Archive for May, 2012

The Thinker

Review: The Music Man at Arena Stage

If one had to decide on a best American musical, The Music Man would surely rank in the top half dozen. It feels quintessentially American, with equal parts of turn of the (20th) century small town America and shysterism.

I have a special connection to the musical. It was first released in 1957, the year I was born. Second, I grew up listening to its music. Sunday mornings were music day in our house, and the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record from the movie starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston was often playing before or after breakfast. Its story and lyrics are stored in my permanent long-term memory. It was also something of a naughty musical for its time and our conservative Catholic household. My parents often had us skip “Shipoopi” because it elicited so many giggles from us kids. It wasn’t until I had read Nathaniel Hawthorne that I understood what Harold Hill meant by the lyrics that he wanted “for Hester to win just one more A.” My Dad found the music irresistible. In 2009, I took him to The Kennedy Center to see a highly abridged staging, but mainly for him to see Shirley Jones. So this is really the second review of The Music Man to grace this blog.

This staging is being done locally at Arena Stage in southwest D.C. in its theater in the round (well, more accurately theater in the square), the Fichlander. We haven’t been to Arena stage since 2004 where we saw a spectacular production of M Butterfly. Since then the theater has been remodeled, although the stage itself appears unaltered. Before the show we were remarking that we had never seen a bad production at Arena Stage. I am happy to report that Artistic Director Molly Smith did not disappoint with this current staging of The Music Man either.

If The Music Man has a problem, it is that it is done too often and thus is too familiar. I have seen it performed at least three times before last night. The movie is committed to my brain as well. It’s become almost like holy writ: there should be no messing with the musical. Putting it on a theater in the round though did introduce some complications. At least at Arena Stage, the musical doesn’t transition too well to a theater in the round. The stage is not that big and the audience across from you is impossible to tune out. River City is supposed to be as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, but this is the 21st century, so Molly Smith added a couple of African Americans and an Asian. Yeah, it’s just theater and shouldn’t matter but is still a bit jarring.

This staging has some great plusses to it. You don’t particularly think of dancing when you think of The Music Man, but Molly Smith makes it a feature and there is not a clubfoot among the cast. In fact, they are all little Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, which makes the otherwise unmemorable “Shipoopi” memorable indeed. Also terrific are the two prominent child parts: Ian Berlin as the stutterer Winthrop and Heidi Kaplan as Amaryllis. It is truly surprising to see such talent from children so young.

The heart of the musical of course is the relationship between Harold Hill and Marian Paroo. Hill (Burke Moses) is the traveling salesman masquerading as a music professor but just out to make some quick bucks selling boys bands to gullible townies. Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin) is the town librarian and one of the few people in the town who knows how to think critically. She is immediately suspicious of this “common masher”, particularly when he is hardly off the train before he is wooing her. Marian, of course, is secretly worried about becoming an old maid at (gasp) age 26 and with no prospects. Marian apparently had a close relationship with the founder of the library before he died, and inherited all the books in the library as well as the position of librarian. Harold Hill assumes she is a fallen woman, and finds such women attractive.

Robert Preston originated the role of Harold Hill. In fact, Meredith Willson wrote his music specifically for him, since Preston did not have much of a singing voice. Mostly he speaks more than sings. Preston is long gone, but Moses does an impressive job of recreating Preston on stage. One minor problem for Moses is he is arguably too old for the part. He is 52. Kate Baldwin is not quite the 26-year-old Marian either (she is 37), but certainly looks like she could be. Aside from the age incongruity, both deliver exceptional performances. Baldwin makes a terrific Marian, which is good because arguably she has a hard part to get right. She must be at once critical, smart and perceptive, yet emotionally vulnerable and ultimately kind hearted. She also has to be an exceptional singer as well as dancer, and Baldwin delivers all the goods magnificently. Try not to cry when she hits those high notes at the end of “Will I Ever Tell You.”

Both are blessed with an able cast of supporting actors. It’s hard to pick favorites but I especially enjoyed John Lescault as Mayor Shinn and Will Burton as Tommy Djilas, the local “bad boy”, such as they have in bland River City. The orchestra sits under the stage, making the quality of the sound a tad less than ideal.

The Music Man may be over performed and feel mostly out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is undeniably musically infectious. Particularly if you have never seen it before, this staging should delight. You are almost guaranteed to be humming tunes from it for days afterward. While not the best showing I have seen at Arena Stage (so hard to decide between Animal Crackers and Guys and Dolls) it is A-grade stuff, guaranteed to please in all its surreal Republican wholesomeness.

 
The Thinker

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

 
The Thinker

Beware of buying Facebook stock

Facebook finally made its stock market debut on Friday. The stock, initially available to select investors at $38 a share, closed at slightly above that price at $38.23 a share. Time will tell how investors really assess the stock. Most are probably waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows.

Facebook won’t have to worry about me buying its stock. I strongly suspect the company is already massively overvalued at $38 a share. More importantly, I am not convinced that Facebook will be around in five or ten years. If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it is that web sites tend to be ephemeral. MySpace, which Facebook largely replaced, is a good example. Moreover, the web phenomenon of the moment is not Facebook, but Pinterest. You have to look hard to find web sites that have endured and remain profitable. Fifteen years ago Yahoo was phenomenal. Now it is hanging on, losing money, shedding employees and moving through CEOs at an alarming pace.

Facebook does have huge market share in part because it has figured out (it thinks) what people want in the way of a social networking site. It is already clear that it will never get everyone on the web. So many of its users are not active users. They have created accounts and then largely abandoned them, or check them out irregularly.  Of my 54 Facebook friends, on a weekly basis I see about 15 of them post or comment. Only three of them post regularly (every day or more). As I mentioned some time back, its user interface is confusing, although less so now than it was when I griped about it. Its privacy policies feel whimsical, giving you little confidence that your settings today will be there tomorrow or that your privacy policies will actually be handled correctly. Of course, Facebook is really about making money, so they keep trying new advertising strategies. The general thrust is to send you more ads and to make them more highly targeted. More and more, time on Facebook feels more like having a salesman regularly interrupt you while you are interacting with friends.

Its tepid IPO suggests stock analysts are right. To justify its price, it has to keep growing and more importantly it needs to convince advertisers that it can tie social networking and advertising together in a way that provides a unique advantage. General Motors gave it a try, and decided they just were not getting the return they wanted from advertising on Facebook, so they stopped using it.

Just how influential are your friends in convincing you to buy stuff anyhow? I like my friends just fine. I might see their dentist if they rave about him or her, because a personal recommendation makes choosing a dentist much simpler. But particularly with “friends” I rarely see in person, particularly those nebulous friends and friends of friends I have never actually met, and whose posts I mostly ignore, I doubt any attempt by Facebook to sell me stuff because my “friend” liked it will have any influence on me.

Facebook is also trying to make itself the center of your web experience. It is doing things like adding email (“messages”). Ideally, they hope you would never go anywhere on the web but Facebook. This of course defeats the whole purpose of the web, whose open nature is its key selling point. AOL tried this and failed spectacularly. Yet this is exactly the direction Facebook seems to be heading. Rather than be a utility on the web, it wants to largely replace the web by framing everything within a social context. However, the web is so much more than a social frame. It’s most about the ability to get information of interest.

I see Facebook as ultimately a limited business model simply because the premises on which it went IPO cannot be indefinitely sustained and population growth will limit its market. It’s bound to hit a brick wall eventually, and that time is likely to come sooner rather than later. Moreover, Facebook is no longer sexy. It has become ubiquitous and tired.

This is not to suggest that Facebook has no value. Obviously it knows a huge amount about its users based on what they choose to disclose and by analyzing what they do within Facebook, but this value diminishes quickly once it loses users. Its true value may be not in what it knows or can predict about your buying preferences, but by mining data among its users to determine trends. In particular, it should focus on thought leaders: those who set trends and convince others to follow them. Knowing what they and their friends care about is very valuable.

I suspect if Facebook is to grow that this is where it should be concentrating its resources. Operating as if users will not drift elsewhere as interest and whim takes them is delusional. Operating as if social relationships were all that mattered is also delusional. The history of the web suggests that users will move to another web site on a dime, which is why Pinterest is now a phenomenon, particularly among women. Pinterest clearly satisfied an itch for sharing information that Facebook simply had not thought through sufficiently.

To the extent that things endure on the web, it is because sites present tools that add value about the web as a whole. Particularly valuable is “meta” information: information about information. Google’s value is probably not inflated. This is because it can organize and present the Internet’s information in a coherent way that we need. Facebook does make it easier to keep and maintain social connections, but this is an ancillary feature of the web, not its heart. Information is its center.

As part of a balanced portfolio, perhaps owning some Facebook stock makes sense. As a strategy for acquiring great wealth, being heavily vested in it is likely to subtract from your wealth instead of add to it.

 
The Thinker

Dealing with political bullies

In April I discussed how Republicans win through intimidation. I said in a future post that I would give my thoughts on how to deal with their bullying. Today I finally get around providing my thoughts on the question.

This is a tough problem for Democrats because, with a few exceptions like Howard Dean, we haven’t learned to fight in a way that sways. Thus, Republicans have a natural advantage. They are used to having their way and they generally get their way through a lot of intimidation, bullying and money, which they have aplenty. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be civilized people. We think it is impolite to shout and figure everyone has the right to be heard. We like to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that Republicans have a better and pluralistic nature. And so pretty much every time we debate, we avoid going for the jugular. We don’t want to be seen as one of them, which in our minds is worse than winning.

All bullies understand one thing very well: to wield power over someone, you must connect with someone emotionally, not logically. Chances were that when you encountered a bully in school, one encounter was enough. The bully never tried to reason with you. Instead, he went straight for the jugular and used every weapon is his well-stocked arsenal: physical, emotional and mental. You quickly learned to avoid the bully because man, this dude is a loose cannon. If encountered, you found it pragmatic to give them what they wanted to avoid retribution. Why does this work? It is because for most people it takes about ten logical propositions (or more) to overwhelm one emotional proposition.

To really beat a political bully, it helps to have cut a few of them down to size. This come from standing up to bullies, which few of us have tried. Oddly enough, most bullies, when confronted by an opponent with determination, will give way. This will happen particularly if they sense from those around them that by standing up, many others will find the courage to stand up as well. This is because a crowd against you has more power than any bully by himself.

One way bullies deal with this uncomfortable fact is to have more bullies stand up with them. This way you become something of a gang, and a gang is more powerful than a single person. Yet the powerful bully actually walks a fine line. He must be seen as powerful and intimidating, but not so powerful that it behooves those they are intimidating to join ranks. Success often comes from being very loud, carrying a big stick but wielding it selectively.

In fact, this is pretty much how the Confederates managed to dominate the first half of The Civil War. It helped that Union generals tended to be wimps and ineffectual while Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson were brilliant tacticians. (The Union started winning when soldiers like Grant proved they would not allow their armies to be intimidated.) The “rebel yell” was very effective for the Confederate Army, and involved them forming a line, pointing rifles and sabers forward then running forward en masse, often in sync, yelling and whooping the whole time. Union soldiers found the rebel yell unnerving because it was, well, crazy, and often gave way. It was a great tactic while it worked, and it stopped working when the Union Army found its courage. Today’s Republican bullies may be channeling the spirit of their rebellious forefathers. Using sabers against political opponents is not a good idea, but yelling is still politically acceptable, as is charging en masse, which today means honing a finely tuned and simple message and broadcasting it repeatedly everywhere.

See these tactics at work with attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s amazing that they get away with it. The Affordable Care Act, after all, is the law of the land. Civilized people of course respect the law, even when they disagree with it. If they don’t like it, they will work to repeal the law. That’s not good enough for these new Confederates. The law must be killed through all means, fair and unfair. This includes deliberate foot dragging from red states, outright refusal to begin the process of setting up health care exchanges (despite The Supremacy Clause), and filing endless legal challenges, mostly with friendly courts. Some of their tactics give new meaning to the word chutzpah, such as refusing to fund the law that was already enacted. Make it a law in name only. Whatever works, fair or foul, is okay. Civilized people, of course, retch at these tactics, but if you are a bully it is just one item in your bag of tricks.

Curiously, the very best Democrats at fighting Republican bullies come from deeply red states, in particular Texas. This becomes less curious when you consider this behavior forms part of the culture of the state. Former (now deceased) Texas Governor Ann Richards had mastered the art, as has Jim Hightower. Many of these luminaries worked for The Texas Observer, a monthly magazine principally about Texas politics with a Democratic bent that was widely read. The late Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower both worked for or contributed to The Texas Observer, as did Larry L. King, who is perhaps best known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Democrats trying to counter these Republican bullies would be wise to study and emulate their tactics.

Their success comes down to two main factors. First, they learned the art of mean-mouthing other politicians in a way that called into question their lack of character. Barack Obama, responding to one of Mitt Romney’s crazier talking points, will give a polite and academic reply, maybe with a hint of sarcasm. Molly Ivins, if she were still alive, would not only lampoon the argument with innumerable logical holes, but would not be afraid, after providing many examples, to publicly state the logical conclusion in personal and emotional terms. If she were alive, I imagine her response to Romney’s proposal to keep cutting taxes for the rich as a solution for reducing the deficit would include a colorful metaphor. (“He wants to take money out of his little daughter’s piggy bank so he can go binge drinking at the saloon down the street.”) Metaphors like this are hard to excise from your head, particularly when they ring true. It’s even harder when it defies common sense and you can tie the allusion to an ordinary experience.

The truth, if it can be turned to an issue that a common person finds of concern, can be devastatingly effective politically, provided it is given with the right emotional punch. If is doesn’t move you, then it won’t work. A political ad on Haiti policy, for example, might concern the one percent of voters who care about Haiti, but most don’t, so the money on such advertisements is largely wasted.

Perhaps the most devastating political ad of all time was the Daisy ad that Lyndon Johnson used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Why did it work? It worked because it combined a powerful truth with the inescapably devastating emotional consequences for everyone. Johnson portrayed himself as the sane person in the room who would avoid nuclear war. He didn’t even have to reference Barry Goldwater because the implication was obvious. Goldwater was on record as being trigger happy with the nation’s nuclear weapons.

What do people really care about most today? Principally they want a good paying job, but also a hopeful future. Issues like gay marriage animates a fringe, but only a fringe of the electorate. What will make independent voters’ spines shiver will be simple and concrete ads showing Mitt Romney’s disdain for the working class. There is plenty of material on the record to work with, including his statements that he hoped General Motors would go bankrupt. His work while leading Bain Capital is also rife with examples of working people being laid off or having their wages cut, such as at Staples, to line his pockets. Find a couple of indisputable examples, tie them to working people who experienced the wrath of his decisions, and such an ad is bound to hit the double whammy of both logical and have strong emotional impact.

Ultimately, bullies only hold power as long as the crowd lets them wield it. Political bullies are rendered powerless when they are ignored. It happened to Glenn Beck, it is happening to Rush Limbaugh and it happened most recently to Newt Gingrich, in most cases because they traversed a serious line or became a parody of themselves. Mitt Romney will use mostly surrogates for his bullying of President Obama. He will likely disclaim actions of surrogates when politically dangerous, such as a recent attempt by a PAC to resurrect the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Democrats should concentrate forces on a half dozen or less key distinguishing issues that are emotionally charged and that appeal to swing voters. The Republican War on Woman, one of the few frames Democrats created that actually stuck, is one example. Why did it stick? It stuck because it was so obviously true and it is also helpful because the majority of voters in this country are female. The frames that will be effective must connect a candidate with a concern or fear that Middle America will find deeply disturbing and undeniably true.

Do this and the bully is rendered harmless.

 
The Thinker

The laptop is not going away

Among the things I am attempting on the road here in Phoenix, Arizona (well, technically Mesa, Arizona) is to take my iPad out for an extended spin. Can I really use it instead of a laptop computer for mobile computing? The answer is, “It depends on what you are trying to do.”

If what you are trying to do is something fairly complicated, like write a blog post, you will miss having a laptop. You can technically peck away using the iPad’s on screen keyboard, but your experience is likely to be like mine. You will make plenty of mistakes and spend much of your time correcting your mistakes. In short, it’s not a viable means for doing any serious writing, at least not without a little help. Which is why I bought a Bluetooth keyboard (a Rocksoul model) with me. Combined, the iPad and the keyboard weigh much less than a laptop. But even with the keyboard, it doesn’t come close to being as usable a laptop.

In short, I don’t quite see tablet computers doing away with laptop computers. To be productive, ten years from now you will still want the convenience of a laptop computer when you travel. However, if your needs are simple, substituting a tablet computer for a laptop makes a certain amount of sense.

You can keep up on email easily enough on a tablet computer, but you will find it’s like using a Blackberry in that you will find plenty of incentive to keep your emails brief. Some things are arguably a better experience on a tablet computer. The iPad comes with a stripped down version of Safari as its web browser. The experience is making me something of a Safari fan. The downside is that there are no plug-ins or extensions that I can install, which means I am assaulted by advertising that I normally block out with the adBlock extension. On the other hand, simplicity is a virtue, and Safari does certain things very elegantly on the iPad, like intelligently reloading web pages.

The iPad may be a few years old, but it is really just beginning to mature. For example, there is no decent word processor for the iPad. Reportedly, Microsoft is working to port its Office suite to the iPad, which will be welcome. Meanwhile, you basically have the built-in Note application, which is very basic. No italics or bolding are possible. For composing a blog post though, it suffices although it is hardly ideal.

The iPad’s user interface is quite elegant, but hardly ideal. Designed for the finger as its pointing device, it is easy to miss selecting the right spot to edit. A stylus would be a useful addition. My wireless keyboard comes with a delete key, but there is no backspace key, which becomes very annoying. Easy methods of emulating the top, end, page up and page down buttons are also missing. Yes, you can use your fingers instead but it is more time consuming.

On the other hand the iPad is amazingly portable. Weighing a fraction of a laptop, it is easy to transport,  doesn’t anchor your briefcase yet renders resolution similar to a desktop monitor. The seven hour battery life is often longer in practice, particularly when in airplane mode. The newest laptops, like the new Macbook, also can survive as long unplugged, so this by itself is no longer a compelling reason to own an iPad. With 4G service, if you can afford it, you also get the convenience of Internet access virtually anywhere.

I also want to use my iPad as an electronic newspaper viewer. So far, I have not found it to be quite there, unless your expectations are modest. Newspaper sites keep trying to arrange content optimally for the iPad but with the newspapers apps I have tried it is clear they still have a way to go. The Washington Post app is a pretty good attempt to make content fit on an iPad, but they still leave so much out. Comics and classified are two glaring omissions. Without them you feel like you are missing something. Instead, you get selected contents in the newspaper. Perhaps the Post is waiting for enough readers to put those features behind a paywall. I confess when that happens I might cancel my print subscription. For traveling, the Post app is good enough to sort of feel like you got the gist of the newspaper experience.

Tablet computers thus hit a sweet spot, but do not fundamentally solve the portable computing issue. Doubtless much more money will be spent trying to close the gap. Most of us will live with their annoyances compared with a laptop or desktop computer while we are mobile, but be glad to swap in real keyboards and mice (mice allowing easier fine-tuned editing) when we need to be highly productive.

 
The Thinker

Eulogy for my mother in law

My mother in law passed away Sunday night. As a consequence we find ourselves in Phoenix, Arizona to mourn her death where she died with family. She was aware that she was dying, having been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer some six weeks back. She was expected to live four to six months but obviously did not make it that long. There will be no funeral as she was cremated, but there will be a gathering of family and friends to remember her life. I am not sure if I will be asked to say anything about her life or not, so this may end up here only. I will do my best to communicate these thoughts in person if they cannot be done publicly.

It would seem, as a son in law, that my relationship with Mom should have been largely superficial and meaningless. Yet it certainly was not meaningless to me. She was the mother of the woman I love, so I had an inkling that time spent with her would be well spent. If nothing else, it would help me better understand the woman I married. In fact, our relationship spanned nearly thirty years, an extraordinarily long time. And I felt we had a relationship of some depth.

I first remember meeting Mom in Arlington, Virginia a couple of months after my wife and I began dating and long before she had become anything more than a new girlfriend. The location was The Orleans House, a steak house in Rosslyn known for its prime rib and tuxedoed waiters. Mom was in town basically to  check me out. Was I good enough for her daughter? I never really found out, but I got the sense that I met her seal of approval, which should have surprised me. In 1983, I was not a terrific prospect. I had little inkling of my future career in information technology, and eked out a modest living as a production controller for the Defense Mapping Agency. At the time I could not even afford to live independently.

There is a big difference in being nurtured by a mother and acquiring one as a result of marriage. My own mother, who passed away in 2005, I found to be a challenge to love sometimes. We loved each other but our relationship had rocky spots. With Mickey there was no baggage. The woman I found I liked.

From the start she was not Mickey but simply Mom to me. This was because to me I sensed nothing but mom vibes from her. Moreover, I wanted a mother relationship with her and I sensed she wanted a son relationship with me. In some ways, our relationship was ideal. It did not have the baggage that I carried with my own mother. The same I think was true with her. We both got to enjoy the fruits of a nurturing mother-son relationship without any of its downsides. It was win-win. I sensed she truly enjoyed knowing me and including her in her life.

Mom was always uniformly kind and loving to me. In fact, it would be hard to have asked for a much better mother in law. She remembered my birthday with cards even when sometimes my own mother did not. (Well, she did have eight of us.) I enjoyed talking with her on the phone and often asked how things were going in her life. She often wanted to hear things about my life as well. She was very generous of her time and energy. Whenever we visited, she insisted on hosting us, and the spare bedroom wasn’t good enough. She vacated her room and we got her bedroom.

My only real regret is not having spent more time with her. In truth, over thirty years I saw her quite a bit, just not as often as I would have liked. Mostly it was hard for her to visit us, so we had to visit her, and we couldn’t do it every year. But I have come here enough over thirty years to still feel very attached not just to her, but to you all and to the Phoenix area. With every trip here I carry back wonderful memories of our time here, mostly with you. I remember bringing Rosie here when she was just over a year old and reveling in a traditional Hamilton Thanksgiving. It was such a change from Thanksgivings that I remember, full of good food, good company, and lots of laughing. To me, Phoenix is like a second home that I visit from time to time, and when I am here I always feel very much at home, loved and included. What I get from all this is that the Hamiltons are a close and loving bunch. You were raised right and a lot of that rubbed off on Mickey, and thus on my wife. In some ways I envy Terri because you all stay so close to each other. I love my siblings, but we will never be close in the way all of your are close. I think the intimacy you share is neat and special.

I’m going to miss Mom. She filled in those parts of my own mother than I wanted filled. Particularly after my own mother died in 2005, I found I appreciated Mickey even more. I thought that Mothers Day would be sad, but it was not because I still had a real mother in my life, and I could pick up the phone and wish her a happy Mothers Day, and send her a Mothers Day card too. Having her around made dealing with the loss of my own mother much more bearable.

The irony is that I did not tell her most of these things when she was alive. One thing I did say to her, mostly on the telephone, but in person when I had the chance was simply, “I love you, Mom.” And of course she would tell me, often unsolicited, that she loved me too. So I guess that says it all. I am sorry though that I never shared these particular thought from my heart with her. But I think she felt them.

I leave you with thoughts I echoed at my mother’s memorial service that may be of comfort to you. I find six years later these thoughts are not only still a comfort to me, but still ring true. It is simply this: she is still alive inside of you. She is not here in the flesh, but she is with you in spirit. Moreover, there is no getting rid of her. She is absorbed and integrated inside of you. She is in every step you take and in every breath you take. You were changed forever simply because you have known her. She remains, literally, a heartbeat away.

To Jesse: my deepest condolences on the loss of your wife. To Bill, Fran, Peggy, Jim and Bob: I don’t know what it’s like to lose a sister, but I am devastated for your loss. To Dave, I have walked in your shoes and know what it is like to witness the decline of your mother up close. You have my deepest empathy and I am so sorry for the heartache, stress and your enormous loss. To all of you: I hold you and your sorrow closely in my heart. I can only wish I had the opportunity to have known Mickey like you have known her.

 
The Thinker

Super-nonsense

Yesterday like about half of America I found myself in the movie theater watching Marvel’s version of The Avengers. A movie review will come in time I suppose (it’s pretty good, if you are into that stuff) but I confess I enjoyed it less than I ordinarily would simply because I am sick to death of super-anything. Give me Mediocre Man who fights crime by picking up litter and trash, or PMS Woman, who only goes off during that time of the month. At least they would be different.

What am I doing here? Why am I, a fifty five year old man, sitting in a theatre trying to feel entertained by a plethora of superheroes, all with their own minor flaws? Yes, I know it is entertainment and it is also good business ($200M is not a bad day’s take). I went because my wife wanted to go, and with my semester of teaching behind me I had little in the way of excuses.

I must be weird but if I am going to spend $11.75 for a matinee movie in 3D, maybe it should be about something not wholly meaningless and vapid? Maybe I could end the movie, well, moved. To me, that’s a reason to go to a theater: to feel something or maybe see a perspective that I haven’t before. Supermen, yeah, I’ve done that before. With each new superhero movie the genre becomes even more ho hum. The Avengers was typical: millions were spent in lavish special effects that try to take me to places I have seen a million times. What? Aliens want to destroy Manhattan again? Gah! There is nothing super about superhero movies anymore. It’s a genre utterly played out. The wrinkle in The Avengers was to bring a bunch of them together in the same movie to try to save the earth from calamity. All I could think about was I hope the bad guys win! That would at least be different and probably better for the planet than the hopeless wreck humans are rapidly making of our one and only ecosphere.

Superman was an American creation, along with virtually all the superheroes out there. This is likely not coincidence. It speaks to our expectations as Americans: out of the frontier muck we can spawn humans much greater than our mediocre selves. Like the mighty Atlas, our superheroes can take on problems beyond even our supersized American egos.

We can’t find supermen in the real world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t project our fondest super-wishes instead into our politicians, who we will endow with superhero qualities. In the end they all disappoint because they are not superheroes, they are ordinary people like us, trying to manage large organizations overseen by mediocre, petty and frankly deeply annoying politicians. These politicians aren’t there by accident. We put them there because they spent vast amounts of their (and others) fortunes to win our trust or, failing that, to sow seeds of doubt in the challenger. Most of us voters prove less than super when it comes to choosing those who will lead us: we look for people skilled in the art of telling us what we want to hear and who will coddle us by appealing to our biases and prejudices. We want to believe our leaders are something more, when the truth is they are pretty much like us, just luckier, generally wealthier, more sociable and likelier to have been class presidents.

And it’s not just our politicians; it’s everyone. We are all flawed and imperfect. What we cannot seem to accept is that our imperfections are part of the human experience. Instead, we will torture ourselves into the illusion that someone, and maybe us, can surmount our own inherent mediocrity.

Superheroes must confront super-villains, otherwise there is no point to them being around. In the real world, when we do get a politician that seems capable of governing wisely, the opposition will find ways to cut him (or her) down to size. For every requisite action there must be an equivalent reaction. Few except scientists actually are concerned about finding logical ways to solve problems. If the solution is not consistent with the principles outlined in a holy book at a time when slavery was rife and women were chattel, there is something wrong with it.

Real life is a messy morass that we would prefer to ignore. No wonder then that we need the clarity of a superhero to put things right and to allow us to reach on screen anyhow our highest aspirations. We need superheroes because we cannot acknowledge our inability to do these things competently ourselves. Superheroes can save us from global annihilation. Well, this is certainly more exciting than doing it a less costly and sensible way: by reasonable men talking to each other as peers and with respect, engendering trust instead of paranoia and competition. As so we create impossible archetypes of our imagination to save us instead: Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Curiously even in the movie they don’t get along so well. Superheroes like to be super, but they don’t particularly like peers. Play nice with each other? Where’s the fun in that? At least director Joss Whedon gets that part right: our superheroes being human on some level (well, I guess except for Thor) may be powerful, but none of them except possibly Captain America seems to have learned their manners, or to share their blocks with the other superheroes in their superhero kindergarten. Even our superheroes can’t seem to just get along. They all want to be on top.

In truth, being on the top is no fun, and the usually futile attempt to get there is even less fun. For with power comes the inevitable accountability and being flawed humans, we are bound to fail at it. To the extent power is successfully wielded, it occurs when it is successfully shared. It happens when those in power respect each other, give and accommodate. It means looking beyond our parochial interests and our petty passions. It means being more of a weenie than a superhero. It means being mature instead of macho. It means being human rather than a mutant. It means being nice and playing well with others. It means caring about others and feeling vested in their happiness as well as your own. Power is ultimately a costly illusion. The reality is that those with it really don’t really have much of it to begin with, and what power they do have must be shared considerately with others.

We will probably never see a movie on this theme. But it sure would be different, and more honest.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)

Pining for the good old days of the Cold War? In many ways life was simpler back then: much more black and white than shades of grey. You can relive it in The Lives of Others, a German film that is worth the minor hassle of watching it with subtitles. In 1984 for those living in East Germany, it was just more glorious socialism, which meant everyone was under suspicion and the Stasi (secret police, East Germany’s equivalent of the KGB) likely had a file on you.

The Stasi were so good at eavesdropping that they could bug your apartment in just twenty minutes, which is what happens to Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful and handsome playwright. His crime? Well, that’s the part of the peculiar way the Stasi operates. Dreyman is actually a loyal socialist, but his girlfriend, the excellent actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is coveted by the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Therefore, Dreyman must be investigated. It seems likely there must be something disloyal about him. He is a playwright, after all, and sometimes hangs around suspected dissidents. Plus he’s been reading Bertolt Brecht.

Ulrich Mühe (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), an icy but respected professor of Stasi interrogation techniques, is pulled from the classroom and given the assignment to bug Dreyman’s apartment. He has to find evidence proving his disloyalty, or at least something that raises suspicions. Mühe has mastered the art of suppressing all signs of humanity. Life as a Stasi operative means giving up a few things, like having a real love life, which seems to wear on him when he gets his regular visits from his employer’s prostitute. Otherwise, except for his blank and often haunted look, Mühe seems to be living a pretty good life, with an attractive and modern apartment in East Berlin. For twelve hours a day he can be found in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment, listening closely on his headphones and banging details of Dreyman’s personal life into a manual typewriter, including details of his love life that make it into the journal. (“Presumably, they then had intercourse.”)

It turns out to be a tough assignment for Mühe for a variety of reasons. First, Dreyman is a handsome and genuinely nice man, pushing forty. Gentle, humane, cultured, interesting but not overbearing, it’s easy to understand why he’d attract the beautiful and attractive actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The spy Mühe finds himself attracted to her as well after watching her perform in one of Dreyman’s plays. Listening to their intimate conversations from the privacy of the attic, he cannot help but empathize with those he is preying upon. Unlike the Minister of Culture, he is not envious of Dreyman’s good fortune with women. Rather overhearing their private liaisons only makes him realize how empty his soul is, and how impossible it is for him to be an authentic human being.

What you get in this movie is an understated but surprisingly moving film cast in the last years of the German Democratic Republic. The call of the West was hard to silence in East Berlin, with the Berlin Wall so close and with TV and radio signals so easily picked up. Eventually, Dreyman’s sympathetic friends smuggle him an illicit typewriter, which he uses to chronicle suicides of prominent East German artists as a result of Stasi oppression. Eventually the manuscript is smuggled to the west and published in Der Spiegel. The hunt is then on to find its author, and Dreyman is a prime suspect.

This movie is blessed with a top-notch cast. The best performances come from the lead actors playing Dreyman, Mühe and Sieland. Surprisingly, it is Wiesler’s performance playing the steely and conflicted Agent Mühe that both grabs you and becomes hard to watch. Can a man as deep into the Stasi as him find some semblance of soul and compassion? It’s worth renting this movie to find out how Mühe manages to deal with these terrible conflicts, and the price he will pay as the Cold War draws to a close.

Thankfully the movie does not end with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, but takes us into a denouement instead wherein Dreyman slowly puts together the puzzle of those years, greatly aided by a vast archive of Stasi files and Mühe’s unmuzzled ex-boss, who he encounters at the theater. Dreyman will learn the price that someone else paid to protect him, and find a unique way to say thank you.

If you avoid foreign films because of subtitles, make an exception for The Lives of Others. 3.3 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

 

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