it didn’t like paragraphs. Now you can at least add paragraphs but if you start a post you can’t undo it unless you select all your text and delete it. Naturally when changes like these are made there is little in the way of warnings. You just have to adapt instantly.

Then there are its notifications. It gives me all sorts of notifications, all of which it thinks are deathly important but none of which I think are so. So some friend of a friend likes some friend’s post. It must tell me about it immediately. I don’t care. Perhaps there is a way to turn off this feature but so far I haven’t found it. But even if you click on the notifications link and select whoever’s status, the notification doesn’t necessarily go away. The only sure fire way I have found to get rid of a notification is to reply or attempt to reply to the status. But in most cases I don’t want to reply.

Then there is the “Top News” versus the “Most Recent” news. Most Recent makes sense, but how does Facebook decide what is “Top News”? I sure don’t know but a lot of my “Top News” is more like “Bottom News”.

If I hit the “Home” link in the top right corner I expect that maybe I would go to the Facebook home page. What often happens is I get a Facebook page with no posts whatsoever. So then I click on the Facebook link in the top left corner. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. It’s all so baffling, confusing and non-deterministic, just like Windows.

Also baffling and confusing is how my browser is also baffled by it. On any other page, if I use my Page Up or Page Down buttons I will advance up or down the page by approximately the content on the screen. But not when I am in Facebook, or at best this happens irregularly. It probably has something to do with what control I was last in and its properties, but it doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else. So I have to drag the scrollbar with my mouse instead. It’s nuts.

And call me crazy, but if I press the “Friends” link on the left I expect to see a list of my friends. But in the crazy Facebook world, “Friends” means I want to find more friends and I am prompted to use various search engines to find them. Why not make the link “Find more friends”? News alert to Facebook developers: not all of us want to have thousands of friends. I’m done searching for friends. Of course, I cannot turn off this interface. How do I see all those I have “friended”? Apparently I have to go to my “wall”, which is done by clicking on the link associated with my name (why not a “My wall” link?) then click on the Friends link on the left column. Then I can see my 42 friends.

And what is the difference between a post and a message? To most people it would be the same thing, but in the Facebook universe a post is public (at least to your friends) and a message is private. Why not call messages “private messages”? It makes no sense.

Then there is the Profile link, which looks like it’s also my wall, but maybe not. In any event, in most other places I’ve been to when you select Profile you are immediately allowed to edit your profile, not see your profile as others would see you. In the weird Facebook world you go to your profile, then select the Edit Profile link. And what’s the difference between “Profile” and “Account”? Your profile is part of your account. Why not put it under Account? Why be so confusing?

I have only lightly experimented with photos and groups. Needless to say both were confusing so for right now I avoid both photos and groups. Then there is its Byzantine privacy system, which at least has been somewhat simplified, but is still darn confusing, and which often defaults to less privacy instead of more privacy.

I realize Facebook has to make money but I’d like an option to pay them a small stipend so I don’t have to see any annoying ads at all and have no marketing information about me shared. Is that too much to ask?

For all you Facebook fans, am I off base here or is Facebook really so wonderful? Am I some sort of 20th century curmudgeon? I wish Facebook would hire an interface guru like Jakob Nielsen so it would actually be usable to us. With all their billions in revenue, you would think it would be an obvious investment. Right now, companies like Google have every incentive to build a better social network. Making a better user interface should be a piece of cake.

When someone does, then I will be the first to “friend” my Facebook friends and try to persuade them to use it instead. Sorry Facebook, yours isn’t.

 
The Thinker

The skeptic in the room

Today I take a break from blogging because someone else says it much better than I do. If you notice a theme to my blog, this might be it. Thanks, Eddie Scott, for speaking (or rather singing) for me today.

 
The Thinker

The never-ending battle of me vs. we

What really distinguishes the United States from most other countries? For me, two things came to mind, and both are related. First, in America it seems to be much more about “me” rather than about “we”. That seems to be implicit with our notion of freedom, at least as Americans have come to understand it. Second, since it’s all about “me” and we see selfishness as a virtue, many of us have lost empathy for those not like us, if we ever acquired it at all. For many Americans, getting in touch with others not like us is dead last on our list of priorities. In fact, we are often openly hostile to the whole idea and want to bend policy on all levels to make sure this value permeates all government and society.

“Me” vs. “we” characterizes in two words our great and seemingly never-ending national political debate. As with most things, being exclusively “me” or exclusively “we” tends to be unworkable in the real world. Right now the “me” crowd is in control, at least in the House of Representatives but arguably in a majority of state houses as well. The “me” crowd are principally Republicans. The “we” crowd are principally Democrats. It seems that mostly neither side can understand where the other is coming from.

Political forces seem aligned to never allow one crowd to get into ascendancy for long. Arguably, the passage of the Affordable Care Act last year was a recent peak for the “we” crowd’s success in exercising its political power. Granted, for many of us it did not go far enough. Its passage, rather than settling the issue, had the effect of whipping the “me” crowd into a hornet’s nest of activity. To the “me” crowd, just about anything that the “we” crowd enacts into law amounts to socialism, because they see it as redistribution of wealth. (That the whole point of government is to redistribute wealth seems to escape them.) In their minds, any redistribution of wealth is socialism. Passage of the Affordable Care Act stirred up the “me” crowd, perhaps beyond expectations. It resulted in a near record eighty-seven new House Republicans in the 2010 election.

As Democrats discovered when they swept into power in 2008, controlling the reins of power is a heady experience that usually quickly leads to a reaction commensurate with the newly acquired power. It was swift in coming last November, not so much in Washington where Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, but in state capitals where Republicans found themselves with veto proof majorities. The tendency, particularly when your party is highly united, is to push your agenda through with all deliberate speed and to take no prisoners. (Democrats, perhaps because we have so many divergent opinions, frequently divide among themselves.) Therefore, being true to form, states like Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin overturned previous long-standing laws allowing public employees to collectively bargain. Republicans could have addressed just the issue in front of them (aligning taxes with public expenditures) and likely not have triggered any reaction. Instead, they went for the ideological “cure”. Collective bargaining for public employees became unlawful, not because it saved money, but because collectivism in any form sounded socialistic, and was “we” behavior rather than “me” behavior.

Arguably, too much “we” behavior can be dangerous and foolish too. We can see it being played out in the European debt crisis. In general, the more socialistic the state, the bigger the debt crisis was. However, the degree of socialism was just one contributing factor. The competence of government was also a major contributing factor. Arguably Germany is as socialistic, if not more so, than Greece and Spain who are struggling with debt. However, Germany also has a strong manufacturing sector whose growth makes their level of socialism affordable. Greece and Spain have suffered from poor economies for decades, and Greece in particular has been run by a succession of incompetent, if not corrupt governors.

The converse is true as well. Too much “me” behavior is dangerous and foolish. Republicans are quickly reaching a dangerous and foolish phase where ideology is substituting for critical thinking. As Ezra Klein pointed out recently, as bad as our deficit spending is, the long-term costs get worse if you are not regularly doing things like fixing our infrastructure. For example, it is much more costly to replacing bridges later compared to repairing them now. This is not a matter of ideology; it’s a matter of fact. Chopping government spending in an unintelligent fashion, as seems to be the rage in the House, is counterproductive. An intelligent response to our deficit would include raising taxes, particularly on those who can easily afford to contribute more, and cutting programs that are demonstrably inefficient or don’t solve the intended problem. It also involves looking at programs that are inefficient but necessary, like Medicare, and figuring out how to make them efficient.

If your philosophy is always “me first” then at some point you end up narcissistic, which means you become unconcerned or inured to the problems of others. The problem with narcissism is that it gives you a false perspective and feeds feelings of righteousness as well. “Me first” does not solve the problem of global warming. You can, of course, assert that it is not happening, which many “me first” types are happy to do. Perhaps even worse is to acknowledge it and simply not care. It’s kind of like a criminal saying, “I know I torched that house but, hey, it wasn’t my house.”

“Me first always” is a very dangerous ideology. It is like choosing to go through life wearing blinders. It’s like Mr. Magoo driving his car unaware of the pedestrians his Rolls Royce has run over. At its essence, “me first” either denies or discounts the connections between people and our environment. The opposite is true. Our connections mean everything. None of us would be alive had we not had concerned parents who nurtured us. None of us would have flourished without teachers, who connected with us as people so that we could learn to deal effectively with reality. It is little wonder then that the public is solidly behind teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere. If you have a “me first” view then you don’t care about people like firefighters or public school teachers. Whereas, if you are a typical parent who is trying to raise a child to adulthood, your child’s success depends on teachers. You can make the obvious connection between overcrowded classrooms and the probability of your child’s success in life. Teachers are not your enemy; they are your friends and provide a critical service. It is in your interest to see them succeed, so your child succeeds and thus to ensure teachers are treated decently by government. For a “me first” person like Governor Scott Walker, none of this matters.

The result is a predictable and surprisingly powerful blowback, which might make this latest Republican resurgence remarkably short-lived. The public is quickly rediscovering why they do not like Republicans. They see them as people enthralled with tearing things down, not building things up. They see them as people remarkably detached from the real world. They see them as people who are not only narcissistic, but sadistic as well, and even gleefully sadistic. Their sadistic tendencies are now on display all over the country. Most of the rest of us find it revolting. They are the antithesis of the Christian values so many of these Republicans claim to champion.

How we resolve these polarities, if we do it at all, will be telling. It will be interesting to see which polarized politicians, if any, will find the courage to move toward compromise rather than embrace the destruction of rigid adherence to ideology alone. For those that do, perhaps they can thank a teacher.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on death and dying

Should dying be scary? Should being dead be scary? It seems for most of us the gut answer to both questions is yes. There is a lot of money to be made feeding our fears and phobias around death and dying. The beauty industry depends on its ability to sell us on, if not on the illusion of immortality, at least looking much younger than your age. Dying is steady business, if not a growth business, for a burgeoning network of service providers from retirement communities, to nursing homes, to funeral homes. Hollywood’s revenue stream would be severely diminished if the powerful emotions inherent in these topics lost their lure. Would there be a video game industry of note if we did not use their virtual worlds to work out of death anxieties by blasting various bad guys, aliens, zombies and assorted creatures from the id? Our prosperity may be measured, to some extent, on our obsessions with death and dying.

A former creative writing teacher of mine, doubtless echoing someone else, posited that there were only two great mysteries of life: sex and death. As a fifty-something gentlemen, sex is no longer a mystery to me, but relationships remain as puzzling as ever. After seeing my mother go through her long decline, dying is less of a mystery to me as well. On a typical day, my top rated post of the day will be a eulogy I wrote for her over five years ago. My creative writing teacher must have been on to something then, because my blog statistics show that sex and death are what people care about. In the last thirty days, 1253 out of 10,573 page views (nearly 12%) were for the eulogy I posted about my mother. However, there were at least 1534 page views were for a half dozen sex related topics. Even at age fifty something, I am still interested in sex, although significantly less that I used to be, and even though there is little mystery in sex anymore.

As I age, I find that my feelings and thoughts on death are changing too. My greatest nightmare traditionally goes something like this: I go see the doctor and he discovers I have some dreadful disease. He tells me that I will have a painful and debilitating decline and in six months I am likely to be dead. Today, I don’t find that nightmare nearly as frightening. This is because one of the consequences of aging, at least for me, is that I both know and feel that I will die. To go from being alive to being dead, I will go through a dying process. Dying may be a very short process or a very long process. But I will die regardless. In short, dying is entirely natural, as natural as birth. At some point it is unreasonable to be too afraid of a natural process.

The late Timothy Leary, always a bit of a contrarian, was bizarrely thrilled to learn that he was dying. He saw dying as something of an adventure, presumably something akin to the many trips he took with acid (LSD) in the 1960s. Leary, who died in 1996, kept fans appraised of all aspects of his death on his web site. He even had his death videotaped for posterity. While the dying days of many are hardly memorable, and are often painful and humiliating, they do not have to be bad. For some, particularly those who receive professional hospice care, dying becomes an experience in extreme living, as drugs keep them from much pain and the tender and compassionate relationships developed in hospice care leave them feeling loved and listened to, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

My own mother’s dying process was wrenching for her as well as for us, but some part of it was wrenching because of her attitude toward death. She could not accept her death, even though she knew she was dying. Her attitude may be because she helped care for her own mother during her dying process, and her mother was mentally ill and reportedly cantankerous through it. It may be that dying, like any other life experience, is what you make of it.

Occasionally I run across remarkable stories about people dying. One of the most remarkable was the death of my friend Lisa’s niece Lauren back in 2006. Lauren, who I never met, died at age 19. She remained chipper and compassionate with everyone through her long dying process. She rarely complained. In some ways, the process of dying and her decision on how she would cope with it defined a remarkable part of her life. She chose for it to be a positive experience and so it was.

I hope when my turn comes I can be this way, but I won’t know until that time arrives. I hope the essence of who I am will be stronger than the scary and bitter feelings that are natural from many during the dying process. I hope when the time comes I will not be full of regrets and disappointments, but realistic and grateful for the time I did have, and for the experiences I have enjoyed. I hope I find the courage to die well, perhaps doing a better job at the end of the life than the many missteps I made through life itself.

Death itself is no longer scary to me. Part of it is because I sense I do have a spirit, and thus a certain immortality. If I were physically immortal, like Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, I suspect I would find it mostly a downer, because those I loved would not share my immortality, and the world would change so much. A lifespan of eighty to a hundred years, should I live that long, is very long in itself. If dying is a property of life, then it is also true that the one constant in life in the universe is change. The universe is always recreating itself. In death in some ways I will be recreating as well, either through some sort of reincarnation process or I will help give life to new forms of life. Either outcome is good. I hope I find that my life was a glorious, and perhaps undeserved gift. I hope this knowledge will fill me with gratitude, wonder of my limited understanding of the universe, and a realization that through death I allow more life to emerge.

 
The Thinker

White males on the decline?

Some time ago, I pilloried Glenn Beck who I said seems obsessively concerned that America is losing its whiteness and hence its fundamental character. America’s innate “whiteness” of course belies the Native Americans who were here before us, the Hispanics who populated the southwest long before our citizens moved west and the millions of slaves we forcibly imported to tend our plantations. White males governed the United States exclusively for a very long time, and the integration of other ethnicities into our power structure has been slow at best. Only recently did we get our first Muslim American in Congress. Despite the presence of many non-whites in our country throughout our history, there is some truth that early Americans largely perceived the United States to be a country by and for white people. Abraham Lincoln was among many presidents who, at least for most of his life, firmly believed this. Until about the time he became president, he believed the final solution to our racial problem was to create a Negro colony somewhere and move American Negroes there. (The bravery of African American troops in the Civil War helped convince him otherwise.)

White (Caucasian) Americans remain in the majority, but by the time I expect to meet my maker, if not before, I will become part of a mere plurality of white Americans. If you follow the demographic trends out a century or so, Hispanics will likely form a new plurality of Americans, and we white Americans will be just another sizeable minority. Like Afrikaners, we are likely to exert a political and financial power that will seem inconsistent with our size.

Or maybe not. Whites may be in the minority someday, but some people are already worried enough to help white men go to college. A few white male students at Texas State University in San Marcos have formed a scholarship fund for Caucasian males. They notice that there are plenty of scholarship funds for other ethnic groups, which is hard to deny. If you are a minority and have the talent, you can probably get a full scholarship. There is also a new fact on college campuses: women now form a majority of students. Maybe white men need some help too, particularly the B-average white male student. To qualify for their scholarships, you need to be only twenty-five percent Caucasian. Their scholarship is hardly generous either, just $500, barely enough to cover the cost of textbooks. This new scholarship fund may be one that is more to make a point than to seriously address a problem of declining enrollment in universities by white males. Their scholarship fund is likely to cause a minor kerfuffle, but it is not illegal. That it occurred first in Texas did not surprise me.

I was one of these young white males thirty-five years ago. I did not have a 4.0 average (3.5, as I recall) but my grades were not stellar enough for me to get any scholarships. I had some money of my own that I painstakingly saved from a job bagging groceries and stocking shelves. My parents contributed about $5000. That wasn’t enough to make it through college, so I compensated by overloading courses during semesters and finally, when all funds were near gone, obtaining a student loan. With such modest financial resources, a private college was unaffordable, but attending a local Florida university was not. However, I did manage to get my degree.

As I moved into my career, I was not aware that I was a benefactor of any white privilege in particular. My moving up the ladder was a struggle and never a given, but I had no way of knowing how hard it was for others. I recall a time early in my federal career when many “career ladder” type jobs were off limits to me. I did not qualify because I was a white male and they were targeted for minorities. I did not feel discriminated against at the time; I just accepted that the government was trying to right wrongs that had existed for centuries in a modest and actually quite limited way. It’s not that all opportunities were off limits, just some.

However, I am now convinced that something is going on with white males, and I don’t think it is good for our country. For better or worse, white males have been our nation’s primary movers and shakers. Increasingly white men are either uninterested in college or simply lack the motivation and/or intelligence to succeed in college. Prosperity and lax parenting may be to blame, resulting in young white males today with a tendency to be overweight, nonathletic and more interested in being online than keeping their noses to the grindstone. Young white males seem to me less focused and have less of a passionate desire to succeed in the past. Women, on the other hand, are realizing that they are better optimized for the new workforce. The new workforce requires those who can seamlessly multi-task and have advanced relational skills. In general, these skills come more naturally to women than to men. Combine natural talents in this area with advanced education (and perhaps the lower wages still unfairly paid to women compared to men) and women become more desirable to employers than equally qualified men do. I have found from my experience that those I admire the most in the workplace tend to be women. Women staff two levels in my management chain. It may be coincidence, but I feel much better managed and more effective with women supervisors and managers than I did for the many men for who I worked. It may be because they see me as a person better than the many men who supervised me over the years.

These factors and likely others appear to be marginalizing the American white male. Also contributing to their problem are fewer blue-collar jobs. What blue-collar jobs that are out there tend to fall into two types: dead end jobs that are mindless and uninspiring and those (like automotive mechanics) that require substantially higher skills than they used to. So if you are unable to make the leap into college or trade school, you are more likely to fall into jobs that are more menial, pay less and are more temporal.

Perhaps this is part of a natural course of events. However, the culture that has traditionally favored and supported the white male seems, if not crumbling, under assault. $500 scholarships are token attempts to call attention a problem that I am convinced is quite real and probably needs attention. I do not think this problem should be addressed at the expense of other minorities. However, white male energy has contributed enormously to our country’s success and may predict our future success. Social scientists should do us a favor by examining the scope of the white male motivation problem, and recommending solutions for policymakers. Whatever we are doing is not working.

 
The Thinker

Review: Unknown

First a confession: when I post a movie review, it is probably not because I am anxious to inform the world on my opinions about a particular movie. While getting different perspective on a movie is nice, much better reviews are typically available elsewhere. However, movie reviews are relatively quick to write, whereas a thoughtful blog post on politics or philosophy takes time and introspection. So particularly when I don’t have too much time but I feel a need to put out a blog post because it’s been a while, a movie review helps fill in the gap. And who knows, perhaps some of you out there actually like reading my movie reviews. Stranger things have happened. And if, like Unknown, it is a movie just released in the theaters, my review will also draw a certain number of casual surfers.

Unknown would seem to be a strange pick of a movie for me to review, as my very last post was on the 1998 movie Les Miserables. Both Unknown and Les Miserables star Liam Neeson. Thirteen years have passed and Liam Neeson has not gotten any younger. (I looked it up. He is 58.) However, he has lost none of his acting skill. In Unknown, Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a researcher sent to Berlin to attend a hoity biotechnology summit where a handsome and benevolent Middle East prince is the guest of honor. Martin brings along his shapely, blonde and naturally much younger wife Liz (January Jones). They arrive in Berlin on a snowy February morning and quickly make their way to their four-star hotel. Unfortunately, Martin left an important bag at the airport, so he immediately hustles back to the airport in a taxi while his wife tries to check in.

Never get in a taxi with Dr. Martin Harris. A dazed and jetlagged Dr. Harris finds his taxi careening off a bridge, a maneuver necessary to avoid a refrigerator that falls off a truck that comes hurling at the taxi. His taxi driver Gina (Diane Kruger) and he quickly end up in the river. He is knocked unconscious and falls into a coma. Amazingly, the taxi driver is able to save herself and him before the car descends to the bottom of the river. Martin wakes up four days later in a Berlin hospital with no identification. He quickly remembers who he is, but when he gets back to the hotel he is baffled to find that another Dr. Martin purporting to be him is there, and his wife has no idea who he is. By now the essence of the plot is clear: Martin must reestablish his identity somehow and figure out what is going on. It soon becomes clear that something very nefarious is going on because at the hospital an aide tries to drug him and his nurse ends up dead. His nurse does manage to give him the name and address of an old East German spy (played by Bruno Ganz, who also starred as Adolph Hitler) who helps him figure out what is going on.

Yes, it’s a murder-mystery, and a decent one at that with a decent twist ending you likely won’t see coming. Most of the actors are top rate, and Neeson is not necessarily the best actor on this set. There is also the seasoned actor Frank Langella (who played Richard Nixon), who seems connected with the shadowy bad guys while also somehow also knowing Martin. Martin eventually finds the taxi driver Gina, who turns out to be an illegal immigrant trying to buy her citizenship and who is hiding from the law. She becomes a somewhat unwilling but necessary accomplice in Martin’s quest to reestablish his identity. Diane Kruger plays a pivotal part as Gina, and she makes a convincing albeit quite attractive illegal immigrant. I will warn you about one thing: when Gina is driving a taxi, watch out.

There are lots of car chases through downtown Berlin in this movie. I don’t know about you, but car chases long ago lost any allure with me. It seems a shame to wreck so many beautifully engineered German cars, particularly the expensive ones, just to entertain us. I would have been just as happy with more chases on foot, and there are plenty of those as well. Figuring out what’s going on is a challenge too. Suffice to say that all is not quite what it appears, and you may get a clue if you pay careful attention to the early scenes between Martin and his wife.

What Unknown is is a well done, rather standard espionage murder-mystery, with the twist that it is harder to figure out because of the accident and Martin’s shaky memory from being in the coma. Despite tight directing, excellent acting all around and an engaging story, you have seen lots of movies just like this that are about as good. So unless you are a big Liam Neeson fan (like my wife) there is no particular reason to seek this one out, unless you are just in the mood for a better than average movie in this genre.

3.2 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Les Miserables (1998)

Whether you call yourself Christian or not, you have to admit the story of Jesus is compelling. What’s not to like? It has all the elements of a great story including a virgin birth, a charismatic character, a stirring new philosophy, a strong good vs. evil plot, great drama and a surprise, twist ending. It’s a heck of a lot more compelling than the biblical stories of Adam & Eve, David & Goliath, Jonah and the whale or even the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Even if you cannot find yourself believing in the story of Jesus, your inner child cannot hear his story without feeling full of wonder, hope and heartbreak. Your inner child wants it to be true.

Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables is in many ways as compelling as the story of Jesus. It’s like crack for your soul and sense of pathos. It is no wonder that it has endured like a diamond, and little wonder that talented producers turned it into a musical that seemed like it would be on Broadway in perpetuity. Hugo wrote an addictive story with compelling characters, full of pathos and a good vs. evil theme. Jesus’s story is one of salvation. Jean Valjean’s story is one of coping with injustice, obsessive persecution and the ultimate redemption of the human soul. Read the book, watch it as a movie or enjoy it as a musical, and it is almost guaranteed to stick to you and leave you profoundly moved.

The musical alone has endured for a quarter of a century. The book has been made into a movie a number of times. The most recent English incarnation of Les Miserables was released in 1998 and stars Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as his nemesis Inspector Javert. Having seen the musical four times (most recently locally at Signature Theatre) I never got around to seeing the movie, until recently when I ordered it from Netflix.

A movie based on this masterpiece should have left Director Bille August nervous. Stocking a film with fine actors often facilitates a movie’s success. Both Neeson and Rush have many great films to their credit. Neeson excels in playing the good guy, so Valjean is a natural for him. (Neeson even got a gig as a voiceover for God, well, Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies.) Choosing Geoffrey Rush as the obsessive Inspector Javert was particularly inspired, because Rush gives Javert a dose of complexity typically missing in the character. In Rush’s portrayal, Javert is not so much someone who sees all moral issues as either good or bad, but someone whose life is defined by an obsessive compulsion to follow rules. His soul cannot rest while the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who broke his parole, remains at large.

Two such compelling characters would be plenty for any book or movie, but Hugo dishes up hosts of others. There is Fantine (Uma Thurmon), a single mother who works in Valjean’s factory who unknown to Valjean is unjustly fired and is reduced to prostitution in order to support her daughter. There is Cosette (Claire Danes as an adult), her young daughter who she left in the care of a moneygrubbing innkeeper and his wife in another town. There, Cosette is forced into child labor, not allowed to play and makes her bed under a bar. To address his sin of omission, and because Valjean was earlier transformed from an angry paroled convict to a humanitarian in a transformative encounter with a priest, Valjean agrees to be a father to Cosette when Fantine dies of tuberculosis. There is also 19th century politics, a restored monarchy in France and rebellious students lead by the young student Marius (Hans Matheson), who falls in love with Cosette at first glance. There is revolution on the streets of Paris, wrenching poverty, and starving children in the streets.

There is, in fact, much more story in the novel than can be squeezed into this two hour and thirteen minute movie. Consequently, the movie moves briskly, revealing the highlights of this long novel but by necessity leaving out substantial parts of the plot. The director does manage to pack a surprising amount of story into the screen time. Les Miserables was one of Claire Dane’s first movies, and she makes a wonderful Cosette. She portrays her with much more depth and character than we get from Cosette in the musical. Hans Matheson is equally well cast as Marius, and gives his character the welcome intensity of a young man full of passion and potential.

France and Paris in the early 19th century also feel very well realized by Bille August, even if everyone is speaking British English. Neeson’s Valjean is on spot, but Valjean is a relatively reflexive character for him to play. In this version, Rush’s portrayal of Javert makes his character the most compelling. If looking for a reason to rent this movie, rent it to enjoy Rush’s delicious characterization of Javert. It is not surprising at all that this year he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Lionel Logue in King’s Speech.

I suspect that Victor Hugo would have few problems with this movie. If you somehow missed Les Miserables, this movie is a worthy adaption that hopefully will inspire you to tackle an unabridged version of Hugo’s classic book.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

 

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