Monday, June 30, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Gilligan's Island Does Hamlet and Carmen

Perhaps no television program is better remembered for silly, cheesy gags than Gilligan's Island. Yes, there's appeal in its warm characters and their plucky attempts to get off their tiny Pacific island, but for a show that only ran for  three seasons and didn't have the opportunity to grow decadent or exhaust ideas, Gilligan had some preposterous plots. With guests ranging from cosmonauts to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the Harlem Globetrotters, from giant spiders to mad scientists, anything was possible on Gilligan's Island.

Yet one of their funniest bits consisted of nothing less than a scene from Hamlet set to the Toreador song from Bizet's Carmen. I don't know how this scene came to be in this show. Maybe it was an experiment or a gag on the part of the cast or writer. Perhaps there is some measure of cleverness in its mix of the serious and silly, high art and low comedy. At the same time though, there's an internal logic to the scene. The use of Bizet's song about the excitement of the bullfights makes an ironical commentary on Polonius' advice to his son for keeping his virtue abroad in France. Does it not seem to mock, and intelligently, the ridiculous Polonius? To boot, Alan Hale Jr., with his sweet-natured face in that bushy beard, isn't even a bad casting choice as the earnest, foolish Polonius. The scene is at once absurd and intelligent,  a clever staging of a serious play, cheekily acted, which is well-received by the characters within the ridiculous TV show. And it's all set to operatic music. Incredible.

It's funny too, and I can't explain that either. Maybe it's Phil Silvers' astonished eyes peeping from beyond the plastic shrubbery, the castaways' bamboo theater, Jim Backus' face as he hams up that last word, the sing-song end rhyme, or just the incongruity of it all (Gilligan as Hamlet!), but the scene is hilarious. Toréador, en garde!

I Took A Little Trip

So I took a little trip. Your urban blogger went as far South and East as he's ever been: to Kentucky. I present my impressions, the promise that blogging shall resume forthwith, and thanks for your patience.

10. Cars Are Liberating

Traveling by plane may be quite efficient, but there's something engaging and empowering about driving oneself in one's own car. Going where you like, as quickly as you like, and with whom you like, you feel acutely in control of your destiny. You also sense the power that's sending you on your way, whether from the growl of the engine, the bugs splattering on the windshield, or the wind roaring past. You can sense your surroundings and your place in them.

9. Driving in America Is A Privilege

Cities, towns, bridges, farms, forests, and trees, we've got it all, much of it beautiful. Moreover, you can drive among it all at your will, traveling from an urban metropolis, over rivers, and past fields fallow and thick-planted, all in one day. Fuel for you and your car is inexpensive and abundant, and today cell phone and GPS technology can get you out of practically bind in which you find yourself. America is the land not just of extraordinary but multifarious plenty.

8. America Needs Some Cardio

Perhaps it's because they rely more on driving than walking, perhaps it's the diet, but suburban people are packing a little pudge. This surely doesn't apply to many demographics, such as manual laborers, but the same types of people seem a tad hefty. I can't say with any certainty whether they're any more rotund than urban denizens, but I noticed the weight.

7. Tattoos  For All

Likewise, the tattoo phenomenon is not confined to cities. It's everywhere and I must conclude we're a tattooed nation.

6. Friendly Folk

When I walk about in the city I look up and around at people. I try to smile and acknowledge them, attempts which usually fail to elicit a response. Outside the city, people actually smile back. They make small talk and ask you about yourself. Parents let their children go about and the little tikes even say hello to you, a stranger, with an innocence you thought had vanished.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Spiral of Indolence and the Summer of George

The advent of summer is the twilight of education. Never is the profession of teachers or the tradition of learning in a poorer state. Teachers either hasten to finish the curriculum or strain to stretch the remaining material until the end. Struggling to grade final exams is always a huge tell of laziness: those who complain about it aren't giving any work during the semester. Then moments after the students flee and as administrators and secretaries settle into summer mode, the teachers are gone. What do we do? Where do we go?

It varies, but too infrequently does it wander into intellectual territory. Students would surely revolt if they knew their teachers had no intellectual inspirations beyond the bounds of their master's degree. (Here's a mean trick, kids: ask your teacher about the latest developments and literature in his field.) Yet the annual sabbatical otherwise known as summer vacation seems seldom to further serious academic advancement. Such intellectual infertility owes not to any illness within the profession, though, but to the simple fact that indolence is a heinous vice.

Indolence can and will suck down any individual who does not guard against it. Yet we need not quote fire-and-brimstone sayings about idle hands, but rather may look that model of modern man, George Costanza. The story of The Summer of George (Season 8, Episode 22) tells with blistering hilarity the sad and true story of indolence. With a season of severance pay from his employer, George settles in a for a summer's hibernation. He starts with high aspirations to reading and frolf, but when indolence sets in, decompression from the tension of work yields to decomposition. After he's wiped by 10:30AM, his muscles are so atrophied by months of extreme inactivity that a tumble down the stairs renders him paralyzed.
The physical and intellectual paralysis seems hardly an exaggeration. What to do? Inspiration goes a long way. I have busts of Aristotle and Schubert on my desk, and the fecundity of their minds is no small part of my inspiration, or intimidation, to stay parked in my chair and write. A little history helps too, for example knowing of Mozart's packed schedules and Jefferson's infamous 15-hour study days. It may seem preposterous to compare oneself to the greats, but we doesn't need to measure up to their genius, only the humility and diligence with which even their talents worked.

Sometimes, though, you just need to throw yourself into activity. Moodiness and ennui will set upon anyone and a blind leap can break the pattern when the will falters. Today, for example, I couldn't summon the will or interest to do anything, so I decided to vacuum the steps. Instead of coming away tired from heaving that hoover around in the heat, I was provoked to take up other tasks which I had forgotten in my idleness. Activity exhausts, but it is indolence which enervates.

We don't need to have something momentous to show for each day, but the disgust we feel at our indolence is a sign that we should make the most of our day even if we don't have the highest aspirations. Something, even the tiniest bit, is surprisingly more satisfying than nothing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Self-Knowledge Through Toothpaste

Some people get neater as they age, others sloppier. I was but a moderately organized youth, by my standards today, and I think my fastidiousness began as a reaction to the collegiate miasma in which I found myself. Yet one act of slobbery has always irked me: spilling toothpaste on the sink. "How does this happen?" I would wonder. Do they put too much on the brush or perhaps they miss the brush entirely? Does it ooze out of their mouths?

Furiously I would scrub away, sink after sink, year after year, finding more and more evidence of man's depravity. Gels and pastes, Colgate and Crest, spilled everywhere. Everywhere I would find the blight, besides its omnipresence at home. I never expected what has transpired this week.

On Saturday I spied some on the recently cleaned sink. Then Sunday on the floor, and then Monday on the rug. Tuesday outside the bathroom where only I had wandered. Then today on my bathrobe. I could no longer deny the truth that through all these years the toothpaste fiend was I!

Not all habits are so easy to spy, alas, but aging is a process of self-revelation. New circumstances and types of relationships teach you about yourself. You realize the types of things which bother and delight you, of course, but less obviously you see patterns in your emotions. Am I always grumpy after doing or receiving favors? Do I not like to hear of a certain person's success, complaints, or recreation? Do I get annoyed when people invite me to events, and when they don't? I really need a lot of praise, don't I? Gee I brought that up again today?

These are the sorts of questions we usually see psychiatrists ask on television and in the movies, but they really do seem of genuine self-inquiry. It's curious to me why such knowledge is so difficult to acquire.  It cannot be forcefully recognized or brought about by will or fiat, but has to evolve in the mind. It cannot be studied, but only seen. How strange and terrifying a fate that man might not know himself. If he simply could or could not, such would be easy to accept. But to possess the potential and be unable to cultivate it with any precision is surely a gift of curse. Indeed nothing may be so terrifying as the sight of someone who cannot recognize something about himself.

Finally, one wonders to what such recognition truly owes. Maturity, intellectual virtue, exertion, peace of mind, restlessness, revelation? Does one need philosophy to know oneself? Some examine themselves reflexively, others reluctantly. Some avoid it all together no matter the consequences. They're not all pleasant sights, these observations, and many are outright troubling, but one feels stronger and fuller in the examination. You look back at a former self which seems to have survived despite itself. He looks innocent and childlike. As its alternative is terrifying, it too is exciting and energizing to learn things great and small about yourself which, while not quite so literally as toothpaste, are right under your nose.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Snooki and the Wookie

Like men, empires, and cultures, works of art go through a period of debasement before they vanish. Its pure, primal origins are lost to history and the vigor of violent birth is unknown to the generations. What began imperfect but mighty, the uttermost strain of the age's greatest minds, is polished in the perception of posterity to a glossy memory which takes on a life of its own. It walks about a hero in a lesser age, but still a shadow of the greatness it held in its own primitive age. It is often then recast in a style which attempts to relive the greatness of the past. In the ultimate phase it passes, metamorphosed from original to classic, to commodity.

Star Wars is entering the final process of this transformation. The original was rough, following in a traditional which it surpassed to near perfection. It then turned classic when the movie became known to be great and its successors aped its ingredients. The prequels attempted to rekindle the magic. The name Star Wars is now but than a piece of intellectual property gobbled up the greedy maw of Disney. When it is regurgitated, as Star Trek was, it won't be the result of a tireless director working at the edge of his abilities to bring a dream to life.

The movie will have been run through screenings, test-groups, and market experts, to appeal to every human on this planet. Everything potentially sensitive will be sieved out and a chowder of pop culture will be poured in, disguised as bona fide Star Wars material. And then it will die. The new Star Wars may turn out to be a good movie, but it won't be an authentic one, and that's why it won't matter.

This end is not the fault of George Lucas, either, but the natural end of greatness. Mozart is not to blame for the tchotchkes bearing his likeness, Homer for the pedants picking at his old verses, or Monet for the screen-savers which pass his pictures like so many cheap digital photographs.

Because it is unoriginal, the new film has to justify its place in the Star Wars universe. Sure, the thousands of people who work on the new Star Wars might give it an authentic voice, but I think we overestimate their chances.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Things I Don't Get #3: Writing on Clothes

For all the reasons man may feel constrained, it seems impossible to me that he could find himself without sufficient variety of attire to suit his needs. Shirts and trousers of myriad material, color, and cut accommodate every condition of weather and circumstance and upon this he can layer a still greater variety of waistcoats or vests, finally tailoring-off the look with coats of the dress, frock, tail, or morning variety. This enumeration leaves out additional accouterments of style such as ties and belts, which come in multifarious variety and may themselves be adorned with still more regalia from clips and pins to feathers. Is this array of choices so insufficient that people find it necessary to write on their clothes?

I don't know when or where this sad spectacle began, but I propose it is an unwholesome look. Chiefly, wearing words makes your presence aggressive, to varying degrees to be sure, but aggressive nonetheless. It presumes upon strangers in society to read your message when in polite society words should pass in the course of conversation and according to the good sense of the parties, not by visual command.

Second, the body is not a vessel of expression (thought it can be expressive in painting and dance) and a man's presence should betoken just that, presence. No more or less. When I see my friend, I wish to see my friend, not any other idea however lofty.

Third, consider the messages which clothing carries. Plenty of shirts are mere advertisements for brands, from Tommy Hilfiger to Coach, the pinnacles for social climbers. More and more though I've seen t-shirts–which are undergarments, for the record–with the names of countries on them. Now perhaps some element of national pride is involved, but I've seen people wearing shirts which suggest for them a highly unlikely genealogy. Why would someone who is not Chinese, say, wear a shirt that says China? Speaking of nationalism, what's the deal with flags on shirts and clothing with patterns of flags? If you're wearing a flag, be prepared to be strung up.

As far as sports attire goes, the only people who should be wearing it are the players. They wear the team colors so in the confusion of the game they can tell one another apart. Similar reasoning stands against wearing camouflage-patterns: unless you're hunting or hiding, it's not appropriate. The last fashion statement which needs flogging is that of college and university attire. Aside from the conundrum of why any respectable institution would sell hoodies printed with the school crest, we ought to remember that the institution is a school, not a cult. It's not a good fit for everyone and even if it were, why would you want to endorse it to strangers? Even if your alma mater is worth the title, why would you put its name on a shirt? Would you put your actual mother's face on a shirt?

Since the sorry status quote would seem to indicate we say the obvious, one especially shouldn't put writing over delicate parts of the body. Such a tasteless habit not only encourages what appears to be leering, and even justifies it it, but it invites attention which is often quite unwarranted, a nasty trap for those with the natural inclination to read what is before them.

How do we show support then? you ask. Well, men generally prefer the unorthodox arrangement of words into units called sentences, which are then published. Alternatively we verbally express ideas to willing audiences at select occasions and venues. If you are determined to make a visual statement, though, the time-honored means are buttons, pennants, and flags. Should you need to make a show of whimsy at a party, a mask might serve your humor with more dignity.

Yes, there is probably room for whimsical, worded clothing at casual gatherings of intimates, but we should reserve attire for the spare, dignified expression of the gentleman, who brings but himself.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Things I Don't Get #2: Michael Caine on a Bee

He was Lieutenant Bromhead at Rorke's Drift in Zulu and he was Canfield at the Battle of Britain, he was Alfie and Jack Carter and Harry Brown, Ebenezer Scrooge and Captain Nemo, and he's on a bee.

He fumbled his love-addled way through Hannah and Her Sisters, and he's on a bee. Batman's butler and the father of Austin Powers is riding a bee. Granted he's acted with muppets and he came out of the water bone dry in Jaws 4, but that's still Michael Caine riding a bee.

One of the worst things to happen to art has been the artist's transformation from humble craftsman, working for patron or employer, to primping auteur who answers to no one and expects unlimited praise and resources, but that's Michael Caine riding a giant bee. And I don't get it.

The Joy of Magnanimity

The Spirit of Chivalry
One of the wellsprings of man's genius is his inclination to maximize the good for himself while minimizing the bad. In industry we seek efficiency, using all resources to maximum benefit, and in medicine we seek to isolate desirable effects from those which harm us. Today, though, spurred by the prevalence and success of this thinking in economics and science, we try to avoid the undesirable in all walks of life. We haggle, finagle, reschedule, reorder, and litigate to get as much of what we want as we can, and avoid as much of what we dislike. So has disappeared the virtue of magnanimity, which bids us act not from a spirit of self-interest, for gain is not always the ultimate arbiter of desideratum, but out of beneficence which comes from great strength.

Literally great-souledness, magnanimity contains three characteristics: generosity, clemency, and fortitude. If we can presume that virtue is a prerequisite for magnanimity I would like to focus on these three features.

First, the magnanimous man is generous. Not because he is good but because he is bountifully good, he is able to be liberal in his giving. Now by giving I don't mean from fortunes, necessarily, but rather I mean good deeds. The magnanimous man gives his time, patience, and energies to those who need them. He gives from all of his virtues because he has cultivated them to a great bounty and can afford to share them. He gives from joy and bounty and does not cultivate debts. The magnanimous man is able to give from himself without regard for his needs because he has met his needs; to his own satisfaction, we must add, for magnanimity requires besides virtue, self-knowledge.

Second, the magnanimous man is forgiving. He is able to bear slights and inequities because he has pity for those who are facing the struggles which he has already mastered or which he realizes he has avoided by prudence or fortune. Magnanimity enables man to engage with and support those who wander from the path of virtue. He is lenient with punishment and is able to forego his deserved justice, equity, or remuneration.

Finally, magnanimity consists of fortitude. The character of the magnanimous man is imperturbable and his energies indefatigable. Of course these superlatives are not absolute, but rather I mean that the magnanimous man has cultivated his strength to a degree which surpasses the necessities of his life. He is able to forego pleasantness and take up difficulty because he is strong.

As The Philosopher said, magnanimity can magnify other virtues and requires them, but great-souledness seems to result after one becomes aware of the successful practicing of the virtues. The magnanimous man appears to act out of pure magnanimity for he endures the bad not because of piety, tolerance, or obedience, but because he is able to, and does the good not out of virtue, but because he is able. He converts with apparent ease his strength into benefaction.

Friday, June 13, 2014

It Could Have Been Worse

A strange quietude sets in during a president's second term. The opposition party falls silent, unable to excel their previous levels of hysteria or effect the desired change, they sit stolid but impotent. The party in power, however, is silent as well. Why could this be? Have they come to terms with their political sins? Are they full of regret? No, no, I say to you, dear optimist. We may enjoy a détente but there is no accord. Today, the vast majority of President Obama's supporters, I hazard, excuse or obfuscate his failings as follows.

The National Debt
How can you blame Obama for the national debt. Bush and Reagan did it too! It was actually Clinton who...

The Benghazi Affair
There's nothing to see here, this is a right wing conspiracy. If anyone was to blame it was Clinton, Kerry, or Rice, not Obama.

IRS Targeting
This is ridiculous. Stop watching Faux News. There were only a few people and the IRS went after democrats too. Ugh.

Drone Warfare, Kill Lists, and Assassinating an American Citizen
This is war. Besides they were obviously guilty and Obama read like philosophy and stuff before making any decisions. 

Invading Libya
But he left right away. And he didn't invade Syria or Iran. Iraq.

Afghanistan Withdrawal
Well there are fewer troops, right? And that was the good war and we won, right?

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)
Are you kidding? This is his greatest achievement, like FDR and LBJ and Kennedy. Sure it had technological problems, but it's so complicated anything would have. Besides Canadians made it so it was really their fault. Kathleen Sebelius owned up to it being her fault anyway. It may be inefficient, but as long as it helps some people. It'll get better over time, anyway. 

Quantitative Easings (The Stimuli)
Like all the economists said to do this. Paul Krugman said to do even more.

Solyndra Financing
Come on that was like one company.

"Cash for Clunkers"
Again that was like one program and it wasn't probably even his idea.

Currency Inflation
Things are so expensive because the corporations are making so much money. 

Russo-American Diplomacy
Yeah but they respect Obama because he's so articulate. Bush was such a cowboy.

Operation Fast and Furious
Obviously that was all on Eric Holder.

NSA Spying
Eric Snowden hates America. And the CIA obviously went too far but that has nothing to do with Obama. 

Like come on this isn't Obama's fault. The Republicans don't want to pass laws and they're in the pockets of the corporations. The Supreme Court is full of extremists. Fox news and talk radio are spreading lies about Obama and the Koch brothers are funding all of these fanatical groups. Things might be bad but it would have been so much worse with the other guy. 

It would have been worse. Even when you manage to conjure your inner Cicero and persuade your liberal interlocutor that Obama is to blame for any of the above, it always comes down to that: it could have been worse.

On the one hand such denial is understandable–who wants to confront shattered dreams?–on the other hand we're locked in a cycle of partisanship which seems to be spiraling down to the fulfillment Mencken's prediction that at last the American people would get what they want and deserve in the White House: a complete idiot. Of course the knife on which we perch cuts both ways. If you doubt me just watch the face of a republican recoil at the mention of Al Gore. People feel safe when someone like them is in charge, even if that person is but nominally or apparently similar.

If so many people aren't even willing to reevaluate their support of a politician, what hope is there that a majority are willing to change their mind about actual policies? That sense–that nostalgia for the Bush era when things "just felt better" and the feeling that things aren't so bad just because Obama is running things–that cozy sense people get when "their guy" is in charge, is killing us.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Breaking Bad (Season 1)


It may be better to join a party late than never, but how does a show live up to five years of fanfare and notoriety? Moreover, how can it still manage to surprise when so many of its details, bits, and bobs have been revealed piecemeal over several years? Breaking Bad manages to surprise because from its first episode the writers outmaneuver our expectations. Watching the seven episodes of Season 1 it seemed as if every time I thought I knew what was going to happen, some unexpected variation played out. It's not as if we're being tugged in meaningless directions just for the sake of surprise, though, and in fact several episodes begin with their endings. We know how these episodes will end, just as we know how Walter's battle with cancer will ultimately end, but neither Walter nor the show are going to go down an easy or predictable path. Breaking Bad surprises us with the expected.

The premise, for the uninitiated, is that high school chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. The quiet, even timid man teams up with an old student to turn his chemistry skills into a nest egg for his wife, Skyler, and their children after he's gone, by cooking crystal meth. Yet from the outset Walter's path diverges from our expectation. In the first episode we think their meth-cooking outfit is going to take off and become the center of the show, but it's a complete disaster with such aftermath that it takes two episodes to resolve the mess. So instead of a light-hearted montage in which Walt and Jesse go into business, we find them holed up in a house wondering what to do with a corpse and the tied-up drug kingpin in the basement.

It's not just the plot, though, which subverts our expectations but the characters. For example, we expect Walt to adopt a devil-may-care attitude after his diagnosis, breaking out of his old timid habits. Now he does, but not how or when we expect. Walt doesn't suddenly become a different person after his diagnosis, but acts like Walt having been diagnosed with cancer. So he doesn't launch into a verbal tirade against the boor in the bank, but he does short out the jerk's battery at the gas station. Walt doesn't flip out on the teens mocking his son with cerebral palsy, Walt Jr., in the clothing store, in fact he walks out the back. Regression? No, rather he re-enters the front and using some knowledge of physiology and a lot of attitude, get the bully to retreat.

Likewise we expect Walt's partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, to be a complete degenerate because of his coarse appearance and habits, and because he's a drug dealer and user, but when he returns home out of desperation, we see him in a new light. How childlike and vulnerable he seems sleeping in his old bed, still folded and clean like mom used to make, in his shabby clothes. When his father seems resolved to kick him out again, he finds Jesse setting the dinner table. He laughs to himself at his old doodles, especially an unflattering one of Mr. White, but then he flips it over to find a test which he failed and on which Mr. White had written, "Ridiculous! Apply yourself!" We're thinking of Walt as the role model and stereotypical inspiring teacher, until we remember that the role model is soliciting the student for drug dealing.

Even the supporting characters have depth and life. After his churlish display at Walt's 50th birthday party, we expect Walt's brother-in-law to be brutish lout. Hank shows off his gun and swigs beer, freely cursing and cracking crude jokes. In one early scene we think he's yelling at his wife, but it turns out he's calling from work where as a DEA agent he's chewing out some perpetrators. For all of his fratboy manners, Hank turns out to be a sensitive guy, worried about his family and willing to step in and say the honest, difficult things that need to be said. His wife Marie looks like a controlling self-centered nuisance, but she comes out at Walt's intervention to advocate for Walt's right to refuse treatment. Walter Jr. seems as quiet and reserved at his father, but comes out to call him a "fucking pussy" for being willing to lay down and die. Even a one-off character like Walt's old classmate and friend–who made millions while Walt went to teach–turns out not to be corrupted by his opulent lifestyle and is touched by Walt's sentimental gift. Or is he only so because he knows about Walt's condition?

If one thing is predictable in Breaking Bad, it is the domestic life. Perhaps it's not so much predictable as familiar and truthful. We can see when a character is going to say something which he'd kept quiet, try and level with his family, or simply say I love you. We see all the tells because they're authentic. That doesn't mean these scenes are cookie-cutter patterns. Take one which occurs at a family barbecue. We see in Walt's eyes that he's going to reminisce about when he met his wife, and as he does she starts to weep. We think it's sentiment and nostalgia until she loses control and excuses herself, when we realize that Walt has told her about his diagnosis, a revelation which we didn't see. When she gets up the tone and context of the whole scene–preceding, present, and future–changes.

All of this character development is occurring interwoven with Walt's battle with cancer and chemotherapy, his wife's pregnancy with their daughter, and his DEA agent brother-in-law poking around in places which will inevitably lead back to Walt. The plots move rather slowly because the characters stop to reflect, doubt, and be afraid. Walt doesn't want to suffer the treatments, make drugs, break the law, or sneak around, and each step of the way he's evaluating how far he'll go. Hank thinks Walt Jr. is smoking marijuana, Skyler doesn't know where Walt is sneaking off, and all the while Walt is cooking meth in Winnebago and making deals with psychotic drug dealers. The show is so engaging because the characters don't simply react to one another, but often act on information we know to be untrue or incomplete, leading to an array of conflicts which are necessary for other reasons but because they off-base, don't resolve anything. Instead we learn about the characters and their world in ways and times we do not expect.

Overall, Season 1 of Breaking Bad is an rich and prudently varied introduction to a promising show. It spends its time building characters rather than recklessly hurtling the plot forward and cashing in on cheap thrills. Breaking Bad is not at all the hipster-fodder I expected, and it's not interesting because its subjects–drugs and cancer–are taboo, but because we're anxious to go together with these characters down their tortuous paths. Not the light-hearted fare I expected, in fact quite a bit more.