Friday, October 26, 2007

Psycho Thriller, q'est-ce que c'est?

Tonight I tried to get my "spooky" on by taking the missus to see Thirty Days of Night (N.B. I can't bring myself to type 30 Days of Night because you don't use numerals at the beginning of a sentence. Did you know N.B. is Latin for nota bene? That translates to "not important.") Anyway, I guess when it comes to horror films, I have a problem with the willing suspension of disbelief. Blood and guts stuff just does not creep me out. I was the kind of kid who would poke at road kill with a stick, and I was first in line to get my dissecting frog. I got an A+ in that. I once made the annual trip to the abattoir my grandfather brought his pigs to, and I was let down that we didn't get to go inside. I thought it was going to be like when my Dad brought us to the automatic car wash, where we walked alongside the car as it went through. In goes the pig, out comes the sausage, and every step in between. I don't particularly want to inflict harm on anything, but I am certainly not going to have nightmares about a simulated beheading.

I've always been more receptive to psychological thrills. Things that are out of place and unusual; things that should seem safe, but in unsafe settings. Like waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a child's voice when you know there are no children in the house. The Blair Witch Project was the big fright several years back, but most of that was hysteria. Sobbing and screaming and "oh my God you guys I'm so scared" doesn't do anything but annoy me. But the one thing that totally wigged me in that movie (and even thinking about it now sends a chill up my scalp) was the scene toward the end when they were in the house and the lights were going on and off and the camera was flying all over the place. The chaos was just more of the same, but then for one brief moment you see one of the "film makers" just standing there, facing the wall, kind of slumped over. It was a real subtle tie-in to the back story about the house they were in, and the subtlety and evocativeness worked perfectly.

Thirty Days was like that. Lots of blood and guts, but almost too much chaos to be scary. Lisa and I agreed that when it did work was when it was subtle and evocative. One of our favorite creepy scenes was at the very beginning of the film. The "messenger" character is crossing the frozen tundra, with a large ship off in the distance. The shot pans out as he makes his way to the town, across the ice. That sense of misplacement, of the contradiction of there being nothing unusual about a man walking across the snow, but not this man in this snow, made the scene spooky. But then I get back to that suspension of disbelief thing. The premise of the film is that the town gets completely shut off from the rest of the world for 30 days because the sun goes down. Half the population makes a mad dash for the highway and the airport as the sun is setting for a month. But, uhm, the sun goes down every night here in Boston, and the last time I checked, planes fly in and out of Logan all night long. Airports and planes have these things called "lights." And then when Josh "not Keanu Reeves" Hartnett makes his "we live here because we're the only ones who can" speech it was feeling a little too Northern Exposure meets Buffy for my tastes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Barney Frank Frank Frank, Barney Frank Frank Frank

I don't know why that sounds so funny to me. It sounds like something I would chant with Scurvyann and the missus.

Friday night there was a dinner for the political science department at my school. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the department; kind of an independence day celebration, since the poli sci department was originally part of the history and government department. To us academics that's significant, since history is usually considered part of the humanities, while poli sci is a social science. But that isn't particularly interesting, and it is only peripherally related to Barney Frank.

Congressman Frank was the keynote speaker at the dinner. I was surprised by how...well...frank he was. At one point he was talking about the perception that politicians are really sneaky about raising money. He said, "You know, now that I'm committee chair, especially of a money committee," (Frank is chair of the financial services committee)"here's my fund raising pitch:" {holds out left hand}.

Another excellent point he made was the intrinsically political nature of Congress. In reference to the Terry Schiavo case, he said, "If you want a problem solved without politics getting involved, don't refer it to 535 politicians."

Most of his comments, though, were about the positive aspects of partisanship. The parties in America do have a purpose. They connect people to their government. The parties are how the average citizen gets involved, and people who participate in local parties are part of an intelligent, informed debate. On the other hand, people who do nothing but listen to talk radio or read political blogs that reinforce their own opinions don't do much of anything. In fact, they probably don't even vote. If all the people who listen to Howie and Rush and read the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos got off their asses and out from behind their monitors and attended a town Democratic or Republican meeting there would be no doubt whose hands the government was in.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sometimes I type like Homer Simpson talks

Sax-a-ma-phone. Here is a brief list of some of my most common typos. They're fun to say out loud:


Carry on.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Quick Rant (One of Many)

Citizens Bank - Not Your Typical Bank

Well, you can't fault them for a lack of truth in advertising. What should tip you off that this place is a giant repository of sub-par intelligence and utter contempt for customers is the fact that they can't even be bothered to use correct grammar in their name. Is it a citizen's bank, or perhaps several citizens' bank? No. It's Citizens Bank. Don't even get the idea that you have some kind of ownership or stake in this place - it ain't your bank, it's ours, and we'll do what we like with it.

The missus and I moved six weeks ago. Shortly after settling in to the new place, I sat down with the phone and called the Bank that is not of or for Citizens to provide my new contact information. I got the usual voice mail menu. I started pressing buttons. I got nowhere. In a fit of pique I started hitting the 0 button until I heard a ringing tone. After a few more minutes on hold I finally had someone on the other end. I went through several minutes of slowly spelling my new address, and wrapped up the call. If your typical bank is staffed by competent professionals, than yes, Citizens is (are?) definitely atypical.

Two weeks later I get a bank statement. It's got my new address on it. Yay! It's got someone else's name and account information on it. Booo! I guess they figure, what the hell, one citizen is pretty much like any other, right?

I tossed the statement aside and decided to be patient and see if my statement showed up. But I lost track of things and suddenly it was the middle of October and I haven't seen a bank statement since August. So this morning I call the bank. Once again, my only hope of addressing the problem I have is to hold down the 0 key until the automated voice says (with a hint of pre-recorded exasperation), "Please hold while we transfer you to an operator." I swear I could hear someone mutter "Troublemaker" under their breath.

Next I found myself on the line with "Dewey." Dewey seemed really confused, poor guy. He had my new information, but then, he didn't. It was correct on one screen, but not on another. I slowly (very slowly) spelled everything again, and got off the phone with him with a sinking feeling of resignation in my gut. Something tells me I am not going to see a bank statement any time soon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Political Symbols in Fiction: A Comparative Examination

Very academic title, that. In fact, I have always wanted to write about the characterization of politics in novels, but that is something left to a graduate student in literature, political science, although there are undoubtedly ample opportunities for cross-disciplinary work like this. While the academic literature in political science, works such as The American Voter, The New American Voter, Citizen Politics and Party Systems and Electoral Systems, provide facts from which we can draw inferences, works of fiction like Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah contain as much truth about how political systems work. We can take all the cross-tabulations, typologies, and indices from the former and connect them to characters, actions and motivations in the latter.

There are four novels that I read in pairs, which would form a nice core of political fiction. The first two have a personal point of view, and would (in the academic parlance of political science) be from the rationalist perspective. The books are not deliberately or ostensibly political; they are both the stories of men at the point of middle age. The second two are books written deliberately as comments on American politics and, in fact, address the same essential question.

The first two are George Orwell's Coming Up For Air and Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. These books work very well side-by-side, and are particularly good in comparing British and American culture. They are both set in that period of nervous energy between the First and Second World Wars, although Coming Up For Air occurs much closer to the war and uses the building expectations of conflict as a central theme. Both books have as their protagonists anti-heroes, both named George. (In fact, they have the same initials: George Bowling and George Babbitt.) These portrayals of men in the midst of a rapidly and violently changing world present real and believable depictions of anomie and alienation at the human level.

The second two books are Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and another Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can't Happen Here. These two form an obvious pair for comparison, (at least one review I read of Roth's book referred to Lewis's) as they are both "alternate histories" that examine the question of how far America was pushed toward fascism as a result of the Great Depression and the conflicts in Europe. The Lewis novel is not one of his best; the characters are a bit stock and the last third of the novel seems as though it were rushed to a conclusion. Lewis was an unreformed alcoholic, and several of his books have this problem. He would lose patience with himself and his creations and finish just for the sake of finishing. The Roth novel is, in my opinion, excellent. Some critics have complained that the historical scenario he paints is far-fetched and shows a poor opinion of the American public, especially rural America. History, however, has borne out more than one far-fetched scenario, and the American public only deserves the generosity it displays. In a country where a group of people (no matter how small) can make a practice of showing up at military funerals with signs saying "God Hates Fags" we need to admit we can expect the worst.

It was a pair of incidents from these second novels that gave me the idea (and the title) for this entry. In both books, the protagonists are having a hard time understanding the appeal of the charismatic political leaders who are vying for power. (In Roth's book that character is Charles Lindbergh, running for president against FDR on a "Stay Out of War in Europe" platform.) The pivotal episode for each, which allows them to see the grasp these men have on their audience -- if not succumb to it -- is a rally at Madison Square Garden. The similarities between the two episodes are striking and enlightening. One interesting difference is the perspective of the protagonists in each novel. Lewis has his hero attend the speech in person, while Roth's listens to the speech on the radio. Otherwise, the effect and the outcome are quite similar. Both stories show how appeals to emotion outweigh appeals to reason in the political arena. This is an important lesson more acutely and accurately conveyed in a novel than a textbook.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lazy, lazy, lazy. Lazy all around.

(The missus has Flashdance on in the other room, and Lady Lady Lady started playing just as I typed this.)

I was going to write a letter to the Globe, but I haven't had a chance to sit down and compose something nice and organized and well thought out, so I am just going to rant quickly in here. I am never surprised when Jeff Jacoby's op-ed pieces in the Globe piss me off. The guy is just the paper's token conservative and it is almost guaranteed that whatever issue is at the top of the news during any given week, he will be spouting the (Republican) party line.

Yesterday, though, his piece was odious more for its lack of effort than anything else. He decided to jump on the Obama-bashing wagon because of the flap over the Senator's decision not to wear a flag pin on his lapel like every other lock-stepping automaton. Barack's statement was (and Jacoby quoted him) "I noticed people wearing a lapel pin and not acting very patriotic." Jacoby then spends six paragraphs excoriating Obama for daring to utter disparaging words about all the wonderful, patriotic Americans who wear lapel pins. Jacoby's vision of America (like Ann Coulter's) is one where we all go along. If a symbol can stand in for a sentiment, then by God you better have the symbol on your chest like everyone else, and don't dare question the sincerity of anyone sporting the same symbol.

The most aggravating thing is that Jacoby, a graduate of the BU School of Law, would make such a logically fallacious argument and use it for the basis of an entire column. It's insulting. Does he think that the readers of the Boston Globe aren't intelligent enough to know the difference between Obama saying some people who wear pins might be misrepresenting themselves and all people who wear pins are misrepresenting themselves? Of course it's completely unverifiable but I would be willing to bet any amount of money that, had John McCain or Rudolph Guiliani made the exact same statement, Jacoby would have broken out his Roget's and found every synonym for brave he could (and made some up) and written ten paragraphs about it.

But I'm one to talk; I was going to write to the Globe but I blahrrgd about it instead. I'm too lazy to send a letter out.

P.S. Has Ann Coulter completely lost her mind, or is she just so worried that she's gone a month without making the front page of CNN that she had to say something completely ridiculous?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"You've never been anywhere, have you ahss-hole?"

Death is a strange and difficult thing to deal with for everyone. One perspective I recall reading is that death is the only supernatural event with which everyone has experience. We all lose someone at some point in our lives; we all have to come to grips with a life, a soul, leaving forever.

I've been fortunate in that I really haven't had too much loss in my life. My parents and siblings are all still alive. I even have one surviving grandparent, which is remarkable for a forty-year-old. My family just celebrated my paternal grandmother's ninetieth birthday two weeks ago. My only experience with the unexpected loss of a close family member was the sudden death of my aunt at the age of fifty.

Last week, though, my close friend's father passed away. Adam and I have known each other since we were fifteen, and I spent a lot of time at his house. His father was a friend to me, too. In fact both his parents were. I always felt that they were the kind of people who were a phone call away if I ever needed them. They were nice enough to open their house to our band and let us rehearse there for years, and made us feel welcome every single time we showed up.

Freeman was a teacher and a raconteur, and he loved the sound of his own voice - but with good reason. He was the most successful debate coach Melrose High School ever had (and ever will have), and had a love of American history that infected those around him (at least it did me). He also had a bizarre, absurdist side that came, I think, from not being afraid to be unusual or conspicuous. Every group of friends has "in" jokes; sayings, quotes from movies, Freudian slips that came out at just the right time. The jokes among me and my band mates, who were exposed to Freem on a regular basis, are filled with "Freem-isms." After dinner one night, Sally announced that she had made coffee jell-o for dessert. I'd never had coffee jell-o (I didn't even know it came in that flavor) and said as much. Freem looked at me as if I had just said "Really, the Pope isn't a Methodist?" and exclaimed "Never had coffee jell-o? You've never been anywhere, have you ahss-hole!?" He was forever calling me an ahss-hole and a horse's ahss and (my personal favorite) a touch-hole. And always with a great, big smile on his face. Probably the strangest Freem-ism was a complete non sequitur. We were eating pizza and somebody mentioned Taco Bell. Freem was finishing off a bite of pepperoni (his favorite) and with a big grin on his face said, "Taco Bell, mon! My brudder been down dere." !? Whatever he meant, it's a mystery he has taken to his grave.

When I got the news that Freeman had passed away, I was stunned. I hadn't seen him in almost a year, and the last time I saw him he was in relatively good health and spirits. He had had his share of health troubles, but it seemed like things were turning around. But this year wasn't a good one for him, and there were more setbacks than advances. In one sense, I was glad that I had a memory of him frozen in my mind from better times; but that seems almost unfair. The people who meant the most to him had helped him right up to the end, and they couldn't replace the reality with a softened version of the past. He got sick. He got sicker. And he died.

I didn't know what to expect at the wake. To me, this seemed like such an untimely and unfair loss. A man, perhaps old and ill, but still vital, was "suddenly" gone. In my universe, Freem was there one minute, calling me a "horse's ahss" and telling raunchy stories, and gone the next. But when I talked to his sons they told me no, this was expected. Yes, he was still himself right up to the day he died, but he was tired. I got the impression that he went out on his own terms. And at the memorial service the next day, Adam gave the most touching and eloquent eulogy I have ever heard, with equal measures of remorse, respect, irreverence and humor. After that, I heard a story about Freeman's last day from Cal and Adam and it all started to feel like less of a sudden departure.

There are a lot of things I'll miss about Freeman Frank, and I am sure I won't miss him even half as much as his family, but his life was whole and complete. So, really, nothing is "gone." Freem was there, and is there, and will always be there. And I'll always be a horse's ahss.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Some comments that I've heard recently that can only be described as stupid:

Listening to NPR this morning (I know, I'm turning into a stereotype, but 'BZ has too many frikken commercials), there was a story about Donald Rumsfeld being named to a fellowship at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Several faculty and students started a petition expressing their dissatisfaction with the choice. After all, Donald Rumsfeld is the primary architect of what will have to go down in American history as the first big blunder of the 21st century. And even the people in his own administration are attributing the failure of the war in Iraq to his misjudgements. But do you know why the faculty and students are protesting his appointment? Because liberals are intolerant and dismissive of alternative opinions, according to Greg Lukianoff and Roger Kimball.

In class last night, we were discussing states where the government had no authority outside of the capital city. One of the students actually said, "isn't that just like the situation in Harlem, New York?" ??!! Watch a little too much Law and Order lately, pal?

This morning, the train was crowded - quelle surprise - and a man who got on felt it was just too unfair for him to have to deal with this. He leaned up against a pole with his rather large posterior right in the face on a woman sitting in one of the seats. She said, "Excuse me!," and he replied "Snooty Bitch!" I was stunned, and just stared at him (he was right in front of me). I'm always shocked that people can make it to adulthood with such ignorant attitudes. He noticed me staring at him and said, "Well, she is a snotty bitch."